A ghra gheal mo chroi, indeed it’s far from a song of praise many students and their parents are singing with Minister O’Keeffe flagging the return of Third Level fees. He may well have to whistle another tune such will be the wave of protest on this vexatious issue, rising to a crescendo from the brooding rumblings already heard so far.

The Minister and some commentators seek to express the argument in simplistic language such as ‘the wealthy should pay their own expenses’ or ‘a person of a salary of 100K plus (not including expenses) should not benefit from fees’. Yes Minister, you are right. But many, if not most, would differ on your definition of wealth. It certainly does not describe the middle-income bracket. This has been well described as the ‘coping classes’ who are taking most of the recent spate of levies.

The government will seek to suck even more from this sector with little left to give. For the economy to recover buoyancy has to return to the retail sector giving a much needed stimulus to all areas of the market- place. Sucking away what remains of people’s disposable incomes will only deflate our economy further, while at the same time undermining the development of the much trumpeted ‘smart economy’.

Access all areas

Then we get the fairy tale, or is it hairy tail, that the abolition of fees did not make the impact hoped for in respect of certain socio-economic groups. Come on, nobody ever thought it would because other cultural and economic realities need to be tackled in their own right to promote social inclusion and advancement. This latter issue concerns me greatly but it is a complex area not amenable to facile solutions. There are myriads of reasons other than social-economic ones why many students do not choose to follow the route to a College. There are lots of ways to up-skill and acquire an area of expertise, for others further ‘book learning’ would serve only to inhibit an entrepreneurial flair.

But for those who choose to avail of the opportunity of a Third Level qualification, then fees can be a burden too far. Yes, people managed before or so it is claimed but many more didn’t because it is not simply a matter of fees. It’s like Beecher’s Brook in the Grand National. Some leap over seemingly without effort, others just scrape over but yet confronted by another series of daunting obstacles i.e. soaring cost of accommodation, food, travel, heating, books, equipment and bit of entertainment. 12,000 would barely cover it and that’s just one student. The fairy tale mandarins of Marlborough Street seem to assume that all Irish families consist of two children conveniently spread 5 years apart.


One way or another

Even if one lives in a town or city blessed with an Institute of Technology (especially a fine one like ours) or a University, then Third Level is a real option for many families though fees would remain as a significant obstacle. Yet it is another ball game altogether if the place you get is in Dublin, Cork or Galway, it can thus become out of reach for many, especially if there are several other children. Back in the mid-sixties I was fortunate to have lived in a university city which made attendance at UCC an achievable option otherwise it would have been a distant dream.

Those just above the limit for a grant, even by a cent, are equally ineligible as someone worth millions. Another factor altogether is why a parent’s income should be a factor if someone is over 18 – a legal, voting, mature (I hope) adult. Should they not be assessed on their own income or more usually lack of it? So it’s not that simplistic. There’s the general acceptance now that the government/minister O’Keeffe will wait until after the Local and European elections to announce the reintroduction of fees. Some would call that being politically astute, to others the word cynical is what first springs to mind.

Entry to third level education should be as natural and expected a right to be accessed freely as we regard access to primary and second level – end of story!

Thomas Roberts

Well it proved an interesting or fortuitous coincidence that our featured story in the column last week was that of John Roberts and his family history, the man whose name is honoured by city’s central square being named for him, on two fronts. Firstly, the Weekender edition of this paper led with a welcome good news story of the exciting plans for a summer programme of activities centred around John Roberts Square and other areas of the city including the new-look Blackfriars – which we also featured recently. Remember the bright idea to bring the Merry-go-round there last Christmas, proved a great success.

The second coincidence with the John Roberts story is that we made mention that his son became a renowned and influential 18th century landscape artist and indeed a founding member of the RHA. I knew only of his son being an artist and that was the extent of my knowledge until I researched last week’s column. But I am already on a steep learning curve in respect of this guy as low and behold I spotted that a major exhibition of his work is currently going on in the National Art Gallery accompanied by a publication on this important Irish artist. Further, it was apposite that this exhibition was launched a few weeks ago, by a Waterford minister, one responsible for that area. So, I read the following with a special interest.

Martin Cullen TD, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism on 25 March 2009, officially opened a new exhibition Thomas Roberts, 1748 – 1777 and launched a new publication – Thomas Roberts, Landscape and Patronage in Eighteenth Century Ireland in the National Gallery of Ireland.

The free exhibition, which runs until the end of June, celebrates the career of the landscape painter Thomas Roberts, considered to be one of the finest Irish landscape painters of the eighteenth century. This is the first major exhibition of his work for 30 years. The exhibition includes some 50 works by the artist, who was born in Waterford, including images of scenic locations around the country. Together for the first time on exhibition is the renowned series of views from Carton Estate, County Kildare.

Minister Cullen also launched the publication Thomas Roberts, Landscape and Patronage in Eighteenth Century Ireland by authors William Laffan and Brendan Rooney. The publication explores the richness of Roberts’ landscape art. Churchill House Press in association with the National Gallery of Ireland has published this work.

Speaking at the event, Minister Cullen said: “This exhibition of the work of Thomas Roberts highlights the extensive nature of the Gallery’s collection and its work in cooperation with galleries around the world.” Speaking about the book accompanying the exhibition, the Minister said: “The descriptions and analysis of Roberts work as well as the biographical detail acknowledge the achievements of this great Irish artist”.

The exhibition

The National Gallery’s programme gives us an interesting introduction to Thomas Roberts work and the importance of this Waterford born artist. Opening in the Beit Wing this spring is an exhibition of some 50 works by the Waterford-born artist Thomas Roberts (1748-1777), arguably the finest Irish landscape painter of the eighteenth century. There has not been a major exhibition of his work since 1978, so this is a wonderful opportunity to review his exceptional ability. Roberts was not only a supreme technician, but also an artist with enormous sensitivity.

is work ranges from topographical views of some of Ireland’s most celebrated and picturesque locations, to idealised landscapes, dramatic storm scenes and views of some of Ireland’s finest demesnes (Carton, Lucan, Dartry). He painted scenes in Dublin, Wicklow, Meath, Kildare and along Lough Erne from Belturbet to Ballyshannon. Each composition displays the artist’s deftness and sureness of touch, and his extraordinary skill in the description of natural detail. Roberts trained at the Dublin Society Schools and spent almost his entire working life in Ireland. Though he was acquainted with works by British and Continental masters, his landscapes are distinctly Irish in character.

This important exhibition runs until June 28th in the Beit Wing – admission free. So JR will be the centre of attraction from herein!