Artistic Licence column

Artistic Licence by Nadine O’Regan (published 07/02 in the Sunday Business Post)Fergus-OFarrell-in-Prague-by-Anthony-Fenn

Last week, a man called Fergus O’Farrell died in West Cork. Lots of people in Ireland – even committed music fans – will never have heard of him.

But for people who knew O’Farrell and his band Interference, they will understand how great a loss to the Irish music community his death represents. Formed in 1984 in Dublin and best known for the track Gold, from the Once soundtrack, Interference did not have much in the way of recorded output. But if you saw them play live, you’d never forget it.

It wasn’t because O’Farrell had muscular dystrophy – he was in a wheelchair, with limited use of his hands, his lungs half wasted away – it was because he and they were brilliant. This was no sympathy vote. Interference were the real thing. Thinking about O’Farrell this week, I couldn’t help but think, he’s not the only brave musician in this country. For many Irish artists, their enemy holding them back and pinning them down may be less visible, but it is no less present.

Every day, Irish musicians are being left hanging by the country that houses them: left stranded by lack of funding, lack of committed support from the arts ministry, lack of willingness by Irish radio stations to play them, as they choose instead to drip-feed the public an anaemic diet of Rihanna and Taylor Swift. Musician and film-maker Myles O’Reilly, an astute observer of the Irish scene, wrote a despairing Facebook post recently, in which he criticised the disenfranchisement of Irish artists and how the government made them ‘beg’ for financial assistance. “Ireland, today I hate you,” O’Reilly said, lamenting his negativity but unable to find any other reasonable response to the circumstances which surround him.

Some weeks ago, there was a social media outcry when the founders of Block T, based in Smithfield in Dublin, revealed that they would not be able to keep up their current premises. Block T is an important cultural space: it houses dozens of writers, artists, video-makers and photographers. But now that the leafy shoots of a new boom are sprouting, the Block T rent is boomeranging back to Celtic Tiger levels and the space has become untenable for the very people who kept Smithfield alive during the recession.

The Block T members aren’t the only ones struggling. In a few weeks’ time, on March 3, the Choice Music Prize – a celebration of the best Irish albums of the year – will take place in Dublin. Founded in 2005, and previously sponsored by Meteor, this year, the Choice Prize is limping along without a title sponsor. In an interview with the Irish Times, founder Dave Reid said he would personally underwrite any losses this year. Contrast the Choice Prize’s precarious situation with, for example, the Mercury Prize in England, which has the support of the BBC, and which represents a major boost and badge of pride for musicians.

Maybe it’s naive to think that we could do better; to dare to hope that our artists and musicians could get more than they’re getting. But it’s galling to see Ireland complimented abroad for its talent, as a nation of writers, musicians and artists, while undercut at home by a lack of funding – the Irish Film Board’s funding has been frozen for years; our national cultural institutions have lost out; writers earn buttons for their novels.

And still artists struggle on, because they understand how vital the arts are for their health and sense of self. In 2011, I interviewed Fergus O’Farrell in West Cork. He didn’t want to talk about illness. He wanted to talk about the importance of music in his life. ‘‘It’d be great if I was able to wave a magic wand, and – bang! – I could walk,” he said. “But, to be honest, if I had the choice between being able to walk again and losing my musicality or artistic nature, I’d keep up the art.”

The arts are not an indulgence. They are central to our wellbeing. Will a new government understand that, and act accordingly?

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