Review / Interview in ‘The Clare People’ by Mark Keane

The Great Book of the Shapers
A right kick up in the Arts

Ré Ó Laighléis

Pb. 114 pages

ISBN 0-9532777-8-X

Price €12.50


‘Ó Laighléis is a writer with a history of dealing in absolutes.’

We are in the fictional town of Slagway. It’s that time of year again when the great and the good of the artsy set of Slagway gather together to discuss their forthcoming cultural spectacular. The thorny issue of the election of this year’s committee is raised. One lowly art plebeian offers a suggestion: “I propose that the existing committee is re-elected en masse”. After much fretting about what exactly ‘en masse’ means, the decision is taken and met with raucous howls of approval. The delicate composition of the arts committee has been agreed on.

So begins the [then] latest book by Ré Ó Laighléis, The Great Book of the Shapers – A right kick up in the Arts. It’s a farcical tirade against the hangers-on, the spoofers, the plámásers and the lickspittles that gravitate towards the arts: hoisted up on their own petard, they succeed in disenfranchising both themselves and the man-on-the-street from the arts world. A writer of note for many years, Ó Laighléis has had plenty of experiences of his own with these so-called shapers, and felt now was a judicious time to blow the lid on this gaseous planet of pretension.

“In many respects, this is very much the Emperor’s New Clothes, and it’s something that many people want to say and have wanted to say but simply haven’t the balls to do it. In my other books, I write about people who are outsiders, and this is just another dimension to that. This book is about the notion that the arts somehow belong to an elitist group and that the common man or woman is to be kept away from them at all costs. The perverse result of that is that the ordinary person comes to believe this, and this aura of elitism is perpetuated.”

One wonders for an author of Ó Laighléis’ ilk, who presumably is an inhabitant of the world the book describes, was there ever a worry of biting the hand that feeds him?

“I’m a bit too long in the tooth to worry about that, but maybe that’s why people haven’t said it before. My main brief is to write good literature and to give the reader a good laugh at the pretensiousness and and the stupidity of it all. Everyone sees this and it’s the role of the writer to reflect society and to tackle some of these matters in a literary sense. Any good piece of writing should advance a situation and prompt the reader to think in a way that they may not have articulated themselves.”

The crude grotesques that inhabit The Great Book of the Shapers – from the haughty buffoon Administratus to the florid floozy Poetica – each target a specific arty archetype. This rogue’s gallery of characters is drawn from Ó Laighléis’ many years in the arts world, and although he has not specifically focused on individuals, he has certainly exhumed an extensive pallet of arts movers and shapers from his experiences around the globe.

“There seems to be a common feature that wherever you have people who are genuinely involved in the arts, be they painters, musicians, writers or whatever, there are a hundred and one more who are pretending to be about it. The characters just poured out of me, but as they did I realised this is happening because subconsciously I have observed these characters around the world.

The gratifying thing about it is that already I have people who have read the book coming up to me and asking me ‘Do you know such and such?’, assuming I based it on them when I wouldn’t have a notion who they’re talking about.”

The danger, of course, is that by creating such crude characters with broad brush strokes as Ó Laighléis has done, you run the risk of offending a large section of the arts community. He is unworried, and actually delighted at the prospect of stirring things up.

“I sincerely hope I do! To be honest, I would be disappointed if I didn’t ruffle a few feathers. But that’s not why I wrote it. I wrote it because I deal in truths and I carry a torch for the disenfranchised.”

Ó Laighléis is a writer with a history of dealing in absolutes. A noted scribe in both English and Irish and for both adults and young people, his harrowing take on middle-class drug addiction in Hooked (or Gafa as Gaeilge) and his collection of tales in Ecstasy, have, amongst many others, won him praise for their unflinching and seriously honest portrayals. Born in Dublin in the 50s, he travelled and worked in the usual dead-end jobs before returning to study in Galway and teaching there for some 12 years. It was this period of contact with sub-standard educational materials that forced him into writing.

“The stuff I was teaching was absolute drivel; a monkey would have written better. I couldn’t endure it, so I physically binned those books and began writing seriously. I wrote a book of stories called Punk, which the kids love, and after that it just grew from there. I took a career break in 1992 and never came back.”

That same year cued his ensconcing to Ballyvaughan, a place he has called home to this day, and a place that has been of inordinate benefit to his writing.

“The Burren was somewhere I always loved, and I decided it would cap the whole notion of taking a career break by going somewhere I felt very comfortable. It has played a huge part in my writing; a lot of my work has been written here and even some work, like Terror on the Burren, has been inspired by the area. The people here have been very receptive and supportive of the stuff I have written. I’d like to think I’m one of their own at this stage.”

So Ó Laighléis is positive about his own future, but what are the prospects for the shaper phenomenon he has somewhat cruelly exposed in his latest offering?

“I’ve no castigation with the true artist but when people indulge themselves at the expense of others who are outside the loop, I think that will run itself to an end. I don’t think it can perpetuate itself forever and eventually it will not be tolerated. My major motivation in writing the book is to give people a good laugh, with something that I hope will raise a few questions."

Mark Keane

Review from Book of the Week, Galway Independent

‘Ó Laighléis satirises the pretentious in the hope that some sanity may return to our appreciation of what is culturally sound, and that we judge things for what they really are and not what they pretend to be.’

Once, in the company of a good lady from Clare, I was watching a television programme where a certain politician was waffling in a manner that was, as they say, slightly above himself.

“What he needs now,” she said in a pragmatic Clare way, “is a flying kick up d’arse”.

It is somewhat timely that as we begin to celebrate Galway Arts Festival with the competing festival of Project ’06, which symbolises what the Galway Arts Festival should be about, that Ré Ó Laighléis should publish his satiric reaction to the posing and the posturing which is often endemic on these occasions. Subtitled ‘A right kick up in the Arts’, Ó Laighléis satirises the pretentious in the hope that some sanity may return to our appreciation of what is culturally sound, and that we judge things for what they really are and not what they pretend to be.

Taken at its most serious, it carries the same thought that is the basis for the Project ’06 Festival. Taken at its lightest, it is, at least, a good laugh.

The Great Book of the Shapers by Ré Ó Laighléis is currently available online at for €12.50, now with free shipping in Ireland. It is also available directly from MÓINÍN, also with free shipping within Ireland.