The New Cultúrlann
Promoting Irish through the arts and the arts through Irish in the newly refurbished Cultúrlann Mc Adam Ofiaich
On September 19, Irish President Mary McAleese cut the ribbon on the revamped and refurbished Cultúrlann Mc Adam Ofiaich cultural and arts centre on the Falls Road in Belfast.
With a 130-seat restaurant, a 110-seat theatre/conference space and state of the art interactive space – not to mention the Gerard Dillon Gallery, which has been re-housed in a swanky new wing – the Cultúrlann is a landmark building in the Gaeltacht Quarter.
It’s hard to believe that it all began in 1991, when an Irish language class moved into a disused Presbyterian Church on the Falls Road. There were only nine pupils. By the following year, that number had swelled to 300.
A bookshop, café and arts space soon were added and Cultúrlann Mc Adam Ofiaich was born. The first of its kind. For Eimear Ní Mhathúna (pictured above), Cultúrlann Director, that journey has been long and surprising.
‘I don’t think anybody would have imagined in their wildest dreams how much it would grow and how much demand there would be for the services provided here,’ says Ní Mhathúna. ‘Back in 1991, the issue was what can we do to fill this building, but by 2003 we were bursting out of the building and knew we had to expand.
‘For example, we have had gallery space for many years but it doubled up as a classroom. You can’t bring artists in to display their work and then close that space to the public while it is used for other purposes. That doesn’t show respect to the artist or the artwork, so that situation was really unsatisfactory and that was a big part of why we had to build a proper gallery space.’
The Gerard Dillon Gallery, named in honour of the celebrated Belfast artist, is a purpose built space housed in the new wing. Flooded with natural light from large windows, and with a wall and roof that meet the church in an elegant arch, it’s a welcoming and beautiful building. Ní Mhathúna is proud of what the architects have achieved.
‘This is an old Presbyterian Church building and as a church it is slightly forbidding. We were very conscious that there were some people passing by who had no idea what happens in here, so we wanted to open it up.
'We wanted to make a statement about the Gaeltacht Quarter, but we also wanted people to feel free to wander in. To be honest it has had that effect, because there are so many more people coming here and that’s fantastic.’
Along with the new gallery on the ground floor, visitors can enjoy a meal in the new restaurant, watch a play in the theatre or learn about the development of the Irish language in Belfast.
‘This is multilingual and interactive,' explains Ní Mhathúna. 'You can learn about Irish place names and hear poetry in Irish, but also in different languages so people know what is actually being said. It is the ethos of the Cultúrlann to promote the arts through Irish and Irish through the arts, but no one would force Irish on anyone in this place.
'You can come into the café and speak whatever language you choose. The books in the book shop are in English and Irish. You don’t need Irish to walk around and look at the art exhibition in the Gerard Dillon Gallery, or the local crafts, or enjoy many of the music events here. Even the plays have simultaneous translation so that anyone who comes in will feel that there’s a welcome here.’
In a post Troubles Northern Ireland hit by recession, maximising our potential as a tourist location has never been more possible or more important. Cultural tourism is the name of the game and the new cultural centre is fashioned to appeal most to tourists.
For example, it is on the route of the sightseeing bus tours that carry camera laden tourists around the capital city, and would be an ideal stopping off point for visitors looking for some Irish stew or hand crafted harps to send back home.
The huge investment of £1.9million by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, among others, is testament to their belief in the refashioned Cultúrlann's value and that of the Gaeltacht Quarter itself.
‘It’s a very exciting time,’ announces Ní Mhathúna. ‘The aim was for this to be a leading project in the Gaeltacht Quarter to jumpstart more development and growth here. Our hope is for this to act as a catalyst for other things. It is starting to happen already, but it definitely needs a bit of a push from government.’
For more information contact (028) 90964180 or visit Culturlann's website