It started with a blog.
About five months ago, I wrote on my choir director's blog to thank her for our Hungary tour. It was a pretty emtional one to say the least, perhaps especially for me because my throat was not in the best condition... The show must go on though, as Freddie would have it, and I had to put on as brave a face as I could muster and leave out the high Gs (as far as I can tell from the YouTube footage, if this respectable career thing doesn't work out, my lip-syncing could very well springboard me into Pop). Anyvege, if I know anything about performing it's that you only get out what you put in, and for fear of sounding like a snivelling X-Factor contestant, I gave it everything. Bittersweet ain't the word.
Less than three weeks ago, I got a phonecall from our director, the inimitable Ms Keogh, about my blog post. We were all asked to post our feelings about the trip, although not everyone did. She told me that my entry had 'gained some attention', and I had been invited by the National Youth Council to make a presentation based on my experiences in Youth Arts before an Oireachtas Committee. I have to say, it felt like this was a massive karmic mix-bag of opportunity and obligation. Obviously I could not refuse. So I had two weeks to distil every ounce of gratitude and enthusiasm I have about the Arts' role in my life into 2-3 minutes. And it's one of the best things I've ever done.
Last Wednesday I nudged through crowds of angry students, protesting outside Government Buildings against the proposed increase in 3rd level 'registration' fees. Myself and the others who had come to give presentations scurried through the security gates like dweeby little traitors, on the side of the bloody mess that is our government. None of us were, though. We were there to prove to these suddenly fidgety fat-cats that they need our help to get out of their tight spot, just as they need the co-operation of the young people upon whom they quite literally set the hounds just minutes after we were ushered into the plateau of fragile serenity of Dáil Eireann. Our Youth Council representative remarked that this must have been how the Beatles felt. I couldn't help but feel she was referring to the raging Anti-John Lennon campaign after the God incident rather than the Ed Sullivan Show.
Once inside, where the magic and trickery happens, it's all protocol. Security tags; Gardaí; dress code. Someone forgot to send us (and a certain Mr. Gogarty) that memo. Because, dear Irish citizens, policy is so strict, Pádraig Pearse himself, it seems, could not adress an official gathering if he were to rise from the grave without bringing along a suit jacket and tie.
I was nervous going in. Familiar faces strode through the grey foyer, over the giant green rug in the shape of Ireland. I clutched my file containing my speech, full and edited editions; notes on funding; notes on the importance of muscial education. I was expecting to face a room of disinterested politicians. This day, almost the full Committee was present, which, so I'm told, is quite rare. Around that roundy room you sometimes see on telly, were some familiar faces; Tom Kitt, former Chief Whip, Michael Kennedy TD, Paul Gogarty ('unparliamentary language' chap) Mary Upton, Labour Spokesperson for the Arts, and our very own Senator Jerry Buttimer, among others. Intimidating stuff.
I quickly realised that no one was kidding when they said it was an informal affair, though. Guided tours came in, sat down, left. People I recognised from TV blew their noses and popped pills. But the matter being discussed was anything but ordinary. And about an hour in, my parents were engulfed in a shared fit of the giggles. First of all though, Mr Kitt welcomed us all and spoke a little about how he is passionate about the Arts on a personal level. He said that last year, Sebastian Barry, Colum McCann and Brendan Gleeson addressed this Committee in a bid to emphasise the need to continue to support the Arts. He later said that our submissions outshone those made by these amazing Irish ambassadors for their crafts. imnotboastingiswear.
Our NYC representative spoke first about what we were all doing here and why anyone should give hours of their lives listening to yet another group pitching for money that has to stretch further than Robert Wadlow's nose did to his big toe. To conclude her speech, she quoted Philip Pullman, who said that "Children need to go to the theatre as much as they need to run about in the fresh air. They need to hear real music played by real musicians as much as they need food and drink. They need to read and listen to proper stories as much as they need to be loved and cared for." Pullman goes on to say that the problem with convincing adults of the importance of the Arts in a child's life is that without theatre and music and literature, they do not fail visibly, but perish on the inside. I was so happy to hear that Ken Robinson, world-renowned creativity expert, has the same view - creativity is not implanted in people; it is allowed to seep out of them.
Eight of the Arts Army altogether were present at the Committee Meeting that day, including three young people involved in youth arts (myself being one of them), and speakers on behalf of Voluntary Arts projects and the National Campaign for the Arts. Their passion at once warmed and worried me. Before going in, as we sipped minerals in Buswell's Hotel, the feeling among the adults seemed to be one of detachment. They knew the cause they spend their lives fighting for will probably never get the money or recognition it deserves in this country during their lifetime. I was disappointed at first - I mean what happens if the morale falls among these people? They're intelligent, wordly people. They know that a lot of people think theirs is a losing battle. But we so need them. Thankfully, when the time comes for them to pit forward their case, they are commanding and passionate. I really don't know how they do it.
We three youngsters said our respective pieces, then the other adults spoke. It's amazing how they can speak so eloquently about abstract things, in a way that politicians and artists alike could understand. I thought it was tough trying to get across five years worth of artistic experience to people I had prejudged as philistines. I can't even begin to explain how moved I was by them. And I really hope the Committe members were sincere when they said they were touched, too. They commended us on our presentations (thanks for the shout out by the way, Senator Buttimer!), and they truly seemed to get where we were coming from.
Their questions, unsurprisingly, were mainly related to funding. Thankfully, none were directed at me, but had something been left out that I wanted to say, I was going to say it. I didn't need to, though, because everyone was on the same page. I had never dealt with people involved in Youth Arts outside of Cork, and it's really exciting to know that they have the same ideas we do in the Arts scene down here. I've pretty much regained my faith in Irish people...to a point...
So, some great acknowledgements and suggestions were made in Committee Room 4 last week. It was proposed that some empty buildings (of which we have plenty) be used as Arts Centres. The myth of easily attainable sponsorship was busted. As encouraging as all this is, I wonder how much will be forgotten in the archives. These guys can all say how impressed they were with us, but the trick is to get the converted to preach. Deputy Upton quite rightly said that the common perception of the Arts is that they are not essential. To a lot of [ignorant] people, they're airy-fairy pastimes people can use to let off steam. And why should the tax payer fund people's hobbies? Wullll, because degrees in Micro Engineering are not going to get us out of this ghastly recsession in a hurry (no offence...). We can't build our way out of it, or beg or borrow. I'm not saying that everyone should just write poems or draw pictures, and I'm not recommending that brilliant scientific minds throw down their Petri dishes and replace them with paintbrushes, but everyone needs to be able think rationally, and for themselves. It's a miracle that original thought has survived the Murder Machine that is our schooling system, and we need to do everything we can to nurture it.
It's incredibly narrow-minded to let people support the Arts out of good-will and time as they are doing right now. People take advantage of the Arts in immeasurable ways. They download music illegally; they watch films online; they won't support productions if they're cost isn't miniscule. Yet artists are bearing the brunt of this recession, because they are willing to do what they love for free, and do it well. Art teaches people to be innovative. It has been proven time and again that young people who study music are higher achievers in other academic areas. Drama, as Shakespare said, holds 'the mirror up to nature' and helps us better understand each other. And surely those who can articluate ideas verbally and visually are the people who should be building our society? The greatest minds in history have been the creative ones. People with visions have potential to be brilliant. But how can they thrive in a world that doesn't recognise their talent, and listen to their ideas? Sure, we've come a long way since kids were stood in a corner with a Dunce hat, but there's still a bizarre stigma attached to the pursuit of dreams. I know how engaging in something you love doing can bring out the best in you. Participation in the Arts gives people confidence and resilience. It's not at all abstract stuff. We are talking about hard skills that make for bright futures and good citizens. Because enriched individuals create an enriched society.
Some may be of the opinion that Science is the answer to all society's problems. If the world sizzles within fifty years, what good will a few concerts have been? To be honest, I think that the biggest challenges of today all have the same solution. On an economic level, Ireland is missing out on a huge international market. In the coming years, the biggest economic growth will happen in the East. Eastern cultures are steeped in folklore. Particularly in China and Japan, people are very much in touch with who they are and where they came from. The stories of their heritage are so important to them. So why not let them know about our heritage? The Irish are natural born storytellers; this is clear from all our world-famous writers, actors, playwrights, musicians. For such a small country, we have massive talent, to which other cultures are drawn. The way I see it, we as a nation is we place as great an emphasis on our cultural exports as we on our economic ones, and the return would be vast.
As the recent Gaming Industry conferences have shown, Ireland's future may well lie in Gaming. Willie White of the National Campaign for the Arts compared the current state of our Gaming industry to that of Film a hundred years ago. We don't even realise the potential that's there. Here's an example of how technology and creativity could go hand in hand to create huge opportunities.
What's really heartbreaking about this whole economic situation is that unless the right choices are made, it's young people who will rally be messed up. As Anne O'Gorman of the NYC said, the global economy goes in cycles, but childhood only comes around once. And if children are growing up today deprived of the chance to express themselves, how are we going to move forward? Sure, money's scarce, but we can't let other kinds of support diminish. In the Great Depression, the Arts thrived, because humans need to escape from the awful things life throws at them. Cork Operatic Society is a prime example of an organisation that has fought the demise of the Celtic Tiger and put on top-class shows. But if the money's not there, encouragement and acknowledgement need to be. Arts groups do not expect the government to give 100% funding for any project, but recognition is sometimes worth more than money. What a great thing it would be for young generations to commit to something without having to get materialistic results out of it - would that not make them stronger, better citizens? After all, what good is anything - what is life if we can't enjoy it?
There's only one man whose words I could conclude on.
"You may say I'm a dreamer,
But I'm not the only one.
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world live as one."