Gabriel Byrne launches Imagine Ireland's new cultural programme


IT HAS been quite a week for actor Gabriel Byrne. He began it in the company of US president Barack Obama on the podium at College Green on Monday.

He finished it yesterday in the company of the great and the good of the Irish arts community, launching the next tranche of events in Imagine Ireland, Culture Ireland’s ambitious 12-month programme of Irish arts in the US.

By the end of this year more than 1,000 Irish artists of all kinds will have strutted their stuff across 40 US states. The “imagine” in the title was apparently Byrne’s idea; did he himself imagine, when he was appointed Ireland’s first cultural ambassador back in January, just what was in store for him in this stellar diplomatic role? “Well, I didn’t imagine this, that’s for sure,” he says, eyes crinkling into that famous smile. But immediately, he gets serious. Byrne has worked hard at this job and not just at the glamorous end – the press launches and the presidential receptions.

“It’s a process of building bricks, building awareness. Each thing leads to the next. The process is inevitable and it’s going to grow and grow,” he says.

A glance at the programme confirms that the second half of 2011 will see what Culture Ireland chief executive Eugene Downes describes as “a wave of contemporary artists” roll across the US.

Writers Séamus Heaney, Anne Enright and Emma Donoghue; classical groups the National Chamber Choir and the Irish Chamber Orchestra; the dancer Colin Dunne; and traditional musicians Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill are among those lined up for gigs from San Francisco to Seattle, Dayton, Ohio, to Dallas, Texas.

The Gate Theatre will tour Samuel Beckett’s Endgameand Watt, while Druid Theatre will present Seán O’Casey’s The Silver Tassieat Lincoln Centre. And that’s just the tip of the Imagine Ireland iceberg.

If Imagine Ireland is also about broadening the definition of “Irish”, it’s also about broadening the definition of “art”. Next Friday, the Science Gallery at TCD will bring its Biorhythms exhibition to the World Science Festival at the Eyebeam Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district.

In practice it is Byrne who has opened many of these doors, straddling as he does the cultural chasm which often separates the Irish in Ireland from the Irish in America.

On this side of the Atlantic, is he worried that Culture Ireland’s funding, set last year at €4 million, will disappear into the void? “I think it was very interesting that the Greek government, after six months of debate about economic regeneration, placed arts and culture at the centre of their economic revival,” he says.

“This Government – Enda Kenny, Jimmy Deenihan and Eamon Gilmore – understand that they have a huge asset, and that asset is culture, arts and heritage.”

Minutes earlier Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, caused a distinct frisson among the assembled arts practitioners when he insisted that there was “a major onus on the arts to repair the damage” done to Ireland’s reputation by the recent economic catastrophe.

The cultural ambassador puts it rather differently. “Imagine is a provocative word. It’s a call to action,” he says. “There has never been a better time to imagine a new Ireland. Our time is now.”