We Irish are world leaders and standard-setters in traditional music. In any other sector.
This uniquely Irish art form would be recognised as a definitive strategic and competitive advantage why not here, asks PHILIP KING
THERE WAS a time, and it’s not so long ago, when the traditional arts were not a consideration.
The notion of having the words traditional, arts, and economy in the same sentence would have been unthinkable and maybe meaningless.
Until fairly recently these three words would have related to the life experience of very few, if any, players of traditional music in Ireland. For the masters of the universe in finance and banking, and for leaders in business and public life, the traditional arts were treated as something to be wheeled out to impress on others that we are not English, that we have a remarkable cultural heritage and an even more remarkable rate of corporation tax. For tourism, a pastiche version of Ireland and traditional arts held sway – and that has not gone away yet, but the signs are encouraging.
Using the word “art” in the context of traditional music would have had little purchase in Irish society for much of the 20th century. However, within Ireland, and maybe even more so overseas, there have always been artists and others sensitive to the nature of traditional music and the accomplishment of its master practitioners.
Thankfully things are changing fairly dramatically in these first decades of the 21st century. We’re looking at an enhanced awareness of two things: there’s an acknowledgement by the State that we are talking about a valuable and precious art form, and there’s a general realisation this side of the Atlantic and this side of the Irish Sea that the economy and the world of traditional music are symbiotic and can be mutually reinforcing in the right conditions.
Not only do words like “traditional arts” and “economy” seem like an intelligent pairing, but more of us are starting to see the plain good sense of concepts such as “cultural tourism” – the traditional-music community has vast expertise in cultural tourism, cultural diplomacy, enterprise, adaptability and finding smart ways of fitting into and exploiting new environments. This is just what we do – what have changed are the vocabulary and the descriptions that make more sense to more people in today’s world when they look at us with fresh eyes.
The responsibility and role of the State is obvious when we look at the remit and performance of the Arts Council.
During the Tiger years the traditional arts had a productive and beneficial relationship with the Irish economy, steered mainly by the Minister for Arts and the Arts Council, and well protected from the incompetent excesses of bankers, speculators and marketeers.
I was lucky enough to be selected as a member of the Arts Council to work on a special committee on the traditional arts, established in December 2003. Its mission was to advise the Arts Council on matters relating to the traditional arts. After 14 meetings under the astute, even-handed chairmanship of the late Jerome Hynes, the committee’s report was implemented by the Arts Council. From the vantage point of membership of this committee it was possible to get a clear overall picture, perhaps for the first time, of the exact nature of the relationship of the traditional arts with not just the economy but with the wider world of Irish culture and arts.
Traditional music’s formal relationship with the State is still relatively young: the Arts Council was set up in 1951, but it wasn’t until 1979 that the council was given responsibility for traditional music. Interestingly this happened only because responsibility for some organisations and events were transferred – along with their funding – from Bord Fáilte to the Arts Council. No sign of joined-up cultural tourism thinking then.
At that time the Arts Council’s expressed reason for becoming involved was couched in cultural, not economic terms. Its focus was education and standards of performance. This policy position was gradually refined to accommodate the notion of the centrality of the solo performer and the role of transmission in sustaining and refreshing the art form. This in turn opened the way for the Arts Council to engage with the traditional arts across a wide spectrum of activities.
THIS IS THE context for the next significant engagement with the traditional arts under the Hynes committee. Some of the direct impacts of the Hynes committee speak for themselves: Arts Council funding for the traditional arts was €1.2 million in 2005, increasing to €3.7 million in 2006, €3.9 million in 2007 and €4.1 million in 2008. Because of cuts in public spending, the traditional arts budget has been reduced to €2.7 million in 2009 and to €2.3 million this year. This represents a State investment of €16.7m since 2005.
Yet, apart from architecture and circus, traditional arts is the most poorly funded art form, although it is reported that there are more practitioners of traditional arts in Ireland than any other art form.
So what we have with the Arts Council is a solid policy basis and rationale for State support for traditional arts, an established budget, a well-resourced executive department, and funding systems that are empathetic to the art form. What we need is for this embryonic support system to stay in place, for State commitment and action to maintain and develop intelligent levels of funding, and for new creative thinking on using the brain power, mobility and adaptability of the traditional-arts community to realise its potential contribution to cultural tourism while valuing authenticity and retaining trust.
The traditional arts are a natural resource running at the heart of communities throughout Ireland, diverse in regional accent and vocabulary, and an emblem of a shared identity and history.
The traditional arts are recognised throughout the world, and increasingly in Ireland, as a serious musical genre; we see constant growth in the sophistication and expectations of practitioner and audience alike. Through the Arts Council, the State is able to find ways to support sustainable professional careers, often operating in a competitive global marketplace, and always carrying a positive and unblemished image of our country and our people.
THE STATE ALREADY invests heavily is sustaining Irish jobs in tourism, food, agriculture, financial services, IT, pharmaceuticals and other sectors that operate in a competitive global environment. We are world leaders and standard-setters in traditional music – in any other sector this would be recognised and celebrated as a definitive strategic and competitive advantage.
The Minister for Arts, Mary Hanafin, delivered the keynote speech at An Chúirt Chruitireachta in Termonfeckin last week. In her view, the traditional arts, in particular, make us considerable in the world. She has already made these views clear to the Arts Council. She emphasised her assessment of the strategic and economic value of the traditional arts at a recent tourism industry conference, hosted by Tourism Ireland at Farmleigh.
Her remarks highlighted why traditional arts succeed across the world and at home. Hanafin identified some significant features: they are intergenerational and age-friendly; they promote social cohesion; they are uniquely Irish; people from all over the world come to Ireland to hear our music and meet our musicians; and above all our traditional arts bring us close to beauty. She is right.
Financial and economic health are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for excellent traditional music to exist. The language of the market place, with its distortions of the ordinary into the unintelligible, is not compatible with the language of our tradition. The market does not husband and nurture resources. It exploits and leverages them, it mines them, and if unchecked will open-cast mine them before moving on.
Tradition is more than just a rich resource. It’s about people. Without people there is no tradition, no resource.
These are the values that will enable us to flourish, to make us happy and content, to re-establish trust, to roll back the fear and to make us wealthy. Yes, wealthy, because, as the tune goes “Contentment is Wealth”.