While economic storm clouds were joining all the other clouds that typically gather over Ireland, the government decided to increase the flow of its greatest export to its most significant market. Lacking much in the way of currently accessible oil reserves, rare earths, precious metals, athletic shoe factories or excessive amber waves of grain, the government placed a $5.2 million bet on something hard to quantify -- culture -- in an initiative called "Imagine Ireland, A Year of Irish Arts in America 2011," which is now drawing to a close with a flourish.
Ireland has long "punched above its weight" in literature, poetry and drama. Its music is internationally beloved, in traditional forms popularized by The Chieftains and others and in the rock outcroppings of U2 and more. Irish dance went round the world with Riverdance and Michael Flatley, step-dancing schools are flourishing and the art form is getting mashed-up cross-culturally in groups ranging from Hammerstep to Keltic Dreams. Homegrown filmmakers are emerging, visual arts are rising and the digital culture is lively, all emphasized in the bid that that had Dublin among the three finalists for the designation World Design Capital 2014 (Cape Town got the nod though).
Starting last January over 1,000 Irish artists fanned out across America, logging major time in New York, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago and Los Angeles, but hitting 40 states in all in over 400 events, often in partnership such key organizations as New York Public Library, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, National Gallery of Art, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Emory University, and Annenberg Center. Events ranged from Irish Film New York (its "Best Film" Knuckle is in theatrical release now) to "A Bloomsday Breakfast in Bryant Park," from "Irish Bands at SXSW" to the timely Irish Christmas in America.
Last January in New York, Irish Cultural ambassador Gabriel Byrne opened Imagine Ireland, saying, "Ireland's culture has been consistently evolving: only a culture which changes remains alive; its breath and influence is universal. Today's artists draw upon that massive inheritance, yet speak with a new voice that is of today, yesterday and tomorrow. Theirs is an inevitable, ever changing voice that recognizes kinship of reality and imagination."
Of all the arts on display, Irish dramatic arts may have shined the brightest and is bringing Imagine Ireland to a rousing finale.
Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw and Lyndsey Duncan opened the year at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with John Gabriel Borkman. The Druid Theatre Company's touring production of Cripple of Inishmaan was seen by tens of thousands of people across the country and its Silver Tassie came close to selling out at Lincoln Center Festival and last winter.
And as the curtain falls on Imagine Ireland, Dublin's Pan Pan Theatre kicked off December in New York with their award-winning production, The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane. Right now John Hurt is performing Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape at BAM to great acclaim, as is Cilliam Murphy inMisterman by Irish playwright Enda Walsh in a limited run at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse.
Fittingly in these final days of Imagine Ireland, Irish cultural ambassador Gabriel Byrne is co-producing with Liam Neeson and directing James X, an all-too-timely one man play about child abuse written and performed by their countryman Gerard Mannix Flynn.
So in a time of endless (though justifiable) media autopsies on the Celtic Tiger, there were throughout the US these other voices, other stories of Ireland, stories about ideas, imagination, artistry, content, accomplishment, reflection, experimentation, collaboration, tradition and the future.
If you add up the audience figures for these performances, the value of positive media coverage, the employment generated, the strong buzz around the Irish brand, its heightened online presence and all the networking, conversations and connections taking place in galleries, theater lobbies, backstage, at panel discussions and intermissions, I'd argue that the government's investment of $5 million has been money well spent.