Fintan O’Toole: Let’s abolish culture and call it sport

The day the Ryder Cup was funded by Government, plans for Parnell Square's cultural quarter collapsed

Could we not just abolish culture and call it sport? A bit extreme, I know.

But I honestly have no idea what else we can do to banish the godawful philistinism and hypocrisy of a State that names bridges and Naval vessels after dead artists but refuses to invest seriously in the culture from which living ones emerge.

Perhaps if we called novelists golfers and painters jockeys and musicians footballers, and organised poets into country teams with their own jerseys we might get somewhere.

This desperate measure occurred to me last Thursday when two things happened within hours of each other.


One was that the entire Government, no less, considered the awarding of the 2026 Ryder Cup golf tournament to Adare Manor in Co Limerick. The announcement was made by the Taoiseach himself. Money is no object – the Government refused to say how much public money will be committed to the event.

The first thing to grasp about this cultural project is that it was announced in 2005 – almost 14 years (or in Government terms, six Ryder Cups) ago

The widely quoted figure is €50 million, but since there is no official estimate it could be more. Without a known budget, the message is that overruns will be no big deal.

But even more important than the money is the political will. We know everything that has to be done will be done. If roads have to be widened, if broadband has to be installed, if obstacles have to be cleared – it will happen. This is one bit of the Irish future you could bet your house on.

The Ryder Cup will be only mighty. We will look at ourselves at the end of it and ask (rhetorically of course) “Aren’t we a great little country all the same?” And not without reason – it will be a great few days, and we will do ourselves proud in the eyes of the world.

Golfing fanfare

But on Thursday evening, a few hours after this golfing fanfare, Dublin City Council met and was informed by city manager Owen Keegan that plans to redevelop Parnell Square as a cultural quarter have collapsed.

Just three months ago the council got the go-ahead from An Bord Pleanála for the project, which includes a new city library, a 200-seat conference centre, a music centre, education facilities, a multicultural space and a café and exhibition space, spanning the north side of the square.

It would create a new public plaza, and restore some of the city’s finest Georgian houses, acting, as such schemes have done in so many other cities, as a catalyst for the regeneration of a neglected area.

It would also, incidentally, highlight the worldwide standing of its brilliant architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who, if they were sportspeople, would be national heroines because they have won so many accolades and gold medals.

There is no base of donors willing to fund cultural and social infrastructure in Ireland on this scale

The first thing to grasp about this cultural project is that it was announced in 2005 – almost 14 years (or in Government terms, six Ryder Cups) ago. It has been, through all those years, the most important counterweight to the development of the capital as a mere icon of global capitalism.

It has been one of the very few things anyone could point to as evidence that there is still some life in the idea of Dublin renewing itself as a public space in which creativity and a sense of belonging are woven into the streetscape.

And the second thing to grasp is that this vital project was to be funded by begging.  The nice word is philanthropy. But either way the funding model – shameful and ludicrous in equal measure – was that 55 per cent of the entire cost would be raised from private charitable donors.

Social infrastructure

This was always fanciful. There is no base of donors willing to fund cultural and social infrastructure in Ireland on this scale, and no precedent for it that I know of anywhere in Europe.

So why was this envisaged for Parnell Square? Because the alternative – that public cultural space could be imagined as a public good worthy of proper public funding – is unimaginable. The cultural quarter could not be thought of as anything other than an essentially charitable enterprise.

And of course the Irish ultra-rich are not interested. The Parnell Square Foundation has not been able to raise the money. So the library is going ahead and everything else – the whole scheme for a cultural quarter – is to be deferred to “a later stage”. No date has been given for “later”, but here’s a guess: it will be a hell of a lot later than the Ryder Cup in 2026.

So let’s just rename the whole thing – the Parnell Square sports quarter. In the Olympic Games of the early 20th century, after all, there were also competitions for architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture.

Jack B Yeats won a silver medal in the 1924 Olympics for his painting The Liffey Swim. It's in the National Gallery on Merrion Square, but we could surely move it north to the Hugh Lane Gallery on Parnell Square. That would give us the excuse to redefine the whole project as a sporting extravaganza.

And the artists?

No problem – they are already highly skilled in this philistine country at jumping through hoops, leaping over high bars, running to stand still and keeping their heads above water.