The Gumption to Go it Alone

Artistic Licence: The gumption to go it alone
Sunday Business Post, 29 June 2014 by Nadine O’Regan

Last weekend at the Dalkey Book Festival, I was putting my things away after doing a public interview with a film director when a lovely lady, brightly made-up and perhaps in her 70s, approached me. She said she had very much enjoyed the interview with Lenny Abrahamson and mentioned that she herself had had a long career in TV and film production before retiring to spend more time doing exactly what she was doing on that glorious afternoon in Dalkey – listening to talks, reading books and investing her time in the arts.
We had a nice chat, but before she finished, she said that it upset her that although she had bought lots of tickets for the festival, she couldn’t find a friend to bring with her to the event. ”So I said I’d come by myself,” she finished brightly, with just a whiff of strain on her features. ”And I had a wonderful time.”
Her comment stayed with me, because it illustrated a simple truth about life: whether you’re 18 or 80, sometimes it’s just not easy going to things by yourself, even though going to things by yourself has become ever more likely. More of us are single than ever before. People get married later. Marriages themselves are more likely to dissolve. We live more solitary lives, communicating endlessly – by social media, text and Skype – but we are less physically present with those we love. We talk, text and chat, but we are alone while doing it.
Meanwhile, it seems like there are more communal things to do than ever. Festivals sprout like fields of waving dandelions. There are author talks and gigs and theatre performances. With so much choice, it’s not always easy to find a friend who shares your appreciation of, say, a niche industrial metal band in town for one gig, or an esoteric film about knitting at the IFI. And money, for many, is tight. So the question arises: should you say, ”Hang it all” and go by yourself?
I do it often – partly because of the demands of my job – but I wouldn’t deny that it takes a certain amount of gumption sometimes, to step outside the door on your own. I’ll go to gigs by myself. I’ll happily take in a play flying solo. But I could relate to the look of frustration in that woman’s eyes – as she talked about ringing friend after friend – but then finally decided to put on a smart outfit, nice make-up and simply go on her lonesome to the event she wanted to attend.
On Monday I found myself near a cinema with a few hours to kill, and I slipped in to watch the new film The Fault in Our Stars, an adaptation of a John Green book I love. Not only was I going to the cinema on my own, as it turned out, but the cinema was entirely, gobsmackingly, empty. Not a soul had arrived to watch the story of two cancer-afflicted teens – not a soul except me. While I briefly pondered if this was what it felt like to be Kim Kardashian, booking out a private cinema, I had a more pressing concern – the film is a notorious weepie, and I wondered about the sheer embarrassment of bawling my eyes out alone in the cinema. (Not a dry eye in the house, you say? I can confirm with 100 per cent authority that there wasn’t.)
But even still I couldn’t say that I was put off. I was really glad that I got to see The Fault in Our Stars. And I was also glad that the lady had enjoyed her experience of Dalkey Book Festival. The arts is a pleasure – and sometimes the price of that pleasure doesn’t involve just money. Have a little pluck and the rewards can be correspondingly great.


Nadine O’Regan is The Sunday Business Post’s Books and Arts Editor. She presents Songs In The Key Of Life on Dublin station TXFM (105.2FM) every Saturday from 11am.
E-mail:, Twitter: @nadineoregan

Orange is the New Black: set report from New York

Last year, I flew to New York for The Sunday Business Post to meet the cast members of Orange is the New Black and watch them film their final scenes in the first series — as the new second series goes out on Netflix, here’s a look back at what I found…

“Rolling!” The shout goes out around the set, and everyone quietens. In the cafeteria of Lichfield Prison, the inmates – dressed in their regulation prison garb of orange and beige jumpsuits – begin arguing.

Black girls, white girls, Latino girls: aggression cuts the air as they jab fingers at each other, clustered together tightly at the ugly table. Spittle flies as they make their points like battling rappers, each not giving an inch.

Even from a safe distance, listening in on headphones well behind the camera’s gaze, the air of intimidation is palpable – and impressive. We’re a long way from home, Toto. Even if, thankfully, we’re not actually in a federal prison, but on Stage E of the Kaufman Astoria studio in New York, the venue for the glossy new Netflix production Orange Is The New Black, a prison drama with heart and humour.

That we find ourselves here is testament to the muscle and might of Netflix, which extended its massively popular online streaming TV and film service to Ireland a mere 18 months ago, but already feels like an intrinsic part of our televisual furniture. Last January, its gripping political drama House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, arrived onto Netflix screens. Now it’s time for Orange Is The New Black, a 13-show series based on a true story and helmed by Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds.

Considering as we have flown the whole way to America, it would be awkward indeed if the production wasn’t much cop. Happily, Orange Is The New Black is a piece of whip-smart programming, fitting in somewhere between Breaking Bad and The L Word in the televisual spectrum, with rich characterisation, an underlying comedic tone and some of the best casting I’ve ever seen on a series.

Set largely in a women’s prison — a federal jail populated by women who have committed so-called paper crimes — the series is based on the real-life experiences of Piper Kerman, who found herself doing jail time in the US when her international drug smuggler ex-girlfriend revealed to police that Kerman had been a small part of her operation. Strip-searched, intimidated and subjected to racial segregation, the Waspish Kerman had to adapt fast to cope with prison life.

In the series, the role is played by Taylor Schilling, who wears a bright smile to greet me, but nonetheless looks physically drained – and no wonder, they’ve come to the end of a gruelling process of shooting the first season, one which depicts her as naked and vulnerable in both an emotional and physical sense.

“Jenji requires a lot of all of us,” Schilling explains. “To go there, physically, emotionally. All of these stories go to the heart of whatever got these girls into prison. It goes to the heart of who they really are, and I don’t know if that’s ever really comfortable, as a human being.”

One of the first scenes in Orange Is The New Black shows Schilling in the shower, being soaped down by her then-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon). It’s the first of several graphic, Sapphic scenes, which make a clear statement about the no-holds-barred ethos of the show.

Continue reading

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt — a review

Some months ago, a university lecturer in Toronto gained fleeting notoriety when he revealed that he refused to teach novels penned by female novelists, on the grounds that they were simply not as good as books by men. “I’m not interested in teaching books by women,” Professor David Gilmour said in an interview, provoking a firestorm of controversy. “What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. Real guy-guys.”
To which one can only respond: poor David Gilmour. Because although he might be guilty of sexism, he’s also missing out on some extraordinary books by women in recent times, the latest of which comes from the pen of Donna Tartt. The American author first found fame in the early 1990s, when she published The Secret History, a smartly captivating literary thriller that was eight years in the writing and sold more than five million copies worldwide. A dry spell followed, and then an uneven novel, 2002’s The Little Friend (revealingly, its working title was Tribulation). A sprawling suspense epic that contained much fine writing, it was hampered by the uneasy sense of an author who had many gifts, but lacked the driving force of a good story.
You’d have to feel sorry for the publishing house which shelled out a million dollars for it. The book they were really waiting on was this one, The Goldfinch, a near-800-page doorstopper which is an enthralling, dazzling delight and by some distance the best book I have read this year.
The title of the book refers to the painting by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, who died aged 32 in 1654, when the gunpowder arsenal in Delft exploded, turning sections of the city to ruins. That same year, Fabritius had painted The Goldfinch, a small but perfectly formed portrait of the pet bird, which is considered to be a masterpiece.
In the novel, The Goldfinch hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it proves to be the wire that threads through this masterfully penned tale, binding the pages and the characters together. ”The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like the odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment.” That’s the view of Theo Decker, the lead character-and narrator of the novel-whose troubled, peripatetic and mercurial life unspools before us in feverishly vivid, cinematic prose.
The story begins one day when Theo comes with his single mother to the Metropolitan Museum. With his mother having flitted off to view another painting, Theo is standing before The Goldfinch when a terrorist bomb explodes-and his delicate, elegant mother is killed in the blast, changing his life forever.
Much of this book is devoted to a subtle, but absolutely convincing, portrait of grief. Theo is just 13 years old when his entire world is snatched from him. His mother was special: caring, artsy and beloved by everyone. Her loss cannot be borne-New York is impossible without her; indeed, his whole life is impossible without her.
But Theo must continue, and he is an unusual fellow: deeply artistic, a scholarship kid, one who – although reeling from shock in the moments after the terrorist blast-still has the mental fortitude to obey a dying bystander’s instructions to grab The Goldfinch from the wall and save it. No one notices the small boy fleeing home with the small painting, and Theo’s clandestine ownership of The Goldfinch begins, wrapped in newspapers, hidden in suitcases, and increasingly the only constant in his life.
When the social workers step in, Theo gets shunted from home to home. He stays with the wealthy Barbours on Fifth Avenue, before his father (a treacherous figure) appears with dubious motives to bring him to Vegas, where Theo douses himself in alcohol alongside his charismatic new friend Boris, whose own father is a child-beater.
Late in the narrative, when Theo is an adult, Boris will offer up his interpretation of those blurry days. ”I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It’s different.” But for most of the book, we can only see through Theo’s eyes-and we feel deeply his alienation, his despair, his terror of becoming homeless and his desire to lose himself in the prescription drugs and illegal opiates he finds about his father’s house.
Theo is also his father’s child in more ways than we might expect. His morality code has been warped, and he behaves in ways we can understand, but not approve of. A murkiness rests in his depths, and will shape the book’s suspenseful closing movements.
Tartt draws her characters with a lively, finely tuned artistry, offering even minor characters Shakespearean-sized arcs. Theo’s closest ally in New York is his friend Hobie, an antiques furniture restorer-and subsequent teacher to Theo-who is described as ”haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father liked to drink”. Hobie’s relationship with Theo will form an important axis in the book, as will that of another of his carers: Mrs Barbour, from a society family, and ”so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood”.
One of Tartt’s largest gifts to her reader is her exhilaratingly brilliant use of language. She is not self-consciously virtuoso in this regard-you won’t find yourself scrambling for the dictionary every two minutes. But she is athletically precise: horses ”blow and nicker”, rosewood has a ”flowery, amber-resin smell”, the city gets ”prinked up” for Christmas.
There’s comfort in her language; it’s a Dickensian world so well imagined that, like Goldilocks, you can see yourself eating their food, sitting in their chairs and enjoying their beds. Although the sheer length of the novel might seem like a stretch, by the 500-page mark I was trying to read The Goldfinch more slowly, to savour every drop of the honeyed prose. If you only buy one novel this year, make it this one; it is a magisterial triumph.

Good news department

This coming Friday night, I’ll be gently setting three alarm clocks by my pillow and bracing myself for the earliest working day start I’ve had in quite some time.

On Saturday morning, I’m beginning a brand new show with the mighty Phantom 105.2, Dublin’s awesome indie-rock station. After seven brilliant years, The Kiosk, my old show, finally has no more tickets to sell. Instead The Breakfast Club will take its place, a new Saturday morning show in which I’ll be bringing you three hours of chat, tunes and excellent contributions from a roving bunch of music-heads, film buffs and theatre goers.

If The Kiosk sometimes bulged at the seams with its content, The Breakfast Club will have much more space — I’m looking forward to playing more of the music I love, and bringing in lots of deadly musicians, authors, artists and reviewers.

There is a certain amount of sadness with bringing one show to an end, even when it is to make way for a new one. Over The Kiosk’s seven-year duration, guests including Kate Bush, Quentin Tarantino and Arcade Fire paid visits to the show, and I’ve had some of the best times with brilliant reviewers and the great team who were part of the show over the years, including Derek Byrne, Sarah Anne Murphy, Johnnie Craig, Orla Ormond and — although he was never an official Kioskian — Cathal Funge, who has saved my radio bacon more times than I can count.

The Kiosk is a little part of my personal history by this point, a constant in my life when sometimes all else was in turmoil. When my Dad was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, I would do The Kiosk on a Saturday morning, with my little bag in tow, and then get the train to Cork and the bus to Skibbereen to spend time with him. Although the schedule, taking in my weekday newspaper job as well, was madness, the discipline of radio was a tremendous relief and a way to take my mind off things.

One of my favourite stories about my Dad — who passed away in 2009 — connects to the show. As my family tells it, one day, back when I had recently started presenting the show, Dad came to Dublin. At this time, my family didn’t have the option of listening to Phantom online at home, so no one back in Cork had heard the show. Always my proudest supporter, Dad arrived into the Westbury hotel, one of Dublin’s swankiest hotels, and informed the doorman that he was in need of a radio.

When the doorman explained that unfortunately this was something that they couldn’t supply — the Westbury instead prefer to have someone play on a grand piano — Dad was momentarily confounded. But he refused to be deterred. He turned on his heel and moved on to what I think was then known as Bus-stop Cafe on Grafton Street, a little coffee shop upstairs from a newsagent. There the usual collection of Dublin dwellers were enjoying their Saturday morning, listening to the radio (probably that Finucane lady, who’s apparently quite popular) and drinking their coffee. My father informed the waitress that the radio station must be changed immediately, because his daughter was on air right now, and he and his family (he had my mother and brother in tow) would like to listen to the show.

And so, without further delay, the entire coffee shop suddenly got to listen to The Kiosk — and listen rather intently, I would wager, as my Dad wouldn’t have stood for the sound to have been down low. As my brother drily comments of the morning they had, “I told him he’d better order a bloody big breakfast.”

The Breakfast Club kicks off at 8am this coming Saturday morning, with Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen, writer/musician Cait O’Riordan, and reviewers Eamon Sweeney and Cailan O’Connell. I hope — whether you’re still up from the night before or getting up with the lark (and the kids) — you can join us.

Online self-publishing: my Biz Post column (20th Jan, 2013)

What does it take to become a success in the world of online self-publishing? Is there a particular kind of novel that is more likely to do well in an electronic format? And if there is, how would one go about writing such a book?

These are the kinds of questions that you don’t find authors and publishers debating much yet, but perhaps they should. Glance around your nearest bookshop or, and you’ll find a million manuals that explain how to create a novel, using chapter headings such as ‘Learning Your Craft’ and ‘Ten Rules for Good Time Management’. But few of these manuals discuss the importance of the space into which a novel is delivered, and what it means for the authors who are publishing now.

Make no mistake about it: publishing online is a totally different proposition from doing it on plain old paper. Think of the strain on the eyes of reading in an ebook format, for example. Think of the harried reader who buys a Kindle to read on crowded commutes. Think of the modern world, in which a million types of entertainment compete for our attention. And think of who is succeeding in this new world, and why.

Many self-published books which began life in an electronic format have now succeeded beyond the authors’ wildest expectations. Take the eyebrow-raising Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, for example; or new bestseller Wool by Hugh Howey, which is about to be turned into a big-budget Ridley Scott film; or Switched, the debut novel in the million-plus selling Trylle Trilogy by the 20-something Amanda Hocking.

What do these books have in common besides their humble origins? Actually, quite a lot. All the authors in question write within specific genres: S&M (EL James); dystopian fantasy (Howey) and trolls (Hocking). They are suspenseful and attention-grabbing, using blunt, effective (and sometimes very poorly rendered) prose to keep and hold readers. They are short, but allow for the possibility of sequels. They lack profound messages. “My goal was to keep people reading,” Hocking has said. “They have to ignore everything else and read the book.”

In his latest book, How Music Works, David Byrne talks about the importance of context in the area of music. The Talking Heads founder says that the type of music we make is vastly influenced by the space into which that music is delivered: so we get drums in a tribal space, which carry well over distance, and plaintive choir singing in a high-ceilinged church. At CBGB, for example, the small room lent itself well to the performance of punk rock – a sound which would have seemed ridiculous if performed in a church. The Ramones and Mozart both understood intrinsically what would work for their particular type of arena. They knew that environment plays a huge role in shaping the music.

For this new type of publishing space, it should be obvious that we need a new kind of book: one that grabs the attention fast, doesn’t bother with fancy language, relies on a clever idea and can be made into a series of books incredibly easily. Readers who choose to read in electronic formats will naturally want a different kind of prose. And the world of writers will have to learn to provide for that. So maybe it’s time for those self-help manual authors to take a leaf out of a new book – and begin to think about what it means to be a successful author in today’s world of e-publishing. After all, increasingly, it’s where the big bucks lie.


Media Shock (Artistic Licence, 19/8 Business Post)

One of the most fun things about science fiction — in books and in movies — is getting to see writers attempt to predict the future. Flying skateboards in Back to the Future; fingernails that changed colour when touched in Total Recall, the 1990 version; fridges that change to become writeable screens in the new Total Recall, which premiered in Dublin on Tuesday. Such acts are delicate brushstrokes across the sky — illustrations of new ways of being. Watching such films; reading such books, you marvel at the writers’ capacity for invention, and wonder how much of their art will become true creations in time (I’m still waiting hopefully on the hoverboards).
But in the midst of all that, you also wish someone, somewhere, might have predicted the existence of a thing called the internet. Because then, at least, people in the media and creative arts might have had a shot at preparing for the upheaval to come. Across the spectrum — in radio, print and television — every management team has a `plan’ in place to `cope’ with the internet. Every model is being explored: subscription; limited access; all-you-can-eat access. But no one — with the possible exception of the Daily Mail and its sidebar of shame — has figured out how to stop the internet cannibalising its produce, like a rabid, frothing dog with snapping jaws.
In the most recent Irish readership figures, a total of 59 per cent of people (2,118,000) read a Sunday newspaper — a figure that represented a stark decline of 8 per cent compared to the previous year. In the United States, newspaper circulation in the first half of the year has dropped even further, by almost 10 per cent. Quoting a publisher on the collapse, the New York Times said, “When the aeroplane suddenly drops 10,000 feet and it doesn’t crash, you still end up with your heart in your stomach. Those are very, very bad numbers.” And this is far from the first year of the plummet.
It seems funny now, to think I used to just feel sorry for the musicians. In Tower Records, where I had lunch with a music journalist friend recently, he noted gloomily that there were more people in the coffee shop area than the rest of the entire store. It wasn’t just the paid-for CDs that seemed antique. I felt like an old souvenir from the past too. Who needs a critic or radio broadcaster to sort out the wheat from the chaff, after all, when any interested party can go online and make up their own minds? People can download music, get films, even read whole novels for free on the net. Thinking on it, this little dinosaur wanted to curl up next to the old format CDs and have a little sniffle.
So far, optimism has been key to media predictions for years to come. The presumption is that the freefall must stop. Why? Because it has to, right? But are we just victims of our own positivism? In Total Recall, there’s a scene in which Colin Farrell as Quaid, strapped into his seat, reads a book as his train travels right through the earth’s core. When zero gravity hits, the book spins out of Quaid’s hands. The look of that book — floating in space — felt to me like the media in its current state. We have hit zero gravity, and everyone is grabbing onto anything for support. But we haven’t been shot out the other side yet. So we don’t know where we’re going to fall. We just know that we’re falling.

A Shame We Must All Bear (my Artistic Licence column on Savita, Sunday Business Post, 18/11/12)

It’s hard to articulate the feelings of frustration, rage and helplessness that come from hearing about the death of a young woman in an Irish hospital of septicaemia after a miscarriage. After being told the baby would not survive, the woman’s husband said doctors refused requests for a medical termination.

It’s hard to properly describe, too, the lingering sense that perhaps blood is on our hands. We are the people who allow our public representatives to push abortion legislation down the political agenda. We are the people; we make the laws. Did a young Indian woman have to die in a Galway hospital, reportedly told that this was a “Catholic country”, before we got upset enough to do something? Isn’t a refusal to try harder – to get angry enough to effect political change – also, in its own way, a tacit consent?

‘Shame’ ran the headline of one placard carried by a protester outside the Dáil on Wednesday night. The New York Times, the London Independent, Al Jazeera: media outlets in countries around the world told the story of what happened – and they judged us for the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who arrived into a Galway hospital pregnant one week, and was carried out of it the next, to her funeral. They were correct to do so. In our inertia, we are all complicit.

Last month, Time magazine carried a portrait of Enda Kenny, thoughtful and erudite-looking, on its cover. The Last Action Hero for Ireland, the Green Saviour. In the accompanying interview, Kenny spoke of how now was not the time for abortion legislation.

“I think that this issue is not of priority for government now,” he said, confident he was reflecting the views of his backward-facing Emerald Isle.

And you wonder: were we just better at protesting in the 1970s and 1980s? Remember those images of Nell McCafferty on the contraceptive train? Remember those 1980s photographs of celebrities at pro-choice movements? Have we become so overwhelmed by mortgage stress, so distracted by our iPhones, so enthralled by dancing kittens on YouTube, that we can’t focus on anything of worth? Are we – in our heart of hearts – sometimes a little embarrassed about being gauche enough to be seen waving a flag at a protest march and standing up for what we believe in?

Ordinarily, this column is intended to discuss arts and cultural issues, about anything from Big Brother to the Rolling Stones. But culture, in its widest form, is about the structure inside which we exist today. It includes gay rights and women’s rights. And it is the trampoline that is now propelling the tragic story of Savita skywards.

News of her death bounced from a person with ten followers on Twitter to a person with 10,000. Reading the outpourings of compassion for Savita, I saw urgent tweets being sent to feminist writers including Naomi Wolf and Caitlin Moran, asking them to make the story known to their huge audiences. People were agitating, forming protests in Dublin, London and further afield. Writing 20,000 emails of protest to their TDs, mobilised by bloggers and tweeters.

Will it help effect change? None of it will bring a young woman back. But we have to try to make our voices heard.

The BBC’s Mark Simpson was one of several reporters who interviewed Savita’s husband last week. Asked by Simpson if he felt his wife would be alive if she could have had an abortion, he answered simply: “Of course. No doubt.”

Gabriel Byrne: The Gathering (Artistic Licence, Business Post, Nov 11th)

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Gabriel Byrne’s recent comments on the Gathering.

As has been well documented by now, the actor told Today FM presenter Matt Cooper on The Last Word, on location in New York, that he believes the efforts to bring American people back to Ireland represented nothing more than a scam.

“Most people [in Ireland] don’t give a shit about the diaspora, except to shake them down for a few quid,” Byrne said. “People are sick to death of being asked to help out in what they regard as a scam.”

From a lesser commentator, such remarks would be pushed out of the room like so many cobwebs cast aside by the firm, swishing broom of the media. But Byrne’s opinions carry weight – for two years, he acted as Ireland’s unpaid cultural ambassador. When I interviewed him in New York in 2011 about his role, he was miserable, snuffling from a cold. But he still carried out his media duties; still performed that evening at the Museum of Modern Art, where he was launching the Irish film retrospective he had personally curated; still charmed the Americans, many of whom who had arrived at the event – as one couple told me – purely to see him in the flesh.

Byrne put himself out for years on our behalf, and I have no reason to think he did it for any other cause than to help get Ireland back on its feet. But it’s difficult to understand the logic of his comments now, coming as they do from a man who not only thoroughly understands the nature of artifice – he’s an actor after all – but has long been complicit in such tourist-related artifice himself. Is the Gathering a tourist initiative designed to get people to spend money in Ireland? Yes. Is it any different – less substantial, more essentially fake – than the Irish cultural awareness activities that Byrne himself participated in when he was ambassador? Not really, no.

Byrne’s main point seems to be that we’re codding the Americans, being condescending to them, when really we don’t care about them at all. But when I think back to my time in America in 2011 – when I was on a trip, funded by Culture Ireland, designed to show the Irish media how tax-payers’ money was being spent – so much of what I saw from the Culture Ireland programme belonged to the realm of artifice.

The film Byrne chose to open his Irish film retrospective with, for example, was The Quiet Man, the John Ford flick legendary for pandering to terrible Irish stereotypes. The following day, we were brought to the exhibition The Ties That Bind, where we saw garish Irish dancing dresses in glass displays and old parade footage, but very little, other than some tagged-on U2 footage, that represented a more recognisable definition of Ireland.

Were such efforts any less contrived than the Gathering? Any less condescending? Culture Ireland was pandering to Americans, showing them shamrocks and shillelaghs in an effort to appeal to their sense of nostalgia. Don’t tell me that wasn’t a “scam” too.

The best comment on the subject this week came from Terry Wogan. When asked whether the Gathering was a “tourism wheeze”, the veteran presenter said: “Of course it is. It is an attempt to bring more people to Ireland to spend their money and enjoy themselves.” Simple as that. Byrne might shrug off the comparison, but he has made use of a very similar technique. It’s the pot calling the kettle black.


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.’