THENCF is a creative co-op, that is a community of artists, volunteers and patrons based in Ballina, Co. Mayo who meet regularly and organize together.
The group was founded in part as a reaction to a recent government policy initiative, delineated in the report of the Night Time Economy (NTE hereafter) taskforce. We refer in particular to recommendation 8:
"Create a viable model for the development of sustainable creative co- operatives looking at national and international best practice" 1
Our members have developed extensive local and international networks by participating in cultural organizations as individual artists and organizers. We strongly believe, based on our collective experience, that Ballina has all the constituent parts required to realize the vision of the taskforce, namely
(to create) cities and towns are uniquely engaging places to live, explore and work in at night; offering a wide range of experiences that appeal to all ages and interests; and are easy to access no matter the hour...vibrant, welcoming places that bring you back time and again. 2
We recognize the ambitions of current government policy as an opportunity to accelerate the regeneration of Ballina through the social interaction of people, culture and art.
Through the vehicle of the co-operative we propose to achieve the following outcomes:
- To bring the local artists and aficionados of North Mayo and West Sligo together in a social setting.
- To open up appropriate spaces for artists to work in and for cultural events to be held for the benefit of the wider public.
- To create critical social infrastructure to retain young people who currently migrate to cities or emigrate because of a negative social perception of the area.
- To increase social participation for people of diverse backgrounds through the arts.
- To develop local artists through mentoring, skills development, exchange and performance.
- To regenerate the town by reusing and revitalizing vacant buildings for mixed cultural and social use.
- To create a vibrant, authentic, modern nightlife in Ballina.
- To connect the town into a local and European network of cultural spaces and communities through touring, exchange and shared initiatives.
We are excited as to the potential for cultural expansion in Ballina but we understand it will require patience, persistence and modest ambition to begin with. The following is how we see the sequence of events that will lead us to realize our goals.
- Initially we will aim to meet regularly to socialize and share ideas with the possibility of one-off events showcasing our members and other artists.
- We then hope to obtain a general purpose art space in Ballina for the private use of our members, that is for meeting, performance, practice, working, collaborating.
- With the passing of the new Sale of Alcohol Act in 2023, it will be significantly easier for cultural groups to obtain a license around events. The bill is still in draft stage but according to the intention, the new cultural license is applicable in spaces where selling alcohol is not the main activity.
- The next step will to expand, providing more spaces, more events, increasing in size and ambition, showcasing local and visiting artists.
- With our own full functioning scene founded, we will network with similar groups in neighbouring towns, to broaden the social viability and possibilities for local artists and event-goers alike.
- The last step will be to co-ordinate with similar groups in Europe, to foster exchange, diversity, opportunity and visibility and ultimately increase the prestige and recognition of the area internationally.
The process of funding the co-operative will vary as we progress from stage to stage, as of now we don't require much to get going. The following sources of funding will be utilized, appropriate to our current stage of development:
- Given the nature of our activities we will be in a position to self-fund to a degree via events, member contributions and donations.
- We anticipate donations and sponsorship offers from the private sector for mutually beneficial goals.
- General Municipal Allocation (GMA) Funding from Mayo County Council. 3
- The Artist in community (AIC) scheme 4. The aim of the AIC scheme is to encourage meaningful collaboration between communities of place and/or interest and artists.
- The Creative Europe Programme (CREA) 5. This scheme will come into play when we are in a position to collaborate with colleagues and friends active in similar EU based co-operatives.
Ar thaobh na Gaeilge de, tá mé cinnte go mbeadh deontais airgid le fáil chomh maith.
It's important to appreciate that cultural ideas require diverse spaces to be effective. The same event, an equal performance can range from magical to forgettable depending on where it is staged. Psychologically particular groups are less comfortable in certain locations, for example young people are hesitant to socialize in an arts centre. Likewise different artists require different types of spaces to work in.
Culture thrives in areas where there is a high availability of diverse urban spaces available in proximity to each other. The process whereby derelict, vacant or underutilized buildings and spaces are repurposed for creative use is specifically mentioned in the NTE report
The term ‘meanwhile use’ refers to the short-term use of temporarily empty buildings such as shops until they can be brought back into commercial use. It takes a potential problem and turns it into an opportunity and helps keep an area vibrant. 8
Ballina has an outstanding variety of these buildings, often clustered together in groups which is a prerequisite for creating urban character in an inartificial, appealing way.
- The first cluster centers around the riverside and comprises The Arts Centre, Barrett's warehouse, the Beckett house and St Michael's Church.
- The second cluster is at the Walsh Street end of Pearse Street starting with the Jackie Clarke building and gardens, the Walsh Street cul-de-sac itself, the Ballina Mineral Water building and adjacent vacant buildings.
- The last cluster is Belleek Forest and has some of Ballina's coolest locations, namely the Castle, the Distillery and the Quay*.
Allowing for the town's already beautiful setting - laneways, hills, squares, river, forest, traditional public houses - one can imagine the feeling of moving from scene to scene on foot or by bike over the course of a long night. The perception of cultural and spatial variety in relative close proximity, that is walkable distance, is what separates truly exciting urban areas from the mundane.
For the culture scene in Ballina to thrive we need to make it easy to get people in and out of the town.
One of many reasons why people choose not to socialize at night is because they can't get home. Actions 27-31 of the NTE report addresses the problem of the lack of public transport at night.
One way of providing a way home from Ballina to the hinterland is to leverage localink services, in fact this has already been piloted.
In July 2018, a total of 65 new evening/ night-time services were approved to operate on a pilot basis to assess the demand in rural areas for evening and night-time services at an annual cost of €1m. 10
The Minister for Transport has also recently announced that priority will be given to regional and town bus services with the current capital spend envelope for his department. The provision of night buses to West Sligo and North Mayo from the town should be a priority.
For Ballina to really thrive it's also necessary to provide access from larger towns. The railway could provide this function opening up the possibility for people in Castlebar or Westport to socialize in Ballina and still get home and vice versa. The provision of a single night train to Westport and back would open up the possibility of inter-urban socializing within Mayo.
For locations not covered by bus or rail the NTC report supports hackney provision pilot schemes:
The NTA are currently piloting a subsidised Local Area Hackney Scheme in 15 pilot areas identified by the Authority and the LocalLink offices. 10
"Safe Cycling at Night" is another action item on the NTE report. It's hard perhaps to imagine in the Irish context but in Europe cycling around at night (yes to nightclubs!) is very common. Recalling the three cultural 'clusters' suggested in the proceeding section, it's interesting to note that cycling absolutely would be a viable option for travel between them.
Connecting to major cultural hubs is also vital. Via Knock we have daily access to London, and also year round access to Milan. Unfortunately the previous connection to Paris is not running now and there is no access to Berlin yet.
Ballina and its hinterland has many beautiful hotels and houses. With the provision of budget accommodation for younger visitors in progress, it is already well served to accommodate visitors to the town.
In order to attract a critical mass of artists into the town, we must also consider where they will stay. Artists generally have very different living requirements than regular people! Most want to work day and night and will happily reside in unadorned, often communal spaces as long as the rent is affordable.
Given that Ballina has, like most Irish urban areas, a high rate of vacancy it would make sense to earmark some spaces for communal artist living. Perhaps this could be discussed with Ballina's incoming Town Centre Regeneration Officer. The Town Centre First report lists a dizzying array of funding sources that could be tapped to progress such a project, for example:
- The Urban Regeneration and Development Fund
- The Rural Regeneration and Development Fund
- The Town and Village Renewal Scheme
- Croí Cónaithe (Towns) support refurbishment of vacant houses.
- The European Regional Development Fund
- The Historic Towns Initiative funds
- The Repair and Lease Scheme
The full list can be viewed in Appendix 5 "Supporting Investment Framework" of the aforementioned report. 7
Because our spaces and events are non-profit, we have the discretion to avoid the worst elements of nightlife that are perhaps tolerated under commercial pressure. Talking to our younger members for example, the problem of socially conservative, intimidating groups of people comes up. Often unable to moderate their alcohol and drug intake, these groups take over night spaces, excluding those who fall outside social norms. This has important implications for diversity and inclusivity as the NTE authors note:
the industry strongly believe that club culture must now be judged beyond its economic value, like other more established forms of culture. Club culture has traditionally welcomed and brought together various minority groups, and it is commonly recognised that the roots of this culture stem from within the LGBTQI+ community 11
It is fair to say that creative communities by their very nature support otherness, minorities and heterogeneity in general. A true creative community is a place where anyone can find inclusion.
In terms of daytime activity we would aspire to be in a position to fund employment for our members who might need to supplement their income from time to time (what artist doesn't!) or for people who qualify for other reasons under the social inclusion pillar as set out in The Mayo Public Participation Network guidelines.
An Teangaidh Dhúchais sa gCeantar
"Mo ghrá thú" nó "Bhoil boc!" a deir muintir Bhéal Átha an Fheadha de ghnás, nuair a chasann siad ar a chéile. Ní haon iontas é, mar bhí An Ghaeilge le cluins go mion minic ar na sráideanna go dtí tuairim is céad bliain ó shin agus tá píosa maith fághta sa leagan Béarla a bhíos ann sa bhaile inniú.
Sin ráite, bíonn sé doiligh corruair, áiteanna cearta sa mbaile a bhaint amach agus daoine ag iarraidh Gaeilge a labhairt lena chéile gan stró. Is ábhar spéisúil é, ach cuireann an Gaeilge isteach ar an mBéarlóir go minic agus neart ól tógtha aige ag an am. Sin rud amháin go dtiocfadh linn a chur i gceart, áras na Gaeilge a chur ar bun i measc na n-imeachtaí eile.
Tá baint domhain, nadúrach, láidir idir an Ghaeilge agus an ealaín. Tigeann na mílte daoine chun na teangadh i dtoiseach, tríd an gceol mar shampla, agus tá meas mór ag lucht an chultúir, ar an nGaeilge. Bheadh sé cuí agus cóir an dá ábhar a chur i dtoll a chéile, go h-áirithe os rud é go bhfuil an t–úafás scéalta, filíochta, amhráin agus stair áitiúil ann agus iad dearmadaithe ag na daoine mar níl a dteanga dhúchais acu a thuilleadh. Bheadh an meitheal ealaíne bealach amháin, ár n-oidhreacht a athbheochan sa gceantar.
A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. The following examples illustrate the type of spaces that we are proposing to install in Ballina's vacant buildings.
Small music venue
Midi size venue art-space
Large mixed use art space
Creating cultural momentum in a place where there is little or none is difficult but hardly impossible. Some relatable examples, for the unconvinced.
Connollys of Leap
A famous music venue, far, far from the beaten path.
One of Ireland's top venues, opened at a time when Limerick city suffered from an extremely negative public perception.
The Spilt Milk Festival
Our neighbours in Sligo run the best experimental, alternative music festival in Ireland by far.
A boutique deli, cafe and cookery school located in Easkey village.
Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny
What we're proposing to achieve in the Ballina area, has been realized many times over in other, similar places.
For centuries, powerful political and economic forces have pushed people to leave the West of Ireland and migrate. Today most of those forces have waned or have been transcended through technological obsolescence, but the psychological effect remains. Ballina and its hinterland still suffers from a feedback loop whereby negative social perception from within reinforces reluctance from without. Artists too can sense that negative energy and feel the pull to leave.
The best way to dismantle that perception is by facilitating a vibrant, urban, social art scene and giving it time to take root and blossom. The pulse of any successful region, the thing that makes it attractive, is at least partly (sometimes fully) embodied in a renowned cultural scene. Socializing and creating culture is something our people excel at naturally, unfortunately we've traditionally exported most of this energy abroad, through emigration.
Realising this aim might seem daunting, if one is to survey the current state of affairs in the town on a quiet night. In reality, the implementation of existing government policy and above all active collaboration between political, administrative and community groups is all that is required to create the initial momentum. Once the virtuous cycle has been instigated, the natural advantages of the region will speak for themselves.
Many artists in the larger cities, having done the job of gentrifying previously depressed urban areas, amid rising rents and commercial demand for their spaces, are finding they are now surplus to requirements. The decentralisation of knowledge and latterly the distribution of the workplace, have removed the absolute necessity for artists to locate themselves in large urban conglomerations. This is an ideal time to turn their heads and offer a radically different vision of collaborative art, something fresh, rebellious.By drawing our region's scattered artists out of isolation and into a co-operative we will begin that rebellion in earnest.
THENCF abú - Long live THENCF!