Imagine Ireland . . . In Boston

Culture Ireland Sponsors Events
At ArtsEmerson’s Irish Festival
By R. J. Donovan
Special to The BIR
ArtsEmerson’s highly anticipated Irish Festival kicks into full swing this month with an eclectic program of plays, readings, discussions, and films (see Calendar in this edition for full listing). Funding for two plays in the Festival – the Druid Theatre’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” and Abbey Theatre’s “Terminus” – comes in part from Imagine Ireland, an initiative of Culture Ireland. Both productions will tour nationally following their Boston engagements.

To provide a bit of history, Culture Ireland was established in 2005 by Ireland’s Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism as the state agency for the promotion of Irish arts worldwide. In March of 2009, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, requested that Culture Ireland mount a year-long strategic initiative, to be called Imagine Ireland, promoting Irish arts throughout the United States during 2011.
As a result, more than 1,000 Irish artists and producers will present more than 400 events in 200 cities across 40 states in a celebration of theater, music, literature, visual arts, dance, and film. The Irish government’s investment in this unprecedented effort comes to $5.2 million. The project was unveiled In New York last month by the newly named Cultural Ambassador for Ireland, Gabriel Byrne.
Eugene Downes has served as CEO of Culture Ireland since 2007. When he was in New York last month to participate in the announcement event at Lincoln Center (in the middle of a blizzard that was crippling the Northeast), we spoke by phone about Imagine Ireland. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
BIR: Imagine Ireland is truly an ambitious, eclectic showcase of talent.
Downes: The government really supported the idea that it’s time for this major initiative, saying, here are some extraordinary ideas, a new wave of creativity and a new wave of art coming out of Ireland . . . It’s not just the great names, the major theater-makers and musicians and dancers and writers – the people we know – although indeed they are in the season. But also a whole new generation of younger artists who are making really experimental work, and many of whom would not have been seen stateside and would only perhaps be breaking in now. That whole new wave of energy and ideas and imagination coming out of Ireland was really at the heart of what we’re trying to do this year.
BIR: Where do you see Irish culture fitting in on an international level?
Downes: I think the appeal of Irish arts to audiences is constantly evolving. It’s not a static thing. As the world changes, art changes with it. Or sometimes, I think art drives change in the wider world. It’s really imaging all the new forms of ideas reflecting a change in Ireland. In that sense [Imagine Ireland] is a very contemporary venture.
BIR: With the project having been in development prior to the world’s financial turn, was it a challenge to move forward with it?
Downes: Certainly over the last year or more, with the major financial difficulties that Ireland has been facing, the question of whether we could actually resource such a large scale initiative was a major, major challenge. [It has been] possible because of the very strong engagement of the project from the Irish government, from the prime minster on down.
BIR: It must have been encouraging to know that the government believed the program had real value.
Downes: The level of top-grade political support was really crucial, and our own minister for culture, Mary Hanafin, over the past months or so, played a critical role in securing those funds . . . The government has really engaged with the idea that in difficult times, in fact, Ireland needs to look at its long-term strengths; those key areas where we really can say we’re doing something on a world class level. … Arts and culture are absolutely the key things we’d like people to think of when they think of Ireland.
BIR: And so in Boston you’re working with ArtsEmerson’s Irish Festival.
Downes: One of the things that excites me about the program at ArtsEmerson . . . is that we’re presenting a new generation of Irish writers . . . [You have] two major productions from two of Irelands greatest theaters, The Abbey Theatre and Druid, and both are presenting work by artists who are maybe tipping 40 years old. That’s Martin McDonagh and Mark O’Rowe. They’re both using such extraordinary language in terms of its energy, its color, the unique signature that they have in terms of, when you hear that dialogue, you probably wouldn’t mistake it for another writer.
BIR: What makes these two pieces so special.
Downes: Mark O’Rowe’s play is effectively written as (a kind of) poetry. It’s rhyming. It’s an extraordinary dark, lyrical version of urban rap almost. And equally, Martin McDonagh’s dialogue just sizzles whether he’s working on stage or now in film. [There’s] the immediacy and the power and the lyricism of the language.
BIR: In addition to your work with Culture Ireland, you’ve had an extensive career in the arts, including time as Ireland’s cultural attache in Russia. What was the Russian experience like for you?
Downes: In terms of understanding or getting some kind of glimpse into how other cultures respond to Ireland, spending that time and living in Russia in the mid-90s was a wake up call, because on the one hand, the great writers like Joyce and Yeats were known and hugely appreciated there. But on the other hand, many, many Russians that I met had never heard of Ireland. They were mixing us up with Iceland or Iran. So it taught me to never take for granted that people know about your culture or your country. Or, if they know anything about it, it might be something you didn’t expect.
BIR: So what do you hope audiences across America will gain from Imagine Ireland?
Downes: We really hope that they will see a range of work, not just one project or one show, but see an interesting mix of the new work that’s coming out of Ireland. It could be a film, a concert, a theater show, an exhibition . . . That it’s actually introducing new voices to them. Irish artists that they’ve perhaps not seen before . . . I’d love to think that people will experience a mix that will surprise them and will, perhaps, open the door to imagine Ireland and Ireland’s future in a whole host of new ways.

ArtsEmerson at The Paramount Center presents: Druid Theatre’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” February 2 - 6; and Abbey Theatre’s “Terminus,” February 8 - 13. Tickets: 617- 824-8000 or

R. J. Donovan is publisher of

Irish Festival Calendar
“The Color of Rose” (world premiere; through Feb. 13) – A candid, dramatic reflection on matriarch Rose Kennedy as she revisits her past through the eyes of her youth and middle-age.
By Kathrine Bates, Paramount Center Black Box Theatre. Produced in association with the Department of Performing Arts at Emerson College.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan” (Feb. 2-6, Druid Theatre) – A quintessentially Irish comic masterpiece with eccentric island characters trading stories to within an inch of their lives while a young man tries to make sense of who he is.
By Martin McDonagh, Paramount Mainstage. Part of Imagine Ireland, Culture Ireland’s year of Irish arts in America in 2011. Druid is grant-aided by the Arts Council of Ireland.
“Terminus” (Feb. 8-13, The Abbey Theatre) – Three actors present an incredible journey through a night of strange and fantastical occurrences in this dark work showing the raw and sometimes violent underside of Dublin life, using a rapid-fire and beautifully rhythmic poetry.
Written and directed by Mark O’Rowe, Paramount Mainstage. Recommended for ages 16 and over.
Part of Imagine Ireland, Culture Ireland’s year of Irish arts in America in 2011. The Abbey Theatre is supported by The Arts Council of Ireland/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.

A Double Feature (Feb. 4, 5, 6 at 7 p.m.):
“Man of Aran” – Having long wanted to make a film about a “man of the sea,” Robert Flaherty spent almost two years sculpting “Man of Aran,” an unforgettable portrait of a family living on the Aran Islands.
“How The Myth Was Made” – Filmmaker George Stoney revisits the island in Ireland where Robert Flaherty shot “Man of Aran,” interviewed surviving locals about their memories of the original film and their reactions to making this one.
“Perrier’s Bounty” (Feb. 12 – 6:45 and 9 p.m.) –This Irish crime thriller-comedy was written by Mark O’Rowe, whose “Terminus” is being performed this weekend on the Paramount Mainstage.
Directed by Ian Fitzgibbon, with Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Cillian Murphy. Mark O’Rowe will introduce the 6:45 p.m. screening. Co-presented with the Irish Film Festival, Boston.
“A Shine Of Rainbows” (Feb. 13 – 2 p.m.) – A family screening of a top prize-winner at children’s film festivals around the world, the poignant tale of a loving mother, a reluctant father, and the extraordinary journey that brings a young orphan home.
Directed by Vic Sarin, with Connie Nielsen, Aidan Quinn, John Bell. A co-presentation with the Irish Film Festival, Boston and Belfast’s Cinemagic Film and Television Festival for Young People.

Readings, talks
Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. – A staged reading of “Marble” by Marina Carr. What happens to two ordinary young couples when one man’s wife and his best friend have romantic dreams of one another? Studio 7 at The Paramount Center (free).
Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. – A reading by Hugo Hamilton of Dublin, acclaimed author of two memoirs, seven novels, and a collection of short stories, all of which reflect on the increasingly compelling issues of cultural divisions, belonging and identity. Studio 7 at The Paramount Center (free).
Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. – Abbey Theatre Director Fiach Mac Conghail hosts a pre-show discussion of “Terminus.” Bright Family Screening Room. Free with ticket to any Irish Festival event.
Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. – Peter Murphy, the Irish music writer turned novelist, reads from his debut work, John The Revelator.Studio 7 at The Paramount Center (free).
Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. – Playwright Mark O’Rowe hosts a pre-show discussion of “Terminus.” Studio 7 at The Paramount Center. Free with ticket to any Irish Festival event.
Feb. 12, following the 2 p.m. performance – A discussion with cast of “Terminus.” Paramount Mainstage.
free with ticket.
All events take place at The Paramount Center, 559 Washington Street in Boston. Tickets and information: 617-824-8000 or

An Irish Festival Pass is available that includes admission for all three plays plus discounts on the accompanying films.