As a small country with a small professional community within the arts and culture, Ireland has a minor network of arts institutions offering limited career development potential. Within these circumstances, it would be easy for artists to become conservative and subconsciously fall into a pattern of artistic conformity within an acceptable level of pre determined artistic freedom offered by the establishment. The ability of artists to speak out on issues has been tested in recent times. What has been interesting is that the more socially challenging artistic expressions have not been made within the cultural institutions but on the streets outside. Artists are somewhat protected by Article 40.6.1(i) of the Irish Constitution concerning the right to freedom of expression. However, this right is caveated by qualification that this freedom is “subject to public order and morality.”
In 2015, in the run-up to the Marriage Referendum, artist Joe Caslin created a large-scale temporary paper stencil mural of two men embracing on the side of a building on George’s Street in Dublin. Although the building owner granted Caslin permission, the Dublin City Council ordered the removal of the mural (based on a small number of complaints), claiming that it did not comply with planning rules by not applying for planning permission.
Some cultural institutions have championed freedom of speech such as Project Arts Centre. In 2016, in the very early stages of the lead up to the Abortion Referendum of 2018, artist Maser painted a mural on the front façade of the Project Arts Centre. It was a simple graphic of a red heart with the text ‘Repeal the 8th’ inset in white surrounded by a white border. The graphic clearly depicted a message in support of a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum. Again, Dublin City Council ordered its removal on the basis of lack of planning permission. Project Arts Centre argued that it was their building and they were supporting artistic freedom. But the Council replied it fell under planning rules because the mural faced the public space.
The mural was repainted in 2018 in the middle of the referendum campaign. This time, the charities regulator intervened and ordered its removal on the basis that legislation dictates that charities are not allowed to have political affiliations. Project Arts Centre argued again for artistic freedom turning the ‘painting over’ of the mural into a performance event, which circulated on social media. A small section was left visible as a reminder of the enforcement over freedom of expression. The incident garnered debate (mostly within the arts sector) around the limits of the freedom of expression and censorship within the arts and culture. The repeated backlash from authorities against Project Arts Centre’s mural demonstrated a difference of public opinion on what constitutes freedom of speech for artists working in public spaces but equally highlighted a perceived limit on cultural institutions.
Concurrently, there was a strong voice of support from a group called ‘artists for repeal’. The Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment was set up in 2015 by Cecily Brennan, Alice Maher, Eithne Jordan, and Paula Meehan. It began as an online campaign appealing to fellow artists, writers, musicians, and actors to put their names to a statement calling for a repeal of Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland (Article 40.3.3) that equates the life of a pregnant woman with that of the foetus. The aim of the campaign group was to promote national and international awareness of the restrictive reproductive laws of Ireland and to encourage and inspire other groups and activists to use cultural means to promote social change. A rich body of visual artefacts were created during the campaign. These artistic voices contributed a distinct and unique visual culture that united the campaign. Public gatherings including performances and readings organised by artists also supported the campaign. In literature, ‘Repeal the 8th’, an anthology edited by Una Mullally, is a collection of the writing and art inspired by the most pressing debate in contemporary Ireland in the run up to the referendum in 2018. It became a national bestseller despite its launch being cut out of the Dublin Festival of Literature programme.
A recent Theatre Forum survey elaborated the precarious nature of performing artists work. The survey revealed that a third of artists earn less than the national minimum wage of EUR 9.55 per hour and 83% of the artists are paid flat fees regardless of hours worked.