Robert Ballagh on the arts: ‘We still suffer from lack of confidence’

Underfunding of Irish arts stems from a national inferiority complex, artist believes

Robert Ballagh's recent intervention in the debate over the funding of the Abbey Theatre was shot down by many commentators but the artist is not for turning.

And, as the issue comes up for discussion again among stakeholders on Friday, he believes an elephant in the room has yet to be addressed - namely an Irish inferiority complex when it comes to the arts.

A century on from Independence "we still seem to suffer from these feelings of lack of confidence and lack of appreciation of actually who we are and what we can contribute. That's kind of disappointing," he said.

Ballagh was speaking to The Irish Times in the wake of controversy surrounding his letter to this newspaper in which he suggested a "No Irish need apply" policy applied at the upper echelons of the Irish arts world, stating "at this moment in time practically every national cultural institution is being managed by an outsider".


Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan described his letter as regrettable and factually inaccurate, while others accused him of “ultranationalist jingoism”, “cultural myopia” and worse.

“I didn’t expect that,” he admitted. “I just thought, ‘We’ll throw this in. I’ll make it a bit polemical and start a debate and a discussion.’”

Was it about nationality? “No, absolutely. I am a proud Irishman but I am a proud internationalist as well and a proud European, but that doesn’t mean I can’t criticise the EU.”

We can't keep saying we're a wonderfully endowed cultural nation, and then turn around and say we're not good enough

His track record “speaks for itself in that I was very active in the Irish anti-apartheid movement. I also, together with Moya Doherty and one or two others, founded in Le Cheile/Together, Irish Artists Against Racism.”

His letter was about “why we don’t cherish our own.”

Success abroad

He said it seemed to be a case of, as “any Irish artist, actor, whatever, will tell you, ‘Sure you can’t get work here anyway, you have to go abroad’. And if you achieve some success abroad you’re suddenly great”.

He said he was speaking from experience, recalling his role as designer for a production of Salomé at the Gate theatre in 2007. It moved to the National Theatre in London “and the amount of people who came up to me when they read in the paper that it was on in London, they started saying ‘O, you’ve really become very successful now’ and I said, ‘It’s the same play as I did in the Gate. Why didn’t you say it to me when it was on in the Gate?’”

He put it like this: "If Saoirse Ronan hadn't gone to America and been embraced by Hollywood and was acting in the Project, or whatever, would she have been on The Late Late Show?"

It was “depressing. But what’s more depressing really is the people who stayed here and gave their life to whatever art they were practicing here and they don’t get recognised or appreciated. That’s very disappointing.”

Ballagh said he had entered the debate to support those 300 theatre practitioners who had been critical of current practices at the Abbey Theatre.

The signatories to an open letter from these artists and theatre workers are to meet authorities at the Abbey on Friday to discuss their concerns

Ballagh believes it comes down to “lack of funding and lack of support for the arts, all the arts, in this state”.

‘Worst in Europe’

He recalled a report commissioned 70 years ago by then taoiseach John A Costello on the state of the arts in Ireland. Prepared by Thomas Bodkin and published in 1950, it concluded "that no other country in Europe cares less and does less for the arts," Mr Ballagh recalled.

He said Ireland came last in a recent survey of EU countries on state support for the arts (albeit the Government has challenged such figures). “What Bodkin said in 1950 the EU has confirmed - that we are still the worst country in Europe for supporting the arts,” Ballagh said.

The average EU spend on the arts “is 0.6 per cent of GDP and Ireland spends 0.1 per cent of GDP which, in simple mathematics, means that if we were to equal the average spend in Europe on the arts we would have to increase funding by 600 per cent,” he said.

According to the Government, these figures are from a Council of Europe project that excludes a number of EU states while also neglecting to account for “all of the money that is spent on the arts in this country”.

Ballagh recalled how in the 1980s, when he was chairman of the cultural division of the ITGWU, which included Irish Actors Equity, “the unemployment rate among actors then was 80 per cent. On radio recently he heard it was now 85 per cent. So, in 40 years we’ve gone backwards, not forwards.”

On the current controversy surrounding the Abbey Theatre, he felt that had a director there been “someone who worked their way through the ranks of the theatrical profession in Ireland” they would never “have presided over a situation where there were no Irish actors on the stage for five and a half months”.

It was also the case that “no Irish-based designer got a contract from the Abbey since the new regime took over - that’s two and a half years. How are we to prosper if those attitudes prevail?” he asked.

To those who say the pool of talent may be too small in Ireland, his response would be: “We can’t have it both ways. We can’t keep saying we’re a wonderfully endowed cultural nation and boast about our artists and our poets and our writers and everything on the one hand, and then turn around and say we’re not good enough.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times