Write about five hundred words on what culture means to you please, came the simple request from Shauna. Of course, no problem!
Then the weeks dragged on and for some reason I could not begin and then it dawned on me – to be honest, the term culture is problematic for me.
Why is that?
Maybe it’s the way the term culture is used in so many different ways, often to divide or excuse things. The drinking – ‘sure it’s the culture!’ The slight snobbery around accessibility and popular culture, and the way these divisions can exclude people and delude them into thinking culture is not for them.
And yet, over twenty years on, I still can’t believe I’m lucky enough to work in this amazing cultural sector, that it’s my job to work with great people, creating great work in surprising places.
While working in The Ark (Children’s Cultural Centre), I saw little children full of wonder at their first theatrical experience, while their grandparents were captivated too, proving you’re never too young or too old to begin living a creative life.
A young Dubliner once said to me – ‘art is what you do, culture is who we are’. That made me think a lot. She and her peers saw culture as an intrinsic part of their lives – their form of creative and personal expression.
This is in direct contrast to the opinion of a dear old colleague who once said, ‘sure there was no culture when I was young’. Remembering my own childhood, the panto in The Gaiety was the cultural highlight of the year for our family. Weeks of anticipation led up to our arrival in the plush theatre dressed in our Christmas clothes. Then going out into the dark, frosty night, hoarse with screams of ‘he’s behind you’ ringing in our ears.
Our weekly visits to the DeLuxe Cinema were a lot less glamorous as we queued along Camden Street again full of anticipation but back on familiar territory and with no box of Milk Tray.
Kevin Street Library was heaven to me. I never thought of it as culture, it was just a completely normal, huge part of my childhood. I got lost amongst the mahogany bookshelves and devoured books about boarding schools, midnight feasts, saints and young sleuths who solved crimes far more quickly than the police – from here the world opened up to me and, more importantly, I learned how to dream.
Wandering into the National Gallery for the first time as a teenager mitching from school, I was sure I had a sign on my forehead announcing that I was a fraud who didn’t belong there, convinced the invigilators were watching me scornfully as I looked at the paintings in the ‘wrong way’. But still, in spite of my discomfort, I was drawn back again and again into portraits and the landscapes that moved and delighted me.
So What Does Culture Mean to Me?
A solitary, quiet moment or a shared experience in a heaving crowd. Natural or man made – the architecture of Dublin City or the light shimmering on the Flaggy Shore. It can be the ‘soft day’, the fragment of a haunting air or a line of poetry that as Seamus Heaney wrote can ‘catch the heart off guard and blow it open’.
For me culture and creativity enriches, elevates and makes life worth living. I can’t always make sense or articulate it but I wouldn’t want to imagine life without it.
Bernadette Larkin has previously worked with Dublin’s Culture Connects as the Project Manager of the Around the Table, a project tracing the passage of food from the docks to the markets and from our streets to our tables, as part of The National Neighbourhood. As Project Manager on The National Neighbourhood 2017-2018, Bernadette worked in partnership with The National Gallery of Ireland, the National Archives of Ireland, the Area Office, local public libraries and the City Arts Office.
Bernadette currently works as a Project Manager at Dublin City Council Culture Company’s programme Our City Our Books.