It has a philanthropic legacy stretching back close to three centuries, but the focus of the Royal Dublin Society has always been on the future.
Since 1731, the RDS has sought to help Ireland thrive culturally and economically by finding ways to inspire future generations and help young people to fulfil their potential.
Among many in Ireland, the RDS is best known as the setting for some of the country’s foremost annual events, concerts and sports fixtures.
Not as many are aware that, through the work of the RDS Foundation, the money generated at these events often finds its way into the hands of gifted young people forging paths in fields as varied as the arts, agriculture, science and technology, enterprise and equestrianism.
It is across these five pillars that the RDS Foundation continues, in 2020, to touch many facets of Irish life with an active programme of bursaries, awards schemes and other support initiatives.
And it is this work that Philip Dodd, chair of the RDS Foundation Board, is determined to shine a light on.
“I really want people to fully understand the sheer scale and breadth of the programmes we run,” Dodd said.
“The RDS is based in Dublin but, in 2019 alone, our programmes reached more than 12,000 beneficiaries and participants across the 32 counties of Ireland.”
To highlight this reach, and the scope and diversity of its programmes, the RDS Foundation recently published its first ever Impact Report.
Released earlier this month, the report details the learning, benefit and added value of RDS programmes over the last five years.
Between 2014 and 2019, close to €12.4 million has been invested in these programmes across 61 projects, 297 awards and 184 events. More than 24,000 people have attended these events and 297 awardees have received €627,000 in prize money.
For Niamh De Loughry, who joined the RDS in September of last year as director of Foundation, publishing the report was a matter of “telling its story” from the point of view of the individuals its work benefits.
“It was the scope and breadth of this work that really struck me when I took up this role a little over a year ago now,” De Loughry said.
“As a registered charity, the RDS prepares annual reports on an ongoing basis, but we really wanted to go beyond the figures and capture the breadth of the work we do and the experiences of our beneficiaries, to demonstrate our impact.”
These beneficiaries include Ellen Duffy, who graduated from TU Dublin School of Creative Arts last year with a first-class honour’s degree in fine art and was the 2019 winner of the RHA Graduate Studio Award.
The award is just one of several in the RDS Arts Programme, which runs numerous competitions annually for artists starting out in professional careers in visual art, craft and classical music.
The winners – among them Christopher Moriarty, winner of the RDS Jago Award 2018 – benefit from prize money, but also crucial performance, studio, residency and exhibition space.
These awards, however, represent just a fraction of the work carried out each year by the RDS Foundation.
The goal of the RDS Agriculture and Rural Affairs Programme, for example, is to promote sustainable farming and living in Ireland through initiatives like the RDS Spring Awards.
This annual awards scheme recognises the best farmers, foresters and agri-entrepreneurs in Ireland, while the RDS Climate Smart Agriculture Series seeks to address the factors influencing the future development of agriculture in Ireland in the context of climate change.
The aim of the RDS Science and Technology Programme, meanwhile, is to encourage the development of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) skills among primary school children.
The programme seeks to foster innovation in education through initiatives like ESB Science Blast, which launched last year.
“ESB Science Blast is about inspiring primary school children throughout the island of Ireland with the amazing possibilities of science,” De Loughry said.
“We ask children in classrooms all over the country to investigate a question they are curious about using STEM skills and to bring their findings to a showcase event.”
The RDS also previously operated a STEM learning programme, described by De Loughry as a professional development programme for teachers “with a difference”.
“It was a community for shared learning among primary school teachers, providing know-how and confidence in science and maths teaching,” she said.
“We challenged them to embrace children’s natural curiosity and to focus on how their students think, not what they know.”
The goal of the RDS Enterprise Programme, meanwhile, is to promote a vision for Ireland’s sustainable economic development by providing a forum for shared ideas and discussion.
“One of the ways we do this is through events that connect our audiences with some of Ireland’s most important and influential thought leaders,” De Loughry said.
These thought leaders have, to date, included Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, who is among the distinguished speakers that have so far taken part in the RDS Vision 2030 Series.
Other enterprise programme initiatives include the RDS Entrepreneurs’ Club and the RDS Gold Medal, introduced in 1992 to recognise the work of individuals who have made an exceptional impact on Ireland’s economic development.
Then there is the foundation’s work in the equestrian field. Best known for organising the Dublin Horse Show for more than 160 years, the RDS Equestrian Programme also supports equestrian sport by developing training courses and awarding bursaries to enable those involved in the sport to further develop their skills.
All of this work is funded by the commercial activities of the RDS and by donations and sponsorship from RDS members, companies, trusts and foundations, state bodies and legacies.
Today, the RDS has 3,200 members and, as Philip Dodd sees it, the society is unique, not just in the sheer scope of its philanthropic reach, but also in the opportunity it gives these members to invest in the future of Ireland.
“Our programmes engage with participants from all walks of Irish life, from an eight-year-old primary school student, to an innovative farming family in rural Ireland, and Mary Robinson, sharing her insight on sustainable development with business leaders,” Dodd said.
“The RDS is not just an event venue. It is a society of members and philanthropy, and the benefits of membership go far beyond access to the RDS members club in Ballsbridge.
“There is a real and genuine opportunity to get involved in the philanthropic work of the society, to inspire future generations to fulfil their potential and to help shape a long-term vision for Ireland.”
For more information, see rds.ie
Visual arts residency in Paris
Irish law firm Mason Hayes & Curran LLP has sponsored the RDS Centre Culturel Irlandais Residency Award for the past four years.
Launched in 2016, the €6,000 prize offers one visual art graduate each year full-time access to a room and studio space in the heart of Paris.
The three-month placement at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Ireland’s flagship cultural centre on the rue des Irlandais in the French capital, is part of the RDS Visual Art Awards scheme.
The scheme is one of the most important platforms for visual art graduates in Ireland today, according to Christine O’Donovan, chair at Mason Hayes & Curran LLP.
“We’ve been sponsoring the Centre Culturel Irlandais Residency Award for four years now and there are several reasons behind that,” O’Donovan said.
“The RDS is very well known across the island of Ireland and internationally and it is also one of oldest philanthropic organisations in Ireland.
“Its stated mission is to see Ireland thrive culturally and economically and it has been associated for a very long time with arts, music and sports.
“We wanted to partner with the RDS to support their efforts to highlight new and emerging talent across the visual arts in Ireland, because it is a very good fit for us.”
Since its establishment in 1970, Mason Hayes & Curran LLP had, O’Donovan said, amassed one of the largest contemporary art collections in Ireland.
“Our own acquisition programme focuses on artists living and working in Ireland, so the RDS Visual Art Awards give us an insight into new and emerging talent,” she said.
“In particular, we hope the RDS Mason Hayes & Curran LLP Centre Culturel Irlandais Residency Award can act as a springboard for an emerging artist at a formative stage in their career.”
“Art is universal, it has global appeal, but Paris, in particular, has a deep and lengthy historic association with art and artists. For us as a firm, there is a very natural synergy with this particular award.”