Irish identity is work of art not political expediency

We must not take refuge in easy St Patrick's Day clichés. Instead we must forge an imaginative shared future

On 11th Avenue in New York, the wind soughs in off the Hudson river. At night it brings with it a thin fog that seems to have stepped from a TS Eliot poem. Hell's Kitchen. There is something infinite about the area. You can sense the lonely men in shirtsleeves hanging out of windows, but you can also feel the distinct pulse of the new – the cranes and scaffolding arcing across the dark. There is an element of 21st-century frontier about the shoeshine shops and tiny bodegas still hanging around the hem of the skyscrapers. People still sit out on the stoops of their brownstones while the online-delivery trucks idle in the street.

Anything might happen here. Soon it will.

Over the next couple of years, the ground around 51st Street will be broken for a brand new Irish Arts Centre. A theatre. Cutting-edge spaces for intimate performances. Meeting rooms for artists and thinkers and businesspeople. A haven. It’s almost as if the Hudson river has carted across its affinity with the Lee, the Barrow, the Liffey.

What it also carts downriver is a whole new test for the Irish imagination, not just for New York, but for Sydney and London and Paris too, and most importantly a test for those of us at home.


Odd word, home . It seems to exist in only one place, but we cart it with us wherever we go.

When Gabriel Byrne talked earlier this year about the Gathering, he was hung out on a soundbite. It was a scam. A shakedown. Fair enough – we all live in an era of shakedown , be it films or novels or government initiatives. But his words were amplified into a tabloid weather report.

What Byrne was essentially talking about – and what truly matters to him as an Irishman and an artist – is that we had another chance at history. The reimagining of ourselves. A new way of belonging.

So far we have blown it. Denial. Lies. Lip service. The economy is still in the tank. We have been torn asunder by our robber barons. The church is in tatters. The Government uses the word culture like a used-up Band-Aid.

We have allowed a sort of Magdalene laundry of the imagination.

Lepracorny bullshit
What Byrne has been suggesting for the best part of a decade is an intricate reimagining of what it means to be Irish. No more easy express laneways leading off into mid-air. No more of the lepracorny bullshit. No more dismantling of enlightened social legislation. No more vapid political smiles. No more stunned submission to greed. No more demolition of heritage.

What interests him is the creation of a new bridge to the diaspora – not one that necessarily brings people home, but one that also brings home outwards . To have a properly nuanced debate. A sustained imaginative effort. To stop tapping the Yanks, the Aussies, the Brits on the shoulder: Brother can you lend a dime ?

To recognise that we are shaped, first, by how we see ourselves and then further shaped by how we are seen by others. To create community centres not just abroad but at home too. To swell our lungs. To give recent emigrants a vote, a way to return. To embrace otherness. To question our violence. To dissect our psychoses. To challenge our passivity. To get under the skin. To make an Ireland of the Irelands. All very well and good, the argument goes, if you're a movie star and you've got a pad in New York. But as cultural ambassador for three years, Byrne gave up an enormous amount of his own time and energy – entirely unpaid and largely unheralded by our government – to sow the beginnings of his idea that "culture" isn't just some grandiose, elitist notion.

Properly doubtful
He began in New York developing, along with dozens of others, the idea of the arts centre and later the Imagine Ireland campaign. He pounded the pavement in Ireland and abroad, saying that the arts should be encouraged in every village and home so that we grow and question and become more aware, demand more of ourselves, and not succumb to ease. To become properly doubtful. To do the things that don't compute. To wave the flag while others are burning it.

What Byrne has engaged in is a radical act of patriotism not seen in this country for many many years. Not only are the arts a vibrant part of our national life, he says, but they also give contour to the manner in which we cannot allow ourselves to become an ongoing Paddy’s Day cliche.

Art is where we get to practise our identity. It’s another chance at telling our story. It is also the rougher edge of truth. It is a looking glass, properly darkened. It is also our opportunity to align ourselves with the sort of people that many of us would like to be: raw, fierce, intelligent, joyous.

There is the air of the clarion call about all this. But the contemporary discourse around the issue of “culture” seems so devalued that it becomes a throwaway phrase easily invoked and forgotten, especially in the vicinity of the Dáil. As a nation, we need to be in the continual act of composition. We need philanthropists. We need a ministry devoted to the arts alone. We need teachers who engage and provoke. We cannot afford to sacrifice our ideals to bottom-line demands. Nor can we give up the presumption of hope. If we mortgage our future, we will not, then, be able to co-ordinate what is not there anymore.

Financial thuggery
To recover from the financial thuggery that went on, and the damage we sustained to our national identity, we will need the ongoing words and images to help us figure out who we were, and who we are yet to become.

We need inquiring, lighted minds that stand in opposition to the lobotomising weight of political expediency. An artist may not need his or her government, but a government will always need its artists.

“Culture,” says Byrne, “is the unifying force of a scattered people.”

The Irish Arts Centre in New York is due to open in 2016. An auspicious year. Perhaps there are, or there will be, similar initiatives in Melbourne or Liverpool, and, better still, in Dublin and Ballyshannon and Mullingar. It's our responsibility.

Perhaps, on this particular Paddy’s Day, we need a sustained imaginative effort to ripple among us once more. We have to build our half of the bridge, no matter who or where we happen to be.

Colum McCann’s forthcoming novel TransAtlantic will be published by Bloomsbury on May 23rd