Why we should stand up for Aosdána this Bloomsday

The artists’ association should not be attacked on the grounds of value for money

John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and Tom Joyce on Sandymount Strand on the 50th-anniversary of Bloomsday, June 16th, 1954.

John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and Tom Joyce on Sandymount Strand on the 50th-anniversary of Bloomsday, June 16th, 1954.

 

It feels strange to be celebrating Bloomsday without the living presence of Anthony Cronin. The genesis of our modern Bloomsday celebration is a familiar story by now, of how in 1954, a group of Joyce enthusiasts and writers including Patrick Kavanagh and Brian O’Nolan decided to re-enact Bloom’s journey across Dublin to celebrate the 50th-anniversary of the original Bloomsday.

One of the driving forces behind it was Cronin, a young poet who was there to represent Stephen Dedalus. It was a prophetic choice, as few Irish writers in recent times have done more to forge the uncreated conscience of their race.

Apart from his work as a poet, biographer, novelist, and all-round man of letters, he was a public intellectual, a man who believed the public sphere was too important to leave to politicians.

He was a man of paradoxes: a proudly local internationalist, an unsparing critic who in person was the essence of kindness and empathy, a man of very few illusions who maintained an almost romantic belief in the public good, the res publica. And, as a kind of returned emigrant, he was determined to work with the crooked timber of politics in a semi-failed State.

Cronin had seen the best minds of the generation before him destroyed by poverty and lack of State recognition

One result of this was the establishment of Aosdána, an institution which would recognise the role of the artist in society and if necessary provide them with financial support.

Imaginative intervention

Bizarrely, the Arts Council website claims that Aosdána was established by the Arts Council in 1981, a canard recently re-floated in the Dáil by the Minister for the Arts.

The reality is Aosdána was an imaginative intervention into Irish life, which would not have happened without the unexpected conjunction of Cronin and his friend Charles Haughey, to whom he became arts adviser in 1979.

From Cronin came the enlightened view of State support for the individual artist. He argued this in articles and essays throughout the 1970s, often in his Viewpoint column in The Irish Times.

But for Cronin this was not just an abstract political principle. He had seen the best minds of the generation before him destroyed by poverty and lack of recognition from the State.

Kavanagh, whose life was documented by Cronin in Dead as Doornails, once wrote of his life in Dublin: “I often borrowed ‘a shilling for the gas’ when in fact I wanted the coin to buy a chop.” This was the situation of Ireland’s greatest poet then living.

Brian O’Nolan, who had been more or less fired from his civil service job, was unable to write any more novels and was reduced to writing rubbish under pseudonyms for provincial newspapers.

Cronin saw no reason why Ireland’s leading artists should not enjoy the same modest standard of living as say, a radio producer, or assistant principal of a secondary school.

Haughey, no matter how loathsome he may have been as a man or politician, seems to have had a genuine love of the arts, particularly poetry. As a republican, he had an idea of the vital relationship between a nation’s image of itself and the contribution of the arts.

From this imaginative wedding of ideas and motives, Aosdána was born, without the benefit of an international panel of experts, or a policy document written by an economist.

Daring act

Perhaps it is this bureaucratically illegitimate birth, and the fact that its birth was attended by the twin spectres of socialism and republicanism, which makes it so unpopular in certain sectors of Irish life.

And yet, with one daring act, Ireland had set up a system closer to those of enlightened countries such as Finland and the Netherlands than to those of Britain and the US.

Aosdána was designed to deal with the messy reality of the artist’s life in all its difficulties

In his later years, Cronin was greatly troubled by the premonition that dark forces were gathering against Aosdána, which he rightly regarded as one of his crowning achievements.

It may be that the original sin at Aosdána’s birth was its association with the Arts Council, rather than some form of guaranteed independence.

The Arts Council, ultimately, can only obey its masters. And there are some of them for whom “value for money” and “austerity” are not particularly subtle camouflage to introduce an ideologically-driven shift of emphasis away from State support for the individual artist over the course of his life.

The present storm around Aosdána would seem to have been triggered by an individual artist’s wholly understandable failure to tick a particular box.

Let Cronin have the last word: “Art, let’s face it, is a bit of a mystery. It is engaged in, for not fully explainable or justifiable reason.

“The creation of a work of art, which is, like it or not, the attempt to attain perfection is, in a world which acknowledges only commercial and utilitarian motives, an exercise so gratuitous as to be daft.

“It distorts its creators’ lives and imposes burdens on them so intolerable that they frequently result in breakdown and madness.”

Aosdána was designed to deal with the messy reality of the artist’s life in all its difficulties, complexity and occasional transgressiveness and resistance to categorisation.

As we remember Cronin on Bloomsday, the best way to honour his memory is to take up his sword in defence of Aosdána in its present form.

Michael O’Loughlin is a poet and writer

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