Irish Arts Extravaganza

Donal Lunney (left) jams with Sharon Shannon (center) and Nollaig Casey (right).

By Irish America Staff
August / September 2000

Compared to cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston, which all boast a strong Irish presence, Washington D.C. can hardly lay claim to being the heart of Irish America, but for two weeks in May, that’s exactly what it was. And one would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate setting anywhere outside of Ireland than the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Conceived as a living memorial to our 35th president, the Kennedy Center gave renewed meaning to this mission as artists and scholars from all over Ireland and the U.S. descended upon our nation’s capital to celebrate Irish art in all its forms.

The brainchild of Jean Kennedy Smith, former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, the festival explored the continuity and evolution of Irish arts as it traveled the world with its emigrants. Its influence can still be heard in country and bluegrass music.

The festival kicked off with a lavish gala concert attended by President of Ireland Mary McAleese, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Irish Minister for Arts and Culture Sile de Valera and Kennedy Smith herself.

Under the direction of musical virtuoso Donal Lunney and backed by the band Coolfin, such renowned performers as Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Sharon Shannon, Steve Earle, Galician piper Carlos Núñez Muñoz, and Elvis Costello held sway. The event was emceed by none other than Frank McCourt who described the concert as a journey through the history of Irish music. And what celebration of Irish art would be complete without a number from Riverdance?

The journey through Irish music continued over the next two weeks as Mick Moloney and The Green Fields of America explored the evolution of Irish music in America, while Tommy Makem and Jean Ritchie focused on the musical tradition in Northern Ireland. The Irish Chamber Orchestra was on hand to perform the world premiere of a new work by Bill Whelan of Riverdance fame, as was the chamber orchestra Camerata Ireland, led by Barry Douglas.

In the field of letters, authors William Kennedy, John McGahern, Jennifer Johnston, and Frank McCourt read from their work, as did Irish poets Michael Longley, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Eavan Boland and Paul Durcan. Seamus Heaney also did a reading to the accompaniment of piper Liam O’Flynn.

The Irish contribution to drama was well represented with three American premieres: Catalpa, Donal O’Kelly’s one-man show about the daring rescue of Irish prisoners from Australia; On Raftery’s Hill by one of Ireland’s most exciting young playwrights, Marina Carr; and Pentecost, set during the Ulster Workers Strike in 1974. Meanwhile Irish drama critic Fintan O’Toole moderated a theater symposium that brought together Irish actors, playwrights ,and directors like the Druid Theatre’s own Garry Hynes for a day of dramatic readings and a discussion of contemporary theatre in Ireland.

A film festival showcasing the work of filmmakers from Ireland and Northern Ireland was hosted at the American Film Institute Theatre at the Kennedy Center. The festival featured the much anticipated American premiere of Nora, based on the life of James Joyce’s wife, and Wild About Harry, starring Brendan Gleason.

The center also featured an exhibition of Irish paintings from the collection of Brian P. Burns including the work of Jack B. Yeats, Roderic O’Conor, and Paul Henry. It also included letters from Samuel Beckett along with a treasure trove of manuscripts, original writing, and first editions by writers like James Joyce and Seamus Heaney. Meanwhile, the Phillips Collection hosted an exhibition of the work of contemporary artist Tony O’Malley.

And in its ongoing efforts to make the arts available to everyone, the Kennedy also hosted several free events on its Millennium Stage. Here audiences could enjoy the musical storytelling of Frank Harte or the captivating voice of Karan Casey.

During her stay in Washington, President McAleese also launched the academic conference that ran in conjunction with the festival and was sponsored by the Irish Department of Education. Entitled “Ireland: Politics, Culture, and Identity,” this interdisciplinary conference brought together students and scholars from all over Ireland and the U.S. to explore such issues as cultural change in contemporary Ireland, unionism, and the future of the union, and the Irish Diaspora.

All in all it was a wonderfully comprehensive festival that had all corners of the Center pulsing with excitement. Of all the events hosted by the Kennedy Center, this was perhaps the most fitting tribute to the man the building commemorates. As a fellow journalist overheard one audience member observe, “Irish music in the opera hall…I guess Kennedy finally got his way after all.” ♦

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