OLD LOVE AFFAIRS ARE EASILY REKINDLED, but it is difficult to break the frustrating valency of the ménage a trois. Thus it has been with me, the Writers’ Centre, and the hard times. Back in the eighties we had an intense three-way relationship, but went our separate ways when the hard times departed. Now, after an absence of almost twenty years, the hard times have reappeared and the three of us are plunged once more into an emotional vortex.
The determination to set up the Writers’ Centre, and the Writers’ Union, began for me in 1982. John F. Deane, who had already set up Poetry Ireland, had organised a visit to Denmark in which he, I, and the late Eithne Strong participated. As guests of the Danish Writers’ Union we gave a series of readings around Denmark, each event organised by local activists of the union. We were amazed by the smooth efficiency with which we were ushered around the country for a week, by the appearance that all the writers in the country were enthusiastic members of their union, and by the evidence of a well-endowed structural support for literary activity. We were equally taken with the lovely old house in the centre of Copenhagen which was the headquarters of the Writers’ Union and the hub of literary activity in Denmark. Even while we marvelled at the sophistication of their infrastructure we dreamed of replicating it in Ireland where nothing of this nature existed at the time.
John F. Deane was manfully developing Poetry Ireland into the highly effective organisation for promoting poetry. When I was appointed Principal of Lucan Vocational School the following year, 1983, I initiated projects to benefit both the school and the literary community. I brought writers to the school on a regular basis under the Writers in Schools scheme, then mounted a programme of creative writing workshops covering a range of genres.
The recession of the eighties was deepening by the month, unemployment rising, emigration waxing to catastrophic proportions. A pamphlet landed on my desk from the Government’s National Manpower Service announcing a new scheme to take people off the dole queues: the Social Employment Scheme. I read it with interest, then re-read it with some excitement. Schools were specified as one of the potential employers and there seemed to be a very broad remit as to the activity in which the employees might be engaged. A quick phone call to my friendly local Manpower organiser confirmed that this was so, and that he would be encouraging an imaginative use of the scheme. So when the bureaucratic procedures were complete, I had Joe Jackson installed as Writer-in-Residence at Lucan Vocational School, the first designated ‘writer-in-residence’. It was quickly adopted around the country, giving young writers support and a semblance of professional status.
But I also employed a second person, the poet, Padraig McGrane, as Secretary to the project to research the possibilities of writing as a profession. Of course I had the diabolic intention of using this research to launch a writers’ union. And so it worked out. By mid-1986 Padraig had an extensive list of writers for me with their contact details, and I issued my invitation to join up.
The response exceeded my most optimistic expectations. Most of the writers I contacted joined the union, and with about 120 founder members we adopted a constitution and had the Irish Writers’ Union fully operational for 1 January, 1987. I approached Lar Cassidy, then Literature Officer of the Arts Council, who welcomed the establishment of the union and was happy to recognise its role in negotiating on behalf of writers. But when I asked about some financial support he just smiled. No, there was no money available.
One of the writers who joined the Union was Anthony Cronin. In 1987 an election brought Charles Haughey into power as Taoiseach. Keeping the Arts portfolio in his own Department, he appointed Anthony Cronin as his advisor. When I felt I had allowed them a respectful time to settle in, I telephoned Anthony Cronin. As soon as he picked up the phone, he said, ‘Jack, before you open your mouth, I want to tell you the word is there is no money for anything.’
I replied, ‘No Tony, I’m not looking for money, but I have an idea that I want to discuss with you.’
‘If you are not looking for money, then okay, I will meet you.’
We met and I put my proposal to him. Because of the recession, the Civil Service was shrinking. Many of the old houses they had occupied were now being vacated. Some houses in state ownership were of historical significance, like Cullenswood House in Ranelagh, birthplace of Lecky, the historian, and the house in which Pearse established his school before moving it to St Enda’s in Rathfarnham. Such buildings could not easily be disposed of and needed a function. ‘I want one of those buildings for a Writers’ Centre.’
Tony looked at me for a moment, and then his face lit up. ‘That’s a great idea,’ he said. ‘I will see what I can do.’ I mentioned the house in Copenhagen, and he had experienced similar centres in other countries, so he knew exactly what I had in mind. Within days he gave me the green light.
I went back to Lar Cassidy to tell him of this development and to look for some seed money. There was no money for anything now, he said, but if the proposed Writers’ Centre was broadly based, not just a headquarters for the Writers’ Union, then he could see the possibility that the Arts Council would provide funding for current expenditure in the future.
My concept had always been that the Writers’ Centre would be as broadly based as possible, accommodating as many literary organisations as needed accommodating. But I wanted also that it be an active arts centre promoting and developing writers and writing. So I approached the heads of the other literary organisations of that time, John Lynch and Michael Judge of the Society of Irish Playwrights, Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin of the Irish Translators’ Association, Clodagh Corcoran of the Children’s Book Trust. They all agreed to participate. And, as if on cue, the National Lottery was launched and invited applications for funding. I submitted an application for £100,000 and it was granted.
Our first choice, Cullenswood House in Ranelagh, had to be discounted when the OPW declared that it would cost too much to make it usable. They were not enthusiastic about other houses we suggested either. Eventually Anthony Cronin pointed out that we could buy a house for £100,000. So we all started scouring the city. The recession was accompanied by a property slump and we were offered all kinds of buildings: a hotel, a church, a school. The most appealing was a house in good condition in Ely Place, but the vendor was looking for £105,000. I tried my utmost to beat down the price, but the auctioneer said he wouldn’t budge. Then I tried to raise the money, but there was none available anywhere. So I went back to Anthony Cronin with my problem. He was positive and arranged a meeting for me with Pádraig Ó hUigín, the head of the Taoiseach’s Department. I put my case, and was offered the extra £5,000 to buy this house. As soon as I got outside I rang the auctioneer, to be told that the property was sold—someone had paid a deposit only hours earlier.
So the search continued. One Sunday my wife, Celia de Fréine, returned home from a lunchtime concert in the Hugh Lane Gallery, and reported she had spotted two vacant buildings, 18 and 19 Parnell Square. When I investigated these I heard that Matt McNulty, head of Dublin Tourism, had leased them from the City of Dublin VEC in order to create a writers’ museum. I was intrigued and went to meet him. We compared projects. He suggested we combine forces since No 18 would be adequate for the museum and we could have No 19. If we invested the £100,000 in the restoration project we would have the house rent free. And since he was submitting the project for EU funding our investment could be matched at a rate of three to one. So we settled on that.
After much negotiating between the Irish Writers’ Union, the Society of Irish Playwrights, the Irish Translators’ Association and the Children’s Book Trust, we agreed the structure of the board to run the centre. And after the first meeting of the board I decided to retire from activism. My family commitments were becoming more pressing, my school was growing rapidly and demanding more of my time, I hadn’t written anything in the five years I had been involved. Besides the hard times were taking leave: Lar Cassidy was keeping a watching brief and promising funding once the door opened.
But then, this year, back came the hard times, and the old beloved’s cry of distress. How could I resist becoming involved again? I had a phone call from Catherine Phil MacCarthy who was on the board. She, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, with Carlo Gébler in the chair, were trying heroically to keep the Centre out of liquidation in the chaos that followed the withdrawal of the Arts Council grant, and they needed help. So I rejoined the board and we recruited more directors with a range of experience.
We have staved off the immediate threat of closure, and hope to preserve this wonderful facility for the literary community and for future generations. Without any paid staff, the Board of Directors are carrying the load of day-to-day administration. We have recruited a team of interns—who are waiting for jobs to re-emerge out of the recession. In the meantime, these brilliant and dedicated young people are working, voluntarily, a standard work rota and keeping the Centre open six days a week. We are getting tremendous support from the writing community, who have joined our membership scheme, who have given workshops and readings gratis, who are attending events at the Centre in greater numbers than ever. Excitement, ambition, and hope have returned. The autumn series of benefit readings has a headline event of Seamus Heaney and John Banville reading together. We are dedicated to action, to serving all sectors of writing activity, and we are making the facilities of this gem of Georgian architecture available to our sister organisations in the literature field so that we can enhance the efforts of writers to leaven the cultural and spiritual life of the community at this critical time. Now, all we need is some money!