On August 1, Ireland will proudly welcome home renowned artist Sean Scully, largely regarded as a leading artist of his generation. IrishCentral talks to Grammy-award-winning Susan McKeown about how she and the Cuala Foundation worked to honor the famed artist. 

This July IrishCentral pays tribute to the International Irish who are breaking the mold, smashing glass ceilings, and emerging as the next generation of global thinkers and leaders. 

Today, we speak to Susan McKeown, an Irish singer, songwriter and founder of the Cuala Foundation, who has been the driving force behind a ceremony honoring acclaimed Irish artist Sean Scully back to Inchicore, Dublin. 

Scully's parents met in London during the Second World War and soon afterward, deserted from the British armed forces and made their way to Inchicore where they had some family.

When Sean was born, the family stayed for a time with these relations and it is on the wall of this house that the plaque will be mounted to commemorate the place where the successful artist started his life.

From there, the family lived in a number of other places in Dublin throughout Scully’s early childhood, including staying with the Traveller community who lived on the big field in Inchicore.  

Today, Scully is considered a leading artist of his generation; he exhibits in museums all over the globe and his work is held in major collections, both private and public, including the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, Dublin. 

On August 1, he will be honored by the Cuala Foundation, in a culmination of the Culture Warriors program the organization has conducted this summer in collaboration with CORE Youth Service, the young participants taking inspiration from Scully’s work and career with talks and workshops. 

Cuala Foundation is an artist-led organization that works with youth and communities in Ireland and the U.S. It works to cultivate a culture of belonging by connecting youth more deeply with their local culture and community.

Recently founded in Ireland by Grammy-winning artist Susan McKeown, a sister organization is already established as a nonprofit in the U.S. 

Here, McKeown speaks to IrishCentral about the Foundation and her successes to date:

Where are you originally from? 

Terenure, Dublin, Ireland

Where do you live now? 

New York and Ireland.

How did you start out in your career?

I started out as a singer and songwriter, booking tours in Europe, and running my own label and agency.

What spurred your decision to move to the US?

On the day I graduated from UCD with a degree in English and Philosophy, I saw a poster for auditions in London for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and I knew it would be my ticket out of Ireland.

It wasn’t that I wanted to leave but I knew I would have to leave in order to live the life I wanted. I made the journey to London and won a scholarship and the new adventure began.

What do you believe was the secret to your success?

People who believed in and helped me, and, learning to trust when it felt like I had no choice. 

Do you consider being Irish as part of your brand?

Absolutely: I’ve always been very connected to Ireland and Irish culture and history. The Irish excel at learning, creating and celebrating and that’s what we at Cuala Foundation do with youth and communities. 

Who are the Irish people you admire the most, one from history and one from today?

Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (the poet who wrote Lament for Art O’Leary/Caoineadh Art Uí Laoghaire) and Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

What has been your worst day on the job that you’d rather forget and did you learn anything from it?

The years of Research & Development were far from easy and it’s rare to get funding for that but thankfully I had a donor in the U.S. who believed in me and the work I was doing. Even on the worst days, I said to myself “you asked for this Susan, and this is how it feels.”

What is the hardest thing about living in the US as an Irish person?

Missing what’s happening at home: I’m fortunate to have always had a career where I could have both but I’m conscious of how much longing/belonging/unbelonging has been part of our story.

How does a normal day start out for you?

Apple Cider Vinegar, black coffee and time with my daughter, Róisín, and our dog, River. I work a lot so I try to relax and enjoy my morning time especially. 

Favorite career moment to date?

Sandy Denny Tribute Concert, St. Ann’s, Brooklyn, 1998.

Disney Hall in LA with The Klezmatics, December 2015.

Launching CualaNYC on the steps of New York City Hall, April 26, 2016.

What has been the most exciting day in your career? 

I have to say, I think this might be the most exciting time of my life, seeing the impact that Cuala is having.

If you could be anything else in the world, what would it be and why?

Film director: because I love bringing people together to listen to stories.

Using five words, describe what is needed by somebody starting out in your industry?

Passion, curiosity, resilience, knowledge, patience.

What is your favorite Irish brand?

www.irishdesigngallery.ie and www.irishdesignshop.com are my favorite places to shop.

Once you get off the plane in Ireland, what is the first thing you look forward to doing the most?

Being in a peaceful place by the sea or among trees.

What is your favorite place in Ireland?

It’s hard to say: there are so many places I love. When I was 14 I wanted to run away to Donegal and I always feel a great peace when I’m there. I recently learned that on my father’s side I’m descended from McLaughlins and that name comes from Inishowen.

Read more about Cuala Foundation here. 

This July, IrishCentral pays tribute to the International Irish who are breaking the mold, smashing glass ceilings, and emerging as the next generation of global thinkers and leaders. You can follow IrishCentral’s International Irish throughout by using the hashtag #InternationalIrish or by following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. 

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Cuala Foundation founder Susan McKeown. Chris Carlone