Charlie Haughey, Anthony Cronin and a dream: how Irish Writers Centre began
When I came to Dublin in the 1960s I found very little welcome as an aspiring author, recalls Jack Harte. My aim was a home with an open door and a welcome for every writer
Jack Harte, founder of the Irish Writers Centre, makes a speech during last week’s visit by the centre’s new patron, President Michael D Higgins, to mark its 25th anniversary; and, left, the letter from then taoiseach Charles Haughey offering his support in 1987
When I came to Dublin in the 1960s I found very little welcome as an aspiring writer. My friends, who were artists and musicians, had recognised support structures within which they were able to develop their skills and hone their talent. Writing on the other hand I found exclusive. The attitude was that talent was handed down by God to the blessed few, and if you were not among them, tough. But on examination it seemed to me that God was partisan, favouring males of the privileged stratum of society, who were already well favoured with self-confidence.
In 1983 I was appointed principal of Lucan Vocational School and, apart from developing the school, which I did, I embarked on a project to try and develop a professional infrastructure for writing in Ireland. First, I organised a programme of professional workshops given by established writers, covering the full range of genres (poetry, fiction, drama, etc), in both English and Irish.
When the first Social Employment Scheme was launched, I employed two writers at the school, one as the very first writer-in-residence in Ireland, the other to do research for me. By the autumn of 1986 I had amassed a list of names and addresses of about 200 writers. I sent out an invitation to them to join a proposed Irish Writers Union. To my surprise and immense joy, most of them responded and joined. The union was up and running by January 1987, and we started to take on long-festering issues like publishing contracts, copyright, censorship, etc.
But my ultimate aim was to have a house, a building, a designated home for practising writers. It would be an administrative base for organisations, it would have facilities for workshops and events, but above all it would be a home for writers with an open door and a welcome for every hesitant aspiring writer.
In the same year, 1987, an election brought Charles Haughey to power. He retained the arts portfolio in his own Taoiseach’s Department. He appointed Anthony Cronin as his special adviser. I was rubbing my hands, because Anthony Cronin had joined the Writers Union. After a week or two, I phoned Tony Cronin. You will remember that this was at the height of the ’80s recession. Before I could open my mouth, Tony said, “Jack, I know what you are looking for, money, but the word is that there is not a penny to be had for any purpose”. I replied that no, I wasn’t looking for money, but wanted to run an idea past him.
I met Tony and explained that the Government owned a lot of Georgian houses that were going derelict. “I want one of those buildings for a writers’ centre.” I outlined my concept for such a centre, and within minutes Tony said, “That’s a great idea. Leave it with me.” Within a week or two he was back with the good news that the idea had met with approval up the line. The same year the National Lottery was launched – I submitted an application for funding for the proposed centre and was allocated £100,000.
At this stage the base for the centre was expanded to include other organisations and a wide range of writers. After looking at various possibilities we decided to row in with Dublin Tourism, who were proposing to restore these two houses,18 and 19 Parnell Square. We invested our £100,000 towards the restoration, they invested £400,000, and the European Union provided the lion’s share, £1,800,000.
The door opened in 1991 and for 25 years the centre has been truly a home for writers and their organisations. Tradition has made it sacred ground. Some of the people who were first to join the Writers Union and lend their weight to the establishment of the centre are here today, I am delighted to say, including Celia de Freine, Liz MacManus, Eilis Ní Dhuibhne and our Uachtarán, then a TD, now our patron, Michael D Higgins.