Let’s talk about…The Irish arts industry… post-pandemic

Post-pandemic prosperity: Irish arts industry continues to stack success stories

Only several years late to the party, recently I finally got around to reading and watching ‘Normal People’ – the novel and subsequent TV adaptation that saw Irish author Sally Rooney become a household name around the world, and which catapulted to fame stars like Irish actor Paul Mescal and British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones; I was putting off watching it until I read it… but then I forgot to get around to reading it.

Predictably, I was kicking myself for not getting into it sooner, when the hype about it was at its peak. Like most who’ve read/watched it, there was a lot to appreciate. The novel reads quick, and I found I enjoyed it more than the other work of Rooney’s I’d read (‘Conversations with Friends’). Typically, the story, settings, conflicts, and characters are permeated with Irishisms that are especially engaging for an Irish reader. And the show not only does a great job as an adaptation, but features some truly stunningly acted scenes – Mescal’s performance as Connell, particularly in the scene with the counsellor, stood out immediately, and it’s no surprise really, now having seen the show, that the Irish actor would eventually go on to become such a big name once Normal People exploded in popularity during the pandemic.


Recent successes

for Irish actors


Three years on from Normal People’s release, and not only has Mescal multiple awards under his belt (including a BAFTA for Normal People), but his projects have ballooned in scale too; there’s his lead role in the Oscar-nominated ‘Aftersun’, his role in the massive upcoming film Gladiator 2, and his (already) award-winning performance in ‘All of Us Strangers’, which, released just last month, co-stars another Irish actor, Andrew Scott.

Of course unlike Mescal, Scott is by no means a newly-successful actor; in addition to his other roles across film, TV, and the stage, his widely-popular performances as Moriarty in the hit BBC series Sherlock, and as ‘the hot priest’ in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s critically-acclaimed series Fleabag, already cemented his reputation years ago. Though the two must obviously have enough parity to be co-starring alongside each other, Scott sits among a cohort of more well-established Irish celebrities who’ve been in the spotlight longer than Mescal – celebs who have a wealth of successes under their belt already as they continue churning out acclaimed performances. Take for instance another Irish actor, Cillian Murphy, who, having previously gained massive popularity for his role in ‘Peaky Blinders’ a couple years ago, was just recently awarded a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination for his performance in ‘Oppenheimer’.

As it happens, both of these longer-established Irish actors, Scott and Murphy, recently featured in the select group of six performers chosen by the LA Times as having turned in some of the most acclaimed work of the last year, being picked to sit down for the 2023 Envelope Actors Roundtable for their respective performances in ‘All of Us Strangers’ and ‘Oppenheimer’. Scott and Murphy being chosen is not only testament to their respective talent, but also the high standard of Irish talent in general, given such a relatively small country was represented by a third of the esteemed group’s members.


Value of art during

the pandemic


At a point during this group discussion, Scott spoke about how important he thought storytelling had been during the pandemic; the good that being able to talk about, “‘What are you watching?’ ‘What are you reading?’ ‘What music are you listening to?’”, was able to do for people in terms of helping their spirits and keeping them in connection – “[Art] helps people when they are at their lowest ebb”.

Watching this clip of Scott, I was reminded again of the series his new co-star got his big break with, ‘Normal People’, about how I’d been kicking myself for not tuning into it when it was at the peak of its hype for essentially this exact reason; I had missed out on this connection to a larger pop culture conversation that exploded around the story, the show, and its success.

Having finally read/watched it, it feels evident people resonated with Normal People when it was released during the pandemic because of how much (and indeed how well) it dealt with themes of intimacy and connection at a time when the simplest human interactions were not afforded to us – there are, after all, considerable chunks in the story where the two main characters communicate solely over videocall, etc, which hits harder once you’ve experienced all the joys of lockdown Zooms. And once it started gaining traction, more popularity was fairly inevitable; at some point, lots of people were interested in tuning in solely for the same reason you might tune into a popular reality show you’d otherwise have no interest in – just to be able to join in on chats about it with friends or co-workers, or to understand chatter about it online.

And this is partly what Scott was talking about, the sense of connection and the uplift that discussing art can create between people – which I think remains true even if they don’t love the media in question (how many of us have hate-watched the likes of Love Island just to rant about it with mates?). But he is also right in identifying that this was magnified during the pandemic, and I believe this is not just because of people wanting things to talk about and connect over, but because during lockdown, a lot of people seemed to regain their connection to art in general.

In the busy hubbub of everyday life, many of us easily fall into a routine that prioritises responsibilities and practicalities, not art. When we do watch something, it’s often something ultra-light and digestible to wind down with. When we do listen to music or the radio, it’s while on the commute. When we do read, it’s often confined to snippets on our smartphones or brief articles during breaks, not finally getting to that novel you’ve been meaning to for years.

And of course this is understandable. In fact, if anything, it’s nice to think that even when we don’t really have the ‘time’ for art, we find ways to sneak into our lives anyways. And for all the loss and hardship it wrought, one of the weird silver linings of the pandemic was that it did afford people that ‘time’ to indulge in art again, doing a unknowable net good for people’s mood in such trying times.

When hard times come around because of the usual culprit – money – the arts are often one of the first things to suffer directly. Funding for cultural institutions and arts programmes is reduced, there’s declines in private donations and sponsorship, and there’s a decrease in sales and attendance at arts events due to people’s financial constraints. So in that sense, it was unusual that during the pandemic, the hard times instead served to aid the arts in a way.


Ireland’s growing

art industry


Last year, following a record-breaking spate of Irish nominations at the Oscars for The Banshees of Inisherin/An Cailiun Cluin, etc, I wrote a column about the current standard of Irish talent, and the increase in appreciation for it abroad. And a year on, it’s clear this was no anomaly, with half of this year’s Golden Globes best actor nominees hailing from the island (Scott and Murphy for the recent roles mentioned, and Banshee’s rising star Barry Keoghan for his lead in Saltburn), in addition to the impressive list of Irish Oscar nominations and other award nominations for Irish talent and Irish-made productions that we’re seeing, such as this year’s Golden Globe winner for best comedy, ‘Poor Things’.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Murphy said the level of talent coming out of Ireland is “extraordinary”, commenting, “I think part of it is that Irish people tell stories very well, just in the pub to each other”.

The arts have a long, storied, and immense cultural importance in Ireland – in many ways, it’s as if they come naturally to us – and what’s become more and more clear, is that the more we nurture our arts industry, the more success we see, both in terms of international recognition and just the standard of work produced. It is easy to look at awards and the film/TV industries to try and gauge this, but the same goes for other areas like the music and literary industries (Rooney’s Normal People works as an example here too), where Irish talent is not only reaching new heights, but beginning to really get its due recognition.

Funding for the arts has increased rapidly since the pandemic. In the 2019 Budget, the Government allocated €75 million to the Arts Council, and by 2023, the budget was almost double that at €134 million. It’s clear that the renewed appreciation for the arts since the pandemic has done a wealth of service for both the industry and for the people that enjoy the art it produces. Here’s hoping our reinvigorated appreciation for, support towards, and standard of art in Ireland continues on the track it’s on, so that the industry can keep blossoming into the impressive force it’s quickly becoming – and in many ways, already is.