He was a giant of the arts in Galway... he had a big heart, he cared for people

Mike Diskin, the manager of the Town Hall Theatre, died on Saturday following his battle with cancer. He was a major figure in the Galway arts scene, leaving a distinguished mark on the Galway Arts Festival, the Galway Arts Centre, and above all the Town Hall Theatre. His friend OLLIE JENNINGS remembers and celebrates the Mike, his life, work, and achievements.

Ollie Jennings and Mike Diskin at the launch of Project 06. 
Pic: Mike Shaughnessy

Ollie Jennings and Mike Diskin at the launch of Project 06. Pic: Mike Shaughnessy

“I used to run shows and gigs in the university, UCG as it was, and I remember Mike from that time as he was big man, but I first met him properly in the 1980s, when the Galway Arts Festival was starting to get a bit of recognition. Back then I had a secretary and I was running around on a bike. Then we applied to the Arts Council to give us a grant so that we could appoint an administrator.

“Mike was one who applied for the job and he was head and shoulders above all the other candidates. He had a PhD in the politics of Unionism, then he was a tax consultant, then he worked in the Japanese Embassy. It was unusual background for someone seeking to be an arts administrator, but he had a supreme intellect, he was a very gifted man, and completely impressed everybody.

“The interview panel asked him why he wanted the job, given his previous lines of work, and he said he wanted to come back to Galway after he saw what we had been doing in the 1980s and he was inspired by the ideals of the Galway Arts Festival.

“I worked with him from 1989 to 1991 in the Galway Arts Festival and we became friends during that time. In 1990 we had the most successful arts festival in business as well as programme terms. Mike was able to get sponsorship and he was very organised. We put on Archaos, a French circus who are like Cirque du Soleil today, very hip and very big. They had just played Glastonbury and we put 10,000 people into the big tent at the Fisheries Field to see them. All of these things could not have happened without Mike Diskin.

“I left the festival in 1991 to manage The Saw Doctors and Mike went onto the Galway Arts Centre and he left his imprint there are well, particularly with Cúirt. He expanded the breadth and scope of the programme and brought people like Allan Ginsberg and Linton Kewsi Johnson to Galway. He could do all these things as he had a great love of all different facets of the arts - he was well read and loved literature, and after that he moved to the Town Hall Theatre in about 1995/96.

The Town Hall Theatre

“People will remember him most for how he ran the Town Hall Theatre and he was a tremendous manager.

“When I came to Galway in 1972 it was a sleepy town and the extent of cultural engagement was going to see DicklerFitz - Micky Finn and Terry Smith - in The Cellar Bar and every so often there might be a concert in Teach Furbo, but there was none of the things there is now. There was not much going on and it was up to us to build a scene and events and Mike was inspired by that and that is what he wanted to with the Town Hall Theatre.

“He always put on an interesting programme and he worked hard at making and developing audiences and the Town Hall was one of the few regional theatres that made money. The officials in City Hall were delighted with Mike as he was no great drain on the purse. Yes the theatre got a grant but Mike never had to go back to them saying ‘We have a deficit’.

“He was not just an administrator. Mike would always be in the foyer before the show and after it, he would go to the press and tell people about this show that was coming and he would be enthusiastic about it and tell people why they should come and see it. He was like Canon Horan and Knock Airport, ‘build it and they will come’. With Mike it was ‘Put on the show and the public will respond and I’ll get out there and let them know about it’.

“Today the Town Hall is a part of Galway life and you will see everybody there and it’s great that it has become such an everyday, normal thing to go to shows and events, whereas once it was the preserve of a small group.

“I will always remember what he did for young people starting out in theatre. Within his basic job he created every opportunity to encourage and fund young theatre people by giving them free rent or no rent and ‘We’ll see how the show goes’ or help them apply for grants and bursaries, and help them fill out the forms.

“There are many people who are in theatre and in jobs today because of Mike Diskin. He did have a big heart, he cared for people. He would take risks, pull rabbits out of hats, he provided a lot of work for people and for Galway. During his stewardship he went over and above the call of duty. Mike believed the arts should be accessible, that young people should be given a chance, and that he was there to serve and help people.

Battling Illness

“He wanted to talk about dying and he sort of ‘found himself’ through dying. He faced death so bravely and I gather that he reached out to people who he wanted to ‘mend fences’ with. And he also never stopped working. For Mike the Town Hall and the arts was not a just a job, it was his life. Even when he was dying he would be contacting people saying ‘I have a date for you in the summer’. One day he said to me, ‘It’s strange booking shows for next summer when I won’t be around for them’. I remember texting him about Little John Nee’s show The Mother’s Arms, saying I thought it was great. Mike was in hospital at the time and he sent me back a text saying ‘Do you think we could do a re-run in the summer?’.

“My favourite memory right now is a photo of him from when he was in the Árus with Michael D Higgins on March 4. Mike did a ‘going away party’ for Michael D at the Town Hall Theatre in August, an event for him before the presidential campaign got underway in earnest.

“He put a lot of effort into that event and in helping Michael D’s campaign. He had a huge interest in politics. It was hard work as it was in August when most people did not rate Michael D’s chances of winning. On the night there was enough of us there and Bob Quinn made a great speech and afterwards Mike and I high-fived each other. It was something Mike really wanted to do. He said: ‘The town has to get behind Michael D!’

“He was at the presidential inauguration and he loved it but last month Michael D asked people who had helped him to join him in the Árus for a gathering as a way of saying ‘Thank you’. Michael D knew Mike was dying so he asked him to stay that night at the Árus and to have a private dinner with him.

“The photograph has Mike, his wife Evelyne, Little John Nee, and a man from the French Embassy. Mike is smiling in the photo and he is happy and relaxed. It encapsulates everything about him for me.

Legacy

“Without Mike, the arts scene would not be what it is today. He was a giant of the arts in Galway. If they talk about Galway being an arts capital one of the reasons has been the ambition and expertise Mike brought to the Town Hall Theatre, Cúirt, etc.

“You rarely came across a man with that combination of managerial skills, people skills, intellectual skills, and enthusiasm and that’s what Mike Diskin had. He had an usual combination of gifts.”

In conversation with Kernan Andrews

 

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