Irish Drama, Poetry, Song in Spotlight at KenCen

By Donohoe, Cathryn | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

Irish Drama, Poetry, Song in Spotlight at KenCen


Donohoe, Cathryn, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


"We'll be reelin' and rockin' to the sound," says Philip King, producer of the music portions of the Kennedy Center Irish festival, speaking from Cork about what he has in store for KenCen audiences.

"They don't know what's going to hit them," he says with undisguised glee.

Fans of things Irish have a pretty good idea: "Island: Arts From Ireland," as the festival is called, opens tonight with a gala concert, and promises roughly two weeks of music, song, story, poetry, theater, dance, film and visual art, topped off - as befits the Irish - with great bouts of talking and a dollop of politics.

To be sure, the celebration is only the latest in a long line of festivals of nations and regions - Germany, France, Israel, Japan and Africa among them - that the Kennedy Center mounts from time to time to remind us all of its place in this international capital.

But the Irish wingding has an edge that at the Kennedy Center can't be trumped: the link to the man who gave the place its name and to one of his sisters, Jean Kennedy Smith. Granddaughter of immigrants from County Wexford, lately U.S. ambassador to Ireland and of course a member of the Executive Committee of the Kennedy Center's Board of Trustees, Mrs. Smith conceived of this celebration; colleagues describe her as pursuing it with a fierce intensity.

"I was thinking of an Irish festival even before I went to Ireland," Mrs. Smith says, harking back to 1993 and the start of her five-year stint as ambassador.

"Every town there has an amateur theatrical group - I don't know how many times I saw `West Side Story.' Theater is pervasive. Writers are everywhere. It made a huge impression on me, that the arts were very much a part of the lives of the people, and that's what the Kennedy Center has always been interested in. So it just seemed a natural thing," she says.

Mrs. Smith accompanied John F. Kennedy on his trip to Ireland in 1963, film from which will be shown as part of tonight's gala opening concert. The journey made Mr. Kennedy the first American president to visit Ireland. This festival, Mrs. Smith says, is a tribute to him.

"It's the perfect celebration of my brother for the millennium," she says.

Kennedy Center publicity sums up the festival as "a celebration of the continuity and impact of Irish arts on the world and a reaffirmation of the cultural and historic bonds between the island of Ireland and the United States."

It's a mouthful. But in fact Mrs. Smith - along with Kennedy Center President Lawrence J. Wilker, the Kennedy Center staff and consultants like Mr. King - has assembled a program exploring the Irish genius for making art from the hard parts of life and, along with its people, exporting it - notably to North America, where it has mingled with the traditions of other nations to become an entirely new creation that in turn has nudged Irish arts into new directions.

Nothing illustrates the theme better than tonight's concert. This tribute to 20th century Irish-American music and dance has been put together by Mr. King and co-producer John Dunford, essentially recapitulating "Bringing it All Back Home," a BBC series they produced in 1992 to show the cross-pollination between Irish and American music.

The evening features Irish-born and American musicians who mix and match traditional Irish tunes with their Appalachian and bluegrass cousins. Imagine crossing internationally known Irish performers - including singer Mary Black, saxophonist Richie Buckley, fiddler Nollaig Casey, the old-style Gaelic singing sisters Maigread and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, Lunny and the Coolfin band and members of the Riverdance company - with such as Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Elvis Costello, and you get the idea.

"What we are trying to tell you," says Mr. King, a musician and songwriter who co-founded the traditionally inclined Hummingbird recording label in 1987, "is that the tradition in Ireland and Scotland made its way to the U. …

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