Cultural icons dig deep to help fund €59m revamp of Irish cultural 'hub' in New York
A LANDMARK New York arts centre, where Irish filmmakers Jim Sheridan and Terry George honed their directing skills, is to undergo a massive €59m revamp, making it the main Irish 'cultural hub' in the US.
Irish movie icons Liam Neeson, born in Ballymena, and Dubliner Gabriel Byrne are also frontline supporters of the redevelopment of the Irish Arts Center, located in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood.
They are honorary co-chairmen of the centre, first established in 1972.
However, at present the arts hub has to survive in a former tenement building without a lift or a cafe - and is limited to one auditorium seating fewer than 100 people.
But despite these limitations, it has hosted many high-profile Irish performers, including Grammy-winning Riverdance composer Bill Whelan and poet Paul Durcan.
The Sunday Independent has now learned that "full scale" construction of the new facility will start in the autumn, and will take about two years to complete.
The greatly expanded facility will include a state-of-the-art theatre that can seat 199 people, and allow for much larger productions.
Cutting-edge technology will capture live shows and other performances for wider distribution outside of New York - increasing the exposure of Irish culture and artistic talent around the world. The centre expects to double its annual audience numbers to about 120,000 a year. It is planned to be not only a key cultural centre for Irish-related activity in the Big Apple, but to also provide international exposure for talent from this country.
The City of New York has already pledged major funding, as has the Irish Government.
Latest figures show the project has received $4.7m from the Emigrant Support Programme since 2009.
Derry-born actress Roma Downey is understood to have donated $1m to the project; the Touched By An Angel star gave the equivalent of €907,000 through the American Ireland Fund.
This is one of the largest gifts made to an Irish non-profit organisation.
Observers say it is the sheer breadth and scope of this project that distinguishes the centre from other Irish theatres in the US, including the highly regarded Irish Repertory Theatre, in Manhattan.
Executive director Aidan Connolly said it will provide a "proper home" to share the diversity and dynamism of Irish culture with New York and the world.
"Honouring our immigrant roots while telling the story of an evolving Ireland and Irish America, the new Irish Arts Centre will look outward, and redefine what it means to be an ethnically rooted cultural centre."
"Ireland and Irish America have rich cultural legacies that deserve to be shared with New Yorkers and all Americans," said vice chair Pauline Turley.
Ciaran O'Connor, Ireland's State Architect at the Office of Public Works, is the chief designer.
He says the new centre will be a "fulcrum of the push and pull of Irish and American cultural demands".
Honorary chairman, the actor Gabriel Byrne, said our rich language, culture, and humour - all the things that make us uniquely Irish - can contribute not just to the relationship between Ireland and America, but also to the world.
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs said that it was very supportive of the new development which would provide a "sustainable and modern" flagship venue. It would also promote a range of Irish cultural activities that "further deepen" the already strong bonds with the US. "This is a key strategic priority for this country,'' it added.