If we can make it there . . .


Taking on the US with a tiny staff and in the midst of a recession is no mean feat, but Culture Ireland has boxed clever in its bid to expose the States to Irish arts

WE’RE BARELY off the plane and into a taxi when we pass an enormous bus emblazoned with Chinese lettering. It’s a touring company on a mission to bring Chinese classical dance to the people of New York – and a reminder that, for artists of all endeavours, making it in the US is still the Holy Grail of the performing arts.

But it’s tough. The sheer size of Manhattan rams the message home: where, among the glittering skyscrapers, the streets thronged with people bearing takeaway coffees across busy intersections, the different ethnic groupings, do you even start?

Such was the challenge facing Culture Ireland when it launched its Imagine Ireland campaign at the beginning of the year. The agency for the promotion of Irish arts abroad is tiny, with just seven full-time staff and no permanent offices outside Ireland. To take on the States under such circumstances, and in the midst of a recession, looks at first glance to be futile. But when you’re small you have no choice but to play a smart game – and Culture Ireland has made some extremely smart moves.

The first was to appoint the New York-based actor Gabriel Byrne as Ireland’s first cultural ambassador. Byrne’s handsome, world-weary face is instantly recognisable on both sides of the Atlantic, and the garlands he has recently acquired Stateside for his TV series In Therapy didn’t hurt either. Byrne has carried out his task with an impressive degree of energy and conscientiousness. He’s also a personification of the Irish-American cultural divide, and a reminder that for the Irish, taking on the US is nothing new.

From this perspective Culture Ireland’s year-long, €5 million, arts-driven charm offensive on the US isn’t as mad as it seems. There are plenty of networks and open lines of communication available on both sides. But there are also preconceived notions by the bucketload. The roots of the Irish-American connection are deep, entangled and stubbornly entrenched. The real challenge has been to scramble up this tree while simultaneously hacking away at some of its most sacred branches.

The keynote events of the Imagine Ireland programme aren’t just a random selection of “Ireland’s greatest hits”, says the head of Culture Ireland, Eugene Downes. They’ve been chosen specifically to encourage re-examination of the core themes of Irish-American cultural identity.

“What is the history? What are the ghosts of Ireland and America? How has America made us think about ourselves as a country? How are the artistic sands shifting?”

Our search for answers to these daunting questions begins on the appropriately vast expanse of Lincoln Center Plaza. At the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts an exhibition called The Ties that Bind is the anchor for a programme of readings, workshops and all kinds of activities, from cookery demonstrations to Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words, a writing programme for young people running at 82 libraries across the city. This is where Imagine Ireland meets the world.

A wall-mounted plaque just inside the door declares, somewhat debilitatingly: “Ireland is a temperate verdant island in a north Atlantic archipelago.” At the centre of the exhibition are Riverdancecostumes and banners from St Patrick’s Day parades. You can play Victorian parlour tunes on an upright piano or try a few moves on a mini dance floor; gaze at the original score of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Irishsymphony or read the scratchy lines of Sean O’Casey’s letter of condolence to Rose Kennedy on the assassination of her son, the US president. The piece de resistance is a reconstruction of a 1960s Irish-American living room, complete with brown furnishings and a Sacred Heart painting.

It might make the Irish want to flee at once, but according to the library’s director, Jacqui Davis, and the exhibition curator, Marion Casey, Irish-American visitors like to linger in its solid embrace. It’s a perfect illustration of the tricky duality that lurks beneath the term Irish-American; the ties that bind can also suffocate.

THE BATTERED GREEN DOOR of the Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street is the antithesis of the glamour and glitz of Lincoln Centre Plaza. Plans are afoot to expand over the next couple of years; $27 million has already been raised, and a more salubrious building with a greater range of facilities is, according to Gabriel Byrne, top of his priority list for next year.

Inside is a hive of activity: Irish-language and Irish-dancing classes, and a spring programme that has featured such diverse cultural offerings as Raymond Scannell’s Mimic, a touring exhibition from Cork printmakers, and a series of short films, including Carmel Winters’s Snapand Conor Horgan’s The Beholder.

“Our audience is Irish and Jewish and Italian, ” says the centre’s director Aidan Connolly. “A big part of our ethos is how we can connect what we’re doing to the whole of the city.”

For example, after an Andy Irvine concert a vibraphonist named James Shipp, whose background is Jewish, came to them and said Irvine was one of his biggest influences, and would they be interested in listening to his CD? “So he did a show here with a Brazilian jazz combo called Nos Novo.”

Connolly says Culture Ireland funding has made it easier to bring acts from Ireland on a regular basis. Questions about whether he might be tempted to sanitise the cultural events he programmes, in order to present a wholesome, government-approved portrait of Ireland, prompts a feisty response.

“It’s a good question. No,” he says firmly. “Our orientation would be, ‘Is it good, and does it have relevance for New Yorkers?’ We happen to be in a city where there are nine million culturally voracious people. What we do is different than what you would maybe do in Boston or another city.”

As for the perpetuation of Irish-American stereotypes and the old stuck-in-the-mud viewpoint: “I’m operating from Planet Manhattan,” he says, “so I just don’t see that. Our audience isn’t, like . . . We don’t have a load of shamrocks coming to the door. You know what I mean?”

There isn’t a shamrock in sight at Theodore: Art at EcoArtSpace on Mercer Street, where Damien Flood’s gem-like cosmic landscapes are placed alongside work by the English abstract painter Andrew Seto and the American Joy Garnett. How does it feel for a young Irish painter to have a show in New York?

“It’s very exciting to go over and bring your work and see how they respond,” says Flood from his studio in Temple Bar. “The show seems to have been received very well, for the small gallery that it is. Stephanie Theodore of Theodore: Art has been in the business for 20 years and has got some good connections. It’s not like a first-time curator putting on a show. I don’t think that would have registered at all.”

So it’s not that Culture Ireland waved a magic wand to get Flood into some inner circle. But as Ireland’s consul general in New York, Noel Kilkenny, points out the real strength of Imagine Ireland’s programme is that it’s being rolled out systematically over the whole of 2011, rather than making a sporadic splashes around St Patrick’s Day and at random festivals.

“The scale of it creates a sense of ‘they’re taking it seriously: they’re investing in this’,” he says. “For so many people in the broader public here, their imagination of Ireland is four great writers and Riverdance. One thing that really impresses organisations here is this real sense of building a relationship with theatres, galleries, whatever. It’s the beginning of a process.”

We’re seated in a beautiful reception room in his apartment, still dazed from the doorman’s instruction to “press the button for the 92nd floor”.

There are glorious views of New York on all sides; the Empire State Building to the right, the river to the left – a movie-star landscape that leaves you expecting Godzilla or Woody Allen to turn up at any minute, glass of wine in hand. Sounds of merriment and discreet diddly-eyes drift through the door from the Ancient Order of Hibernians reception downstairs.

Eugene Downes, meanwhile, is addressing the question of how Culture Ireland is planning to measure the success – or

otherwise – of this year’s activities.

It is a major issue, he says. “Some of the measures are tangible and quantitative, and some are intangible and emerge over a longer period. For example, tracking the impact of someone who picks up Skippy Dies, or hears Paul Murray read at one of his events across the States this year. Who knows where that will lead them to in terms of picking up other Irish books, or in deciding to visit Ireland as a tourist?”

AUDIENCE FIGURES FROM the various shows are still being collated, a process which probably won’t be fully complete until the year is out. However, Druid Theatre Company has put 47,000 bums on American seats since January with its touring production of The Cripple of Inishmaanby Martin McDonagh. We catch up with it in Philadelphia for a matinee at the Annenberg Center before meeting the cast, all of whom profess delight at reactions to the show.

From Philadelphia’s neo-classical 30th Street station, another train takes us to Washington DC’s neo-classical Union Station in time to catch the opening performance of the Performance Corporation’s and Solas Nua’s Swampoodle. Written by Tom Swift, it’s a site-specific promenade piece in the cavernous, and spectacularly decrepit, Uline building. The vaulted roof of the former ice arena creates an echo that swallows much of the script, and the huge floor space also creates problems: by the time we get to wherever the action is, it has often shifted somewhere else.

But the darkness, the sudden bursts of illumination and the bursts of disconnected stories about Swampoodle, the predominantly Irish district that was once full of our living, breathing, notorious compatriots combine to create a strong sense of a present haunted by the past.

When, in the darkness, we’re surrounded by brief, sudden, snatches of what sounds like banshee wailing crossed with Gregorian chant, the hairs rise up on the back of my neck. The ghosts of Irish-America are, like Elvis, still in the building.

The Quiet Man
It seems odd to go to New York’s Museum of Modern Art – the hub of so much that’s exciting and dynamic on the city’s art scene and currently the site of a stunning Alexander McQueen fashion exhibition – and be forced to watch The Quiet Man. Gabriel Byrne chose John Ford’s 1950s film to kick-off the first retrospective of films about Ireland to be shown in the US.
“I’m sure there are many people in this room who grew up with it as a film that was shown on St Patrick’s Day,” Byrne says in his public interview afterwards, prompting an uneasy ripple of laughter.

Why on earth did he choose it? “Gabriel’s choice of films started off with a 500-film list, which was a bit terrifying,” says Sarah Glennie of the Irish Film Institute, which has been working closely with Moma on the project, and which has already begun plans for another project for 2012, as well as finding priceless footage of Irish emigrants from 1914, Come Back To Erin, in the Moma archive. “ The Quiet Manbecame the hub because it is so iconic and because it embodies the whole circular relationship,” she says.

In the queue for the loo after the film, an animated group of American women – Moma regulars – are expressing their outrage at Wayne’s he-man treatment of Maureen O’Hara in the movie, while admiring its black humour and outrageously overdone colour palette. Which, for Culture Ireland, is a result. Looking back in anger is better than looking back with rose-tinted glasses.

Arminta Wallace travelled to the US as a guest of Culture Ireland