'I can't make a living in Ireland. There's no question about that.' New Report on Irish Traditional Arts Highlights the Need for More Support and Unified Voice
Trad Ireland, the organisation established in 2018 by Tristan Rosenstock and Oisín Mac Diarmada, has just published a major report on the traditional arts sector in Ireland.
Navigating the Traditional Arts Sector in Ireland, a 179-page document written by musician and researcher Jack Talty, was commissioned in 2019 and published in December 2020. It contains the outcomes of 74 individual interviews and over 200 responses to an online survey, and highlights a number of significant issues, such as career unsustainability, financial insecurity, a lack of media coverage, poor pay rates, working conditions, and low Arts Council funding.
A number of the issues point to the need for an advocacy or representative organisation and Trad Ireland have now submitted the report and an application to the Arts Council to seek funding to implement the recommendations. The organisation, which has a recently established board of 11 and is chaired by singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, is expecting a decision in February.
‘Barely paying the rent’
The Trad Ireland report quotes dozens of traditional musicians, singers and dancers and presents a challenging picture of current conditions, chief among them financial insecurity. One interviewee contributes: ‘I can’t make a living in Ireland. There’s no question about that. When you go overseas, to America, England or wherever, you are held in far greater esteem. …. When I tell people in America that I can’t make a living in Ireland, they think I’m trying to crack a joke. They just don’t believe me. And I don’t blame them.’
Another interviewee adds: ‘Traditional Irish music is a flagship art form in this country… But it’s not financially supported in a commensurate way… many of those musicians that will perform at state events or do international gala concerts are barely paying the rent.’
Speaking to the Journal of Music, author of the report Jack Talty said: ‘One thing we can be proud of and celebrate is that journey that the traditional arts have made, to all areas of Irish society, whether that’s media, higher education or the general education system … it has managed to gain so much popularity… but it’s frustrating to see how that popularity isn’t necessarily mapped in a way that can provide more sustainable professional opportunities for musicians.’
His research cites a range of reasons, from the public perception of the traditional arts to Arts Council funding to a lack of advocacy and a unified public voice. One contributor to the research says: ‘What we need is a democratic organisation run by people working frontline as musicians in the sector… It should be about getting musicians organised themselves to advocate for Irish traditional music on its own terms and its own merits.’
The report notes that the traditional arts budget in the Council was only 2.6% (€2.1m) of the overall Council budget in 2020. Over the past ten years, there has been little improvement; in 2010 it was €1.7m, or 2.4% of the total.
‘It’s just completely confusing … that the total allocation for the traditional arts is 2.6% of the complete Arts Council budget,’ says Talty. ‘It’s very confusing to everybody who reads that.’
Talty says that there is a need for ‘a unified voice at all kinds of conversations that we’re having today in Ireland about the arts and society. Traditional arts should be in there. We have the National Campaign for the Arts, we have First Music Contact, we have Poetry Ireland, we have all these representative bodies, but we need a seat at the table for the traditional arts that will bring all of the diverse opinions, perspective that practitioners and the community have.’
I’m hoping that the report will start some important and timely conversations … I think it puts in stark terms the realities that traditional artists are facing.
Musician and broadcaster Tristan Rosenstock, co-founder of Trad Ireland, felt for a number of years that there was a need for a resource organisation, and was not surprised that there was such a consensus around the issue in the report: ‘I think traditional artists are working more and more with artists from other disciplines. They’re seeing how other disciplines are organised, how structures are in place… and I think there’s a sense that … within the traditional arts community we might be lagging behind’.
For that recommendation to emerge so strongly and so clearly, it wasn’t necessarily surprising but it was a relief to get that sense that there was an appetite for it within the traditional arts community. For a resource organisation to succeed you need the community behind you, you need everyone pulling together, and that’s what I got from this report.
Trad Ireland’s aim is to create more work for traditional artists in Ireland through advocacy, building audiences, and developing new schemes that generate employment, such as the musician in residence project that it ran with musician John Carty in Sligo in 2019/20.
‘I think there’s a frustration that there aren’t a lot of opportunities to perform, to work, here in Ireland,’ says Rosenstock. ‘I think we had a golden era from the 1990s to maybe the mid noughties, riding on the post-Riverdance wave, and a lot of traditional artists had a lot of work, mostly abroad, enough to keep them going, but if you talk to any of the well known traditional bands, they’re not as busy as they might have been … a lot of that work has moved on to other types of music.’
Trad Ireland teased out a number of the report’s recommendations in its online discussion forum TradTalk in December, which is now available to view online, and the organisation is now hoping for a positive result from the Arts Council in February: ‘That funding decision will really dictate what we are able to do this year. We have some really strong recommendations, 48 in total… we’d love to put a lot of them into action.’
Download the full report below. For more, visit https://www.trad-ireland.com.