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Articles and Reviews: BOOKS

Edited By Sheila Pratschke
(The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in association with The Lilliput Press, €40, H/B)

The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, the well-known artists’ retreat set amid the lakes and drumlins of County Monaghan, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. To mark this important occasion in Irish cultural life, the Centre’s recently-departed-for-pastures-new director, Sheila Pratschke, has collaborated with Lilliput Press to produce this handsome volume.

In many ways it is difficult to believe that a quarter century has elapsed since theatre director Tony Guthrie generously bequeathed his family home and estate – affectionately known to all who have had anything to do with it simply as ‘Annaghmakerrig’ – to the state ‘for the purpose of providing a retreat for artists and other like persons…so as to enable them to do or facilitate them in doing creative work’. This is chiefly because of the change in attitudes towards art and arts practitioners in the country during this period.

For all that granting tax free status to creative artists is often adduced as one of C J Haughey’s more positive legacies, Guthrie’s summing up of his meeting with then Minister for Finance Haughey to discuss this bequest to the nation (as recounted to local resident and superb writer Eugene McCabe, and recorded by him here) was: “It was as if I was asking a favour, not giving a gift!”




The artefact itself (mere ‘book’ seems too inadequate – too damn small a word to describe such a valuable treasure trove) is graced with a lyrically inclusive general introduction by Pratschke, as well as specialist intros from associate editors Ruairi O Cuiv (Visual Art) and Evelyn Conlon (Literature). And what a marvellous job they have done, with immaculate illustrations, photographs, reproductions of work by artists as diverse as Patrick Scott, Mick O’Dea, Alice Maher and Helen Comerford, and extracts from writers as distinct as Anthony Cronin, John Banville, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne and Paula Meehan. Nor do composers, filmmakers or dancers go a begging. The volume also includes an essay by former director of the National Library, and new TGC director, Pat Donlon, on cataloguing the Annaghmakerrig library, another piece by Donlon and Aoife McGonigle delineating the Guthrie family tree, original director Bernard Loughlin on cultivating the estate’s gardens, and trade-secret recipes by perhaps the most vital members of the team, the kitchen staff. An index of everyone who has ever enjoyed a residency there brings up the rear, between stunningly etched end papers by Michael Craig.

Of course, the philistines have been known to carp, having heard vague reports about the carousing that goes on at those post-prandial ballad sessions, inciting the perennial grumbles about a ‘waste of tax payers’ money’. However, while it is an incontrovertible fact that sectors like health and education are more deserving of public funds than the arts (‘Who asked you to write that novel anyway, and what use is it to society?’), when one considers how successive governments have made a pig’s mickey of sensibly administrating the finances of these areas, perhaps the relatively small percentage that finds its way into the coffers of arts organisations should not be so begrudged.

Writing as one who has had the great good fortune to have stayed at Annaghmakerrig not once but twice, might I offer the opinion that the designation ‘retreat’ is indeed apposite, for the experience is the contemporary secular version of the old religious retreat. When I first arrived, I was still mildly sceptical: couldn’t you do just as much, if not more, at home in your study? Armed with a utilitarian work ethic, I resolved to keep office hours, and steer clear of the ne’er-do-wells. But Annaghmakerrig works it magic, even on those of little faith. What you slowly discover is that walking around the lake and through the woods, not to mention the exchange of thoughts and ideas with like-mindedly imaginative individuals, is just as important for the creative process as the time spent at your desk or in your studio. The more you relax and wind down, the more opportunity for inspiration and confidence to well up in you. A suburban-bred, city boy all my life who, to paraphrase a Woody Allen quip, gets nervous if he goes for 200 yards without a building, I never thought I could be so content walking country lanes, and still get stuff done at the same time.

Perhaps composer Ronan Guilfoyle puts it best: ‘the staff…make you feel that they are concerned that everything be right for you regarding the practicalities of living, while at the same time letting you do you own thing – an amazing balancing act!’ After that, it really is up to you.

All of which hopefully helps explain why anyone with an interest in any art form should applaud – and buy – this beautiful tribute to one of the finest institutions in the state, if only for the ample evidence it provides of the wonderful work which has been produced there over the last 25 years.

First published in The Sunday Independent














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