Irish culture is experiencing something of a renaissance in New York at the moment, particularly in Manhattan's Lower East Side where a growing number of trendy Irish bars, theatres and cafes have opened in recent years. The concentration of new meeting places has spawned a mini film industry that has produced a number of low-budget movies with significant Irish involvement. One of the first Irish films to emerge from New York in recent times, Gold On The Streets, tells the story of a group of Irish illegal immigrants and how they cope with their first year in Manhattan. The film was shown at last year's Dublin Film festival to very lukewarm reviews. Since then, however, at least four more productions have begun, three of which should be finished by the autumn.
The new Irish-American films tell stories of the recent wave of Donnelly and Morrison visa immigrants who arrived in the US in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ewe Productions' Fairytale Of New York, for example, chronicles the romantic misadventures of three young American women and the Irish men they encounter in New York's East Village. Written and co-produced by native New Yorker Beth Lauren, the film is set in the specific New York bars, theatres and cafes many believe are partly responsible for the resurgence of Irish culture in the city. Lauren describes her movie as a "cynical comedy", which attempts to explore the feeling of displacement Irish immigrants experience. "They seem to have one foot on either side of the Atlantic," she explains. Shot on a budget of 200,000 dollars, the film marks the directorial debut of Sarah Miller and includes a cast of Irish and American newcomers. Lauren plans to have a rough cut of the film ready for this year's Cork film festival - but that will only work if they can get the finance together in time.
Another New Yorker, Nelson Hume, moves outside the confines of the city to the nearby resort town of Montauk Long Island in his script Sunburn. The movie - pencilled in for filming next summer - was inspired by the thousands of university students from Ireland who flock to towns such as Montauk every year in search of summer work.
"I thought it would be a good setting for a movie so over two summers I did a bunch of interviews with kids and some of the people who work there, from which I got a lot of stories and character ideas," Hume explains. The result is what he describes as a light-hearted comedy with serious undertones.
Meanwhile, back in Manhattan Nye Heron is putting the finishing touches to his first feature film Sax And Violins.
"It's a romantic comedy about a young woman in love with a violinist who has broken his back and is in a wheelchair. He refuses to play the violin any more and in the hope of inspiring him to play she steals his Stradivarius," says Heron, who is artistic director of the Irish Arts Centre in Manhattan. While Sax And Violins is not specifically an Irish story, there was a good deal of Irish involvement in the production in terms of cast and crew, according to Heron. The script was co-written by Dubliner Ronan Carr and actors include Paul Ronan, who can be seen in The Devil's Own, and the late Chris O'Neill. While most of the films currently in production take a relatively light-hearted look at Irish immigration in the 1990s, Jimmy Smallhorne explores a much darker side in Sheetrock. Ballyfermot-born Smallhorne says Sheetrock is based on an Irish subculture in New York that nobody wants to write about. "It's an underworld that involves cocaine, smack and crack as well as hookers, transvestites and transsexuals in Harlem and the South Bronx. That's the story of a lot of Irish people I know in this city," says Smallhorn, who has been here since 1990.
Nelson Hume says the recent spurt of Irish film making in New York is a coming-together of a number of things. "There are all these new, trendy Irish bars that have opened up, and the Irish Rep theatre in New York has always been very vital," he says. "Together with that, a lot of the Irish that are living and working in New York today seem to wear a lot of hats. They are actors, carpenters and professionals. And film just seemed to be the next thing: when you have as many Irish artistic people in the city it was bound to happen."