Taoisigh and the Arts, by Kevin Rafter, Martello, 242 pp, €16, ISBN: 978-1999896881
In 1921, the second Dáil innovatively nominated a minister for fine arts, Count Horace Plunkett, and two staff. In his nineteen weeks in office, Plunkett organised one public event, a sexcentenary celebration of Dante. Then his ministry was subsumed into a department of education. Plunkett’s appointment was the first of many false starts, as the state, like many others throughout the twentieth century, struggled with the idea of supporting the arts as a good in itself.
Although poets were at the heart of the plans and actions which led to the foundation of the Irish state, poetry and its sister arts receded quickly from public affairs. Kevin Rafter’s Taoisigh and the Arts engagingly tells this story by recounting the commitment to the arts of taoisigh from Éamon de Valera’s appointment of Plunkett through to his meeting Micheál Martin at a performance of The Snapper in the Gate in 2019, just after Rafter himself was appointed as chair of the Arts Council.
Rafter’s research moves between biographical accounts of the taoisigh, a sketch of the changing legislative context for the arts and a selection of artistic responses to them. He has a wealth of material, parts of it well-known, but with some surprising emphases. We learn that in 1905 de Valera appeared in a play at the Abbey written by a teacher colleague at Belvedere College, that John A Costello’s interest in visual art extended to presenting small works by Evie Hone, Grace Henry and William Leech as wedding gifts, that Seán Lemass sustained a lifelong friendship with Jimmy O’Dea and that Charles Haughey wrote poems in retirement (“I planted trees / And watched them grow”). He digs out some intriguing personal connections to the arts, and also memorable artistic depictions of taoisigh in work by Marina Carr, Rita Ann Higgins, Thomas Kinsella, Paul Durcan, Eddie McGuire and many others, but also shows that the legislative record speaks to a remarkable shyness about art and artists, at one point noting that “the word ‘artist’ has never been explicitly used in arts legislation (in any of the Arts Acts of 1951. 1973 or 2003)”.
This hesitation began with the 1923 demotion of the arts to an education-only role. Cosgrave and de Valera would subsequently nominate a number of established writers (and public men) including Yeats, Oliver St John Gogarty, Douglas Hyde and Edward Pakenham to the Senate but attempts to develop arts policies or support for artists foundered. Rafter quotes Brian P Kennedy’s summary that “When a cultural project could be shown to provide an economic return, it was more likely to win political and bureaucratic acceptance.” It would be an intriguing counter-history to imagine how censorship would have evolved if a case had been made that Irish publishers, galleries and theatres contributed an “economic return”. As it was, the Cosgrove Censorship Act of 1929 and its facilitation by successive de Valera governments dominate the opening chapters of Rafter’s book.
He selects Kate O’Brien as one example of how the legislation affected artists’ work. After two successful novels, her third, Mary Lavelle, was banned “with inevitable loss of sales and royalty income”, though Rafter is as attentive to its “indirect consequences”, its effect upon her relationship with family and community, and how some of her subsequent novels were weakened by an understandably “polemical” element. Rafter quotes Donal O’Drisceoil on “‘unofficial censorship’, where writers and artists were harassed and stigmatised, while libraries and bookshops were pressured into not stocking, or removing from their shelves, books not even considered by the official censorship regime”.
While Rafter reports on individual artists’ responses, he does not tune in to other kinds of artistic network. Roy Foster has described Yeats’s attempts, say, from July 1926 – with the “threat of literary censorship in the air” – to establish a “literary academy on the French model. This would not only recognize distinction but – implicitly – would also defend the interests of writers as a profession”. In September 1932, the academy’s existence was officially registered with Yeats as vice-president and George Bernard Shaw as chair (among those who declined the offer to join the academy: Joyce, O’Casey, Alice Milligan [because she favoured censorship] and Douglas Hyde).
Yeats and AE devised various sets of rules, and established prizes for writers, and Yeats began to see that the organisation might work as a lobby group, as AE put it “to affect Irish culture and government activity”, which Roy Foster glosses as “not only censorship policies but also possible tax breaks for writers”. Hounded by the Catholic Bulletin and by the Irish Press, the organisation became a significant critic of censorship in Ireland. Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Brinsley McNamara and others were prominent members of the academy, an organisation much disrupted by rows and disputes and resignations but which continued on, remarkably, until 1984, shortly after its function had been superseded by the Arts Council’s creation of Aosdána in 1981.
Once its possible establishment is mooted, the Arts Council becomes the focus of the book. Minister for posts and telegraphs Patrick Little raises the possibility in the wake of the Arts Council of Great Britain’s foundation in 1946. Rafter identifies the political nervousness around establishing an independent agency and charts the various ways in which it remained stuck in a patronage role for successive Departments of the Taoiseach, dependent on whim and favour, and unable to gain any meaningful support from Departments of Finance.
Another of the book’s fascinating and recurring dramas, alongside the resistance of finance mandarins to what they saw (unbelievably, given the sums involved) as the arts’ “insatiable” demands, is the appointment of Arts Council directors, which brings up the bewildering contradictions which now seem to characterise so much of the second half of twentieth-century Ireland. John A Costello decides to appoint the distinctively critical Sean O’Faolain, a surprising and bold decision which Costello pushes through in the teeth of opposition from Archbishop McQuaid. O’Faolain’s term, however, is short-lived (he leaves for better-paid work in the US), and not at all transformational: he does “not see the value in the State directly funding individual artists, and his strategy was to support activities that would allow the public to experience work ‘of the very first rank, in order to establish standards of excellence’”.
Lemass then replaces O’Faolain with two priests, first Monsignor Padraig de Brún (an uncle of Máire Mhac an tSaoi) and then the “opinionated and dogmatic” Fr Donal O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan is, among other things, a close friend of the architect Michael Scott and, along with Graham Greene and Ernie O’Malley, a lover of Catherine Walston. Passionate about abstract art, he steers Arts Council funding away from other art forms, and from other kinds of visual art, during a thirteen-year term. He is, Rafter points out, key to the successful career of Evie Hone, and to the establishment of Rosc as an international centre for showing new visual art, but it is only after his term ends that the Arts Council, with Colm Ó Briain as director, begins to grow its budget and take a more strategic approach to developing the arts.
One other figure who emerges from mid-century with some vision for the arts is John McCann TD. Father of the actor Donal, a playwright himself, and a past president of the Irish Actors’ Artists’ and Musicians’ Union, he proposed that the council should be concerned with the “creative artist rather than the stimulation of an appreciation of the arts”. He would also propose a pension scheme for distinguished artists.
The twenty-year period dominated politically by Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald continues to be riddled with contradiction. Budgets increase, Anthony Cronin’s position as Haughey’s “artistic and cultural advisor” enables the Arts Council to develop new policies on tax exemption for artists’ income and paying artists through the cnuas scheme developed via Aosdána. Rafter observes, however, that the clientelist corruption most closely associated with Haughey continues to plague decision-making, with large infrastructure projects and constituency favouritism initiated by the Department of the Taoiseach, rather than the council. He singles out a couple of decisions by the Albert Reynolds administration, who did not appreciate being challenged by the council, responding that his constituency benefited from the decisions “in accordance with the funds and powers available to me”.
Rafter outlines more briefly the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger cuts on arts funding and the renewal and growth in funding during the recent decade of commemorations and, especially, the Arts Council’s success in making the case for artists and the arts during and since the pandemic. As evidence of a new strategic understanding of the state’s relation to funding the development of the arts, he points to the Basic Income Scheme for Artists which itself further extends the cnuas model, the bursary scheme and the successful “Next Generation” programme. Its outcomes will be keenly watched not just by the Department of Finance, but by other arts development agencies around the world.
Rafter concludes with an overview from his position as Arts Council chair. His account stresses how paltry funding has been for a century, and maps how slowly the funding caught up with and surpassed Northern Ireland’s. He stresses the benefits of ensuring that funding, and the Arts Council’s decision-making, remains free from clientelist interference. And he articulates the case, made forcefully by President Michael D Higgins during his time as minister and since, that taxpayer money invested in the arts is demonstrably a public good.
Another book might take up the more recent advent of Culture Ireland and Creative Ireland, as well as the work of unions, academies, local authorities and pressure groups like NCFA in driving the conversation about the arts, but Rafter’s book is consistently entertaining and informative, and worth the price for at least one of its cameos, Paul Durcan’s poem commissioned for the opening of Knock Airport. Durcan has written a brilliant and colourful account of the day in his “Paul Durcan’s Diary”, but the poem itself is quoted at length, including these characteristic lines:
Ah, now, look at me! With my face to the world!
Playing music to anoraks – not to mention handbags!
People are music to my ears! And my ears are my eyes!
I am Raftery the poet, smoking my pipe in Knock Airport,
Taking off and landing by the light of my heart.
Let us now praise famous men –
Whose names begin with the letter ‘H’:
Red List, Section H!
John McAuliffe’s most recent book is Selected Poems (Gallery, 2021). He is Professor of Poetry at the University of Manchester, and was previously deputy chair of the Irish Arts Council.