What is culture anyway?


And why should anyone want to be the capital of it?

With the announcement of European Capital of Culture 2020 in the pipeline, I throw out some thoughts on the process. I haven’t been actively involved in any one of the bid projects; I support each of them in their own way, and there’s a few things I’ve seen from the outside that I need to get off my chest. I started this with some questions, as I mean to go on!

On a fundamental level, the Capital of Culture programme allows for huge sums of money to be pumped into the selected regions. The irony in the entire European Capital of Culture title is that “cultural capital” is a nonsense concept built to keep normal people out of cultural institutions. To me, the whole point of Capital of Culture is to take the concept of and turn it on its head; take the idea of elitism and high-brow ‘culture’ and instill a sense of involvement across all spectrums of the community.

The OED has an astounding number of definitions for culture. Let’s assume this is the one we’re mostly thinking about:

Culture, n. – 6. Refinement of mind, taste, and manners; artistic and intellectual development. Hence: the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

It’s also where we get ‘cultivation’ from. Other entries in the same dictionary are all about farming, tillage, tending to the land and to its inhabitants.

What is being done to cultivate a sense of community in the ECoC2020 bids? What’s being done to foster growth among the people? It’s a question on the bid form but it doesn’t always get answered.

Culture isn’t a product; it’s not a tangible entity defined by music, dance, theatre, art. It’s a shared experience, encompassing visual and performing arts and the people who create and consume them. It also encompasses the people that don’t consume those things.


Monopoly money! Image: Chris-Håvard Berge on Flickr.

As for capital, this one’s easy. It’s money, or a resource of worth. You invest capital in a company so it can grow.

Put them together and we get…
Cultural capital, then, should mean a part of your culture that you invest in, in order to help it grow (or something you invest in your community, your people, in order to nurture them). These days, though, cultural capital mostly reminds me of that sort of person who goes to the opera so they can seem more impressive than they are. Or someone who goes to see a ‘foreign film’ because they get to tell their friends not about the film, but about the fact that they went to see it and wasn’t it only subtitled?

Anyway, this gets me to how utterly disappointed I am in some of the proposed events in the European Capital of Culture 2020 bids.

As you’ll know from my last post, Kilkenny Arts Festival holds a special place in my heart. From the beginning, I was overjoyed to see that The Three Sisters (led by Waterford) were in the race for the ECoC2020 title. I have invested a lot of my personal time (chronological capital?) in that city and I want to see it strive. The community feeling is powerful in Kilkenny City, Kilkenny County. Just look what happens when you give them a run for their money in the hurling (don’t; they won’t let you live it down). Shamefully, I know little about Waterford and Wexford, though I do know of the excellent reputation of Spraoi and Wexford Festival Opera.

Two of my siblings went to college in Galway, and I spent enough time at McDonagh’s to love the place (the city, not just the restaurant). I’ve hen-partied in the city and been to some excellent local gigs (‘hon the Róisín) and gotten poured on from the high heavens on Shop Street.

culture night

I passed Limerick every summer on the way to Dingle with my family when I was a kid. More chips. I also had the opportunity to go to some of the events for City of Culture in 2014, some of which were phenomenal and some of which fell flat. I worked in the Hunt Museum for Culture Night last year and met so many people who were there, in the city’s very active museum, for the first time. People who felt like they didn’t belong there except on Culture Night, because Culture Night shows everyone that they are accepted in so-called cultural spaces.

I worry that this feeling is lost on every single one of the other 364 days of the year.

How do each of the bid cities intend to involve their communities in their activities? Will their events be accessible to the actual general public? Will there be an outreach project for schools and community groups so people can feel like everything is open to them? How much will the tickets cost? Who can afford them? Will events and venues be wheelchair accessible?

I’m personally invested in arts and culture in this country. More and more, though, I feel like there’s a certain element of tooting your own horn just for the sake of it. Get the funding. Complete the project. Don’t actually think it out to the best of your ability – just get it to the point where it will work, take some pictures, move on.

I imagine this is partly due to the year-on-year funding process whereby cultural institutions in Ireland can’t actually plan in advance, and effectively live on scraps. That’s an argument for #ArtsDeptNow.

Are we asking for too much money? Are we asking for enough? Are we doing enough with it when we get it?

And here, what’s so great about street art and performance anyway? It’s interesting how street art has been incorporated into the bids, how it is assumed to have the power to initiate urban regeneration, how the use of street art to rejuvenate is somehow new and unheard of and going to change the world.

It might. It probably can.

But can you prove it? What are your measures of success? There’s a reason it’s one of the questions that needs to be answered in the bid process. It’s also not one I feel has been adequately answered. Look at Dublin’s initial bid. They posed pretty much the same question, and then failed at answering it.

Screen shot 2016-07-08 at 14.53.54

From Dublin’s initial bid book, p. 40/62 here.

Funnily enough, the Dublin bid included a lot about community, but I don’t know if I ever believed it. Plus there are a lot of negative pop-out quotes like the one above that are pretty off-putting at first glance.

There’s really no end to the questions posed in the lead-up to the ECoC2020 announcements.

Whoever wins the bid will have a lot to live up to. As of now, we don’t know how this will affect Ireland’s economy, Ireland’s cultural or social landscape, and of course the hosts. All I know is that we should all be pretty interested in getting some answers.

I’ll happily stand behind whoever gets the title and I hope everyone will be of a similar mindset.

After all, shouldn’t we make sure it’s a worthwhile investment?



Sure where would you be going?


[IMAGE]: Front entrance of The Abbey Theatre, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin. Photo: © Grace Miller. 

Sure where would you be going?

Where to find Irish-language programming: a sample of cultural centres in County Dublin in 2016. Written in part fulfillment of UCD IS30240: Creating and Publishing Digital Media (hence all the footnotes!)
By Grace Miller

Irish is the first official language of Ireland [1], long since neglected and beaten into submission, that has been flowering quietly for the past century while naysayers have read its obituary notices. I’m an Irish speaker and teacher, and I’m an arts, culture and sociolinguistics enthusiast.

My favourite tools of language-learning include experiencing literature, music, cinema and theatre in the target language. My story is about figuring out where to go for some good old fashioned Irish-language events in Dublin, looking at some of the main cultural centres across the county. These centres are as follows, all of them in the city centre except where otherwise stated:

  • Axis Arts Centre (Ballymun)
  • Project Arts Centre
  • Rua Red (Tallaght)
  • Smock Alley
  • The Abbey Theatre/Peacock Stage
  • The Ark
  • The Gaiety Theatre
  • The Gate Theatre
  • The Pavilion Theatre (Dún Laoghaire)

The locations of each of those venues can be seen with this interactive Google Map:

According to the venues’ websites, there have been about 1,500 events listed for 2016 so far. Information about some events that will take place is not yet available, as autumn/winter scheduling has not yet been announced in most instances.

Screen shot 2016-04-28 at 14.39.46

[IMAGE]: Column graph indicating the number of single events taking place in 2016 in a sample of cultural centres in County Dublin. Chart made using infogr.am. Data source: websites of individual centres.

Of those 1,500 cultural events in my sample of cultural centres, a total of 12 include Irish. It’s not even worth making a graph. What’s worse is that 5 of those are the same show: Maloney’s Dream/Brionglóid Maloney as performed and toured by Branar: Téatar do Pháistí, and 3 others all took place at Rua Red for Seachtain na Gaeilge.

An Filleadh was the first Irish-language drama to be performed on the main stage in The Abbey for 25 years [2]. The playwright, Alan Titley, was commissioned to write the play by Conradh na Gaeilge (not by The Abbey). The actors were students of Gaelcholáiste an Phiarsaigh in Rathfarnham and (to my knowledge) the only payment received by the cast and crew was that they would have the opportunity [3] to perform the play on The Abbey stage on Easter Monday 2016. This year, The Abbey Theatre is receiving €5,800,000 in Arts Council funding, not including other grants that may be received or profits from ticket and merchandise sales. They’re receiving €5.8m and besides adding an Irish translation of their annual report, almost none of it is being used to promote the Irish language.

Screen shot 2016-04-29 at 22.15.29

[IMAGE]: Radial graph illustrating the difference in the amount of Arts Council funding received by The Abbey Theatre and each of the other cultural centres in the sample. Interactive graph can be seen here. Created by the author using infogr.am.

A single 1-hour performance of An Filleadh took place, in the midst of RTÉ’s Easter Weekend festivities and Seachtain na Gaeilge, on the back of protests against the complete absence of Irish in The Abbey’s 2016 programme (which was buoyed by the #WakingTheFeminists movement). If the intersection of these events was the deciding factor in the conception of this once-off event, I hope that doesn’t mean we have to wait another 50 years to see the likes of it again.

Not included in the first graph above are instances of Irish language events that took place as part of RTÉ’s Reflecting the Rising on Easter Monday 2016, as these took place over multiple venues. They also took place in the context of RTÉ’s agreement to increase their use of the Irish language. Out of 306 events that took place during that weekend, 22 included the Irish language, or about 7% of the total programme.

As I mentioned in my presentation, I’m not including other languages here because my main study area is in Irish. There also isn’t any other language that 41.4% [4] of the population can speak (in some capacity). Either way, the programming of the sample cultural centres is glaringly English-oriented.

County Dublin is home to 439 primary schools and 106 secondary schools, with over 135,000 total students enrolled in primary education for 2015/16 [5], and a further 52,268 students enrolled in secondary level education [6]. While a number of students [7] in each school probably have an exemption from Irish, this is a huge pool of people who form a rapt audience for the Irish language considering it is compulsory at primary and secondary level. [8] [9]

There are also various third-level institutions in which Irish is taught officially or promoted by Cumainn Ghaelacha or Irish Clubs, and countless other humans who have learned Irish in school throughout the years but who may no longer be in full time education. Dublin is home to over one million people, about a quarter of the population of the entire country – and yet finding Irish-language programming is a needle-in-haystack situation.

Screen shot 2016-04-29 at 22.37.23

[IMAGE]: Graphic depicting the number of students enrolled in primary and secondary education in Dublin County in 2015/16. Data collected by the Department of Education and Skills. Graphic created using Infogr.am.

There seems to be a huge untapped audience here. Are programmers afraid of Irish-language events?

I hope not, because the public is there for such events. Axis Ballymun have commissioned a bilingual theatre piece in conjunction with the National Association for Youth Drama, as well as staging an adaptation of the Irish myth of Granuaile. The annual Féile IMRAM, an Irish-language literary and music festival, takes place across Dublin and is receiving €60,000 from the Arts Council this year. There is also the monthly multilingual spoken-word event Reic at the Generator Hostel (which has taken place at the Irish Writer’s Centre too). Reic is the brainchild and continuing project of Ciara Ní Éanacháin (@MiseCiara) and consistently draws a crowd in Dublin City.

Maybe these cultural centres have so much going on that they don’t see a space for Irish in their programming. It’s surely not all about funding if smaller, community-based groups like Axis Ballymun and Rua Red are punching above their weight to include Irish in their schedules.

I think the others are afraid of the big bad Irish wolfhound. There must be a way to tap into the pool of Irish speakers and learners, if such a distinction can be made. I think there’s enough money there, and I think it’s about time for our cultural centres to reach out and take some risks.


[1] Government of the Republic of Ireland (1937). Constitution of Ireland: Article 8. Dublin: The Stationery Office. p 8-9. Available at https://www.constitution.ie/Documents/Bhunreacht_na_hEireann_web.pdf (28 April 2016)
[2] Ó Coimín, M. ‘Dráma Gaeilge le bheith ar phríomhstáitse Amharclann na Mainistreach Luan Cásca’. Tuairisc. http://tuairisc.ie/drama-gaeilge-le-bheith-ar-phriomhstaitse-amharclann-na-mainistreach-luan-casca/ (12 April 2016)
[3] Source in Irish: “Is onóir ollmhór [dóibh] go mbeidh an deis acu…”
Trans. (my own): “It is a great honour for [them] that they will have the chance…”
[4] Central Statistics Office. ‘Population Aged Three Years and Over and Percentage of Irish Speakers by Sex, Age Group, Statistical Indicator and Census Year’. CSO.ie. Available via http://www.cso.ie/px/pxeirestat/Statire/SelectVarVal/saveselections.asp# (15 April 2016)
[5] Department of Education and Skills, National School Annual Census. ‘Data on Individual Schools’. Latest Available Primary Schools Lists. Education.ie. http://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Statistics/Data-on-Individual-Schools/Data-on-Individual-Schools.html
[6] Department of Education and Skills, National School Annual Census. ‘Data on Individual Schools’. Latest Available Post Primary Schools Lists. Education.ie. http://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Statistics/Data-on-Individual-Schools/Data-on-Individual-Schools.html
[7] O’Brien, C. ‘Rising number of students exempt from studying Irish’. The Irish Times. 25 April 2016. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/rising-number-of-students-exempt-from-studying-irish-1.2623211 (25 April 2016)
[8] Junior Certificate: Junior Certificate Subjects. Citizens Information. 17 February 2016. Available at http://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/education/state_examinations/junior_certificate_programme.html (20 April 2016)
[9] Established Leaving Certificate: Leaving Certificate Subjects. Citizens Information. 16 February 2016. Available at http://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/education/state_examinations/established_leaving_certificate.html (20 April 2016)