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Diarmaid Ferriter: How can you be Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and Gaeltacht?

The arts have long been starved of funding and given a minor role in government policy

How on earth can you be Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht? As a coalition of briefs within a coalition Government, under one Government Minister, Catherine Martin, this new department is surely indicative of both farce and folly in the administration and governance of vital areas of Irish life and society.

Interviewing Martin on RTÉ earlier this week, Bryan Dobson said, "Let's talk about some of your responsibilities – we're not going to be able to get to them all."

In response to the question as to whether her “portfolio” is manageable, Martin replied, “They are all very connected. Our culture and sporting life and our rich national language are all what defines us.”

But she also pointed out that the challenges in all these areas are at “crisis level”. This makes the decision to concoct such a flabby department all the more ridiculous.


Given that arts is now third in the list of the new department's responsibilities, what does that imply?

In May 2016 Heather Humphreys was named as minister for regional development, rural affairs, arts and the Gaeltacht; three months later she had to announce that the name of her reconfigured department would be changed to the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, having been forced to reject claims her new range of departmental responsibilities represented a downgrading of the arts in the government's priorities. Placing "arts" at the start of the title, Humphreys suggested, "reflects the fact that the arts division accounts for the biggest portion of my department's budget."

Given that arts is now third in the list of the new department’s responsibilities, what does that imply? And what will the implications be for funding given the scale of the current and future challenges facing the arts sector?

Healing power

It took 70 years for the State to bring arts formally into cabinet when Michael D Higgins was appointed minster for arts, heritage and the Gaeltacht in 1993. At that time, Higgins was quick to refer to the healing power of arts, arguing that an economic system that had excluded many citizens from vital necessities like housing had also excluded them "from their own dreams and imaginations".

It was finally a central concern of government, and he stressed the importance of "having a policy generated by a coherent philosophy of culture". This was all the more important because of historic neglect. When, at the request of taoiseach John A Costello, Thomas Bodkin, the former director of the National Gallery, wrote a report on the arts, which led to the creation of the Arts Council in 1951, he concluded bleakly: "No civilised nation of modern times has neglected arts to the extent that we have during the past 50 years."

The Arts Council was duly established but was starved. While, over the decades, politicians were frequently content to articulate the idea there could be no nationality without arts – equivalent to the assertion by Britain’s current culture secretary that the arts represent the “soul of the nation”– it was not remotely a political priority.

This was despite the embrace of the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to WB Yeats in 1923 as, in his words, "part of Europe's welcome to the Free State". But, as Yeats's contemporary Oliver Gogarty pointed out when congratulating Yeats, "our civilisation will be assessed on the name of Senator Yeats" and his achievements were also valuable because "on no occasion has he ever written tawdry poetry in order to make his purse heavier". Indeed, Yeats's reaction to the announcement of the prize was reputedly "how much is it?" on a night when he dined on fried sausages.


A report commissioned by the current Arts Council has suggested that in the absence of proper, sustained funding, the recession could see a hit in the arts sector as high as 42 per cent compared to 11 per cent in the economy as a whole. Separately, last month President Higgins wrote to the European Parliament to stress the emergency in the cultural sphere in terms of income, venues, public access, participation and, by extension, social cohesion and fulfilment.

The whole sector also needs its status and welfare to be at the heart of government

“Is it not now the time to place access to culture among the necessary infrastructural spending and investment in provisions for universal basic services? Surely, it cannot be beyond us to bring into being a system of support and solidarity for artists, from the emerging to the established?”

The artist in Ireland has been too often left, in the words of the late poet John Montague, with “a kind of self-conscious isolated bravado, in the invidious position of spiritual director to the intelligentsia”. This is an even starker image now as a result of the pandemic given the impossibility of live performance in front of physical audiences and the difficulty of achieving fair pay for artists performing online.

But the whole sector also needs its status and welfare to be at the heart of government rather than lying in the middle of a new, six-pronged departmental fork.