Irish identity is work of art not political expediency
We must not take refuge in easy St Patrick's Day clichés. Instead we must forge an imaginative shared future
He began in New York developing, along with dozens of others, the idea of the arts centre and later the Imagine Ireland campaign. He pounded the pavement in Ireland and abroad, saying that the arts should be encouraged in every village and home so that we grow and question and become more aware, demand more of ourselves, and not succumb to ease. To become properly doubtful. To do the things that don’t compute. To wave the flag while others are burning it.
What Byrne has engaged in is a radical act of patriotism not seen in this country for many many years. Not only are the arts a vibrant part of our national life, he says, but they also give contour to the manner in which we cannot allow ourselves to become an ongoing Paddy’s Day cliche.
Art is where we get to practise our identity. It’s another chance at telling our story. It is also the rougher edge of truth. It is a looking glass, properly darkened. It is also our opportunity to align ourselves with the sort of people that many of us would like to be: raw, fierce, intelligent, joyous.
There is the air of the clarion call about all this. But the contemporary discourse around the issue of “culture” seems so devalued that it becomes a throwaway phrase easily invoked and forgotten, especially in the vicinity of the Dáil. As a nation, we need to be in the continual act of composition. We need philanthropists. We need a ministry devoted to the arts alone. We need teachers who engage and provoke. We cannot afford to sacrifice our ideals to bottom-line demands. Nor can we give up the presumption of hope. If we mortgage our future, we will not, then, be able to co-ordinate what is not there anymore.
To recover from the financial thuggery that went on, and the damage we sustained to our national identity, we will need the ongoing words and images to help us figure out who we were, and who we are yet to become.
We need inquiring, lighted minds that stand in opposition to the lobotomising weight of political expediency. An artist may not need his or her government, but a government will always need its artists.
“Culture,” says Byrne, “is the unifying force of a scattered people.”
The Irish Arts Centre in New York is due to open in 2016. An auspicious year. Perhaps there are, or there will be, similar initiatives in Melbourne or Liverpool, and, better still, in Dublin and Ballyshannon and Mullingar. It’s our responsibility.
Perhaps, on this particular Paddy’s Day, we need a sustained imaginative effort to ripple among us once more. We have to build our half of the bridge, no matter who or where we happen to be.
Colum McCann’s forthcoming novel TransAtlantic will be published by Bloomsbury on May 23rd