Aosdána is an association of people in Ireland who have achieved distinction in the arts. It was created in 1981 on the initiative of a group of writers and with support from the Arts Council of Ireland. Membership, which is by invitation from current members, is limited to 250 individuals; before 2005 it was limited to 200. Its governing body is called the Toscaireacht.
Some members of Aosdána 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 2008 is €14,180.
The title of Saoi (lit. "wise one") 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.
Aosdána was originally set up on the suggestion of writer Anthony Cronin, by Taoiseach Charles Haughey, well-known for his support for the Arts, although Fintan O'Toole has argued that this also served to deflect criticism of Haughey's political actions. Many artists feel that the corruption that surrounded Haughey and his Fianna Fáil party compromises the institution.
The process of induction relies entirely on members proposing new members. Applications by artist themselves are not allowed. Many artists feel that membership of a state-sponsored organisation might compromise them as artists. In an Irish Times article in 2001, several artists who were not members were asked for comments. Poet Thomas Kinsella said that on looking over the membership he felt his standards were higher. Brendan Kennelly said: "On an unconscious or subconscious level I might feel compromised (by membership)." Painter Hughie O'Donoghue said he would decline membership if asked because "the thing I need most as an artist is independence."
Poet Eavan Boland said: "I was not then, nor am I now, comfortable with the idea of belonging to something where there are exemptions involved," although she added that she would "hate to see it disappear". Playwright Hugh Leonard said: "I am not a member by choice. And if I did ask to get in they wouldn't let me. I don't like the idea of authors en masse ... and there are so many people in Aosdána of whom I have never heard. The whole thing seems unforgivably political ... That thing of exclusivity and elitism I despise."
Journalist Bruce Arnold, chief critic of the Irish Independent, argued that "Writing, for example, is not really served at all by the archaic institution for conferring honours on artists, known as Aosdána, which really does little to help the other arts either."
The poet Pearse Hutchinson, on the other hand, a member of Aosdána, has described it as "a miracle and a godsend" that allowed 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 made: "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."
In March 2007, the Scottish Government announced the setting up of an arts group modelled on Aosdána.
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.
In 2004, the Toscaireacht adopted a motion which was later successfully proposed to the General Assembly, that the categories of Aosdána's membership be extended to include architects and choreographers and that the status of film makers as artists in their own right should be endorsed.
Toscairí are elected to the Toscaireacht by the members of Aosdána for two years at a time. 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 procedure at meetings is laid down in the Toscaireacht's Standing Orders. Minutes of its meetings appear on Aosdána's web site.
Anthony Cronin (Literature), poet
Seoirse Bodley (Music)
Brian Maguire (Visual Arts)
Dermot Healy (Literature), novelist, playwright, and poet
Mary Fitzgerald (Visual Arts)
Mannix Flynn (Literature)
Alice Hanratty (Visual Arts), painter and printmaker
Samuel Walsh (Visual Arts), painter
Macdara Woods (Literature), poet
Eibhlís Farrell (Music)
Toscairí in past years include:
1999-2002: Roger Doyle, John Kinsella, Gene Lambert, David Shaw Smith, Paula Meehan, and Raymond Deane, as well as Alice Hanratty, Anthony Cronin, Dermot Healy, and Brian Maguire.
2002-2004: Seóirse Bodley, Maud Cotter, Theo Dorgan, Paul Durcan, Fergus Johnston, Michael Kane, and Eric Sweeney, as well as Alice Hanratty and Brian Maguire.
Fairytale of Kathmandu controversy:
In the affair of Cathal Ó Searcaigh and the Fairytale of Kathmandu controversy, Gerard Mannix Flynn proposed in the Toscaireacht that a motion be put on the agenda for the General Assembly of Aosdána which echoed concerns about Aosdana's position on allegations about the exploitation of vulnerable young people. This would endorse the Arts Council booklet Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children and Young People in the Arts Sector and call on artists to endorse its principles individually. When he was asked to withdraw this motion, Flynn refused and resigned from the Toscaireacht.
Francis Stuart controversy:
In 1996 Francis Stuart was elected a Saoi of Aosdána and Máire Mhac an tSaoi objected strongly, citing his behaviour during the war when he made propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis and accusing him of antisemitism. Eventually, she resigned from Aosdána, forsaking its financial support. Kevin Myers attacked Stuart as a Nazi sympathiser; Stuart sued and the case was settled out of court.