What makes Aosdána worth fighting for?
Opinion: The members don’t own Aosdána’s ‘half a rood of rock’ – they are tenants on it and the landlords are the people
Members of Aosdána during a break from its agm at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, earlier this year. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Aosdána in session in 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
- Patrick Kavanagh
Is Aosdána worth fighting for? Most people couldn’t care less. And why should they? After six years of wandering a vast grey Burren of austerity, they are wondering should they emigrate to a less stoney place – or could it be that the green shoots coming up through the cracks in the pavement are real? The last thing they are worried about is Aosdána’s “half a rood of rock”.
The combatants, of course, think otherwise. But the struggle obscures the true size of the field. And, number-wise, the sides are woefully mismatched. On the one hand it seems that hordes of critics, as in Kavanagh’s poem, are shouting, “Damn your souls!” On the other hand, only a single Aosdána member has stepped forward to roar her contempt for the enemy. Audible dissent greeted this intervention at Aosdána’s annual meeting, but, apart from that, the body – as a body – has limited itself to trying to correct errors of fact. Meanwhile, members have gone on with their work.
Is that not enough? I used to think it wasn’t. So, many years ago, I proposed that Aosdána should hold an extraordinary general meeting to consider what we might do – as a body – for the country. The meeting was duly held, in the basement of the National Gallery, and a variety of interesting ideas discussed, for instance that the writers in Aosdána should co-operate in translating the treasures of literature in Irish and publish them as widely as possible in uniform editions.
Day jobs That didn’t happen. The explanation was simple. Members had more to be doing with their time. Most of them had day jobs and wrote, made or composed in the dawn or at night. I recall one member, a friend of mine, who had in his wallet a dog-eared scrap of paper filled with sums calculating how his family could survive if he gave up his job to live on the Cnuas, then about £4,500. In the event fate made up his mind for him – by way of illness. But, with the help of the Cnuas, he succeeded and is still succeeding.
On the subject of success, I met an artist at the recent Aosdána annual meeting who, because the market has collapsed, is thinking of applying for the Cnuas for the first time. This is an artist with a career spanning more than 50 years. The more sarcastic critics might occasionally think of such individuals.
“It is unlikely that the really angry ones will change their minds, certainly not the columnist in one newspaper who described the body as “a bunch of lazy, unproductive benefit scroungers”. There might, though, be some chance of persuading the journalist in another newspaper who said, simply, “I hate nit”. The main reason for her hatred is that the membership doesn’t include anyone who has written for RTÉ’s Fair City. But it does. It even has someone who wrote Glenroe – me.
Comparisons But members now realise that seemingly reasonable comparisons, for instance that Aosdána costs €2.7 million a year and Fair City €11 million, are the opposite of persuasive. In the present climate the L’oréal defence – “Because we’re worth it” – only makes the weather worse.