Culture Vultures? How Ireland spent its cash trying to bring Americans to these shores

In the wake of Gabriel Byrne’s negative comments on the Gathering — he called the Irish initiative to bring tourists to Ireland in 2013 a “scam” — I thought I’d put up an archive piece from summer 2011, when I went to America on a trip, funded by Culture Ireland, which was designed to show the Irish media (and, by extension, the Irish tax-payer) how the vast sums that had been put at the organisation’s disposal were being used to raise awareness of Ireland in America. Byrne is also interviewed in the piece — he was at the time Ireland’s cultural ambassador. The article was published as The Sunday Business Post’s cover story for the magazine in July, 2011.


The great Irish invasion
Cultural agency Imagine Ireland has been entrusted with the task of promoting this country and its creative arts to the widest possible American audience. But is this necessarily the smartest way of selling us abroad?
Words: Nadine O’Regan

Janet loves going to Ireland on her holidays. As the runway lights dip behind us, and we ease upwards into the Dublin air to begin our long journey to New York, the American retiree with the gentle smile sitting beside me can’t help but give a wistful sigh.
“We had a wonderful time,” she says, gesturing to her husband David, who is seated in the row beside us. “We were here for the Skellig Michael traditional festival in Kerry. We didn’t eat out much — the restaurants are so expensive — but we saw some great musicians. It’s our fifth time in Ireland. We’ll definitely come back again.”
Janet and David are real people but, if they didn’t exist, the Irish government would do its damnedest to try to invent them. They are textbook examples of a new type of tourist the Irish government is seeking to attract to our shores: those who come to our country because of the richness and variety of our arts and cultural scene.
Each year since 2007, €4 million has been given to Culture Ireland, the state agency that promotes Irish arts worldwide. This year Imagine Ireland, a culture initiative intended to promote Irish culture in America, has also been given a separate one-off grant of a further €4 million.
Imagine Ireland began its work in January. Over the course of the year, more than 1,000 musicians, writers, actors, artists and arts producers from Ireland will take part in events across 40 American states.
They have been sent to the US to weave a powerful spell on our behalf; to raise awareness, create tourism and, with our self-esteem so wounded in the wake of the recession — indirectly restore to our own country a sense of pride.
But is this the kind of initiative the Irish government should be engaged in, when we have patients lying on trolleys in hospital corridors and a country on financial life support? How many Irish taxpayers realise how their money is being spent? And if we can agree that this money should be spent on promoting Irish culture, then what is the best way to spend it?
When I flew to New York in May to take in some of the events, it was clear from the outset that the pressure would be on Culture Ireland to show off its best wares. Culture Ireland received its funding from the previous government; it now needs to show the current government, and the wider public, that it’s making good use of the hefty funds that have been allocated to them.
With that in mind, a heady programme of events over four days was promised. We would take in a Martin McDonagh play in Philadelphia, an Irish film retrospective in New York and a site-specific promenade piece in Washington, as well as art exhibitions, book launches and more.
The exhausting scope of the programme was matched only by the ambition, passion and optimism of those working behind the scenes to create the events.
“There are 36 million people who have told a census worker in the United States that they connect to Ireland in some way,” says Aidan Connolly, executive director of the Irish Arts Center, located just down the road from where Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is filmed, on West 51st Street. “The Irish brand punches far above its weight culturally.”
Optimism is a key word around these parts — that, and a belief in the good old-fashioned notion of rolling up your sleeves and putting your nose to the grindstone. Gabriel Byrne is struggling with a cold in SoHo, but he’s not about to let that put a halt to his stride.
Byrne was appointed Ireland’s first cultural ambassador last year. It’s a non-paying role which the actor has embraced with gusto, skilfully using his name to open doors and forge connections on behalf of Culture Ireland, flying the flag with the charisma and charm that has made him a star here and in the US, particularly for the HBO series In Treatment.
“In real economic terms, it would be ridiculous to say that investment in Irish arts and culture abroad is going to solve the Irish economic problem,” Byrne says. “But the British treasury, because of cultural tourism, brings in €22 billion a year — that’s somebody who has read a book, gone to a play.
“U2 bring people to Ireland. People say: `Where’s Bono’s hotel?’ There’s a predictable narrative in the American audience that the Irish story is Oscar Wilde, Yeats, James Joyce and U2, but there’s a new voice coming through that needs to be heard.”
“With the collapse of the financial structure and the moral guidelines represented by the Church, you have a country whose self-esteem was devastated. I believe arts and culture can help empower us. We have to re-evaluate what we have to offer.”
Byrne has been instrumental in organising and curating an Irish film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Later that evening, to a receptive audience, the 1950s John Ford film The Quiet Man will officially launch the series, which will go on to include In the Name Of The Father, Hunger, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, The Butcher Boy, and Kisses, Lance Daly’s bittersweet film about two scruffy teenagers in a part of Dublin that never saw the Celtic Tiger.
“Gabriel started off with a 500-strong list — it was a bit terrifying,” says Sarah Glennie, director of the Irish Film Institute, which has been working with Moma to deliver the project, and has also begun planning a new project with the museum for 2012.
“We agreed that what we didn’t want to do was a survey of Irish films. This is not the greatest hits — this is very much a polemic, and a personal polemic to Gabriel, of this thorny issue of how Ireland represents itself. It’s not a programme about filling the gaps. The series should be seen as a whole.”
After the screening of The Quiet Man, one American couple admit that the reason for them to attend was not so much to take in the film, but to see Byrne afterwards at a post-film discussion. “My wife read that the programme was going to be followed by a discussion with Gabriel Byrne,” laughs Larry, a New Yorker. “She booked the tickets a week ago.”
Big names and landmark films can connect to an American audience — but so too can exciting new work from Irish voices. The following day, we journey to Philadelphia for Druid’s excellent production of the London-Irish Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, the blackly comic story of Cripple Billy and what happens when his fellow islanders on Inishmaan in 1934 discover that a Hollywood film is about to be made on the neighbouring island of Inishmore.
If The Quiet Man’s audience was mostly older, moneyed and with strong connections to Ireland, the audience for The Cripple of Inishmaan is noticeably more diverse. Young and old range around the healthily attended, 950-seater Annenberg Center auditorium — and the feedback afterwards is unquestionably enthusiastic.
“Martin McDonagh is my speciality in my master’s thesis,” says Nelson, an American student in the audience who has arrived to watch the performance with four of his friends. “I love him and I’m going to Ireland for the first time this summer. I’ve heard nothing but awesome things about Ireland from people who have gone.”
Druid calculates that, by the end of this five-month tour of the US, 47,000 people will have seen the show.
“Sometimes, there are audible shocks in the audience,” says Dermot Crowley, who plays JohnnyPateenMike, the codger who would rather like to kill his mother. “The way I speak to my mother or the way she speaks to me — Martin McDonagh has taken traditional Irish drama, shaken it by the scruff of the neck and made it hugely entertaining. He’s one of a line of new Irish playwrights, like Conor McPherson and Enda Walsh, who have done that.”
It would be easy to greet such comments with a sniff of cynicism — after all, many of the people interviewed have a vested interest in being positive. But you can’t doubt the truth of Crowley’s words — not when you look at the international garlands for Druid’s work — or the reviews Irish playwrights are chalking up in venerable publications like the New York Times.
“Irish playwrights have made my life as a reviewer more exciting in recent years,” Ben Brantley, chief theatre critic of the New York Times, tells me in an e-mail. “There’s an originality of language — and an infatuation with words themselves — that’s irresistible in the works of McPherson, Walsh and McDonagh.
“What these men create is less a sense of place than a state of mind [although it’s obviously born of an idea of place]. If you see — or for that matter, if you read — any of their plays anywhere, you’re there, in the Ireland that they’ve summoned into being. The Ireland of Walsh, in particular, exists more within his characters’ heads than outside of them.”
Does he believe the Irish government is being smart by promoting Irish culture in America? Or will such hopes of attracting tourism come to nothing?
“I’m not sure that their writing would send people to Mother Ireland herself,” Brantley writes. “Still, I suppose there might be a hope that the country that inspired those writers might be a place to absorb their language and point of view.
“Of course, if it were McDonagh’s Ireland I were visiting, a land of homicidal villagers, I would feel I’d have to tread very carefully.”
When asked for his take, New York playwright Christopher Shinn doesn’t know anything about Culture Ireland, but he’s in no doubt about whose star is on the rise. “The writer I have heard the most about in the last few years from Ireland is Enda Walsh,” he tells me. “Obviously we all know about Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, but Enda has been getting the most attention lately. Has Culture Ireland been promoting his work?”
They have. Plays like Walsh’s Penelope have been performed across the US as part of the Culture Ireland initiative. The playwright is also busy working on an off-Broadway adaptation of John Carney’s Oscar-winning indie musical film Once, which is already generating a lot of excitement Stateside.
“I did an interview with American Theatre Magazine,” Walsh says, over a cup of coffee in Dublin. “They were knocked out that there was such a thing as Culture Ireland. They were like: `That’s incredible’.
“They thought it showed extraordinary initiative that a government would go: `You know what we do well? Culture.’ We are down on our fucking knees. But what’s positive about this country is that we can make shit. Let’s go to America and show them what we can do.
“The Irish government is very wise to push the whole cultural thing. I think it’s really good from a business point of view. It shows that we’re evolving and cultural and modern.”
There are plenty of reasons why young, exciting companies like Google and Facebook would choose Dublin as their European headquarters — chief among them the corporation tax rate and the educated work force — but Noel Kilkenny, Ireland’s consul general in New York, believes we shouldn’t discount the notion that the arts plays a role in their decision-making process.
“For some corporations, when you strip it all down and there is nothing to play for between two locations, it can come down to something as simple and critical as: `Is this an environment in which we want our top executives to work?’ ” Kilkenny says.
“Apart from the schools element, is there a cultural environment in a broader sense — in the sense that you’ll be asking your top executives to move and set up in a country that has a cultural scene.”
But beneath the surface, there’s a lurking fear that Culture Ireland may be forced, at times, to show a romanticised version of Ireland, an Ireland that America wants to see — as opposed to the Ireland that exists.
“It’s vital that we don’t play the lepra-corny card,” says New York-based Irish author Colum McCann, who has helped Culture Ireland organise a number of events.
Kilkenny points to the airing of the play Terminus by Mark O’Rowe as an example of the edgier works promoted by Culture Ireland, but there was disappointment voiced by several Irish attendees that The Quiet Man — a 1950s film directed by an American — was chosen to kick off the Moma retrospective. Beautifully made, complex and intriguing as The Quiet Man is, it’s hardly a signifier for modern-day Ireland, or a remotely accurate representation of 1950s Ireland.
“There’s a new Irish voice coming through,” says Gabriel Byrne. “But sometimes amongst the audiences here, it’s a voice that they don’t want to hear. They want to see The Quiet Man and read certain books that reinforce a somewhat simplistic notion of what it means to be Irish.
“I think The Quiet Man is a more subversive film than it seems,” Byrne adds. “Ford was an outsider with a very romantic view, and he was a myth-maker. He mythologised Ireland in ways that have been helpful, and ways that have been destructive.”
In his less guarded moments, Byrne can be surprisingly negative when he talks about how Americans view Ireland. “I don’t think most American people know or care what’s going on in Ireland. In an interview I did this morning, three times in the interview the word `alcoholic’ was mentioned, `shamrock’ was mentioned. You get sick of it.”
If truth be told, the Irish exhibition The Ties That Bind, which is currently running at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, won’t help to rid us of the shamrocks and shillelaghs perception any time soon.
It was a little dispiriting, as an Irish person, to roam around the venue looking at garish Irish dancing dresses in glass displays and old parade footage, but not seeing much other than some tagged-on U2 footage that represented a more recent, recognisable definition of Ireland.
But then, is this exhibition really for an Irish person, or for an American-Irish person who wants to fondly reminisce in a reconstruction of a 1960s Irish-American living room? You can’t argue with the footfall — 4,000 people walked through the exhibition in the first two months of its opening. Historical nostalgia is part of what we are too, and a part of us that we’ve made a lot of money from flogging. Still, with that in mind, it’s a relief to know that Culture Ireland have been instrumental in sending young, deeply modern writers like Paul Murray (Skippy Dies) and Kevin Power (Bad Day In Blackrock) to America for readings.
Both writers showcase an Ireland that’s neither romantic nor sanitised. And the truth contained in their fiction is resonating with international audiences — Time Magazine named Murray’s book as one of its top ten reads of the year.
Likewise, Swampoodle — an avant-garde work performed in the massive, abandoned Uline Arena in Washington — is anything but safe or conventional. Uline Arena is situated in an old Irish-American neighbourhood, and once hosted the Beatles’ first American concert.
Now it’s a cavernous, dilapidated space reeking of urine. Solas Nua and the Performance Corporation make use of it to tell the story of the area — albeit in a nutty, shouty way, complete with wigs, swimming costumes and megaphones.
Not all the hip young American attendees love it (“I’m not feeling this,” sighs one girl to her boyfriend) but, afterwards, many say they were intrigued and inspired by the uniqueness of the show.
So, six months into the Imagine Ireland programme, is it working? How do you measure its impact?
“Some measurements are tangible, some are intangible,” says Eugene Downes, chief executive of Culture Ireland. “If you have a rave review by Ben Brantley for the latest Enda Walsh play, how do you put a cash value on that? Tracking the number of people who read, say, Skippy Dies — after one of Paul Murray’s readings across the States — who knows what that will lead to in terms of what other books they’ll pick up, or their decision to visit Ireland in a year’s time.
“There’s an element of trust and common sense that if you can connect in a compelling way to the United States, that will bring about an interest in Ireland.”
Common sense. Trust. These are difficult concepts for the Irish public to have much credence in when the country is in financial freefall. The government which committed this money to Culture Ireland has itself left the building, and in times to come, the current administration may not be so willing to allow the organisation to retain its funding at its current level.
“I have to say, Mary Hanafin really got it,” says Byrne, a touch wistfully. “She got the bigger picture, and she understood that it wasn’t a question of just playing to your home team. It was about thinking globally and outside the box.”
Is it fair to say that he and Culture Ireland are going to have a tougher time with this government? “I think that Enda Kenny is willing to listen to new ideas and new ways of defining ourselves abroad,” Byrne says.
“Like everyone else, I feel betrayed [in relation to Ireland’s economic situation]. I feel anger. I feel a certain amount of pessimism. But I believe that, by encouraging arts and culture, we can begin to rebuild a spiritual sense of ourselves. My recommendation to Enda Kenny is that they establish a full-time cultural office in New York, because ultimately it will benefit the country economically.”
“I would love for us to develop a policy through to 2016,” says Colum McCann. “We should go to Britain, New Zealand and Australia with the same project, with a long-term view. We have to look at this as something that the government has rightly funded and should continue to fund. It is important.”
You’ve got to have faith, in other words — the same faith writers have when they begin a new novel, or musicians when they start recording an album. A few weeks after I return to Dublin, Colum McCann is ushered into the limelight once more when he wins the world’s most lucrative fiction prize, the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, for his novel Let The Great World Spin.
At a glittering ceremony in the Mansion House, an emotional McCann talks about James Joyce, about his teachers in Clonkeen College and St Brigid’s National School, and about the support and enlightenment that literature offers.
“Perhaps literature doesn’t cure anything,” he says. “But it is, at least on its deepest level, an inner need that is designed to refuse despair. Is that enough? It is yes. I believe in the power of the story.’

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