Maintaining a cultural momentum is key for Limerick

Alan Owens


Alan Owens

A defining moment: Fuerza Bruta was an instant success for City of Culture, welcoming over 12,000 people to see it in the Culture Factory, giving a boost to the year when it needed it most. There was a frantic race against time to get the old Dell building up to code for the large scale event (Picture: Alan Place) - below, the announcement of Mike Fitzpatrick as interim director
THERE was a moment after the storm of opening resignations and recriminations had subsided that the wheels threatened to again come off Limerick’s City of Culture year.

THERE was a moment after the storm of opening resignations and recriminations had subsided that the wheels threatened to again come off Limerick’s City of Culture year.

The standard assortment of local and national media had been invited to the launch of the old Dell building, which was in the process of being given a €400,000 makeover as the ‘Culture Factory’ to play host to Fuerza Bruta in March, the large scale Argentinian circus-cum-theatre show. The press launch happened to coincide with the visit of a group of safety officials, including the fire officer, to inspect the building, an indication of how pressing schedules were; a “race against time”, according to one source.

Work had been ongoing around the clock to bring the building up to code to allow for thousands of people to come to the show, which was the first real edgy element of the programme, as the high profile nature of Riverdance had practically ensured it would be a sell-out. There was no such guarantee for Fuerza, an almost indescribable nightclub-type show that was making its debut in Ireland.

As the media were escorted around one part of the building, the vibe emanating from the group of inspecting officials in another corner was not good, and the show hung in the balance. A large scale industrial building, it needed huge work to be suitable for big crowds of people.

With some last gasp, frenetic activity, the building was finally passed fit for use, and more than 12,000 people passed through the doors for the run, creating a momentum and excitement about the year that lifted it out of the doldrums.

When then arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan first mooted publicly the notion in July 2012 of Limerick being awarded the title of Ireland’s first national City of Culture, the idea was broadly welcomed, if not with a slight feeling of trepidation of how to proceed on something that was high on concept, yet low on specifics.

In fact, the impetus for the idea had come from Denis Brosnan, then chair of the Limerick Reorganisation Implementation Group, as a way of helping the city during the anticipated period of upheaval and dramatic change that was to follow in 2014, as the city and county councils were amalgamated. Forget about re-branding, this was always about stimulating an arts and culture scene that was already vibrant and healthy, but was arguably chronically underfunded and suffering more than most because of the recession.

Flash forward and owing to the fact that a city in Ireland will attain European Capital of Culture status in 2020 - which Limerick is bidding for - the Government has decided that the next Irish city of culture will not be appointed in 2018 as was initially planned. This decision means that Limerick will thus be the only national City of Culture in a near ten year period, making the year all the more special when that fact is considered.

After the joy of the designation and eventual programme launch, there was public recrimination, resignations, outrage and then - with the appointment of Mike Fitzpatrick - a notable calm.

It is interesting that most of the voices of dissent heard at the by now legendary January meeting calmed almost to a silence as the year progressed. Not everybody will be entirely happy with how the year unfolded, and whether it hit its full potential, but when you consider that €10m has been spent directly on the arts and culture in Limerick this year, it is an enormous figure that will continue to have huge benefit to come in 2015 and beyond. A whole economy of actors, crew and producers were also able to return to their native Limerick to work for the year, which will have resulted in significant obvious benefits locally.

A major success for the year was the Made in Limerick projects, 109 in total that were funded to the tune of €2.3m out of the overall €6m State contribution, several of which were legacy projects. The discovery of new venues in the city area was another, as was the involvement of people willing to volunteer their time free of charge which ensured that many events could take place in 2014. Securing the support of private businesses in the region was also a major positive.

The year has reawakened a confidence in Limerick, has changed both how those who live here feel about the city and how those beyond its walls perceive it. It has shown the local authority that culture is something worth nurturing, engaging with and encouraging, that the fostering of civic pride is simply priceless.

In monetary terms there was a huge boost, 750,000 people attending events during the year, bed nights increasing by a minimum of 10-15% across the board. An early analysis by Grant Thornton suggests the impact could be in the tens of millions.

All of this was achieved through €6m in State funding, the rest gleaned through private sponsorship, corporate and in-kind support, and the decision by Conn Murray to transfer council staff over to the project, primarily Sheila Deegan and Paul Foley, who brought a vigour and nous to a project that was struggling under the weight of its own expectation.

It is also worth noting that the programme that was largely implemented during the year was the one put together with aplomb by artistic director Karl Wallace and his creative team of Maeve McGrath and Jo Mangan, including the controversial Royal de Luxe visit of the Grandmother that was the stunning centrepiece of the year, the “wow factor” Wallace was looking for.

He did not resign because of the initial decision not to press ahead with the giant spectacle for budgetary reasons, but it did exacerbate a situation where art clashed with bureaucracy, and where the controversy over an appointment - that of CEO Patricia Ryan - without the proper procedures being followed, allowed the situation to reach that exploding point before a period of calm followed.

Mike Fitzpatrick says the year has “really penetrated deep down and into the region”.

“It certainly achieved as much, and I would say an awful lot more, than we imagined,” he says. “You do, in a very straightforward way, say, these are things we should do, such as have more involvement, more activities and more culture and there were loads of events planned, but you couldn’t expect or imagine that people were going to take it on board, in a very deep and meaningful way.

“There was for many that sense of Limerick being separated, that invisible separation, and ghettoised in a sense, and I think that this year has done a remarkable amount about the rhetoric that I would have talked about at the beginning of the year, talking about being a strong regional capital. I think we are beginning to grow that legacy now, and that is a strong legacy.

“Nationally, there is a much different perception of Limerick. For me, the national thing is fluid but the biggest change is in the people you meet who are not in the cultural industry who say it was a great year. It is not said with any agenda and culture has become part of the DNA and the feel good factor about Limerick.”

A straw poll of members of the artistic community asked to ponder the year is met with near universal positivity. Likewise a meeting of the council, where elected representatives were given their opportunity to debate the year, was unstinting in its praise for City of Culture recently.

John Greenwood, who was to the fore in the wake of Wallace’s departure as part of PLAN - the Professional Limerick Artists Network - says “there is a positive energy and professionalism about Limerick that has not been recognisable for some time”.

“City of Culture helped remove a residue of a darkened chapter and gave the people who love Limerick a new and colourful confidence,” he says.

Actor Kevin Kiely Jnr - who spent his first full year in Limerick in many years - points to the pillar systems established by Wallace to manage each strand of the year that created a “community - a multi-disciplinary meeting of minds”.

“2015 is already more inclusive as a result,” he says.

Playwright Mary Coll says the year was a “huge success” that “excelled after a rocky start” and changed “how we feel about ourselves and how we are perceived”.

Fitzpatrick says that “the cohesion has been fantastic, and if we can maintain that in some way, that is vital. It is fluid.”

“A lot of boundaries have been well and truly changed. What is tremendously satisfying is the lack of that rancour. Normally these things are full of back biting. I am truly amazed at the outpouring of good will.

“It will be self fulfilling if we get the right kind of momentum (toward 2020). I think we can get there, I am very excited about getting there and we have a fantastic story to tell. It is head down and ignore the opposition.”

Mistakes were undoubtedly made and if Limerick perhaps had an extra year to prepare, it might have been a greater success. But the overall feeling remains that City of Culture came along at the right time and helped re-instill a confidence in the cultural sector.

Now it is in the limelight, has been jump started, it needs to continue to grow along with a city that is facing a period of growth as the economy rises, to be curated and facilitated further into 2015 and onwards towards 2020.

“People embraced it. There was definitely a massive confidence boost in ourselves and our city,” says Mike.

“You are in a complex place now, you have to re-figure out where you are going and I am not underestimating that challenge. It is an interesting moment, we need to garner a lot of support. We need to be smart, we won’t have a huge amount of resources, so it is about figuring out how best we use them.”

City of Culture 2014 - so how was it for you?

THIS was a year of transformational change in Limerick and it was no accident that the city was bestowed the first national City of Culture designation as the councils were amalgamated.

People power proved essential to the year functioning properly, rather than having ongoing rancour over appointments and process.

At the stormy public meeting in the Clarion Hotel on January 3, the majority of voices sought to get City of Culture back on track, and said as much in many passionate speeches.

That, in itself, was a transformational moment that lead directly to the appointment of Mike Fitzpatrick to the role of director, seconded from his position of head of school in LIT LSAD.

Fitzpatrick’s appointment eased concerns over the year’s structure and management and was a key moment in the year.

We worked hard to cover the events of those days and the many hundreds that followed as the year continued.

Now we want to hear from you. Let us know what you think of the year, whether it was successful, did you attend any events and what was your highlight.

We want to further assess City of Culture and its legacy – plus what needs to happen to win the 2020 European Capital of Culture designation, a process that will begin in earnest in January, likely with the establishment of a new agency to oversee the bid proposal and the management of the arts and culture in Limerick.

Minister Jimmy Deenihan, who bestowed the cultural designation on Limerick, said that the aim of the initiative was to “deliver a programme of cultural events and engagement in a city for one year, but which also has a longer-term positive impact”.

“It will seek to bring artists, arts organisations, local authorities and civic groups that are working in a city together through the design of a calendar of events that showcases all that the city has to offer in arts and cultural expression,” he outlined in July 2012.

He said he wanted it to be “a clarion call to artists and arts organisations, local authorities, City Councils, local representatives and members of the public to work together in the development of an exciting calendar of events in their city”.

Was he correct? Are you happy with the results? Is there a new sense of confidence in Limerick? Let us know.

Email us at with ‘City of Culture feedback’ in the subject line.