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Children’s cultural centre sails the seas of creativity

ARK ANGELS: Penny Lunch (3) from Sandymount, Dublin, has some fun in The Ark.
ARK ANGELS: Penny Lunch (3) from Sandymount, Dublin, has some fun in The Ark.

IRELAND has the largest proportion of children in the European Union by far.

A staggering 22 per cent of the population is under 15, and that’s a statistic that won’t be changing any time soon as we’ve also got the highest fertility rate in the EU.

We’re certainly a country that cherishes its children and because we also have a fantastically rich culture it’s only natural that the two should go hand in hand.

That’s easier said than done in a world dominated by technological distractions but The Ark in Dublin’s Temple Bar is somewhere that manages to bring children and culture together in a simply magical way.

General Manager, Avril Ryan, strongly believes that when the country voted to pass the Children’s Referendum back in 2012, we were also saying yes to children’s cultural rights.

“The Ark was actually founded on that very principle, that children are entitled to the same cultural rights as adults,” she says.

“Basically, that’s a huge principle for us.”

Irish culture is something we’re all rightly proud of. Our small nation has given the world literature from Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, poets like Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh, art by Francis Bacon and John Lavery, music from Clannad and U2 and don’t get us started on Irish dancing.

“That’s what Ireland is famous for, isn’t it?” Avril adds. “If we don’t value culture in children’s lives, they’re not going to turn into adults who value it.”

The trick to turning children’s sometimes frustratingly short attention span in the direction of culture and the arts is to make it fun and interesting, and it’s a trick The Ark performs to perfection.

Robyn Whearty (2) has a moment of wonder and laughs. Photo by Mick O'Neill.

Instead of dumbing down adult culture The Ark actually commissions and produces all different types of art form created specifically for children aged two to 12.

This includes theatre shows like fairytale inspired ‘Far Away From Me’, which had its world premiere at The Ark earlier this year, the ‘Once Upon a Picture’ exhibition that ran over Easter and ‘Colour!’ a spectacular summer showcase of interactive events currently running in the Temple Bar centre.

But The Ark isn’t just about providing top-notch entertainment; more importantly it’s about getting children directly involved with the wonderfully wide world of culture.

“Children get so much from the arts,” Avril explains. “If you go to a theatre show in The Ark, you’re going to see the same actors you’ll see on stage in The Abbey or The Gaiety because we’re all about making sure children are absolutely entitled to that same quality as adults.

“At The Ark they can come in and see great artists like Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin or The Henry Girls and that can inspire a child who has never experienced the arts to take up an instrument.”

Another big part of The Ark’s work is teaching teachers and parents how to spark creativity in children. Courses and resources are provided to primary school teachers so they can bring culture into the classroom.

“Primary school teachers are expected to do quite a lot in the classroom between all the different subjects,” says Avril. “Arts in education is a very important way to extend children’s learning capacities. It gives them different ways to learn.

“Teachers really appreciate the back-up we give them and they really love bringing their classes here because it helps them conduct their classes through arts in education.

“You can do everything through arts in education, be it maths or literature, in order to get the very best out of children.

“We’re really into early years work right now and that’s something that parents are really loving because they want their children to get as stimulated as possible by the arts and culture, and they also get involved as well.”

The Ark is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and just as it approaches coming of age, so do some of the children who discovered The Ark back in the ‘90s when it first opened.

These include 29-year-old Duffy Mooney-Sheppard, who struggles to remember exact dates but retains strong visual memories of her first visit.

“They had an exhibition with children’s faces in all the big Georgian windows of the building and a friend of mine had been part of the workshop that created it so I came along to see that,” she recalls.

“It had a big impact on me, the visuals, it was like walking into an epic church, it was very vast to me.

ONE OF THE GANG: Duffy Mooney Sheppard, who used to visit The Ark as a child, now works at the cultural centre.

“I came another time, it must have been a year or two later, for a workshop and I remember the people doing it were from some part of Asia.

“We were painting on rice paper and making kites and then we took them to Phoenix Park and got to fly them. My sister and myself had our picture taken for some newspaper and I still have it because it was such a proud moment. I was about nine.

“I can’t think of any other place I went to as a child where I got to feel really creative.”

Inspired by a supportive family, a couple of creative teachers and The Ark, Duffy developed her interest in art and decided to make a career of it.

“I didn’t necessarily plan to go to art college but when it came to actually making decisions I kind of realised there was really nothing else I wanted to do,” she says.

“I went to NCAD and it was amazing to go to a place that’s just like The Ark, but for big people.”

When it came to jobs, Duffy found she couldn’t do anything that didn’t have a creative side to it. So if there wasn’t one there, she made one for herself.

“Even working in retail I became the creative person on the team, doing the window dressing or making up the graphic designs – I had to find the creative aspect to everything,” she laughs.

Duffy eventually ended up doing a HDip in NCAD that allowed her to teach art in secondary schools. She also volunteered with The Ark and when an intern opportunity came, she jumped at it.

“It was for a project called ‘Awaking Curiosity’, a really amazing mix of science and art, which is like my big interest,” she says.

“I was desperate to be in The Ark as much as possible.”

Duffy’s wish has come true and she now works on the front desk as visitor services co-ordinator. She knows she has a lot to be grateful for, and like every dream created at The Ark it’s made possible through funding.

The Ark is funded by the Arts Council (which receives National Lottery funds) and the Department of Education. Through the work of projects like the Ark, the National Lottery continues to bring dreams to life in communities all over Ireland.

 

REACHING OUT FROM THE ARK

FOUNDED in 1995 The Ark’s purpose built venue in the heart of Temple Bar is a cultural magnet for parents, teachers, children, artists and visitors.

But much of its work stretches far beyond the building in Eustace Street. The Ark’s outreach work has included projects at Dublin’s Fatima Mansions, art events in Cavan schools and staff get involved in festivals all around the country to spread a love of culture throughout the nation.

It’s also a fully inclusive venture, catering for children of varying abilities and disabilities. It was the first venue in Ireland to create autism-friendly performances and The Ark prides itself in encouraging children to be as creative as possible within their own capacity or ability.

 

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