Susan McKeown is singing in her kitchen. We’re in her home at garden level, just off one of Dún Laoghaire’s Victorian squares, and we have been talking about culture and legacy, choosing names, about how to preserve what’s best within the strands of your own history when life takes you away from your roots.
The conversation arises over a large, black swivel chair that looks not quite at home in the centre of the cosy kitchen. “It was my father’s,” says McKeown, as she makes the tea.cualanyc
McKeown’s mother, Jane Anne McKeown, died in 1982. She was an organist and composer, and encouraged her daughter to develop her talent for singing. Along with musical brilliance, the women in the family evidently share a tenacity.
Reaching further back, McKeown tells me about her great-grandmother, Angela Ryan, whose song Hoist the Flag she sang at one of the commemorative concerts over Easter weekend. After the death of her husband, which flung the family into poverty in the early part of the last century, Ryan left Ireland to travel Europe, first as a governess and then as a songwriter, sending money home to support her children.
"Her score for Our Latest Hero Dead is in the National Library and the Traditional Music Archive," McKeown says. Although Ryan wrote music to appeal to the market, there is something deeper there that takes the song beyond sentiment.
Busking and beyond
McKeown’s career took her from opera training via busking on Grafton Street and a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy to a career as an award-winning singer-songwriter. She is now back to Ireland for the final preparation stages of the first Cuala festival of Irish culture in New York. She divides her time between the two places, but there isn’t even a hint of an American twang.
The musical to Hoist the Flag was discovered in a bag of her mother's things, and McKeown shows me its yellowing pages. An advertisement on the back offers Rally Round the Banner Boys for a shilling, plus "Republican novelties of all kinds".
“Shall I sing it?” she asks.
And there it is: Susan McKeown, Grammy Award winner, singing her great- grandmother’s song to an audience of one, on a quiet morning in a shady kitchen as the spring sun beams outside.
The CualaNYC festival came about, like so many things, from a variety of roots and inspirations. First there was her experience touring the US with her music. She recalls one of the members of folk supergroup Fairport Convention asking her, “What is it about you Irish? You’re so loved all over the world.”
Then there was a pivotal moment when she was asked to participate in a fundraiser for her daughter’s school in the East Village. “I told them I couldn’t make cupcakes, but I could make records.”
The result was Songs from the East Village, a world-music album that collected tunes from students, parents and staff. It gave McKeown an insight into how different experiences are expressed through culture, and raised thousands for the school.
The final inspiration came, she says, "after the Global Irish Economic Forum in 2009, when Dermot Desmond spoke about the importance of promoting our culture internationally".
McKeown knew a New York festival of Irish culture was viable, but she realised she would need a serious, competitive strategy. “That led me to postgraduate studies in the economics of culture at DCU’s Ryan Academy. My course director said they had never had an artist in the business school, but my father always said I should have been a marketer. I’m most comfortable doing business when I know that it will do good for people.”
You could write a book about what it is to be Irish. Many have tried, with varying approaches and degrees of success. But you could also piece together a rich and layered conversation about the subject through the work of musicians, artists, writers and performers.
There is complexity there, but also celebration and, as McKeown spotted, the chance to promote Ireland through culture to an audience primed to listen.
McKeown says she is strategically curating the events “to appeal to particular target markets, according to an economic development strategy that brings benefit back to Irish communities”. Her hope is that the six-week festival will become part of the fabric of New York. “The vision for the festival is to bring it to other US and European locations, and to China in 2019.”
With the exception of phenomena such as Riverdance, Irish artists and writers usually succeed on the world stage by transcending cultural boundaries. Their Irishness is a secondary factor; where it is a source, they avoid the cliches of shamrock and harp.
For instance, Seamus Heaney is foremost a poet of genius, and arguably would have drawn extraordinary insights from Mexico had he happened to have been born there. Visual artist John Gerrard has works in the collections at Tate, the Museum of Modern Art New York and the Los Angeles County Museum; his international profile is, interestingly, only more dimly echoed at home.
Brian O’Doherty, one of our most successful living artists, has lived in the US for more than half a century. He delves into Irish sources, such as the ancient visual language of Ogham, but there is nothing Celtic about his work.
Wearing “the shamrock jersey” is a different strategy, and McKeown’s programming treads a clever line between “green Irishness” and celebrating the excellence of words and images that happen to have a common Irish thread.
Still, that Fairport Convention question does resound: what is it about you Irish?
With a small team and a big vision, CualaNYC will attempt to find out and turn it to long-term economic advantage for this country. McKeown, unsurprisingly, is contagiously enthusiastic about the future.
“As is usually the case with such an ambitious and innovative project, it takes one person to begin it, to commit to making it happen. And when you’ve been pushing hard enough, the gates open.”
- CualaNYC takes place April 19th-June 2nd at locations across New York. cualanyc.com
CUALANYC 2016: THE HIGHLIGHTS
Featuring a line-up of brilliant Irish writers, including Eimear McBride, Belinda McKeon, Tara Clancy and more. April 19th
Walking on Cars
The Kerry band play the Bowery Ballroom April 21st, and the Music Hall of Williamsburg in a double bill with Old Hannah on May 18th
Donal O'Kelly's play, designed by Robert Ballagh tells the story of a Shell employee cursed to tell the truth. April 30th
On Baile's Strand
See Blue Raincoat's production of the Yeats play at Rockaway Beach, Queens, on May 7th and Coney Island on May 8th
Music and talks at sundown during Manhattanhenge – one of two days each year when the gridded streets of Manhattan align with the setting sun. May 28th