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Hilda Fay lights up the stage in Elaine Murphy's debut drama "Little Gem"

Irish arts get NYC showcase

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Hilda Fay lights up the stage in Elaine Murphy's debut drama "Little Gem"

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.

Sean Miller, Silver Stars’ admittedly heterosexual writer, composer and performer told the Irish Voice, “I’m not interested in polished productions or runs on Broadway, I’m interested in the truth. I’ve been involved in socially engaged collaborative arts projects for 12 years now and I’ve worked with very different communities.

“This project was one I came up with. At first it was just about older Irish people and then I realized that actually it had to be about gay Irish people, because I realized had never heard stories like these before.”

Another stage show, Little Gem, a new play by newcomer Elaine Murphy, is a searingly funny, award winning story about an extraordinary year in the lives of three generations of Northside Dublin women now playing at the Flea Theatre in Tribeca. The play instantly attracted the attention of The New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood who wrote, “Intimately told and beautifully acted, Murphy’s play unfolds in alternating monologues, as three generations of Irish women greet life’s travails with strength, humor and the occasional vodka and Diet Coke…”

The Irish showcase also unveiled the U.S. premiere of Ages of The Moon, a darkly funny new Sam Shepard play produced by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre Company, featuring Stephen Rea in the lead. The show is now playing Off Broadway at the Linda Gross Theatre.

Raymond Scannell’s show Mimic, playing this week at the edgy Performance Space 122 in the East Village, is performed at a grand piano by one of Ireland’s most exciting new theatrical voices. It tells the story of a young man who leaves eighties Ireland to get away from the stifling life he lived there and what he finds years later on his return.

Across town, concerts at the Irish Arts Center featuring traditional and contemporary musicians including Iarla O’Lionaird, John Spillane and Caladh Nua won praise as they competed with musical performances by Moya Brennan of Clannad and the Davis Munnelly Band at the Hilton Hotel.

Contemporary Irish dance was represented over the weekend when four Irish companies performed at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Midtown West. Rex Levitates, Daghdha Dance Company, Fearghus O’Conchuir and Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre hosted well attended but all too brief two day appearances, and it’s to be hoped that next year’s showcase will expand the number of performances they give.

Reflecting on the enormous success of the Irish showcase this week, Quinn added, “I am especially pleased to learn that this year Ireland has sent its largest delegation ever to the conference. That’s a tradition that we will work to continue and build on.”

For more information about the festival, including performance venues and show times visit www.cultureireland.gov.ie. 

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