The arts bear fruit of an Irish renaissance THE GREENING OF AMERICA


Not long ago, Baltimore musician Billy McComiskey was in Jackson, Miss., where he heard "Joe Cooley's Reel" played by a local Celtic folk band. Mr. McComiskey was flabbergasted that this tune, born in the Irish countryside, had journeyed so far.

And just last month, Mr. McComiskey, an Irish-American who won the all-Ireland championship for the button accordion in 1986, heard "Joe Cooley's Reel" again -- at a folk music festival in Anchorage.

"Joe Cooley was from County Galway and spent the last 25 years of his life in San Francisco," Mr. McComiskey says. "He played in pubs and dances and his home, but I couldn't help but [wonder] -- I had always loved his music -- if this guy ever thought his tunes would be played all over the country."

An unquenchable love for a beautiful, oppressed, resilient homeland has always spurred such artists as Bill McComiskey and the late Joe Cooley.

As one transplanted Irishman says: "It's in the blood. It's there and it has to come out."

But lately, in a frenzy of artistic expression, Irish musicians, filmmakers, actors and writers are outdoing themselves -- for a host of intriguing reasons, all reflective of the evolving identity of Ireland and its diaspora.

Irish music offers the most immediate evidence for this Gaelic renaissance. Consider U2, Sinead O'Connor, Eleanor McEvoy, Altan, the Cranberries, Oyster Band, Hothouse Flowers, Clannad, Mary Black, the Chieftains, the Pogues, Enya, Luka Bloom, the Waterboys, uilleann piper Davy Spillane and rock mainstay Van Morrison.

Consider, as well, the fleet of hard-driving "trad-rock" Irish-American bands, such as Black 47 and the Kips Bay Ceili Band. At live gigs, these guys incite gleeful mayhem with their raucous hybrid music, which melds traditional rhythms and instruments with rock and rap.

Irish literature, always a gift to the world, continues to examine Ireland's emotional landscape, which is as complex and mysterious as an ancient Celtic knot.

Look at novelist Roddy Doyle, whose acclaimed trio of books (including "The Commitments" and "The Snapper") paints an irresistible, profane portrait of a working-class Dublin family. Other contemporary writers, including Janet Noble, Edna O'Brien, William Trevor, playwright Brian Friel and poets Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney, explore Irish history, the intractable Troubles and the daily toil of life.

Irish-American writers are returning to their roots as well. Baltimorean Rosemary Mahoney's book "Whoredom in Kimmage: Irish Women Coming of Age," a vivid narrative of a year spent in Ireland, was nominated for a National Book Award.

Recent movies that have emerged from Ireland -- "My Left Foot," "The Crying Game," "The Commitments," "In the Name of the Father," "The Snapper" -- also represent Ireland's artistic riches.

Irish actors, including "Schindler's List" star Liam Neeson, Daniel Day-Lewis of "In the Name of the Father" and David Thewlis, featured in the savagely wrought British comedy "Naked," are making a strong impression.

And American filmmakers are contributing to the critical Irish-culture mass. The recent "Blink" was set in a Chicago Irish-Catholic neighborhood. Actress Anjelica Huston is making a film about the 19th-century Irish heroine Maud Gonne.

Why is the Irish genius in such full flower today?

"The Irish are having a different perspective about themselves now," Ms. Mahoney says. "When I talked to Mary Robinson, the president of Ireland, she felt for a long time that the Irish did not have great self esteem. That's changing now . . . especially with Ireland now becoming part of the European Community."

And Americans are "becoming more and more aware that . . . there are other cultures and civilizations out there that have their own music and traditions," says Baltimorean Paul Hartman, editor of Dirty Linen, a magazine that focuses on folk, traditional and world music.

Demographics also explain the Irish renaissance. Ireland has an "extraordinarily young population, by far the youngest in Europe," says Philip O'Leary, professor of Irish studies at Boston College. "The traditions are now being seen [by the young] as not something to rebel against, but something that is an element of social change. [The culture] that has long been written off is now being seen as far more progressive."

Ireland's citizens also are more mobile, with a "growing awareness of the wider world and a growing appreciation of what's distinctively Irish," Dr. O'Leary says.

"What's happening now that never happened before is that a new breed of Irish are coming over to America," says Karl Geary, co-owner of the trendy Sin-e Cafe in Manhattan's East Village, ground zero for Irish artists and patrons, as well as aficionados of the new Irish wave. " . . . They're integrating into American culture to see what they can do."

And yet, Mr. Geary says, "Being Irish, I know for myself, you always remember where you're coming from because the roots are so strong."

The example of another people with a long history of oppression and cultural wealth has also sparked Ireland's creative spirit. Identification with black Americans has brought "some African-American soulfulness and [a sense of] drama to Irish material," says Paul Wagner, director of "Out of Ireland," a two-hour documentary on Irish immigration to air on PBS in the fall.

Alex Haley's "Roots" reignited the Irish quest for identity, says Mick Moloney, a musician who teaches Irish folklore and Irish studies at Villanova University. That quest inspired an Irish folk music revival in the mid-1970s.

He also notes the "explosive increase" in Irish studies programs on college campuses.

Even the ancient Irish language is being reborn. Roslyn Blyn, a lecturer in Irish Gaelic at the Penn Language Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has witnessed "a great resurgence in the interest of Irish-Americans in learning the language."

The Irish today are also more open to their past than the millions driven to America in the 19th century by the famine, Mr. Wagner says. "They didn't want to talk about it."

Today, Irish music, literature, films and visual art are "a sort of working through of the pain of that experience, even though it was 150 years ago," he says.

Sorrow has always had an enduring effect on the Irish artistic mind, says Wendy Newton, founder of Green Linnet Records, a Connecticut-based label that specializes in Irish music. "I'm a romantic. I believe oppression always enriches cultural endeavor," she says. "The Irish have been an oppressed people for centuries and have kept themselves psychically, morally and culturally alive with music, theater, poetry and art. They've had to; it's their survival."

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