Sunday 25 September 2016

No outrage in Dail as we sell our heritage

Emer O'Kelly wonders at the official silence as our world-renowned arts drown in a sea of debt and neglect

Emer O'Kelly

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

We have individual cultural icons as well: James Joyce, (pictured) the father of modern literature in the English language, and WB Yeats, one of the 20th century's most admired international poets. Their names are known even to those who can't quote a line of their work
We have individual cultural icons as well: James Joyce, (pictured) the father of modern literature in the English language, and WB Yeats, one of the 20th century's most admired international poets. Their names are known even to those who can't quote a line of their work

Ten million euros' worth of our heritage will go on sale at Christie's in London in July, apparently because we can't afford to keep it.

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An international piano competition for young artists, known across the piano world, may well disappear after more than a quarter of a century due to lack of funding.

And on the ninth anniversary of the death of John McGahern, one of our most revered writers, there will, for the first time, be no cultural event to mark the anniversary. That's just in one month. But who cares? We are getting back to being "the best little country in the world to do business in".

For the rest, we are known around the world for scurrilous, unregulated banking dealings; for a societal structure that allowed the rape of children by hundreds, if not thousands, of publicly respected religious figures; and for more than 30 years of brutal terror imposed by a subversive "army" claiming to be the inheritor of the founding tradition of our State.

But there are other things for which we are known around the world. We have three cultural institutions with worldwide recognition: the Abbey Theatre, Wexford Festival Opera and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). All of them are struggling. All three are regular recipients of brickbats on their home territory.

We have individual cultural icons as well: James Joyce, the father of modern literature in the English language, and WB Yeats, one of the 20th century's most admired international poets. Their names are known even to those who can't quote a line of their work.

But when was even one art form, particularly in fine arts, mentioned in either house of the Oireachtas? Of course, when the politicians go abroad, their speechwriters trawl a bit of "litherachure" (usually Seamus Heaney) for a quotation. At the same time, they hope that nobody at home thinks they're a bit of a big girl's blouse who reads books and listens to any music more demanding than vintage Big Tom.

When it comes to defending the arts on the floor of the national parliament, there is silence. Because there seem to be no votes in art. As the economy improves, there is not a word about salvaging the drowning art world which gives us our international reputation as a civilised nation.

The horrifying decision by the Alfred Beit Foundation to sell a number of the paintings which formed part of the gift made by Sir Alfred Beit and his wife to the Irish nation in 1987 is only the tip of the iceberg. The Alfred Beit Foundation was endowed to keep Russborough House, home of part of the collection, as an Irish national treasure available to the Irish people. We, the Irish nation, gave thanks to Sir Alfred and Lady Beit by bestowing on them honorary Irish citizenship in 1993.

One of the purposes of the Alfred Beit Foundation, which administers Russborough and its contents, is "to promote education in the fine arts". Ireland is "fierce interested" in arts education: we know that. Plenty of money for anything in the Irish language. But not interested enough in a magnificent architectural treasure stuffed with magnificent masterpieces to provide funding to make a minimal contribution to its upkeep.

The paintings which will be sold at Christie's in London in July include two works by Rubens. They had been shipped out of the country before their sale was even announced. The sale is expected to raise a minimum of €10m. Perhaps not entirely inexcusable if the sale will secure the future of Russborough and our national heritage. Except that there have been other low-profile sales. And the foundation is still in deficit of €300,000, despite Russborough attracting more than one million visitors annually. If the pattern continues, the collection, worth at the time Sir Alfred and Lady Beit presented it to the Irish nation, in excess of €100m, will disappear, much of it into the vaults of greedy collectors, never to be seen again.

And there hasn't been a tither of comment in Dail Eireann: the only comment (outside the Dail) from the Minister for Arts has been, effectively, that it's nothing to do with her, and the export licence had been granted, and the paintings exported, before she knew anything about it, anyway. Do we hear the sound of Sir Alfred Beit in the grave tearing up his honorary Irish citizenship? We should be hearing the walls of the Cabinet room in Government Buildings reverberating to the sound of Heather Humphreys berating her colleagues and dragging them, if necessary, by the hair of their heads towards the preservation for Ireland of such priceless works of art.

When John McGahern died in Dublin in 2006, his body was brought home to Leitrim in a solemn procession. At the county border, a motorcycle garda escort swung before it; every village along the way was closed down, its population lining the way to pay tribute to the man who had put their souls on paper. An annual literary event in Carrick-on-Shannon has told the world we will not forget McGahern.

Not this year: the Arts Council (of which McGahern was a member at the time of his death) and Leitrim County Council, its previous sponsors, have either no money for art, or better ways to spend what is available to them.

The international concert pianist Finghin Collins began his career by winning the Dublin International Piano Competition. So did several other names now known throughout the concert world. Dublin is listed in their biographies wherever they play.

This year's competition closed last week. Its artistic director, our leading international concert pianist, Dr John O'Conor, came on stage to announce that, for the first time in its quarter century history, there is no overall sponsor for the 2017 competition. No representative of government was present.

In a month when those are only three shaming events in the arts world, there has not been one word, not one question, in our national parliament. Recovery, it seems, is for the boardroom, the factory, and all things commercial. Art and artists (and their sponsors) who have awed the world for generations, and continue to do so, remain a joke to be sniggered at.

Sunday Independent

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