Deirdre Kinahan

Deirdre Kinahan speech from An Artist’s Vision for Ireland National Symposium panel discussion:


So it is 2016.   A year of reflection.   A year of remembering.  A year perhaps of re-invention?   A year where we explore what it means mean to be Irish 100 years after the screaming stuttering birth of our nation.

As an artist, as a woman and as a citizen, I love Ireland, I wouldn’t live anywhere else.  I love the landscape, the isolation, the social heave, the complexity, the guilt, the guile, the indignation, the savagery, the talent, the disappointment, the laughter, the whole post-colonial mess of who we are.  And like all of us I stop sometimes to admonish Ireland, to admire it or to try even to understand it.  But I always find that that the most refreshing, most satisfying and most powerful way to do this is through Art.

Art! A notion they understood in 1916.

The New York Times coined our rebellion the Poet’s Revolution because the leaders were, as you know a group of artists and intellectuals – Padraic Pearse, Poet, Constance Markeivitz, Visual Artist, Thomas McDonough, Playwright, and on it goes but the foot soldiers came from everywhere…they came from every social background, every county and most importantly both genders.  So where did they get their ideas?   Art.

It is generally recognised that the swell of thought underpinning 1916 proliferated at the gathering of small cultural and sporting associations at the turn of the twentieth century.  Organisations like the GAA and Gaelic League were rife, here people gathered to learn a jig, belt a ball or sing a tune but then began to talk politics and soon came nose to nose with change.  The Rising was therefore was fuelled by feminism, by socialism, by cultural exchange, by education, passion, dreams and Art.

So what the hell happened?

How are we here?

I think I would need more than ten minutes to fathom that and I am sure you all have your own ideas but lets take a brief look as artists as to where are we?

What? Ask Smashing Times are the main challenges faced by artists’ particularly female artists in Ireland today?

And what can we imagine differently into the future?

In truth, when thinking about this, I wonder at times have we gone backwards?

In 1904, remember, a small group of artists created the national theatre of Ireland…twelve years before 1916, twelve years before the moment that  called that  ‘Ireland’ into existence.  They then pledged themselves to support a culture of new Irish writing…when no such culture or writer had even been dreamt of.

This was Bold, Visionary, Revolutionary…and fabulously, fantastically devoid of doubt!

I believe Doubt is one of the main obstacles facing artists today.  Doubt kills imagination, Doubt murders initiative and Doubt in our own ability proves a real enemy to Art.

Yet I see doubt everywhere in Ireland in 2016: in the deeply conservative nature of our programming, in our approach to new writing, in our engagement with female artists, in our interaction with stake-holders like the department or the arts council and in our belief in our own future.

In terms of future.  We really need to override doubt.

I presented as a writer and actress in 1999 at a time when investment in Art was on the increase so I caught a whiff of possibility, opportunity…and I rode it for twelve years, creating a company with a friend of mine called Tall Tales, that focused on new writing & women’s writing.  At Tall Tales we produced, toured, programmed and commissioned contemporary plays.  And there I learned to write. It was a privileged place.  I know that now…because as investment slowed, then went backwards, the entire independent sector as I knew the Arts Council dismantled it in what I still believe to have been a catastrophic strategical error.

23 independent theatre companies across the country lost their regular funding in less than five years, just as I and many of my professional colleagues grew wings as  national and international artists.   Plays like HUE & CRY, BOGBOY, MOMENT AND HALCYON DAYS were winning awards on the international circuit…yet doubt coupled by a lack of investment almost stopped me.

I said Almost!   What saved ME was the fact that I had international contacts, international commissions and an international career.  But I am well aware that such wasn’t the case for many other talented and valuable people and I think we suffer hugely for that loss of expertise and experience in 2016.

In 2009 I had a crucial conversation with the Irish Theatre Institute who helped me invite UK theatre producers to see my play MOMENT in Dublin.  The result was a six-week run at the Bush Theatre in 2011 where MOMENT proved a five star hit.  This quick dart into the unknown totally changed the course of my life as an artist.  I had been tinkering along here, doing what I believed in, collaborating with brilliant theatre people but all, I realise now, in quite an insular way…once I featured in London, a host of international doors began to swing open and the opportunity to expand and reinvigorate my practice presented.  I now work regularly in the UK, Europe and the US and I find it not only financially essential but also hugely beneficial to my artistic development….it also thankfully, removes doubt.

Ireland is a small country, as you know, and the artistic sector a small community with a small vanguard holding court…there is, to my mind, too small a number of too powerful people deciding who is and who is not a great artist….if you don’t come on their radar or don’t meet their aesthetic you are in danger of being ignored.   This is both a stultifying and vaguely ridiculous fact…recently highlighted and kicked in the ass by the Waking The Feminists Movement….kicked but, I warn you, still there!

In terms of future.  We need to be far more open, far more embracing and far more certain of  talent as it presents.

Fintan O’Toole recently wrote an excellent article regarding the success of Brooklyn and Room in being nominated for the Oscars.  He asked where are the awards for Professional development because artists like Emma O’Donoghue or Colm Tobin don’t spring from nowhere….it takes years of careful cultivation, encouragement and investment to bring any artist to their natural height.

Ah!  Investment.  The next great obstacle facing artists today.

According to NCFA Ireland is currently at the bottom of the European League for Government Investment in Arts & Culture.  With the Council of Europe data showing that in 2012 Ireland spent just 0.11% of GDP on the arts, compared to a European average of 0.6%

Extraordinary for a country that considers itself to be of Artistic Significance.  I repeat…we are the bottom…not Portugal with its equally difficult financial crisis, not Greece with its financial and refugee crisis, not Croatia with its recent emergence from a catastrophic regional conflict…..but Ireland.   We invest the least money in all of Europe in Art.

So in terms of future.  I think we need to guarantee greater investment.

How do we do this?  –  By removing doubt from our role in our own development.

What do I mean by this?  Well

How many artists do you see on the boards of our national institutions?

How many artists do you see actually heading our Galleries, our Concert Halls, our Theatres?

How many artists sit on the executive of the arts council where strategy is decided, or at the table in the department where policy is created?

The Arts Sector is controlled, not by the people who create art but by a plethora of people who administer it, market it, discuss it, and curate it.  And these, bizarrely enough, are also the people who make a living from it!

I say. We have to take back the power.

I say. We need to start speaking for ourselves….at Government level and at every level!

We need to understand and regain control of every aspect of our business – from creation, to investment and back again.  Otherwise we are powerless and totally subject to the whim of others.

There is nothing new in this thinking.  We saw it, didn’t we, back in 1904 and again with the creation of  Project Arts Centre.  Project, for those who don’t know, was founded initially by a group of visual artists, frustrated and alienated by the conservative controlling nature of Irish Galleries…so they set up their own co-operative where they managed every aspect of their business and careers.  And look at the legacy they left us.

If we want to affect change as artists.  Then we need to get effective.  We need to thoroughly engage.  To get Political.  To go on boards.  To talk to the Department.  To campaign and reconnect in every way with our audience.  We need to convince the public and the Government of the value of Art.  Not only in terms of economics but also of its intrinsic value to the soul of communities, to the development of human nature and to our basic quality of life.

That brings me on to Value.  The last great obstacle I will talk about today for the contemporary artist.  How is Art valued in Irish society…as compared to the vigour of 1916.

Well, if you follow the money…remember, Ireland is bottom in Europe in terms of investment and if you follow prestige….our ministry is hardly considered a political crowning glory, I’m afraid the outlook isn’t ‘Smashing’!

Indeed this dearth of value is echoed by The Arts Council’s recently launched new strategy entitled ‘Making Great Art Work’ where a primary objective is to make the arts ‘truly valued as a vital feature of our daily lives’.   Vital.   How often do you hear that when discussing Art with those outside the sector?.  Yet it is a key concept.  Art is vital, actually, to mankind.  It has been with us since we first stood up on our feet, if not before…..

And in terms of future we need to champion this because a mindset can be changed.

Less than six months ago, the pervading narrative in Ireland was that female playwrights and female creative were not up to the challenge of writing truly national works.

Of 74 new plays produced at our  National Theatre between 2000 and 2014….15 were written by women and 59 by men with only two female playwrights featuring on the Abbey stage in that period.   Shocking but true.  Yet these stats were in the domain.  Bias, conscious or unconscious had been called.  It only took one tweet, one post…at a critical time, to turn the tide.  So 2016 will see National Institutions, National Theatres, National Boards and National Directors finally turn their attention to women.

Change can be won.  If we are dogged.  If we are passionate.  And if we are constant.  So in terms of the future, I would advise that we take a little leaf out of the book of 1916…and start to believe the unbelievable…stop doubting our own talent and look boldly…bravely to the future.

Thank you.

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