Imagining great Irish culture

The political and economic news from Ireland continues to spin out of control seemingly in a more troubled downward spiral as the government collapses, and the citizenry hopes to change that direction with new elections.

The doom and gloom cycle continues unabated, so it seems like the new ambitious Culture Ireland initiative christened Imagine Ireland couldn’t have come at a better time to America to counter some of that negativity, and also to spark renewed interest in Irish culture for its own sake.

One of the chief architects of that campaign launched recently in New York at Lincoln Center was Eugene Downes, the CEO of Culture Ireland who is positively upbeat about the importance of Irish culture on the world stage and for the year 2011 across the length and breadth of the U.S.

We talked several times during and after his 10-day foray to New York and Washington, D.C. to get the program off the ground, and his enthusiasm and confidence is worth applauding.

Since Culture Ireland was created in 2005 under the aegis of the innovative Dr. Micheal O’Suilleabhain of the University of Limerick as a special funded department within the Ministry of Arts, Sports and Tourism, approximately $20 million has been expended to promote Irish arts and artists abroad.

When Downes came onboard three and half years ago, it signaled a determined approach towards cultural Diplomacy given his own background in both the promotion of the arts and foreign service experience.

Building a small but highly effective staff of six people under his direction, he organized annual inroads into the wider cultural sphere represented at the APAP Conference for Arts presenters in the U.S. showcasing Irish artist talent in theater, dance, music, film and other disciplines incrementally but with credible results.

Simultaneously there was serendipitous movement on the ground in New York and elsewhere, with New York’s Irish Arts Center proving to be a very viable and visible partner year-round, and also the emergence of actor Gabriel Byrne -- now Ireland’s cultural ambassador to the U.S. -- whose candid comments on the lack of initiative for the Irish arts both in Ireland and in the Irish American community lit a fire in evolving discussions on what should be done.

To their credit the Irish government’s ambassadorial and consular offices help make the case to the Irish government and Brian Cowen’s regime for greater support and action to bolster the fledgling cultural efforts, which was also reinforced by the Irish American community and philanthropists like Chuck Feeney and Loretta Brennan Glucksman.

For its size Ireland has had extraordinary influence around the world, and many of those inroads have been made through its cultural achievements. They still serve as an important draw to the country.

This new initiative will see $5 million expended for the Irish arts across the U.S. in 2011, while another $5 million support the regular projects under application to the Culture Ireland operation. While the emphasis is on Irish art for art sake, the attendant boost to the economy through employment of Irish artists and tourism that results from that exposure makes for a very large return on a very small investment by the Irish government.

The risk is small even if “all art is risky” says Downes, and the benefits could be significant both in the short and long term.

“I think the caliber of the work we are supporting across the arts will make a connection with audiences and show the creativity of the Irish and that we can bring new work to the next level and consolidate it and grow it over a longer term,” he said.

“The $5 million is a modest spend as an investment in Irish culture and the unique relationship we have with America is a priority for Ireland and I am confident that the money will stretch very far over the year is out.”
Keep an eye out for all of that creative activity via the website www.imagineireland.ie.

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