When we think of public funding and the Irish film, television and related cultural industries, we tend to focus on the major sources: the Section 481 tax credit; Screen Ireland production loans; and Arts Council funding. To a lesser extent, perhaps, we’re aware of regional supports like the WRAP fund. Smaller initiatives, like the various short film schemes operated by local authorities in Offaly, Donegal and elsewhere, attract even less attention. And perhaps least visible of all are arts and cultural support initiatives originated, often for community outreach purposes, by public companies. One such body is the Dublin Port Company (DPC), the state-owned commercial organisation whose remit is the development and operation of cargo and passenger facilities at Dublin Port, the site of half of all trade between Ireland and the rest of the world.
A full page ad on the back page of the current edition of The Phoenix serves as a reminder of DPC’s considerable array of arts initiatives, loosely grouped under its headline Port Perspectives programme, which acts as a sort of cultural brand for the Port operator. Through Port Perspectives and related programmes like Starboard Home, Port Shorts, and the Pumphouse Bursary, DPC offers development and production funding to creative artists operating across the cultural industries, including film, audiovisual, theatre, music, dance, and the fine arts. They thus provide an alternative, if limited, source of funding that complements the more expansive schemes operated by the major state cultural bodies.
Perhaps an obvious question to ask is: What’s in it for Dublin Port?
Speaking to a group of invited artists at the launch of Port Perspectives in 2017, DPC’s chief executive Eamonn O’Reilly explained the company’s ambitions:
O’Reilly’s statement is notable for its implicit understanding of the value of art and culture as communicative media, harnessed in service of the Port’s determination to reintegrate the port with the city. This is a major goal of the Dublin Port Masterplan, a strategy launched in 2012 to map the Port’s development through the year 2040. The plan is of course primarily dedicated to DPC’s (sometimes controversial) ambitions to expand the port physically, and the recent scramble to build additional customs facilities in the wake of Brexit is a reminder of how the DPC needs to be constantly flexible in providing the infrastructure necessary for the port’s vital role in Irish trade. In light of O’Reilly’s statement above, it is interesting to note the Masterplan’s inclusion of a number of intriguing civic and cultural initiatives, not limited to the individual funding schemes mentioned above. Aware of the Port’s status as ‘a central part of the structure, culture and heritage of Dublin and its people’, DPC hopes to repurpose the disused Odlum’s Flour Mill, whose landmark silos tower over the Alexandra Road basin close to the East Link Bridge. The Flour Mill is envisioned as a civic and cultural centre, to ‘help tell the story of Dublin’s river and port’. Proposals describe a museum and archive, a visitors centre, and cultural facilities to include performance spaces and artist studios. Crucially, the plan aims to physically link the Port more directly to the city through a series of cycle routes and greenways in the North Docklands and East Wall areas, including the Port Highline, an elevated walk/cycleway linking the Flour Mill with nearby roads, an ambitious engineering feat seemingly inspired by New York’s similarly named High Line park.
While these proposals are exciting, there are of course many hurdles to cross, not least those posed by the planning process. The Odlum’s Flour Mill does not appear to be a protected structure, although it is undoubtedly an important part of the port’s – and the city’s – architectural heritage. To date, DPC has completed a number of successful cultural transformations of its infrastructural elements, including the unique Diving Bell museum and the resurrection of Crane 292, beside their head offices close to the Point Depot music and performance venue in the North Wall area. Besides these physical interventions, the output from Port Perspectives, Port Shorts and DPC’s various other funding schemes is coalescing into a distinctive body of work that links thematically to the rich history of the port and docklands. In parallel to all these activities, the Dublin Port YouTube channel showcases an eclectic mix of screen output, including documentaries about port operations; explorations of the rich archival and heritage materials in the company’s care; and a series of short films celebrating the people who work in and around the port. Collectively, the items in this audiovisual collection represent an appreciation of heritage and history – and especially labour history – that is all too rare in contemporary corporate culture.
There is, of course, a public relations element to DPC’s cultural ambitions, as well as its plans for the physical space occupied by Dublin Port. Some critics have called for the relocation of the port away from the city entirely, and these calls have no doubt energised some of DPC’s policies. To this observer, however, there is an air of authenticity to the cultural and civic ambition emanating from the Dublin Port Company. It matches the authenticity of the port itself, a noisy and vibrant element of the Dublin city fabric. If Dublin is to continue to inspire filmmakers, artists, musicians and cultural producers of all types, the port’s atmosphere, history and sense of place is something the city cannot afford to lose.