Speech by Tánaiste at the launch of Abbey Theatre 2016 programme

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I'm delighted to be here today to launch Waking the Nation, the Abbey Theatre's 2016 programme.

Just as the Abbey holds a unique place in Ireland's cultural heritage, it holds a special place in my own heart.

I first attended the Abbey when I was about 11 or 12 years of age, watching wide-eyed and enthralled at the theatrical magic conjured up by Ray McAnally and others in the Christmas pantomime.

My love affair with the Abbey began then and continues to this day.

So to be here in a professional capacity to launch the 2016 programme is a great pleasure.

And to stand on stage while doing so, in the company of some of our very finest actors and playwrights, is truly a great privilege.

The people who have walked these boards have not just chronicled Irish life, but shaped it.

From the Revolutionary Generation who left the theatre in 1916 to join the Rising...

To the great plays of O'Casey, Murphy, McGuinness and others which have left such an indelible print in our collective memory...

To Panti Bliss, whose noble call to tackle homophobia was heard across the world, culminating in Ireland becoming a rainbow nation by saying yes to marriage equality.

That was a cause to which I and the Labour Party are very proud to have contributed.  

I mentioned the great playwrights, and of course, it's impossible to stand here without conjuring up Ballybeg in the mind's eye.

So I'd like to pay tribute to the late, much loved and magisterial Brian Friel.

His relationship with Irish theatre and the Abbey is well documented and I want to acknowledge the theatre community's loss in his passing.

If Gar Private warned about collecting miserable memories and images and impressions, Brian Friel left us with only the most remarkable memories and images and impressions.  

With the 2016 programme, the Abbey looks forward as well as back.

It's a very significant programme for the Abbey, of course, and the wider artistic and cultural sector in Ireland.

And it's more than that.

It's also a very important milestone in the wider 2016 Centenary Programme.

But it's more than that too.

Because I believe it will be a vitally important pillar of the Irish revival we as a people are now building.  

Let me explain what I mean by that.

I'm a working-class Dubliner whose parents instilled in me the value of education and the wonder of the arts.

Education – to ensure that I had opportunities in life.

The arts – to ensure that I had inspiration in life.

The two are not mutually exclusive.

For any child in any class room across the country this morning, a combination of opportunity and inspiration is a potent mix.

It's a mix that can fuel our future economic wellbeing, as today's dreamers become tomorrow's achievers.

But just as importantly, it can fuel our future wellbeing as a society, too.

Because the arts – when they hit the high notes – make our hearts sing.

It's why Jim Larkin, as Sean O'Casey noted, famously fought not just to put bread on the tables of working families, but a rose in the vase too.

That's what I mean when I say that the Abbey 2016 programme will be a crucial pillar of our revival.

We are enjoying a strong economic recovery now, but that's not enough.

We need a social recovery too – and a flourishing artistic and cultural landscape is central to that.

So how do we achieve this objective?

Firstly, we need an over-riding policy vision, and your help to guide it.

That's why Heather and Aodhan are formulating Ireland's first national cultural policy, which will be known as "Culture 2025".

It's also why they are driving a national discussion to help shape it.

I have always believed access to the arts is essential.

And in that respect, I think it's notable that "access" is the very first word in the introduction to the discussion document which the Department published on "Culture 2025".

I hope this shows that, as a Government, we are starting in the right place.

Because theatre – and the debate it fosters – contributes greatly to any democracy.

That was as true in ancient Athens as it is in Ireland today.

And so access to excellent theatre nationwide has to be a core objective of the Government.

A further step in the right direction would be a new settlement of public support for the arts – in other words, enhanced investment.

This sector was not exempt from the difficult adjustments of recent years.

But our artists showed remarkable resilience throughout that period in creating work that continued to sustain – and indeed enhance – Ireland's cultural reputation internationally.

In terms of new funding, we made a start in the recent Budget.

Particularly welcome was the additional €3 million for a new scheme of one-off grants to arts and cultural centres throughout the country.

But I know that's a small start and we have an awful lot of ground to make up.

As our recovery gathers pace, and the public finances improve, I believe there will be room for such a new settlement by putting culture at the centre of the Cabinet table.

And the Labour Party, under my leadership, will fight tooth and nail to achieve that new settlement if re-elected to Government next spring.

Such a settlement would, of course, be returned many times over.

There is the very valuable economic dividend, with which we are all aware.

But the importance of the arts and culture goes far beyond their monetary value - they define our character as a nation.

They display the dynamism of Ireland to the entire world, encouraging creativity and innovation in a range of fields.

They also ensure we remember.

Waking the Nation is particularly important in that respect.

We're all aware of the historical and cultural links which the Abbey has with the events of 1916.

The Commemorations will belong to everyone on this island – regardless of political background.  

The 1916 generation would have wanted nothing less.

The Proclamation is evidence of that, with its central aim of guaranteeing religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all citizens; of pursuing the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation.

We, as citizens, therefore owe it to the Republic we live in today to encourage political debate and analysis of all the threads which have led to the creation of our modern state.  

The Abbey aims to reflect this ambition through the wide-ranging 2016 programme.

Others will go into the programme in more detail.

But let me say I'm particularly pleased that the programme includes the showcasing of new talent as well as exciting new versions of masterworks.

Through these new plays, our playwrights can challenge us by asking questions about Ireland today, 100 years after the Rising.

They will explore themes such as social alienation, the new family unit, political extremism and how we live our lives now.

I look forward greatly to seeing those plays next year.

I'm also very pleased that the role of women is being highlighted in the 2016 Commemoration programme generally and the Abbey programme specifically.

Helena Molony – Abbey actress and Abbey rebel – is a case in point.

In the 1966 commemorations, women were, largely speaking, written out of the script.

That won't happen this time.

The importance of women during the Rising is rightly being rediscovered and projects and initiatives marking this contribution are being developed right across the country.

In concluding, I'd like to thank Fiach for the kind invitation and thank the Abbey for developing such an exciting programme for 2016 – a pivotal year for Ireland in so many respects.

I believe it was Einstein who once remarked that "logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere."

Imagination is at the heart of this programme.

And my fervent hope is that it will inspire all of us – every generation – to imagine in turn.

Thank you.

Last modified:28/10/2015