PARADISE LOST? by Joseph Woods
(Poetry Ireland News, May/June 2006)
The recent announcement that the Bank of Ireland is about to close its only Arts Centre in the country, at Foster Place, College Green, Dublin 2, comes as a huge body blow to the community of artists, writers, actors and musicians throughout the country, many of whom have read, performed or exhibited there.
At the time of going to press, it looks like there is little hope of a stay of execution. From the few scraps of information which have been disclosed, we’ve learned that the centre isn’t even owned by the Bank of Ireland anymore, but belongs – bizarrely! – to a group of seven individuals based in Galway, according to The Irish Times.
The Bank of Ireland should in the first place be commended for establishing and running an arts centre eleven years ago. It was a rare and important initiative by a financial institution, a way of contributing something back to the communities that the banks themselves rely on. The centre was a little corner of civilisation in the city, a place where one could hear lectures, poetry readings, music recitals and see visual art exhibitions – and even grab a coffee and a sandwich in the process, in the excellent cafe there. The staff were always friendly and helpful, and under the direction of Barry O’Kelly, Foster Place grew to be one of the busiest, most vibrant Arts Centres not only in Dublin but in the country at large.
Eleven years ago, we as a country were only beginning to realise the scale of the prosperity that was to visit us. Now with banks posting astronomical benefits in Ireland, where charges appear to be well above the European norm, and reaping perhaps some of the biggest dividends from the flourishing economy, it appears that the Bank can no longer afford the ‘luxury’ of an arts centre.
We are also informed that the centre isn’t suitable, or is too small for requirements! I have been to many book launches in the BOI Arts centre with comfortably up to as many as 150 people attending. The Out to Lunch series of poetry readings had an average attendance of 50 and upwards. Recently these figures were boosted by Secondary School students who had a chance to see and hear a poet included on their Leaving Certificate curriculum – Brendan Kennelly, for example, along with Paula Meehan, Michael Longley, and Cathal Ó Searcaigh, four of the poets who read at the Centre earlier this year.
The programme of readings, chosen and compiled by John McNamee, never ceased to amaze me, it always managed to represent not only the major and established poets but placed them alongside new and emerging talent. That seemed to be the guiding principle or ethos of the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, there was a sense of fairness about the programming which in turn led to many unusual and exciting encounters.
Along with the rest of the arts community, Poetry Ireland will miss having the occasional use of the Centre as a venue for readings and launches, and will miss the courtesy of Barry O’Kelly and his staff. Dublin city centre, not short of convenience stores and multi-storey car parks, looks to have lost another significant venue for arts and artists. The real losers, of course, will be the public, old and young, who frequented the place, along with the many international visitors delighted to chance upon such a wide variety of welcome – and free – cultural events in the capital city.