Nye Heron obituary: ‘At the heart of Irish culture in New York’

Powerhouse Dubliner behind the Irish Arts Center’s survival

Nye Heron (1952-2021)

Nye Heron (1952-2021)

 

Born: June 25th, 1952

Died: May 12th, 2021

In the year when the €50 million Irish Arts Center’s (IAC) new building on New York’s West 51st Street is due to open, the man widely recognised as being central to the institution’s survival and development for more that 40 years has died, aged 68. Nye Heron died suddenly, following a brain haemorrhage.

Heron was a great grandson of 1916 Proclamation signatory James Connolly. “Without Nye the centre would not have survived, and would not be what it is today,” said film director Jim Sheridan. “Nye was seminal in turning it into an institution and keeping it alive at a very difficult time. He was always at the heart of Irish culture in New York, and we owe him a lot, all of us.”

The “us” to who Sheridan refers is the now thriving Irish arts community in the city. And the “very difficult time” is two-fold; the New York of the time the centre first opened in 1972, and the deadly turbulence of the Troubles which provided much significant material for the centre’s artistic output in its first 20 years.

Set up by Nye’s uncle, Brian Heron, as An Claidheamh Soluis, the name was changed to the Irish Rebel Theatre during the 1970s, before finally assuming its present name in 1982.

Nye Heron arrived in 1973 from London where he had graduated in law from the London School of Economics, after an education, unusual for its time, in the then newly-independent state of Zambia, where he had finished his final two years of secondary education at Ndola High School.

His Irish Army officer father, Seamus, was a barrister, one of a number of Irish and British personnel recruited to help set up Zambia’s legal system in the mid-1960s. Born in Wicklow in 1952, his mother Maura (nee Sutton) was from Bray, and the family spent its early years in Glasnevin on Dublin’s northside where Heron and his brother James attended Beneavin College.

Given his background, this early experience arguably placed him in an ideal situation to see, and grasp, the opportunities for Irish cultural post-colonial expression in a 1970s New York artistic scene that was fully aware of what was happening both back in Ireland and elsewhere.

The physical setting of the IAC was also, frankly, dangerous. Located on 11th Avenue at 51st Street, it was in what at the time was a very run-down area called Hell’s Kitchen; regular customers of a bar across the street from the theatre included members of the notorious Westies crime gang. Sheridan said that at that time, and in that part of the city, “it was desolation”. It was a difficult environment to attract theatregoers.

The 24-year-old Heron took over in 1976 from his uncle, who left to found a similar institution in California. With a ramshackle building holding just 60 seats on wooden benches, the young man quickly cultivated Irish contacts in the construction industry just to do basic work like stopping the roof leaking, and scrimped along on a perilous mixture of box office receipts and grants from New York City Council, eventually also garnering help from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

He stepped up the IAC’s activities to include Irish language and dance classes, film screenings and a small gallery, and, with his eye constantly on the then emerging arts scene at home, made the inspired decision to headhunt Sheridan, then at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre, persuading him to come to New York in 1982. Sheridan took over as artistic director of the IAC’s theatre space, while Heron remained as executive director to promote the centre’s other activities, but also to work as a producer on its growing drama output.

It was in this context that he developed a distinctive and characteristic type of influence, bringing together artists from various disciplines in a way that enhanced the development of their respective talents. In 1985, he produced Terry George’s The Tunnel, directed by Sheridan, which dealt with an event from George’s previous career as a convicted terrorist in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. It ran for six months.

It was a collaboration which led to work as either an assistant director, co-writer or producer, on films subsequently made by Sheridan as director and George as writer, including In the Name of the Father (Heron worked on the production team) and The Boxer (Heron was associate producer).

George describes Heron’s influence as “seminal for my involvement in the arts”.

Heron continued to work in theatre, directing Kenneth Branagh’s play, with a Northern Irish Troubles theme, Public Enemy, in 1994, which, with Paul Ronan (father of actor Saoirse) in the lead, became the longest-running play in the IAC’s history. In 1999 he directing the US premiere of Frank McGuinness’s The Factory Girls for the well-regarded Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts.

Ronan looks back on Heron’s impact on his life in ways which echo Terry George’s. He came to the IAC with no acting experience in the early 1990s – he was working in New York as a bartender at the time – but with a genuine Dublin working-class background, Ronan was cast by Heron in Jimmy Murphy’s play of Dublin house painters, Brothers of the Brush. Suitably impressed, Heron got him to train for two months as a tap dancer, so he could play fantasist Tommy Black in Branagh’s tale of a James Gagney-obsessed loyalist in Public Enemy.

“He was able to tap into something in me, Nye made me feel I was an actor,” said Ronan.

Branagh was also impressed, getting Heron later in the 1990s to direct Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman for the BBC, with Ronan playing Tommy Owens and also starring Stephen Rea and Branagh.

Later still, he made a significant contribution to Peter Sheridan’s film version of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy, helping to give that novel of Irish adolescent male life in the 1940s a contemporary relevance, as Sheridan remarked:

“The film version we did of Borstal Boy was a coming-of-age story, particularly in relation to Brendan’s sexual awakening and his relationship with Charlie Milwall, the Cockney sailor. Nye Heron pushed that dimension of Brendan’s story and he felt, and I agreed, that it made for a more contemporary film and brought a fresh and challenging resonance to a modern audience.”

Nye Heron is survived by his wife, Liz Housden; his former wife Kathy (nee Sheahan) and their three daughters, Maura, Kara and Lynn, and by his fourth daughter, with Marianne Delaney, Molly; and also by his brother James and his sisters Patricia and Ann.