Adjournment Matters. - Theatre for Letterkenny.

Thursday, 26 October 1995

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 144 No. 18

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Mr. Maloney: Information on Sean Maloney  Zoom on Sean Maloney  Donegal County Council has been actively seeking a theatre for Letterkenny since 1987. That year, [2069] the council made its first application for funding from the then newly established national lottery. Since then, it has sought funding from the European Regional Development Fund, the International Fund for Ireland and INTERREG and has discussed its plans on a number of occasions with the Department of the Taoiseach, the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Higgins, when he visited Letterkenny 12 months ago, and the Arts Council.

The submission now with the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht is a statement of the need for the theatre, an outline of the design brief for the building and the role the theatre will play in the cultural life of County Donegal. When planning the theatre and preparing the submission, the councillors worked closely with individuals and organisations involved in the performing arts in the area. The people of County Donegal are delighted that in the arts plan published recently a special consideration was given to County Donegal and this has been welcomed there.

The theatre, if funding is provided to build it, will be a theatre for Letterkenny and the whole of north Donegal. It will link up with the existing theatres in Sligo, Ballyshannon and Enniskillen and the proposed theatre centre in Derry. At present the theatre group is consulting with its architect and it is expected that by mid November everything will be in order from their side. Donegal County Council and Letterkenny Urban District Council will give financial aid and a subcommittee of business interests has been formed to raise the necessary local contribution.

County Donegal is the most northerly county in Ireland. It is more northerly than Northern Ireland and is also the most isolated. As well as being a great distance from the capital, other population centres, airports and seaports, it is also isolated by the political front. Only one road connects County Donegal with the rest of the Republic and [2070] there are no rail links either to the Republic or Northern Ireland.

Letterkenny is the chief population centre of the county and the centre of shopping, educational, social and cultural life for the north of the county. The urban district has a population of almost 8,500 people and there are some 16,000 people living in the town and its environs. Letterkenny is the gateway to most of the scenic and tourist attractions in the county, such as the beaches and hills of the Fanad and Ros Goill peninsulas, the Glenveagh National Park with Errigal, Gweedore and the Rosses beyond the historical and beautiful towns of Ramelton and the Glebe Gallery in Churchill.

Tourism is of immense importance to the county's economy and contributes close to 20 per cent of per capita earnings. The director of North West Tourism said “There is a special need for major developments to attract visitors to this part of Ireland. Ideally, there should be a focal point with unique visitor pulling power in both the south and the north of the region, in the Sligo-Leitrim area and in north Donegal. These would be national attractions in their own right and would encourage overseas holidaymakers to include a visit to this region in their itinerary.” A theatre in Letterkenny would be such a focal point. At the trade conference in Washington recently I met an industrialist interested in setting up a hospital supplies factory in Donegal. The first question he asked me was about arts provisions in the county, so clearly this will have an important effect.

The impact of the theatre on the cultural life of the county, especially the northern part, can be measured by the extent it will enable things not possible now to happen. There is no venue for the performing arts, drama, dance, theatre or music in Letterkenny. While amateur and some professional performances are mounted they are done in makeshift locations. People cannot see professional productions of plays by Donegal playwrights like Mr. Brian [2071] Friel or Mr. Frank McGuinness. If a purpose built theatre as envisaged was built, Letterkenny would be eligible for touring productions taking in areas like Derry, Enniskillen and Sligo. It could also host tours by dance groups and orchestral productions. There are many groups in the performing arts fields in north Donegal who would make regular use of the theatre.

Another area of concern is the traditional arts, music, dance, folklore and crafts. There is a strong branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann which is hampered by lack of proper space for classes and performances. Unfortunately, the performances are usually held in public houses, which are neither conducive nor the correct places for young people to congregate. Donegal is rich in its traditional cultural heritage and needs a centre where this can be documented and continue to flourish.

We have strong cross-Border links. The theatre could be a venue for touring theatrical and musical performances, allowing us to forge closer links with venues in Derry, Enniskillen and other centres in Northern Ireland. It is perhaps in amateur artistic activities that greater cross-Border benefit would ensue. Musical societies in Donegal have a close relationship with a number of such societies in the North. Our societies can perform in their venues but we would like a venue in Letterkenny to which we can invite these groups. We cannot play host to festivals bringing together people from both sides of the Border or of the community divide. The Letterkenny International Folk Festival has been held for 27 years and attracts groups from all over the world, but its development is hampered by the lack of a proper theatre. The organisers fear the festival may decline if performances have to be held in unsuitable venues.

One of the main functions of the theatre would be to provide a venue and stimulus for participatory artistic activities and the general cultural development of Donegal. The north of the county includes sizeable numbers of [2072] local communities, such as Presbyterian and other Protestant faiths as well as English-speaking people of Gaelic stock. It thus has all the main Irish cultural strands in one area. The theatre should provide this rich and diverse community with a crucial means of cultural expression and development which is important to the whole island.

As we head towards the 21st century and a post-industrial age it is vital that children and young people have access to cultural activity — drama, dance, pop and art music, video, electronic media, etc. The theatre's programme would be designed to make this possible.

As to the operation and management of the theatre, it is the county council's intention that the theatre should have a separate legal and physical identity, that is, a company limited by guarantee without a share capital, run by a board of management. This board would exercise control and direction over the operations of the theatre within the terms of reference as set down by Donegal County Council in consultation with the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, the Arts Council and other interested parties. The county council has purchased and paid for a site for the theatre, which has access to the Port Road, one of the main shopping streets in Letterkenny. It bounds the civil offices, the Letterkenny leisure centre and a town park.

I ask the Minister and his Department to give the people of Donegal this theatre, which is badly needed as a venue for the performing and traditional arts and to enhance the peace process in the northernmost part of our country, which has given us peace in our land for the first time in 25 years. We have no doubt the provision of a theatre in Letterkenny would be a major contribution towards the continuation of this peace.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Mr. O'Shea): Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  I thank Senator Maloney for putting down this motion on the proposed theatre project for Letterkenny promoted by Donegal County [2073] Council. Before referring to the project specifically, I warmly congratulate the county council and the town of Letterkenny for their success in completing a fine central library and arts centre which will be formally opened by my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, on 10 November. The centre involved total expenditure of £680,000 and I am pleased to inform Seanadóirí that the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht was in a position to give the project £200,000, having inherited the commitment made by the Department of the Taoiseach in 1987.

As to the motion, the Senator is aware that Donegal County Council has submitted an application to the Minister for the funding of a theatre in Letterkenny under the cultural development initiatives scheme which is administered by his Department under the operational programme for tourism, 1994 to 1999. I am glad of the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the position not only with regard to the Letterkenny theatre project but to all applications submitted to the Department under the scheme.

The cultural development initiatives scheme is designed primarily to assist the four main categories of the visual and performing arts — arts centres, museums, theatres and galleries. In December 1994 the Minister invited applications under the scheme by way of advertisements in the national press. By the closing date for receipt of completed applications, 3 February 1995, a total of 170 had been lodged with the Department. The total amount of assistance sought by these applications amounts to some £87 million, compared with a total of just over £23 million available to the Department over the five years of the scheme. The Senator will appreciate from these figures that some difficult decisions will have to be made when deciding on the projects to be offered funding.

Earlier this year an Comhairle Ealaíon published The Arts Plan 1995-1997. This plan, drawn up by an chomhairle following consultations with the [2074] Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, identifies priority zones and centres of excellence throughout the country for particular support over the period of the plan. In order to be consistent with the plan's objectives, the Minister decided earlier this year to concentrate initially on examining applications received from these designated zones and centres. The Senator will be pleased to learn County Donegal is one of the nine priority zones identified in the plan.

The Minister engaged the established expertise of a number of State agencies to examine these applications. He first asked an Comhairle Ealaíon to carry out a detailed artistic assessment on applications for projects such as arts centres, galleries, theatres, etc. He also engaged the Heritage Council to assess applications in respect of museums and other heritage-type projects. I can inform the Senator that an Comhairle Ealaíon has completed its assessments of all the arts projects in the priority zones and centres of excellence and these assessments are currently being considered in the Department.

The next phase of the assessment process is to carry out a financial and marketing evaluation of these projects. Bord Fáilte has agreed to apply its expertise to this process and has already completed work on five of these evaluations, including one in respect of the Letterkenny theatre project. Officials from the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and Bord Fáilte met as recently as yesterday to discuss the next stage and the Department will be writing to Donegal County Council soon concerning a number of queries about the application which have been raised as a result of this process. It would be inappropriate for me to indicate the nature of these queries without first addressing them to Donegal County Council. In any event, a number of queries have also been raised in relation to the other four evaluations which have been completed by Bord Fáilte.

[2075] Once the issues raised by the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht have been adequately addressed by Donegal County Council and duly considered by the Department, the projects will then be submitted to an advisory committee which will make a recommendation to the Minister regarding the level of funding, if any, which should be offered. I hope this process can be completed in respect of Letterkenny theatre before the end of 1995, but this will depend on the timing of the response from Donegal County Council.

With regard to the remainder of the applications outside the priority zones and centres of excellence, I am pleased [2076] to inform the House that An Chomhairle Ealaíon has begun the process of an artistic evaluation of these projects. However, due to the number involved, 115, I expect this process will not be completed until early 1996 and that the subsequent financial and marketing assessment, followed by the consideration of the advisory committee, will require some further time before the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht is in a position to make a decision in the matter.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.15 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 1 November 1995.

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