A cultural wasteland? You’re wrong about the midlands
The region has long suffered the jibes of city slickers who see it as an arts Siberia. But from artists’ communes to dance, and from bog poetry to the ‘Irish Hollywood’ that is Offaly, the place is teeming with cultural life
Left, from top, Luan Gallery, which juts over the Shannon; and Poetry in the Park, an Athlone collective that lures people to rivers, canals and boglands for dawn and dusk poetry readings. Middle, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre at Killashee Bog. Right, from top, Brenda Gleeson in his son Domhnall’s film Noreen; and Shawbrook Dance School
A comedian interviewed recently about his Australian tour described the most uncultured and racist town he had ever visited as being “even worse than Mullingar”. Liam Fay referred to Offaly in the Sunday Times as “one of the country’s most disparaged regions. Its reputation as a dreary and boorish outback, a bog where Biffo roams and seldom is heard an encouraging word, has proven remarkably durable.”
Even Michael Viney, who cherishes every slimy newt and horsefly, wrote of the midlands as “a wearily protracted obstacle between Dublin and the west . . . a slow ticking-off of dull little towns on a lot of flattish land drained by sluggish rivers.”
We midlanders do have feelings, you know? And, FYI, while you have been busy disparaging us we have undergone a cultural renaissance.
Let me introduce you to the Good Hatchery in Co Offaly, possibly the most vibrant and coveted artist’s residency in Ireland; or Hilltown New Music Festival in Westmeath, the most innovative festival of experimental music in Ireland; or Athlone’s Poetry in the Park initiative, which won Britain’s Epic Award for cultural innovation; or Offaly’s flourishing movie industry; or Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, whose work, created in Longford, tours the most illustrious international venues.
If we really are a cultural Siberia, an energetic sinkhole, how come so many artists, writers and creative types are moving here? Why do the progenitors of artistic elitism swarm down upon us for Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois, and Body & Soul in Clonmellon, Co Westmeath?
The Good Hatchery epitomises the newly flourishing midlands. This 19th-century hay
loft, which has been converted into residential studios and a sauna using recycled and salvaged material, has the feel of an experimental art initiative one might find in Berlin, except that it is set amid the “flat black bogs, lakes and forests of beautifully bleak north Offaly”.
It developed from a group of artists who were concerned that only 2 per cent of art-college graduates manage to continue their arts practice without compromising themselves to earn an income. Since money stretches further in the midlands, they moved here. “It’s a myth that an emerging artist needs to stay in a city to become established,” says Ruth Lyons, one of the founders. “Broadband now connects us to the world.”
The Good Hatchery aims “to spread provocative art tactics and practice beyond major cities, and to give young contemporary artists the space and time to establish themselves”. Over the last seven years, scores of artists have used it as a springboard. Applications for residencies are as sought-after as for the most elite State-sponsored equivalents.
Their success inspired the Abbey Road Artists’ Studios in what was previously the Athlone workhouse and later a fire station. It is now four studios and a performance and exhibition space with links to the Luan, the most spectacularly situated gallery in Ireland, jutting out over the Shannon.
Stradbally in Co Laois has now also converted its fine Georgian courthouse into Arthouse, a complex of artists’ studios with living accommodation, an exhibition gallery, a community library, a kiln room and fully equipped digital studio.
But these are just the official arts spaces. Pull back the timber doors of any fine old dilapidated building in the midlands and you might find artists beavering away. The stables and granaries of stately homes are particularly popular.
There are so many artists here now that many have created their own networks, bypassing the Dublin-centric establishment. Longford has created a platform at Visuallongford.ie to highlight the many professional artists who have moved here.
Longford has also become an international centre for contemporary dance, spearheaded by the presence of Shawbrook Dance School in Legan, Co Longford, for 30 years. This former dairy farm has established itself as the centre for
innovative contemporary dance and ballet in Ireland, attracting renowned choreographers to train students who travel from afar.
In 2004 Michael Keegan-Dolan, arguably Ireland’s most acclaimed director and choreographer, relocated his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre company from London to Longford. He has been developing shows on a farm, and now Longford’s military barracks, which win major awards in London and New York and are invited to illustrious arts festivals around the world.
The Irish Hollywood
Six years ago, Co Offaly realised its potential as an affordable film location and set about promoting its array of locations: the Slieve Bloom mountains, the Grand Canal, the Shannon, 22 monastic sites, nearly 90 castles, time-warp villages and endless bogland. Offaly strives to be the county that says yes to film companies, finding ways to deliver frequently outlandish requests.
“There is a real can-do feeling among people here,” says Brendan Gleeson about working on his son Domhnall’s movie, Noreen. “Everything we needed was here. Not being at the centre of Los Angeles or a massive cosmopolitan urban centre has its own strength. I would have no problem at all coming back and shooting again. Rather, I would look forward to it.”
Film Offaly’s bursary funded productions that have gone on to win major awards, and local businesses throughout the county have united to create the Film Offaly Card, which entitles production companies to a discount of up to 25 per cent off accommodation and services. Over the next year you will see the midlands in numerous Irish movies: The Participants, Our Unfenced Country and A Nightingale Falling.
In terms of contemporary music, nowhere has been more pioneering than the Hilltown Studio Theatre in a medieval castle keep near Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. This network of 15th- to 19th
-century stables, harness rooms and medieval halls has been adapted into workshop rooms, performances spaces and small stages for opera, dance and theatre development, centred on the Hilltown New Music Festival each July, which showcases a form of avant-garde sound art that is barely distinguishable as music.
“Hilltown represents a model of how the arts can develop in Ireland,” says the festival’s founder, Fionnuala Cawkhill. “A coming-together through which there is no ease of slipping into old routines. The venues are not conventional, the living is more or less communal and there is nowhere to run off to. It provides this immersive space, cocooned in an inspirational midlands setting, freeing artists to work with a focus not usually possible.”
The midlands has always been feted for its writers, and they continue to thrive in random lonely garrets. This year the big excitement was the Epic Award for Poetry in the Park, an Athlone collective that lures large number of people, aged from eight to 86, out to the surrounding rivers, canals and boglands for dawn and dusk poetry readings. Their 4.30am event to celebrate the bog poems of Seamus Heaney (and spell out bog poems using turf sods) was the most potent Heaney memorial I’ve experienced.
The midlands is ready and waiting for creativity and experimentation. Ignore the region and disparage it if you must, but the true pioneers of the next generation of Irish arts have already cottoned on that it is affordable and easily accessible.
In time, cultural tours will add our spongy brown boglands to Synge’s Inis Meáin, Joyce’s Dublin and Yeats’s Sligo. It is from such bogs that all life emerged; and now new creativity is once again fomenting.
Manchán Magan is a board member of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre