Leprechaun hats or vampire festivals: The mixed message of Ireland abroad

Promotion of Irish artists hampered by tensions between cultural diplomacy and opaque State patronage

Above the imposing steeple of Berlin’s Zwingli church, a blood moon greets crowds gathering for the 100th birthday party of an undead legend: Nosferatu.

A century ago this landmark vampire movie terrified audiences worldwide – and triggered legal action as an unlicensed German adaptation of Irish author Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula.

This evening, however, the tables have been turned and the long-nailed German vampire has become a poster boy for Irish cultural diplomacy.

The pews are packed, the lights fade and the expressionist silent film crackles to life. From their seats before the altar, a live improvised electronic score is created by Cork-born Linda and Irene Buckley in collaboration with Berlin-based musician Gudrun Gut.


Their minimal, complex music – laptops, flute and vocals – gets under your skin and collapses a century-wide gap between image and viewer. This evening’s audience, many say after, feel a menace similar to what audiences must have felt in 1922.

The total silence of the German-Irish audience during the screening, and huge applause after, suggests the evening’s mission – to close historical, cultural and geographical gaps – has been successful.

“There was an energy playing with Gudrun, the kind of music people tell me doesn’t happen in Berlin as much any more,” said Linda Buckley.

The evening was the brainchild of Candice Gordon, a singer-songwriter who became the cultural officer at the Irish Embassy in Berlin two years ago.

She spotted the Nosferatu anniversary as an interesting cultural bridge between Germany and Ireland, and the live performance as a unique way to celebrate that.

“This is of the time, of the moment,” said Gordon. “We’re showing something historically significant but in a totally new light.”

Despite pandemic restrictions, Gordon’s engagement in the last two years has cast new light on what Irish cultural representation can be worldwide.

The Nosferatu screening ended a weeklong German-Irish Vampire Festival in Berlin, the first, with screenings and talks that attracted an engaged and curious young audience. It was about as far as you can get from your usual Bloomsday burgundy-and-Gorgonzola crowd.

“My approach is to leverage the popularity of one thing to enhance other aspects of Irish culture, to set a foot in the door and enrich things by opening the door further,” said Gordon. “If I think something is interesting, different and unusual, then it is worth doing. Not to say that the usual and expected hasn’t a place as well.”

That much was clear at the end of August when Ireland was the guest country at the Bürgerfest (Citizens’ Festival) garden party of German president Frank Walter-Steinmeier.Paris’ Centre Culturel Irlandais demonstrates a distinctly Irish brand of soft diplomacy

With just 10 weeks’ lead time, Irish diplomats and state agency representatives pulled together to create a two-day programme for guests – ordinary Germans, key politicians and leading managers – flagging Irish tourism, food and culture.

Among the latter’s more eye-catching and popular elements were outsize green leprechaun hats (€1,484) and a touring production of what president Steinmeier dutifully referred to in his speech as “Riverdance: Das Original.”

Still popular as its 30th birthday approaches, a Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman in Dublin told The Irish Times flying the Riverdance troupe cost the taxpayer €100,482.75. Dancing diplomacy, it seems, doesn’t come cheap.

Irish Ambassador Nicholas O’Brien says that catering for all tastes is part of the job.

“Many Germans have a very romantic vision of Ireland, we have to help them with that by reaching different segments of the population,” said the ambassador. “We could have handed out Visit Ireland brochures but there was an intrinsic value in doing the Bürgerfest [by] putting something into the subconscious, so they see the cultural value as well.”

O’Brien describes cultural diplomacy as communicating the richness of a culture to increase the perception of a country. It is mainly, though not exclusively, “a means to an end, a boost to economic activity and political relationships”.

Irish officials insist that the new cultural officers – regardless of who is paying their salary – have consistent roles and reporting structures

This thinking was front and centre in 2018 when, in the post-Brexit fallout, the Irish Embassy in Berlin made the case for Ireland to embrace a “wider, deeper” footprint in Germany on all fronts: political, economic and cultural.

One of its ideas – a dedicated cultural officer for Germany, ideally from the arts world – was so popular that similar roles have been created in London, New York, Los Angeles and Beijing – with Paris and Latin America to follow.

All are limited contract, non-diplomatic posts working out of Irish embassies and consulates. While some posts, such as Berlin and Beijing, are funded entirely by the DFA, other officers’ salaries are financed in a 50:50 split with Culture Ireland (CI), itself at home in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.

These new officers serve two masters with different views on the role of culture. While DFA views culture as a “door opener”, Culture Ireland director Sharon Barry says “everything we do comes back to the artists presenting their work internationally”.

“We wouldn’t be funding Riverdance, they are fully formed and don’t need our help,” she says. “We are the export office for Irish arts: our job is to create market and support opportunities for Irish artists around the globe.”

This creative support process re

sembles a pipeline, she says: artists are backed in Ireland, first by local arts officers and Arts Council funding, moving on to Culture Ireland for tour funding and other supports when they are “export-ready”.

Irish officials insist that the new cultural officers – regardless of who is paying their salary – have consistent roles and reporting structures

When Ireland promotes culture abroad, she says, DFA and Culture Ireland are “walking in parallel paths and we can only be successful if we can create distinction”.

Another part of this puzzle, established before the cultural officer posts, is the work of what Culture Ireland calls its “resource organisations”, such as Dance Ireland, Literature Ireland or First Music Ireland.

Funded by the Arts Council at home and Culture Ireland abroad, these organisations – with their own staff and budgets – decide which Irish artists participate in international promotional tours.

In Germany this includes Hamburg’s Reeperbahn music festival, the Düsseldorf Tanzmesse dance festival and the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Local cultural officers are not involved directly in these tours, Barry says, but can assist with local knowledge of venues and promoters to boost partnerships and sustainability – adding, for instance, dates to pre-existing tours.

Irish officials insist that the new cultural officers – regardless of who is paying their salary – have consistent roles and reporting structures.

They would want to be if Ireland’s new cultural push abroad is to avoid silos, fiefdoms and departmental culture clash.

Tensions between artistic promotion and cultural diplomacy are not new – it was decades, after all, before DFA realised the power of Bloomsday – nor are they unique to Ireland.

France and Germany are a study in contrasts: while French cultural institutes operate under a state-centred model on programming and funding, Germany has a more hands-off approach.

What began as a postwar response to Nazi-era political interference in culture created the autonomous Goethe Institutes and the DAAD academic exchange programme, as well as separate embassy cultural offerings.

Seven decades on, this “patronage without direct intervention” policy lives on and is still viewed as best practice.

“It should be cultural managers who decide [what is done], someone who understands their field and who has a clear mandate,” said Mr Ralf Beste, head of culture and society department at Berlin’s foreign ministry.

A former ambassador to Vienna, Beste says tight controls meant that, even if he wanted to, he has no means to interfere directly in cultural programming there. “I cannot call up someone and ask them to do something on demand for political reasons.”

These are still early days in Ireland’s new cultural promotional push abroad, with many moving parts, a kaleidoscope of different players and much yet to be worked out. What is already clear, though, is that this will only work in co-operation with Irish creatives inside and outside Ireland. And, based on past experience, some are wary: are supported artists free to create or will they be expected, in exchange for support, to, in big ways or small, don the green jersey?

Explicit answers are not forthcoming in reports or conversations with officials. There is much talk of “culture as a bridge”, promoting Irish “values” or a telling reference to taxpayer-financed support for culture as “Government-funded” arts.

The dogged view of senior Irish officials – that they are themselves patrons of the arts – spending their own, personal money – is not the only issue to be addressed here.

This article began life as an attempt to write a good news story – Ireland prioritises culture abroad – but interviews and background conversations were soon coloured by insecurity, fear and paranoia.

Some key figures declined to be interviewed on the record, others said they were not permitted to speak; others agreed to be interviewed, then declined, then agreed again. In one case DFA intervened to have quotes from an interview – conducted transparently and on the record – removed from this piece. Such a controlling atmosphere bodes ill for the future of this cultural programme.

There will always be a place for old cultural reliables, but the more sustainable use of public money lies in art and artists that rethink our traditions and create new ones

That would be a lost opportunity, given the good things already happening in Irish arts promotion around the world. Prioritising spending on Irish culture internationally – anything but a given in the current economic climate – deserves praise and support.

But such an endeavour will sink or swim depending on which instinct prevails among senior figures in Dublin: the need to control and second-guess, or the confidence to let others create.

Government officials – who hired new cultural officers to boost Irish art and refresh Ireland’s image – now need the courage of their convictions.

Despite two years of pandemic restrictions, Germany has been an experimental hub for Ireland’s new cultural policy – and not a minute too soon. As the old Heinrich Böll/Kelly Family romantics die off here, the woolly-trad Irish image that, for decades, was mainstream is increasingly niche.

There will always be a place for old cultural reliables, but the more sustainable use of public money lies in art and artists that rethink our traditions and create new ones.

“Germany has a strong interest in contemporary arts – visual, dance, opera,” says Sharon Barry of Culture Ireland. “There are huge opportunities for Irish artists working in these spaces.”

Irish artists here hope that any year-long festival of Irish art in Germany, due to be imminently announced, will see more of what they have seen happening in the last two years.

For Nora Ó Murchú, creative director of Berlin’s influential transmediale arts festival, Candice Gordon’s own artistic background has been a huge advantage in this new policy.

“To see such curatorial concern for artistic work coming from the embassy is very innovative and new for them,” says Ó Murchú. “It is something they need to push into. Civil servants should not be curating things.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin