Zero Culture: Limerick and An Excercise In Branding.

In #rabble8, Blog, Culture, Politics, Print Editionby Bock The Robber5 Comments

Photo by Wally Cassady

Photo by Wally Cassady

Being a City of Culture ain’t about the free dinners and photo opportunities. Bock the Robber looks at how the people of Limerick took the power back.

We’re three months into 2014 and Limerick City of Culture has finally appointed a director, but that’s only part of the story.

It’s surprising how many people think Limerick is European City of Culture when in reality it’s a political ploy.

Michael Noonan didn’t have the sort of funds Bertie Ahern possessed to buy elections.  You’ll never see a Baldy-Bowl, but Noonan needed to keep Limerick sweet, so how was he going to do it?

Regeneration?  Forget regeneration. That horse has gone outside for good.

Jobs? You jest, surely.

The obvious answer was bread and circuses, so the government announced a stunt: and Limerick was to be the first National City of Culture.  With a name chosen to piggyback on the European event, it required very little investment, but offered plenty of meaty photo-opportunities.

All of the bang, none of the buck, as long as the great unwashed were kept away from it.

It was a transparent and tawdry stroke, worthy of Haughey at his most venal, but astonishingly, it worked in a way never envisaged.  Limerick people bought into the idea.  They started to think this might be the real deal, and they engaged with Artistic Director Karl Wallace wholeheartedly as he set out his vision of the pillars that might make up the year-long event.

There was only one problem:  the local council had control, and that meant there would be stroke-pulling, cronyism and myopic interference.  While the creatives saw an opportunity to let the city express its full potential, the councillors were thinking firework displays and free dinners. Culture, local-authority-style.

The game was up.  A snow-job intended to uphold the status quo had been subverted by honest public anger until finally, cronyism was in the dock.

Thus it was that, when Limerick City Council imposed a CEO with no expertise in managing cultural events, to the undisguised rage of Kieran Lehane, the equally-unqualified city official she displaced, Wallace found his position becoming increasingly untenable until eventually he quit, as did two senior members of his team.

As a former employee of board chairman Pat Cox, Patricia Ryan’s appointment to the CEO role gave rise to considerable public unease.  There were no interviews, no applications and no short-list.  Instead, City Manager Conn Murray looked into his heart, De Valera-style, and mentally interviewed everyone he thought might suit.  At the end of this rigorous process — you could call it a Zenterview — Patricia got the job.

Who needs culture when you can have CEOs and chairmen fluent in a sub-dialect of Harvardspeak?  It helps to have an Arts minister like Jimmy Deenihan, the man who casually dismissed Royal Deluxe as “some puppet show” and who only learned of Wallace’s resignation when he read about it in the papers. Jimmy would be asking no hard questions and neither would a City Council whose members think the height of cultural sophistication is a seat in the rain on the St Patrick’s Day viewing stand.

Patricia Ryan might still be in office but for an extraordinary upwelling of public outrage at an event designed to gloss over the “bump in the road”, as Pat Cox patronisingly described Wallace’s resignation.  Six hundred people turned up to the public meeting in the Strand Hotel from which the Press were to be excluded until Limerick Leader editor Alan English marched past the minor functionary who tried to block him.

The game was up.  A snow-job intended to uphold the status quo had been subverted by honest public anger until finally, cronyism was in the dock.

As indignation at the meeting grew, microphone-holder and local impresario Richie Ryan floundered, his hapless apologies providing fodder for merciless lampooning on RTE. Pat Cox shifted urbanely in his expensive suit before slipping into meaningless EU-speak, but the crowd were having none of it.  He might get away with this sort of tosh in the Berlaymont, but not before a home crowd who know bullshit when they hear it.

When Cox tried to repeat the nasty innuendo that Wallace had somehow failed to meet performance standards, he forgot where he was.  Speaker after speaker nailed him on this untruth until he began to blend into the wallpaper. This wasn’t how things are done in Brussels. Finally when someone demanded to know why Patricia Ryan wasn’t present, the reply came from the floor with stiletto-sharp sweetness.  There she was, sitting at the end of the table, staying quiet.

Group cringe.

As Patricia departed through the hotel bar, alone and unsupported by the board members, seasoned politics-watchers knew it was over.

Then little details began to emerge.

Local rappers from the Moyross Youth Crew had applied for and received funding after full consultation with Wallace’s team, but Ryan the administrator knew better and intervened with this email:

There is just one small thing that jars and that is the line about ‘the city looks rough’ – it’s really not the image we want to portray – the rest is great, really love it. Sorry to be a pain.”

The truth was out — this had nothing to do with culture.  Pat Cox and his anointed bean counter cared only about image. It was all a rebranding exercise.

Ryan resigned shortly afterwards, but Cox assured everyone that the position of Director would be filled without delay. That was in early January and it has eventually happened with the confirmation that interim director, Mike Fitzpatrick, head of Limerick School of Art and Design, has been appointed.

In fairness to the City Council, many of their officials have engaged well with the project as Fuerza Bruta triumphantly demonstrated.

Meanwhile, we still await the appointment of the Director*, but at least we draw comfort from the power of public outrage and ridicule. Creatives continue to create, and the sky hasn’t fallen in just because the people of Limerick demanded professional management for their cultural event.

To borrow Pat Cox’s dismissive description of Wallace’s resignation, the Limerick row was a blessing in disguise. It set the template for how things should be managed in future: openly, with integrity and without political interference.

In other news, Royal Deluxe, Jimmy Deenihan’s “puppet show”, will be doing its magical thing on the streets of Limerick in September.

*Update: Mike Fitzpatrick has been appointed director since original publication in #rabble8.


  1. Great article, but just giving you heads up it needs a bit of editing as things are repeated etc throughout

    “The game was up. A snow-job intended to uphold the status quo had been subverted by honest public anger until finally, cronyism was in the dock.”

    “[pullquote]The game was up. A snow-job intended to uphold the status quo had been subverted by honest public anger until finally, cronyism was in the dock.[/pullquote]”

  2. Also a director has been appointed -Mike Fitzpatrick. Article seems a little out of date generally, talks nothing of what has happened since the initial cock up.

  3. People think it’s European City of Culture. Think. Not is. But think. In addition the Government never invited anyone or any organisation in Ireland or internationally to tender for the 1st National City of Culture.

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