ADI Executive Director Pays Tribute to Former Board Member Colm Ó Briain in A Coat of Many Colours
Posted: 18 January, 2024
In A Coat of Many Colours, family, friends and colleagues from the arts community contribute essays to create a fascinating portrait of a singular personality, his influence and legacy.
This collection of essays celebrates the life and work of the late Colm Ó Briain, a former Director of the Arts Council, Director of NCAD, founder of Project Arts Centre, a Special Advisor to then Arts Minister Michael D. Higgins between 1993 and 1997, and a key figure in the Irish arts over the past half century.
Compiled by Colm’s wife Muireann, the anthology includes an essay by Arts & Disability Executive Director, Pádraig Naughton.
The below is reproduced with permission, copyright Muireann Ó Briain and the contributors, Martello Publishing, 2023.
Arts & Disability Ireland
‘I find it very hard to think of Colm without remembering his very close friend and neighbour Séamus Ó Cinnéide. My relationship with both of them begun when I took up the post of Executive Director of Arts & Disability Ireland (ADI). Along with Freida Finley, Colm and Séamus who was chair made up ADI’s long suffering board. They were the quintessential double act, on occasion assuming their respective roles as ‘good cop, bad cop’, a formidable pair in any situation.
When I arrived at ADI in autumn 2005, the organisation was being project managed by Create (formally CAFÉ Creative Arts For Everyone). Both Create and ADI (formally Very Special Arts Ireland) had their roots in the then closed City Arts Centre. The team at Create had spent the previous two years working with the ADI Board to write a new organisational development plan. As the new and sole member of staff, I had the task of realising that vision.
In the years before, the ADI board had euphemistically been through the wars politically so to speak, finding itself at the centre of an extremely polarised debate as to whether the organisation should be disabled led for and by artists or forge a role for itself as a development and resource organisation for the wider arts and disability sector in Ireland. Here myself, Colm and the ADI board shared a belief that the arts does not just belong to artists with disabilities but to audiences with disabilities too, neither does it only belong to those who shout the loudest. Unfortunately, this debate had many real casualties, with ADI losing its staff, home and the majority of its annual funding.
At the very moment they could have walked away, Séamus, Colm, and Freida to their eternal credit put their shoulders to the wheel and committed to rebuilding ADI. Consequently, my first meeting with the ADI board was a baptism of fire. Colm had taken his battles with disabled artists to supersede ADI and Arts Council to retain the organisations’ annual funding extremely personally. What I remember most is Colm taking the first opportunity available to him at the meeting to launch into a monologue that progressed from rant to tirade. For an incoming director it was both scary and disconcerting. However, once I figured out that Colm was speaking his hurt and frustration, it was easier to spot the nuggets of wisdom and vision in these lengthy moments of grandstanding! At its simplest, Colm’s thesis seemed to be that ‘disabled artists were selfish’. While I might disagree, I can understand that if the organisation you’re a board member of has been brought to the point of being unviable, it might seem a reasonable assumption. However, Colm’s worldview is better interpreted as a deeply held conviction in a pluralist arts and disability environment.
Here Colm and myself agreed and for the 6 years he remained an ADI board member, we never fell out or lost trust in each other, although we had many robust debates, with every proposal I brought to the board being tested and discussed in great detail. In many respects I came to realise that Colm’s relentless testing and argument about everything was his unique way of showing how interested he was and how seriously he took both the topic and his Board responsibilities. The more engaged he was, the more he argued, if he was silent it generally meant that he considered the topic irrelevant or obvious. Colm appreciated that, while I had new ideas as the incoming director I was committed to ADI’s ongoing projects in drama and dance which the board had worked tirelessly to maintain despite shrinking resources.
Quick Bright Things was directed by dramaturg Declan Drohan and Counterbalance by choreographer Cathy O’Kennedy. Both were ground breaking projects that sought to develop standalone companies of people with disabilities in performing arts. To this existing portfolio of projects I wanted to add Ireland’s first regular calendar of audio described performances (a live commentary of the visual elements of what was happening on stage). Colm never doubted the need for ADI to take on the challenge of meeting the access requirements of audiences with disabilities but always questioned the long term sustainability of stretching to meet the needs of both artists and audiences with disabilities.
This was 10 years after the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities report ‘A Strategy for Equality’. While considerable progress had been made in the intervening years on the physical accessibility of a wave of newly built arts centres, little if anything had changed for blind and visually impaired and deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Colm and his fellow board members were open to persuasion and so began ADI’s new venture into access services with an audio described performance of the Importance of Being Earnest at the Abbey Theatre in September 2006, with an all-male cast starring Alan Stanford.
Since then ADI has made performances accessible in at least 37 performing and visual arts venues throughout Ireland. Colm’s love for the arts was only equalled by the pleasure he took in ADI’s successes. He revelled in the organisation’s achievements and loved regaling an audience, any audience, with a good news story. Very often the first recipient of these stories was Marian, Colm’s secretary and personal assistant in the Director’s office at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). This was in the days before the ADI board were ready to embrace electronic payments, when I had a path worn to Colm’s office to have cheques countersigned for yet another payment run. I remember on one such occasion imparting the news that ADI had just been awarded €38,120 in capital funding from the Arts Council to purchase audio description and captioning equipment, as well as a loop system.
Obviously, Colm was delighted about the fact that ADI now had the technical resources to deliver access for audiences with disabilities in live theatres across Ireland. However, what excited him most was, ADI had been awarded exactly the funding requested (never a given, and a rare occurrence). His initial comment to Marian was, “this hasn’t happened in years”, after which he launched into one of his characteristic monologues, only this time he was extolling my achievements as the new Director. In that moment Colm was so incredibly proud and from then on felt ADI was on the way back. There were many subsequent occasions when Colm offered informal appraisals on my work, those that he shared with my parents at ADI’s events over his years on the board were among my favourites. Born with a significant visual impairment in 1970, my parents’ expectations for my future were somewhat tempered by my disability. Although supportive and open, a career in the arts was not something they imagined. So, the fact that the Director of my alma mater NCAD spoke so glowingly meant a great deal to them as well as providing the reassurance that perhaps I had chosen the correct career path after all. Colm’s first encounter with my parents was at the launch of the publication ‘Face On: Disability Arts for Ireland and Beyond’. Another one of my new projects, it was an anthology commissioned to explore disability arts (an arts practice reflecting a first person lived experience of disability) in an Irish context. Colm was initially very reluctant to reengage in the disability arts politics which he felt had almost destroyed ADI.
However, we needed a mechanism by which all the key protagonists involved in past debates were afforded the opportunity to share their perspectives. The key was finding an editor everyone respected and trusted with their contributions. Into the breach stepped Irish born, Welsh based writer and dramaturg Kaite O’Reilly. Colm was totally won over by Kaite’s extensive international track record. Steeped in the UK disability arts movement since the 1980s, Kaite combined this knowledge with her expertise in disabled led theatre throughout the world, to engage in an individual dialogue with every contributor. What resulted was an anthology with 27 unique perspectives, describing themselves as artists, artists with disabilities, disabled artists and deaf / Deaf artists. Some identified as people with disabilities, others disabled people, while yet more chose not to identify at all, with their arts practice reflecting a kaleidoscope of approaches from disabled led to collaborative practice and every variation in between. For me, this very much vindicated Colm’s world view that arts and cultural life Ireland belonged to us all regardless of our perspective on the intersection between disability and arts and that ADI could and should hold that space for anyone and everyone to engage on their own terms.
In my early years at ADI I loved nothing more than being directly involved in making projects such as these happen. Colm was acutely aware of this and I remember at one particular board meeting, he posited the following advice, “Pádraig, we pay you to direct, not to deliver”. It was a firm reminder that the role of directing any organisation is a delicate balance between getting your hands dirty and delegating to others. A piece of wise advice I have challenged myself to take forward to this day.
As well as those ADI memories, there is an object in my kitchen by which I will always remember Colm. A heart-shaped Le Creuset casserole pot which he gave as a present to my wife Avril and myself on the occasion of our wedding in 2011. While not big enough to fit a casserole for our now expanded family, it is ideal for a date-night dinner, while also serving as a reminder that in times past Colm and myself debated much and worked hard to make a difference. Therefore, in conclusion I would say that Colm’s legacy to me personally and to ADI organisationally was that the space we hold is intrusted to us for the benefit of everyone!’
-Pádraig Naughton, Colm Ó Briain: A Coat of Many Colours, compiled by Muireann Ó Briain, pages 221-225, Martello Publishing, 2023.