Speech by Heather Humphreys TD Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs at the NUIG conference Ireland 1916–2016: The Promise and Challenge of National Sovereignty, Friday November 11th 2016
Check against delivery
Chairman, ladies and gentlemen – I’m delighted to have this opportunity to talk to you this morning, and to be a part of this hugely important event.
This conference is one of the final flagship events of this incredible year of commemorations. It is providing us with an opportunity to look back on the journey we have taken this year, and to consider what’s next.
This morning’s session on Culture and Identity promises to be a fascinating one. I am particularly interested in this morning’s plenary speaker, Professor Clair Wills, and by the title of her paper: Mothers and Other Others: Representing Ireland Beyond Borders. Every word of that title has a personal resonance for me. I’m a woman and a mother, from that ‘other’ tradition on our island. I come from a small townland in County Monaghan where the border is just a few miles away. It was a very particular place at a very particular time, where the complexities of identity, faith and politics were ever-present.
The subject matter of this morning’s session – ‘Culture’ and ‘Identity’ – is of course central to this centenary year. Indeed if the word ‘citizenship’ were added I believe that the title would represent a very accurate summary of what this year has been all about. It’s the interlinking of the three concepts – culture, identity and citizenship – that tells us the real meaning, and the real value, of the Centenary year. The entire country became engaged in active citizenship, creating imaginative cultural experiences that spoke to our collective and shared identity, and not just to the specific events of 100 years ago.
I believe that this was a remarkable achievement. It was an achievement not of government but of the people themselves. Fintan O’Toole said recently that in 2016 ‘official Ireland trusted its artists’. I think that’s true but it’s equally true that official Ireland, to use his expression, trusted everyone else too.
I was appointed Minister for Arts and Heritage in July 2014: planning for the 1916 centenary year was immediately top of my agenda. From the outset I said that I wanted it to be a year for everyone, that I wanted our 1916 commemorations to be inclusive and respectful. As a member of a minority community on this island, as a woman, and as someone living in a border county, I am very aware of how divisions can enter a society – and therefore how it is incumbent on us to seek out the things that unite us and bring us together. It was obvious to me that we needed a Centenary Year in which everyone could participate, which would accommodate all of the cultural and historical narratives on this island – and which just might mean that instead of talking at each other, we might talk to each other; instead of contesting the ownership of history, we might discover a shared history.
It was clear that 2016 should be a year for children, for creativity, for theatre, dance and visual arts – and of course for events like these three days in Galway. What has always been very important to me, and indeed what has resonated most with me this year, is the personal stories. Because sometimes hearing the story of one child or one family can have a greater impact than the wider narrative of a nation in flux.
At all times, we were guided in our planning by the Expert Advisory Group, under the excellent stewardship of Maurice Manning. Indeed, I would like to echo the Taoiseach’s remarks from last night, in wholeheartedly thanking Maurice for his advice, his guidance and his support. We were very fortunate to have eminent historians like Mary Daly and Diarmuid Ferriter assisting us in our work as we set out to ensure that the commemorations were first and foremost historically accurate, and for that I am very grateful.
It was also absolutely essential to all of us involved in planning this year that we would encourage and facilitate community involvement. This allowed our programme to evolve from a list of formal State events to a catalogue of quite literally thousands of events across Ireland and around the world.
How did we do it? The answer is that ‘we’ didn’t do it alone. What the Government did instead was to facilitate and enable people everywhere to get involved. We organised a national programme, but that was only a small part of what happened. We invited Local Authorities to get involved, we gave them some funding and provided them with the framework of the national programme, based around historical reflection, community involvement, our language, our children, our culture and our diaspora. We gave them the freedom to create their own programmes and they in turn worked with local community groups, historical societies, arts groups, men’s sheds, artists, writers and composers – anyone who had a good idea – to mark the centenary – and the results were as spectacular as they were diverse.
And it hasn’t stopped yet. The outcome of that single act of trust was creative citizenship, engagement in unprecedented levels of cultural activity, making a profound statement about our identity.
In addition to the seven programme strands which gave structure to the approach we took for this year, we also identified a number of other key pillars in which to anchor our programme. This included our national flag and the role of women in 1916.
Speaking in early 2015, I said it was my hope that we could reclaim our flag this year. Our national flag had become a symbol of division, rather than unity. It had been hijacked by a paramilitary force which did not represent the views of the vast majority of the people on this island. But thanks to the quiet, respectful and dignified involvement of our Defence Forces throughout this year, our flag has been reclaimed. Our children have learnt of the peaceful message behind the tricolour. This reconnection, this renewed understanding and appreciation of the importance our national symbol was a subtle but vital element of this year’s commemorations.
One of my personal highlights from this year, was visiting schools in Monaghan on Proclamation Day, to watch the children raising the flag and reading out their Proclamations for a New Generation. The day itself was national in scale, but like so many other elements of the centenary year, it was the local that had the greatest impact. The children outlined their priorities for Irish society with a particular emphasis on equality and respect and they displayed a great understanding of our history and our shared heritage.
Indeed, I believe this generation of young people is better informed about Ireland’s history than any generation that has gone before. And it is reason to be optimistic about the future at this uncertain time. At a time when it feels like division is succeeding over tolerance in so many parts of the world, we have shown, here in Ireland, how engaging in culture and creativity can help to foster mutual respect and support diversity.
Another such vital element of this year was the recognition, finally, of the role of women in the events of 1916. Women’s history is having a moment. And it’s about time. It was remarked to me that back in 1966, during the 50th commemorations, women were left to making the tea or playing the harp. Not in 2016. This year, our female artists and historians took centre stage. We heard about the women – the mothers and daughters, friends and sisters – who were involved in the Rising, whether they were revolutionaries or reluctant participants. We learned about brave women who many of us had quite honestly never heard of before. The scholarship around the role of women in 1916 and in the revolutionary generation has been quite remarkable.
I would like to once again pay tribute to the work of Sinead Mc Coole, who has been working with the 2016 Team in my Department. Sinead has ensured that the female narrative of 1916 has been fully and accurately represented for the first time. And I believe this honest history is having an impact on how we talk about equality and gender issues today. Waking the Feminists, for example, was an unexpected triumph of the year. It started a vital conversation about women in theatre, which was years overdue, and which has now forced others working within that broader spectrum of the creative arts to look at their own actions and funding habits. We have made great strides in the area of gender equality in Ireland in the past 100 years. But the moment complacency sets in is the moment we realise that there is still a long way to go.
To quote Michelle Obama, “No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contribution of half of its citizens.”
Women of Irish history had been stifled for many decades, but now, finally their contribution has been recognised. It would be a wonderful thing to think that if, to even a very tiny degree, the conversations we’ve had about women in 1916 and about equality and mutual respect, are helping to send a very positive message to young girls and women across this country. I hope they have enjoyed learning about remarkable Irish women from the past, and in doing so, that they are inspired to be believe that they can all be remarkable Irish women in the future.
The Taoiseach spoke here last night about the legacy of 2016. I personally believe that a substantial legacy project from this year of cultural triumph is not only desirable, it’s necessary. I think it would be a huge mistake if we didn’t seize on the huge level of cultural engagement we have experienced this year, if we didn’t build on the extraordinary public response to the Centenary. Every now and again something unusual happens, something special, which makes us sit up and take notice. This year, I think official Ireland sat up and took notice, as the arts took centre stage and creativity allowed us to fully explore our cultural heritage. Now the challenge is to keep that momentum going.
Work is well underway on a Legacy Project for Ireland 2016 – a five-year initiative, from 2017 to 2022, which will place arts, culture and creativity at the centre of public policy in a way that we have never attempted before. The project will be announced by the Taoiseach and I in the coming weeks.
It is, at its heart, an arts and culture project, bringing coordination and focus to many arts and culture initiatives that were started but not completed over the years. But it goes beyond that: we want to facilitate a vibrant cultural ecosystem with artists and their work at its centre. That ecosystem should connect citizens and artists, and draw on the capacity of artists to enhance the quality of human experience in concrete and meaningful ways. It’s an important and exciting project and I look forward to progressing it very shortly.
I know so many artists and arts organisations are still recovering from the cuts of the crisis years. I am pleased to have increased funding again this year, but I think now we have an opportunity for everyone across Government to reconsider how we look at funding the arts. Arts funding should not be viewed as discretionary or, even worse, a luxury. Funding arts and creativity should rather be seen as a vital component of building an open, fairer society.
That would be a wonderful legacy from this year.
A ‘legacy’ is something which is handed down from the past, something to be carried forward. And now, as we proceed through the Decade of Centenaries, we must carry forward the open and inclusive approach we have taken this year. 2016, like 1916, wasn’t just about the Rising and the tumultuous events which followed here at home. It was also about the Somme, and the tens of thousands of Irish men who died fighting on the battlefields of Europe. Next year, we will remember the battle of Messines.
In 2018, we will mark the end of the First World War, and the elections of 1918. Moving on to remember the difficult period of the War of Independence and the Civil War will present its own challenges. But I strongly believe that if we take the same open and honest approach as we did this year, we will have the capacity to reflect maturely on the events as they unfolded, allowing all the narratives to be heard. With all this talk of legacy, I would like to encourage you all to come along to the closing session of this conference tomorrow afternoon. Moderated by our own John Concannon, it will be a panel discussion entitled Looking Forward: the Arts and Culture Legacy of 2016.
It brings together some of our most important cultural leaders for an intensive exploration of how the Centenary Year can re-shape our national cultural agenda. Among the panellists will be Dee Forbes, Director General of RTE, James Hickey, Chief Executive of the Irish Film Board, Aideen Howard, Director of The Ark, Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies here at NUI Galway, and Mary McCarthy, Chair of Culture Ireland’s Expert Advisory Committee.
In the meantime, I have no doubt that there will be a lot of very interesting discussions today, exploring culture, identity and the well being of our citizens. I would to especially thank John Concannon and all of the incredibly hard working staff in our Ireland 2016 Team for all of their efforts in bringing together this conference today and indeed for their wonderful work throughout this year.
Thank you also to Jim Browne and the NUIG team for being our hosts this weekend.
And thank you to all of you who have taken the time to be here and to contribute to the centenary conversations.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.