Josepha Madigan on culture and her racy self-published novel
The Minister for Culture discusses arts funding, Galway 2020 and her own writing ambitions
Josepha Madigan: “I don’t think we embrace culture in the way they do in some other countries, particularly with younger children.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
“Oh God, how did you find it, dare I ask?” asks Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan as I produce a book from my bag during our interview.
The name of the book is Negligent Behaviour, written and self-published by Madigan in 2011. As it happens, it is extremely difficult to find copies these days, but I eventually tracked one down in a second-hand bookshop. It resembles an overlong Mills & Boon novel, set within the Irish legal scene, with various degrees of sexual antics from the key characters; a novel in which journalists are described as (see page 101) “bloodthirsty”.
The reappearance of her racy novel in the course of an interview is, at a guess, something the Minister for Culture would prefer not to have happened. She handles it beautifully, smiling and joking with likable composure. For all the advance preparation for questions about budgets and policies, in a situation like this, only character will see you through.
Madigan started her ministerial career on November 30th last year. Only elected as a TD for Fine Gael in 2016, she leap-frogged straight from the back-benches into the Cabinet. She has a lovely large office in the landmark building of 23 Kildare Street, but we are on such a tight schedule, I don’t have any time to inspect the artwork or take note of the objects in the room – although I do register a lit scented candle as I hang up my coat.
My request for an interview slot of an hour had been turned down, and 40 minutes offered instead. On the morning of the interview, it shrank again to 30 minutes, and a further five melt away while I wait on arrival to be greeted by the Minister’s special adviser (who sits at the table with us and takes notes throughout, occasionally prompting the Minister with a name or a statistic). With such a short timeslot, my challenge is not with the clock, but potential waffle. All politicians are uncannily good at saying things that are hard to understand and decipher – or at least, this is my experience.
Take, for instance, Madigan’s unedited answer to my first question, when I ask for her definition of culture.
“I think culture is a broad, sweeping word that encompasses our creativity; our sense of self; our sense of soul. I think in Ireland, part of our cultural DNA is where we come from. So in this particular department, I think Heritage and the Gaeltacht encompass part of culture and it is about being Irish. One of the things I have seen in Ireland, if we are talking about culture, is that I don’t think we embrace it in the way they do in some other countries, particularly with younger children. It’s not as mainstream, for example, as it is in Norway or Sweden. I would like to see that here. I think it should be much more part of our identity and part of the way we express ourselves. So it’s really an all-encompassing word.”
After that, I interrupt politely when the answers go on too long, because there are many things to be discussed.
Such as Galway 2020, and its recent alarming stream of resignations from key roles, so close to delivering its European Capital of Culture programme. It’s arguably the most controversial and high-profile national arts story at present. Recently, arts commentator Theo Dorgan wrote a letter to this newspaper describing Galway 2020 as a “debacle” that was “on the point of turning into a full-scale disaster”. Dorgan suggested that “the moment is here for the Government bluntly and forcefully to knock heads together”.
Galway 2020 is really important, and I don’t see any reason why it won’t happen, and why it won’t be a big success
What is her response? Madigan nods her head, and agrees it is a big story.
“That’s why we have put a performance delivery agreement in place,” she says, “which has been signed by everybody, and that was really important from this department in terms of the financial funding that we are giving towards Galway 2020. There have been, as you know, a number of redundancies, or rather, not redundancies; resignations. And this department has only given €250,000 to date. We want to be in a position to give €6 million next year.
“Galway 2020 is really important, because it is going to showcase Ireland, and I don’t see any reason why it won’t happen, and why it won’t be a big success. But it is good that this has all happened now, rather than later on. Often sometimes when you move to the implementation strategy of projects of this nature, there could be teething problems along the way.”
As she sees it, now that there is also “going to be support by the Arts Council, in terms of local organisations on the ground”, this will ensure Galway 2020 “will be really vibrant and positive for Ireland”.
What about the criticism from local artists that they have largely not been involved in decision-making or consultation?
“Well, Patricia Philbin is now the CEO, and she was appointed from Galway City Council, and my understanding is that there are representatives of artists on the board itself. And they should be fed into, and I believe the Arts Council will help with that; to ensure that their voices are heard, because there is no point having this wonderful year if you don’t actually bring the real artists on the ground into it. There is absolutely going to be a place for them. That is going to be crucial.”
The Arts Council is the most important arts organisation in the country, she says.
“Because they have such a wide sweep, and they help with festivals, bursaries, partnerships, residencies. They also want to do some co-productions, which they haven’t been able to do, and they were saying to me that there are some theatres, for example, that they can’t even tour – I think they mentioned Rough Magic – so they want to be in a position to help them tour.
At the end of the day, you have to help people at the grassroots level
“There is an arm’s length between my department and them at the end of the day; it’s not up to me to prescribe how they spend their money, but that’s certainly the vision they have given me.”
On the subject of money, what about the commitment that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made during Budget 2017 to double expenditure on arts, culture and sport over the following seven years?
“I am a hundred per cent confident about that,” she says.
In this year’s Budget, there was a total of €339 million allocated to departmental expenditure on culture, language and heritage for 2019. Within this, the Arts Council received €75 million; the figure was €68 million last year.
As Madigan says, “The main argument I made in regard to the culture and arts sector is for the Arts Council. Because at the end of the day, you have to help people at the grassroots level. So what they are going to try to do is to incrementally increase how they can help with festivals; I think they are planning on a significant amount more festivals throughout the year that they would have done heretofore.”
Despite the fact that Ireland’s culture is seen as a key element in promoting the country as a tourist destination, State funding for the arts remains low. How does expenditure in other European countries compare per capita to what Ireland spends?
“I don’t know the answer to that. I imagine that we are probably still having a long way to go,” Madigan admits. “Comparatively, I would imagine we are still on the lower scale.”
I find it cathartic, the process of writing itself. I’ve accepted that I won’t be the next Sally Rooney, but I enjoy it
What about the Minister for Culture’s own preferences when it comes to the arts and popular culture?
“I’m a books person,” she says. “I’m not really a TV person, or Netflix either.”
The book she gives most often to others as a gift is Anam Cara by John O’Donohue. “I like the Celtic aspect of it, and I think it is a spiritual book as well.” The classic she has kept starting but never actually finished? “Ulysses,” she confesses.
In an interview with Trinity College Dublin’s student newspaper a year ago, she revealed she had written 100,000 words of another novel. How is that progressing?
“I was in Annaghmakerrig during the summer,” she says. “I rewrote 20,000 words when I was there, but you know, I read better than I can write, I’m not under any illusions in that regard. But I find it cathartic, the process of writing itself.” Then she laughs and says, “I’ve accepted that I won’t be the next Sally Rooney, but I enjoy it.”
Madigan’s Twitter biography includes a Latin quotation, “Per tenebras lucem quaero.” What does it mean?
“Seeing the light through the shadows,” she explains. “That’s what I take it to mean. In other words, trying to shine a light in a dark place. Trying to leave somewhere better than you find it. That’s my motto.”
Time is up, and I ask the Minister to sign her book for me. It had already been inscribed to someone with the greeting, “Blessings, Josepha”, and, as Madigan gamely inscribes it now for this bloodthirsty journalist, she says, “Well, do you know what it [writing the book] taught me? How to start – and how to do a middle and end.”