Flying the Flag for the Banner County

Irish Examiner, Wednesday, 30th March 2005

Marc O’Sullivan tracks the county’s continuing emergence in arts that aren’t just traditional.

It is little surprise that Ennis in Co Clare, has just played host to the World Irish Dancing Championships. The county has long been a centre for traditional music and dance and is home to both the Micho Russell Festival in Doolin each February, and the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay in July.

More recently, Clare has become such a hotbed of creativity that anything of a cultural nature might reasonably be expected to happen there. Ennis, for instance, seems to have more public sculptures than any other town in the country. At least 20 have sprung up in the past 10 years alone; some are commemorative, others are loosely based around the provision of public seating; while others still seem to have been created simply to engage the talents of local art graduates while their work is still affordable. They are the result of a unique initiative by local artist Carmel Doherty, County Librarian Noel Crowley and Donal Griffin of FÁS. “It was Carmel who came up with the idea,” explains Crowley. “She approached us with a proposal for a public sculpture and we were so impressed by her ideas we started a FÁS scheme so that she and four others could work at producing sculptures. Over the years the Town Council and local sponsors have made funding available and we manage to commission at least one new sculpture every year. We like to think it’s an on-going project, something that’s for the townspeople themselves, rather than just for tourists. It was only last year that we settled on the Ennis Sculpture Initiative as a name for the scheme.”

Crowley is also involved in the Ennis Tidy Towns committee and the local civic trust; he served on the last Arts Council and is currently on the academic council of the Burren College of Art. “When I moved to Ennis from Cork in 1975,” he says, “there was no arts in education or anything like that. We made the libraries centres for the arts. We ran all sorts of events in them, readings and the like, and then started getting exhibitions down from Dublin. “In time, we developed a partnership with the Arts Council and in 1985 they asked us to co-fund an arts office, which was the first in the country. Kay Sheehy, who works in RTÉ now, was our first arts officer; Siobhán Mulcahy holds the position today. The arts officers have brought a professionalism to our activities; we’ve just finished implementing our first arts plan, and we’re working on our next one,” says Crowley. “The main things our first plan highlighted were the need for spaces for artists to work in and the need for exhibition venues. The County Council, through the Access scheme, have funded the restoration of some old stone stables in Tulla and the courthouse in Ennistymon as studios; they’ve also funded the development of a performance space in Lisdoonvarna. And we’ve developed exhibition spaces at the County Museum, the County Library and the Town Council offices; we felt it was more sustainable to have a number of venues spread around the place rather than just one.”

The arts office also funds artists bursaries and artists-in-residence schemes, which have proven to be highly effective in the community. Eleanor Feeley, a writer, director and former Abbey actress, was engaged four years ago for a youth theatre project called Ex Libris and has since worked with the elderly as artist-in-residence at St Joseph’s Hospital in Ennis. “The elderly in St Joseph’s have been such wonderful people to work with,” she says. “Most of them grew up working the land, so we planted a garden they could get involved in developing; Eleanor’s Haggard, they call it. We’ve also set up a seomra cúirta, which is a social space like the kitchen most of them would have known growing up. We also have an in-house radio that broadcasts what we call "The Holy Hour" once a week. We get guest presenters and play music and requests for the patients. We also run classes in art and calligraphy.”

Feeley continues to be involved with youth theatre and is currently developing a project around the themes of morality and amorality. “There has long been a healthy audience for drama groups in Clare of course. Indeed, the county’s tradition of theatre and Irish music were the spurs that led Shannon Development and Ennis Town Council to establish the Glór arts centre in Ennis three years ago,” Feeley says.

And Glór is now much more than just a traditional music venue. “Glór now provides a venue for theatre performances, concerts, conferences and visual art exhibitions,” says Aislinn Ó’hEocha, Glór’s development and marketing manager. “We run a season of arts events from September to May that is mainly geared towards the local population,” she says, “while our summer events would be geared more towards tourism. We have two theatres. The smaller one seats 65 and is perfect for events like theatre workshops, children’s films and storytelling. The larger theatre can seat 485 and we can take out the seating for larger concerts or banquets.” Glór’s forthcoming events include a co-production with Island Theatre Company of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Little John Nee’s one-man show, Rural Electric, and An Evening of Poetry, Storytelling and Song with Liam Clancy.

While Ennis has become something of a nerve centre for the arts in Clare, arts offices have also been set up in Shannon and North Clare. Tara Conaghan, of the Shannon Regional Arts Office, is presently compiling a Traditional Arts database of performers, teachers, organisers, writers, researchers and anyone involved in traditional music, dance and storytelling throughout the county. In North Clare, meanwhile, artist Fiona Woods is involved in a plethora of projects, such as Pink Sheds, for which she installed pink lights in a succession of farm sheds in the Finavara/New Quay area that blazed for several hours after dusk each weekend night in February.

North Clare is also home to the Burren College of Art, outside Ballyvaughan, which must surely rank as the most imaginative rural arts projects in the country. Mary Hawkes-Greene, the college president, credits her late husband Michael with the original vision for the college. “Michael loved the Burren,” she explains. "He grew up in the Hylands Hotel in Ballyvaughan, he was very involved in the community and he wanted to develop something that would have substance and continuity and would benefit the community as a whole.” When nearby Newtown Castle and its adjoining house came on the market, Michael and Mary bought and restored them with the support of Shannon Development. The college opened in 1994; its Masters Degree programme is fully accredited by NUI Galway and is run in partnership with the Royal College of Art in London and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The college rents holiday homes to accommodate the students, thus ensuring the community benefits from their presence. The Burren College of Art was already well-established when Michael Greene died three years ago. Today it can facilitate 20 masters and 40 undergraduate students, it will host its first graduation on April 16 and must surely live up to his dream of founding the best little art school in the world. And in many ways, the success of the Burren College of Art is a reflection of the health of the arts scene in Co Clare in general.

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