They don’t have a large country or a long history of independence. But Ireland does have an independent culture, and for Paddy Meskell, culture is at the heart of Ireland’s global influence.
“Culture is the ultimate soft influence,” Meskell says. “As you experience a nation through its culture, you’re more likely to have a positive view and opinion of that country.”
Meskell, who immigrated to America from Ireland in 1988, is an integral part of Solas Nua, an organization dedicated to bringing Irish contemporary arts and culture to DC. From March 16-18, Solas Nua will host its first St. Patrick’s Day festival, Sights and Sounds of Today’s Ireland, in subterranean streetcar station-turned-arts space Dupont Underground.
As chairman of Solas Nua’s board of directors, Meskell helped organize many of the event’s exhibits, including short art videos, children’s films, poetry readings, feature films and live music – all created or performed by contemporary Irish artists.
“We want to help people in the Washington area understand that there is an Ireland that’s not the 1930s, quaint-Irish-villages Ireland,” Meskell says with a thick accent. “There’s an Ireland that’s changing, that’s grittier, that’s outward looking and that has this whole new generation of artists of all disciplines examining life today in Ireland.”
Hannah McPhillimy, a young musician from the coast of Northern Ireland, is one of those artists, and she’ll have the stage on St. Patrick’s Day at 9 p.m. A multitalented instrumentalist with incredibly moving vocals to boot, McPhillimy combines jazz-inflected indie music with reflective narratives about her experience being on the road.
“She’s the nicest woman you ever met, and she’s also a brilliant composer and singer,” Meskell says.
Jonah King, a renowned Irish videographer, will join an artists’ panel on opening night with Jackie Hoysted, who serves as Solas Nua’s exhibit curator and visual arts director. Known for his inspiring interpretation of how the power of digital media relates to our connection with land, King represents the talent of the Irish contemporary arts community.
“For some reason, Ireland is not very well-known for its visual art, and yet we have incredible talent there,” Hoysted says. “My mission at Solas Nua is to change that. Jonah represents that amazing talent; he is an emerging, award-winning contemporary Irish artist who produces excellent work worthy of the world stage.”
To start the festivities on Friday night, Hoysted will introduce visitors to about 18 exhibits of visual art that will be projected onto the wall, side by side. Throughout the weekend, other featured events include a seisún, a high-energy musical improvisation performance by anyone who wants to join, and an exhibit of ancient Celtic scriptures.
Visitors will also receive a free copy of New Writing from Ireland, a 32-page selection of fiction and poetry from Dublin-based magazine The Stinging Fly. With all of these exhibits and more, Sights and Sounds is the best way to get a broad range of Irish culture in one place.
“Our focus is that Dupont Underground will be a place where people can come, and they don’t have to go to the pubs to experience contemporary Ireland,” Meskell says.
Above everything else, Meskell’s Irish blood is the most vital aspect to his character.
“My Irish heritage is incredibly important. I am proud of who we are as a nation. I am proud of our people, I am proud of our history, I am proud of our language, I am proud of our culture and I am proud of the contribution we make in the world.”
To him, Irish heritage means being friendly and outgoing with a deep respect for Ireland’s cultural history. It means being passionate and poetic, but still connected to the soil and stone that they grew up in. He says that the Irish revere graveyards because they tell a story of past ancestors, land and generations of culture.
“Ireland is such a small country,” he says. “You don’t have to go to the museum. History and heritage is in the fields, it’s in the stones, it’s in the walls and it’s in the rivers. It’s very personal and very intimate.”
Sights and Sounds of Today’s Ireland is open from 7-9:30 p.m. on Friday, March 16 and 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. on Saturday, March 17. Hours on Sunday, March 18 are still TBD. Learn more at www.solasnua.org.
Dupont Underground: 19 Dupont Circle NW, DC; www.dupontunderground.org