Gerard Howlin: There must be an Irish republic of the arts

Creativity is so omnipresent, the ways in which art is transposed so inventive, we are unaware how immersed we are
Gerard Howlin: There must be an Irish republic of the arts

Culture minister Catherine Martin and Catherine Heaney, chair of the National Museum of Ireland, at the launch of Glendalough: Power, Prayer, and Pilgrimage, the first new exhibition to open at the museum since Covid-19. Picture: Julien Behal

The only place left to go in a lockdown, is inward, on a journey of the mind. There is no mountain so high as to compare with the scope of imagination. 

As winter gathers in, there is kindling to be collected. Lit, it provides light and warmth. Gathered around, it is company and community. 

When the weather changes and even the idea of outdoor dining becomes impossible, we need not do without music, dance, or theatre. 

And we should not, any of us, worry that somehow art is for others. It is for us, and we need it now.

Creativity is so omnipresent, the ways in which art is transposed so inventive, we are unaware how immersed we are. 

Art is on stage and on Spotify. It is Irish National Opera and it is Netflix. It is tunes on the radio and it is sean-nós in a pub. 

It not the venue or the medium that matters most, though like all forms of transmission they are important; it is creativity. 

Artists are creators. In moments of success, they make sense of what confounds us.


They express what we cannot articulate. They lift us out of what we cannot see past.

Artists are not magicians. They are an alchemy of craft and imagination. 

It is practice as much as genius that makes art happen. 

What we receive as thrilling success, is years of training, and frequently a lot of failure. We see the Roman candle that lights up the sky. 

We do not see the labour of the manufacture, the rockets on the ground that never caught fire, or the costs involved. 

In that space between places that are neither here nor there, where art is received, we are spared the shame of seeing the pittance paid for our entertainment. 

The arts are counter cultural; an express route to material underachievement. The applause is intermittent, and the recompense less frequent.

This winter will be hard for all, but harder for some. That is not to mention those for whom unpaid bills become compulsory reading. 

Gloom is not a cure for itself. 

We are human, and distinct from all other species. We have an innate need to satisfy our imagination. 

Fear, loneliness, and dislocation cannot be left alone to fill the void.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has spoken strongly of the role of the arts. There has been some delivery on that commitment, and the culture minister Catherine Martin is meeting a sector that wants to believe in her. 

There is a sense that maybe old plámás is translating into action. 

The default position of the Irish State, some committed people notwithstanding, was that of condescending patronage. 

Artists were wanted as garnish for big days and invited as entertainers — not equals. 

What we know is food for the soul was consumed as a second helping by people who ate their dinner in the middle of the day, and ate another again at night. 

Book banning is gone, but the sense that creativity should be contained, and not run free, is not. 

It mutated, into just enough art to have a night out, but not enough to change the world the next day. There was no Irish republic of the arts.

President Michael D Higgins meeting the members of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra prior to his address at the National Concert Hall, in celebration of Culture Night 2020.
President Michael D Higgins meeting the members of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra prior to his address at the National Concert Hall, in celebration of Culture Night 2020.

Now there must be one. There is a hunger to be fed, a famine of people wanting to connect. 

Many may be busy home-working, others may be at home because there is nowhere to go. 

However, if our Taoiseach and Government understand that the response to Covid-19 must be more than a utilitarian response, there is hope. 

We are social, we need to connect, and to have a plan that goes beyond the obviously necessary.

In the slower pace of life during lockdown, when a lot of walking was done, did this or that building stand out? Did the ugliness of past mistakes grate? 

Architecture was not an art form the Irish State excelled at, though there were notable modern exceptions. 

The wrecking ball was taken far too often, to too much, of value. 

Bland suburbs were built far from the centre, and the cost in traffic, pollution, and hours of life spent commuting continue as a permanent tax on gombeen planning. 

Yet, Irish architecture is now celebrated. Grafton Architects won the renowned Pritzker Prize as lockdown seized us in March. 

That happily is not an exception in what is a gathering of talent and confidence in Irish architecture. 

It is only in 2003 that architecture was recognised as an art form by the State. Art is not somewhere else for someone else. It is everywhere for us.

Practical things to be done immediately include adapting Pandemic Unemployment Payments to the gig economy. 

Artists themselves, if reeling, are highly visible. Gigs are theoretically possible. Behind them, stagehands, light designers, sound engineers are flattened. 

However, this is an ecosystem. Show and performance online, or in any context requires a team. 

What we see in the arts is only the tip of an iceberg.

We need substantial multiannual funding for the Arts Council and Culture Ireland, to ensure the arts never again end up in the precarious situation they were in before the pandemic. 

We need the arts — the books, films, music, TV, performances, creativity — to help us through. 

I have written on this page about the mental health challenges that have already arrived and which will grow. 

Creativity and the arts are a conduit of expression, we need to invest in that now and for the future.

One hole opening up beneath the arts is local authority funding, which in partnership with the Arts Council, plays an essential role. 

Commercial rates have plummeted as retail, especially, has been decimated. Only hard decisions face councils. 

Yet, in what I regard as sabotage in a national emergency, some councillors and parties insist on cutting property tax by up to the 15% allowed. That happened on Monday night in Dublin. 

Services citywide will suffer and some more than others. It is a direct attack on the arts.

On the Saturday night before he was shot Michael Collins had dinner with George Bernard Shaw, one of four Irish writers who would win the Nobel Prize, a tally that excludes the great James Joyce who didn’t win. 

Collins and his sister Hannie had been regular theatre-goers during their years in London as young emigrants, and Collins deeply admired Shaw. 

Writing to her after his assassination, Shaw advised: “So tear up your mourning and hang up your brightest colours in his honour; and let us all praise God that he did not die in a snuffy bed of a trumpery cough, weakened by age, and saddened by the disappointments that would have attended his work had he lived.” 

It is art that will cure us of this trumpery cough.

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