Wednesday 20 February 2019

Medb Ruane: The art of selling us short: can Gabriel really make a difference?

Medb Ruane

Who is Gabriel Byrne? As of this Paddy's week, the actor is Ireland's first cultural ambassador to the USA. You don't have to talk nice to him or call him 'Excellency,' unless you want to. Anyways, the job's honourary so he won't be paid.

Byrne looked more Dr Paul Weston (In Treatment) than Pat Bracken (old RTE series) as he stood with Brian Cowen in Washington and told the world that Irish artists had never let their country down.

True. Flann O'Brien on 'the shamrocks and shenanigans and bullshit' that Paddy's Day provokes is just as incisive as James Joyce on Ireland as 'the old sow that eats her farrow'. And how it feeds on.

O'Brien and Joyce might have been a little wary about the Government's depth of commitment to the cultural sector. Rock stars, Riverdance, Nobel Prize winners -- all made their way up the greasy ladder before official Ireland acknowledged them properly. Fame had to come first. But now that the culture sector is one of the few with quality, values and reputation intact, it's called to the frontline in representing whatever it is that contemporary Ireland will become.

The bottom line is a rebranding that puts poets where bankers used to parade -- as seriously esteemed citizens, for the moment, apart from a difference in pay. Outside Ireland. For Cowen, schmoozing with movie stars is political bliss-time, especially when his image needs such polishing. Back home, he'd savaged culture funding, without great reason financially because the cuts didn't make a dent in his Budget 'savings'. Back home, the message that poets are the new black hadn't caught on in government circles.

Byrne's celebrity pull-power will be first tested next year, when Ireland launches a year-long strategic cultural programme in the US. If he's good, he'll free things up so that attention is given to more contemporary, innovative acts.

If it works, culture and economics will knit in like a double helix, with cultural profile creating a positive ambience in which to conduct business, starting with the dwindling diaspora. There's nothing new about this theory. The difference now is that government has finally realised the power of cultural diplomacy because it's worked so well in the past. Values are shifting, somewhat, from the days when being a local hero meant raising your glass in the former Fianna Fail tent at the Galway races or getting planning permission for a zillion apartments to be built in bogs or faraway deserts.

Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the US integrated cultural planning with foreign and economic policies for years -- conspiracy theorists believe the CIA was responsible for making Abstract Expressionism the most cutting-edge art movement after the Second World War.

Ireland came around in a more gradual, roundabout way. It took decades of talk and rumination before the Department of Foreign Affairs was enabled to set up Culture Ireland, the small agency behind Byrne's appointment.

Meanwhile, artists and writers from Ireland, as well as musicians and theatre practitioners, had done whatever needs must to bring their work to the world.

What's new is importing celebrity appeal into the notion of a pro bono cultural ambassador. The wider wonder about how Byrne might represent Ireland leans on his image, as well as his life. What does it say about the place? He's a poet, writer, former seminarian, teacher and actor with a real yen for the Irish language.

Sexually abused as a boy, he talked openly about his depression and alcoholism when he filmed Stories from Home, Pat Collins's documentary. None of the hurt was known when he first appeared on an Irish stage, perhaps because the country was too afraid to voice it -- and victims too ashamed.

Roles in Defence of the Realm, Miller's Crossing and The Usual Suspects ("The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist") came alongside low-budget art house films. His big-budget image was as a tough, masculine, sometimes threatening character with whom you shouldn't mess.

Byrne's return to TV fame came in the award-winning In Treatment, where he mesmerised viewers as the psychotherapist Paul Weston, whose personal life unravelled while he worked with patients on his couch. The format was old-style fireside story meets 'what's-my-life about?' with Byrne as the curious listener with plenty of questions for himself.

US viewers were hooked after a week of watching it on five successive nights, after the first episode was aired in January 2008. It went worldwide. Byrne is smart enough to know that his first task is to play star so doors can open for other artists and performers. He's already used his influence to help literally open doors at New York's Irish Cultural Centre.

"We need to redefine the kind of Ireland we want to present and then interlink that vision with the economy," he said. "It's about connecting the diaspora."

Redefining that Ireland has to start at home. It means encouraging new voices, ideas, sounds and sights to picture the present and future. Byrne's appointment may trigger official Ireland to connect what's happening home and away. Because it makes no sense strategically to drip-feed emerging artists and companies within Ireland if those long-term plans are to pay off.

Irish Independent

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