News, Stories | 26 March 2021

What Culture Means to Me by Phil Kingston

What Culture Means to Me by Phil Kingston
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How do you define culture?

‘Culture’ can be an intangible thing - that each of us struggles to explain or put down in words.

So, we want to hear from people of all ages and all walks of life about what culture means to them. Is it a space or place? A feeling, a moment or a connection with people? We’re gathering voices from across the city to help us express through a series of short blog posts how culture can play an active role in our everyday lives.

Below, Phil Kingston, Community and Education Manager at the Abbey Theatre, tells us what culture means to him.

Paths through culture

Culture is, in the days before Covid, being able to take a film out of a library and ending up watching Of Time and the City by Terence Davies late into the night. It’s being immersed in somebody's very personal and moving journey - and being changed by it. It’s listening to music old and new and not just hearing the music, but getting flashes of the lives and values and worlds of those who made it.

Culture is realising that when I have to work on myself, on my mind and my emotions, often the path forward comes from culture. It could be a line from the poem In Praise of Limestone by W.H. Auden, or listening to Sweet Thing by Van Morrison, or watching Philip Seymour Hoffman act.

The American poet William Carlos Williams once said:

“It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.”

Art may not build bridges or life-saving machines. But it helped us dream them up in the first place.

Personal and profound

Culture is arranging things on the shelf, culture is loving something, culture is viewing an object with value so that it sings to you. Culture is the stone wrapped in felt I made at my daughter’s primary school craft day, it’s the lego dinosaur my son wants me to keep at work, it’s the collection of white stones I picked up on the beach at Tragumna in Skibbereen. All these sit below the screen I’m writing on.

Culture is libraries - I can’t get past how important they are, what they say about the sharing of what’s best about humanity. Culture is how many books and records and films there are left to explore. It is discovering something new like The Blocks by Karl Parkinson which is unique, and yet also realising that other people have had similar thoughts but in different times, places, countries and languages.

Carl Rogers said, "That which is most personal is most general".

I've lived in two cultures, English and Irish, and see now how distinct they are. I see how history and landscape have influenced them and how certain things move deeply inside me because of where I'm from - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis Vaughan Williams, the poetry of Eliot and Blake, the books of Philip Pullman. And Eliot was a blow-in too. And though I tried reading history books the things that have really taught me about Ireland were Gerry Stembridge’s novels, watching Reeling in the Years and listening to The Gloaming.

Culture is the confidence that there’s always a trace out there of other people’s attempts to make meaning and beauty and joy out of life. It's knowing these traces will teach my mind and heart about the uniqueness of those lives. Culture is the opposite of loneliness.


Phil Kingston is Community and Education Manager of The Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre. He trained as an actor and went on to work on stage, screen and radio as well as writing for theatre and TV. In November 2011, he joined the Abbey and has helped design and deliver over 100 applied drama and education projects. He is a member of the Learning and Engagement Group of the Council of National Cultural Institutions, and also serves on the board and advisory panels for several key education and arts organisations in Ireland.