“Please stop making ‘Arts’ a dirty word. And please, please stop making ‘Community’ a dirty word.”

Fionnuala KennedyLast night Fionnuala Kennedy, Artistic Director at MACHA Productions, penned a personal and strongly-worded open letter to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in response to Carál Ní Chuilín’s speech at the Voices For The Voiceless event at Cultúrlann on Thursday evening.


Dear Carál,

I can live with the fact that you are not a fan of theatre. I can live with the fact that you don’t fight for the arts, as arts minister. I can live with the fact that you perpetuate the dangerous myth about the arts sector in NI, that we’re all champagne-swilling, top-hat wearing snobs. But I will NEVER stay quiet when you say “art has turned its back on communities”.

I am writing to tell you that it is YOU who has turned your back on communities.

I am not a politician. You are not an artist. You do not understand artistic process. Let me tell you a bit about mine.

My work is informed by my experience of the disadvantages, judgements and barriers faced when you grow up in a working-class area. I grew up in West Belfast. Everyone who knows me knows I’m one of those Westie melters who thinks it’s the greatest part of the world. West Belfast is a tough place to love at times, but I adore it. When I was growing up I remember free meat parcels; I remember free school meals; I remember not having anything to eat at times. The fact that this was and still is allowed to happen is for me a direct attack on the poorest by the richest. The same stereotypes of working class people (benefit thieves, spongers) are still perpetuated. Living with fuck all and being hated and despised for it is beyond difficult. This is what my “art” is about. I hope that my work can help in any way towards a more equal society. And who were the leaders of this in my community? Sinn Féin. They fought with us for quality housing, benefit entitlements, injustices. Our fight was for the working classes. Our fight was for equality. Our fight was for communities. I wholly-heartedly believed in this fight, and this has stayed with me my whole life.

You are no longer this party, and haven’t been for a long time. I do not believe you help communities unless it serves your aims. Yes, you can argue votes. I argue that people are still afraid, and people feel they’ve no other choice. At the CORNERS project in the New Lodge as part of the Belfast Festival last night, all the New Lodge residents participating said they felt they weren’t represented by their politicians. Were you there? Were you fuck.

I live in the Short Strand (rehoused there after being homeless, wrote a play to highlight the flaws in our housing system, you were invited, you didn’t attend). I am from Lenadoon. When Sinn Féin used to talk about those areas it was “we”; now, it is “them”. Every time you talk about “community”, “communities”, “communities in need”, you diminish the intelligence, skills, talent, humour, pride and needs of the people in these areas, including me. I am sick of being a highly-deprived fucking postcode. You are not empowering people by saying this, you are diminishing us. You are patronising us. You are humiliating us. You are doing us harm.

You referred to the ‘notion of resistance not transcending to arts’; for me, this is when art is critical and exciting. This type of work has been happening on different scales across different genres. You choose to ignore it, and say publicly that it’s not happening. You are a liar. So, when you talk about resistance, is it only acts of resistance allowed and agreed by Sinn Féin? Well here’s what: resistance does exist across our society; it is a bubbling resistance against the ridiculous, divide-and-conquer, agenda-pushing, one-sided, sectarian governance of Sinn Féin and DUP and god, I hope it grows, in ALL our communities. Saying the arts has turned its back on communities is laughable, when Sinn Féin have completely lost touch with the people they claim to represent. And the people know it.

Now let’s talk about “culture”. In 2016, we will see a series of events marking the Easter Rising and the Somme. Money will be pumped into the arts and communities to commemorate events 100 years old (hey artists! Forget all the reasons why you make work, we’re telling you what your inspiration is). These events will more than likely be divisive, tell one story without interrogation of history or analysis of what we’ve learned or how far we’ve come; these events will commemorate men fighting against men fighting against men and men who died with men, men, men (except for a few women thrown in for good measure!). These events will be invested in, in a time where women and men are dying in our communities, where people are using food banks, where people have mounting debt. Are these the type of events you mean when you say “people need to see their cultures reflected”? Same old Green and Orange cultures?

You keep referring to the Ulster Orchestra. Ok, I’ve never been to an UO concert. Most of my family and friends have probably never been to an UO concert. Does that mean I want it removed from people who do go? Where’s the equality in that? And let me flip your elitist intimations on its head: when I go into Cultúrlann on the Falls Road, the road I went to school on for 7 years, I can’t understand a word anyone is saying. But I would be the first to argue with people who might say (and do say!) that the Irish language is for the middle-classes. The majority of people I know from West Belfast don’t speak Irish, and would be more concerned with the suicide rate, violent crimes, teenage pregnancy, people losing their homes, drugs etc. So when you talk about “the resistance around the revival of the Irish language”, who are you referring to? My family and friends in this community have a lot more than fighting for or against the Irish language to deal with. Or is this just another dig at the Prods? Nice one.

And I can’t end without referring to your use of a quote from Bobby Sands – I went to Belfast Met (then BIFHE) and did the HND in Performing Arts; a course that allowed young people, particularly those from less wealthy backgrounds, to access the arts (this course will be cut completely next year); when I attended, I chose Bobby Sands’ poetry and the theme of incarceration, and shared it with my class. He believed in resistance. You do not own his legacy because you are in Sinn Féin; shame on you for taking and twisting his words to serve your made-up-in-your-own-head story. I have a quote to share with you: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”. As well as equality, justice, and basic human rights, we should have happiness, joy, dignity and respect. Stop asking for the minimum for communities. Stop implying that working-class people’s notion of art is basic. Art inspires, instigates acts of resistance, exposes inequality, brings joy, and it has a long history in all our communities. Every single person in Northern Ireland has a right to this. Perpetuate the elitist myth all you like. Remove the money from the artists. We will, as we always have, find ways of creating art. We will, as we always have, work with communities to ensure participation and access. Because we are the communities. We may not always get it right. We may produce some shit sometimes. Just like our politicians. We need your support, not vilification.

Please stop lying about artist’s work within communities: we live in, work in and are from “communities”.

Please stop making “Arts” a dirty word.

And please, please stop making “Community” a dirty word.

Fionnuala Kennedy

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  • Granni Trixie

    Wow! What a courageous piece.
    Needed sayng.

  • Gopher

    “I am not a politician. You are not an artist.”

    I am niether a politician or an artist but understand that if a party describes itself as Marxist, Socialist, Nationalist or Republican you will get central planning, if said party is elected. The fact you dont like her central planners and want public money to perpetuate yours greatly amused me this morning . thank you.

  • whatif1984true

    A from the heart piece. Does anyone believe that there may be more than one person from West Belfast who thinks the same?

    Carál Ní Chuilín is an appointee of Sinn Fein whose reknown for keeping everyone speaking from the same page and toeing the party line is in well known.

    You may regard this as relevant or not , in the recent Nama inquiry at Stormont the FM said “when it comes to matters relating to education, agriculture, the arts and leisure, the deputy First Minister will be more engaged in and knowledgeable about those matters because his colleagues hold those Departments.”

    Regarding the Arts budget many of the smaller budget events are facing death by a thousand cuts. In management it is well known that the cuts which save the most are those that the cost the most.

    When one compares the cost of upgrading 3 large sports stadiums versus the cuts of £1000’s to community Arts I can only ask who is balancing these resources. It is a Green and Orange carve up and so long as it is 50:50 to hell with other more justifiable concerns.

  • Sliothar

    “When one compares the cost of upgrading 3 large sports stadiums versus the cuts of £1000’s to community Arts…”
    The 21st century equivalent of ‘Bread and Circuses’ – Rome circa 100 AD.
    Nothing’s changed.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    As a point of information, although I agree wholeheartedly with much of the letter on a personal basis, the references to the Cultúrlann need to be corrected. The Cultúrlann’s budget has been cut significantly thanks to the cuts to the Arts Council and to Foras na Gaeilge by Carál Ní Chuilin’s department. The Cultúrlann’s aim is the Arts through Irish, Irish through the Arts. We want to give access to a high quality arts experience to as many people as possible, as well as a “Gaeltacht” experience. We have no orchestra – but that’s not to say that we wouldn’t welcome the Ulster Orchestra for a performance!

  • Ruth McCarthy

    Great stuff. Thanks Fionnuala. As William Burroughs put it “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”.

  • Kevin Breslin

    If Ireland win Rugby World Cup hosting rights in 2020, surely that increases the commercial opportunities to the Arts?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Maith thu!

  • Croiteir

    A sense of entitlement oozes from this piece.
    However it does raise issues that have to be addressed. Instead of whinging about lack of support, financial or otherwise, to keep the theatre provision and those employed by it I want to question why people do not go to the theatre, is it an outdated medium as we get our arts from films and the TV companies? I can remember the plays at the parochial hall, they also stopped years ago, perhaps the theatre needs to adapt to the new arts media that the digital age has produced. Perhaps it has had its time?
    Frankly I do not care about the artists background or political leanings, I am more worried about the output and if I am interested in it. If you cannot see why the rest of the world has to indulge you in producing the art that you want to produce frankly I believe you are in an ivory tower that deserves to be toppled.
    As far as the UO is concerned I am sure that they are very good but can we afford to keep them? If they cannot get the bums on seats perhaps reality has to kick in and say that Belfast, for in reality that is what we are talking about, has not got the population for this artistic indulgence and the constant funding of them is just throwing good money after bad. Would we not be better having a visit by an orchestra a few times a year to provide the locals who appreciate this a night out? Or perhaps they should just take a trip down the road to Dublin which has the population?
    I would suggest that what we need is a proper reflection on what we have, both in terms of the artistic output and the population to support it and cut our cloth appropriately.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    I suggest you watch more of the X Factor to discern what TV arts output will look like….

  • James7e

    I suppose one thing we can say on the positive side for the changes of the last 20 years is that at least somone like Miss Kennedy can at least now publicly criticize a SF rep like Ni Chuilin without fear of vicious reprisals. Wasn’t always so.

  • David Ferguson

    Would you welcome a gospel rock band for a performance? I’m a former resident of the Falls, but a Prod. I’d love to open the eyes and ears of folks in West Belfast to an experience that has almost certainly passed them by for sectarian reasons. I understand that the old Thompson Hall, the church hall of what was Broadway Presbyterian, is currently being used as a theatre. I would particularly love us to do a gig in there, but any suitable venue would do. We’ll do it for free. The event could be used to raise funds for St V.deP, if you like. If the Culturlann isn’t the right forum, I’m sure you know another. Are you up for it? You can hear our music at http://www.reverbnation.com/theunknown1234.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    We have rock bands as Gaeilge at the Cultúrlann from time to time, including Rís, Bréag etc. I don’t think we’ve had any religious rock bands – of any denomination – in the past. But that’s a different country

  • Croiteir

    And many, many people enjoy it – although snobs will probably turn their snouts up I see it as a continuation of the music hall tradition, and this is what I was alluding to. The changing production and consumption of the arts. On the night that was on the TV also showed Antigone which was a good show too.

  • Croiteir

    Or indeed the singing of the Psalms from the Free Presbyterians. Brilliant stuff.

  • David Ferguson

    Con, it isn’t a different country. It’s right here on your doorstep. We’re knocking. Won’t you let us in?

  • murdockp

    I used a swear word in a comment last week which I had deleted, equality (for me) please editor.

    For me this letter goes way beyond arts and actually targets the very heart of Sinn Fein’s reason for existing, which is a totalitarian regime which needs poverty to be widespread to justify its existence in the same way the ANC in South Africa needs the poor to remain poor and uneducated to keep them in power.

    For me the 1916 events for SF will be no different to North Koreans goose stepping on Kim’s birthday. They will be there telling the electorate who they have literally done nothing to improve their lives as they remain in poverty, how lucky they are to have their as their leaders.

    For me, Casement park is SF version of Albert Speer’s’ Zeppelinfeld’ a project driven more by ideology than actual need. (will it even be used to capacity four times a year). When one considers that the opportunity cost of its construction is investment in the skills and training to arm people for employment a reasonable person would conclude that it just plain wrong and for me sums up where we are.

    There is more to Irish freedom that fighting for increased welfare payments. Our founding fathers had a greater vision for Ireland which I share, but SF and SDLP just don’t get it as they both slug it out trying to ‘out irish; each other.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Sure call in and we’ll have a chat. We had the Psalm Singers from Lewis in February.

  • @planting the oar

    Not so sure of the total comfort of that – consder the cruel and intese trolling of @Mairiac31 on social media as she stands up to the double standards of SF & seeks recognition/redress for herself & other victims of sexual abuse at the hands of SF/IRA. This is a brave & committed response to lived experience.

  • whatif1984true

    The Romans were unfortunately able to fill their circuses (which will rarely if ever happen in some of the proposed stadia). We can only fill Stormont. Same thing I guess certainly as expensive but with clowns.

  • whatif1984true

    Special spherical objects is my immediate thought.

  • whatif1984true

    The public at large will when given a choice of trivia/fun versus tragedy/meaning choose fun, escapism is the word. Arts which go with the tragedy (no matter how good) will always have a niche audience.
    Politicians gravitate to large showpiece projects and are mesmerized by them, ‘little’ people things are not worthy except of course to the ‘little’ people.

  • Granni Trixie

    Me and my family are From WB and it is more diverse than outsiders appreciate.

  • what concerns me

    Apart from the occasional swear words (although their use is warranted through the frustration of the writer) – this is an excellent article – well done

  • terence patrick hewett

    To paraphrase the Grumpy Old Bookman Michael Allen:

    “a high-falutin, arty-farty, fancypants piece of pseudo-intellectual b*llsh*t, of the kind to which you are so well accustomed, and of which you are so heartily sick.”

  • murdockp

    I was reflecting on this overnight. if an artist uses the word “fuck’ in writings it is artistic genius that should be lauded.

    if non artists use the word “fuck” they are ill educated and have trouble expressing them selves and thier comments censored.

    it just proves even on a website like this where I have personal experience of a comment with the word shit in it being deleted that there is a different set of rules for the educated classes than for normal people.

    shame on you slugger. censorship is so eastern block. I though free speech was you are about.

  • mickfealty

    I have particularly strong views on theatre, locality of voice and it’s effective displacement by less responsive forms like TV and cinema. Play making is being displaced by other less collective forms of art. How problematic that is I’m not sure but most Greek scholars reckon theatre was a critical ingredient in the development of early democracy.

  • Brian O’Neill

    The problem is the disqus system does not let you easily edit comments so sometimes this results in comments being deleted when they should just be edited. I will send the editing instructions out to the other mods.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Yet more vile bile and bigotry to keep Gaelic as a cold house to protestants!!!!

    Oh wait, hang on….

    Erm, sorry, force of habit and aĺl that.
    very good, carry on, don’t mind me…

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Mick, I’ve had this argument a lot about forms of creative mediation, some very responsive, some intrinsically non-negotiable in form with those ho think its all the same thing.

    If one has ever acted or even lectured, you find that the rapport with an audience is a significant ingredient in any performance. Having directed film performances, I’ve found it to be clearly absent on a cold sound-set or television studio, which is why audiences are invited to recordings to help create an “atmosphere”.

    Yes, its the sense of the performers “listening” that live theatre permits that dramatically marks it from electronic media. And this engagement encourages a sense of creative empowerment in an audience, “democratically”.

  • David Ferguson

    Where are you based?

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    I’m at the Cultúrlann…www.culturlann.ie

  • T.E.Lawrence

    What will be interesting to see if that current 54% of Vote Sinn Fein hold in West Belfast drops below 50% in next Assembly Elections? The last time SF was below this bench mark in this consituency was back in 1992 !

  • whatif1984true

    Who would you regard as an outsider, indeed define WB.

  • Granni Trixie

    Good question which made me question my easy assumption.
    I suppose what I had in mind was a media constructed image of WB versus that of those who in addition have experience of living there. In particular I was thinking there are ‘posh’ pockets side by side with areas of deprivation so there are people you could label middle class as well as working class. Plus variety in attitudes etc

    I lived and taught in WB throughout the troubles and even though I have moved away still identify with that area. But then I subscribe to Benedict Andersons notion of “imagined communities”(communities of interest rather than locality).

    A good example of differering constructions of WB (inside-outsiders) is when two soldiers were murdered around Casement during the funeral march for Kevin Brady. Media reporting and commentators highlighted “the barbaric mob” and tended to demonise the whole community whereas ‘insiders’ even whilst deploring what had happened knew to set it in the context of fears generated the previous fortnight starting with Michael Stone popping up with bombs in Milltown cemetery.

    Sorry if I have wandered off the point!

  • wsharman

    Speaking as an ex professional clown, I take exception to that remark. Clowns spend years mastering a range of complex disciplines and then make it look like they are completely incompetent whereas politicians……..

  • David Ferguson

    Aha! Excuse my ignorance… I was thinking of the Cultúrlann as an arts event and not a physical location. You should have just said Broadway Presbyterian! (Just kidding.) I have actually been in the cafe and browsed the bookshelves, but the gallery upstairs was closed. I’ll have to drop in on you sometime soon!

  • hugh mccloy

    The shinner bots are stuck on how to rape this article, she used the f word …..

  • Granni Trixie

    I suppose it encompasses the Falls and Shankill areas. I also believe that people in Poleglass and Twinbrook self identify with WB rather than Lisburn. Anyway, as I said WB can be regarded as an ‘imagined community’ and/or a geographical location.

  • whatif1984true

    ….are born clowns.

  • whatif1984true

    Thanks but still I ask who is an outsider? I am delighted to see your non racist non bigoted reply encompassing all races and religions in the WB family, unfortunately I suspect that you may not have thought your reply through.

  • Granni Trixie

    Well I’m not giving it any more thought. Sorry.

  • whatif1984true

    That was my point.