Linda Murray: Solas Nua is Irish for "New Light." And when we were setting up the organization about six-and-a-half years ago now, we just were looking for something-- well, we wanted to have something in Irish, first of all, but also wanted something that was somewhat aspirational, but also reflective of the way the arts community was working at that time. And New Light for me was fitting, because so many of the artists were still building on the heritage we have. I mean, Ireland has a long, deep, mythic heritage that we have visited again and again over the centuries. And I think that there can sometimes be a perception that the current generation is unaware of that, and I don't think that that's the case at all. But I do think that they shed new light on our old history, on our old culture and move it forward at the same time. And so that's why we came up with the name.
Jo Reed: That is Linda Murray, she is the artistic director of Solas Nua, which is the only contemporary Irish arts organization in the United States. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Based in Washington, DC, Solas Nua brings new artistic talent from Ireland to US audiences. Since its beginning in 2004, it has presented a wide range of programming including a full theater season, visual art exhibitions, an Irish film festival and literary events including the Irish writers festival, and Irish book day. Linda Murray is one of the founders of Solas Nua so I began my conversation with her by asking what compelled her to begin the organization, why she thought it was important to present contemporary Irish art to American audiences.
Linda Murray: I think Irish arts are important, particularly for America, given the large Irish-American community that still considers Irish culture part of their overall identity, and who they are. And as to why I specifically decided to set up an organization that was about contemporary Irish arts, I felt that Americans, in general, have an amazing knowledge about art, and quite surprising an impressive. But I felt that there was sort of a knowledge drop-off around 1950 that occurred. And that there was really nobody out there who was promoting this current generation of Irish artists. And Ireland has changed significantly in the last 20 years, but over the course of the last 50 years. And the art has moved with it and reflects those times, so I think it's a way in to what Ireland is about nowadays. And it's also, it's just another window into the world. I think DC is a great place, particularly to have an Irish arts organization, because it's just such an international city. And there are so many other countries here that have their, there's the French Film Festival, the Polish Film Festival. There's a wide variety of countries that represent themselves here in Washington as a window into, or as a gateway rather to the rest of America. And so I decided to stake my little claim for Ireland here as well.
Jo Reed: Tell me some of the preconceptions you think Americans might bring to Irish culture.
Linda Murray: Well, I think there's still a sense that we're a predominantly rural country. And there is beautiful rural landscape in Ireland and please go visit it, it's gorgeous. But that's not how most Irish people live anymore. Most of us live in cities. Over a quarter of the population of the country lives in Dublin, or Dublin's suburban area. So most people are living an urban life. We're also an incredibly technologically educated workforce. So I mean, a lot of the IT centers for Europe would be in Ireland. You know, so it goes contrary to this notion of an agricultural country. So the day-to-day life that people are living in Ireland is very different to the life I think people assume we're living. And consequently our outlook into the world is very different to the way people would assume it to be. I think as a little country, we're forced to be outward-looking and global all the time. And yet, in my conversations sometimes with Americans, I think their perception would be that I was quite insular coming from Ireland. That I would be easily shocked by things. <laughs> But I grew up in North Dublin, so that's not at all the case. <laughs> So I feel more at home in a New York, than I do out in the wilds.
Jo Reed: And Ireland, also, is going through a very interesting process on reclaiming its language, working on reclaiming Irish. Which had been forbidden.
Linda Murray: Yeah, I think one of the interesting things that happened under the Celtic tiger and under that urbanization that I was just talking about is kind of, ironically I guess, things that we had hidden about ourselves, or sort of felt a little bit ashamed of-- like there used to be almost an embarrassment about the Irish language. Like it wasn't something people particularly liked to own up to being able to speak. <laughs> But now you have this generation of twenty-somethings, and teenagers who are quite open and forceful about their passion for the Irish language, and there's now a national Irish language television station, which has excellent programming, which has really helped promote the Irish language. So I think one of the great things that did come out of the Celtic tiger was we sort of took ownership of our culture and our heritage, and started to feel like, "No, this is something to be proud of. This is something that we can actually build and grow, and it's something that we can tell the rest of the world about." We have these amazing ancient mythological cycles. But if somebody had ever said in the 1970s that it was on a par with Roman or Greek mythology, people at home would have gone, "No, no, no. Not at all." And now we do. Now we sort of recognize that as equal to. Irish as a language is uhm.. as old as Latin and Greek. You know, it's one of the really ancient languages. And our culture goes all the way back to that. And I think the Celtic tiger, for all the bad it brought about, it certainly helped us take ownership of our identity. And I think it was a really exciting time for the people in general, and for artists, in terms of like what that acceptance of our heritage was meant for moving forward.
Jo Reed: Explain what the Celtic tiger is.
Linda Murray: So the Celtic tiger was <laughs> it now seems like a bit of a dream. And I have to say, I mean, artists say this all the time, Irish artists say Celtic tiger, I never saw it. But for most of the people living in Ireland, the Celtic tiger was a period in the 1990s and into the early 2000s when the country suddenly became affluent. It was a combination of those IT centers coming up in Ireland, the housing market starting to do very well. Lots of people moving in from different countries, so there was an affluent workforce. And we became one of the wealthiest countries in Europe. Which, and we got this newfound wealth very, very fast, and lost it just as quickly with the kind of the global downturn that came about in 2008. So we had this very short period of having amazing wealth. And it had great consequences, and terrible consequences for the country. And I think artists are trying to grapple very-- they were trying to grapple during the Celtic tiger with whether this was necessarily a good thing. And I think now they're certainly trying to grapple with the aftermath of having had money and then losing it again, and what that means for us as a nation.
Jo Reed: Give me a sense of the first year of Solas Nua.
Linda Murray: <laughs> Well, the first year was very much on a event to event basis. I started the organization mainly because Irish Theater Magazine asked me to write an article when I first moved over here about the state of Irish plays in America, and particularly in the nation's capital. And they wanted me to specifically sort of focus on current playwrights who were out there. When I went looking, I really didn't find any productions that were going on. Which got me thinking, why weren't a certain generation of writers being represented over here. Writers that I really admired and was passionate about. One of them, in particular, was Enda Walsh, whose play "Disco Pigs" became our very first production. And so after much hemming and hawing about whether we should start the organization or not, I said, "Well, look. We'll do "Disco Pigs." And if everybody hates "Disco Pigs," that's fine. At least I got "Disco Pigs" out there and Enda Walsh was produced in America, and that'll be enough for me. And if they do like it for any reason, well, then we'll just take it from there." And "Disco Pigs" is a fairly impenetrable play in retrospect. It's written in an imagined language that's based on Cork slang. So even an Irish audience really only grabs about 70 percent of the actual language as it's flying by. So for an American audience, god love them, with Cork slang, and then the imagined language written on top of it, I think about 30 percent of the actual language makes sense on the first sit-through.
Jo Reed: This is "Disco Pigs,"and who's the author.
Linda Murray: It's by Enda Walsh, and the actors in the scene are Rex Daugherty and Madeleine Carr.
[Excerpt from "Disco Pigs"]
To Enda Walsh's credit, it's a tribute to what a great writer he is. The actual music of how the language sounds conveys emotions on a really very clear level. So I had a lot of Americans coming up to me saying, "I had no idea what it was about, but I understood everything. I understood everything. I understood the story. I knew the entire trajectory of it. But I hadn't a clue what any of it actually meant. I couldn't pull out words and make sense of that." And we got very lucky, The [Washington] Post gave it an amazing review. And we got great reviews across the board for it. And so we did another show, and another show.
Jo Reed: Okay. So that was an example of theater, but you cast quite a wide net. You also do visual arts, you do film, you do music, you do literature. Let's talk about some of the visual arts projects that you present.
Linda Murray: So we do a full season of visual arts as well. So we've had Bart O'Reilly, who's a really beautiful painter from Dublin. And then we've had people like Nevan Lahart who're mainly installation artists. And most recently we had Suzannah Vaughan at the Flashpoint Gallery, and she's a sculptor. But coming up next will be Fiona Hallinan, and she'll be with us in June at Fathom Creative. And Fiona is really interesting. She's also an installation artist, but she also works a lot with soundscaping in her installations. And she sees herself as a sort of a direct descendent of the Shaughnessy. And Irish society is the storyteller, and it's a very revered person. And there are Shaughnessy's out in the country. And they're sort of like, I suppose, troubadours or bards. And they used to be under the patronage of the Chieftains. And they would travel from village to village and tell stories. And this is sort of where our oral tradition comes from, and this is how our stories were handed down from generation to generation. I think Fiona is really, really interested in that sense of collecting stories and moving them forward. And so she does this with a combination of music, but also oral accounts. And then her actual installations tend to be made up of objects, everyday objects that have special significance that people can touch or feel. So it might be buttons. Because buttons are tiny, little everyday objects, but the right button can trigger a whole host of memories about your mother or something like that. So her installations tend to be built on those like personal histories and stories.
Jo Reed: We're actually going to hear a soundscape from Fiona Hallinan.
Linda Murray: Yeah, so this particular soundscape is part of a project that she did. She was one of several artists involved in it where Dublin Corporation asked them to make a soundscape for the city. And you can actually do this as part of a walking tour of Dublin. There are little stations around the city, if you're ever in Dublin, where you'll see headphones, and you can just listen to them and they mean something about a particular place, or maybe they're just about evoking a mood of a particular place. So Fiona was asked to be one of the contributing artists on that. And so this is a small section from that piece for her.
Soundscape: Music under throughout.
Unnamed Woman's voice: At the end of this mainway, you'll be turning right onto a street called Liffey Street.
Unnamed Man: Having spent more than 30 years getting used to being outside, now I'm a man, learning my limits. I had the warm body and bed beside me once. I had boiled egg shell cracked for me and buttered egg soldiers to dip in yellow yoke. I grew into a man, out past lightswitches. First hair his grew and second his teeth. I felt bones break inside me. Now I brace myself before the cold sheets. I need city life. Once I had a first time for everything. Now it's the turn for everything to be first. I have routine, usuals, and regulars. I cut paths through the crowds with eye contact. I'm quick to make decisions and impatient for the choices for others. I once ignored dogs barking in the distance, the chorus of the suburbs. Now it feels all too close. Real foxes are creeping up. I wish I could stay in certain moments for longer, but not forever.
Jo Reed: You also have a lot of programs that deal with literature, including the DC Irish Writers Festival, which just came to a stunning conclusion. Tell us about that.
Linda Murray: We've had literature as part of our programming since the beginning, and we've done this event called Irish Book Day every single year, where we hand out books for free at the Metro stops. And actually it's going to New York as well for the first time with our partners, The Irish Arts Center.
Jo Reed: On what day?
Linda Murray: On St. Patrick's Day. It's my way of forgoing green beer and trying to represent my country in a way that I feel is a little more positive. <laughs> So I think giving away our literature for free is a good way to demonstrate generosity of spirit, but also the wealth of talent that we have available in Ireland. So we've always had writers sort of come in and out, and such was the popularity every time we had an author come in and do a reading, that we eventually decided to turn it into a festival. So for the last two years, we've run the DC Irish Writers Festival. And I try very hard with the festival to make sure that I am introducing writers who probably aren't even published in the US. Some of them are, but most of them aren't. And because again, there is an awareness for a Collum McCann or a John Banvel or a Colm Tobin. You know, if they've won a major award in America, or something that resonates, like the National Book Award was Collum McCann. Or something like the Booker Prize. But there's an amazing collection of young writers in Ireland at the moment. Most of them not published in the US. So for us, the festival is very much about focusing on that. So we had in quite an array of people. We had a blogger in, "Sweary Lady," who writes these really fantastic essays on sort of social and political issues. We had Declan Meade, who's the editor of The Stinging Fly, which is Ireland's top literary journal. And he's really responsible for finding a lot of these young writers. And then we also had Leanne O'Sullivan, who published her first collection of poetry before she was even 20, and won an award for it. She's really a stunning, stunning writer. So I think she has two collections of poetry now, and she's on her third. And she closed the Festival for us. And she did just a gorgeous reading of some of her poetry.
Jo Reed: And that's who we're going to be hearing right now.
Linda Murray: Yes!
I used to lie on the floor for hours after school with the phone cradled between my shoulder and my ear. A plate of cold rice to my left, my schoolbooks to my right.
Twirling the cord between my fingers,
I spoke to friends who recognized the language of our wealth
Throats and lungs swollen, we talked into the heart of the night
Toying with idea of hair dye and suicide
About the boys who didn't love us
Who we loved too much
The pang of the nights
Each sentence was new territory
A door someone was rushing into
The glass shattering with delirium, with knowledge and fear
My mother never complained about the phone bill
What it cost for her daughter to disappear behind a door
Watching the cord stretching its muscle away from her
Perhaps she thought it was the only way she could reach me
Sending me away to speak in the underworld
As long as I was speaking she could put my ear to the tenuous arc
Allow me to listen, to decipher
And these were the elements of my mother – the artic wire, the burning cable
As if she flowed into the room with me to somehow say,
"Stay where I can reach you." The dim room, the dark arc
Speak of this and when you feel removed from it I will pull the cord and take you back towards me."
Jo Reed: That was Leanne O'Sullivan reading "The Cord," which was recorded live. Music is very, very important. And what you try to do is a combination of contemporary and traditional music, or contemporary music that, in some way, honors traditional music, but takes it to a new place. Would that be fair?
Linda Murray: Yeah, I mean, I think we are known for music at home. I think literature and music are probably the two things that people most associate with Ireland. I think visual artists have had a bad rap. They didn't get the same sort of notoriety that musicians and writers did. But yeah, so we do have traditional musicians come in. Given the specific sort of scope of my organization, if we do bring in a trad musician, it will be somebody like Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, who is a trad fiddler, but also is very interested in composing trad music in a way that sort of pushes the genre forward. So he takes influences from jazz, and he takes influences from punk, and he takes influences from other trad forms in other countries. And he uses that as a way to push through traditional melodies and rhythms towards something new. And in the case of someone like Julie Feeney, she's a classically trained musician, who sung for the National Chamber Choir and has composed for our National Symphony Orchestra. But she melds that with pop. So you get this very unique sound from her, where it's clear that a real composer and musician was at the back of these melodies. These all of these complex rhythm and key changes that occur in her songs, that they sound deceptively simple, 'cause she puts just very frothy, silly lovely lyrics beside this music, and she creates something really special and fun.
Jo Reed: What are we going to hear from Julie Feeney?
Linda Murray: So this was her first big track off her second album. This is "Impossibly Beautiful" from her album, Pages.
Jo Reed: And it's beautiful!
Linda Murray: <laughs> It is! And Julie is beautiful. Julie is also a fashion icon at home. And she's beloved by designers. She's constantly in some gorgeous new outfit. She looks great in everything.
Jo Reed: And you also have a film festival.
Linda Murray: We do! And we are now the largest Irish Film Festival in the US. There's quite a few Irish Film Festivals in the US, which is a testament to how strong Irish cinema is. And ours occurs December every year. We run for ten days in early December, and I am quite passionate about making sure that we have a good mix of features and documentaries and in shorts, I like to make sure that there's animation. And particularly, for me, I love the Irish language, so I'm always very passionate about having Irish language involved in the Festival as much as possible. 'Cause it's easy for Americans, because there're subtitles. So it's not like throwing it at them at the theater, where they have no way to figure out what's going on. And wonderful, wonderful films are being made at the moment in the Irish language.
Jo Reed: And we're actually going to hear a clip from a film that is in Irish and English?
Linda Murray: Irish, English and Chinese! <laughs> It's called, "Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom," which translates to "Yu Ming is My Name." And it's this lovely short about this Chinese man who's sick of life in China, and decides he's going to move to Ireland. And being a diligent student, he decides he's going to go learn the Irish language properly before he comes to Ireland. Only to discover that when he comes to Ireland that nobody speaks any Irish. So he's wandering around Dublin, and trying to speak Irish to people, and thinking that it's all his fault that they don't understand his accent, or maybe he's pronouncing words wrong.
Excerpt from "Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom"
Linda Murray: Until he's taken under the wing of a gentleman who lets him know that in Dublin they don't necessarily speak Irish any more, but there's still some other parts of the country where they do.
Another excerpt from "Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom"
Linda Murray: I really like the film, because it sort of relates to Ireland on many levels nowadays. It, number one, it introduces the new communities for living in Ireland. Ireland now has significant Polish, Nigerian, Chinese communities, who are all now part of what it means to be Irish. They now have a voice in sort of this new making of Irish identity. And it obviously also deals with our own sort of awkward past with our Irish language. And it's an amazing thing that's been happening. Some of these new communities have embraced the Irish language in a way that Irish people didn't. The Nigerian communities like set up special centers so that these new Nigerian emigrants into Ireland could learn Irish, so that they could sort of assimilate their children into the school system faster, because you do have to learn Irish. But I think it's astounding that these adults are like taking the time to go learn Irish, when the average Irish person walking down the street would probably have less of an understanding of the language than they do.
Jo Reed: And then-- as though that wasn't enough! You have something called "Project Brand New."
Linda Murray: Well, actually, I can't take the credit for "Project Brand New." So "Project Brand New" have been coming in this year as part of our theater season. And "Project Brand New" is actually a festival in Dublin that promotes the creation of new work, and they're tied to the "Project Art Center" in Dublin. And we used to do a play reading series each year that would focus on a different theater company at home, and the work that they commissioned. Primarily, because I get asked a lot, "How come there are so many new playwrights coming out of Ireland, and of such amazing quality?" 'Cause when you think about it Ireland has a population of five million people, which is tiny. And then the arts community is smaller again. But if you start thinking about playwrights, there's more of them than you can shake a stick at. So when I started thinking for this season about how I wanted to sort of focus on how work gets made at home, I thought of "Project Brand New" because they're very much about eschewing the traditional sort of playwright sitting at a desk writing his script, and then at a certain point, bringing it into the theater where the director takes over. They champion devised work, or pulling text from different sources, and kind of working through those with actors. They champion multi-media approaches. So they have a very diverse range of shows that they bring about in each cycle of their festival in Dublin. And they're also shown at different stages of development to the audiences, because "Project Brand New" is very much about audience feedback. They make comment curtains, and after each show they ask the audience to seek out the artists and tell them what they thought worked or didn't work. And the work develops as a result of that. So it's very much giving the audience ownership over the work that gets made. Which I find intriguing and fascinating.
Jo Reed: Linda, you present a lot of work. Do you have a particular favorite?
Linda Murray: I think my favorite event, if not the one that I'm most proud of, it probably is Irish Book Day. It's a logistical nightmare. But in the aftermath of it, the flood of emails and phone calls and notes that we get from people who were suspicious about somebody handing them out a book at a Metro stop, but who then went home and read said book, and maybe hadn't read a book in a very long time, and sort of remembered how much they loved reading. There's a lovely satisfaction that comes from that. And knowing that somebody has discovered a new writer for the first time, and that they're now probably going to go and buy three more of their books. That's a lovely sense of accomplishment.
Jo Reed: How many books will you give out?
Linda Murray: Last year, it was 10,000. This year in DC there will be 15, and I think there'll be another 10 in New York, yeah. <laughs> It's madness! It's pure madness! <laughs>
Jo Reed: But it sounds like a splendid madness.
Linda Murray: It is! It is. There's no controlling the day. And what I have learned is that every single day is different. We've now-- this is our sixth year doing it in a row, and they haven't been the same twice. So you keep thinking you've covered every eventuality, until something else comes up at you, and then you realize, "No. I'll never understand this day." <laughs> But for me, I mean, it's a really nice way to celebrate my national holiday.
Jo Reed: Linda Murray, thank you so much!
Linda Murray: You're welcome! [Happy Lá Fhéile Pádraig]
Jo Reed: That was Linda Murray, she's the artistic director of Solas Nua which presents contemporary Irish art to audiences in the United States. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
We thank all the artists who created the work we excerpted in this program; it was all used courtesy of Solas Nua. The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on Beyond Campus and look for the National Endowment for the Arts. Next week, National Medal of Arts recipient, designer, Milton Glaser.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Original fiddle performed by Caoimhin O Raghallaigh.
"Disco Pigs" written by Enda Walsh.
Performed by Rex Daugherty and Madeleine Carr.
"The Cord" written and read by Leanne O'Sullivan
Soundscape produced by Fiona Hallinan
Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom directed by Daniel O'Hara
Daniel Wu as Yu Ming
Frank Kelly as the old man
Paddy C. Courtney as a barman
"Impossibly Beautiful" from the album Pages written and performed by Julie Feeney
All excerpts used courtesy of Solas Nua