Matt Cooper interviewed Gabriel Byrne on his radio show, The Last Word, on November 5, 2012.
This part of the conversation starts at 16:11 and goes to the end of the interview. Transcription by Stella.
Matt Cooper: Tell us a little more about The Gathering as well. You’ve been involved as the Cultural Ambassador for Ireland here in the United States for the last couple of years. What does that actually involve? What have you been doing?
Gabriel Byrne: Well, the work was pro bono. I decided to do it because I was approached by Culture Ireland. We achieved enormous amounts of…it was a tremendous achievement, what we did in two years. We opened up the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center, we reached out to 150 libraries all over, we had shows all over–it was a huge achievement. And after the two years, because this government pays lip service to the arts and to culture, they more or less just dropped it and that was the end of it. And it’s really unfortunate, because now I see that they have decided to take the National Library, which actually belongs to the people and is the repository of our cultural heritage–it’s now being given back to a bunch of civil servants in Dublin who could care less about the cultural implications of what it means to vandalize, really that’s what they’re doing, vandalizing the resources of the National Library and bringing them all under the control of, you know, one or two civil servants. I was really disappointed, the way all those contacts, all the hard work of the two years that we did, were just dropped. And it really made me disillusioned and disappointed with this government who go on about their love for culture and arts and so forth, and actually don’t really give a toss about it.
Matt Cooper: How could that be reversed? Could this lost ground be regained? Are there things that could be done?
Gabriel Byrne: You know, in order for lost ground to be regained, in order to have a serious policy about arts and culture, you have to understand what it is and you have to be aware of the impact that it makes in every community, in every village, in every town in Ireland. The GAA understand that. They understand how a national organization depends, for its prestige and its power, on its local involvement. I think that these people do not understand the power of culture or arts and I don’t say this in a pretentious way. I’m just saying that we are known in America for our arts and our culture. People are saying “well, what do they do and what”–well, if you look at the results of those two years, the level of awareness of Ireland went through the roof. Now what the government tried to do was connect that into the economy and say that economics and art, you know, it will bring more tourists and so forth. But I’m talking about culture and arts at a local level. You know there’s nothing binds people together more than a shared sense of where we’ve come from. It’s not just about culture, it’s a spiritual thing in a way, and I don’t use that in a pretentious way. I think that we need to nourish things of the soul and we need to nourish the spiritual part of ourselves because we understand that materialism will bring us so far, but it’s an empty goal.
Matt Cooper: Well, Gabriel, I remember last year I met you at Dublin Castle and it was a government-organized (to Farmleigh 2?) and I chaired the session that you spoke at in relation to culture. But it did strike me on the day, and I think I said it to you, it did seem to be all about the business side of it, the economic side of it, rather than actually allowing people to get a greater understanding of who they are or how they can actually use their talents and artistic space.
Gabriel Byrne: Absolutely. And that’s exactly it. I mean, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Because in 1933, when Roosevelt took power in America and the New Deal was proposed and so forth, one of the things that Roosevelt did which was a gigantic success in America, was he put artists to work. Because he understood that, at a basic level, people need that kind of replenishment and nourishment of the soul. Now, it’s also very difficult to say that when people can’t put enough food on the table to feed their families or their sons and daughters have emigrated and there’s no work and no jobs. In 1933, during the Depression, Roosevelt said we need everything we can muster to try to fight this Depression and part of it is re-energizing, revitalizing people’s sense of their deeper selves. Anyway, what I tried to do as Cultural Ambassador was to try to build a bridge between Ireland and America. And you asked about, you talked about The Gathering. Well, I’ve spoken to people about The Gathering and I’m afraid I don’t share the same optimism that people have about it. This is just my opinion. I have to say that I wish everybody connected with The Gathering–I really, really hope it works.
But here it is from an Irish-American perspective. I was talking the other day to a group of people. One of them was an illegal immigrant. His father died. He couldn’t get home. He feels abandoned by the Irish government. He feels an alien. He can’t go back. Then I talked to two kids, a girl and a boy, who were forced to emigrate because there’s no jobs. And they blame the incompetence and the–one of them said “the gangsterism”–of government for the fact that they were forced to emigrate and he said now we’re being asked to come back. We’re being asked to come back to help the economy. We were forced out because we had no jobs. And then you talk to older people, Irish-American people here, and they say we are so sick to death of this, because the only time the Diaspora or the Irish-Americans are ever mentioned is as tourists. And how can we get these people here to boost our tourism? How can we get people back here so we shake them down for a few quid? Well, one guy I know who is a plumber in Philadelphia said to me: Do they not understand that there’s a huge recession here and I’m a plumber and I can’t afford to get on a plane and bring my family back to see a game of hurling in Balmullen (?) or wherever it is? He said it is a huge ask to say to people “put your money aside, buy five plane tickets, come back, get involved in our local egg-and-spoon race, and help our economy.” One guy said to me: I’m sick to death of being seen as a tourist. And one of the problems that I found when I was Cultural Ambassador here was the Diaspora have a very powerful spiritual connection to the island of Ireland. I remember when I was growing up in Dublin, those buses would pull up and those people in Burberry coats would be laughed at because they’d say: oh, here come the Yanks looking for their roots. Well, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most sacred things you can do is look for your roots. And if your grandfather left, or your great-grandfather left during the Famine, that is a very sacred journey that you make back there. We laughed at them.
Now, the Diaspora have that powerful connection to Ireland. Sometimes it’s a bit hokery-pokery, but there’s not the equivalent from there to here. Most people don’t give a shit about the Diaspora over there except to shake them down for a few quid. And when Kenney was talking about in that, I found, slightly offensive speech where he was saying (puts on fake Irish accent): Yeah, we’ll all get together now and we’ll all have a great time, and sure, we’ll get them back here and these are all great, and keep the flag flying and, you know, the economy, and now we’re all great now, and that’s fantastic and I’m off now, off to something else. (end accent) Well, that was not received well here, because people are sick to death of being asked to help out in what they regard as a scam. One guy said to me: This is a scam! And he said: I don’t need an invitation to go back to visit my own country. How dare they say to me “oh, come back and visit”? So anyway, I wish The Gathering the very, very best of luck, but they have to understand that the bridge between the Diaspora and the people of Ireland is broken and I tried to fix that for two years and it’s still broken. And unless you understand what it is that the Diaspora feel about Ireland and the fact that, once your people have emigrated, you don’t really care where they’re gone to, unless they’re your kids, and that emigration takes on a very, very different emotional sense for you.
Matt Cooper: Gabriel Byrne, I’ve gone over the time we had but I was not going to stop you because I was just utterly fascinated by that. It was absolutely brilliant to get the opportunity to talk to you. Thank you very much for joining us here.
Gabriel Byrne: Oh, can I say one more thing, Matt? This is a plug. I have a thing coming out on Channel 4, starts tomorrow night, in which I play the British Prime Minister. It’s called Secret State and it’s a thriller, a political thriller that examines the collusion between government and big business in Britain, America, and in Ireland.
Matt Cooper: I look forward to that. I must get SkyPlus at home. Gabriel Byrne, thank you for joining us.