Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

The cultural question: What can the Irish abroad contribute?

The Global Irish Network should be expanded beyond the rich and notable to ordinary Irish communities overseas, writes David Burns

The Global Irish Economic Forum meeting at Dublin Castle last year. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Wed, Jan 29, 2014, 06:00


David Burns

Culture and business are not the best of bedfellows. William Butler Yeats, perhaps the most famous Irish poet and cultural nationalist, despised the shopkeepers and practical businessmen of Ireland in 1913 for seeking to “add the halfpence to the pence”. He mourned John O’Leary and Romantic Ireland’s “being come to sense”. No doubt now, more than a hundred years later, he’d still have some hard words for Fine Gael’s Minister for Arts, Jimmy Deenihan, and his failure to fight for his department’s finances.

Yet, what would WB Yeats make of the defence mounted by the trade-centred Global Irish Network for the arts in Ireland in the last three Global Irish Economic Forums? What would the aristocratic Anglo-Irish artist have to say now, seeing the strange alliance forged in successive “economic” forums between Irish culture and big business in the last few years?

Perhaps he would have made more of it than Jimmy Deenihan, in any case. Despite the Government’s praise for the Global Irish Network (GIN)— describing it as a “key strand” in the new Diaspora engagement policy—the GIN’s recommendations on the importance of the arts has been completely ignored by the current administration.

The forums’ reports from 2009, 2011 and 2013 each record the stress placed by GIN panels on the importance of Culture Ireland as the agency responsible for promoting Irish arts abroad. “The role of culture in promoting Ireland”, in opening doors for Irish businesses and in distinguishing Ireland on the global stage emerges in forum discussions entitled “Ireland’s Image Abroad: Communicating the Message”.

Culture Ireland is variously said to have “had huge successes in the US”, which needs to be “sustained and rolled out in other markets like Asia”, and in 2013 plans for an All-Ireland Creative Initiative were outlined as the other GIN initiative, the Gathering, rolled to a close.

Of course, businessmen know talk is cheap. The fact that the Department for the Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht has suffered successive cuts of ultimately 30 per cent since the 2009 forum first insisted on the importance of “Promoting brand Ireland through our global cultural profile” proves that talk is cheap. The fact that Culture Ireland’s budget was reduced by 20 per cent alone this year shows just how cheap; even when it’s multimillionaires talking.

At the same time, if investment in the culture of a nation is put forward purely in terms of branding and business potential, is it very convincing? Perhaps Mr Deenihan is not fighting for his department because he doesn’t believe in it.

The sequel to the Gathering, the All-Ireland Creative Initiative, whose brief falls under the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, seeks to imaginatively capitalise on the centennial commemorations of 2016. Between St Patrick’s Day 2016 and July 2016, this initiative plans to sell the centenary of 1916 “across all artistic platforms” to an international audience. The epoch that marked the birth of what Yeats’ sensitively termed “a terrible beauty” is to be marketed as part of a project that sees the arts as PR potential, publicity and promotion.

This is not surprising once you consider that the people behind this idea were initially convened to “contribute to our overall efforts at economic recovery”. The majority of topics that GIN working groups are given at the Global Irish Economic Forums aim to attract, increase and secure foreign direct investment. Their ideas revolve around the Irish export market, they are interested primarily in the economic potential of the Irish diaspora and they seek to gain entry into new markets by making Irish identity into a commodity. These are all laudable objectives but they are all also single-minded.

The Global Irish Network is a group of over 300 of what the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade— our Tánaiste— describes as “the most influential Irish connected business figures”, spanning almost 40 countries. Up to this point, their primary function as consultants and advisors is to aid Ireland in its recovery after the ruin of the financial crisis. This might explain— in part— why their repeated suggestion to increase the budget for Culture Ireland and the Arts in general has been continually ignored; it is outside their jurisdiction as practical business people.

But it is worth remembering that the creation of the GIN and the overarching Irish Abroad Unit was to engage the Irish overseas—in general— with Ireland. So if the potency of Irish culture is to be explored to its fullest extent it might be necessary to talk about the arts for art’s sake with the artists. There has been so much talk about our economy in past years that we increasingly forget that we are above all else a society; a nation of diverse, differently talented people.

The Global Irish Network, while worthwhile, can be expanded upon and extended beyond the rich and notable to the ordinary Irish communities overseas. We should be trying to build a real and lasting relationship with all those gone abroad in recent years. If we are as a nation to learn anything from the Celtic Tiger years, I hope it will be a balance between commercial interests and cultural integrity.