One of the artistic injustices of the Troubles has been righted this week with very little fanfare indeed. Down at the Ulster Museum, an artwork, entitled ‘Silver Liberties’, by Lancashire born artist, Conrad Atkinson, has been hung this week. Back in 1978, it was the piece, created to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, which the porters refused to hang because it featured four panels, three of which were in the colours of the Tricolour. There’s been no great blaze of publicity as you would expect about the righting of a great artistic wrong – no poster or postcard and it’s not very well signed in the museum. But seek and you shall find. Judge for yourself if the porters-cum-curators of the Ulster Museum were right back in 1978!
I heard this interesting story while attending an information event by Ciste Infheistíochta na Gaeilge/Irish Language Investment Fund, a fund which was set up in 2010 as a result of negotiations arising out of a brief crisis in the process.
I’m not one for praising Sinn Féin these days - but credit where it’s due. The party leader secured a fund of £20m in 2010 to be divided between the Irish Language Broadcast Fund (£12m) and an investment fund for capital projects to develop resources and infrastructure for the Irish language community.
On the evidence of Monday evening’s presentation in Belfast City Hall, hosted by the Lord Mayor, Mairtín O Muilleoir, the Ciste is having the desired impact. Cultúrlainn/Cultural Centres have been built in Annalong and Newry while Carntogher in County Derry is a landmark development in the sense it sets the standards for isolated rural communities through Ireland and shows what can be achieved by an effective committee.
Other plans were unveiled at the event – a new Cultúrlann adjacent to the site of Ireland’s Camelot in Armagh, Aonach Mhácha, a massive expansion of Derry’s Cultúrlann Uí Chanain while in Belfast Raidió Fáilte is planning an iconic building for its new headquarters on a site overlooking the Westlink in the Lower Falls.
These are transformative projects for the Irish language community in the North. Not one of them is being 100% funded by Ciste as that fund’s maximum limit is 50% of the costs. In each case the local committee had to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds from other sources.
If there is a but, it is that there is no similar fund south of the border and worse than that the political imagination isn’t there to create one. What the Ciste has done in its own way is to embolden communities to take those first steps towards imagining a new future for themselves. In the south, there is still no Cultúrlann similar to the Falls Road facility in Dublin and no likeliehood that there will be one in the near future.
I don’t care what party is involved for I will always applaud a can do attitude – and castigate the penny pinching approach evident in the cuts by Foras na Gaeilge on organisations and magazines. I don’t attach an iota of credibility to claims by Sinn Féin that these cuts are being imposed because of Fine Gael/Labour austerity. They can’t slam the cuts on the one hand after heralding them as a new era in Irish language development across the island when they were announced.
I don’t doubt for a moment that cuts are having an impact but Foras na Gaeilge is an analogue cross border body in a digital age to borrow a politician’s quote, and Sinn Féin has to take a share of responsibility for that.
Let’s not go back there. The Sinn Féin initiative regarding Ciste is well worth the investment. It’s a model that should be adapted by other parties and in other jurisdictions because regardless of any other consideration, it offers value for money to the tax payer, among which are many thousands of Irish speakers.
Monday night’s event heard a call by Conrad Atkinson to artists throughout Ireland to contribute works for inclusion in an art auction to be conducted by Ciste to raise money for further Irish language development. The art auction will be held in America and the target to be raised is $1m. I hope they achieve it.
It calls to mind what Dr. Finbarr Bradley, c0-author of the Irish Edge said at a conference recently. “Less and less people are looking for stuff, more and more they’re looking for meaning.” According to Dr. Bradley the Irish language plays an important role in that in the context of Ireland. In this art auction, perhaps we have a marriage of the two quests?