THE SUMMER months will, as ever, see a steady stream of visitors venturing from the mainland to the Aran Islands to enjoy the spectacular scenery, the flora and fauna, and sample the distinctive character of island life.
On Inis Óirr there is the added attraction of Aras Éanna, which can claim the dual distinction of being the only arts centre on any of our offshore islands and Europe’s most westerly arts and heritage centre.
Formerly a weaving factory, Aras Éanna was renovated in 1999 by its owners, Údarás na Gaeltachta, and Inis Óirr’s co-operative society, Cómhar Caomhán, with assistance from the EU and the Arts Council.
It is now a multifaceted cultural centre containing a 75 seat theatre/cinema, three art galleries, a café, translation business Cleas Teo, and weavers, basket makers, and quilter’s workshops.
Since opening its doors in 2000, Áras Éanna has played host to some of Ireland’s leading visual and conceptual artists, musicians, performers, and actors. The aras also has a well-established artist-in-residence programme. Facilities comprise a large self-contained apartment and studio space with spectacular views out over Inis Meáin and the Atlantic. The period of residency varies but is generally between six weeks and three months.
From Ros na Run to Aras Éanna
The current manager of Aras Éanna is Donegal woman Mairéad Ní Ghallchóir who many people will recall from Ros na Run in which she played Angela, the long-suffering wife of the rascally Tadhg Ó Direain.
“I was 10 years in Ros na Run and 20 years in television so this was a new move for me,” she tells me over an evening phone call. “However, I had always worked in music and drama so it felt natural for me to move into this kind of area. This is my fourth year running Aras Éanna.”
Mairéad outlines the kind of programming she has sought to implement in the venue.
“They had three great managers here before me so it was easy enough to move in, but I suppose everyone has their own idea of where art is or what sort of art we should have here,” she notes. “There is a lot of heritage in Aras Éanna’s programme, and it’s been nice to develop traditional exhibitions like the one we created where we took the old clothes of Aran, as worn by man, woman, and child, and created an exhibition around that.
“By the end of the year we will have two exhibitions from that, one that can stay in-house and one that can travel the world. I wanted to see the traditional elements working alongside us doing the best we can for tourism because you could fall between two stools; when you’re trying to stay with the Irish language and be true to heritage and then also catering for tourists who don’t speak Irish.
“We’re trying to have both Irish language and English language drama, trying to keep a happy medium with drama and similarly with music. We have a new exhibition space added to the two we always had and it’s great to have those three spaces. Also we have a space for artists in residence. That had always been about visual art but we’ve opened it out to include singers and writers.”
An island ‘type’?
The summer months are high season for Aras Éanna during which the centre runs gigs every week, in winter, by contrast, gigs are staged about once a month.
“You have to provide a very good service and high quality entertainment,” Ní Ghallchóir declares. “I hope that we are managing to do that and helping the tourism industry here by doing so.”
A look through the Aras Éanna provides ample proof that Ní Ghallchóir is succeeding in providing the ‘high quality entertainment’ that is her goal. Among the artists who have featured there already this year have been singer Mairead Ní Mhaonaigh, actor Maria McDermottroe in Frank McGuinness’ Baglady and, all the way from North Carolina, Curtis Blackwell and The Dixie Bluegrass Boys.
A fascinating exhibition, which recently finished at the centre, was Irish Headhunters, curated by Ciarán Walsh. This comprised a selection of photographs of islanders and people from the western seaboard dating from the 1890s. The photographs were carried out as part of an ethnographical survey into the ‘racial types’ of Britain and Ireland and were informed by the belief that the Irish islanders represented a more ‘primitive’ stage of human evolution than the ‘civilised’ denizens of Dublin or London.
The scientists went around photographing the various Gaeltacht dwellers and measuring their skulls as they sought to prove their racial theories.
“They were probably the first photographs ever taken on the Aran Islands, or on the west coast even,” Ní Ghallchóir reveals. “The images haven’t been seen very much. They were stored in Trinity College and that show is a great credit to curator Ciarán Walsh because he did a lot of work on it. You had these phrenologists coming to the west measuring heads and trying to find the ‘fear ghoirm’.
“They didn’t discover anything really at the end of the day, but they took all these photographs and they’re amazing. There were no names to go with the photographs and some would have been from Inis Meain or wherever, but it was interesting to see the islanders looking at them and saying ‘She looks like so-and-so’ or ‘He looks like such and such another one’ and they had lots of questions for the curator.”
There is another fine exhibition running throughout the month of August featuring a series of specially commissioned drawings by noted Aran artist Sean Ó Flaithearta which were inspired by the poems of his fellow Aran poet Mairtín Ó Direáin.
Other notable events to look forward to at Aras Éanna are gigs by Damien Dempsey (this Saturday ) and Brian Kennedy (August 25 ) while next weekend sees the screening of acclaimed documentaries The Pipe, by Risteard O’Domhnaill (August 18 ), and Leila Doolin’s Bernadette: Notes on a political journey - about Bernadette McAliskey - on Sunday August 19. Both film-makers will be present to talk about their work. From September 2 to 7.
There will also be the Feile Joe Mhairtin, which celebrates the life and achievements of one of Inis Óirr’s best loved seanachais through lectures, nature walks, and music, singing and dancing.
So if you’re planning a trip to Inis Óirr over the coming months, make sure you take time to drop into Aras Éanna. You will not be disappointed.
For more information contact the Áras Éanna Arts Centre, Inis Air, County Galway, on 099 - 75150 or see www.araseanna.ie