By SiobhÁn Cronin
‘THANK you for inviting me,’ were the modest and genuine words of our President, Michael D Higgins, as he officially opened the Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen last week.
President Higgins, accompanied by his wife Sabina, seemly truly honoured to be among the invited guests at the long-awaited ceremony to launch one of the region’s most controversial buildings.
The President had spent the previous day visiting Cape Clear island, the morning at the Gaelscoil in Clonakilty, and had a 4pm appointment at the unveiling of the O’Donovan Rossa memorial off the Marsh Road in Skibbereen for his two-day official trip to West Cork.
But just after lunch-time on Wednesday, it was the turn of the region’s arts community to meet a man who has championed culture and heritage throughout his career. Although Uillinn has been in operation for several months, the board had waited until a space could be found in the President’s diary, in order to perform the official opening of the €3.4m centre.
President Higgins was the perfect choice for the event – and received a heart-warming welcome from locals and the arts community alike, as the entrance to the building was thronged with well-wishers and photograph-hunters.
Inside, President Higgins was given a tour of the building by director Ann Davoren, meeting artists and staff.
Introducing his guest, board chairman Declan Tiernan described an ‘artist and a poet whose patronage of the arts is well known’. He later said it was an ‘honour’ and a ‘privilege’ to have the president present. ‘And that is an understatement,’ he added.
‘It is the most significant building to be built in Skibbereen in 100 years,’ proclaimed Mr Tiernan, paying tribute to project ‘lynch-pin’ Ann Davoren and her team, to former chairman Majella O’Neill Collins for her vision in making the dream a reality, and to the West Cork people – its ‘fishermen, small farmers and islanders’ who all supported it.
President Higgins said he had been impressed by West Cork many years ago, when he visited Allihies and met artists there, who still remain his friends.
He recalled the ‘enormous debates’ about the role of the arts during his time as Minister for Arts, and he drew laughter as he recalled one letter to a newspaper which commented: “The Minister has announced that everybody is now creative – when we all know that some people don’t have an ounce of creativity in their body”.
‘That was the level of the debate,’ he recalled. He said in those days the plans for arts centres all over the country were often described as “white elephants”.
‘But every single one of them is being used now,’ he noted.
The President made several references to Uillinn having been built on the site of a former bakery – and how creative the craft of bread-making is also. ‘It is so great to know that so much creativity is going on here now too,’ he said.
He paid a special tribute to Sean O Ceallaigh, who had done so much through his ‘generous commitment’ to the project, but had since passed away.
Again referring to the importance of art in society, he noted that the more an economy contracts, the more public spaces are needed. And while there is a feeling amongst some people that if art ‘isn’t knocked into you at 18 years of age, your life is hopeless’, the President said he has visited many nursing homes and even prisons where the people are very creative.
‘Culture is not there to be thrown in at the tail end of events,’ he said, adding: ‘Our sanity will not be upset if we look at a picture in an uncomplicated way!’
He paid tribute, too, to the building’s open spaces that let the light in, and asked: ‘After a decade-and-a-half of madness, did we go mad and build lots of opera houses or a centre for ballet? Unfortunately, not! We have far too few good modern buildings in Ireland. And the fact that this one is dedicated to the arts is an example to the other towns of Europe.’
President Higgins was told how a number of the galleries are dedicated to their patrons, including the James O’Driscoll gallery, along with the UCC & Bollinger family space. The bridge over the Caol stream in front of the centre has been named after the late Sean O’Ceallaigh, Mr Tiernan explained.
And he presented President Higgins with a commemorative book detailing the new spaces in the gallery and their genesis.