IN the begining there were words, words of promise, words of intent. And, when the leavetaking came, so too came the words, words of praise, words of tribute and of love.
For Joan MacKernan, who officially retired last week as County Limerick Arts Officer, there have always been words. First there was the wonder of words that jumped up off the pages of books and made perfect sense. Then came the stories, the magical stories created by her father Michael as they walked their beloved Limerick. And into that mix, came the street-games of her Pennywell childhood and the excitement of plays and circuses dreamt up by her older brother, also Michael. All these, and the songs sung by her mother Martha, convinced Joan MacKernan of the power of words, of music and of drama to conjure other worlds into glorious being.
And when it came to the job of county arts officer which she took up with such great enthusiasm and gusto almost 20 years ago, it was no accident that Joan MacKernan also had the right words. “I want to make a difference,” she told this reporter at the time.
Last Thursday, it was the turn of others to find the words to say thank you for a job well done and for keeping your promise. The range of groups from the broad world of the arts in Co Limerick demonstrated that Joan had, indeed, made a difference.
County librarian Damien Brady, who was MC for the occasion, recalled other words Joan had put on the record in her first weeks on the job. “I remember to this day how clearly she set out her stall,” he told the gathering. “Her role, she said, would be broad and diverse with two primary functions: firstly, to be a resource person for the artistic community living in the County and secondly, to make the arts accessible and encourage participation in creative activity for the general public.”
“For two decades, Joan held firm to these principles with an outstanding contribution in the areas of visual arts programmes, drama, dance and literature, music and story telling, educational out-reach and Arts Bursaries. Her crowning achievement in the year 2000 was the establishment of the now nationally recognised Eigse Michael Hartnett,” Mr Brady added.
“Whether Joan was dealing with an internationally known poet or a school child appearing on stage for the first time, Joan’s own enthusiasm and empathy played a huge part in the success of a project. In everything she did Joan displayed her own breadth of interest combined with her extensive knowledge of the arts and she was always awake to new possibilities for Arts programmes.”
“Joan set the bar high – she always aimed for excellence and inspired others to do the same.”
That Joan had the respect and love of those she worked with, said it all, Mr Brady concluded, while Jimmy Feane, director of human resources described Joan as someone who left you feeling better after meeting her.
Then in an outpouring of great affection and warm admiration, colleagues such as Brid Quinn and Josephine Cotter-Coughlan spoke, as did several councillors. Singer Nóirín Ní Riain performed her own version of Amazing Grace and dedicated it to Joan; the Eigse Michael Hartnett committee made its own presentation, along with an original poem from Gabriel Fitzmaurice and dancer Mary Hartney spoke of Joan’s personal kindness and encouragement to her and of Joan’s vision in pushing for integrated dance in the county. Aileen Dillane also remembered with admiration other first words from the newly-appointed Joan, and her determination to pay artists a good wage for their day’s work. And poet and painter Jo Slade spoke movingly of Joan’s gift for getting people to aspire to be their best selves.
The County Youth Choir which Joan founded made a presentation while the county’s first women’s community singing group Allunde also performed. Other artists and community arts activists from Glin to Doon, from Castleconnell to Rathkeale, from Newcastle West to Kilmallock, along with the County VEC, joined in the noisy, joyful acclamation for Joan.
Joan herself, in an evocative speech, recalled, remembered and thanked the many people and groups she had worked with along the way and thanked also the many colleagues in the council who had supported her.
But she warned too that while Limerick city badly needed the boost of the City of Culture, it should not be at the expense of the county.
See letter on opposite page from artist Barbara Hartigan, paying her own tribute to Joan