Board governance at the heart of problem at the Abbey, says Garry Hynes

‘Not acceptable’ that major national institution ‘apparently lacking in governance’

Governance of the Abbey Theatre is at the heart of the issues at the national theatre, Druid Theatre artistic director Garry Hynes has said.

She told the Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht on Wednesday that “the problems at the Abbey” were essentially “a problem of governance”.

"The Abbey has to lay down a narrative and agree a role and purpose and function with the major stakeholders, including the Minister and Arts Council, " she said.

She told the committee it was “not acceptable that one of our major national institutions is so apparently lacking in governance that deep disagreements as to its role and function in Irish life remain chronically unresolved”.


Her comments came after 312 freelance theatre professionals wrote to Josepha Madigan, the Minister for Culture, expressing concern about the theatre’s strategy.

Stressing the board was crucial in deciding “what is the Abbey for?”, she said “the Abbey, like the film board, has sectoral responsibilities, and this is why that letter was such a bombshell last week”.

“It receives 50 per cent of performing arts funding and it has sectoral responsibilities - in terms of training, development, health, what it pays people - over and above those of other [THEATRE]organisations, and that has to be part of the narrative of governance.”

She said it was not acceptable that Irish performance actors generally earn below the living wage or that “the funding of our artists, whom we so clearly and obviously rely on to protect our national reputation, is the lowest per capital income of the European Union”.

Hynes was one of four top art-makers invited to address the culture committee.

‘Cultural tsunami’

Br Mark Patrick Hederman, former abbot of Glenstal Abbey School, asked where, in the 21st-century "cultural tsunami", do we turn for a compass for the future.

He said art “ must be supported and promoted at all costs” because “we cannot leave the future of Ireland to politicians alone”.

“Our great dilemma is we are trying to prepare ourselves for a world which we will never be able to forecast. Only imagination can help us to prepare for the future.”

The future isn’t something “we step into as an already designed space”.

“The future is ourselves as we choose to become. Artists are there to harvest possible shapes for the future, to sketch in outline what we might become.”

Poet Theo Dorgan said art is not complete "until it meets its audiences and means something to them"; when he makes a poem he doesn't own it, but it goes out into the world.

“So when we talk about supporting the arts in Ireland, we are not talking about piously making a small allocation toward a few curious individuals who seem to have inexplicable passions for adding words together, or notes to make a tune, or making lives on a stage, in order to tell some kind of truth. We’re talking about all of us together.”

He used an analogy of cultivating a field of wheat, providing for the entire field and trusting chance to see what comes up. “We have to cultivate ourselves - not just artists but also those with whom and for whom we make our work.”


Musician and filmmaker Philip King, speaking at the committee, said the arts matter for at least four reasons. These include that creativity, culture and the arts are essential to our wellbeing and valuable in their own right and because of the individual and personal benefits they confer "by enabling us to imagine, invent, interpret and communicate diverse ways of seeing the world".

King said “In the realms of soft power, reputation and influence, Ireland has many advantages embodied in our language, history, identity, culture, and the character of our people”.

“Ireland has the ability to create a positive, optimistic, and emotional impact when others come in contact with it, and our profile in the arts, creativity and culture gives evidence of this.”


Garry Hynes spoke about how the capacity to imagine is fundamental to all human activity, whether making or enjoying theatre or art, and described how through”early clumsy forays into putting on plays . . . I discovered how to be Irish”.

“I was doing what we all must do to live meaningful lives, I was actively becoming part of a community,” she said.

She was “profoundly terrified” at “how carelessly and stupidly we are allowing ourselves to become isolated from one another”.

She said we were “broken into blocks of entitlement and self-interest that ruthlessly disregard our need for the common good”.

“To me, the fire and definition in my life and the lives of all others is the act of the imagining.”

That imagining, “the practicing of art,” however instinctive, “needs always to be protected and nourished”.

“It requires the making of structures to enable it, to facilitate participation in it by all and to create the circumstances whereby makers can live decent and respected lives,” she said.

Poet Theo Dorgan said we need to relax about “the inherited post-colonial idea about the arts as something all right-thinking people are in favour of, because what follows from that is you do nothing about it”.

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times