It all grew out of Éigse, the Carlow arts festival that’s now in its 30th year. Local enthusiasm fuelled a campaign for a permanent arts facility for the town and there was a parallel demand for a theatre to cater for its exploding population; Carlow had become another cog in the wheel of Dublin’s extended commuter belt. The county and town councils commissioned a feasibility study by Murray O’Laoire in 2000 and, a year later, the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism pledged €3.17 million from its Access scheme for a visual arts centre to be built in the grounds of Carlow College, formerly a Catholic seminary called St Patrick’s College. The site was generously donated by the college – “we couldn’t have bought it”, says Carlow town clerk Joe Watters. College president Monsignor Caoimhín O’Neill, colloquially known as Father Kevin, was one of the leading lights in Éigse and he strongly supported the local authorities’ objective to create an arts centre. An open international architectural competition, organised by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) in 2004, attracted 119 entries, producing a shortlist of three. But before they could be worked up into more detailed schemes, the Carlow councils decided to add a theatre. “We were thinking big,” Watters says. And so, Carlow has acquired what will undoubtedly be an award-winning building by London architect Terry Pawson, who emerged as the winner of the 2004 competition. Built at a cost of €18 million, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art and George Bernard Shaw Theatre will open next Saturday.