On Tuesday the 18th of June I delivered my TED talk. To say it was a nervous and thrilling occasion would be an understatement. Usually, I am the guy behind the scenes at Piquant, happy to be behind my desk rather than out in front of people. When I was asked to do the talk I was surprised. Why me? What did I do to deserve this level of recognition usually reserved for over-achievers, leaders and geniuses?
It was Elaine, the organiser of the event, who said that I would be a great fit. She talked about Piquant’s involvement with the cultural projects and positive initiatives in the city over the past 5 years. This made me reflect on the last few years and the trajectory this city has been on since I came back here after years of living abroad. In no other city have I witnessed such public engagement and will to improve.
Limerick has changed since I was a young lad in Munchins and LSAD. Its not a frivolous or lavish city. Limerick’s developments are innovative and well considered. There is a sense of accountability, and its residents simply wont allow any missteps. I believe it was the National City of Culture and Limerick’s bid for the European Capital of Culture that shone a light on our city’s many positives and gave the people of Limerick a sense of ownership, and a reason to get excited about their city again.
This is my TED Talk.
The day the 25 foot granny came to town I knew something special was happening. It was the first trickle that started the wave of optimism that is currently washing over our city on the West coast of Ireland. Limerick City.
Walking through our city streets you can feel the excitement in the air. You get a sense that anything is possible, and the citizens of Limerick are leading this conversation. It’s an exciting time for our city and I think I can pinpoint the moment that our collective mindset switched from a city on the defensive to a place where you can take risks and feel that they will pay off.
But first, I would like to talk to you about the curse of Saint Munchin, the patron saint of Limerick. The story goes that the workmen employed on the building of the ancient church of St. Munchin were one day struggling to raise a very heavy block of stone to a certain part of the work. The saint who was there at the time, asked some citizens to give them a hand. They refused. The saint then appealed to some strangers who were passing, who readily lent their assistance. St. Munchin fervently thanked them and prayed that strangers may always prosper in Limerick and the natives be unfortunate and unsuccessful.
There was something about this story that seemed to feed into our psyche. When something bad happened to our city, this story would rear its ugly head. While the rest of the country enjoyed a period of economic prosperity, Dell closed its doors causing 9,500 job losses. A gang feud tarnished our city’s reputation. Developments stalled and businesses closed as a result of the global financial crisis. People were beginning to believe that Saint Munchin’s curse may have some merit to it.
This pessimistic way of thinking is infectious and can perpetuate if supported. However the same is true of optimism.
When I talk about optimism, I’m not talking about blindly ignoring the problems and challenges of the world. It’s not about your rose tinted glasses. It’s about seeing options. In the face of adversity a pessimist will give up hope, an optimist looks for solutions. Here’s an example. After losing a job, it will take an optimist, on average, 4-6 weeks to get back into the hunt. It takes a pessimist 3-6 months.
There are health benefits to optimism too. In a study of more than 5,000 adults, researchers found that those who were the most optimistic were 76% more likely to have ideal health scores.
So being optimistic is obviously great, but how can you instil a sense of optimism in a community that is suffering? Former U.S. president Barack Obama believes in relentless optimism and that positive change is often incremental, not revolutionary. He said “Our successes—even though they sometimes are small and incomplete—accumulate; they build, and they create a trajectory that’s better.” I agree that you have to work on positive change and embrace every little win to build a culture of positivity. However I also believe that there can be catalysts to this mindset shift.
Our successes—even though they sometimes are small and incomplete—accumulate; they build, and they create a trajectory that’s better.
I believe art can be a powerful catalyst. It’s a simple theory. Beautiful spaces create beautiful people.
The people of Limerick were itching to embrace the first bit of genuine positivity to come to town, and so it happened that in 2014 Limerick was named as Ireland’s first National City of Culture. The aim of this initiative was to deliver a programme of cultural events and engagement in a city for one year.
Of course the city’s galleries and cultural spaces were busy and well catered for but more importantly the City of Culture initiative brought art to the wider public.
The Argentinian theatre Fuerza Bruta brought its crowd participation performances to a building that was left vacant by Dell years earlier.
A small group of locals set up Drawout Urban Exhibition that invited internationally recognised street artists to Limerick to transform our city walls and public spaces.
However the undisputed highlight came in the form of a 25 foot tall puppet from the French collective Royal Deluxe. On a spectacular and sunny weekend in September this giant Granny marched through our city’s main streets. flanked on all sides by her enthusiastic team of puppeteers, to cheers, tears and rapturous applause from a giddy audience.
She urinated on our streets, took a nap in our parks and her booming voice echoed through the city speaking her own unique language.
The beauty of the granny was how accessible she was. She captured the imaginations of all ages and cultures because she was familiar. She struck the perfect balance of relatability and oddness to create a really unique and magical moment.
In my opinion, this moment was the beginning of Limerick’s optimistic renaissance.
The following year Limerick announced that it was going to throw its name into the hat for a competition to become the European Capital of Culture 2020. As a local creative agency, we were lucky to be involved in the creation of the brand and creative campaigns to promote Limerick’s bid.
We knew we had to carve out a unique identity for the Limerick bid that would set itself apart from the competition. So we looked at what made Limerick special – its people. The brand that we developed echoed the rawness, the humour, the diversity of its people. We made sure that we weren’t just focussing on the artists community – we wanted to involve everyone, just as the Granny did the previous year.
Each campaign that we initiated involved members of the public from all walks of life. We had coffee table discussions with older communities, print workshops with children and made a treasure map with a poetry group. We gathered real content from the real citizens of Limerick and set about painting the town with messages from its residents.
Some of the pieces still stand today and every time I walk across Sarsfield bridge I feel proud to have been involved in this project.
It wasn’t staged or awkward. It fit perfectly into the surroundings and do you know what? The people loved it.
We didn’t win the competition but what happened was much greater. People took something from those 3 years of cultural expression. They were instilled with a pride of place and a sense of ownership of the city.
All of a sudden the people of Limerick were boosted by a sense of optimism that allowed them to flourish. New ideas began to sprout everywhere. These ideas were not necessarily about art but fed into the wider community.
Now our music scene is the envy of Ireland with the music generation project creating an original community of idea sharing.
In sport, our hurling team won the 2018 All Ireland Championship, buoyed all along by an infectious enthusiasm that feeds into the fans.
Our council are taking risks too, and through the innovative Limerick 2030 have acquired derelict buildings around the city and earmarked them for development.
Only a few short months ago, a local community group took matters into its own hands. We publicly raised the issue of a city centre site being left vacant since 2008. The University of Limerick has just signed a deal to buy this site and open their first city centre campus. I believe just by having more students within the city, this will be one of the most positive impacts to happen to our city in the last decade.
Imagine having the opportunity to change the outlook for a whole community so that they can see new options for themselves. It can be done. Just give people art.
I believe that all of this has stemmed from an artistic spectacle. For you see, if you can create art that is honest, accessible and suited to its surroundings, it can be transformative.