'What's really important is what happens next year . . . and after'

 

The return of James Barry, Sol Picó's dance spectacular, Serbian music - as Cork's year as capital of culture closes tonight, Arminta Wallace hears what made it so special.

What, then, did work well? Irish Times reviewers found much to enthuse about as the months passed. Mary Leland described Corcadorca's Relocation promenade production of The Merchant of Venice, staged at three separate locations in the city, as "a triumph for Corcadorca and for the co-operative civic administration" and "a marvellous experience for Cork". Fintan O'Toole praised the "complete control" of actor Ed Harris in Neil LaBute's Wrecks, with its "beautifully spare and elegantly constructed syntax". And Michael Dervan was impressed by the ensembles at the biggest classical quartet festival this country has ever witnessed, European Quartet Week. "If there were some latter-day patron wanting to hire a string quartet, which one would I recommend?" he wrote.

"I could point to the Vanbrughs for their Boccherini, the Lindsays for their treasurable moments in Haydn, the Tokyos for their well-mannered savoir-faire, the Debussys for their insightful treatment of French repertoire, the Callinos for dispensing with a wealth of well-worn mannerisms, the ConTempos for their free-spirited adventurousness. But the quartet I would nominate is . . . the Quarteto Casals from Spain . . ."

So much for "special" events which would not have happened without the support of Cork 2005. It was a good year, too, for the "normal" festivals in Cork, particularly the Guinness Jazz Festival, which Ray Comiskey summed up as "one of the finest festivals of recent years, and arguably one of the best ever" - an example of how a Capital of Culture programme can give added impetus to local arts events or help established organisations. Nuala Fenton of the Fenton Art Gallery observes "from a business perspective it gave us the momentum to programme particularly high levels of exhibitions which, in turn, gave us a bigger audience than we had before. So our experience has been hugely positive."

"From a wider point of view," she says, "what disappointed me most was that, over the course of the year, constructive criticism or debate didn't seem to be welcomed. This should have been an opportunity for the city to grow through self-examination and experiment."

On the subject of creative co-operation, Tom Dunne of Cork University Press had very positive experiences of working with Cork 2005 on publishing. As a punter, he enjoyed the music and dance strands of the programme, singling out for special praise the Opera 2005 events, the performance of the Monteverdi Vespers - and the knitting map. "It's almost a daft thing. It has gone on all year and involved a huge number of people - an imaginative answer to those who said, 'Well, okay, what can we do to mark the year?'"

Aine Hyland, UCC vice president, says "I think what worked very well was the way in which all kinds of community groups, art groups and individuals did their own thing - in spite of some tensions and a lack of pulling together in some quarters, there was great morale among ordinary people. Here in the university we were a little worried there might be so many activities in Cork during the year that audiences would be stretched out very thinly, but in fact it worked the opposite way - things were very well attended. For me personally An Leabhair Mor, the Irish and Scottish visual art exhibition, was a highlight - as was the Youth Encounter, in UCC during the summer, which featured young drama students from all over Europe. I was also involved in a project with 40 schools in disadvantaged areas - we call them Bridging the Gap schools - which produced a wonderful anthology of work by young people called Connections.

"The city manager, Joe Gavin, was the hero of the year - in a quiet, reliable way he held things together whenever they looked as though they might fall apart. The Cork 2005 committee was a bit invisible - I hardly met the formal organisers at all - but people just go on with things, and it worked. Martin Barrett's big public events, such as the opening ceremony and the Solas events at the end of the year, also worked very well. All in all, what it showed was that you didn't always need big money to have success."

PAT COTTER OF the Munster Literature Centre cites the World Writers' Series, the Frank O'Connor short story competition and World Book Day as evidence of a "very strong" literary programme at Cork 2005. "In a programme like this, literature often gets forgotten about - which, in the context of Ireland, in particular, would have been a great pity. I think the reason for that was that Cork 2005 had a poet as deputy director. If you compare it with the programme planned for Patras next year - which seems to consist mostly of people reading dead poets to live music - it puts it in perspective." Cotter would have liked more emphasis on the Irish language, but considering the small size of the budget, the overall performance at Cork 2005 was impressive. "There were a lot of workshops for people from deprived areas of the city - I tutored one of those - and although they may have erred a bit earlier in the year when it came to the communications side of things, let's face it, the information was plastered all over the place. If people are interested in the arts, they'll find out about arts events. A lot of people simply aren't interested."

"All my life I've heard 'JamesBarrythepainter' - all one word - touted as a kind of talisman of Cork's cultural heritage," says poet Theo Dorgan. "But we had never seen his work. And to see it all gathered in one place - it was like you'd been picking up nuggets of silver for years, and then somebody takes a shovel and starts digging, and you discover there's a whole vein of silver there. To be reminded so vividly that this, also, is part of your heritage will, I think, have a profound psychic effect on the life of the city."

He also points to the literary programme, in particular the translation programme, as having made a significant long-term contribution. "I think we have become prisoners in the English language on this island. Even 30 years ago there was far more contemporary European literature available in translation in Ireland and Britain than there is now. Politically this was very interesting, because it opened up connections to the cultural apparatus of all the accession states as well as stretching out a hand to the writing communities in those states - but also, it was a series of 12 books. No publisher in these islands has done a series of 12 books in translation this year; certainly not in poetry."

The programmers, for their part, are reluctant to single out particular events or projects. "In devising the programme as a process, rather than a series of discrete events, we decided to take quite a lot of risks," says Cork 2005's deputy director and director of programme development Mary McCarthy. "If you consider the John Berger/Marisa Camino drawings, and Tacita Deane's film about the sisters at the Presentation Convent, those artists were invited to Cork to have a look at the city and to make a creative response to it. Two fantastic projects resulted from that - but looking back, we took risks, not only with the type of artists involved but also in inviting people into a process rather than buying existing work or buying in standard programming."

Tom McCarthy, assistant director of Cork 2005, says he's dedicated to memory rather than debate. "It has been a magic year," he says. "I was listening to somebody on the radio the other day, and he said something like 30 or 40 magic moments had happened for him - and I thought, 'What an extraordinary number of magic moments that is, even in one year!' For me there were even more than that; but of course it's very subjective. There were so many highlights, whether it's that fantastic boat race or Music Migrations, where we brought music from Serbia and Spain and America and Ireland and the UK.

"For me," says Cork 2005's director of community-based projects Tony Sheehan, "it was the level of meaningful participation in the making of culture. We did over 40 projects in hospitals and day-care centres; we did 20 community residencies where artists worked with local residents for six months; we broadcast a week of community television where people all over the city got to make their own TV programmes. One group which really seized the year is one for whom culture is a critical issue, and that's the Travelling Community. They built their own barrel-top, which now sits in the city museum - a monument, not only to the year, but to their culture."

WHAT, IF ANYTHING, will be the lasting effect of all the razzmatazz? One encouraging sign is to be found in Cork City Council's draft budget for 2006, which contains a hefty increase in arts funding as well as a commitment to continue the Frank O'Connor short story award, and to take a lease on the Cork 2005 office space, which will continue as a festivals office.

"The notion of what can continue is very important," says Mick Hannigan, the director of the Cork Film Festival. "Cork City Council held a series of public meetings throughout the year, with fantastic speakers whose ideas are very relevant to the cultural and psychological life of a city in the 21st century. A lot of that debate permeated WMC?, and I hope that continues."

On the question of legacy, Theo Dorgan says it's a little early to tell. "People are all cultured out at the moment. But what will be interesting to see - in five years' time - is whether there are young writers and young painters and young musicians and young actors coming through whose imaginations were seized this year. Will there be a sea change in the way the business community sees its responsibilities and opportunities in the area of culture? What will come out of the gardening project - a necklace of community gardens developed around the city? That there were mixed results - that some things failed, and some things succeeded gloriously - is how things always are. Nobody can ever really explain why this happens; culture is full of trapdoors and sudden stairways. That's just the way it is.

"But the really important thing is it was a year. A year in the life of a city that has been there since the year 800. And next year will be another year; and what's really important is what happens next year. And at the end of next year what's important will be what happens the year after."