A performer’s life: ‘It’s like starting over and over and over on a zero-hour contract’

Ireland sends out its impoverished artists with a fanfare of glitter and we return home to poverty

Artists' lives offer a glimpse of the reality behind Theatre Forum's review of performers' payscales.

Liv O'Donoghue, a choreographer and dancer, has toured her own acclaimed work, and performed across Europe, Australia and the US. "I've been lucky to be in relatively regular employment and some would say that I've been at the top of my game. But successful dance artists earn on average around €13k per year. We are among the working poor. Health insurance, pensions, mortgages, basic security and the means to start a family, are all well outside of our reach." When young dancers look for advice, "I would be selling a fallacy if I was to suggest anything other than a possible future of poverty. But if we are to discourage them, are we to be a nation of no dancers?"

“This is a full-time job.” Being an artist in Ireland means being “accountant, producer, manager, technician, marketer, expert across any field that your livelihood might depend on. It’s a juggling act and you can’t afford to drop any balls because you’re living in poverty.

“Why do we do it? Because we love it. The arts are bold and brilliant and brave.” She argues the government takes advantage of this vocation. “A country’s cultural profile has currency. It attracts foreign investment and tourism, and so we – skilled, trained and in demand – are put on pedestals, lauded and celebrated as we fly the Brand Ireland flag abroad. But Ireland sends out its impoverished artists with a fanfare of glitter and pompoms to great success, and we return home to poverty. Surely, if we are to represent Ireland at the highest levels abroad, it’s not too much to ask for the security of a basic income at home?”


There is an artists’ exemption, but “tax-free status applies only to goods, and the transient and fleeting nature of performance means no dancer or actor, choreographer or director, can benefit.”

She is looking for a commitment that no artist should live in poverty in 2019. “I feel hugely privileged I get to do what I do every day. But it doesn’t come without sacrifice. To be able to plan or even imagine a secure future shouldn’t be a luxury in the fastest growing economy in Europe. Maybe we need a real commitment from government to protect artists with a basic income. The arts bring a critical and significant vibrancy to the daily life of the people of Ireland.”

Peter Power is a composer, director and designer from Waterford, based in Cork, and artist-in-residence in the National Sculpture Factory.

“I am solo – self-employed, like the majority of the makers of art. We are caught in a web of institutionalised begging: project awards, bursaries, grants, residencies, free office space, mentorships – all structural languages of financial insolvency and cup-holding hidden in proposed potential. Every year, we need to knock at the door again, to check are we still worth it. Are we as good as we were before? It’s like starting over and over and over on a zero-hour contract.

“I am better at what I do now than I have ever been, and yet 2019 holds for me less security than any year of my life. What awaits me if I am successful? The inability to access medical card services because they are means-tested, while not being able to afford primary care. The trap between not being able to obtain a mortgage, yet being forced to rent in a relatively unregulated private property market.

“The middle ground maintained by us is simply un-legislated, where social protection is not accessible through means-testing, nor are the advantages of more secure employment.

“I am a professional. But like many artists, I occupy an infantilised space in society where I cannot grow up with the risk around me, save I leave this work, or move to administrate it. The breadth of ‘labour issues’ has to be considered now as all-encompassing, encapsulating everything from wage to rent, childcare to health. We are literally falling apart from it, and yet we still stand and petition to be heard.”

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

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