FORMER European Parliament president Pat Cox accepts that pulling off ambitious plans for Limerick City of Culture in 2014 will be a “challenge” but believes that the year, in tandem with transformation at local authority level, can be “the beginning of a Limerick Renaissance”.
The Freeman of Limerick and recently appointed chair of the governing group for the national culture designation, was in his home city last week to host public meetings and soak up ideas from arts, cultural, sporting and community associations.
This endeavour, which attracted large numbers of people to the various meetings, all keen to hear about plans for the City of Culture programme, went some way to appeasing a level of disquiet locally that public consultation had not taken place since the announcement was made last July that Limerick was to be the pilot city for the initiative in Ireland.
In fact, Cox and his fellow Freemen Bill Whelan and Paul O’Connell were appointed almost six months to the day since arts minister Jimmy Deenihan unveiled the City of Culture designation and have already done more in a matter of weeks than had been done in the months previous, sparking high hopes of a successful year in 2014.
“I think this week has been an important one for the programme for the culture festival of 2014 because it was the first we had the opportunity to come right down to the grassroots and engage consecutively with all of the key groups, professional, semi-professional, amateur, voluntary, community - across all the arts sectors,” explains Cox.
“The wonderful thing in the week has been, without exception, the level of enthusiasm that we have seen, the commitment that people are prepared to make to it, the ideas that they are prepared to share has been fantastic.”
Mr Cox says that he and his fellow governing body members - including new merged local authority manager Conn Murray and Arts Council director Orlaith McBride - were acting as a “sponge” and soaking up ideas from the meetings, all of which will be reviewed in the coming weeks.
“We want a structure that is not a big bureaucracy, but one where people feel connected,” he says. “We are not coming at it with a diktat, we really do want people involved and what is clear out of this week’s meetings is that there was no sector from which we were in touch with, from venue suppliers, to sports associations, the international communities in Limerick, the voluntary and community sectors - everyone is up for it, and we are up to trying to accommodate them.”
A process of mobilisation has begun in the last week that will result in a draft programme being produced in June and a definitive programme in early Autumn, which will include several iconic events - Riverdance potentially, plus a likely New Year’s celebration to kick off the year, with plenty more planned - as well as tying in with the many existing arts events at a local level.
“The great thing we have got is that there really is a very vibrant cultural life at all the levels I have mentioned here, where we are not starting at zero,” he says.
“What we are hoping we can do in the programme is two things; to lift the lid on what is already going on here and to harness this kind of energy, not just for 2014, but for what we are calling 2014-plus.
“I hope it is the beginning of a Limerick Renaissance and I think it can be, and it can be very Limerick. Limerick has its own accent, if I can put it that way, to do with its on the street culture, so let’s find the accent and let it speak.”
An artistic director is to be appointed in March to oversee the operation of the programme on the ground, and Cox admits a budget is yet to be determined.
“We have a real challenge of planning an event for 2014 without knowing what our ultimate budget will be, and this is fairly daunting, but it is not mission impossible,” he stresses.
“Hopefully we might get some sponsorship and patronage, we will certainly press for it, but that is to be done. We have to use our imagination to get benefit in kind where people will do things for us without us having to carry the cost.
“In different ways, if we use our imaginations, I think we can create a very interesting programme. We are setting out with a very high ambition, and by high ambition, even if we fail to achieve all the heights we want, it should lift our sights and bring us to another place, we hope.”