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.