My cultural year 1


In tough times, society looks to artists to give a lead – and this was a year when many did just that, even combining effectively as a campaigning force, writes FIONA McCANN


Director of the Ulster Bank Dublin

Theatre Festival

The most exciting development of the year was the low-key revolution that is being staged by Ireland’s younger theatre-makers, from Hammergrin’s Hollanderat Cork Midsummer Festival to The Company’s Who is Fergus Kilpatrick? and Una McKevitt’s Victor and Gord Cubedat the Dublin Fringe Festival to Stomach Box’s No Worst There is Noneand Brokentalkers’ Silver Starsat the Dublin Theatre Festival. A confident new generation of artists has emerged and is making exciting, original work that is determinedly international in outlook and unfettered by convention or tradition. It is essential that these companies and artists are supported and encouraged through the difficult years that lie ahead.

It was equally exciting to witness the entire arts community coming together for the first time to support the National Campaign for the Arts and give voice to the economic and cultural importance of the creative industries.

On my iPod are three Irish albums, two of them debuts, from three unconventional female voices, which are on a constant loop: Julie Feeney’s Pages, Lisa Hannigan’s Sea Sewand Fiona Kelleher’s pared-back and achingly beautiful My Love Lies. But then that other great master, Leonard Cohen, showed how high the bar is set during the gig of the year, for the second year running, this time at the 02 in July.

My visual arts highlight was the controlled irreverence that Anish Kapoor brought to the classical grandeur of London’s Royal Academy. And the exactitude of David Hockney’s etchings at the Galway Arts Festival, produced when he was a mere student, were further evidence, if any was needed, of his brilliance.

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader(I always come to novels late) was the most fun I had between two covers, while Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn was a masterclass in narrative restraint and emotional precision.

And finally, Dreambox’s Playhouse lit up Liberty Hall in a grand act of cultural inclusion that inspired our great old city at a time when inspiration was most needed.


Programme director of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature

I’m thrilled I got to see the Edvard Munch exhibition of prints just before it closed at the National Gallery – it was an outstanding show. Also from Norway, the opening gig of Galway Jazz Festival saw the Trygve Seim Orchestra produce a most compelling sound, strange and sublime in equal measure.

All year, I’ve been addicted to Julie Feeney’s album, Pages.

At Galway Arts Festival, Ed Hall’s company, Propeller, provided a happy reminder of how transporting theatre can be with the exuberant and magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It prompted one of the most spontaneous standing ovations I’ve witnessed at a time when these are maybe just a bit too common.

Poets Paula Meehan and Don Paterson and singer-songwriter Susan McKeown combined beautifully to present one of the most fulfilling evenings of words and music during Kilkenny Arts Festival. I also loved Philip Schultz’s poetry collection, Failure,and Enda Wyley’s To Wake to This.I’ve had a truly great reading year – need I say what a colossal period in Irish fiction it’s been, with exceptional novels by Colm Tóibín, Colum McCann and the ever majestic William Trevor? The short story is in very safe hands worldwide, judging by new collections I enjoyed by Petina Gappah, Sana Krasikov and Daniyal Mueenuddin. New stories by Alice Munro continue to delight and I laughed a lot at Elizabeth Strout’s stories in her Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge.

Away from galleries, theatres and books, I spent 70 remarkable minutes at Croke Park for the Kilkenny-Tipperary All-Ireland Hurling Final – it was nothing less than glorious. RTÉ Radio 1 continued its fantastic work in literature promotion by providing a comprehensive and fitting celebration for Seamus Heaney’s 70th birthday. And in this era of blather from many of our so-called leaders, the brilliant and brutal honesty of Drivetime diarists Joseph O’Connor, Olivia O’Leary and Fergus Finlay made for essential radio.


Lead singer with Bell X1

I finally read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while on the road in the US. I think it got passed around the van and had a few of us blinking away tears while some inane debate about the merits of the latest roadside fast-food outlet rattled on around us. A wallop of a book, so I’m looking forward to the movie. I’m now dipping in to John McGahern’s collection of essays, Love of the World.

I went to a Richard Avedon retrospective in Amsterdam. Such incredible photos spanning 60 years – Dovima With the Elephants, a sad Marilyn, and Samuel Beckett at his most reptilian.

I liked the Che movies by Steven Soderbergh, loved Moonby Duncan Jones and am very excited about Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

On the telly (or more often the computer), I was loving The Wire, Mad Men, and dug out Twin Peaksfor its dancing-midget dreamy madness. And for a sap who would cry at The West Wing, the HBO feature By the People: The Election of Barack Obamawas a joy.

It was an honour to have Villagers on tour with us in Ireland and the UK – loving their work, looking forward to the album they’re currently making. I saw Willie Rogers and the Soul Stirrers at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. He sang A Change Gonna Come, and spoke about how he had sung it for Martin Luther King in the late 1960s, and again for the first black president of the United States in 2009 – very moving. Andrew Bird was on in the same venue, different room, in Birmingham, Alabama, and we got to see his support act, St Vincent. It was one of those great unexpected joys, having known nothing about her. I also had the pleasure of seeing Bon Iver a couple of times on our travels, whose Blood Bank EP I am still loving.


Chief executive officer of

Opera Theatre Company

In 2009, despite all the doom and gloom, the Irish arts remain vibrant and vital – but then when times are tough, artists seem to rise to the occasion.

Early in the year, as part of the Dublin Handel Festival, I was lucky enough to cram in, shoulder-to-shoulder in the hull of the Jeanie Johnston, to one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long, long time, Fishamble’s staged production of Joseph O’Connor’s RTÉ radio play from 2003, Handel’s Crossing. It had a fine cast, strong direction and the accessible quirkiness that was a feature of the Handel Festival, even though it was almost without a note of music!

Our opera colleagues fared well, with a fine crop of Irish singers involved in Opera Ireland’s concert version of Wagner’s Das Rheingold 140 years after its premiere in Munich, and the Wexford festival bringing over US composer John Corigliano and presenting his 1991 opera, The Ghosts of Versailles.

I was delighted by the vision of Guinness, which realised that 1759 didn’t only mean the anniversary of the black stuff but was also the year Handel passed away. The connection meant that Opera Theatre Company was able to present its Young Associate Artists in Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the Guinness Storehouse, a satisfying artistic and business collaboration.

Finally, and at almost the end of the year, there were two great and contrasting works of passion and art. Firstly, the fine tenor Robin Tritschler gave an intelligent and musical reading of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, ably partnered by John Ryan and the RTÉ string section, in good form under the baton of Patrik Ringborg. And then, in an excoriating and emotionally true exhibition, Padded Cell and Other Stories, Mannix Flynn continued his commentary on the darkness of the recent pain of institutional violence and child abuse. His integrity and courage, born of experience and a keen sense of justice, make this exhibition compelling. It continues at Adifferentkettleoffishaltogether, 18 Ormond Quay, Dublin 1.


Editor of the Stinging Fly

The supreme highlight of my cultural year was a handshake, but I’ll come back to that. We’ve just had our busiest year to date – in spite, or perhaps because of, all the doom and gloom around, it seems that more and more people are looking towards the arts, as participants and practitioners. We had more submissions than ever and more people coming to our events. I see it, too, in the success of nights such as the monthly Nighthawks events in the Cobalt Cafe, the Glór Sessions (weekly in the International Bar) and the Ó Bhéal poetry readings in Cork. There’s a sense of physical and intellectual space opening up again, which can be seen in the welcome arrival of a few new independent bookshops around Dublin.

The hand belonged to Alice Munro and I had the pleasure of shaking it when she came to Dublin to receive the Man Booker International Prize at Trinity College Dublin in July. I’ve loved her stories since I first came across them about 15 years ago, and it was wonderful to see her receiving this recognition. Her latest collection, Too Much Happiness, was always going to be one of my books of the year. Munro didn’t give a public reading as part of her visit to Dublin, which was a shame. My favourite readings of the year were by James Kelman at IADT, Dún Laoghaire, by Annie Proulx in Bantry at the West Cork Literary Festival and by the very special pairing of John Banville and Seamus Heaney for a benefit reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre last month.

Other highlights included the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival in Cork, Loose Cannon’s production of Anatomy of a Seagull at the Dublin Fringe Festival and the Homelights Festival in Whelan’s.


Pianist and artistic director, Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition

Without a doubt, the highlight of 2009 for me was the Leonard Cohen concert in the O2 in June. Not only was it my first time at a live Cohen experience, it was also my first time in the newly revamped venue, and what a success that is. The sound is fantastic, the stage seems close to all the seats and one has the excitement of a 6,000-seat venue along with the intimacy of a much smaller space. Every moment of the concert by the 74-year-old Cohen was memorable, his peerless stagecraft and charisma a lesson to all of us, not to mention the stunning voices of Sharon Robinson and “the sublime Webb Sisters”.

The performance had drama and continuity that was operatic in its intensity, and it was equalled by the singing of Wagner’s Das Rheingoldin the Opera Ireland production at the Gaiety Theatre in November. Definitely my operatic highlight of the year was the singing of Arnold Bezuyen as Loge. He regularly sings that role in Bayreuth, the centre of excellence for Wagner. I don’t think I have ever heard such good singing on the stage of the Gaiety. I wish every aspiring singer in Ireland had seen and heard him perform.

In January, Pan Pan Theatre presented the world premiere of its new play, The Crumb Trail, in New York, to critical acclaim, and Dublin audiences finally got to see it during the theatre festival in October. I’m not sure I fully got it, but it was an intriguing and thought-provoking look at life in the new internet world.

Mad Men was my favourite TV series of the year. I love the world it evokes, the cool ad executives and the fab 1950s dresses and hairdos flaunted by the girls.

I’m a big fan of William Trevor and his latest book, Love and Summer, conjures up haunting images of choices and their consequences, making for a memorable read.