FolkWorld #44 03/2011
© Seán Laffey

Philanthropy Pays for the Piper

Irish World Academy of Music and Dance

September 24th, 2010. The Official Opening of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance Building at the University of Limerick.

I often attend launches, most of course are for CDs, but this launch was light years away from those ‘normal’ events I cover in the course of a year. This launch was significant on so many levels, its effects will last for generations, that it was realized during a time of economic frailty and political uncertainty is in itself a significant achievement. It could be a blue-print for Cultural investment for the next decade.

Matt Molloy, Niall Keegan, Paddy Moloney

The Irish World Music Academy’s new building has not been greeted with universal approval, there has been some poor press, most of it questioning the cost of the project, but that to me just smacks of old fashioned begrugdery. I want my children to go to the finest Universities, with inspiring buildings in which committed passionate and exceptional teachers can set them off on a lifetime of exploration and professional success. Cutting edge design and out of the box architecture can only inspire fresh thinking and the new IWMA has all that in spades. If construction is a metaphor for intent then the new building on the Clare side of the University’s river Shannon campus makes it plain, this is a place where something serious happens. It is fun too.

The Prime Minister, An Taoiseach Brian Cowen was guest of honour, he added the gravitas required by the enormity of the projects (the building cost €20 Million and covers some 5000 square meters). Some of the more radical student elements took the opportunity to stand by the road side with placards complaining about possible Higher Education cuts. Ironic, when you consider how much of the built campus at UL has been funded privately.

Official guests were feted in the Academy with finger food and fine wine, whilst a crowd of curious well wishers assembled on the piazza that fronts the building, so many gathered that a coffee stall was set up to warm off the first tinges of autumn.

Nathan Pilatzke

Inside the crowd was packed tightly into what might be called the foyer, so strange is the shape of the space that it would be hard to give it a regular name, I believe it is known as the atrium. In this funnelled area a makeshift stage occupied the widest end on which a number of musicians played and dancers danced. The whole over looked by a huge mosaic depicting the Shannon legend from Irish Mythology, the cost of this mosaic was over €1 Million. Personally I found it difficult to appreciate in the round as the space doesn’t offer an easy sight-lines, but it does encourage you to walk around the building to get a better look, maybe there’s a hidden meaning in the quirky multi-angled architecture?

Mr. Cowen gave us the necessary detail on the architecture when he said “In all, more than 90 designs were submitted in response to this contest. Great praise must go to, Daniel Cordier of DLB Cordier Architects whose design was creative, innovative, iconic and practical. The design allowed for the personal endevours of scholars and performers while encouraging interaction and synergy across the differing forms of the performing arts.” (Big words, often hard to fathom, very much his trade mark and part of would see his Government’s crash which came in February 2011).

Thanks were given to Irish-American billionaire, Chuck Feeny, CEO of North Atlantic Philanthropies who stumped up the vast bulk of the money to turn Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s vision into today’s bricks and mortar reality. Mr. Feeny was in the audience, but true to his modest nature he gave no speech, under no pressure, he looked comfortable in casual gear in contrast to the mass of suits around him. He gently smiled, acknowledging the thanks for his donation. Feeny is a futurist who believes you should spend your riches on things of lasting value; the building will allow the expansion of the University’s Traditional music research and teaching programmes with an enrolment of 470 students being aimed for in 2013.

Matt Molloy & Niall Keegan

Music was central to the event of course and we were given a sample of the genres currently being explored by the academy. From choral works, to Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s orchestral 'Between Two Worlds', to a spot of rather steamy Latin dancing rom the Rex Levitates Dance Company. A number of students joined the Chieftains with Donal Lunny guesting on bouzouki as they played a spirited Uncle Joe Medley (a slice of Americana based on Miss MacLeod’s reel). Niall Keegan, a huge smile on his face, got to jam with his child hood hero Matt Molloy.

There was joy in the music and joy in the occasion, Brian Cowen for maybe 40 minutes could forget the worries of NAMA and the European Central bank, delighted with the tunes he clapped along. Paddy Moloney closed the encore with Canadian dancers brothers Jon and Nathan Pilatzke stepping it out frenetically in front of him. The suited front row rose to their feet in spontaneous approval. As the Taoiseach had said in his speech, Irish music is part of what we are and we should take every opportunity to celebrate it and ourselves, and they did just that.

Afterwards there was much chat as we mingled with students, staff and the distinguished guests. I met Ann Francine an Exchange student from Belgium;: “I couldn’t believe it, all those serious men in suits shouting out to the music. Ireland is a strange country!”

It sure is, but the music has a swanky new home and we won’t let the tunes slip away...ever!

You can see the official 5 minute video of the launch from Shannon Media at

Photo Credits: (1) Irish World Academy of Music and Dance logo (from website); (2), (4) Niall Keegan joining Matt Molloy & Paddy Moloney (The Chieftains), (3) Nathan Pilatzke (by Seán Laffey).

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