Page 7, 24th January 1964

24th January 1964
Page 7
Page 7, 24th January 1964 — THE ARTS: LITTLE JAM FOR A LOT OF BREAD

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By JOHN HORGAN "IREL"IRELAND, the old sow that eats AND, farrow," Joyce's bitter metaphor may seem out of place in the world of industrial development programmes. cultural exchanges and international diplomacy with which the modern Ireland is coming to terms, but it has lost little of its sting. For the creative artist in particular, whether he is a painter, sculptor, musician or writer. his country will always he one of the focal points of his work.

Whether its relationship with him is one of attraction or repulsion it is still one of the strongest he is likely to feel :' he can master it or be crippled by it, but he carries it with him like a cross.

All these are question's that are easier to ask than to answer. but there can be little doubt that standards have definitely improved There are several reason for this. On one hand, the passionate and ultra-nationalistic identification of artist with country that found its expression in Pearsewho was, for the most part, more patriot than artist—has become sublimated to the less immediate but artistically more valuable search for the simple imperatives on which all creative endeavour is essentially based.

There are difficulties, of course. The artist in Ireland has. since the beginning of this century. always been more tolerated than accepted. Joyce has left too bad a taste in many people's mouths. The notion that art equals immorality of one kind or another is dying a harder death in Ireland than in almost any other European country.

This has had a subtle but detrimental effect on creative artists themselves. Consciously or not, many of them seem to feel that their relative isolation from the mainstream of European culture entitles them to disregard the traditions of that culture, and persuades them that what they produce is essentially good because it is essentially their own. This is all right up to a certain point: but originality at any price too often means originality at the lowest price.

It is not difficult to see that, in many ways, Ireland has not matured culturally at the same rate as it has developed economically. This is due to an innate conservatism in matters of the

spirit, probably a legacy from the days of oppression, which, in spite of notable and even spectacular advances in other fields, remains one of our most enduring characteristics.

It is perhaps inevitable that in the first unsteady attempts to establish a viable economy some of the priorities should have been mixed up. But this does not excuse the fact that in 1963 the Arts Council of Ireland, the Government's only official acknowledgement that the arts exist, received a subsidy of £30,000—a sum equivalent to twopence halfpenny for every person in Ireland and by far the lowest pro rata for any country in Europe. There is very little jam for a great deal of bread.

And, in spite of previous gloomy statements to the contrary, most of the bread deserves the jam. It is difficult to know where to begin, but perhaps the best place to start is where the jam is thickest.

In literature Ireland has been, on a rough estimate, about ten times as fortunate as other countries twice her size. To have produced two acknowledged geniuses in the last 50 years—Yeats and Joyce—is no mean achievement, and everything points to the continuation of a vital and progressive literary tradition.

Perhaps its greatest living exponent is Samuel Beckett. An expatriate, he is still unread by the majority of his countrymen in spite of the fact that he has, with an enviable lack of publicity, achieved a prominent position in the English and French literature of our time. In many ways he is the spiritual descendant of Joyce, whose secretary he once was, and his uncanny but compelling novels and plays have much of his mentor's sense of detachment, rhythm, and unexpected humour. But Beckett lives abroad, and this trend to voluntary exile has been one of the most notable features of Irish writing for decades, even for centuries. Goldsmith, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce and O'Casey—to name some of the best known—have all declined for one reason or another to make their peace with their country, and the trend continues. Of the younger writers, Pearse Hutchinson is in Spain, John Montague in Paris. and Anthony Cronin has only just returned from London, where Louis MacNeice lived and worked until his untimely death last year.

There are, though, writers who have stayed at home or who, if they have travelled, have returned. They include Thomas Kinsella, a poet of the first rank, Austin Clarke. whose pessimism is essentially Celtic, and artists in prose like Kate O'Brien, Mary Lavin and Ben Kiely. Frank O'Connor, too, has returned from America to lecture at Trinity College, and Aidan Higgins and John MeGahern are new names to conjure with.

The Theatre Festival, now firmly established, continues to attract much good work, and Hugh Leonard, whose vivid dramatisation of Joyce has won him respect in both London and Dublin, has achieved the sort of success that enables him to devote himself completely to his craft. We are still waiting, though, for the long-promised "Richard's Cork Leg" from Brendan Behan's pen.

It is a pity, in a way, that Irish publishers have not shown much confidence in their native sons. There are really only three firms who Set out to publish books of a general, as opposed to a religious, nature, but it may be only a matter of time before the considerable resources available are put to wider use. The Dolmen Press, for instance, which has close links with the Oxford University Press. is already showing what can be done to restore book design and production as an art form in its own right.

Where the visual arts are concerned the problem of nonrecognition becomes more acute. If a book can be read and its sentences make sense, it is a fit subject for judgement, but painting, and particularly non-representational painting, has a harder row to hoe in Ireland than practically anywhere else.

There are fewer people in Ireland—they hardly exist at all outside Cork, Dublin and Belfast —who appreciate painting of this kind and one has only to read the amazing (and frequently misspelt) remarks scribbled in the visitors' book at a major exhibition of modern Irish art to realise that prejudice can be as deep and as fast-dyed as in the fastnesses of Alabama.

In spite of this sort of opposition much creative expression flourishes. The Irish Exhibition of Living Art grows in stature each year, and the standard would please its founders, Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett. Last year, for the first time, it actually lost money, but this was due to the considerable expense of insuring a ,collection of modern American paintings brought over for the exhibition

At the same time it has produced the splinter groups that are evidence of much vitality in Irish painting, and, of these, the Independent Artists' annual exhibition is increasingly representative and stimulating.

Last year's most important event was undoubtedly the exhibition taken to New York by the unusual but effective combination of the Arts Council and the Irish Exports Board. This exhibition featured the work of twelve of the most important and mature Irish painters, including Patrick Scott, Anne Yeats daughter of the poet— and Nano Reid.

-All displayed a noticeably Irish blend of reflectiveness and sophisticated romanticism that contrasted revealingly with the more brash and more vigorous environment in which they found themselves. 'Me exhibition, significantly, was all but canonised by the influential New York Times, received warm tributes from a dozen other American papers. including Time and was shamefully ignored by all the Irish papers at home, almost without exception.

In sculpture the field is rather smaller. Much of the important

work being done in this field. for instance, is by Werner Schurmann and Gerda Fromel, both of whom came to Ireland some ten years ago. but one of the most Irish, and at the same time most original, sculptors at work is Oisin Kelly, whose works are imbued with a combination of traditional motifs and a modern approach that is wholly pleasing. The younger sculptors such as Edward Delaney have yet to reach the same stature.

Apart from the artists themselves there is a small but'dedicated group of people who work tirelessly for the acceptance of art and good taste in Ireland. One of them is Fr. Donal O'SuIIivan, Si.. Director of the Arts Council. Another is Mr. James White. the Curator

of Dublin's Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. whose tactful and persistent attempts to inform public taste are the admiration of many lesser mortals who would prefer a less exacting job with more immediate rewards.

Irish composers, while they may be few in number, do not lack for talent. Seoirse Bodley, in particular, who has just received a Macauiey Fellowship grant, is widely acknowledged both in Ireland and abroad as a composer of great promise.

Among the others, Dr. Brin Boydell and A. J. Potter have carved distinctive niches for

themselves in the country's musical history, while Sean O'Riada has shown that the adaptation of traditional Irish airs need not he the occasion for mere plagiarism. His settings for ballads in Irish and his arrangements for the two Irish-language films "Mist Eireand "Saoirse" have done more to popularise the revival of Irish between them than all the 288 recommendations in the recently issued report on the revival of the language prepared by a Govern. ment commission.

This report, although it has not yet been adopted by tie Government, deserves more than a word in passing, as it may well have serious repercussions on Irish cultural life.

It is a surprising mixture of the realistic and the fanatic, the moderate and the impossibly unrestrained. Its proposals for the preservation of the language in the Irish-speaking areas are frequently thoughtful and constructive, while its suggestions for the propagation of the language throughout the rest of the country smell to high heaven of compulsion and leave a distasteful premonition of cultural apartheid.

As well as this. it rakes up the old argument that everything that is not Irish is not good, and does a serious disservice to the intelligent men and writers such as Sean Og O'Tuama who are trying to create a distinctive modern literature in the Irish tongue.

But it is in architecture, and principally in religious architecture and art, that our national failings come most prominently into view. and that the exceptions are so noticeable. Month after month churches are built in the most outmoded of styles and stuffed with statues and decorations that are an affront to taste.

The amount of money wasted on the second-rate is unbelievable.

Admittedly. churches do not matter as much as what goes on inside them, but there are embarrassing signs that one is a reflee tion of the other. It is not that there are no good architects in Ireland: there are enough of them; but the lack of initiative on the part of ecclesiastical authority is a matter for concern.

One argument advanced in favour of retaining the status quo, for the time being at any rate, is that the wishes of the laity have to he consulted. But the fact remains that there has not been in Ireland the tradition of dialogue between the clergy and laity that has enlivened the religious lite of France, for example, and without this dialogue the initiative simply must he taken by those who are in a position to take it.

In the past few years. for instance, Dr. Lucey, the Bishop of Cork, has built a "Rosary" of five churches in a circle around the city which defeat by their utter conventionality any originality inherent in the idea. And in Galway a great new cathedral is being built of Galway stone in the idiom of 100 years ago.

An Irish church has been designed which would rank high up among the ten or twelve best -designed Catholic churches in Europe: utterly traditional, it is still very much of the 20th century. It remains as a model and a plan in a leading Dublin architect's office, turned down, after considerable discussion, by the bishop of the diocese for which it was intended.

This may be an isolated incident but it may serve to illustrate the extent to which caution extreme and unjustifiable cau• tine has hampered the development of Irish church architecture and even of Irish spiritual expression.

But here again the exceptions are important. One parish priest in Kerry, for instance, has commissioned a church which blends tradition and modernity in a most satisfying way.

It is to contain work by many modern Irish artists, both Catholic and Protestant— and the stained glass in the windows will be in the best of the vein that started with Evie Hone, Michael Healy and Harry Clarke and has been continued in our own day by artists such as Patrick Pollen. One thing that all the hest Irish creative artists have in common is this: they have been intelligent enough and humble enough to do their homework, to accept from other cultures what they can while using their own as a basis for their work. Every country can make a unique contribution to the cultural life of the civilisation in which it finds itself, but in Ireland the great danger is insularity.

No man is an island, and no island is large enough to contain one man's spirit. Art and nationalism are two vague and much misused words, but they are guaranteed to generate more hot air than almost any other topic whenever two or more are gathered together in Ireland's name.

What more Irish artistsand more Irish patrons—need to realise is that our tradition is as much a European one (take the Book of Kelly, for instance) and if they are to achieve world stature they must produce art which has some relation to the world that surrounds them.

The "Sinn Fein" policy, in art as well as in everything else. has had its day and should be given a rapid burial. There will be few mourners.

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