pauline feature

When Irish Arts are Smiling – Our Q&A with Pauline Turley, Vice-Chair, Irish Arts Center

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I met Pauline Turley last winter at a Nightcap Riot performance…we’d got to chatting and asking each other what we were doing there, and how we’d heard about this odd, yet very enjoyable evening that included Mombucha kombucha cocktails, music, a magic show, and a theatrical experience. I explained that I was friends with the playwright. She was confused as to how I could possibly know George Bernard Shaw. I laughed and explained that I knew Jim Knable (not being nearly old enough to have known Shaw), but we quickly realized that we were both book and theater people, and when she told me that she worked for the Irish Arts Center, I asked her if I could interview her and learn more about the organization.

She quickly agreed, but it took us quite a while to manage to get together. You see, 2016 was a very busy year for Pauline. She married Charlie Garland, the handsome man that she’d been with at the show. A small ceremony over Memorial Day weekend with a Justice of the Peace and only two family members as witnesses to make it legal, a wedding back with her family in Northern Ireland, a Cape Cod reception over the 4th of July weekend with her husband’s family, and a NYC party for their local friends.

Work wasn’t any less busy—she and her team have been doing an phenomenal job of fundraising for the Irish Art Center’s new building, which will break ground later this year.

So, with a resolution to have 2017 be considerably less hectic, we finally got together for a leisurely lunch near her office, and she showed me her beautiful wedding photos, gave me a quick look at the intimate theater space (it will remain, in addition to the new and larger theater that will be built), and provided me with the Irish Arts Center’s catalogue of upcoming programs (and a kind invitation to come and join one of them soon as her guest).

She also answered a whole bunch of questions about her work and her life. Here they are.

Pauline Turley Q&A

charlie pauline

Name: Pauline Turley (above, with husband Charlie Garland)

Date: February 2, 2017

Hometown: Saval, a small parish close to Newry, in County Down, Northern Ireland

Current town: Hell’s Kitchen, NYC

Occupation: Vice Chair, Irish Arts Center

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So, tell me a little bit about the Irish Arts Center:

Our mission is to nurture artists, and to promote a dynamic, contemporary and inclusive image of Ireland and Irish America for the 21st century, through live theater, music and dance, film and literature events, and exhibition and education programs, sharing the evolving story of Ireland and Irish America with people of all ages and backgrounds.

We are proud to say that we have come a long way in the past 20 years, and have just crossed over the $56 million mark towards our $60 million goal to build a new, state-of-the-art home for Irish culture in New York, one that will act as a hub to our neighboring cities and countries across the country.

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How do you define “Irish”? The entire island? Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? Irish-Americans?

Yes! It’s a global vision of Ireland. Ireland is everywhere. It’s a small island, and many people in the past have had to leave, for many reasons. Ireland has sent out missionaries, and sent out teachers. A lot of what we do with music is through oral tradition. It’s not written down, there’s no sheet music, it’s taught person to person. We had a Jewish man from Pennsylvania who learned the Irish tin whistle, and was teaching classes with us. And an Irish language teacher who is Russian. The Irish culture is for everyone.

And people like the Irish. We’ve never colonized anyone. We’ve never been a military threat.

Being in New York gives us an opportunity to connect with the world—and with music from around the world. We’ve had Irish music combined with Afro-jazz, in fusion. We’ve had Liam Ó Maonlaí, an Irish folk singer, perform with Cassandra Wilson. They were translating traditional Irish into English and singing in jazz. It’s not taking a sledgehammer to history…it’s making something transformative.

So, you don’t see any conflict between traditional arts and doing something new and innovative?

None at all, tradition and innovation are not in conflict. There is room for both. And culture has to breathe and grow…some things can be modern, some can be traditional, and both can be transformative.

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Being of Irish descent and a NYC native, I have always felt that NYC is a very Irish place…my parents grew up in Queens and I probably feel as at home as I ever do in an Irish pub. I wonder if it is a big culture shock for you, though…what is it like to be from Ireland in NYC?

 Well, I came here on a J1 visa for the summer, twenty years ago. I was only going to stay for six months. (It’s been twenty years.)

One thing that really surprised me when I first got here: In Ireland, no one showed off their bodies…but when I went to the Jersey shore, I was shocked. And I’d never seen a 20-year old woman hand in hand with a 60-year old man, both in bathing suits. Dating for money? We didn’t have that back in Ireland. (No one had that much money, anyway!)

Ha! So mostly naked people must have been a bit of a surprise. I cover up, too—I sunburn! I’ve honestly always felt that there’s a certain bit of an Irish character, a sense of humor that is part of NYC culture. I could be making that up, though. What are your thoughts?

So many Irish people have come to New York. And not just to New York. Ulster music came over to North America around 1700, and Irish music has informed a lot of traditional music here. And also Irish dancing. Step dancing and tap have a connection in history.

And the Irish are in the hospitality business. Bars, restaurants. There are hundreds of Irish pubs in New York, not very many English or Scottish ones. And when there are, they’re often owned by the Irish! Irish pubs and restaurants have long been meeting places. And the St. Patrick’s Day parade…I’ve think I read that 18 million people celebrate it. They’re not all of Irish descent. But they are all celebrating.

Ireland’s a small place but it has an outsize influence on culture. Irish literature has had an enormous impact, and also theater, and music. Including U2!

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I know that immigrant communities in the US do tend to hang on to their traditions, perhaps even after their countries of origins have moved on. I know that only recently did the Ancient Order of the Hibernians allow gay and lesbian groups to march in NYC’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, but that they marched long before in Dublin. (And I have a friend from Korea who has similar examples of Korean immigrant communities doing things that she (from Seoul) considers old-fashioned.) So is some of your support based in a kind of nostalgia?

I think there certainly was a bit of a desire to cling to home among immigrants to the US throughout the 40s, 50s, 60s. People didn’t then have the opportunity to go back home the way we travel today. I came here for the culture and the life experience, it wasn’t an economic necessity. Now, though, people have the internet, they’re more connected, so there’s a lot less of that kind of nostalgia.

Sure, it’s much easier to travel and less expensive. And do you remember how expensive international phone calls used to be?

When I first arrived in New York, after I paid my first month’s rent and deposit, I only had $80 to my name. And then I spent $20 of it on an international phone card. Which was only good for about six minutes! But I felt better knowing I could call home.

It’s very different now. E-mailing and texting friends in any part of the world.

Cultures do change. Have you seen the television show “Love/Hate”? It’s very different from The Quiet Man!

I haven’t seen that one.

As far as the LGBT groups in the parade here, I think what turned the tide was the referendum in Ireland approving same-sex marriage. That made it clear that it was perfectly acceptable in Ireland, a regular and normal thing.

So that’s what made the difference, then. Interesting. I know it was a bit of a controversy here for quite a while.

One of the things we do at the Irish Arts Center on St. Patrick’s Day is give out Irish books. It’s part of a celebration of our culture in a positive way. Not just drinking!

Like World Book Night…I am sad that they don’t do that in the US any longer, but it’s still happening in the UK and, I think, in Ireland. I used to give out books for that and was very sorry when it lost the funding. I keep hoping that some publisher will bring it back.

The idea was that we were spreading books to non-readers, so we were taking them out in the community…they encouraged people to go to bus depots, hospitals, prisons, anywhere people could be found who might not be readers. I thought I’d take them to an Irish pub, so one year I went with a friend to O’Flaherty’s, right around here, with a box of books, and we gave them out.

O’Flaherty’s? I used to work there!

I used to be a regular! My roommate and I, back when we were right out of college, we used to go there all the time.   I hadn’t gone much in recent years, but I would still pop in once in a while..great place.

We had fun there giving out the books, met a nice family in from Australia, I think it was, on vacation. Spoke with some really good people. (A few people are going to be jerks, of course but most of them were just great, and glad to get the books.) The next year I went back for World Book Night again, but it was closed! I was so sad. (We went and found another Irish bar and gave them away there but it wasn’t the same…no books, no live music.)

I was sad, too. I am still best friends with the people who I worked there with. It was such a wonderful place—full of theater people and performers. A lot of Broadway actors and actresses would go there after the shows. Ciarán Hinds used to go in there, it was his old stomping grounds.

I remember the guy who used to sing and play guitar there…he was great!   What was his name, I’m forgetting…

Michael Butler?

That’s it!

I’m still friends with him.

Oh, that’s terrific! I used to love seeing him there. I hope someone reopens that place! (I’m not sure if I’m more sad about the end of World Book Night in the US or that O’Flaherty’s is closed.)

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The Irish Arts Center Annual Spirit of Ireland Gala, Cipriani 42nd Street, Friday October 10, 2014. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano
Colum McCann, Pauline Turley and Liam Neeson; Photo Courtesy of the Irish Arts Center and Photographer Erin Baiano

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Is the Irish Arts Center unique, or are there similar organizations in other parts of the world, or in other parts of the USA?

 Here in New York, there is the Irish Repertory Theatre and the American Irish Historical Society, which is on Fifth Avenue and which has a library and archives. And there’s an Irish Studies program at NYU. We’re the only multi-disciplinary arts-focused organization although. We work closely with those groups; it’s very friendly among the Irish. We have good working relationships with them.

In Boston, there’s the Irish Cultural Centre of New England which promotes Irish history and culture.  They promote Irish arts, and they also host a lot of GAA sports there.  (GAA stands for the Gaelic Athletic Association, which promotes traditional Irish sports like Gaelic football and hurling.)

There’s a large audience for more experimental culture here in New York, and we would like to see ourselves as a hub for Irish culture. One of the things that we try to do is to help Irish arts get a national footprint. We take care of the paperwork and the visas and we help to build partnerships in other cities. We help artists reach people in different parts of the country, like Boston and Chicago.

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When I think of Irish arts, I think of the brilliant poets, writers, playwrights, and novelists: Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Swift…Brian Friel, to name someone more recent. Who are some writers that are maybe not as famous but should be?

Some newer authors to check out are Belinda McKeon, Kevin Barry, and Emma Donoghue (who wrote Room): she’s Irish-Canadian.

Now, perhaps I am ignorant (and I may well be) but I don’t tend to think of the Irish in terms of visual arts…are there some Irish painters, photographers, sculptors, etc. that should be better known?

I believe it was only about 15 years ago that the National Gallery in Dublin opened up an Irish wing. So visual arts in Ireland historically haven’t had the same impact as literature and music in the have. But we’re here to be ambassadors for the arts.

And yes, there are some great artists working today. Colin Davidson is a portrait artist, who recently painted the Queen. And he painted Angela Merkel for Time Magazine. He’s lovely and in public he comes across as quite shy…though he’s the man who taught Brad Pitt how to paint!

 Wow! He taught Brad Pitt how to paint? What a project!

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Now how did you end up working in this field? Was it something you’d always wanted to do, or did you fall into it?

I had a background in theater, and I knocked on the door of the Irish Arts Center. I interned for three months with the guy who had been running it for 25 years. He offered me a full time job after that. And then he retired, and I became the Director. Back then we had maybe a $100,000 annual budget. We’re at the $3 million mark now.

So I started out here without much. I was very broke for a while, but then I started working at the bar, waitressing. And I never looked back!

But it was an amazing time for Irish culture in New York, in the late 90s. The Beauty Queen of Leenane was on Broadway. And I saw Ciarán Hinds in Closer. And Riverdance was huge!

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What has been your best experience working in this field?

I’ve made the best friends here and have been working with amazing artists. With a small theater, you are connecting with people in a room and it is a unique experience. It’s the same with live music. It is bringing people together and celebrating great artists.

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Are you planning on staying in the US indefinitely, or do you think you’ll go back to Ireland? Or somewhere else entirely?

I’ve recently acquired an American husband, so we’re here. But, I’m one of seven and I have 18 nieces and nephews. I go to Ireland three or four times a year and I talk to my mother on the phone almost every day.

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What do Americans fail to understand about the Irish?

You know, in the arts, people are very in tune with Ireland. My husband’s American but he gets it! He knows we don’t have leprechauns!

For St. Patrick’s Day recently, we got a press call, and a radio station wanted someone Irish to do a question and answer segment…and all of the questions were really pretty insulting to the Irish. The first one was about leprechauns. Another was about how much Guinness was drunk on St. Patrick’s Day. We called them back and asked them if we could do some better questions to really promote Irish culture. Which Irish Actor is the only actor to have won three Oscars for best actor? How many Nobel Prizes for Literature have Irish people won? What is Bono’s real name? We were nice about it, and they agreed, so we had a much better story. And a more positive one.

And to turn that around, what do the Irish find surprising about the USA?

The size. My father was wondering if I was going to go over to Chicago and look up some relatives there…not realizing I can’t just run over that way. The whole of Ireland fits into Texas eight times!

And I’d like to tell the Irish that there are good Republicans out there, too. Outside the US, the recent presidential election seemed just like reality TV.

We need to let go of fear of the other. Not Democrats. Not Republicans. Just Americans. A lot of it is tribal, an “us versus them.” When I was growing up, if Jesus Christ himself had run for office in the Opposition party I wouldn’t have voted for him. I think it’s just tribalism. It’s a challenge for us, not to label each other. That’s where the arts can help.

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Irish Art Center Irish Christmas fundraiser at the Ellington. 12/15/13. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano

Pauline Turley and Ciarán Hinds; Photo Courtesy of the Irish Arts Center and Photographer Erin Baiano

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What do you see for the future with the Irish Arts in NYC?

We will be breaking ground at the end of the year in a new $60 million facility.

That must be extremely exciting. Where did that funding come from?

We had funding support from New York City, from New York State, the Irish government, and private philanthropists. We’ve got some really generous donors.

There’s a video that Liam Neeson made which you have to see. He’s been a long time supporter of the Irish Arts Center. And he’s a terrific guy.

He comes across as very kind, when I’ve seen him in interviews and in what I’ve read about him.

Absolutely, he’s lovely. He is polite to everyone, he thanks everyone at an event, including the waitstaff and the bartenders, he knows everyone’s name, he shakes everyone’s hand. He’s just the nicest guy. And so is Gabriel Byrne and Ciarán Hinds.

I saw Ciarán Hinds recently in The Crucible on Broadway, which was excellent, and he was excellent in it. I always like to hear when people I admire as artists are good people, too!

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So, what’s a book everyone should read?

I just bought George Mitchell’s The Negotiator, about the Northern Ireland peace process. Anything we can do to understand the other and come together, we should put in our hands. I love the arts for recognizing our common humanity. Great music makes us conscious of our being and the beauty of life…that’s theater and dance and music. The arts teach us how similar we are.

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What’s your favorite movie?

Well, I have a huge partiality for Brooklyn. I sobbed my heart out. It’s an immigrant story. A lovely story.

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If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?

I feel so blessed. I don’t know what I would change. Maybe I’d meet my husband sooner. It’s been amazing. The 20 years in New York have been good to me.

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What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Follow your heart. Do not be afraid.

I do love hard work, though. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

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What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?

Coming to New York where I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have a lot of resources.

It seems to have worked out pretty well, though! Anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?

Yes, the Irish Arts Center! Come check out our programs! We welcome everyone!

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The 13th Annual Irish Arts Center Spirit of Ireland Gala. New York Athletic Club, October 5, 2012. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano
Jimmy Fallon, Pauline Turley and Gabriel Byrne; Photo Courtesy of the Irish Arts Center and Photographer Erin Baiano

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ABOUT LAURA LaVELLE

Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

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Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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PHOTO CREDITS

Photos with Jimmy Fallon, Gabriel Byrne, Colum McCann, Liam Neeson and Ciarán Hinds courtesy of the Irish Arts Center and Photographer Erin Baiano; Image of Pauline Turley and Charlie Garland courtesy of Pauline Turley.

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