EINSTEIN may have coined the adage but for the past 20 years Joan MacKernan has used it as her catchphrase in schools the length and breadth of Limerick: “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.
“I just think what the creative arts does is, it makes one think in a different way – it makes one think about solutions and ends rather than problems.”
Joan was speaking at the Clarion Hotel, where she was presented with the Limerick Person of the Month award for her outstanding contribution to the arts in Limerick during her tenure as county Limerick arts officer.
From the very first day, 20 years ago, when she walked through the doorway of the old county council building opposite the Belltable on O’Connell Street, Joan brought to the job a passion for creativity and individual expression, be it through the spoken or written word, music or drama.
Her interest in the arts was sparked and then nurtured firstly in the family home on Pennywell Road where she would enjoy plays and circuses dreamt up by her older brother, Michael.
She recalls one occasion in school when the brother of a teacher, who was training to be an educational psychologist, carried out some research on the students. Afterwards, he told the young Joan that he felt her future career lay in the arts.
“I thought nothing of it,” Joan recalls of the time. “But all my leanings were towards the arts, particularly towards literature.
“If you had asked me at that stage what I wanted to be, I probably would have said a writer or a journalist – something in that area. And when I did end up working in the arts, I thought of his remark.”
She credits her “wonderful” English teacher in St Mary’s School on Bishop Street – a woman by the name of Joan Keane – with being a real guiding influence in her early life.
“She was outstanding but I did have wonderful teachers at secondary school level – people who really had a vocation.
“I went to a working-class school, very few at that stage would have gone on to college, and they were just the most inspiring team of women who really nurtured us and encouraged us to dream and to think big.”
The recent passing of Patsy Harrold – a proponent of the arts in Limerick – rekindled for Joan memories of the good old days in the city. “One of the best times in my life was going to the poetry in the castle on a Wednesday evening during the summer,” she recalls.
“I used to love going up the stairs – the thickness of the walls, that whole sense of the castle, the guttering candles and Claude Byrne and his melodic voice.”
“That’s what I loved about working in the county – you met these community people all wanting to create something within their own local area for people. It was very much that spirit that was in the castle in those days. You find people like that are inspiring to work for because they have no other agenda.”
While she says it’s very hard to pick one stand-out achievement from her career, she is very pleased with how the office has grown from “effectively been on my own 20 years ago and then having, when I was leaving, six or seven people working out of the office on a weekly basis, and the ripple effect of the various projects and programmes that we did in the county”.
With her characteristic modesty, she plays down the role she had in the development of the office - the only immodest thing she will say is: “I always surround myself with talented people. I am a facilitator that makes things happen”.
If Joan met someone who displayed talent and ability, she built projects around them. “I was coming from a job in the city as community arts coordinator and I saw the value of working with really talented artists and the work that could happen if you work with such people”.
The list of new programmes introduced over the years of her stewardship is staggeringly impressive.
The county now has an annual artists-in-the-schools programme; since the Limerick County Youth Choir was set up in 2006 at least 250 young people have participated; the County Limerick Youth Theatre impacts on the lives of scores of young people on a weekly basis; and then there is the annual poetry festival, Eigse Michael Hartnett which vibrantly honours the poetry and memory of one of Ireland’s best loved poets.
The project probably most close to her heart is the Integrated Dance Programme, where dancer Mary Hartney brings together teenagers and people with disabilities to create dance.
Joan, who resides in Corbally, describes leaving the post of county Limerick arts officer as “heart-wrenching”.
“It was a very difficult decision to make. It was based on my long-term health. I’m glad now and I’m very happy to have made that decision – it was a process over six or seven months having to make a decision like that.”
Is there a book in her? “There is a book in all of us,” she asserts. “When you are an avid reader, you realise the quality and the standard that’s out there – the canon that’s there already.
“I always felt that I had lots of ideas – that was one of the real things that I brought to the job. I am creative in that sense. I do know if I meet someone, where to take something. That’s never lost.”
Joan is married to Brendan and they have three sons – Ronan, Evan and Conall.
The Limerick Person of the Month award is sponsored by the Limerick Leader, Southern and the Clarion Hotel.