“Aosdána is an autonomous affiliation of artists, established by government in 1981 to honour artists whose work had made an outstanding contribution to the creative arts in Ireland, and to assist members, where necessary, to devote their energies full-time to the practice of their art.

Although it built on a series of prior Arts Council initiatives to improve state supports for individual artists, the establishment of Aosdána – membership of which is by peer  nomination and for life – marked a radical departure from previous policy initiatives. Aosdána was, and remains, unique: it had neither an Irish precedent nor is there an appropriate international comparison.

With its honorific and financial features, on its announcement in March 1981, it constituted an entirely novel institutional expression of the value placed by the State on the importance of the creative artist to Irish society. 

Developed on the initiative of writer Anthony Cronin, then cultural advisor to the Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey, and in collaboration with Colm Ó Briain, then Director of the Arts Council, Aosdána was heralded at its birth as a ‘collective of creative artists’ that would encompass no more than 150 people with an ‘established reputation for achievement’ in the fields of literature, music and visual arts. 

Administered by the Arts Council, Aosdána is nevertheless proudly independent and self-governing.  Its membership meets annually at a general assembly – the first was held on 14 April 1983 – where issues related to the arts are discussed, motions are debated and voted upon and, crucially, elections are held to admit new members.  Informed by requests from members, the agenda for each general assembly is  set by  a ten-person  supervisory committee, the Toscaireacht, whose responsibilities include the routine administration of Aosdána, liaison with external bodies and oversight of occasional votes to confer the status of ‘Saoi’ upon those considered to have made a sustained and significant contribution to a given art form.  This is the highest honour that Aosdána confers upon one of its own – and it is sparingly awarded.  The number of Saoitheanna is limited to seven at any one time and recipients are presented with a gold torc – the symbol of the Saoi – by the President of Ireland.

Provision for the position of ‘Saoi’ is just one of the original design features of the scheme for Aosdána that remain intact today.  And yet, the story of Aosdána across its first four decades has been as much about challenge and change as it has been about continuity. Just as Irish society, and the role of the arts within it, underwent a transformation, so too did Aosdána evolve. It developed into an affiliation of artists that is at once larger in number and more disciplinary diverse.   With an upper limit on membership that has been raised to 250, Aosdána now honours artists from the fields of architecture and choreography alongside the original disciplines of the visual arts, literature and music.

Current and past members with short biographical profiles are available to view here.”

Mark Duncan

September 2023

‘Aosdána Beginnings’ by Mark Duncan, commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Aosdána in 2021, was published by the Arts Council in 2022 and launched at the Aosdána General Assembly O’Reilly Hall, UCD, 14 November 2022.  Free copies of the publication are available to the public.  The hard-back publication tells the history of Aosdána and how it was founded in 1981. Designed by CI Studio ‘Aosdána Beginnings’ was awarded a coveted bronze bell at the 2023 ICAD Awards. To avail of a free copy of the publication, please email aosdana@artscouncil.ie or telephone Arts Council reception on + 353 1 618 0200