Kieran’s Lord Mayor’s Column, The Echo, 2 March 2024

Celebrating Inclusion, Collaboration and Creativity:

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a civic reception in City Hall for Cork Community Art Link who are celebrating their 30th year of operation.

My first message on the reception evening was that it is truly inspirational that what started as a FAS Community Employment Scheme back in 1993 has evolved and developed over 30 years to become one of the most successful and admired community arts organisations in the country and complete with its own pioneering and persevering adventures so to speak. Their story places an enormous value on the societal, cultural and economic impact of inclusive collaborative creativity within the arts.

The early work of the group focused on hospital arts with key projects developed in psychiatric hospitals in Cork and a long term 10-year programme in Our Lady’s Hospital Cork, which was widely considered as Ireland’s first long term and pioneering hospital arts programme. 

The Dragon of Shandon certainly warrants a special mention.  The Parade, which is a celebration of Samhain (Halloween), is now well established as Cork’s own and each year thousands take to the streets of Shandon to walk with the Dragon – a 36-foot Dragon made by the hands of the Cork citizens.

Dragon of Shandon, 31 October 2023

In addition, the Igloo project, back in 2009, was delivered in partnership with St Mary’s Road Library, Shandon to celebrate the exploits of Antarctic explorer Tom Crean. Northside schools participated in workshops to create an igloo structure made out of more than 2,000 recycled plastic milk containers collected by children. This speaks to Art Link’s ambition to value that communities and individuals are empowered through creative exploratory collaboration.

Commitment and Passion:

Ron Melling Head of Adult Education at Crawford School of Art was the original driving force behind Cork Community Art Link back in 1993. Then in 1998, William Frode de la Foret was appointed Artistic Director and has been instrumental in growing and evolving the organisation. Cork Community Art Link is the organisation it is today because of the commitment of individuals who followed their passions.

The range of projects Cork Community Art Link is involved in now is immense and impressive. It includes work with libraries, youth clubs, disability organisations, accommodation centres and family resource centres. 

Cork Community Art link’s story has been peppered with ups and downs. In otherwords it has not always been a smooth path – there has been frustrations, battleships, dead ends. However, turning those aspects on their head and reflecting on the past thirty years – at the heart of the story of Cork Community Art Link is one of resilience, perseverance, and a belief in the power of the community arts, and empowerment of communities.

My sincere thanks to the staff team, the volunteers, the artists, the participants, and supporters who have taken us all on the adventure over the past thirty years and helped shape the organisation they are today.

Impact and Depth:

My second message on the reception evening was about mining down further into Cork Community Art Link’s story and the actual impact the range and depth of projects that they have been involved in over the years, how Art Link has worked with thousands of people, and hundreds of community, voluntary and statutory agencies in partnership across Cork City.

Deep in the Cork Community Art Link story is the story of thousands of people who have been empowered by their participation in their projects and bringing spectators to their projects. Very much at the heart of their story is one of bringing people together. It is embedded in their story. In a world where there are vast pressures to divide people Cork Community Art Link brings people together in a very tangible and cohesive way.

Culture and community participation has various meanings to people and Cork Community Art Link have through pure listening and engagement with people carved an impressive suite of methodologies to empower people.

Personal and People Orientated:

In essence, Cork Community Art Link motivates people. It moves people forward. Their projects help people develop in personal ways. Their projects create a focus for people, an understanding of sorts for people. Their projects inspire and their projects encourage. Their projects enable people and build tolerance. Their projects breed ideas amongst people, which breed even more ideas amongst people.

Their projects construct democracy and build active citizenship. Their projects build a sense of belonging. When their story is fully chronicled in the years to come, there will be multiple chapters on the how and what works for the empowerment of citizens and belonging.

Respect for the Dragon:

I have long been an admirer of the Dragon of Shandon with its multitude of participants and spectators. For years I have photographed its presence on the streets of Cork and admired how it subtlety gets under the skin of the city.

For all intents and purposes, it might as well be a real dragon – such is the respect for the artwork, the yearning by the crowd to view it – the almost standing back by the crowd, the almost bowing by the crowd as they stand back, as the dragon winds its way through Shandon and into the old historic core of North Main Street, Castle Street and the Coal Quay.

The sense of wonder and awe, cheering and shouting, and that sense of pride imbued on it by the people of Cork, you cannot buy that in one year or ten years, it is the result of many years of hard work and collaboration.

I had the deep honour of being part of the parade this year and I must add one of my lifelong goals. It will become one of my core highlights of my mayoralty.

It is only when one goes behind the scenes of organisation, from their headquarters in the old Lido cinema in the months leading up to the parade to the evening of the parade within the rooms of the North Cathedral and the Firkin Crane that one can see the multitude of moving parts, the element that everybody’s story is important to the mosaic that is the Parade – from volunteers to the stewards to the costume people, to the make-up artists to the float pushers, the dancers, the actors, the multi-cultural element, the crowd control to the vison of the spectacle itself, and much more.

A Great Lighthouse:

In fact, with their open-door policy and willingness to explore all art forms, I doubt there is an organisation in the City that has not benefitted from working with Art Link. Ultimately when you think deeply about the Dragon of Shandon or any other Cork Community Art Link project it is created by the people of Cork for the people of Cork. In a world where aspects such as togetherness is threatened, Cork Community Art Link stands as a great lighthouse where people flock to find shelter and to be inspired and much much more.