It is certainly an act of courage that, less than six months after the murder of Lord Mountbatten and with antiIrish graffiti still being scrawled on walls throughout the city, London is hosting A Sense of Ireland, the most extensive celebration of Irish arts in history. For more than six heady weeks beginning in February, London has been invaded by all things Irish: punk rock, avant-garde theatre and conceptual art, not to mention piping, weaving and quilt-making. The festival includes well over 100 events taking place in 45 venues across the city and its youthful director, John Stephenson, brims with confidence: “There is nothing apologetic about this festival—it is what we are, it’s fun. Take it or leave it.”
What is being offered is more than a sprinkling of big names—The Dubliners, The Abbey Theatre, paintings by Jack Yeats, films by Sean O’Feeney (known to the rest of the world as John Ford)—and a marvelous balance of photography and cartoon exhibitions, jazz and rock evenings. The special value of the festival lies in these events, the ones that belie stale images of Ireland and, at the same time, reach a wider audience than most art festivals even aim for. The centrepiece is a lively exhibi-
tion at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (just down the road from Buckingham Palace) called No Country for Old Men. The organizers have filled a 64-foot-long wall with a boisterous cartoon strip retelling the legend of Oisin, an Irish emigrant to the United States who returns to find his native land altered beyond recognition. This exhibition of photographs, rock music and lavish commentary is designed to dispel some of the blarney that blurs an understanding of the Republic of Ireland—a country with the youngest population of any in the Common Market (more than half its people are under 25). But the festival also includes The State
of Emergency, a program of happenings related to Ulster, that war-torn land where the only sign of hope seems to be that no one has illusions or much hope left. If nothing else, films such as Home Soldier Home and The Patriot Game, a play called The Position of Women in Ireland and several New Wave groups, including The Virgin Prunes, prove that Northern Ireland does have more to offer the world than Ian Paisley and the IRA.
For a Canadian, the festival suggests fascinating parallels between this country and the Republic of Ireland. Ireland is an officially bilingual nation, with nearly 30 per cent still speaking some Irish Gaelic, and it, too, lives in the shadow of a powerful neighbor. Of the 10 best-selling magazines in Ireland last year only one was published in the country. Like Canada, Ireland has suffered a brain drain, only now reversing itself as exiles stream back and gradually transform the national psychology—already getting a boost from an economy that is one of the fastest growing in Europe.
The festival itself, generously funded by business and government, depends on this new prosperity for its existence, yet it also celebrates the fragile Celtic traditions that wealth could easily ruin. Ireland is struggling to maintain tradition in the face of modernity; Dublin today is full of pizzerias but to find a restaurant serving the old delicacy of pigs’ feet, you have to visit a delicatessen called A la Français. In short, the old and the new are constantly rubbing elbows and A Sense of Ireland benefits from that friction. For instance, Dubliner Nigel Rolfe has put together West of West, a photographic display about ancient monuments that stand throughout the Irish countryside. “These monuments provide the opportunity to sample Ireland and its heritage in a most pure and even spiritual way,” Rolfe says. But he is also a “performance artist,” the creator of a spectacle in which he buries his body in a sea of flour—not so pure and not especially spiritual, but perhaps no less Irish than an ancient monument.
Stephenson is sure that the impact of the festival on London will be resounding. “A Sense of Ireland isn’t happening just because the Irish are tired of the stereotypes, the Irish jokes and the accepted mythologies,” he explains. “The English are increasingly aware that these don’t provide the truth.” For Londoners the festival is a brilliant testimony to the constant flourishing of Irish culture in the lives of ordinary people as well as in the concert halls and galleries. And, as George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Without us the English race would simply die of respectability in two generations.” Mark Abley
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