Ambitious display of creative talent asks US audiences to imagine a better Ireland


IMAGINE IRELAND, the year-long season of Irish cultural events that was launched in New York yesterday “began as an act of imagination”, said Gabriel Byrne, the actor and Ireland’s Cultural Ambassador who has been one of the driving forces behind this ambitious display of Irish creative talent.

Byrne said he was inspired by John Lennon. “If you imagine something, you are a great deal of the way to achieving it,” he said. “The difference between reality and imagination is very thin for me. The transformative power of art is incredible.”

Byrne spoke against a backdrop of falling snow, in the three-storey glass atrium of the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, to an audience of 170 people.

Colum McCann, the winner of the 2009 National Book Award and a long-time resident of the US, said Imagine Ireland was “a sort of redressing of the wound , an ability to be home and be here at the same time”.

The cultural programme was also a welcome respite from media reports about how “wrecked and reckless” Ireland was, McCann said. “We’ve had a bad run of it. It’s nice to pop back and say we’ve also been creating dance and making stories and films. It’s important that we get this particular part of the story out, because of the crisis . . . Art is not going to save us, but I do think it’s part of the process of recovery.”

The chief instigators of Imagine Ireland, Minister for Culture Mary Hanafin and Culture Ireland chief executive Eugene Downes, travelled to the US for the launch.

They were joined by a group of 100 Irish theatre directors, choreographers, musicians and other representatives of the arts who were in New York for APAP, the annual North American arts programming conference.

The other 70 guests were Americans who are partnering with Ireland for the festival, which will bring 400 events encompassing cinema, theatre, music, dance, literature and visual arts to 40 US cities this year.

“New York is the capital of the world,” said Christine Quinn, the Irish-American speaker of the New York City Council. “You can’t hold that title if you do not have a thriving, cultural connection to Ireland.” Imagine Ireland “is going to help us get through a long, cold winter”, she predicted.

Organisers stressed the need to renew that connection, to reach out to younger, non-Irish audiences and be present in venues not traditionally Irish.

Imagine Ireland is quite simply “the biggest, brightest, best” programme Ireland could conceive of, Ms Hanafin said.

By demonstrating Ireland’s youth, creativity and innovative spirit, she believed Imagine Ireland would reap returns, for example in tourism and investment, far greater than the €4 million which the Government invested in the programme.

Byrne said it was important to tell Americans that Irish culture is more than “Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and U2,” that “Irish art has always evolved, that this is a new generation of young artists.”

Mr Downes said Imagine Ireland “reflects the arc of Irish culture through time, but it is also a highly contemporary exploration of that”.

Over the next 12 months, Mr Downes hopes Imagine Ireland will “preserve this extraordinarily deep circle of influence and identity, and tell the next chapter of that story”.

Politics and religion betrayed Irish optimism about the future, Byrne said. “But there is an optimism about art that is really powerful. When Yeats founded the Abbey Theatre, he saw it as much as a political movement . . . Art is in the end the most powerful agent for change.”

There was something “oddly patriotic” about his friend Byrne’s extraordinary efforts to promote Irish culture, McCann said. He credited Mr Downes with the idea of putting what were “scatter-shot efforts” by himself and Byrne “under one umbrella”.

In March 2009, Taoiseach Brian Cowen asked Culture Ireland to plan a major promotion of Irish arts in the US. Six months later, the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh emphasised the importance of culture as a means of strengthening ties with the Irish diaspora.