After that, he stayed away from Drama until he was about twenty-five, when he decided that amateur drama, which he now describes as “one of the most powerful institutions in Ireland,” looked like “a cool thing to do at night instead of being in the pub.” Nobody actually told me,” he says “I just stumbled into it, I realized that it's a great way to spend your time. I couldn't wait for work to finish, to get to the theater, cause there were great people there. And leading up to a play, the tension of it. I remember we all went to Athlone to take part in the All Ireland Drama Festival, we all went on one minibus. I had never experienced anything like that.”
One of the inspirations behind “Imagine Ireland” stems from Byrne's early years in the Dublin theater scene: his time with the experimental, modestly government funded Project Arts Centre. “In 1979 in Dublin you had the two establishment theaters, The Gate and The Abbey, and anyone who didn't fit in there went to The Project.” The list of misfits who got their start at The Project is impressive, to say the least: Jim Sheridan, Liam Neeson, Neil Jordan, Ciaran Hinds, Nigel Rolfe, Stephen Rea, and many more. “It was great,” he continues, “nothing was off the table. John Stevenson, who was the administrator at the time, said “Let's take all this stuff that we do and bring it to England.’ And that was the first time that British audiences became aware of this Irish art. Imagine Ireland is a version of that.”
When an artist from one country brings his or her work to another, a palpable exchange takes place: both artist and audience are exposed to something new. In the case of the four-hundred-plus artists coming to the U.S. this year with Imagine Ireland, the potential for exchange goes both ways. On one hand, Irish artists stand to gain something from performing or exhibiting for audiences here. “If you're an artist and you want to grow and expand and understand new things, then coming here will expose you to different viewpoints and opinions and experiences. It won't necessarily make you any better, but it will do that,” says Byrne.
On the other hand, American audiences are getting a taste of more contemporary Irish art; a more comprehensive understanding of Irish culture today. “When we talk about artists here, we're not just talking about writers, artists, musicians, theater people,” he explains, “we're talking about performance artists, the full range. There's Irish classical dancing; there's Irish mime; there are young artists who are Irish but who draw their inspiration from all kinds of places.” After a pause he continues, “I would say that the perception here is a very dated and very limited one. People know certain names, and some of those names are not even known outside a particular circle. Would everybody know U2? Yes. Would everybody know Seamus Heaney? Debatable.”
In this sense, in addition to recognizing the strong cultural bonds between Ireland and America, the aim also seems to be to refresh those bonds, to update them. To expose Irish Americans and Americans who already appreciate Joyce and Synge and Yeats, who have seen The Quiet Man, who know Riverdance and The Chieftains, to a new generation of Irish artists. The Cultural Ambassador confirms this: “That's one of the things I want to try and do. Well, it's the Culture Ireland agenda, I suppose, to increase that awareness here. To bring it up to date and to break down some of the outdated ideas that we have, that people have here, about what is going on over there.”
In Byrne's opinion and experience, this disconnect is one effect of the emigrant's journey, and is especially central to that of the Irish emigrant. He calls exile “the Irish story,” and is adamant that once you have left a country, you can never look back on it and see it in the same way. He raises the fascinating point that this idea plays a part in Irish myths from long before emigration was ever a word or an issue. He re-tells the story of Oisín returning home from Tír na Nóg, even though he was told not to, and aging the second he sets foot on land.
“That myth is [thousands] of years old. It's powerful, and its telling people 'You cannot return, it's not possible to come back. You go to this place and you stay there.' It's a warning telling you to think very carefully about where it is that your spirit settles.” Byrne moves on to the Bible, to Lot and his wife, who turns into a pillar of salt for looking back; to the Children of Lír, exiled as swans in their own land; to a tale from Co. Cavan he had read the night before about a woman who is banished from her town and turned into a hare. (Throughout all this it becomes abundantly clear that he used to be a teacher.) “Before people even left Ireland,” he muses, “they were concerned about these things.”