Profile: John Concannon, Mr 1916

John Concannon has been appointed to run Ireland’s official 1916 commemorations. Among his challenges will be to ensure less of the ‘unhistorical sh*t’ that critics say has marked the project so far

Photograph: Alan Betson

Photograph: Alan Betson

 

John Concannon wasn’t even a twinkle in his mother’s eye when the 50th-anniversary celebration of the 1916 Rising, led by President Éamon de Valera, was marked by empty “special guest” seats in the reviewing stand at the GPO in Dublin.

The leaders of Fine Gael, Liam Cosgrave, and the Labour Party, Brendan Corish, didn’t receive invitations to the golden-jubilee military parade, prompting the Department of Defence to describe it as a “mess-up”. Out in the crowd, the Irish Times journalist Mary Maher recorded some people’s upset about a voice with a “curiously flat” and “mid-Atlantic” accent reading the 1916 Proclamation.

Concannon, the newly appointed director of the Government’s 2016 programme, is far too canny to mix up accents and invitations. But Fáilte Ireland’s 41-year-old director of market development may be feeling a mite apprehensive about what lies ahead after this week’s slightly turbulent unveiling of centenary plans: GPO windows hammered by anti-water-charge protesters, a boycott by some 1916 relatives, and a hostile social-media reaction to a “mood-setting” video.

“Turns out 1916 was actually about the Queen, Cameron, Facebook, Google, Twitter. An insight into establishment minds,” Paul Murphy TD, of the Dublin South-West Anti Austerity Alliance, tweeted in response to the 80-second video, which makes no mention of the executed 1916 leaders. The Fianna Fáil senator Thomas Byrne was similarly scathing.

Prof Diarmaid Ferriter of University College Dublin, who is one of the 11 academics appointed two years ago to the 2016 advisory committee, told The Irish Times that the video is “completely inappropriate” and “very corporate”. He fears that it may reflect the Government’s overall approach – an approach, he says, also reflected in the appointment of a marketing executive to head the project.

“We had warned against commercialisation and commodification, and a Gathering Mk II, but this is what this all smacks of,” Ferriter says. “Take the video, which we didn’t even see in the briefing we got – just two hours before the launch on Wednesday night. It’s embarrassing, unhistorical sh*t.

“There is no historical depth to it. Was Brian O’Driscoll really in the GPO in April 1916? One of the first words used in the video is ‘reconcile’, but 1916 was not about reconciliation. That’s the worst kind of contrivance – reading history backwards.”

Referring to the video’s images of Queen Elizabeth, the British prime minister, David Cameron, and Northern Ireland leaders, Ferriter says, “We also warned against trying to frame the peace process in the commemoration, given that, while it was wholly laudable, it is part of contemporary politics and not part of 1916 as it happened.”

Lost in translation

“ Knowing John, it won’t knock a feather out of him,” says one colleague, who believes Concannon’s secondment to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht – meaning the job wasn’t advertised – was an inspired move by Taoiseach Enda Kenny. His two-year appointment at assistant-secretary-general grade may, some observers say, ruffle feathers.

“Able”, “ambitious”, “talented”, “energetic” and “one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet” are some of the tributes paid to the Sligo-reared son of Galway and Mayo parents. One of his favourite Twitter hashtags is “positive Ireland”.

Concannon attended secondary school in St Jarlath’s College in Tuam and studied commerce at NUI Galway before taking a diploma in marketing and a master’s in business studies. He held marketing and brand-manager roles at Unilever and the footwear manufacturer Dubarry, and in 2004 he became chief executive of Ireland West Tourism, which merged with Fáilte Ireland two years later.

He was appointed the tourism authority’s director of market development in July 2006, and has been responsible for a budget currently worth €4 million a year.

One of his first successes was the Discover Ireland programme, which aimed to promote Ireland to the home market at a time when international tourism was declining. Three successful advertising campaigns marked out that project, with Concannon drawing on his passion for music in using Irish bands: The Laundry Shop, Heathers and The Riptide Movement.

In 2009 he was part of the team that hosted the first, highly successful Irish stopover on the Volvo around-the-world yacht race in Galway, a project in which Fáilte Ireland invested €8 million. He has also been supportive of Galway Arts Festival.

The tourism body put another €4 million into the second, less successful Volvo/Galway stopover, which is perceived to have overextended its reach and led to some unpaid bills locally. Concannon had no involvement by then, as he was was already chair of a project team assigned to reinvigorate the flagging market for British tourists. It effectively reversed a 15 per cent decline in visitors from across the water.

A father of three young girls, Concannon has invested much time in pro-bono work. He was a creator of Ashoka Ireland, which initiated Change Nation in March 2012, and chairman of Galway Age Friendly County Initiative, and is currently chairman of Gaisce, the President’s Award, and of the Cope Galway agency for the homeless and victims of domestic violence.

More? He won a marketer-of-the-year award in 2011 and was a joint finalist with Jim Miley for the same gong in 2013, for work on the Gathering project, which had a budget of €13.5 million over 18 months. Concannon has been credited with spearheading it, after it was announced at the Global Irish Forum at Farmleigh, in Dublin, in 2011.

Fáilte Ireland commissioned a review of the Gathering in early 2012 to assist with an operations plan. A project-director post was put out to tender on the back of that, and Miley, former general secretary of Fine Gael, cofounder and former chief executive of the property website myhome.ie (and now with this newspaper), was appointed in May 2012.

“Effectively, Miley was sent in to . . . ensure it was engaging at grassroots level, because John is more of a concepts guy, who isn’t so good on the practical aspects,” one observer close to that project says.

“Like so many ideas people, he needs a good team around him,” says another colleague.

Inspire and engage

Heather Humphreys

He had been working on his ideas since the Gathering. About six weeks ago he was invited to address an informal group from the Cabinet, to whom he presented his “Ireland Inspires” hashtag of five “intersecting themes”: “remember, reconcile, imagine, present and celebrate”.

Before his posting was announced, Concannon secured the support of his alma mater, NUI Galway, for office space in the west – complementing his office in Dublin. Several weeks ago he gave briefings to the main media outlets, including this and other national newspapers, RTÉ and TV3, and was introduced to the advisory committee, chaired by the NUI chancellor, Dr Maurice Manning, just this week.

The initial €26 million budget comprises €4 million for 2015 and €22 million for a series of seven “flagship” projects, including an interpretative centre at the GPO, refurbishment of Richmond Barracks, where the 1916 rising leaders were held after their surrender, and Patrick Pearse’s cottage in Rosmuc, Connemara. The Arts Council may also receive a special budget to run a dedicated programme of events.

There are severe misgivings in arts and heritage circles that this expenditure takes place at a time when the National Museum of Ireland and the National Library of Ireland have had budgets slashed. Humphreys hasn’t ruled out private sponsorship for the commemoration in certain circumstances, and is only now promising extensive county-by-county consultation, which Concannon will lead.

“There will be the suspicion that the plan has already been laid, and that it’s about ticking boxes – as it was with our briefing on Wednesday night,” says Ferriter.

“John is capable enough, optimistic enough, for anything,” says another colleague. “The challenge for him is that 1916 is not just anything – it’s complex, sensitive and very political” – and one that caught even de Valera on the hop with those “lost in the post” invitations almost half a century ago.

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