AS 2023 draws to a close we review the highs and low of the Irish arts scene in the year gone by…
First ever St Brigid’s Day bank holiday
A raft of cultural events were held across Ireland this year to mark the nation’s new bank holiday honouring St Brigid – the first in Ireland to celebrate a woman.
Monday, February 6 was designated as the Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day public holiday for 2023, meaning people across Ireland got to enjoy a long weekend.
St Brigid’s Day itself falls on February 1 each year but going forward the Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day public holiday will fall on the first Monday in February, unless February 1 falls on a Friday.
“From 2023 there will be a new permanent public holiday established in celebration of Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day,” the Irish Government stated.
“In Ireland, the first of February marks the beginning of Spring and the celebration of Lá Fhéile Bríde, St Brigid’s Day,” they added.
“Like many of other feast days of the Irish calendar, Brigid predates Christianity – her roots lie in the Celtic festival of Imbolc, the feast of the goddess Brigid, celebrated at least five millennia ago,” they explained.
Now the Government is determined to ensure Ireland’s St Brigid’s bank holiday celebrations will properly mark the role of St Brigid and all women across Ireland.
“As the first Irish public holiday named after a woman, St Brigid’s Day provides a unique opportunity to acknowledge the critical role that women have played in Irish history, culture and society,” they said
“We look forward to working with the national cultural institutions to further embed St Brigid’s Day into their annual programmes for 2024 and beyond.”
James Martin makes Oscar history
Belfast actor James Martin gained global recognition overnight when he became the first person with Down’s Syndrome to win an Oscar.
The former barista took the lead role of Lorcan in the short film An Irish Goodbye, which won the Best Short Film (Live Action) gong at the 95th Academy Awards held at the Dolby Theater in March.
Set on a rural farm in Northern Ireland, the black comedy, directed and written by Ross White and Tom Berkeley, tells the story of two estranged brothers who come together after their mother's death.
Seamus O'Hara plays older brother Turlough in the film.
Martin, White and Berkeley were all in LA to collect their award on March 12.
During their acceptance speech, the co-directors led the obliging audience in a Happy Birthday singsong, aimed at Martin, who turned 31 the very same day.
Since then, history-making Martin has continued to be honoured for his achievement, with the actor scooping the Outstanding Newcomer title at the RTS Ireland Television Awards this year.
He has also received an honorary doctorate from Ulster University for his “outstanding contribution to the arts”.
Mr Martin said he was “delighted” to receive his doctorate in recognition for his work on the film.
“We had a great team working on the movie which told a universal story that people really connected with and enjoyed watching,” he explained.
“The impact it has had on people with learning difficulties has been very positive.”
Death of Script star Mark Sheehan
The death of Mark Sheehan shocked the music industry earlier this year.
Following a short illness, the 46-year-old, who was the guitarist with Irish band The Script, died in hospital in April.
Sheehan and bandmate Danny O'Donoghue had worked as songwriters and producers in the US before returning to Dublin to form The Script in 2001 with drummer Glen Power.
The band's six studio albums topped the charts in Ireland, with five of them reaching No. 1 in Britain.
They also topped the singles charts in both countries with their 2012 hit Hall of Fame, featuring Will.i.am.
Sheehan had amassed a huge fanbase over the years and as many friends among the music industry, many of whom paid tribute to him following his death.
Fellow Irish band Kodaline described him as “a lovely man”.
"So sorry to hear the passing of Mark Sheehan!" they said. "We had the great fortune of getting to spend time in his company over the years and [he] was always such a lovely man.
"Deepest condolences to his family and his The Script Brothers."
Mikey Graham of Irish band Boyzone hailed Sheehan as a “young legend of music”.
"I can and do understand the pain Glen and Danny are feeling right now and also their families," he said.
"All my love and support I offer you at this time.
"You gave the world your music, it will carry you home Mark."
Meanwhile, British boyband Take That posted: "We are deeply saddened to hear the news about the passing of our beautiful friend Mark Sheehan.
"Sending all our love and prayers to his and The Script family at this time."
Sony Music, the band's record label, praised Sheehan for helping The Script become “one of Ireland's greatest bands”.
Excellent ensemble revives Dancing at Lughnasa
Siobhán McSweeney lead a stellar cast in a captivating revival of Dancing at Lughnasa which opened in London for a short run earlier this year.
Brian Friel’s 1990 Olivier Award-winning play was brought delightfully back to life at the National Theatre – where a superbly cast ensemble extracted its humour and emotion with gusto on a thoughtfully designed set.
McSweeney, of Derry Girls fame, played Maggie, the second in command of the family of five Mundy sisters who live together in a rural Donegal home just outside the town of Ballybeg.
Fellow Derry Girls star Louisa Harland was also in on the action, starring as the quiet yet formidable Agnes.
She is the main carer and confidante for her more vulnerable younger sibling Rose, who was played by Cork-born Bláithín Mac Gabhann.
There were exceptional, full-bodied performances at every turn in the revival of Friel’s play, including that of Dublin-native Justine Mitchell, of Conversations with Friends fame, who played family matriarch, Kate.
A further familiar face came in the form of Co. Monaghan native Ardal O’Hanlon, who played the only Mundy brother, Jack.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, the RADA-trained actor who first rose to fame in RTE’s Love/Hate series, also starred, playing Michael, the son of the fifth sister, Chris (Alison Oliver) - an unmarried mother with a part-time boyfriend who seldom visits.
Clever positioning by director Josie Rourke saw Michael narrate the whole tale as an adult, nostalgically looking back on the “best summer of his life”, when he was aged just seven, before everything changed.
Tributes to Aslan legend Christy Dignam
There was sadness across the music world in June following the death of Aslan frontman Christy Dignam.
The Dublin-born singer, who had been battling a rare blood disorder for a number of years, died peacefully at home on June 13 surrounded by his family.
Paying tribute, his daughter Keira Dignam, who is also a singer, said: “On behalf of my family, it is with a broken heart that we convey the news of my father’s passing, Christy Dignam.
“Dad peacefully left us where he wanted to, at home today 4pm Tuesday, June 13th 2023 after a courageously long-fought battle, surrounded by his family.”
Dignam was admitted to Dublin’s Beaumont Hospital in July 2022 where he spent six months in the care of the Haematology and Cardiac Care team.
From December 2022 he was being cared for at home by his family with the support of a palliative care team.
President Michael D Higgins led the tributes to the Aslan star following his death.
“For the last 40 years, Christy and his bandmates in Aslan have made an enormous contribution to the cultural life of our nation,” he said.
“In addition to their well-loved albums and hit singles such as ‘This Is’ and ‘Crazy World’, Aslan will be remembered in particular for their live shows and their remarkable connection with their audience.
“Christy was central to that connection, with his passionate performances ensuring a memorable night every time Aslan played – and there were many nights, with Christy and the band showing an endless dedication to touring throughout the country.”
Murphy delights in epic Oppenheimer
Cork native Cillian Murphy proved he never fails to surprise when he turned out a career best performance in the Christopher Nolan epic Oppenheimer.
Murphy, who has starred in the likes of Peaky Blinders and A Quiet Place II, has been widely tipped for an Oscar for his portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Jewish scientist who created the world's first nuclear weapons in the 1940s.
Critics have described the 47-year-old's work in the film released in July as his best performance to date.
And Murphy is honest about how focused he had to be on his part in the weighty biopic to ensure he played it right.
Which meant he didn’t spend much downtime with fellow cast members - such as Emily Blunt and Robert Downey Jr - during filming.
“It was a big part, and there were big, big questions that were grappling with, these huge ethical, moral questions,” Murphy said of his role.
“And Chris had written the script in the first person. So, I knew that a lot of the weight was on my shoulders, even though we have this incredible ensemble.”
And what an ensemble it was. Murphy starred alongside Kenneth Branagh, of Belfast fame, Robert Downey Jr, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, Josh Hartnett, Dane DeHaan, Jack Quaid, Matthew Modine, Alden Ehrenreich and David Krumholtz.
End of an era as Longwave transmission ceases
The demolition of RTÉ’s longwave radio mast at Summerhill, Co. Meath ended years of radio transmission from home for many within the Irish community in Britain.
RTÉ first announced that the broadcasting of its Radio 1 programming via the longwave service would cease in October 2014.
But following an ongoing campaign from Irish listeners across Britain that date was postponed.
However, on March 31, 2023, RTÉ announced that its longwave service would indeed be coming to a close this year.
On April 14 it ceased transmitting, with financing given as the main reason given for disbanding the service.
The facility is reported to cost €250,000 a year to run — although RTÉ said this could rise as high as €400,000 next year.
A couple of months later the demolition of the transmitter went ahead, providing the final nail in the coffin for the longwave service and severing a vital link with home for many people, largely older members of the community, according to campaigners.
Peter Fawcett, PRO of the Save RTÉ Radio 252 LW, campaign, called the move "an act of vandalism".
The campaign’s technical expert Enda O’Kane added: "With the detonation of the mast, RTÉ has shown its utter contempt for the diaspora. Those responsible should resign immediately."
Another Northern Irish comedy from Lisa McGee
Over the summer Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee confirmed she is working on a new television series this year.
The Derry native has been commissioned by Channel 4 to create the brand-new comedy thriller How To Get To Heaven From Belfast.
An eight-part series, due to be released next year, it follows Belfast women Saoirse, Robyn and Dara who have been friends since school.
Now in their late thirties they lead very different lives but are brought back together by the death of an old classmate.
“I feel so incredibly lucky to be making another show for the phenomenal Channel 4 and to be doing it with Hat Trick Productions again and the creative team behind Derry Girls, the mighty Liz Lewin and Caroline Leddy, is just a dream,” writer McGee said of the task at hand.
“I've wanted to make a comedy thriller set in Northern Ireland for SUCH a long time.
“I cannot wait to share these flawed funny women with everyone.”
Charlie Perkins, Head of Comedy at Channel 4 added: “This is huge. We couldn’t be prouder that Channel 4 feels like this extraordinary show’s spiritual home.
“Getting to know the multi hyphenated talents of Lisa, Liz, Caroline and their collaborators at Hat Trick Productions has been one of the greatest pleasures in my first year as Head of Comedy.
“We can’t wait to bring Lisa’s next world to life for all those who already love her work and many more to come.”
Booker Prize triumph for Paul Lynch
Limerick-born writer Paul Lynch claimed the Booker Prize 2023 last month.
It was awarded for this fifth novel, Prophet Song, which the author claims was his attempt to “better understand the modern chaos” we find around us.
Set in an imagined dystopian Ireland, Prophet Song reveals an alternate Dublin, where the government is becoming a police state and rebellion will not be tolerated.
Lynch’s book focuses on protagonist Eilish Stack.
With the country in the grip of a government turning towards tyranny, when her husband disappears, she finds herself caught within the nightmare logic of a society that is quickly unravelling.
“I was trying to see into the modern chaos,” Lynch says of the inspiration for the book.
“The unrest in Western democracies. The problem of Syria – the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West’s indifference,” he explains.
“Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy.
“To understand better, we must first experience the problem for ourselves.
“So, I sought to deepen the dystopian by bringing to it a high degree of realism. I wanted to deepen the reader’s immersion to such a degree that by the end of the book, they would not just know, but feel this problem for themselves.”
Critics have described Lynch’s book as “a crucial book for our current times” and on November 26 it was crowned the winner of the Booker Prize 2023.
The author received £50,000 as his prize, and was presented with his trophy by Shehan Karunatilaka, last year’s winner, at a ceremony held at Old Billingsgate in London.
Esi Edugyan, head judge on this year’s judging panel, said of their selection: “From that first knock at the door, Prophet Song forces us out of our complacency as we follow the terrifying plight of a woman seeking to protect her family in an Ireland descending into totalitarianism.
“We felt unsettled from the start, submerged in – and haunted by – the sustained claustrophobia of Lynch’s powerfully constructed world.”
She added: “He flinches from nothing, depicting the reality of state violence and displacement and offering no easy consolations.
“This is a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave.
“With great vividness, Prophet Song captures the social and political anxieties of our current moment.
“Readers will find it soul-shattering and true and will not soon forget its warnings.”