Friday, May 28, 2021

A Blog Post by My Father

My father, Peadar Kelly, died in May 2019. This is an article he wrote in The Ballymun News, a community newspaper (later magazine) that he edited and wrote (almost single-handedly) for almost thirty years. This article appeared in the November-December issue of 1996. I came across it when I was leafing through the few issues of the Ballymun News in my possession, and thought that it was worth sharing. Although it's specific to Ireland in the nineties, I think the same issues still apply in most Western countries today-- and further afield, for all I know.

Regular readers of the blog will see that my father had a huge influence on my outlook. RTE, as I'm sure all of my readers will know, is the Irish state broadcaster.

"RTE.-- Supporting the Arts", the voice on the radio tells us. And we are left with the beguiling image of the Director General passing round the hat in the Montrose canteen. It's not true, of course. What the announcer should be saying is, "RTE license payers-- Supporting the Arts". But since the poor sods who cough up the subscription fee under pain of a stretch in Mountjoy are never asked for an opinion on the matter (much less what branch of the arts they would like to support) the correction might prove subversive.

It's much the same with the National Lottery and the Arts Council. The punters paying the tax or buying the ticket relinquish all notions of ever calling the tune. We are simply too thick to be consulted.

The Ballymunners who will ever hear a live performance by an RTE orchestra, haunt the art galleries or occupy a seat in the Abbey may not be quite so rare as the Red Indian on the banks of the Potomac, but they run that endangered gentleman a close second in the rarity stakes.

We agree with the policy of support for the arts. Excellence should be promoted in any civilized society. The question is, what is art? How do you define it?

In our humble opinion, only time can determine what is or is not "Art". Contemporary art is a nonsense, only the judgement of the generations to come can bestow the "imprimatur". And it is our earnest wish that posterity will consign most modern art to the dustbin reserved for irrelevancies. Because, and we say this in all seriousness, if what passes for art today is still around fifty years hence, then western society will have become a jungle of which the most "red in tooth and claw" predator could be proud. As proof of what we say, consider the calibre of creative geniuses who would in all probability be turned down for Arts Counil funding if they made an appearance in Merrion Square in the morning.

Applicant: W.B. Yeats.

Reason for refusal: too many rhyming couplets; subject matter too transparent. Insufficient obscurity of theme, even a peasant could understand his stuff.

Applicant: Leonardo Da Vinci.

Reason for refusal: much too figurative; ears and mouths in the same old boring places. Lacks the imagination of the true artist. Should take up engineering or architecture.

Applicant: P.G. Wodehouse.

Reason for refusal: call this funny? 50,000 words and not a single expletive, not even a side-splitting reference to the natural functions. This writer is too sexually inhibited to be amusing.

My father, at my wedding

Applicant: Victor Herbert.

Reason for refusal: writer of tuneful jingles. Lacks the muscularity of a Bono or a Liam Gallagher. His stuff is redolent of such bourgeois concepts as romance, chivalry, monogamy and marriage. No future.

Applicant: J.M. Synge.

Reason for refusal: Writes a lot of twaddle about off-shore islanders. Unsympathetic treatment of female characters, Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quinn, naming both after the man in their lives. No European context.

Applicant: Charles Dickens.

Reason for refusal: Excessively didactic. Can't make up his mind whether to be a novelist or a humanitarian reformer. Long-winded and mawkishly sentimental. Will never sell.

Applicant: Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Reason for refusal: Religious nut!

Feel free to add to that list as the mood takes you. And remember this; all of the above have survived the test of time because the great, unwashed public has recognised the outstanding talent they possessed. They had no compliant Arts Council to featherbed them in the pursuit of elitist indulgence, no Arts Minister prepared to spend public money on experiments and projects that are beyond rational comprehension. Even beyond the comprehension of the Arts Council, if they were to be honest about it.

A flying visit to the friendly town of Ennis last summer caused strange thoughts to enter the addled brain. Ennis and Ballymun have much the same population, 20, 000 plus, though in the matter of public houses, Ennis has about ninety to Ballymun's two. That statistic in itself speaks a multitude, but it was what was happening in those pubs that gave us pause for thought. We don't know how many traditional musicians there are in Ennis, but in pub after pub they were assembled in groups (as many as ten in one pub) and the sessions were a joy to the ear. Most surprising of all, there was never a harsh word spoken in any of the pubs we visited. And no sign of trouble on the streets.

We don't have traditional musicians playing in Ballymun. Male and female strippers, yes. Mr. Pussy, certainly. Rock bands, to be sure. And no shortage of macho morons (male and female) who feel the compulsion to kick somebody's head in as the appropriate way to end a night out. The question we ask ourselves is, why this savagely contrasting tale of two communities?

Ballymun as it was around the time of this article

Despite the heroic efforts of many individuals and groups to improve things, Ballymun remains a barren place for young people, a cultural and recreational desert. Parents are presented with two choices, abandon the children to the influence of the street or keep them indoors. We will give just one example of how dedicated intervention can extend their options.

Some years ago a nun moved into a flat in Ballymun. Armed with nothing more than her own musical ability, she set up an accordion band for boys and girls. With the help of a small group of supporters built up along the way, she trained and equipped the band. Today, it is an object lesson in social mobility to watch those young people, their stylish uniforms and expensive instruments proudly on display, make their way to band practice or to the buses taking them off to perform somewhere. That nun, her helpers, the band members and their parents, are the key to a civilized future in communities such as Ballymun. Those young people have their self-confidence strengthened, and their options expanded.

The nun we speak of is Sister Carmel Terry. We know that in the early days she had a Mount Everest to climb; we hoped things have eased for her, but doubt it somehow.

"Society is changing". The message is becoming monotonous. Yet we refuse to acknowledge the fact that those changes in society are having the most devastating effects on our children. The world they are coming into is not the world we experience fifty years ago, and nowhere is this more true than in the local authority estates. Will you find RTE promoting the arts on those estates? No. Will the Arts Council be active within them. No. Is money from the National Lottery being spent to ensure that children who are born with the odds stacked against them are given some chance to develop whatever talents they have, to discover the wonderful diversity of life, to enjoy, and this the most important of all, the potential magic of childhood? No. Money from the National Lottery is not being spent this way.

Government funding does come into the local authority estates. It comes in the form of remedial teachers, child psychologists, social workers, probation officers, intervention services of all kinds: the burgeoning industry that is growing year by year because we refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of cause and effect.

With more than a quarter of a century spent in the community affairs in Ballymun, years during which we have monitored the heartbeat of this community during good times and bad, we have no doubts on the matter. We need jobs for the parents and opportunities for their children. The jobs will be hard to come by, the opportunities can be provided. Government cannot legislate for happiness or contentment, for health or wealth. It can legislate for opportunity.

The Umbrellas by Renoir, one of my father's favourite paintings

In a world of concrete ugliness, art is a desperate necessity. And art, in its many forms, offers an opportunity for disadvantaged children to enter a world that is normally concealed behind the Iron Curtain of privilege. The more such children who avail of that opportunity, the healthier will our society be.

There are other benefits. George Moore said "Art must be parochial in the beginning to be cosmopolitan in the end." But art in Ireland is becoming the preserve of the eccentric and the outre. In music, painting, poetry, literature, sculpture, philosophy, architecture, it is assuming the characterisations of barbarism. John Keats belief, that "the excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate in close relationship with beauty and truth", is out of fashion today. The disagreeable is now the norm, beauty is sneered at, and truth is a variable.

The state has no right to dictate to the artist, other than the rights declared by public order. Equally, the state has no obligation to fund the brutal, the ugly, and the perverted. Let the artistic elite shift for itself, "put their lives", as it were, "in to the sting they give".

Support the arts? Yes. A thousand times yes. But do so by bringing beauty and truth into the lives of those chidlren who are being drip-fed a diet of drugs, crime, vice and official neglect.


  1. Dear Mal,

    This is a glorious essay. Your father could certainly write! By turns witty, moving, bracing and bold. Of course I think he was quite right. What a thing to read in a local magazine!

    May he live in the sight of God for ever.


    1. Thanks so much, Dominic! My father was indeed and excellent, and versatile, writer and poet. I hope his memoir is published. And the Ballymun News must have been one of the most broad-ranging local magazines ever. Thanks for the prayer.

  2. Your father hit the bullseue with "RTE supporting the arts". He sounds like a very incisive man.
    The ad should say: "RTE forcing you to support the Arts that we approve of"!

    1. Indeed, that is the essence of it! And yes, he was very incisive!