A coming of age for the arts

KEN Branagh’s motion picture Belfast, released in the UK on January 21, won Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes and is the critics’ choice for an Oscar in March. Its success pleases me for Branagh and I are contemporaries who grew up in the same area of the city. But it is also a reminder that Ireland contributes greatly to the arts world. John Ardagh, in his book Ireland and the Irish: Portrait of a Changing Society, said: “It has an astonishing level of cultural output, vitality and expressiveness. It has long been a major exporter of its culture from the ancient scholar monks who helped civilize the Continent to folk musicians who went to America and writers like Shaw and Wilde who settled in England. Today in a new way this cultural export drive continues. Witness the success abroad of rock groups like U2, the playwright Brian Friel, the films of Neil Jordan and countless new novels.”

Ireland produces artists of international standing generation after generation. This legacy is an important economic asset and after many years of shameful neglect is finally recognised and supported by the two governments – though state spending on the arts remains well below the European average. The success of the arts is remarkable given a shameful history of suppression which reached a peak after partition.

In the South the heavy hand of censorship, applied through the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act, once suppressed important work and drove many creative people into exile. Anglo-Irish writers, such as George Moore, Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane, found their home a cold house as an independent Ireland struggled to establish a conservative, Catholic and Gaelic identity. In 1940 writer Sean O’Faoláin, through the magazine The Bell, began a campaign against this oppressive law which deemed more than 1,200 books to be ‘indecent or obscene’ and banned performances of many plays and films but as late as 1965 John McGahern found his novel The Dark outlawed by the censors. He was dismissed from his teaching job in a Catholic school and exiled to London. Social change in the 1960s proved to be a watershed. In 1969 the government awarded tax free status to creative artists resident in Ireland, a measure which attracted a wide range of talented people to settle and work in the South. The Arts Act of 1973 allowed local authorities to fund events and in 1982 the government established Aosdána an academy of around 250 creative artists and writers eligible for a modest official pension. Today’s censors confine their activities to classifying films. The Arts Council, An Comhairle Ealaíon, provides financial support to organisations, projects and individuals. Highlights each year include Galway Arts Festival, the Bloomsday Festival in Dublin and Cork Jazz Festival.

In the North official censorship was not as openly oppressive though attitudes, both Catholic and Protestant, could be equally narrow and prudish. Though people shared a common cultural heritage the arts became a battleground for competing ideologies as the Northern Ireland state struggled to establish a Protestant and Anglo-Saxon identity. The state turned its back upon the traditional arts and those performers who refused to conform. Sam Thompson’s play Over the Bridge was frowned upon by the unionist establishment and grant aid withdrawn but opened an important debate about sectarianism in 1960. Writers such as Louis MacNeice, John Hewitt and WR Rodgers found their home a cold house because they refused to subscribe to a narrow interpretation of British identity. The outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 was a watershed thought it condemned the region to cultural isolation. Northern Ireland was a major venue for visiting artists in the 50s and 60s – the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Luciano Pavarotti all performed in Belfast – but during the 70s and 80s most leading performers refused to visit and many people were reluctant to leave their homes at night to venture into bomb-blasted towns and cities. Yet the trauma inspired many important new artists.

The contribution of these artists to dialogue and understanding has been immense. The violence of the 70s proved a powerful catalyst for writers and filmmakers who set about challenging the myths and misconceptions that perpetuated The Troubles. Neil Jordan’s feature film The Crying Game was nominated for six Oscars in 1992 and Seamus Heaney’s poetry won The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. The importance of respect and tolerance for all identities, expressed through the arts, was a key element of The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and today The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, advised by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, oversees the promotion and funding of a wide spectrum of events. The local arts scene is vibrant and visiting artists are again prepared to perform here. High points each year are the Belfast International Arts Festival, Féile an Phobail in West Belfast and the Happy Days International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen.

The National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin and Castlebar, and the Ulster Museum in Belfast are home to some of our most important artistic works from Stone Age art to folklore artefacts and the work of modern painters such as Jack Yeats and Francis Bacon. They are a shared treasure trove. Pluralist and secular societies, North and South, demonstrate a more enlightened and tolerant attitude to subjects once deemed taboo. The churches and political establishments have lost much of their standing as moral and cultural watchdogs. The diversity of the island’s artistic heritage is finally recognised as a neglected gift and there is genuine cross-border cooperation in the interest of reconciliation. Artists at last have freedom of expression. The Northern Ireland Executive promotes gaelic traditions – what unionist Sammy Wilson MP once derided as ‘fiddley-dee music, dancing at the crossroads and leprechaun language’ – and the thunder of the Lambeg drum echoes around Áras an Uachtaráin as the president of the Republic, poet Michael D Higgins, welcomes representatives of the Orange Order to celebrate diversity in Dublin. 

mneill1@ymail.com