By Ciarán Tierney
It was like Christmas morning here on Inis Oirr in July when 21 currachs, from Donegal to Kerry, were unwrapped and unveiled to reveal the spectacular pieces of art which formed the centrepiece of the 21st birthday celebrations for Áras Éanna Ionad Ealáine this year.
What an amazing exhibition, with the concept of painting or decorating 21 canvas and metal currachs being embraced with such a relish – and such spectacular variety – by artists all along the western seaboard.
In a year of restrictions and lockdowns, the ‘Curacha’ exhibition which ran from July to September was like a dream come true.
It was just one of the highlights of a spectacular year for the most westerly arts centre in Europe, which had to abandon plans for a 20th birthday celebration in 2020 due to the Covid19 restrictions.
For Dara McGee, the Artistic Director of Aras Eanna, the pandemic offered a chance to take stock and to take a fresh look at the arts centre’s place at the heart of a Gaeltacht island community.
“It actually gave us time as an arts centre to step back and to think about 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 arts centre like it in Ireland,” he says.
“It being an island arts centre, having the fantastic support of the community, being involved with the schools on the island, bringing artists to the island, where they can experience the people and the place, the location, the isolation, and the freedom of being on an island.”
McGee no longer thought of Aras Eanna as a physical building, but looked at the entire island as a place to bring art to the people. Inspired by previous, site-specific projects, he thought about the arts centre’s place at the heart of island life.
“When we knew we couldn’t open our theatre or gallery, we started thinking about using the island as an arts centre. We thought about celebrating our 21st birthday and about how we could do it right. We thought about it carefully, we planned for it carefully, we had projects that were ongoing from 2021. In my own opinion, we had one of the most successful years since the foundation of Aras Eanna in 2021, considering we had a pandemic and restrictions.”
In 2021, the ‘Curacha’ exhibition attracted visitors from all over the country, among them the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.
A collective of Galway artists known as An Criú used the delightful outdoor space known as An Gleann Draíochta to stage a wonderful exhibition.
Even in the midst of the lockdown, we worked with acclaimed Japanese dance choreographer Akiko Kitamura and dancers from the Galway Dance Project to produce a wonderful show called ‘Echoes of Calling – Encounter’.
Even when Akiko could not travel to Inis Oirr, the dancers rehearsed via Zoom and recorded a spectacular show in South Connemara and Tokyo.
We sent two acclaimed ‘sean nós’ singers from Donegal to Tokyo to work with Akiko in January.
Director Sarah Jane Scaife used a residency on the island to come up with a magical Irish language version of ‘Happy Days’ and stage it outdoors at the back of the island.
Rehearsals took place in our arts centre, where we also hosted a stunning exhibition of photos of women on Inis Oirr by island-based photographer Cormac Coyne.
Brú Theatre company brought a ‘virtual reality’ show to the theatre, when we could finally open it up to the public again.
The children at the island’s primary school produced an outdoor exhibition of beautiful paintings called ‘Fighting Words’ under the guidance of Dara McGee.
Four theatre companies from three countries staged a stunning show, based on the visit of an acclaimed French writer to the Aran Islands in 1937, in our theatre in September. They were blown away by the location of our arts centre.
Among them were actors and mentors from the Blue Teapot company in Galway. It was a really emotional and moving show.
We expanded our artists in residence programme and brought artists to the island thanks to wonderful partnerships with the likes of ISACS (Irish Street Arts Circus and Spectacle Network), Galway Dance Project, Baboro, K-Cat, Ealaín na Gaeltachta, the Irish Theatre Institute (ITI), Galway Cartoon Festival, and the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA).
Artists are now using our four studio spaces throughout the off-season 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 inspires us in turn. You can read about their experiences here: https://aras-eanna.ie/en/residencies/
“We had a very inventive and clever approach. The priority was to include artists, to have them working in Aras Eanna, and to see how we could develop and showcase those artists, even with the restrictions we had in place. I think we were very, very successful and I am very pleased with the year we had,” says Dara.
“A lot of things clicked for us when we began to think that Aras Eanna is not about the physical building of the theatre and the gallery. We thought about Aras Eanna as being Inis Oirr. And I think that was the key to the success of our programme in 2021.”
Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to look back at some of the highlights of a phenomenal year and to celebrate the artists and the island community of just 280 people who turned dreams into reality on Inis Oirr in 2021.
“I think we did a fantastic job at being inclusive and creative, and including the island community, and the art forms that we encouraged. We actually enjoyed working on all these projects with all these different artists. It makes such a difference when you really enjoy your work,” adds Dara.
From ‘Curacha’ to ‘Laethanta Sona’, from ‘Echoes of Calling’ to ‘I am Antonin Artaud’, it has been a truly special year, despite all the uncertainty during the first few months of 2021.
In the meantime, the team here at Áras Éanna would like to wish all our friends, supporters, and visiting artists a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Thank you for making our 21st birthday a very special year.