A cultural awakening as the Kingdom comes to the fore
The focus on the arts in Kerry takes in the entire county with residents new and old involved, writes Celine Naughton
From Ballybunion to Ballinskelligs and everywhere in between, including a strong historical link to Washington DC, Kerry's cultural scene is a melting pot of creativity.
There's Killorglin's edgy KFest, Listowel Writers' Week, Kerry Film Festival, the Puck Fair, Con Curtin Music Festival, a recent civic reception for well-loved poet Brendan Kennelly… not to mention the filming of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' that shot Skellig Michael into a whole new galaxy far, far away.
But this month, the focus of arts in the Kingdom is on Killarney, where Kerry County Council, the Arts Council, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the Trustees of Muckross House are living up to the county's motto of "Comhar, Cabhair, Cairdeas" (Co-operation, Help and Friendship) by collaborating to provide accommodation for future artist-in-residence schemes in two cottages on the Muckross Estate.
It's an initiative that has caught the attention of artists everywhere and one that, according to Kerry County Council arts officer Kate Kennelly, fulfils a long-standing creative need.
"Up to now we haven't had actual space to accommodate our artists-in-residence," she explains.
"The programme itself works well, because it offers a contract with set hours, and includes mentoring and community engagement, but having these beautiful cottages makes it more attractive to artists nationwide. There's much more excitement and awareness about it, because now they can come and have a beautiful, inspiring place to stay while they work. Kerry inspires artists anyway, but this takes it to another level."
This year's artist-in-residence programme is targeted at four specific art forms - music, dance, writing and film-making. Applications are about to be shortlisted and the appointed candidates will each receive a six-month residency, starting from September.
"As well as giving the artists space to create great work, the programme offers opportunities to showcase their work, and in turn they inspire others in the community through mentoring and other kinds of engagement," says Kate. "The trustees of Muckross House felt the idea of making the cottages available for this purpose was very much in keeping with its ethos of supporting local culture and heritage.
"Creative Ireland was the impetus that allowed us to make this happen. It has put arts and culture on everyone's radar.
"Suddenly, it's becoming everyone's business. I've been working as arts officer for almost 18 years. When I started, the arts were not considered part of core services and the budget was always extremely tight, but in the last few years there's been a major shift with culture being placed more centre stage, and Creative Ireland has raised the bar further by amplifying the value of arts. This is what those of us working in the sector have been waiting for!"
Pat Dawson, regional manager of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, says the project has caught the attention of local authorities elsewhere in the country. Some have visited the cottages with a view to setting up a similar model in their own areas.
"It's a very inspirational idea that goes back to olden days when owners of stately homes would support cultural activities," says Pat. "Now these homes are owned by the Irish people, who enable artists to come and work, and be inspired by the surroundings, the history of the estate, the landscape… The hand of God and the hand of man are harmoniously blended in this place."
As well as his job in the NPWS, Pat is also general manager of Killarney House, which made headlines this week when it opened after a five-year, €10m revamp. The 19th century building is being developed as an interpretive centre, but it will also be used for a wide range of cultural activities.
"One of the exciting announcements by Arts Minister Heather Humphreys is a partnership between Killarney House and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) to display some of its fine collections at a regional location," says Pat.
"We will have a standing exhibition on Killarney National Park, but we'll also be able to enter into partnerships with national cultural institutions and have visiting collections from museums and galleries at home and abroad.
We plan to use the house in the evenings for recitals, talks, poetry readings and other events.
"This Sunday, July 9, will be the first of our summer series, with talks on the connection between Killarney House and the White House."
The connection involves James Hoban from Callan, Co Kilkenny, the architect who designed the White House in 1792, and John McShain, a highly successful Irish-American building contractor who remodelled the White House in 1947 and became known as 'the man who built Washington'. McShain bought Killarney House in 1956 and following the death of his wife Margaret in 1998, the stately home and its gardens were passed to the State.
"We'll be rolling out a programme of cultural events for the house, and because Killarney House is very much for and about the people of Ireland, I welcome suggestions from the public, who can email me at Pat.Dawson@ahg.gov.ie."