Just how Irish are our artists anyway?
FOR his letter last week to
The Irish Times in which he complained about some of our national cultural institutions being run by “outsiders”, we should be grateful to Robert Ballagh.
We’ve been having a great time looking across at the Brexiteers, despairing of what we routinely describe as their “Daily Mail” vision of England, and thinking: we’re better than that.
Now we are reminded that there are “Daily Mail” tendencies, as it were, to be found in Ireland too — Ballagh is complaining that in addition to the “two Scotsmen” (one of whom is actually Welsh) running the Abbey Theatre, “the director of the National Gallery of Ireland is an Englishman, the new director of the Hunt Museum in Limerick is a Welshwoman, the director of the National College of Art and Design is an Englishman, and the director of the Gate Theatre is an Englishwoman.”
Nigel Farage indeed, would probably hesitate before expressing his unhappiness in this way, about “outsiders” being placed in charge of Great British institutions.
For Ballagh, the problem with the “two Scotsmen” and their ilk arises from the intrinsic nature of an institution such as the Abbey, which has “an obligation to reflect Irish cultural values”.
Ah, our old friend, the “Irish cultural values” — as to what these might be, I recall that the young Ballagh was a musician with a showband called The Chessmen, and when he was giving up that way of life, according to Irish rock’n’roll legend, his Fender bass guitar was bought by one Philip Lynott.
Yes, that would be Philip Lynott who was born in West Bromwich in the United Kingdom, whose father was from Guyana — the same Philip Lynott who formed and became a kind of chief executive of Thin Lizzy in which the lead guitarist was Eric Bell from Belfast, which then, as now, is situated in the United Kingdom. Later the most internationally successful version of Lizzy would have the American Scott Gorham and the Scotsman Brian Robertson on guitars.
And yet if you were talking about an institution which represented “Irish cultural values” at their most dazzling and sophisticated, not only would many of us be pleased to nominate Thin Lizzy as exemplars of that, we would actually be deeply offended if you left them out. Another great Irish cultural institution, U2, were managed by a man born in Germany where his father was in the RAF, as was the father of the English-born Adam Clayton.
So it should hardy matter at all really, where a person was born or raised, when we are assessing their ability to advance the cause of Irish cultural values — in the theatre, the most triumphant times in the career of Brendan Behan were overseen by the Englishwoman Joan Littlewood. Ballagh himself worked on
Riverdance, which derived much of its original energy from the work of the two Americans, Jean Butler and Michael Flatley.
Indeed, there is hardly a story of successful Irish art that does not involve the “outsider” in some position of high responsibility — so if we were really doing it right, we would realise that the problem is not that there are too many of these outsiders involved , but that there can never be enough of them.
Portrait of American author JP Donleavy by Robert Ballagh