Zelda Cunningham speaks to UCD PhD student and novelist, Kevin Power and graduate, Katy Milligan about how their Arts degrees helped them pursue creative careers.
In recent years, the majority of the attention affixed to UCD has been merited by its scientific and commercial studies excellence, with research in these areas winning global acclaim for the university.
The very aesthetics of this university, with its constant rejuvenation and taste for modern, minimalist buildings, generate an atmosphere of clinical practically, an appearance and ambiance which as earned UCD the nickname, ‘Belfield Tech’.
It is in this environment that those seeking to have a career in the imaginative and academic arts seem overshadowed. With over 5000 students electing to study an Arts degree, the possibility of transferring the creative subjects into a bread-and-butter job seems confusing in comparison to the more technical subjects. However, it can be done.
Kevin Power is a UCD Arts graduate and a current PhD student, who also tutors in UCD. In the midst of his college work, Power published his debut novel, A Bad Day in Blackrock, which was released in October this year.
The novel was based around the events surrounding the death of Brian Murphy in 2000, and Power admits that the social spectrum available to him in UCD was hugely influential, finding inspiration for his career as a novelist in the concrete confines of Belfield. Speaking fondly of UCD, Power says that his English course was “hugely beneficial for him.”
However, as with many students in Arts, Power felt the need to establish himself with like-minded people so as not to become lost in the anonymity of the university.
“It took me a while to get to grips with UCD. I had to just to pluck up the courage to go to Dramsoc and get to involved with English Literary Society. It’s the best way to meet like-minded people.”
Power stated the he always wanted a career in writing, and availed of his tutors and lecturers for an insight into how he would achieve his goal.
“I had a lot of contact with the lecturers. I was very lucky with the lecturers that I had. They were very receptive to me talking to them outside ordinary tutorial times. Ron Callaghan was my tutor in second year and now he is supervising my PhD, so we bonded very successfully!”
Although Power admits that writing is a solitary experience, he acknowledges that the monumental task of penning a novel cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Power used his contacts in the School of English, Drama & Film to critically analyse and advise him on his initial drafts of A Bad Day in Blackrock. “The English department has always been supportive [of me]. Prof. Frank McGuinness, who is the professor of Creative Writing, was a huge help to me.”
“I showed Frank a draft of my terrible, failed novel, and he very gently but firmly told me where I was going wrong. I learnt more about writing in that half-an-hour that I had learned ever before. After the meeting, I hammered out a new draft of the book in about six months. When I finished, Frank wrote to Anthony Farrell of The Lilliput Press, who eventually published the book.”
Power describes Prof. Guinness’ input into his novel as “extremely helpful and generous”, however, the structural and tonal influences of the work were derived from his experiences as a university student in Belfield.
“It’s a UCD novel. UCD is a great social barometer for Ireland as a whole. You can hang around the Arts’ Block for an hour and through observation and eavesdropping, you can learn a lot about what Ireland is like at the moment. I took a particular mind-set that I had experienced here and used it in the book.”
The autonomy to establish personal relationships with staff and to join relevant societies in UCD clearly helped Power in pursuing a career as a working writer, and this determination enabled him not to blend into the anonymous conveyer belt of English students.
“Writing is at least eighty per cent determination. It has to do with your own character. If you use it in the right way, UCD will be hugely nurturing for writers.” This, combined with the recent introduction of a Creative Writing masters, establishes a creative an infrastructure within the university, perhaps making it easier for students to connect with those who may be helpful for their careers.
As well as creative writing, students in UCD have elected to study subjects such as Film Studies, Drama and Art History, with hopes of embarking on a career in these field, Katy Milligan is one such student. She graduated last year from UCD with an Art History major. Having completed a four-month internship with Anna Livia Opera Festival, she is now interning in the National Gallery of Ireland.
Although she was interested in visual art, Milligan opted to come to UCD as she didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an ‘artist’ by attending National College of Art and Design (NCAD).
Despite the well-established Art History department in UCD, Milligan contradicted Power’s observation that UCD was a nurturing environment for students who wished to have a career in the arts.
“UCD is a very technically college. The facilities for Art History were atrocious. There were no books, no resources, there was no room for practical art… it didn’t seem like [UCD] funds the arts as much as they do for business.”
She continues, “When writing essays, I had to use the libraries in NCAD and Trinity, because UCD just didn’t have the books. Every time I tried to use get an inter-library loan, it always fell through. It was very frustrating.”
Although critical of the funding the department receives, Milligan admitted she loved her subjects and “had amazing lecturers”. Having fortified a love of the subject, Milligan opted for a pro-active approach in making the most out her degree to aid her in her future career in the arts.
Echoing Powers’ autonomy, Milligan and a group of her classmates elected to organise field trips for themselves. Reaching out to her fellow Art History students allowed the class as a whole to interact with their course more.
Milligan also took the initiative to establish herself in her internship. “I saw the [internships] advertised on a website. The website had an internship and volunteer section, because the best way to start is working for free and it’s the best way to get experience.”
After completing her internship, Milligan plans to carry on with her education and complete a Masters degree in Art History. She then plans to pursue a career in the arts.
Taking an Arts degree and moulding it into a stepping-stone to a career appears to be a matter of determination and autonomy. Despite the appearance that UCD is a technically minded university, the sheer number of students engaging in artistic subjects, speaks volumes about the high level of creative aspirations within the student body.
With funding in all areas of UCD being cut, it is difficult to be too critical of lack of funding for Arts subjects, yet by simply buying more books and reducing class sizes by a fraction, a more personal and nurturing intellectual environment may be created, the fruits of which, would act to bolster UCD’s reputation as a multi-faceted institution of world-class standard.