Shambles to success: Limerick’s year as debut Irish City of Culture

13 January 2015

It began with a whimper and ended with a bang. Although not altogether an accurate description of Limerick’s year as debut Irish City of Culture, that summary gives some idea of how the project progressed. Twelve months ago it looked like progress was well nigh impossible. The City of Culture scheme had been announced by the country’s then-Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan in July 2012, and was followed by a long silence, especially whenever the subject of funding arose. Somehow the relevant authorities in Limerick started to plan, despite having no idea of their budget. It was only in mid-October 2013, mere months before the start of the year, that the Minister for Finance advised €6 million would be made available to the city.

This want of proper planning, and in particular the blend of bureaucratic ineptitude and interference which is a hallmark of officialdom in Ireland, meant there were always going to be problems with Limerick’s tenure as City of Culture. By the end of the first week in January the event’s chief executive and artistic director had both resigned, stormy protest meetings were being held around the city and the likelihood of anything resembling a programme being salvaged from the shambles looked remote.

Somehow this came about, in large measure thanks to the appointment of a Mike Fitzpatrick, director of the local art school (and former director of the city art gallery) to oversee the venture. Much of what had already been planned went ahead and as the months passed and calm descended, additional elements were added so that by the end of 2014 everyone responsible was entitled to receive a round of applause for a job well done.

Nevertheless, some questions still wait an answer, not least whether the National City of Culture scheme, which when launched was declared to be a biennial event, will ever occur again. So far there has been no mention of a successor to Limerick, which leads one to wonder if the relevant civil servants in central government are doomed, or perhaps determined, to make the same mistakes over and over again. Should the government decide to hand another city this dubious distinction, there has to be better forward planning and the early declaration of a budget. Otherwise another potential catastrophe lies ahead.

And for Limerick itself, there remain unresolved issues: in particular, what will be the long-term legacy of its year in the cultural spotlight? One of the past 12 months’ most satisfactory features was the use of unexpected venues for events, whether actress and director Joan Sheehy’s interpretation of a famous early 19th-century murder trial staged in the Shannon Rowing Club, or Irish premieres for troupes Fuerzabruta and NoFit State Circus in a former computer factory. Inevitably these large-scale events tended to garner the greatest notice: the single most popular, and most expensive, item in the programme was French company Royal de Luxe’s street procession led by a giant. As a result, many of more than 100 smaller local initiatives funded through the Made in Limerick stream, received less attention than might otherwise have been the case. And the visual arts definitely garnered little of the limelight. But they deserve to be remembered, not least for giving new purpose to some of the city’s derelict properties. If the local council really wishes the project to produce a permanent legacy, it could do worse than hand some of those sites over to the groups who put them to such imaginative use during the past 12 months.

Meanwhile Fitzpatrick and others are determined not to let the energy flag and have already begun discussing the creation of a five-year cultural strategy intended to secure Limerick the title of European City of Culture in 2020. Summarising the past 12 months in Limerick, the Irish Times’ theatre critic Peter Crawley called it the year ‘in which the artistry beat bureaucracy’. If 2014 is to have long-term consequences for Limerick, it would be best to keep the bureaucrats as far away as possible.

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