The inaugural meeting of Aosdána, an Irish association of artists, takes place in the Old Parliament House in Dublin on April 14, 1983. It is created in 1981 on the initiative of a group of writers with support from the Arts Council of Ireland. Membership, which is by invitation from current members, is limited to 250 individuals, up from 200 prior to 2005. Its governing body is called the Toscaireacht.
At the suggestion of writer Anthony Cronin, who becomes a founding member, Aosdána is originally established in 1981 by Taoiseach Charles Haughey, well known for his support for the Arts, although columnist Fintan O’Toole has argued that this also serves to deflect criticism of Haughey’s political actions. Haughey’s successor, Garret FitzGerald, formally addresses the inaugural assembly of Aosdána in Dublin.
The process of induction into Aosdána relies entirely on members proposing new members. Applications by artists themselves are not allowed. Some members receive a stipend, called the Cnuas, from the Arts Council of Ireland. This stipend is intended to allow recipients to work full-time at their art. The value of the Cnuas in 2015 is €17,180.
The title of Saoi is the highest honour that members of Aosdána can bestow upon a fellow member. No more than seven living members can be so honoured at one time. The honour is conferred by the President of Ireland in a ceremony during which a gold torc is placed around the neck of the recipient by the President. The current living Saoithe are Seóirse Bodley (composer), Camille Souter (painter), Imogen Stuart (sculptor), George Morrison (film-maker), Edna O’Brien (writer), and Roger Doyle (composer). Among the deceased holders of the title of Saoi are the Nobel Laureates Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney, dramatists Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, and the artists Patrick Scott and Louis le Brocquy.
The poet Pearse Hutchinson, a member of Aosdána, describes the organisation as “a miracle and a godsend” that allows him to continue writing at a time when he might have had to give up. Composer Roger Doyle has also spoken about the difference it makes, “I was elected to Aosdána in 1986. This gave me a small stipend from the Government each year, which enabled me to devote all my time to composing. This changed my life for the better and I have composed non-stop since then.”
The Toscaireacht is a committee of ten members, called Toscairí, of the Aosdána. It meets several times a year to deal with the administration and external relations of Aosdána, reports to every General Assembly, which meets once a year, and sets its Agenda. When new members of Aosdána are proposed, the Toscairí have the task of verifying that the nomination process has been complied with, and also that the candidate is willing to accept membership, before the next stage of election is begun.
Toscairí are elected to the Toscaireacht by the members of Aosdána for two year terms. All members of Aosdána are eligible for election, and nominations must be made in writing by three members. The electoral process is in two stages. First, within each of Aosdána’s three disciplines (Music, Literature, and Visual Arts), the two nominees with the highest number of votes are elected. This guarantees a minimum of two Toscairí from each of the disciplines. Next, the remaining four places are filled by the remaining nominees from any discipline who have the highest number of votes.
The current Toscairí are Anne Haverty (literature), Deirdre Kinahan (literature); Eamon Colman (visual art), Enda Wyley (literature), Geraldine O’Reilly (visual art), Gerard Smyth (literature), Gráinne Mulvey (music), Mary O’Donnell (literature), Michael Holohan (music), and Theo Dorgan (literature).
The procedure at meetings is laid down in the Toscaireacht’s Standing Orders. Minutes of its meetings appear on Aosdána’s web site (aosdana.artscouncil.ie).