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Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender are a pair of surefire Oscar contenders for their work in 12 Years a Slave. Photo by: Fox Searchlight

Irish arts took center stage in 2013, look strong for new year

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Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender are a pair of surefire Oscar contenders for their work in 12 Years a Slave. Photo by: Fox Searchlight

Irish culture has always been our biggest export. Other nations have colonized the world with their battleships and standing armies but we, being much less powerful, have had to rely on our culture, music, songs and stories to plead our case.

It’s the smartest thing we ever did. It’s why we’ve done a much better job of winning the world’s favor, frankly. The reason the Irish enjoy good standing internationally is because most people prefer singing to swords.

Working as the arts editor for the Irish Voice in 2013 has taught me that if the Irish economy has flatlined, and sadly it has, Irish culture is somehow thriving as never before in film, on stage and on the page.

Irish literary titans Column McCann and Colm Toibin created sensations when their latest works appeared. McCann’s TransAtlantic represented a belated homecoming for the writer, who has rarely made his homeland his main subject.

Instead for most of his career, McCann has taken on themes that have led him far from his leafy south Dublin of his childhood, but TransAtlantic represented a return to sources that was unexpected as it was rewarding.

As he writes in the new novel, “We return to the lives before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”  Taking the long road home has resulted in the most passionate and personal novel of his career.

In 2013 the other Colm, Toibin, presented his subtle and arrestingly strange new play The Testament of Mary to the Broadway theater going public, where it was seen by 30,000 people before closing after 43 sold-out performances.

Slammed by Catholic news agencies and picketed by conservative Catholic groups, the controversy over the production only helped to move ticket sales. Onstage Tobin’s beautifully directed play (featuring Ireland’s Fiona Shaw in the title role) examined the startling deaths and resurrections that the Gospels are based on, but it never quite demolished them.  Instead the play created an unsettling ambiguity, no more so than when Mary recounts the tale of the resurrection of Lazarus.

Bringing a buried corpse back to life, as Jesus reputedly did before he died and was resurrected himself, completely upends the natural order of life. Tobin’s played reminded us there is something sinister about the action, something so unsettling that it cannot be overlooked in the joy of an unexpected reunion.

Another unsettling play by an Irish writer became the hottest ticket in town this autumn. Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall played a sold out run at the 59 East 59 Theatre and saw Ireland’s Billy Carter cast as one of the many bemused villagers populating this production that was immediately deified by The New York Times.

Also in theater, Ciaran Hinds played a memorable Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In a bit of stunt casting that delivered much less than it promised, the production was let down by Scarlett Johansson’s one-note turn as his daughter-in-law Maggie.

Last year also saw the latest chapter in the now two volume memoirs of Colin Broderick. That’s That is the hardscrabble tale of his long and difficult flight from his broken past.

Having grown up in the North at the height of The Troubles, Broderick slowly begins to discover that it was love and not war that shaped him, a realization that can take half a lifetime to figure out in a world where he was cradled by bombs and barbarism.

Last year was also the year of The Gathering, a hugely successful year-long tourist initiative to get people with Irish ancestry to visit the ancestral homeland, often for the first time.

It hasn’t been remarked on enough, but much of the goodwill that encouraged those first time visits to our homeland was the result of decades of Irish artistic talents who have always functioned as our least paid but most accomplished ambassadors.

In 2013 a high percentage of our most prominent Irish names now belong to movie stars. A new generation of Irish stars like Michael Fassbender, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, Chris O’Dowd and Domhnall Gleeson all made their presence felt in often critically praised projects that has only increased their celebrity and standing.

But even longer established Irish and Irish American stars like Roma Downey (The Bible series was a remarkable audience favorite), Jane Lynch (Glee is still a TV ratings juggernaut), Mark Wahlberg (Broken City) and Aidan Quinn (Elementary, the Sherlock Holmes based series is a huge success) have all had a remarkable year.

Fassbender, 36, has quietly become one of the most electrifying male leads in the world, and is already being talked about as this generation’s Marlon Brando. His performances in 12 Years a Slave and in Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor should see him win a nod at the Oscar nominations on January 16.

Playing bigoted slave owner Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave, the role was one of the most challenging of Fassbender’s career because the character treats black people worse than livestock. He is also an unrepentant rapist who quotes the Bible at everyone he thinks is inferior to him. As roles go, this one was a courageous choice for an actor who puts the work before his personal image.

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