New Arts Bill

Traditional Arts Come Centre Stage

The new Arts Bill was presented by Minister John O’Donoghue and concluded in Seanad Éireann on the 25th June. Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú was the Government spokesperson in the Seanad for the debate.

The Bill is a radical acknowledgment of Irish traditional arts and their place in Irish life. This result is due to the campaign led by Comhaltas to reverse the position whereby Irish traditional arts were not even mentioned in legislation over the last 50 years. In fact, the whole debate brought Irish traditional arts mainstream and the main focus of the whole debate on arts in general.

Senator Ó Murchú said that “the Bill was a road map for artistic Ireland. The traditional arts are now at a crossroads. The minister will erect the signposts and we are hopeful that the distances to journey’s end will be quite short.”

In the Bill, provision is made for a special committee for Irish traditional arts. This will consist of a Chairman and four other members. The chairman and two of the members will be appointed by the Minister.

The Minister is empowered, in relation to the performance by the Arts Council of its functions, to give a direction to the Council requiring it to comply with such policies of the Minister or the Government as are specified in the direction.

The Minister is on record as stating that:- (a) The Arts Council have no coherent policy on Irish traditional arts and (b) sufficient monies have not been allocated to these arts.

At the conclusion of the Seanad’s consideration of the Bill, the Minister said: “We had very significant and well thought-out contributions on the whole issue of the traditional arts. Those contributions were very measured and were overwhelmingly constructive and for that I am very grateful.

“Let me emphasize again where I am coming from on this issue. First and most fundamentally, I am a passionate supporter of the traditional arts and I can readily understand and empathize with the sense of grievance that exists in the traditional sector and I believe that decisive and effective action must be taken to respond to this. The fact that I departed from the original approach of the Bill in this context does not in any way imply that I disagreed with what the Bill was trying to do, but simply that I believe that another approach would yield a better result. I am convinced that the mechanisms now being provided in the Arts Bill can achieve what needs to be achieved and I am determined that this will be followed through. It must be remembered also that the mechanisms now in the Bill do not in any way restrict me or a future Minister to having just one go at this: we can come back to it as many times as are necessary, and stay at it for as long as is necessary, to make sure that real change happens.”

In the course of the Seanad debate, Senator Ó Murchú said that the unprecedented focus on Irish traditional arts was very encouraging. He said the main disappointment for him was the manner in which some of those opposed to giving out native arts their rightful place in legislation sullied the debate through a vicious, vindictive and highly personalized campaign.

Senator Ó Murchú praised those sections of the media - particularly RTÉ and the Irish Independent - who made a constructive contribution to the debate. However, he said that the Irish Times had dented their claim to be a quality newspaper: they obviously found facts to be an inconvenience and an obstacle to their own agenda.

Senator Ó Murchú said that heretofore we had two Irelands - Official Arts Ireland Ltd - as represented by the Arts Council - and this was very limited, representing only 2% or 3% of all arts activity in Ireland. The second Ireland was Community Arts Ireland - official Ireland sometimes heard the distant heartbeat of this Ireland but were never close enough to have their finger on the pulse.

To be frank, Senator Ó Murchú said, the cocktail circuit and pompous patronage had numbed official arts activity while community arts were vibrant and creative because they were fostered, cultivated and enhanced within, for and by the community. The ethos of the Arts Council - which was founded the same year as comhaltas in 1951 - was never tradition-friendly and many artistic opportunities were lost as a result.

Minister’s Appreciation

“It is of immense importance for the traditional arts to have a coherent policy and receive adequate funding. In extending my appreciation to Senator Ó Murchú,” Minister O’Donaghue said, “I believe our tradition is the basis of how we engage with the arts… The old saying is ‘Briseann an dúchas tré shúile an chait’, and I assure Senator Ó Murchú that this cat resoundingly supports the traditional arts and will continue to do so.

“Recently when I visited Brú Ború cultural centre in Cashel, County Tipperary, I said I was reminded of the statement by Daniel Corkery when he expressed his disappointment at some of the literature being produced by some of the post-colonial Irishmen writing in English. he pointed an accusing finger at the crowd attending the 1934 Munster hurling final and asked the immortal question, ‘Who speaks for these?’. It would be right and proper for this house, which has played such a significant role in the cultural life of the nation, to acknowledge that the Abbey Theatre certainly did and that, from its inception in 1951, Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann most definitely did also. It is important that these things should be acknowledged in a forum such as this, which has had so many distinguished members representing the cultural strands of our nation… Lest anyone has any doubts, let me re-state my belief that the traditional arts are a critical part of what defines us as a nation and as a people. We must cherish and support them.”