Wicklow People

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Nora returns to her roots



NORA Hickey has fallen for Bray, and for the Mermaid Arts Centre, where she took up a position as Artistic Director over a year ago. She relocated from Cork to do so and was immediately struck by the energy in the town, and how readily locals embrace the arts and film in particular.

'I was already familiar with the Mermaid,' she said, on the reason for a massive move across the country to County Wiclow to work in our little arts centre.

'The centre has a great reputation and a high profile nationally.'

She settled in Bray, Nora and her husband Alfred now enjoying the view from their seafront apartment.

Although she was raised in Belfast, her roots are in County Wicklow. Nora's dad Ted Hickey was a native of Wicklow Town and a fine singer of ballads.

Her mum Helen Lanigan, a native of Kilkenny, taught in the Dominican. The couple moved to Northern Ireland in the 1960s.

Her father was a museum curator so she was steeped in the arts from an early age.

'I have cousins and relatives in Wicklow still,' she said, and has fond memories of visiting the area in her childhood. Ted knew all the Wicklow songs. Nora still has them and loves to sing. She often revisits her repertoire at the monthly singers circle in the Strand Hotel, Bray.

As well as the beautiful Wicklow landscape, Nora was attracted to Bray by the wealth of interesting people in the arts world living in the region.

Musicians, dancers, filmmakers and more are within easy grasp of the County Arts Centre.

'It struck me when I arrived that everyone I spoke to had either been an extra in a film made at Ardmore, worked on a movie, or had their own story about one of the stars.' It was that thought that inspired the Ardmore Studios project last Summer during which members of the public were invited to submit their photographs and memorabilia.

The result is a magnificent collection documenting the history of film in Bray and Wicklow.

'It was timely as it coincided with Ardmore's 50th anniversary,' said Nora, who took great pleasure out of the success of the exhibition.

A cousin of Nora's in Wicklow told her the story of going into her back garden only to spot Katherine Hepburn in the distance, sitting and gazing out to sea with her driver nearby. Only in Wicklow! The commitment of the staff in the centre also struck the new arrival as an invigorating breath of fresh air.

'People are incredibly committed to Mermaid,' she said.

'There is a lovely atmosphere. I felt very privileged to come into a place where the staff seemed so happy.'

Before Mermaid, Nora was working in the Lewis Glucksman Gallery on the University College Cork Campus. With a background in visual arts and music, she was keen to develop the visual arts aspect of Mermaid a bit. 'There was already a very good visual arts programme in terms of exhibitions,' she said, however she wanted to develop participatory arts practice, such as the Ardmore Studios show.

' It's a really good time for Bray with campaigns like shop local and the economic think tank going on,' she said. 'There's a great energy in the town.' Similarly, Mermaid played host to the arts community in Wicklow for a meeting recently on funding and the future of and importance of the arts in the county. 'It paid off in some respects,' she said. 'I'm very proud that we created that platform for debate.'

There is immense local support from the general public and clubs as well as businesses, thanks in no small part to the non-elitist approach taken by the centre.

'There really is something for everyone,' agreed Nora, who trawls the rest of Ireland and even the world for material to bring to Bray.

'Someone might come to a musical starring their child, pick up a programme and keep coming back to other events.'

The programme is usually a heady mix of cinema, trad and folk, jazz, workshops opera, comedy, theatre, and plenty for the kids as well as local arts and performances by local artistes such as Ross Scanlon, Aoife Doyle, Alex Mathias and others.

However the Mermaid is more than bricks and mortar, believes Nora.

'I was very aware that this is the County Wicklow Arts Centre so reaching the entire county was a challenge.'

She began to overcome this challenge last year with ' La Lociandera,' a touring play that visited restaurants from Dunlavin to Bray on behalf of the Mermaid.

'That was our way of getting out into the county.'

A graduate of French and German, followed by a Masters in International Studies, Nora aspired to become something of a cultural attaché – a diplomat promoting Irish arts abroad.

However she quickly realised that the political life was not for the girl 'practically born in an art gallery.'

She got a job in the Hunt museum in Limerick where she cut her teeth as education officer, and achieved another Masters in Art History.

She stayed there for over four years before moving on to Cork, again remaining in her position for over four years.

The road has now taken her to County Wicklow.

'My dad died in 2005,' she said with thoughtful regret.

'He would have been tickled to see me working in his native area! It's a shame he didn't get to see it.'