Entering “Ireland-America: The Ties that Bind,” housed in Lincoln Center, one of New York City’s finest arenas for the arts, it is easy to get overwhelmed. We’re dealing with more than two centuries of performing arts history, after all. A television screen is on the right; posters and display cabinets are straight ahead; a sign describing the exhibition is just to the left; a playing fiddle and the sounds of feet tapping in tune can be heard. Head to the television and sit on the bench. The next 18 or so minutes will be thrilling as a video reel plays a representative variety of clips, including Michael Flatley performing in Lord of the Dance, a short interview with Liam Neeson, and a clip of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in a 1974 production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Past the television, the gallery opens into its first and largest section, “Performing Ireland, Becoming American.” Showcasing Irish-American stage performances since the 1800s, the space is brimming with broadsides, lithographs, programs, posters and more. The best way to see the exhibits is to crisscross the room. The walls are adorned: a poster for a production of Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughran, another for Da by Hugh Leonard. Between the framed posters hangs a QR ("Quick Response") code. Anyone with a smart phone can use a QR code reader to decode the information, including special messages from Irish actors. Dispersed throughout the gallery, the QR codes really show spectators (at least, the smart-phone-equiped spectators) a new way to experience an exhibition. Nearby, another television monitor shows a continuous video of scenes from Irish plays performed in America, including Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come (1994 New York production) and the Broadway production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh.
Three display cases in the middle of the room contain important and delicate items, likc a record of the music of Victor Herbert, the famous composer born in Dublin and raised in Germany. A piano sits along the right wall, adorned with photographs, a tune book and a sign inviting the spectator to sit down at the bench and play one of the tunes – maybe “The Wearing of the Green,” or Thomas Moore’s “The Minstrel Boy.”
Signaling the end of this portion of the exhibition is a banner of Kitty O’Neil, legendary Irish dancer primarily of the New York stage of the late 1800s. Entering the next area, the eye is drawn to a glass display case in the middle of the room, containing traditional Irish dance costumes and shoes, many donated to the exhibition. Maura Mulligan, an Irish language teacher and céilí dance instructor, told Irish America about donating her Irish dance outfit to the exhibition. “My McNiff [School of Irish Dance] dance costume from 1960 is the oldest one in the collection of dance dresses, and it’s a great honor to donate it to the exhibit...The costume, beautiful in its simplicity was designed by Mrs. McNiff, the teacher’s mother.”
The right side of the room features a video compilation on Irish dance, with performances by Chicago’s Trinity Irish Dance Company, Celtic Tiger Live, an instructional scene on Irish dancing, and a peek into one of Jean Butler’s master classes. Beneath the video is a small stage where visitors can try a step. On the far right is a showcase of traditional Irish music instruments, including a tin whistle, harp and button accordion. Nearby, iconic costumes from Riverdance are on display.
The left side is dedicated to Irish music and verse, with a comprehensive listening station. With four sets of headphones, a group can listen to the music together. There’s a traditional rendition of “The Black Rose,” as well as nontraditional versions of “The Minstrel Boy” performed by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. More contemporary performers, such as U2 and Flogging Molly, mingle with Bing Crosby. Versions of “Danny Boy/Londonderry Air” are performed by a diverse group of performers including Elvis, Mahalia Jackson and John McCormack. Fionnula Flanagan reads from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses – a prime example of spoken verse.
Against the back wall of the gallery, the St. Patrick’s Day exhibit is in clear sight. Look up: hanging above are a variety of county association banners. In a huge vitrine stand manequins donning an assortment of St. Patrick’s Day Parade outfits dating back to the 1960s. Another video reel showcases highlights from past parades. Played at a faster speed, the clips from the older parades make the men and women marchers look as though they’re skittering triumphantly up 5th Avenue. It might take a while, but watch patiently for the highlight of the reel: Gene Kelly performing “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day” from Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). Anytime you get to watch Gene Kelly dance it’s a phenomenal experience.
Transitioning away from St. Patrick’s Day, the exhibition moves to oral histories. An astounding range is available for listening, and a wall displays the names and pictures of the people interviewed, from Liz Carroll to Gabriel Byrne.
The exhibition ends in an unusual way – in a 1960s era Irish-American living room. The final installation has the usual furnishings of a living room from the time period: a television console with dials; a radio; a couch, a coffee table. As with anything else, it is the details that make the room Irish-American. On the wall across from the television hang a framed Sacred Heart of Jesus painting, a rural Irish scene featuring a cottage, and a portrait of President John F. Kennedy. The television airs three extended clips, including scenes from The Jackie Gleason Show and a St. Patrick’s Day celebration on The Ed Sullivan Show. The radio plays three sets of songs dating back to the early 1900s, including Bing Crosby singing “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra.”
The exhibition’s joyous celebration of historical connections between the performing arts and the everyday aspects of both cultures will appeal to all ages and interests. Children will embrace the opportunity to try step dancing. Music aficionados will appreciate the diversity of discography available. Theater buffs will love the play scenes available for viewing, and no one who has ever set foot in an Irish-American home will be able to resist the nostalgic welcome of the living room installation.
The exhibition’s curator, Prof. Marion Casey, Clinical Professor of Irish Studies and Senior Archivist, Archives of Irish America at NYU, best described the exhibition to Irish America: “There has never been anything like this for Irish America. What a rare opportunity to showcase some of the rich archival treasures in New York City repositories that document our performance history in this country!...It is thrilling to be able to teach through an exhibition that reaches so many people in the world’s premier performing arts forum, Lincoln Center.”
“Ireland-America: The Ties That Bind” is open Monday – Saturday, now through August 13th.