How Charlie came to be painted as a man of the arts


CultureShock:For the arts in Ireland over the past 40 years, Charles Haughey's presence is almost as unsettling as it is for Irish politics

When Edward McGuire was painting his series of portraits of Charles Haughey, he was living in a remote part of Wicklow. Knowing that Haughey was coming for a sitting, he asked the famously extravagant politician to stop at the post office and collect a telegram that was waiting for him. When Haughey arrived at the painter's door, his cheery greeting was "You owe me 2/6" - the cost of the telegram. Charles Haughey's patronage of the arts - the subject of the first film in the new series of RTÉ's fine Arts Lives documentary strand - had its limits. Whatever Irish art got from him, it paid back with interest.

For the arts in Ireland over the last 40 years, Charles Haughey's presence is almost as unsettling as it is for Irish politics. As someone who long regarded Haughey as a pernicious fraud, I have always been haunted by the evening in October 1991, when the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing was being launched. Walking into Newman House in Dublin, late as usual, I almost literally bumped into four men. Three of them - the Field Day directors Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, and Seamus Deane - are great writers, committed in their work to the hard search for emotional and intellectual exactitude. The fourth was Charles Haughey, whom they had chosen to launch the book and who is flattered in it by Seamus Deane as a man who "skilfully combines de Valera's meticulously crafted republicanism with Seán Lemass's best possible blend of cosmopolitan modernity and ancestral loyalty for present-day Ireland".

It struck me at the time that, for all the prevalent notion of Haughey as a supporter of the arts, the reality was more the other way around. Haughey gained stature from the association; the artists were diminished by it. Nothing, perhaps, said more about the marginalised position of the arts in Ireland than the sheer gratitude of artists that a powerful man should seem to care about them at all. In a political culture with a deep and wide seam of philistinism at its core, Haughey's propensity to read some books and look at some paintings evoked an almost pitiful sense of indebtedness. But did it also buy a certain silence? Haughey's sympathy for artists was undoubtedly real. The tax exemption scheme he introduced as minister for finance was an imaginative gesture. His support for the establishment of Aosdána and for the creation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art showed that artistic concerns at least had a place on his agenda. But, in real terms, that support was minimal.

It is now forgotten that in 1968 he announced in the Dáil that "a careful study of the problem" had led him to conclude that there should be three arts councils and that he was going to "make reasonably adequate funds available to ensure that their work will be effective". He simply forgot the plan and at no time, either as minister for finance or as taoiseach, did he ever provide anything approximating "reasonably adequate funds" for the arts. He axed the Film Board in 1987. His longest period in office as taoiseach in the early 1990s was characterised by empty promises. In 1991, he committed himself to a funding level of £12-£13 million for the Arts Council. In 1992, the council was stunned to get exactly the same funding as the previous year (£4.9 million from the State) - in effect a cutback. Grand gestures and photo opportunities were always more important to Haughey than actual delivery.

And in return, Haughey got a touch of class and an air of mystery - both useful assets for a cynical crook. In 1972, his long speech on "Art and the Majority", delivered at Harvard and written by the poet Anthony Cronin, won plaudits that were invaluable to a politician who was then, after the Arms Trial, in disgrace.

Did his much-vaunted patronage of the arts also contribute to the general failure of Irish artists to function as any kind of national conscience during the Haughey era? There may be no simple answer to the question, and certainly the Arts Lives film doesn't provide one. Irish art, in spite of Swift, lacks a satiric language. Some attempts to portray Haughey - Hugh Leonard's kill, Sebastian Barry's Hinterland, Peter Cunningham's The Taoiseach - fudged the issue by calling him by some other name and got bogged down in the no-man's-land between fact and fiction.

What is certainly true, though, is that there was no concerted artistic effort to solve these formal problems. No one tried too hard.

It is ironic, indeed, that the truest artistic representation of Haughey is what was meant to be a flattering one, commissioned by Haughey himself from Robert Ballagh. The portrait, Charles Haughey - The Decade of Endeavour, hung in the Boss's own study. But its image of a tiny Haughey in front of a huge photograph of himself now has an air of the little Wizard of Oz meeting from the machine through which he projected his giant, godlike presence. In it, the cowardly lions of Irish art, albeit accidentally and retrospect, get some courage.

Charlie Haughey: Patronising the Arts, the first documentary in RTÉ1's new Arts Lives series, is on Tue at 10.15pm. Other subjects in the series include Michael Colgan, Donal Lunny, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Jinx Lennon, popular fiction, landscape painters, Fergus Bourke, Sheila Wingfield , Eileen Gray, Paul Durcan and Thomas Lynch