The Politics and Polemics of Culture in Ireland 1800-2010: Incisive account of policy

Pat Cooke’s encyclopaedic survey focuses on period after establishment of Arts Council

Colm Ó Briain was the first modern director of the Arts Council. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Colm Ó Briain was the first modern director of the Arts Council. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sat, Nov 27, 2021, 00:00


Book Title:
The Politics and Polemics of Culture in Ireland 1800-2010


Pat Cooke


Guideline Price:

This encyclopaedic survey of cultural policy concentrates most of its 400-plus pages on the period since the establishment of the Arts Council in 1949-1951. It takes a very broad view of “culture”, as “all things that shape our quotidian and group identities” rather than simply “the arts”. It provides an incisive and persuasive account of government policy, the personalities influencing that policy, reactions to policy, and the significance of public debate (not least in this newspaper).

My only quibble is that Pat Cooke makes insufficient distinction between “democratisation of culture” (a top-down approach) and “cultural democracy” (facilitating grass-roots activity and aspirations). This distinction, which occupied us crucially in the 1980s, is especially relevant to Community Arts and the Arts Council’s floundering attempts to address the phenomenon, to which Cooke devotes seminal chapters.

The only document produced by any government on culture was the Green Paper Access and Opportunity (1987), arguing for a broader understanding of culture “and its role in national life”. It died a death with the ensuing general election.

Colm Ó Briain, as the first modern director of the Arts Council (1975-1983) was a hawk among the conservative pigeons, but his intelligence outweighed his political clout. The council irresponsibly shredded Brian Kennedy’s vital and eloquent book Dreams and Responsibilities (on the role of the council) because it revealed that the government had sought Ó Briain’s resignation.

The emergence in 1993 of a cabinet seat for culture (with Michael D Higgins as its first occupant) with psychologist Ciaran Benson as chair of the Arts Council (1993-1997) was another lost opportunity to bring culture centre-stage. Indeed, as Higgins observed more recently: “Culture is not central in any of the founding treaties of the European Union, and indeed in the Universal Declaration of the United Nations, its status as a right is not significantly present.” Not exclusively an Irish problem, then.

Cooke has raised more questions than he can answer, but he has demonstrated the difficulty in creating an awareness in politicians and decision-makers of the need to embrace culture as an immanent spirit rather than a bum on a seat.