From the Sunday Miscellany collaboration with the Arts Council to mark its 70th anniversary, listen to Wonderful Parties by John Banville above...
I can't remember how I came to be invited to join the Arts Council. I suppose I must have had a letter, or even a phone call, from the Taoiseach of the day, Garret FitzGerald. I’m sure I was expected to be flattered; instead, I was extremely reluctant. It was the early 1980s, I was young, or youngish, I was in the throes of writing a difficult novel, and I couldn’t see myself becoming a part of what we lazily thought of as the Establishment.
I consulted my family, and my friends. All, I could see, were having a hard time of it not to laugh. Someone, keeping a straight face, asked if I would be required to wear a suit and tie, and attend State banquets, and learn Irish.
No, I thought, no, the thing is impossible - me, a member of the Arts Council?
Then I met the archaeologist Máire de Paor, at some reception or other. 'Oh but you must,’ she said, ‘you must join.’ She had been a member for many years—she may have been the first woman on the Council—and she could assure me that it was a Good Thing. She told me how many struggling writers were kept going by the odd bursary, how many pictures by living artists were purchased, how many small publishers were funded—and besides, she said, we have great parties.
That was the clincher.
I’m sure I turned up for the first meeting in flares and a floral shirt with a floppy collar—I did say that this was the Eighties. Adrian Munnelly was the Director, one of the best there has ever been, and Mairtín McCullough was the chairman—in those days the chairman was still the chairman. The morning dragged, though there were moments of interest and even levity. I was very conscious that this was a State board, though the director was insistent on our autonomy and freedom from political interference. My fellow members were impressive, with one or two exceptions. And anyway, it would soon be lunchtime.
At lunch, I found to my consternation that no wine was served. This, it was patiently explained to me, was because there would be another session in the afternoon. I could see Máire de Paor, seated opposite me, registering my dismay with a glint of amusement. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘and that’s when the real work is done...’
From Sunday Miscellany: 9.10am Sunday mornings, RTÉ Radio 1