On St. Patrick's Day Taoiseach Brian Cowen announced that actor Gabriel Byrne had been appointed as Ireland's new cultural ambassador.
The appointment grew in part from recommendations by the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh last autumn, and is rooted in the connection between culture and the economy, Mr Cowen said.
Mr Byrne's appointment precedes what the Taoiseach called "an ambitious season of Irish arts in the US in 2011", whose goal will be "showcasing the Irish creative imagination, showcasing world-class Irish artists and companies, and reinvesting in our unique cultural relationship with America".
Byrne said American audiences had a "very limited view of Irish art. It's Druid [theatre company], Brian Friel, the Anglo-Irish stew of Yeats . . . and there's U2. There's a whole other life – great young conceptual artists, film-making, people writing who wouldn't have written 15 or 20 years ago. Right now, there are four major Broadway productions that are Irish."
Lest Irish citizens begrudge funds devoted to the arts, Byrne reminded them that "America is a giant market for Irish culture. And it speaks English, and it receives us with tremendous good will. To a great extent, our culture is what defines us."
Leaving a meeting with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin noted that Byrne "has already been very active on the cultural front, advancing the cause of Ireland". He mentioned Byrne's role in helping to develop the Irish Cultural Centre in New York, for which the city of New York is contributing $20 million (€14.5 million).
Mr Martin praised Niall Burgess, Ireland's Consul General in New York, for involving Byrne, Liam Neeson and the writers Colum McCann and Colm Tóibín in so many events. "It's extraordinary that two of the best contemporary novels about New York were written by Irish people," Mr Martin said.
Martin Cullen, as Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, is credited with making the biggest push for Byrne's appointment to the unpaid position. Byrne will work closely with Eugene Downes, the chief executive of Culture Ireland. The role will not necessarily be limited to the US, Mr Downes said, predicting that Byrne "will develop an inclusive vision that reaches out from the Irish arts community internationally".
Let's hope this new zeal for the Arts from the Irish government translates into better funding in the coming years.