President Michael D Higgins was among those who gathered on Thursday to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Place of the Arts in Irish Education, a seminal report written by Prof Ciarán Benson.
Mr Higgins praised the report, more widely known as the Benson Report, as “a groundbreaking moment in Irish arts and cultural policy” and “a radical foundation document, which examined the position of the arts in Irish education”.
He said the report served as “the first blueprint for the arts in Irish education” and challenged “any limiting or exclusive conception of the arts”.
The President said Prof Benson was influential as a policymaker, critic and curator. “His contribution to the creative dimension of Irish society has been a significant one, and there can be no doubt that his vision and his practice have made a deep and lasting impact on the cultural landscape of Ireland, for which we must all be grateful.”
Seamus would have been amazed 40 years ago to realise we would be talking about this in a theatre named after him
The event, organised by Encountering the Arts Ireland, took place in the Seamus Heaney Lecture Theatre at DCU’s St Patrick’s Campus and heard a lecture from Prof Benson entitled Time, Vocabulary & Art’s Thoughtful Uses of Feeling.
Introducing his lecture, he noted that the setting was fitting as Heaney had served on the expert advisory group for the Benson Report.
“Seamus would have been amazed 40 years ago to realise we would be talking about this in a theatre named after him,” he said.
Prof Benson said that upon learning that the Government was preparing a White Paper on education development, he decided to complete a report within one year in an effort to influence the content of the White Paper.
“We did influence it in that there is a whole chapter on the arts effectively saying there was no demand in that area,” he said.
Later, he spoke on the “hidden semiotics” of the cover of the report.
“It’s colours were those of the Christian Brothers school I went to where the word ‘art’ was rarely if ever mentioned in all my years there,” he said.
“But most of all, it referenced the iconic cover of Pink Floyd’s great album The Dark Side of the Moon and the idea that that might have been the place where the arts in Irish education had been hiding, only to emerge into the light.”
Tributes were also paid to the late Prof John Coolahan, a pivotal figure in Irish education policy, who died last year. He was also a member of the advisory group.
Mr Higgins remembered Coolahan as “an inspirational figure in the movement for the right of every child to have access to arts and culture”.