As the countdown at St. Patrick’s Day continues, several hundreds scholars, experts and ambassadors of Irish culture are in town this week attending the American Conference for Irish Studies. One of them is Jimmy Deenihan, the Irish government’s Minister for Arts, Heritage & Gaeltacht (or Irish language) Affairs, who is here to speak at the conference and meet with local Irish cultural groups, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the newly-formed Irish Network-New Orleans.
Gambit caught up with Deenihan for an interview at the Hotel Monteleone, the site of most of the ACIS events.
Gambit: We hear a lot in Louisiana these days about the value of our culture and heritage as an economic asset. Is that an idea that has caught on in Ireland?
Deenihan: I think people understand it now more than ever. They understand that we have something here that’s very precious. Because Irish music, Irish dance, it’s quite distinctive, and in film, I’d say Ireland has punched way above its weight. There is a lot of economic potential in culture and in heritage. A lot of other countries have proved that as well, but I think we have capitalized on it more than most. We don’t have climate, so we can’t sell sunshine.
But Irish people in a way drifted from their culture, and during the Celtic Tiger (the recent economic boom time in Ireland) they sometimes changed, and Irish people started acting differently than what would be expected of them. One thing that happened with the collapse of our economy in 2007 and 2008 is that people have gone back to basics and they’ve gone back to their culture and their heritage. And in order to regain national pride, we have promoted Ireland through our culture and through our heritage.
One of the great examples of that was a special program we’ve had here in America called Imagine Ireland, for 2011. We put a lot of money into it, four million (Euros) and sent over 1,000 performers to 40 states in America. Half a million people saw Irish arts and music, and it exposed many of our emerging artists to a new audience.
G: The notion of traditional Irish food has long been known as something of a punch line around here, but it seems to be getting more respect in gourmet circles these days. What’s behind the new interest?
D: In the last interview I did, with a radio station in Atlanta, they said to me ‘you know, St. Patrick’s Day is usually associated with drink and corned beef and cabbage.’ I had to explain to him that we’ve moved on a lot. Ireland is now seen as a gourmet destination because our cuisine has improved considerably. There are now emerging young chefs who are celebrities, the national TV station is giving far more coverage to chefs and food programs. And people are cooking more at home too. That’s another way I suppose the Celtic Tiger influenced people. They ate out all the time. They were in so much of a hurry, they didn’t cook anymore, so we were losing even those skills of cooking. But now people are not going out to the same extent and they’re cooking for their families and also their friends. For example, New Year’s night is a major celebration in Ireland. But now fewer people go out. They’re having people over in their homes, they cook for them, and now cooking books are selling really well in Ireland as people are exploring recipes. Irish people realize now that we have a really natural product here that can be had very inexpensively.
G: You’re a native Irishman visiting America in the week leading to St. Patrick’s Day. How does it feel to see so many people celebrating your culture and heritage overseas?
D: I’ve been visiting America for 40 years, and I just always thought there’s a great sense of Irishness in the U.S. Irish people in the U.S. are very proud of being Irish. Irish people did very well here, from a career point of view. Many of them were forced to leave their country under very difficult circumstances, whether from famine or economic difficulties. And they made it here in this great country of yours. So I get a great sense of satisfaction when I see Irish people celebrating, in a proper way, what their culture is all about. It’s uplifting when you see Irish people just demonstrating what’s the best about Ireland. Not being boastful, but you know, we are a decent people, we’re a gregarious people.
Some of these people, their ancestors might have left 150 years ago, but they still feel that connection with Ireland. It might only be in name now, if they’re named Sullivan or Murphy, and they may not even have been back to Ireland. But they still feel that’s where they come from, part of them came from that, from Ireland.
As a (government) minister, I think it’s very important to come over and recognize the effort they’re making and the interest they’re showing in Ireland, and the support they’ve given to Ireland over the years.
G: What do you think of the homegrown Irish cultural groups we have here today?
D: I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen here. (Irish Network-New Orleans) just started late last year and already they have nearly 400 members. It’s great to see people coming together with like-minded people, supporting their native country, and wanting to do events that will benefit New Orleans as well. One of the things they want to do is have an Irish film festival here in New Orleans. Film is one of the things my office does, so any bit of help I can get them I certainly will. That could be a major thing here, because Louisiana is becoming a film hub, especially in New Orleans. So I see the potential for a lot of collaboration, partnerships, joint ventures, there’s a lot of opportunity for filmmakers, so this could be a major boost for New Orleans and Ireland as well.
G: How are you enjoying your stay in New Orleans?
D: Well, New Orleans is an example to all of us. It’s risen from the ashes. There’s that spirit of vibrancy on the streets. It sends out the message to the world that even in adversity you can recover, that you have resilience, that you can fight back. That’s the one message I’m getting about New Orleans, the positivity. After losing 1,500 people and having so much of the city destroyed in Katrina, the fact that this city has bounced back so strongly says a lot for its people.