A thrilling new chapter for Triskel


Despite many setbacks and false starts, the €4.8 million remaking of the Triskel Arts Centre is complete, giving Cork city a world-class arts and concert venue

AN ART-HOUSE cinema, a theatre residency, new exhibition spaces, a glamorous, galleried recital platform, a city-centre location, a recordings outlet, a cafe and a crypt – what more could any enterprising arts organisation desire?

I don’t put the question to Tony Sheehan, as he lopes around the new Triskel premises spanning the gap between the centre’s core venue on Tobin Street and its new recital hall on the South Main Street, for fear he might come up with an answer. The exigencies of exile for the past year have not dampened the Triskel appetite for innovation and adaptation; neither has the sudden eruption of fire, health and safety issues which caused the last-minute postponement of the celebratory programme which was then transferred to the Half Moon Theatre last Saturday. Despite this setback, Sheehan and his staff give no hint of the exhaustion which might be expected from navigating a restoration and amalgamation project to this thrilling destination.

“We had to put in the work to make the place properly relevant for the next period of time,” says Sheehen, the centre’s artistic director, as he pauses for breath. By now, he seems to think in terms of millennia, and who could blame him? Triskel is annexing a 12th-century site and a building first known as Holy Trinity Parish Church, then as Christchurch.

Relevance in the arts community can be a complex issue. A comprehensive portfolio of engagements ensures that the capacity generated at Triskel is used to the full, and already Corcadorca has taken up a theatrical residency in the former auditorium. For Gary Sheehan of Note Productions, now Music Curator at Triskel, the key element of the new house is its potential as a home for culturally ambitious music in the city.

“We want to become a resource for Cork’s festival programmes,” says Sheehan. “We want to work in collaboration with other practitioners. We will be enhancing our emphasis on educational and extra-mural events, and you could say that, while we won’t be operating as a church, we want to be something like London’s St Martin’s in the Fields, catching what passing trade there is on the South Main Street.”

Nor is Tony Sheehan bothered by the plans just published by Heineken Ireland for its Beamish and Crawford site across the road; these are massive, with a convention centre, cafes and restaurants, exhibition and recital spaces and student accommodation, whatever you’re having yourself. “No, we don’t see this necessarily as competition, but as something which will feed into our own footfall; this is going to increase the passing traffic and should help us draw people in.”

There will be plenty to be drawn into. Always ready to build on established relationships and to pursue new ones, Tony Sheehan has installed Plug’d Records as a retail outlet in the belief not only that Plug’d will bring in “a fantastic audience”, but that it’s the business of an arts centre to support independent units vulnerable to a fluctuating marketplace.

It’s another indication of the fusion of old and new at Triskel that the centre has also commissioned composer John Gibson to write for the organ installed by TC Lewis in 1878 – which is currently being restored by Neilands of Wexford. Then there’s the glass-walled viewing box over the crypt, where ancient headstones will be illuminated in their own light show; a grant from the Department of Culture and Tourism allows the installation of projection equipment for the art-house cinema to be run in partnership with the Irish Film Institute, where digital technology provides instant downloading of new releases.

In a way, the show has always gone on at Christchurch, and readers of DL Kelleher’s description of the wedding here of Edmund Spenser and Elizabeth Boyle in what Kelleher called “the Shakespeare day” will have some idea of just what kind of a show could go on.

The marshy underlay (Spenser and his bride went home in a boat) means that there has been some slippage and sliding; part of architect Oisin Creagh’s task has been to make the crooked ways straight while at the same time knitting two very different buildings and purposes into one whole garment. Seamless is the word, in fact – the Tobin Street foyer is now glazed into aisles and stairways, one wall bricked with arches establishing the connection to the main recital area beyond.

There the painted ceiling vaults over the nave, where 12 Ionic scagliola columns support the panelled gallery above the boxed and numbered pews and don’t seem to contradict the paired lighting grid hoisted overhead. The old mayoral throne with its lion and unicorn crest looks down to where the central aisle leads east to an apse coloured with high-arched, brightly coloured windows, and west to the wider pews housing the sound and lighting controls, and then to the stone-flagged entrance and box-office hall.

The idea of uniting the two buildings separated by a narrow lane had been around since Tony Sheehan’s first stint as a gallery assistant at Triskel in the 1980s. Events intervened in his career, and in those of others, while the church itself was taken over as the Cork Archives Centre. Then came a nice conjunction of synergy and symmetry – the archives were moved to the purpose-built premises at Blackpool.

Sheehan returned in 2006 as director, and despite the looming changes in arts funding in Ireland, the then city manager Joe Gavin responded enthusiastically to the proposed (and pretty obvious) annexation. A €4 million budget was allocated to the designs by Oisin Creagh; last year it looked as if City Hall could lose its nerve, or at least its commitment, when Murray Ó Laoire went into liquidation. There was a short pause before the council’s Arts Office declared the intention to continue the work to full completion, even though by then the costs had stretched to €4.8 million.

However, the deficit that Sheehan inherited on his return has been cleared, and for the first time in four years, Triskel, supported by a grant of €250,000 from the Arts Council and €25,000 from City Hall, is going to break even for 2010.

Last year’s little blink explains the delay in the launch of the centre as an entirety: while the main operations will start up on a date to be confirmed shortly, it will be April before the exhibition commissioned from sculptor Vivienne Roche will open. Roche has studied the installation field in the church: a high balustraded lectern reached by a staircase of intricate spirals set at the edge of the chancel. Her title, ‘A Light Interlude from the Pulpit’, salutes the fusion of a contemporary art gallery and a church. It also heralds the use of the exhibition spaces by the cutting-edge contemporary arrangements managed by Ian McInerney of Black Maria.

Vestry records at Christchurch show a payment of £3 for the casting of two bells in 1617; one of these bells has been reinstated, but it will not be rung, although Tony Sheehan and his staff might well feel like ringing it.