Culture celebration proves we're still rich in many ways
Carnival atmosphere took over our towns and cities last night, writes Mark Hilliard
PERHAPS as a nation we are financially strained, but we will never be culturally bankrupt. Not even close.
Last night, as the sounds of drums and carnivals echoed around Irish towns and cities, as art and entertainment crossed paths with a greater public, we were reminded that not everything in life comes at a price.
In fact, as Culture Night 2011 was eager to point out, sometimes the best things really are free.
This event has come a long way since its 2006 launch when 40 Dublin venues opened their doors to give people a 'no charge' glimpse of the artistic side of Irish life.
Last night that had expanded to 30 regions across the country -- from individual cities to entire counties inclusive of their towns -- and involved half-a-million people.
Whether searching for a fix of art or photography, a snippet of dance, theatre, singing or writing, or any variation of the above, every corner in Ireland brought its own little surprise.
"As well as bringing communities out to experience culture it also brings them together," said Dermot McLaughlin, CEO of the Temple Bar Cultural Trust, the organisers of the night.
"If you look at the way it has developed outside the main urban areas into the regions it's very interesting; you have towns and other areas that all want to do their own thing."
It is contagious and it demonstrates all the symptoms of an island community desperate to share its wealth where all we have spoken about is poverty.
For Dublin alone, Culture Night 2011 was expected to generate about €2m for the economy, a fine boast given that everything is free.
In the capital, while shows and demonstrations, talks and lectures, readings and exhibitions expanded across the city, everything centred on Temple Bar where tourists wandered around dazed by the bright lights and laughter of the evening.
"There are huge amounts of people, hundreds just passing through," said artist Mo Levy, standing at the door of the Black Church Print Studio.
"I think people are just interested in what is going on. Because of the recession they are delighted to just get out and see what is going on around the place.
"People have to look at alternative ways to entertain themselves."
Dublin Bus got in on the act, shipping people around as the capital became swamped by those with a new eye for the high life.
Here, there were 156 listed events alone. Diverse venues jumped out from the pages of glossy brochures -- from Kilmainham Gaol to the Tailor's Hall; the Gate Theatre to the Design Tower.
In Dublin Castle, tourists and locals gathered around an open-air performance of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet'.
On South Frederick Street, the Doorway Gallery closed off half the road for their marquee enchanted forest where people were invited to partake in life drawing classes of the bizarre -- punk-burlesque models danced around and cup cakes or shots were awarded to the finest visiting artists.
"It's a great idea, especially for a family," said Peter Collins, who was enjoying the free events with his daughters Olivia (8), Jennifer (6) and Laura (2).
After a history tour of the GPO, they enjoyed a puppet show in the nearby Ark Cultural Centre for Children.
"There are lots of things for kids to do; they see a lot of TV at home so it's great to bring them in and show them a history of the city.
"But it is a great mix because adults can come in and look at the museums."
In Cork, free transport ferried the public to a choice of 70 venues where further free tastes of cultural Ireland awaited them.
Amongst the highlights were a special classical concert for families in Cork's Millenium Hall and free tours of City Hall personally conducted by Lord Mayor Terry Shannon.
Other events include a 'secret' concert by musician Julie Feeney; film screenings at Ireland's tallest cinema -- the 17-storey Cork County Hall -- historical walks around the city centre and a traditional music extravaganza staged in nine different pubs and clubs.
"What I love about Culture Night is that it is a real opening-of-doors event. It is all about looking at Cork in a different way," said organiser Evelyn Grant.
Participation in the Rebel County -- where more than 30 towns and villages joined in -- was expected to double from the 20,000 participants in 2009.
Ask Limerick for culture and it will show you rugby -- Thomand Park's hallowed museum played centre stage to the city's festivities.
Local band 'Hermitage Green' -- whose members include Irish rugby stars Felix Jones and Barry Murphy -- played the city's Milk Market along with talented musician Eoin Coughlan.
Elsewhere, those lucky enough to make their way to Limerick City Gallery of Art were provided with a sneak preview of the newly built Carnegie Building which will open soon.
A tour of the city's historic walls and King John's Castle was also a popular choice.
Theme parades snaked their way through the streets of Belfast, Seamus O'Rourke's play 'Ride On' was premiered in Cavan, while even our presidential candidates couldn't help themselves -- Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher, Michael D Higgins and Gay Mitchell held their first public debate, even if it was on the importance of art and culture. For one night at least, we all forgot about politics.