There’s a rumor none of us is in a hurry to dispute that, back in the 1970s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono took part in one of the very earliest fundraisers for the Irish Arts Center.
“There was this real deep embedding with the New York hippie progressive culture at the time,” says the center’s executive director, Aidan Connolly, “a sense of openness; the idea that the best way to preserve Irish culture is to share it with everybody.”
Potential bed-ins notwithstanding, Aidan (Irish credentials: father from county Galway, mother from Dublin) presides over the center in perhaps its most exciting period yet. In 2016 — Ireland’s centenary, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising — the first major steps will be taken to establish a shiny new center for Irish culture, moving from its current home in a W51st Street tenement to a $54 million purpose-built home just around the corner on 11th Avenue.
“We’ve raised almost 80 per cent of what we need,” says Aidan, “but we’re not the Met. We’re not sitting on a gigantic bankroll. And we’re not going to go until we’re ready to.”
The center was started in 1972 on a shoestring, and continues to operate on a shoestring. But it is also still fortunate enough to attract its fair share of high-profile supporters. Both Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson are honorary co-chairs, and Byrne can be credited with the idea of a new center. “Gabriel is our visionary,” says Aidan.
And Hell’s Kitchen is their home. “Why would you want to be anywhere else? It wouldn’t occur to us to be anywhere else.”
For more than 40 years, it has delivered a diverse program of music, theater, dance, literature, film, and education, from both its intimate W51st Street venue and through partnerships with other spaces throughout the city. But a quick glance at that program for 2016 fails to clarify exactly what could be defined as singularly Irish.
“It’s kind of like pornography,” says Aidan. “I’ll know it when I see it. But we take a distinctly non-parochial view of what Irishness is. It includes traditional Irish musicians – but when we do traditional music we try to put it in the context of a global culture. We don’t want it to just sit in a museum or a cultural ghetto, we want it to live in a New York City, 21st century context.
“It also includes people like Cassandra Wilson, who’s an African American jazz singer, who turns out to have traced her DNA back to Ireland. Without even knowing that, years prior, she performed on a Van Morrison tribute album. So that’s part of our culture too.”
It’s all done from what Aidan admits is a “not really great venue” for some art forms — particularly dance. It’s “super-cosy”, but it has its restrictions. And there’s no bar!
“The thing we love is when we can program really beautiful, emotionally transporting, surprising, and original cultural experiences in that intimate setting, so that audiences come into this crappy looking tenement, then we blow their minds. They can’t believe they got to experience something that solid, that strong, that exciting, that original, in such a small space. That’s our goal.”
All of that is not only good for the audience, he says, but good for the artist too. “Paul Brady, who could fill stadiums in Ireland, comes and does a 100-seat gig here and will remember it for ever.”
However, the new hub will not only enable them to program more ambitiously (while, they insist, maintaining the intimate nature of the space they currently inhabit), they’ll also be able to extend the one Irish stereotype they’re proud of: that of hospitality. So there will be a cafeteria space at street level built into the plans, where people can linger before or after a performance. “Part of Irish culture is conversation. So we want to have enough space within the venue for people to extend the experience. What do people want to do after they’ve seen a show? They want to talk about it.”
The bottom line, though, remains that accessibility to all, not just those who consider themselves Irish.
“Irish culture operates at the highest levels,” says Aidan. “If you think of Irish culture, you’re thinking of some of the greatest writers in the history of the world, incredible theater makers, amazing musicians. So our job is to put that in a contemporary context and share it with as many people as possible of as many different backgrounds as possible.”
Coming soon: Aidan’s highlights
Celtic Appalachian Celebration, March 12
“It’s about how the music of the Ulster Scots came through the American South and merged with African banjo traditions that’s really provided the underpinning for American bluegrass.”
St Patrick’s Day, March 17
“We just throw open the doors for a free day of programming. It’s also our book day. We have thousands of books, donated by publishers from all over the world, and we go out into all five boroughs and distribute them for free.”
Wild Sky, March 29-April 2
Written by one of Ireland’s most exciting playwrights, Deirdre Kinahan, to mark the Easter Rising. “It leans heavily towards how communities were impacted by the rising, particularly on the women.”
Camille O’Sullivan, April 6-16
“She did a residency with us and the Time Out New York critic came out of the show and immediately tweeted, ‘One of the five best shows I’ve seen all year.’ So we said, ‘She’s coming back!’”
A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, April 20-30
A show adapted from the novel by Eimear McBride which sold out both the Dublin Theatre Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of W42ST magazine.