Hugh Linehan: It’s not surprising Haughey’s arts patronage remains contentious

Writers and artists were keen to pay court when the politician was in his pomp

Haughey fancied himself a political leader in the mould of De Gaulle or Mitterrand. Photograph: Colman Doyle

Haughey fancied himself a political leader in the mould of De Gaulle or Mitterrand. Photograph: Colman Doyle

 

Almost three decades after he left frontline politics, and 15 years since his death, Charles Haughey is still capable of arousing feelings ranging from bitter contempt to deep admiration. One notable aspect of Gary Murphy’s magisterial new biography is the number of writers and artists who were keen to pay court to Haughey when the politician was in his pomp, and how pleased he was to accept their praise as his due.

The tax exemption for artists which he introduced in 1969 still plays an important role in providing a boost to the ncomes of writers, artists and composers

When considering Haughey’s political career, mention is always made of his genuine interest in the arts, but that subject can be as divisive and contested in its own way as his record in other areas. It is indisputable, though, that – with the exception of Michael D Higgins – Haughey was more intellectually and actively engaged with questions of the State’s role in culture during his political career than any other senior politician in the history of the State. Unlike Higgins, he had his hands on the levers of real power for a long time, first as minister for finance in the 1960s and then during his four terms as taoiseach between 1979 and 1992. The results are still with us. The tax exemption for artists which he introduced in 1969 may have been gradually whittled down over the years and no longer attracts millionaire novelists and rock stars to Ireland, but it still plays an important role in providing a boost to the incomes of writers, artists and composers. Aosdána continues to provide financial support in the form of an annual payment of €17,180 to those of its 250 members who need it.

Testament

The Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham, the cultural institutions built or renovated in Temple Bar, the decision to refurbish Dublin Castle and the old College of Science on Dublin’s Merrion Street for government use; these and others stand as testament to Haughey’s willingness to push past bureaucratic obstacles and political inertia to achieve the sort of imaginative grand projects which his predecessors – and most of his successors – shied away from. For his many critics, they also represent the shortcomings of his conception of the State’s role in culture and the self-aggrandising nature of his assumption of the role of great patron of the arts. In an interview in 2003, he argued that just as in the past rulers and church leaders would bestow their patronage on their favourite artists, “today that role must, in the main, be filled by the State”. It’s not hard to see that statement as an assertion of his own self-image as a latter-day prince.

In 2007, commenting on a TV documentary on Haughey and the arts, Fintan O’Toole argued that in return for his patronage, Haughey “got a touch of class and an air of mystery – both useful assets for a cynical crook”, and that he also effectively bought the silence of Irish artists, who failed to hold him to account for his misdeeds.

Judging by the evidence in Murphy’s biography, which draws extensively on Haughey’s private correspondence, one can now add that the manner in which some of the country’s most celebrated writers were happy to bow and scrape to Haughey may reflect something deeper about how creative artists can be easily seduced by proximity to power and by demagoguery.

Corruption

Although some reviewers have criticised Murphy's book for not being harsher on its subject’s obvious corruption, one of its strengths is that he leaves it to his readers to draw their own conclusions about Haughey’s behaviour. He’s more interested in exploring what the man himself thought, behind that basilisk stare. Haughey fancied himself a political leader in the mould of De Gaulle or Mitterrand, and he chafed at the restraints the Irish political system placed on his power. And his Great Man theory of history extended to a conception of artistic practice, shared by his influential advisor Anthony Cronin, which favoured the solitary (and almost exclusively male) writer or painter over interpretive or collaborative forms such as acting, musical performance or filmmaking. The fact also remains that, after many years in power, Haughey left behind a country which continues to this day to fall well short of the European Union average when it comes to State support for culture.

And yet. In a sense, Haughey was a quintessential Irish politician of his time, seeing his role as the acquisition and maintenance of power through patronage, a sensibility he brought to his initiatives for the arts. But, as the new biography makes clear, he also believed in the need for the State to help people improve their lives while being aware of the same State’s institutional failings: a faceless, unaccountable and sometimes heartless bureaucracy; a reflexive conservatism; a failure of imagination.

Can anyone honestly say that these problems are not still with us, in culture policy and elsewhere?

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the College of Science building as the College of Surgeons

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