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President of Ireland

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Speech at the 2015 Aosdána General Assembly

Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, 5th March 2015



The establishment of Aosdána, thirty four years ago, was a critical moment in Ireland’s cultural history. It was an event which acknowledged the position of artists within our society and the important role of the arts in our democracy and in our culture.  It also acknowledged that artists were often placed in a precarious position in terms of the basics of life and participation.

Níl aon amhras ach gur bunaíodh Aosdána mar thoradh ar éileamh a bhí infheicthe agus práinneach. 

[It is unarguable is that the establishment of Aosdána was a response to a discernible and pressing need.] 

At the time, and indeed for decades before, many of Ireland’s most respected literary talents and creative minds were living in poverty, while many more of our renowned and distinguished artists had died almost penniless.  This reality had been documented in the

Arts Council study “Living and Working Conditions of Artists”, compiled in 1979.

The compassion of friendship, the loyalty and respect of the fellow artist, and perhaps not a little frustration and anger at the pathetic fate of the very best amongst us, provided the inspiration for Aosdána among such artists as Anthony Cronin, and that passion continues to motivate your members and supporters today.  And I want to pay special tribute to Anthony Cronin who has done so much to hold fast to the values and ethos of Aosdána over the years and to act as its institutional memory.  His contribution has been and remains immense.

Since its establishment, Aosdána has grown to now almost 250 members, and has become firmly established at the centre of the creative life of our nation, providing an acknowledgement that artists must be supported and enabled to experience the freedom to produce the works which contribute so much to both our society, and to our international reputation. The best of what we produce and its dissemination, the standards achieved in music, literature, the visual arts and other areas all come from a lifelong commitment by artists.

There will always be many and varied views on what is deserving of State funding, and how such funding should be categorised and, in turn, prioritised. It was, and remains, my view that the importance of cultural expenditure, facilitating as it does citizenship and participation in the public space and public world, should be regarded as basic for the structure of society, for the health of the society, and as the best guarantee of the imaginative possibilities of the people for the future.

Even within the world of the Arts itself there are, from time to time, debates as to the merits of supporting arts projects that are not commercially viable, or that are considered ‘elite,’ a word that is too often considered interchangeable with the word ‘exclusive’ when the question of funding for the Arts is raised. Again, the assumptions informing such a view should be questioned, lest we should be left a construction of the value of the arts which is reduced unacceptably to narrow utilitarian terms.

A discourse redolent with references to ‘the cultural industries’, for example, would reasonably be preceded by the outlining of a cultural policy and ab initio an understanding of the place of the different art forms would help, and I believe we can achieve this.

In fact, the supports provided by Aosdána can be seen as an essential part of a wider policy of support for artists provided for under the Arts Act 2003 and overseen by the Arts Council. The range of supports stretches from direct support of artists through bursaries and awards to secondary supports towards publishers, theatres and other infrastructure.

There can be no doubt that Irish Artists and cultural institutions have, along with many sectors of Irish life, suffered significantly during a period that reaped the rewards of speculative economics and the austerity that served as a response.  The fact that cuts of around 40 per cent to the annual budgets of the majority of our cultural institutions, leaving some of them struggling to survive, along with a reduction in funding for arts, culture and film by some €16 million between 2011 and 2014, elicits little public comment or concern underlines the peripheral place the arts are too often granted in our society and in the public consciousness and media discourse.

It is regrettable that this reduction in funding has occurred despite the overwhelming evidence from independent sources of the economic benefits that flow from our creative sector.  Funding for the arts is sometimes still perceived as being of the nature of grant support, rather than as the investment that it really is in artists and in the work that they produce, and in the cultural space they make possible.  The case for valuing our investment in the arts, and specifically the support provided through Aosdána, is unanswerable – the value lies in the return that we receive from this investment at all levels.

Primarily, it is the return that we see in the remarkable body of work that is produced each year by the artists who are supported. Beyond engaging with their own work, members of Aosdána also serve as a leaven, encouraging young artists and arts in the community and enriching the wider public discourse. This is particularly true for those artists who are freed from the requirement of seeking external sources of financial support, and who are consequently in a stronger position to take on role as mentors, as volunteers and as board members in the wider cultural and social economy.

That the arts are something apart, peripheral, and belonging on the fringes of society is an assumption that must continue to be challenged, along with another well-pedalled canard – the erroneous view that, because lack of money has never quenched creativity and imagination in a total sense, funding for the arts cannot be seen as a priority, particularly during times of recession.

Creativity and culture are about the articulation and vindication of rights, the right for everyone to participate fully in society. They are a social good which, if left to the vagaries of the marketplace, will either fail to survive or become so compromised and distorted that the public good will not be served.

I have noted, for example, how the uncritical acceptance of procurement policy directions, suitably for commodities in a commercial system, have been so destructive all over Europe for books and publishers. It is important, too, to reflect on an enduring issue – the principle of ‘the cultural exception’ – (i.e. that film, books, music are not simply a commodity for treatment within a trade treaty.)

I believe that it is essential to have a national cultural policy, and to have one that recognises the fundamental role of cultural access in citizenship while respecting the integrity and independence of the personal artistic inspiration.  Any balanced discussion about public funding for the arts must derive from that principle, rejecting as a starting point any uninformed populism which sees the arts as a residual, as something we do when we can afford it.

When we support artists or when we call for protection of the cultural space, we support viable democracy. We also support all sectors of society, recognising that artistic work and a good and democratically structured cultural policy is an essential part of being human, a component of citizenship and that the arts are a crucial vehicle for citizen participation.   It is worth acknowledging en passant that, over the past generation, and partly through the role of the State in expanding educational opportunity and access to the arts, the artistic professions celebrated by Aosdána have become some of the most egalitarian and democratic in their liberation from barriers of class and privilege.

It is important that discussion on the essential place, purpose and direction of the arts must always be understood in the context of the relationship between the arts and society.   Artistic works act as a mirror, reflecting back at us the society and time in which they were created. They also act as signifiers or architects, shaping, contouring and shading the world in which we live, and can be prophetic of the possibilities not yet realised, the world not yet born. Good art constantly challenges us, daring us to contest and critique the norms of the societies and age into which we have been born.

Any debate on the significance and worth of the arts is also echoing a wider debate on some fundamental moral issues such as the inclusive capacity of contemporary forms of democracy, the degree of participation of citizens in society or their exclusion and its consequences, the quality of daily life and the nature of human activity, and the essence of what we define as work.

As a society we must come to recognise that institutional provision for the arts is as important to our infrastructure as roads, hospitals and schools. Sadly in Ireland we have, historically, so often neglected these areas and, in the process, our great artists and writers, failing to acknowledge their necessary and immeasurable contribution to our society.

Some of our greatest artists have chosen self imposed exile, as an aid to perspective perhaps but also finding in other countries an artistic freedom they could not have achieved in Ireland. Others have been allowed sink into poverty and its related ill health.  Others still have been forced to choose between having a family and giving expression to their gift, or have been forced to reflect on what it is to flourish without material wealth.

I must reiterate the necessity of releasing ourselves from the myth that artists thrive below the breadline; that poverty and creativity go hand in hand.  We must ask ourselves: do we continue to leave our artists unable to declare their occupation as artist, insofar as this may leave them deprived of social protection and, as they age, leave them devoid of pension security?

Artists, like all citizens, must be enabled to feel their place in society is respected, is assured.  Artists are no less deserving of dignity, of freedom from fear and need than anyone else.  There is nothing inevitable or ennobling about the precariousness and uncertainty which face many in our creative community. We must acknowledge our reciprocal obligation to, and solidarity with, our artists. In particular, it is so important that we support artists at times of ill health and in later life, recognising all that the artistic community has given, continues to give and will give to many dimensions of our society.  I say “in later life” and not “in retirement”, because I see around me today so many who have not and will not cease to create and inspire!

For our society, and specifically for our State, the question of the form and level of the supports we provide to artists is a question of political choice; a matter of values and priorities; a matter for which we should have had dealt with within a cultural policy long before now.

I have spoken in the past about the complexity of the issue of culture and of the necessity for policy initiatives in this area to be open, transparent and accountable. As a society, we must call for a comprehensive cultural policy, which will nurture and support our cultural heritage, allowing artistic expression and the participation of all our residents. I have referred previously also to the principle expressed in the 1997 report of the culture committee of the Council of Europe that ‘Culture will have to be brought into the heart of public administration’.[1]  How long ago, however, had we not got the Benson Report of 1979 and all the Reports on music, dance, literature and heritage?

While culture has its instrumental uses, including employment creation, we also have to recognise the limits to which this can be applied without endangering it. The arts are increasingly recognised as useful in the sphere of economic development at home and as burnishing our prestige as a country abroad. But the arts are not merely a tool of tourism or commerce. Yes there is of course an economic case for arts expenditure but that case is not, and cannot be allowed to become, the only reason for such expenditure. The arts have their own integrity and independence and must be respected as such. Aosdána has a role to play in asserting these values, in suggesting the protocol for such balance, and in communicating it to Government Departments.

In this respect I wish to raise here, if only in passing, an issue that relates to the evolution of the organisation. As an affiliation of artists Aosdána is a body whose principal justification is to be found in the work of its individual members. The depth and extent of the accomplishments of past members and your ethos excellence can, of course, be indicated by mention of two Nobel laureates,

Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. But Aosdána has also always had a very basic and ever more necessary function in honouring, recognising and, where necessary, supporting artists who may not have had such international recognition, yet artists who worked by the heat of the day for their art forms, their people, and all our futures. The Cnuas has rescued from hardship some of our finest and most sensitive artists, many of whom are known personally to me.

The fact that Aosdána’s past, and indeed your present histories, contain such a depth of achievement indicates a degree of continuity, but also of evolution.  Indeed, the process of evolution is a vital one for Aosdána. Many of the members here today will remember that when I was the Minister for the Arts we engaged with each other on a variety of issues, not always but sometimes in a contrarian way, not the least of which was the question of gender balance in Aosdána. Here as elsewhere, that question remains to be answered fully, but I am glad to be able to look around and see so many women artists in the room today.

How Aosdána develops its identity as a social body is an important question and the answer will require Aosdána to be an independent body, drawing from that independence the capacity for a vibrant and evolving self-examination and self-regulation. That independence should be valued in the same way as Aosdána values the process whereby new members are elected by their peers. Such peer recognition is an indispensable component of Aosdána’s functions as a cultural body, ensuring that the founding principles of Aosdána remain central as you grow and adapt in a changing Ireland.  It is worth noting that the principle of peer election is now recognised as international best practice in ensuring the independence of arts funding.

In this respect, as in all others, Aosdána as an affiliation of creative artists in Ireland is a body which is the envy of countries across Europe and around the globe.  Today, the membership of Aosdána continues to be a roll call of Ireland’s most gifted creatives, elected by their peers; many of which are recognised internationally, enhancing and deepening Ireland’s reputation as a country of extraordinary artistic talent.

Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil sibh fíorbhuíoch as ucht na tacaíochta ríthábhachtach agus an aitheantais a fhaigheann sibh ó Aosdána, agus go bhfuil sibh tiomnaithe le cinntiú go mbeidh Aosdána ann le glún nua d’ealaíontóirí tréitheacha na hÉireann a chothú agus a bheathú ionas go bhfaighe siad an deis a gcuid a dhéanamh le todhchaí lenar féidir linn ar fad a bheith bródúil aistí a mhúnlú.  

[I know that you are deeply grateful for the vital support and recognition that you have received from Aosdána and dedicated to ensuring that Aosdána continues to nurture and sustain a new generation of gifted Irish artists who will play their important part in crafting a shared future of which we can be proud.]

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

[1]  See the paper entitled ‘In From the Margins’published by the Council of Europe 1997.