The Uíbh Ráthach peninsula a very beautiful part of Ireland; a dark sky reserve, the gateway to the Scellig rocks and Puffin Island, great beaches for surfing and a sudden all out summer season. For the people who live there year around, however, it is
also an area of rural disadvantage with an ageing demographic, draining depopulation, closed up businesses, withdrawal of public and social services, and all of the associated social and economic consequences. Uíbh Ráthach is also considered to be
amongst the most vulnerable Gaeltacht area in Ireland, with the traditionally Irish speaking townlands bearing the brunt of the most extreme population decline.
The idea of creative placemaking was first considered in Uíbh Ráthach during
a conversation between some local people and some members of the Arts Council who were in the area following the final Amergin Solstice Poetry gathering in the Autumn of 2020. The Creative Places Tuam programme had begun earlier that year, but there
wasn’t yet widespread awareness here of what was happening in North Galway, and no sense of how it might be relevant to the situation in Uíbh Ráthach.
Having been pointed in the direction of the Creative Places project, a group of people – arts activists, social organisers, community workers, arts officers, came together to look at the what, when, where and why of this scheme and of the application
process. This group shared a baseline understanding of the potential of art to operate as a catalyst in generating small, incremental moments of social change, and this was their motivation to persevere, this was the ‘why’ of making an application
to this fund.
The ‘where’ and the ‘when’ were also self-evident. The ‘what’ however was less obvious. What might we actually do if received the award? What type of projects might be funded? Which artists or groups might be interested in participating? And to what
communally negotiated end? How might a curated programme of socially engaged art projects speak to, or intervene in, the persistent structural weakness associated with the socio-economic and linguistic patterns distinct to this area?
We didn’t have enough information to allow for an evaluation of the ways in which a three year investment in socially engaged art projects might be dynamised to substantively impact on the quality of life on this peninsula.
On this basis, the steering group concluded that they were not in a position to make an application for the full Creative Places designation, and agreed that the opportunity to apply for a Research and Development award would be more useful and relevant.
When the research and development work began in Uíbh Ráthach in January 2022, it was suggested that there had been so many previous research projects undertaken in this area that it was likely that many people may be suffering from research fatigue, along
with an ancillary scepticism that yet another report may help change anything. But, I think it fair to say, that while there was evidence of a widespread disinclination towards optimism, there was also much evidence to indicate that the people who
remain committed to making a life here are not defeated.
There is a sense of place.
And in this place, creative placemaking, we came to understand, happens in the daily act of replenishing the repositories of shared communal practice, of memories and stories of things that happened across time scales and histories, anchored into specific
locations in the landscape -
‘…the tug of war competitions that used to happen in an
‘…the impromptu summer music sessions in Mannix Point caravan Park…’
‘the stories heard in
Irish for the last time in Cill Rialaig…’
‘…that street party in
Baile an Sceilg on the Independence day of Ukraine…’
…. ‘ the touring ‘tops of the town’ nights that went to every parish and brought everybody out, and the
Caherdaniel river eco-project that almost got off the ground’ ….
reel-to-reel music trove that was found in a Glenmore attic’….
…‘the Cahersiveen youth orchestra that once toured Ireland’…
‘the specific name of each pool in
Abhainn na hÚine’…
collaborative film that locals made online during Covid’
feis on the back of a lorry one 1950’s summer in
- an infinite bricolage of remembered events and collective, collaborative experiences which form the bedrock of one distinct community culture, in one particular place.
These stories, related in one-to-one conversations which were pursued throughout the research year, would also allow time and space to talk about what people missed most in their community and cultural life. Sometimes people would speak about what they
would love to see happen next, and then what, if anything, we might be able to do together to bring some of these possibilities about.
For much of this process we had no funding to offer, and this was a great advantage. A lot of problems and misunderstandings were avoided. Instead we could give time to help articulate and develop ideas when opportunities presented, to point towards public
funding sources, to help fill forms, to make connections, to build networks between different groups and people. In this way we managed to get several small projects off the ground. On each occasion we applied action research methods. Participants
and artists were involved not only in the activity, but also in an interpretation and awareness of the predispositions which determine the ways in which things happen, and the ways in which things don’t happen.
We could have used the research
year to prepare a strong application for the next Creative Places funding round. That approach may well be the best option for some locations.
In our case, the primary research question always allowed for the possibility that a three year
fund to support socially engaged art projects may not be the answer. In approaching the work in this way, we could take time to look back first, before moving forward. Time which allowed us to gain better sense of the gaps, the historical spaces where
things fell, where things were forgotten, or were previously lost. The failed spaces which continue to fuel ideological inclinations which make it difficult to envisage alternative ways of being. It allows us to appreciate why, for some people in
Uíbh Ráthach it is almost impossible to imagine what a flourishing arts community might look like.
What do we know now that we didn’t know one year ago?
On a practical level we now know that there is an established need for a cultural
pivot here, a centre, an institution, an inclusive annual arts festival, or even a person who is assigned to the task of supporting, building, tending-to and growing a cohesive arts and artistic community across the peninsula. In the stark absence
of such a curational role, arts culture here is fragmented, individualised, aimless and (it seems) in perpetual decline.
On an emotional level we now know that in this place where optimism and confidence in the future has become so depleted,
that any arts interventions will first need to acknowledge and celebrate the significance of small wins; small steps, small audiences, small gains. Small astonishments. But more and more of them. Organised by small local groups, happening in new places
and involving different people. Exploring new genres and art forms. Experiencing new ways of participating. We now know that a big selection of small scale opportunities for people to enjoy being social and being creative together will be the first
step in re-building this creative place.
We have recently opened a micro arts fund to begin to encourage and support such projects, we hope to use this as an opportunity to engage with as many community groups and socially minded artists
as we can. The idea for this micro arts fund was shared with us by the team at Creative Places Tuam. Through engaging with this network we can say that we now know a great deal more about socially engaged practice than we did a year ago. We now also
know that there is a great deal of solidarity and practical support being offered by Create, by Creative Places Tuam, and in the connections forged between us and the co-ordinators of the other Creative Places.
The year-long immersion in
the Creative Places support network has introduced us to socially engaged ideas and concepts, best practice, to interesting artists who we would love to work with. This exposure has left us also considering the need to address the gaps in conventional
arts provision and infrastructure in Uibh Ráthach – exhibition spaces, theatre programming, amateur theatre practice, access to training in music, singing, dance, art, bold, unabashed Irish language programming across the art forms, strong links
with national touring theatre and music companies – basic essential arts services which are currently organised sporadically or are entirely absent.
Now, as we approach the final stages of our research work programme, we can say with certainty
that we don’t have all the answers, but we do have better questions. We are in a stronger position to anticipate where a significant investment in the arts in this area may make most impact, to the benefit of most people. We have covered some of the
groundwork which might otherwise need to be undertaken during the first year of full Creative Places investment. The research and development programme in Uíbh Ráthach has been very useful and valuable in and of itself. We look forward to building
on this in the years ahead.
Marina Ní Dhubháin, February 2023