Cosy cartel if not secret society, Aosdána is an independent group which serves itself from without the bursary system administered by the Arts Council. Since its founding in the 1980s the primary function of Aosdána has been to ensure its membership continues siphoning off the cnuas – a pass-affording Gaelic term, they all are – for the yearly hand-out of €17,180 to the self-elected members. Other arts practitioners seeking Arts Council funding must formally apply for a bursary in competition with fellow artists. Bursaries are far less in monetary value than a cnuas. Gaining a bursary means disbarment for succeeding years. Aosdána is therefore a protectorate that has unjustly placed itself above the fair system of bursary application. Last year, the Arts Council had its budget slashed by a quarter to €61 million from €80 million. Yet Aosdána’s 150+ members in receipt of the annual €17,180 suffered no reduction in their hand-out.
The Arts Council Report (2011) reveals that 152 individual creative practitioners received bursaries amounting to €1.5 million. In the same year, 156 Aosdána members drew down the cnuas totalling €2.7 million – almost twice as much – in total and per head – in funding as the amount in bursaries granted to individuals.
Aosdána’s hallmark is members voting in family or friends. Louis le Brocquy, his sister Melanie le Brocquy, and his wife Anne Madden are the exemplar.
Anthony Cronin, founder member of Aosdána receives his cnuas along with his partner, Anne Haverty as there are many couples who have nominated and voted each other in. Others in this couples-category include Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan, Dermot Seymour and Maud Cotter, and in the past, Deirdre Madden and Harry Clifton, Shelley McNamara and Michael Kane, John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy. Stalwarts of the cnuas since its set-up include Leland Bardwell, Ulick O’Connor, Paul Durcan, Patrick Hall, John Montague and Richard Murphy.
Another issue of injustice concerning the 155 ‘Aosdánaí’ drawing down their Merrion Square arts-dole is that it exceeds the welfare benefit. Also the 155 names are meant to represent persons devoted full-time to their so-called art as judged by themselves in the first place. As one reads the list bafflement sets in as to the identity of even a minority of those on the list.
Then there are dangers of insiderism as where cnuas recipient Pat Boran also operates a publishing venture, Dedalus, subsidised by the Arts Council. Dedalus has published many books by Boran himself. Similarly, Peter Fallon’s Gallery Press is aided by the Arts Council and publishes many fellow members of Aosdána just as Dedalus does. Fallon has also published himself on many occasions using Gallery.
The wheeling of this collective within the Arts Council draws a certain inspiration from CJ Haughey, the instigator of Aosdána. The Haughey ethos resonates still. In the early 1980s, only fifty members received a cnuas worth IR£5,000 per annum but with much conniving and their insider-voting-in system more than thirty years later members tenaciously hold onto their annual stipend which they have puffed to its current level of €17,180, subject to an until recently unspecified income threshold. The form obsessives at the Arts Council now require production of tax-clearance and revenue-assessment forms, and worse still, income of less than €25,770 annually. Formerly recipients just had to make a “declaration” that the grant would make it possible for them to give “full-time attention to creative work”.
The title of Saoi (lit. “wise one”) is the highest honour that Aosdána can bestow upon a fellow member. No more than seven living members can be so honoured at the same time. The current wise ones are Seoirse Bodley, Brian Friel, Patrick Scott, Camille Souter and perhaps wisest of all, Anthony Cronin.
Aosdána was named by Máire de Paor of the Arts Council Board in the 1980s. They went with the smokescreen term Aosdána instead of An Torc which was the initial and equally ridiculous suggestion. The torc based on the ancient Irish gold necklace remains in Aosdána as an honour conferred on certain members by a vote of all members. It comes as no surprise that founder-member, Anthony Cronin was voted to receive a torc himself which makes him a ‘High-Saoi’ or ‘wise one’ according to Aosdána’s terminology. Wise one indeed, since with Haughey’s assistance, Cronin secured an arts-advisor job coincidentally at the time of Aosdána’s being founded. Cronin has been a board member of Aosdána for years, or in their parlance, one of the toscairí.
The pomposity and self-regard often provides farce. For instance, Aosdána’s wild goose chase in trying to bestow a torc on Samuel Beckett at a proposed ceremony in Áras an Uachtaráin to be presided over by President Patrick Hillery. Year after year, Aosdána implored Beckett to come home from Paris for his torc, so much so that by 1985 the Arts Council announced: “The Beckett Saoi Torc presentation [is] still unresolved”. Finally, without Beckett present, a dinner was held in Dublin by the toscairí and the torc conferred in his absence on the writer’s 80th birthday. The bullying of Beckett into accepting a torc by Aosdána’s registrar, Adrian Munnelly as Director of the Arts Council who had supplanted Colm Ó’Briain with Cronin in the background was demeaning for all.
Originally, Aosdána came into being through Cronin and a clique of unknowns surrounding themselves with writers and artists of repute including Samuel Beckett, Seán Ó’Faolain, Benedict Kiely, Francis Stuart, Denis Johnston, Anne Yeats and Charles Brady. Not only Beckett but to the present writer’s knowledge these invited members felt bullied into joining Aosdána by Haughey’s acolytes.
The darker side of Aosdána includes its close relationship with the university system through mutual cultural collusion as well as its harbouring and granting cnuas support to payroll academics such as Nigel Rolfe, and for instance Maeve McGuckian of QUB. Aosdána consistently has had members on the board of the Arts Council, including Colm Tóibín. The Arts Council has often been pushed into using adjudicators from among Aosdána’s ranks while such members are well-disposed to their associates.
An even darker side of Aosdána is its continuing cnuas support for Cathal Ó’Searcaigh, with his record of dubious stunts in Nepal. Neasa Ní Chianáin’s documentary ‘Fairytale of Kathmandu’ revealed Ó’Searcaigh as an opportunistic predator, grooming innocent impoverished Nepalese youths of sixteen and buying them bicycles and ice cream. An art auction held in Letterkenny raised €50,000 for Ó’Searcaigh’s visits to Nepal enabled by establishment figures including Gay Byrne and a full coterie of Aosdána members.
Meanwhile an earth-shattering achievement for Aosdána in 2013 was finally to organise its in-house voting procedures, after thirty years: a not untypical motion that might have been expected to be below these cultural paracletes proposed, “All returned ballot papers (including blank papers) will count towards the calculation of the quota”. This motion stood successful at the meeting of the Toscaireacht in February 2013 and was duly signed into Aosdána Law by those present. Colm Tóibín sent apologies for his absence during this monumental debate, though he doubtless would have had strong views.
Extraordinarily, in 2007, the government of Scotland, the land of Smith and Hume, announced the setting up of an arts group modelled on Aosdána.
Thomas Kinsella, Brendan Kennelly and Eavan Boland have expressed disdain for Aosdána. Hugh Leonard said: “I am not a member by choice. And if I did ask to get in they wouldn’t let me. I don’t like the idea of authors en masse … and there are so many people in Aosdána of whom I have never heard. The whole thing seems unforgivably political … That thing of exclusivity and elitism I despise”.
Aosdána must be abolished, primarily because of the membership who receive the cnuas and have a finger in so many other cash-cushy arts pies.
What does Aosdána stand for? Flann O’Brien’s brother, Micheál O’Nualláin asks, “What does the word Aosdána mean? It is composed of two words, aos and dána. Aos means people or folk; dána means poems. Dána also means bold, audacious or brazen. So Aosdána could be translated as meaning Brazen People”.
In the end in the arts as in all other endeavours, self-selection, like self-praise, is nothing.