President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins turned back the clock last week when he paid his first official visit to the towns arts centre which he gave the green light for nearly 13 years ago.
President Higgins approved the construction of the Dunmaise Arts Centre and Theatre when he was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaelteacht in 1996.
On his arrival last Wednesday, he was greeted by chairman Louis Brennan, and Portlaoise Mayor Cllr Matthew Keegan, Chairman of Laois County Council Cllr John Bonham, Arts Officer Muireann Ní Chonaill. President Higgins met with artists and teachers from the Abbeyleix Further Education Centre and showed a keen interest in a piece by Imelda McNally, explaining to her that his niece was “big into textiles”. After greeting the members of dance troup “Unlaois’d”, it was into the 240 seat theatre, where a full house applauded his arrival.
Chairman Mr Brennan welcomed President Higgins, thanking him for his role in creating the centre.
“It was a seriously important decision for Portlaoise town. A quarter of a million patrons have attended events at the Dunamaise and hundreds of local, national and international artists have provided entertainment. it is also wonderful timing for the President’s visit as this year marks Laois School of Music’s 10th anniversary,” he noted.
The young musicians displayed their skills, playing the Presidents Salute and a traditional tune titled “Johnny with the Quare Thing”, led by Nuala Kelly and conducted by John Davidson.
Leader of the senior ensemble Benn Hogan, aged 17, did himself proud by speaking eloquantly, occasionally as Gaeilge.
“Music has been such an important part of my life since the school opened ten years ago. From a trip to France aged 11, to playing in such venues as the National Concert Hall and the Electric Picnic, playing violin and piano have taken me to amazing places,” he said.
President Higgins then spoke, praising the “wonderful use” of the arts centre,and recalling his memories of working with the centre’s formers director Louise Donlan in Galway in 1974.
“We proposed an arts grant of £200 for the Druid. People asked, ‘but what if we get a show we don’t like?’ and I told them ‘you can always get a blindfold and pull it down for the offensive bits’,” he said.
“It’s important that this model of arts works. Local and national in the same space, its allows talent to flourish. I still believe, to teach a child music, swimming, reading and writing, they are set up for great citizenship. It’s something that stays with you for life,” he said.
Louis Brennan presented President Higgins with a specially commissioned gold lapel pin created by Portlaoise goldsmith Helena Malone, inspired by a poem by the town’s own Pat Boran.