Imagining Ireland With Gabriel Byrne
The acclaimed actor discusses his role as Ireland’s first Cultural Ambassador, his experience as an emigrant, and his thoughts on the strong ties and the disconnects between Ireland and America.
When an artist from one country brings his or her work to another, a palpable exchange takes place: both artist and audience are exposed to something new. In the case of the four-hundred-plus artists coming to the U.S. this year with Imagine Ireland, the potential for exchange goes both ways. On one hand, Irish artists stand to gain something from performing or exhibiting for audiences here. “If you're an artist and you want to grow and expand and understand new things, then coming here will expose you to different viewpoints and opinions and experiences. It won't necessarily make you any better, but it will do that,” says Byrne.
On the other hand, American audiences are getting a taste of more contemporary Irish art; a more comprehensive understanding of Irish culture today. “When we talk about artists here, we're not just talking about writers, artists, musicians, theater people,” he explains, “we're talking about performance artists, the full range. There's Irish classical dancing; there's Irish mime; there are young artists who are Irish but who draw their inspiration from all kinds of places.” After a pause he continues, “I would say that the perception here is a very dated and very limited one. People know certain names, and some of those names are not even known outside a particular circle. Would everybody know U2? Yes. Would everybody know Seamus Heaney? Debatable.”
In this sense, in addition to recognizing the strong cultural bonds between Ireland and America, the aim also seems to be to refresh those bonds, to update them. To expose Irish Americans and Americans who already appreciate Joyce and Synge and Yeats, who have seen The Quiet Man, who know Riverdance and The Chieftains, to a new generation of Irish artists. The Cultural Ambassador confirms this: “That's one of the things I want to try and do. Well, it's the Culture Ireland agenda, I suppose, to increase that awareness here. To bring it up to date and to break down some of the outdated ideas that we have, that people have here, about what is going on over there.”
In Byrne's opinion and experience, this disconnect is one effect of the emigrant's journey, and is especially central to that of the Irish emigrant. He calls exile “the Irish story,” and is adamant that once you have left a country, you can never look back on it and see it in the same way. He raises the fascinating point that this idea plays a part in Irish myths from long before emigration was ever a word or an issue. He re-tells the story of Oisín returning home from Tír na Nóg, even though he was told not to, and aging the second he sets foot on land.
“That myth is [thousands] of years old. It's powerful, and its telling people 'You cannot return, it's not possible to come back. You go to this place and you stay there.' It's a warning telling you to think very carefully about where it is that your spirit settles.” Byrne moves on to the Bible, to Lot and his wife, who turns into a pillar of salt for looking back; to the Children of Lír, exiled as swans in their own land; to a tale from Co. Cavan he had read the night before about a woman who is banished from her town and turned into a hare. (Throughout all this it becomes abundantly clear that he used to be a teacher.) “Before people even left Ireland,” he muses, “they were concerned about these things.”
Exile and the emigrant experience are two of the many themes Byrne aims to address in his film series, Revisiting The Quiet Man: Ireland on Film, which is running at MoMA form May 20 – June 3. John Ford's iconic and extremely romantic portrayal of 1950s Ireland will be the starting point for a larger discussion Byrne hopes to provoke. Via The Quiet Man and other films about Ireland, ranging from Robert Stevenson's Darby O'Gill and the Little People to the Bobby Sands biopic Hunger, the series will consider themes of “emigration, exile, the role of the rebel, the religious figure…identity, myth, ethnicity, assimilation, gender, the role of the woman in Irish film.” Beyond this, the aim is to raise – but not, he emphasizes, necessarily to answer – the questions “Who are we as a group? How are we portrayed? How are we perceived?” It has always fascinated him, he says, that “[As Irish,] in terms of film, our story has, up to a certain point, been told for us, not by us.” This is problematic, he believes, because “a great deal of what we know about each other as people comes from our knowledge of film.”
One night of the retrospective will feature Byrne in conversation with Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan. Another, with Martin Scorsese, whom he looks forward to talking to because “He's an Italian American. He comes from, he understands, that dual conflict about ‘Where am I from? And where is this place that I'm living in? Who am I as a result of that journey?’”
Listening to Gabriel Byrne pose these questions, I get the definite sense that he doenn't do so with the detached curiosity of a critic or a scholar, but with real personal investment. He is, after all, not just a spectator of Irish film but part of its history, too.
So who are we, as Irish? Byrne doesn't think there can be one answer. In fact, he encourages everyone to imagine his or her own Ireland (apparently that’s why he pushed for it to be called “Imagine Ireland”). But he does offer this: “I think the artistic influence is continuous; it's part of who we are…We are also a result of our history, and our history and our literature are entwined so that we have, on the one hand, the saddest music and the most joyful music, and we have the saddest poems. If you look through an anthology of Irish poems, it's incredible how melancholy we are. You know what G.K. Chesterton said about the Irish? ‘The Irish were the race that God made mad. For all their wars were merry and all their songs were sad.’ Bit stupid as a remark, but it does capture something.”
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