Arts vs politics: we haven’t got the balance right

Here’s an extract from an article that Mick Heaney wrote in today’s Irish Times.  I thought I’d share it with you.

” As befits a man who values his poetic vocation as highly as his political ideals, President Michael D Higgins used his inauguration to deliver a speech which fused his two driving passions into a stirring vision of the Ireland he wishes to preside over.

It would be a nation where the “seedbed of creativity” not only enriched our culture but also society and even the economy. The new President praised Irish efforts in the realms of progressive idealism and artistic imagination, speaking of “our humanitarian, peace-building and human rights work”, in the same breath as those creative achievements which have “helped us cope with adversity, soothed the very pain which they describe so well, and opened the space for new possibilities”.

It was, in short, a clarion call that placed the arts at the very centre of Irish public life, an aspiration symbolised by his own election as head of State. But while the victory of such a culturally attuned figure provides an antidote to the fetishistic materialism of the boom, Higgins’s arrival in Áras an Uachtaráin also sends out a misleading signal.

Despite the assiduously cultivated notion that Ireland is a country where culture and politics enjoy a symbiotic relationship, our artistic and political worlds largely exist in a state of mutual misapprehension. Despite sharing a highly visible and growing interface over the past four decades, the two arenas have little in common. Much as CP Snow characterised humanities and science as “two cultures” incapable of understanding each other, so politics and the arts in Ireland remain separate, uncomprehending realms.

Given the historical precedents, this might sound odd. Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde, was a pioneering figure in the Celtic revival, the cultural renaissance that inspired many of leaders of the Easter Rising: as Higgins pointed out during the presidential debate on TG4, four of the seven signatories of the 1916 declaration were poets.

More recently, politics and the arts have seemed more intertwined than ever. Since the 1960s, Ireland has become nearly as famous for its pioneering measures in nurturing artists as for its imaginative output. And only last month, at the Global Irish Economic Forum in Farmleigh, politicians and artists were asserting the importance of culture in regenerating the country.

But the relationship between politicians and artists is ambivalent at best. Trumpeting artistic achievements may be a de rigueur exercise for Irish politicians, but it is a recent development, driven as much by self-interest as any cultural awareness… ”

The article continues –  read the rest of it in the paper or you can see it on The Irish Times website.



  1. Eoin, I’m not sure of the context of Heaney’s piece, but just going on your extract, I would agree that politics and art are not closely connected; politicians in general know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I know, that’s simplistic, but I’m not really writing to talk about that…

    There was something about the presidential election that I found disappointing, namely that throughout the entire campaign, and after Michael D’s inauguration, I never heard the words Uachtarán na hÉireann used once. Even on RTÉ news, Michael D is now routinely described as ‘the President.’ There was a time when any reference to the President of Ireland on the airwaves or in broadsheet newspapers was always in Irish. But now the opposite is the case and you never hear the Irish. I know it’s not critically important, but to me, this has diminished the presidency in some small way. Perhaps I’m just being nostalgic, but it seems to me slightly disrespectful of the office of president not to refer to him as An tUachtarán, or Uachtarán na hÉireann, as a matter of course. Especially on RTÉ news programmes and in The Irish Times, the ‘newspaper of record.’ I’m afraid that, next thing, we’ll be hearing reporters calling out to Michael D, “Mr President…a word?” possibly with an American twang, just to emphasise how completely we have abandoned the traditional usage.

    Coilin MacLochlainn


    • A Chóilín dhil, caithfidh mé a rá nár thug mé é sin faoi dearadh ach tá súil agam nach bhfuil an cheart agat. Duirt an tUachtarán nua go mbéadh sé ag labhairt i nGaeilge go minic, agus mar sin, b’fhéidir go gcloisfaidh muid na h-iriseoirí ag glaoch amach: “Focal amháin, a Uachtaráin”


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