What did the recession do for us? It made Vincent Browne a star
The Crash – 10 years on: Where is the art of the recession? Try books and theatre, music and plenty of satirical mayhem
Members of the cast of Anglo The Musical during rehersals. Photograph: Alan Betson
The most common question asked by cultural commentators during the recession, was “Where is the art of the recession?” It became a journalistic cliche. So here’s a broad-strokes, not-exhaustive guide to how we culturally digested the crisis as it was happening.
Canaries in the cultural coal mine: Room to Improve, Prosperity, U2
A handful of cultural phenomena seemed to pre-empt the recession. There were a spate of fretful RTÉ documentaries hosted by Matt Cooper, David McWilliams and Richard Curran. You could possibly argue that the first series of Room to Improve in 2007, with its window-filled conservatories and kitchen extensions, was a harbinger of doom. In fiction, Mark O’Halloran and Lenny Abrahamson’s TV drama Prosperity beautifully poked into the cracks in the nation’s self-image and Paul Howard seemed quite prescient with his Ross O’Carroll Kelly play The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger. “The truth is I had no idea,” he says. “It was just meant to get a reaction from people.”
Howard says another turning point, culturally, was U2’s move to get their tax operations to the Netherlands in 2006 in the wake of the government capping the tax exemption scheme for artists.
That was a defining cultural event of the noughties? He laughs. “Yes.”
Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, in Howard’s unfortunate but probably deliberate choice of words, “straddles the Celtic Tiger”. The fictional south Dublin rugby king was originally conceived as a way to skewer boom-time entitlement and wealth but, by 2007, Howard felt tapped out. “I felt I’d done everything I could with Ross . . . But, in the autumn of 2008, when it started to unravel, I thought he was interesting again . . . [Ross’s recurring love interest] Sorcha had a shop in the Powerscourt Town House Centre and during the credit crunch it closes down and reopens as a euro store. I wrote that in response to the estate agent under the Penguin offices becoming a euro store.”
There were other writers who touched on the downturn as it unfolded, including Anne Enright, Julian Gough, Donal Ryan and Chris Binchy, but many chose not to, at least at the time. Howard notes that this is partly because of the slow nature of the novel (“having a weekly column allowed me respond quickly”) and partly because our writers have a tendency to look backwards.
But he also thinks that “[a lot of writers and artists] never really dealt with the Celtic Tiger in the first place. I think [that’s because] most of our writers and artists come from the middle class. [The Celtic Tiger] didn’t strike them as extraordinary . . . I found the indebtedness incredibly odd and worrying, being working class and growing up at a time when money was so scarce. I don’t know – if I’d grown up middle class maybe I wouldn’t have noticed the shift.”
The Four Angry Men and an explanatory publishing boom
For 10 minutes there, journalism looked like the new rock’n’roll, with Matt Cooper, Shane Ross, Pat Leahy and Fintan O’Toole speechifying to thousand-seater venues as The Four Angry Men.
There was a plethora of angry explanatory books of journalism at the time (“They take up two feet of my bookshelf all those books,” says Paul Howard). Matt Cooper’s book Who Really Runs Ireland? was conceived before the crash but, Cooper says, “it was fortuitous in its timing because by 2009 people wanted to know what the hell was happening. I met taxi drivers who had it in the front seat . . . John Corcoran from Korky’s Shoes had it displayed in his shop along with the shoes. He was having rows with landlords.”
How did the tour happen? “It was devised by Michael McLoughlin [from Penguin Ireland] as a book promotional tour really,” he says (all but O’Toole were on Penguin). “But the people attending were trying to hoover up information and wanted to know who was responsible but I also got the sense in retrospect that what they were looking for was someone to take control of the situation, a restoration of some order in an entirely disrupted world.”
There was a lot of anger, says Cooper, and occasionally the panellists themselves would be lacerated by audience members. “You could get the buzz coming off the audience. But they weren’t the type of people who would rise up and take pitchforks to Leinster House afterwards . . . You could describe this, to an extent, as an early middle-class revolt compared with the more working-class Irish Water revolt later.”
Over time the anger subsided, he says, to the point where his radio audience was tired of the subject. “But it was a car crash in slow motion across those years.”
Actual protest singers
“During the recession our protest singers were people like Fintan O’Toole and David McWilliams,” says Paul Howard, but it’s also worth pointing out the existence of some excellent recessionary-themed music produced by musicians such as Temperamental Misselayneous, Barry McCormack, Land Lovers, Messiah J and the Expert, and Jinx Lennon.
This writer even attempted to put together a “recession sessions” series on The Irish Times website in 2013 just in time for us to officially leave the recession that September.
Tonight with Vincent Browne
No listicle about recessionary culture would be complete without a mention of this apocalyptic panel show. Right through the recessionary-era, Browne oversaw a refreshingly avant-garde no-holds-barred theatre of hate on TV3. People who hadn’t watched the news for a decade would tune in every night to see Browne disembowel inept government lackeys against a blood-red set.
Anglo the Musical
“Anglo the Musical is my Vietnam,” says Paul Howard. “I think one reason artists steered clear of dealing with the recession is because people just didn’t have an appetite for it.”
A musical puppet show written by Howard in collaboration with Darren Smith, Colm Tobin and Johnny Morrisson, Anglo the Musical was a troubled endeavour. It was complicated by the need to do last-minute rewrites because court proceedings were under way. “Suddenly we were on the defensive,” says Howard. “It stopped being about ‘What do we want to say?’ and suddenly it was ‘What are we legally entitled to say?’”
They were also, he thinks, “about five years too early . . . People weren’t ready to laugh. People weren’t going to theatre, they were going to Bank of Ireland shareholder meetings and the Four Angry Men tour . . . And I forgot that people who go see a musical want to leave in better form than when they arrived. Anglo the Musical ended with the Anglo boys beating the Sean Fitzpatrick character to death with golf clubs.”
Guaranteed and Bailed Out
Colin Murphy’s two plays Guaranteed and Bailed Out, both later turned into films The Guarantee and The Bailout (airing soon on TV3), fared better than Anglo the Musical.
His plays were hybrid forms of drama and documentary, staged by Fishamble, based on Murphy’s rigorous research. “My riff in my theatre column in the Irish Indo was ‘Where are the plays about the crisis? Why aren’t the dramatists responding to this story?’ [When I did Guaranteed] I thought I was coming to the subject too late. It sounds like a play – 12 Angry Men or something – men locked in a room where they have to make a decision.”
Why does he think no one else tackled such subjects theatrically? Murphy mentions, as a noble exception, the work of the theatrical collective Theatreclub but goes on to say, “The Brits and Americans love their politics of state on stage. [In Irish theatre] you get very fundamental critiques of Irish politics but seen through broken homes and broken communities. It’s like there’s a distancing from formal politics in Irish drama traditionally. You can make post-colonial arguments – Irish people have never felt proper ownership of the State . . . but I have an idea that the localism of Irish politics possibly defeats the politics of state . . . There isn’t any pomp. You can bump into a minister at the shopping centre.”
The response to Guaranteed, Murphy says, was visceral. “The audience were just really hungry for it- and were literally leaning in in their seats. With Bailed Out [about the bailout two years later] we got a great response but we didn’t tap that public vein. It wasn’t as neat.”
By then, he thinks, the public mood had already shifted. “It was already a period piece.”
Again the public wanted information with their art. At the first comedy and economics festival, Kilkenomics, in 2010, co-founder Richard Cook told me at this year’s event, “it felt like the audience were there looking for answers . . . In the first year the titles of the talks were urgent and dramatic, Are We Leaving the Euro?, Are Our Banks Collapsing?”
There was a mini satire boom during the recession. The best comedic response to the bailout came from a Fianna Fáil-skewering Après Match sketch on the Late Late Show in 2010.
Impressionists such as Oliver Callan found their teeth, and shows such as The Savage Eye, though not specifically about the economy, showed a level of rage that was inconceivable previously.
Paul Howard was part of the writing team on Irish Pictorial Weekly, which started in 2012 in the time of the troika and was headed up by comedic absurdist Barry Murphy. “There was a righteous anger to it,” he says. “When we were writing sketches if your rage dropped [Barry Murphy] made sure you built it back up . . .
“Pictorial was about 70 per cent comedy and 30 per cent journalism. He had journalists working for the show who would provide him with stats. He’d play the Bosco theme tune with the total pensions of politicians and senior civil servants running across the screen. I think people felt like they had to watch it.”
The growth of art spaces and grassroots art collectives
There was an explosion of grassroots responses to the downturn that didn’t quite reach the national consciousness. This was most evident in Dublin in the rise of various studio, art and theatre spaces, like Block T, the Exchange, Moxie Studios and The Complex.
The Complex, a performance space currently based on Little Green Street in Dublin, began life in 2009 with a short-term tenancy at a Paddy Kelly-owned property in Smithfield until Nama moved them on in 2012.
“I was directing a show [there] called Complexity,” says the director Vanessa Fielding. “We were looking around to give the keys back and we noticed that Chris [Paddy Kelly’s son] didn’t seem to be as available as he had been. He asked us would we stay on . . . and then for a number of years it wasn’t really obvious who the owner was. Was it Anglo Irish Bank? Was it the receivers?” Did they benefit from the ambiguity? “I suppose we did for a while.”
At The Complex they hosted excellent work from the art collective Upstart, the story-telling troupe Milk and Cookies, the carnivalesque aerialists Paperdolls and the clowning theatre company Barabbas. But Fielding is wary of overselling the creativity of the time. “It would have been more exciting if the country had had money to give to the theatre-makers and artists. Yes, emerging artists were able to kick out a bit . . . but some of the professionals who were mid-career didn’t have the [financial] support to take them to the next bracket in their career and they got stuck. I think there was a lot of fear too . . . People were scared to rock the boat in case they capsized it.”
Post-recessionary art and culture
What was unspoken about that era was arguably gestating in the minds of a new generation of writers like Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume and Colin Barrett who mined the recessionary hangover for their material. David Monahan’s photographic book of Irish emigrants emerged in 2014 and the folk band Lankum have also written some great songs about those cold old days. Maybe all that recessionary drama needed time before it could emerge. We’re probably digesting it all still.
Lisa McInerney says she was inspired by what was happening.
“When the recession hit it – very weirdly – felt like there was opportunity to take risks again,” she tells me via email. What harm could it do when the country was banjaxed anyway? I threw myself into writing: opeds, pop culture pieces for websites, features in local papers and, in the background, my fiction.
“Would I have felt as emboldened to write if we weren’t in recession? I don’t think so – I think I’d have felt obliged to the ‘career/mortgage/two cars’ ideal . . . the themes of my novels and many of my short stories very much came out of my sense of oddly fond disillusionment with boom-bust Ireland.
“A country that’s had to redefine itself twice in two decades is a fascinating setting, isn’t it?”