by Ciarán Tierney
It was like a Christmas morning here on Inis Oirr in July when 21 curraghs, from Donegal to Kerry, were opened from their packets to unveil the amazing pieces of art that were at the heart of this year’s Áras Éanna Arts Center 21st birthday celebrations.
It was a fantastic exhibition, with the idea of painting or decorating 21 canvas and metal canoes by artists across the west coast – and the amazing variety they revealed.
In a year of restraint and intense locking up, the ‘Curraghs’ exhibition which ran from July to September across the island was like a dream come true.
It was one of the highlights of a great year for Europe’s westernmost arts center, having abandoned plans for a 20th birthday celebration in 2020 due to Covid’s restrictions19.
For Dara McGee, Artistic Director of Aras Eanna, the pandemic provided the opportunity to take stock and gain new insights into the place of the arts center at the heart of the Inis Oirr Gaeltacht island community.
“It really gave us time as an art center to step back and think of Aras Eanna as the physical building, the island, the people, the community, the location. There is something very special about Aras Eanna, there is no other art center like this place in Ireland, ”he says.
“A place where there is great community support, being involved with the schools on the island, bringing artists to the island, where they can experience the people and the place, the place, the isolation and the freedom to be on an island. “
McGee no longer thought of Eanna House as a physical building, but he looked at the whole island as a place to bring art to the people.
Inspired by previous site-specific projects, he reflected on the place of the arts center at the heart of island life.
“When we knew we couldn’t open our theater or gallery, we started thinking about using the island as an arts center. We thought about celebrating our 21st birthday and how we could do it right, “he says.
“We thought about it carefully, we planned it carefully, we had projects that ran from 2021. In my opinion we had one of the most successful years since the establishment of Aras Eanna, considering we had a pandemic and constraints . “
In 2021, the ‘Curragh’ exhibition attracted visitors from all over the country, including the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.
A collection of Galway-based artists called The Crew used the delightful outdoor space known as An Gleann Dra flowers to stage a spectacular exhibition.
Even in the midst of a lockdown, we worked with renowned Japanese dance choreographer Akiko Kitamura and dancers from the Galway Dance Project to produce a fantastic show called ‘Echoes of Calling – Encounter’.
Even when Akiko could not travel to Inis Oirr, the dancers practiced through Zoom and recorded a great show in South Connemara and Tokyo.
We sent two famous ‘sean nós’ singers to Tokyo to work with Akiko in January.
Director Sarah Jane Scaife used a residency on the island to stage a magical Irish language version of ‘Happy Days’ by Samuel Beckett on an outdoor stage at the back of the island.
Rehearsals took place in our art center, where our gallery also featured a fantastic photo exhibition of women on the island with Cormac Coyne.
Brú Theater company brought a ‘virtual reality’ show to the theater.
The children at the island’s primary school put on an outdoor display of beautiful paintings called ‘Fighting Words’ under the direction of Dara McGee.
Four theater companies from three countries staged a spectacular show, based on a famous French writer’s visit to the Aran Islands in 1937, in our theater in September.
Among them were actors from the Blue Teapot Theater company in Galway.
They were amazed by the location of our arts center.
We have expanded our artist in residence program and brought artists to the island thanks to great partnerships with the likes of ISACS Network, Galway Dance Project, Baboro, K-Cat, Ealaín na Gaeltachta, Irish Theater Institute (ITI), Féile Galway Cartoons, and the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA).
Our four studio spaces are now used by artists throughout the year and we are delighted to share the wonders of Inis Oirr with them.
The inspiration our visiting artists take from living and working on Inis Oirr in turn inspires us. You can read about their experience here http://aras-eanna.ie/conaitheacht/
“A lot of things clicked for us when we started thinking that Aras Eanna is not about the physical construction of the theater and gallery. We thought of Aras Eanna as Inis Oirr. And I think that’s the key to the success of our program in 2021, “says Dara.
Over the past few weeks, we look back at some of the highlights of a fantastic year and celebrate the island’s artists and community of just 280 people who made Inis Oirr a dream come true in 2021.
From ‘Curacha’ to ‘Happy Days’, from ‘Echoes of Calling – Encounter’ to ‘I am Antonin Artaud’, it was a truly special year, despite all the uncertainty during the first few months of 2021.
In the meantime, the staff here at Áras Éanna would like to wish all our friends, supporters and artists a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Thank you all for making our 21st birthday celebration so special in 2021.