We banjo 3 scaled

Irish centers are on cultural frontline

Natalie Nugent O’Shea, Executive Director of Celtic Junction Arts Center, St. Paul, Minn., and husband Cormac Ó Sé, president of Celtic Junction Arts Center, when in New York for the January 2020 meeting of the Network of Irish Cultural Centers of North America.

By Natalie Nugent O’Shea

In a year where we have experienced a blow to every aspect of our lives, it is largely creative thinking and innovation that has helped us to recover some of those losses. Irish America has played no small part in this, and has been a leader in ingenuity and innovation for centuries. As George Bernard Shaw observed, “While other people see things and say ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were; and I say ‘‘Why not?’’

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

With a combination of “out of the box” thinking and an oft “self-punishing” and rugged work ethic, immigrants and the diaspora of the Emerald Isle have been renowned for creativity in the face of problems. There is no better example of this right now than in Irish America’s ongoing commitment to Irish arts and culture - and the Irish government has recognized this.

When he was the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar created Global Ireland 2025, a plan to double Ireland’s global footprint and he made it clear that increased promotion of Irish arts and culture abroad would form a key part of the plan. With an influx of movement in diplomatic positions, the appointment of Cultural Ambassadors, and coordinated programs emerging from the consulates and embassies, the movement forward is palpable. Arts and cultural centers who have been the grassroots workers for maintaining Irish cultural heritage and identity have been driving those results forward, and are now reaping the rewards of that effort.

A NICCoNA presentation by We Banjo 3 at the New York Irish Consulate.

Soon after the announcement, the Consulate Generals of North America commenced regular, regional meetings with Irish cultural centers, ramping up their involvement state to state and connecting their diplomatic service to communities. The New York Consulate, together with Culture Ireland, convened annual gatherings as the newly formed Network of Irish Cultural Centers of North America (NICCoNA), bringing leaders from across the United States and Canada together to discuss “best practice”, connect with colleagues, and collaborate in newly-forged partnerships across the country.

When the world stopped in the spring of 2020, cultural centers turned to this network in national and international zoom meetings across the country. The leaders of these programs came together and discussed pivoting online, the boons and pitfalls of new live-streaming facilities, and shared content, classes, concerts and even conversation circles in efforts to both keep their own communities together and raise collective efforts beyond their walls. They reached across borders, connecting presenters to both steadfast and new audiences from miles apart. Minister of State for Overseas Development Aid and Diaspora Colm Brophy met with small groups of us to hear about how our organizations have responded to the demands of the pandemic, thanking us for our work and declaring their commitment to assist in keeping “the Irish community safe, informed, cared for, and socially and culturally connected.”

The Consular teams, together with the United States Irish Embassy, have led this new effort and continue to develop. Most recently they have initiated programs such as “Shades of Green” highlighting the diversity of Ireland’s diaspora, a series of events celebrating Frederick Douglass, “A Farther Shore: American Reflections on the Advent of Irish Independence,” and put together social media seminars and support from industry professionals. Ambassador Mulhall himself connected with cultural and arts centers personally, bringing his wealth of knowledge of Irish literature, history and especially of poetry (he is a lover of Yeats, in particular) and women poets, across the TwitterVerse and directly into programs across the country.

While applying these efforts to connect these myriad of small dots, state by state, across the continent may seem insignificant each on their own, the collective result is powerful. There is a paradigm to follow - a way forward, shining by example. As noted by Minister Brophy, President Mary Robinson placed the Tilley Lamp prominently in the window of Aras an Uachtaran – as “A light in our first citizen’s house to guide home those who had left our shores.” For a dim time in the arts and cultural centers of North America, Ireland’s diplomatic mission is doing steady work to keep that light burning.

For more information about Celtic Junction Arts Center, click here.