Irish arts get NYC showcase


Somewhere in Ireland you can hear the sound of a shoe dropping. With the great recession biting and the Irish government cutting back on essential social services to keep the teetering economy afloat, one part of the Irish national fabric unexpectedly left untouched in the recent budget was the arts.

Government spending on them this year was consistent with pre-recession levels. But how did this surprise come about?

An independent commission on the arts in Ireland in 2009 discovered that the nation’s arts and culture programming is worth over 782 million, or more than $1 billion, to the Irish economy every year, a very significant boost to the national economic recovery. It was those kind of figures that finally persuaded the Irish government to get serious about promoting Irish arts at home and abroad.

That’s why last week Culture Ireland, the dynamic Irish government agency, brought over 90 performing artists from Ireland to New York for an unprecedented two-week showcase, in the hope of encouraging even greater collaboration and partnerships with American venues.

It’s now been established that promoting Irish culture leads to significant revenue and boosts tourism, and by all accounts the Irish showcase has already been wildly successful, winning rave reviews and invitations to return.

But the most surprising news about the Irish showcase is that it has happened at all. The ambitious round of performances in Manhattan (at some of the most high profile venues in the city) signals that the Irish government has recognized that Ireland’s profile abroad largely depends upon the near consistent excellence of its arts and culture.

For that reason, and for the major revenue it generates for Ireland, the government bankrolled an ambitious cultural visit that would have been inconceivable even at the height of the Celtic Tiger years. Someone in the Dail (Irish Parliament) has finally gotten the memo, it seems.

At a welcoming ceremony at City Hall in Manhattan on Friday Eugene Downes, CEO of Culture Ireland, told the Irish Voice, “Irish artists are defining Ireland’s global reputation. The artists and companies we’re showcasing in New York are great ambassadors and have ambitious plans for U.S. touring, collaboration and co-production.”

Irish culture, says Downes, has a very unique resonance in America, and Culture Ireland wants to enhance that energy for the future, working with a wide range of partners in New York and across the U.S. to bring new Irish works to the whole country.

That’s why on Friday New York City’s Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined Irish Consul General Niall Burgess and Downes himself to welcome the Irish performers to New York. For all the recent talk in the press about the lack of pull the Irish have in Gotham, who else gets a City Hall welcome from the council speaker at a moments notice?

“The connection between Ireland and New York is as strong as it ever was,” Quinn told the audience at the reception. “And one way that we can ensure that connection stays alive is ensuring the Irish arts are more accessible than they have ever been. We are also going to keep the city’s contribution growing.

“The greatest connection between Ireland and New York is through the arts,” Quinn continued. “Every New Yorker who sees these works will leave having had a thoughtful experience, having had questions placed in their mind, but most importantly they’ll leave that even a little more Irish than they walked in.”

One thing the Irish do consistently well, regardless of the strength or weakness of their economy, in good times and in bad, is produce world class theater, film, music and writing on an annual basis. The sheer strength of the culture has endured every kind of oppression and misfortune to bounce back, consistently, without fail, for centuries.

It has also allowed the country to punch far above its weight internationally for decades. That’s why its so striking that the government has finally thrown its full weight behind the project.

And what projects! Forget Aran jumpers, harps and shillelaghs. Each of the groups performing at the four separate showcases represent distinctly modern takes on traditional and contemporary Irish music, dance and theater.

At times the only thing that connects them is their country of residence. That kind of artistic diversity within the Irish scene itself is the proof of its vitality.

Silver Stars, a brave and deeply moving song cycle performed by a non-professional cast of Irish gay men at New York’s Public Theatre, stunned unsuspecting New York audiences this week, being one of the first works of its kind to address the reality of gay life in Ireland.

The audience was moved by the strength and rawness of the individual performances, which seemed to contradict the fact that none of these men were professional actors. The show is still playing at the Public this week, where it’s been receiving standing ovations.