The Arts Council and Traditional Music: A Road Map

The recently published Arts Council document on the traditional arts in Ireland - Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts / I dTreo Bheartas um na hEalaíona Traidisiúnta.

‘Arts policy’ is something we often hear of, but what exactly is it for? Simply put, an arts policy gives those who are charged by the state with funding and developing the arts a direction and a set of priorities. Without a clear policy, funding is not as a strategic as it could be, and it is difficult to analyse whether or not real progress is being made.

For a variety of reasons – maybe neglect? maybe ignorance? – Irish traditional music has eluded the attention of policy documents, reports, analysts and consultants for many years. Indeed, the wider practice of music in Ireland – classical, jazz, music education, and so on – has hardly received better attention from state policy makers and the funders of education, the arts and broadcasting. The few significant studies that have been carried out have mainly been initiatives of the Arts Council and, unfortunately, these studies remain depressingly accurate in their description of a fragmented and often apathetic policy environment for music in particular – and for the arts more generally.

Things are improving all the time however. National and local arts plans are beginning to make inroads and deliver positive results and recent policy research by the Arts Council has examined theatre, the arts in education, the role of local authorities, the arts and health, film, dance, the needs of the individual artist, and the built infrastructure (venues and so on) for the arts in Ireland. Arts Council and local authority programmes are starting to take shape under the influence of this research.

Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts
The Arts Council’s most recent policy document, which will be of particular interest to traditional musicians, is Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts/I dTreo Bheartas um na hEalaíona Traidisiúnta which was published on 28th September 2004. This document consists of two parts: firstly, the report of the Special Committee on the Traditional Arts, which was established last December by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism to report on the supports and policy for the traditional arts, and secondly, the resulting principles agreed by the Arts Council on the basis of that report. In my opinion, it is worth reading and taking seriously what this document has to say on a number of levels.

To start with, it is a relief to see a document from any Arts Council anywhere in 2004 that takes a hard look at a relatively discrete area of the arts – the Irish traditional arts in this case – and then sets about outlining practical steps to harness the energy and commitment of the artists themselves with the aim of improving conditions for these art forms. The report makes sensible, practical and feasible recommendations towards recognising and supporting the processes of transmission that sustain and enrich the traditional arts. One of its key recommendations states that, ‘The Arts Council should focus its resources on supporting and developing the following core aspects of the traditional arts: (i) The Traditional Artist; (ii) Transmission, i.e. the passing on of style and repertoire’. This report is written in clear language and it seems to mean exactly what it says. If this is a new approach to policy research and report writing, then it is to be applauded and welcomed. If it’s an aberration, then it’s all the more to be enjoyed.

Surprisingly, the report sets out highly ambitious funding targets for the Arts Council itself and it establishes a funding relativity between the traditional arts and the Council’s funding of the top four art forms. As the report states, ‘The Arts Council must … increase its funding for the traditional arts, such that, within three to five years, they would be among the top four art forms presently funded…’.

The report underlines the need for a Traditional Arts Officer to provide the Arts Council with dedicated in-house expertise on traditional arts. It emphasises the need for not only better outward communication by the Arts Council regarding its funding opportunities for traditional artists, but also the need for better interaction with and among key players such as local authorities, Údarás na Gaeltachta, broadcasters, education authorities, local branches of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ), festivals, summer schools and other organisations.

It is encouraging also to see that the report understands the potential of the traditional arts to contribute effectively to the international promotion of Irish culture and it remains to be seen how this will be received and exercised by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism. The report’s recommendation reads as follows: ‘The Arts Council must focus relevant supports such as mobility grants to assist traditional artists to maximise the potential of the appeal of the traditional artists abroad’.

Wisely, the report also acknowledges the interdependence and shared responsibilities of a range of organisations and agencies – the Arts Council, local authorities, broadcasters, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and the Irish Traditional Music Archive, among others – all of whom have a legitimate role to play in supporting traditional arts. This approach seeks to avoid two evils: one being the risk of monopolised or centralised responsibility and control of resources, the other being the risk of fragmented and incoherent policy and support programmes.

Perhaps the greatest and most enduring legacy of this report will be discerned in two areas. The first is an inclusive and flexible definition of what the term ‘traditional arts’ should include – the report recommends ‘traditional music, song and dance, and oral arts such as storytelling and agallamh beirte’ – and this keeps with international practice in using a list of activities rather than a description of the character, qualities and nature of the activities in question in order to say what ‘the arts’ means. The second is a clear statement of recognition and acknowledgement of the role and value of traditional arts in Irish society:

The Committee considers [the increase in funding] necessary in order to begin to reflect the centrality of the traditional arts to Irish life, to correct the current inadequate support by the Government for these art forms, to begin to assure traditional artists that they have a place at the Arts Council table, and to affirm that they are valued as artists and contributors to the cultural life of this country.

In addressing these issues the report succeeds in neutralising two issues that had created divisive tensions – not to mention debate, which was badly needed – within the traditional community in recent years. I hope that the next stage of the debate will be about the success or otherwise of the Arts Council and others in implementing the forty-six recommendations contained in the report.

Changing the playing pitch
While the absence in the past of an agreeable definition of traditional arts might not seem contentious, the issue did find momentum, principally as a result of being raised for discussion in 2000 in ‘Towards a Framework for the Arts’, a discussion document published by the then Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Síle de Valera, as an opening move in developing a new Arts Act. This document did indeed stimulate discussion and debate, publicly and privately, about the status and future support of the traditional arts. Interestingly, however, the discussion document raised for public debate a number of issues that seem to have been priorities or demands of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ), most notably the demand for a separate Arts Council for the traditional arts and for a consequent diminution of the role of the Arts Council – and, I assume, a greater level of control for CCÉ. This was always going to be about control – and perceptions of control.

Claims that there was no parity of esteem allowed certain forces, notably CCÉ, to assert a kind of victim status for the traditional arts and for the people who participate in them. The absence of any clear statement of value either at Government level or through the Arts Council, local authorities and other public bodies helped fuel this perception and probably legitimised, to an extent, this and other claims that the responsibility and resources for the traditional arts be allocated to CCÉ.

However, on Tuesday 28th October 2004, the playing pitch was changed dramatically and for the better when Olive Braiden, Chairperson of the Arts Council, launched Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts. The Chairperson told a gathering of some of Ireland’s most eminent musicians and traditional artists, journalists and others that the Arts Council

…has adopted its main policy recommendations. This document, Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts, therefore provides an important opportunity for the state to begin to embrace and support the traditional arts in a co-ordinated and realistic fashion, and to ensure that this unique expression of our culture is protected and developed. The Arts Council is confident that this document offers the possibility of a significant improvement in the prospects for the traditional arts in the years ahead. It will act as our road map.

As if to hammer home the depth of change that was being implemented, the next speaker was John O’Donoghue TD, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, who spearheaded the initiative that led to the production and adoption of this report. The Minister, no slouch himself at cutting a clear path through the tricky and dangerous territory of the traditional arts world, had this to say:

When I became Minister for Arts just over two years ago, one of the first things I became aware of was the ongoing challenge of how the State would most effectively support the traditional arts. I believe this report has the potential to place the traditional arts at the heart of Irish cultural life, nationally and internationally. It is a matter of considerable personal satisfaction for me to see the publication of this document here today. In line with the report, I believe that the Arts Council must now take a more active role in the development and support of the traditional arts. However, it cannot and should not assume the role of sole provider. Rather, it must work to complement the activity that is already taking place.

O’Donoghue’s clear personal and political ambition now leaves a legacy of great opportunity and acknowledges the diversity and autonomy that drive the traditional arts. Hence, I suggest, the unusual outbreak of relative optimism and consensus within the wider traditional arts community.

The reality now is that with so many hot issues put to bed, it’s all down to implementation. This means different things for different players. The Arts Council needs to make a staff appointment soon, ideally a person who will be in a position to implement policies rather than have advisory powers alone. Public sector recruitment constraints suggest that the latter is more likely – but it will be the calibre and resource base of the individual that will matter, not the details of employment arrangements. And the Council will need to convince the traditional arts world that it is serious about directing more money towards the traditional arts. Personally, I doubt if demand for money from those involved in the Irish traditional arts will reach the funding level of the top four or five art-forms in the foreseeable future – as the report suggests it should – but the report puts it up to musicians and all those involved in the traditional artists to engage with the Council and to start playing ball, so let the games begin!

The report spells out relatively clearly the respective and complementary roles of a number of state bodies involved in Gaeltacht development, in education, in local arts development and in broadcasting, and this is where I would hope to see real sustainable and profound change in the way the traditional arts are supported.

And as things have turned out, the Arts Council report does indeed acknowledge the valuable contribution that CCÉ has to play through its excellent branch network throughout the country, and the report challenges both organisations to get their act together and make things happen. It remains to be seen if CCÉ can exercise the kind of organisational and political astuteness and foresight that it will need if it is to remain an effective player in this exciting new and inclusive policy environment. Leadership based on something other than inventing new ways of saying ‘no’ or ‘all mine’ will be required at the top of CCÉ if the thousands of musicians involved in CCÉ throughout the country are to get a chance to play their part to the full in making this new policy work and deliver for the traditional arts.

This report sets a new standard in terms of accuracy and concision of analysis, clarity of proposed solutions, and, above all, opening up a new and level playing pitch for traditional artists where opportunity and imagination can meet and do business – and where tired and sectional arguments about entitlement can be sidelined once and for all.

‘Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts/I dTreo Bheartas um na hEalaíona Traidisiúnta’ can be downloaded from the Arts Council’s web-site ( Hard copies are also available by emailing reception [at] with full postal address details or by telephoning 01-6180200.


Published on 1 November 2004

Dermot McLaughlin is a fiddle player and currently Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

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