From a penthouse view 53-stories high on Manhattan’s East Side with New York City’s sprawling five boroughs all around you, it is pretty easy to take a long view on Irish Culture in the Big Apple. And when two driving forces for stimulating the increasingly sophisticated and varied offerings on that front come together in support of one another and triangulate it by honoring people in the New York City government for their efforts it can be a very heady experience.
And so it was on a sultry summer’s evening when the Irish Arts Center graced the residence of the Consul General of Ireland, Barbara Jones, to launch yet another ambitious Fall program, twinning the opportunity to pay homage to Melissa Mark Viverito, the Speaker of the New York City Council, along with fellow Council Members from the Irish Caucus who are ardent supporters of the Hell’s Kitchen redoubt on Manhattan’s West Side.
The ceremonial chorus was pretty much singing from the same hymnal all evening in bolstering New York City’s well-earned reputation as a melting pot (and the sweltering heat that night did nothing to deter that) where polyglot culture still remains important in fortifying its community diversity and on this occasion, the focus was on the Irish.
The always ambitious programming seasons at the Irish Arts Center, as announced online at www.IrishArtsCenter.org and in their 48-page comprehensive booklet each Autumn and Spring, are filled with innovative and contemporary performances and exhibitions that would rival many of the more established cultural centers around New York blessed with greater resources like the IAC neighbor Lincoln Center or the 92nd St Y.
And from its very inception over four decades ago, its educational mission introducing and teaching mostly adults in a wide array of Irish music, dance and language classes remains a very vital portal to those who want to learn more about their heritage or engage in a more personal way in the rich vein of Irish cultural activities.
In recent years, there has been a step-up in children’s programming at the Irish Arts Center also, both as a community-building exercise and an outreach for those who want to expose young children to the many facets of what it means to be Irish.
So there is always excitement in the air when the IAC reveals programs that take months or even years to procure from abroad or to produce, along with well-established perennials like ModErin’s Dance Extravaganza, An Irish Christmas or more recently, Muldoon’s Picnic, for instance.
The vision and drive to produce all of this edifying and entertaining fare comes from a very talented corps of culturally-minded and evolving personnel, led by the visionary and focused Executive Director Aidan Connolly, and the IAC Board Vice Chair Pauline Turley.
The fruits of their labors and that of their team at the three-story garage that has been “improved” as much as it can be is prodigious in the annals of the Irish in New York. Much of what is offered on the stages of the space-challenged yet totally intimate Donaghy Theater on a nightly basis comes across not what the Irish have done in New York in the past but what Irish creativity is all about in the here and now and heading towards in the future.
And the future for the IAC includes a new home just around the corner on 11th Avenue, as yet another “garage” waits to be transformed into New York City’s thriving Irish Cultural catalyst for the 21st Century.
But as we know, neither Rome nor New York City were built in a day. so while we patiently wait for a new home for the IAC to spring up, we applaud those who have stepped up to the plate financially to make this a reality.
Last year’s “Spirit of Ireland” Gala at the Cipriani Hotel yielded over one million dollars, and in the past six months personal donations from Bob Devlin in the Spring and Roma Downey this Summer each contributed a similar figure, adding to the swelling coffers that will bring about the new state-of-the-art building to service the Irish-American Community in New York and well beyond.
To date, almost $47 million has been raised and according to the Executive Director Aidan Connolly, some $34 million of that has been an investment of the City of New York who see the value of establishing strong multicultural facilities that reflect the population of this city.
While the lion-share of this funding came from the previous administrations of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, it is worth noting that the new Speaker, Melissa Mark Viverito, committed $5 million in the last fiscal year’s budget which also saw the commitment of $4 million from Mayor Bill Di Blasio’s capital expenditures, displaying not only the continuity of municipal support but also their confidence in cultural capitalism enhancing New York City’s neighborhoods.
At the reception, Speaker Viverito was extolled by Connolly, Turley and Consul General Jones for her open embrace of their efforts towards solidifying Irish Culture in the Big Apple and her commitment to seeing it sprout even more. Attuned to her own Puerto Rican heritage and the huge Latino presence in the city, she is aware of the value of multiculturalism in her own life, and in that of the City of New York.
Echoing her sentiments that night, while also praising her leadership at the Council, were Danny Dromm - the leader of the Irish Caucus in the City Council that includes Jimmy Van Bramer and Elizabeth Crowley (younger sister of Congressman Joe Crowley). Those three Council members hail from Queens but recognize that the Irish Arts Center is making historic strides. They have also been able to call upon the staunch support of Corey Johnson, whose West Side District the old and new Center fall in but was unable to be on hand.
It is hard not to be impressed with not only the hard-won dollars from the City government but also the sincerity and commitment to helping the Irish Arts Center reach its long-awaited dream in the next few years when the shovel finally goes into the ground on the West Side of Manhattan.
The City’s investment, as expressed by Viverito’s own comments, and echoed by Connolly, who has long labored in the municipal corridors and planning rooms, reflects a diversified city that values and holds fast to its cultural traditions and strengthens them at opportunities like this at the IAC.
Not only is that a policy that serves the entire city but it attracts outside investment, like the additional financial support from the Government of Ireland to the tune of $5 million, the expertise of the Office of Public Works in designing the new space, plus the ongoing support from Culture Ireland for individual programs each year.
It also helps leverage donations from the inspired community like Devlin, Downey and the many generous people who have donated down through the years and given in support of the programming they have witnessed and wish to see flourish in the future.
Among the many in the crowd that night was the local New York girl who caught the world’s attention through Riverdance, Jean Butler, once a champion Irish dancer taught by Donny Golden of Brooklyn. Butler will star in her own production “this is An Irish dance” in November, collaborating with an Irish Cellist Neil Martin at Danspace in the East Village. The production will showcase her work as a dancer inspired by the music and vice versa which to me is the highest compliment that can be paid to an artist. Most assuredly this will be cutting-edge fare and encompass much of what she learned AFTER Riverdance in the realm of Contemporary Dance crafted at the University of Limerick Irish World Music Center. It will also build upon her many years of training in Irish stepdance that reached its pinnacle in Riverdance.
New York City undergoes so much change that the old adage “It will be a great place when it is finished” doesn’t hold water and neither will it contain the new Irish Arts Center because its vision and mission goes well beyond bricks and mortar. It is all about capturing the creativity of the Irish mind, heart and soul and in doing so, it knows no bounds.