Heather Humphreys

Ireland’s famous culture is helping the country bounce back from its debt crisis, but supporting the arts is about more than cold economic analysis, an Irish cabinet official said in Atlanta this week. 

“Cultural capital is hard to quantify on the balance sheet, but we must remember that not everything that can be measured counts, and not everything that counts can be measured,” Heather Humphreys, Ireland’s minister of arts, heritage and the Gaeltacht, said at an Irish Chamber of Atlanta luncheon.

That’s not to say Ms. Humphreys isn’t making a numbers-based case that the arts drive growth. Now that Ireland is past the worst of its austerity measures, she is using data to lobby for more buoyant budgets to support artists.

The arts added €340 million ($540 million) in tax revenues to government coffers and created a total of 79,000 jobs when factoring in the downstream impacts on tourism and the creative industries of film, advertising architecture and fashion. Of the 6.3 international visitors to Ireland, 3.5 million engaged in cultural activity and spent €2.8 billion ($4.5 billion) last year. 

Ireland is also looking to export its culture, both to draw tourists and to stake its claim on the creative landscape. 

Through Culture Ireland, the government funds artists’ trips abroad to exhibit their work at international festivals. In 2013 alone, 3 million people in 49 countries saw Irish art exhibited with assistance from the program. Through Inspiring Ireland, a digital portal undertaken with Stanford University, a a global audience can view some of the most important pieces of Irish art virtually. 

Then there’s Atlanta, which the minister called “an Irish cultural community in good health,” thanks to multiple Irish shows and literary exhibitions. She arrived just after the debut of “Philadelphia, Here I Come” from the local Celtic theater company, Arís. She also praised an in-depth exhibition at Emory Universityhonoring poet Seamus Heaney, noting that discussions are in the works to bring parts of it to Irish audiences. And she was set to attend a reading of a new volume of letters by Samuel Beckett, another famous Irish writer.   

Ireland has a lot to learn from the American South in translating its culture into its overall marketing pitch, and like states such as Georgia and Louisiana, Ireland is taking a proactive approach to wooing international film productions, she said. 

The country offers tax relief for production costs of up to $50 million, and the government is willing to negotiate better terms for bigger productions. 

“We don’t want anything to be prohibitive for them, so we will look at anything that is presented to us in terms of how we can accommodate them,” she said. 

Already TV series like “Vikings”, “Penny Dreadful” and “The Tudors” have been shot in Ireland, taking advantage of its natural environment. Ms. Humphreys was recently on set at the shooting of a new Star Wars film on Skellig Michael, an island home to a monastery instituted by monks in the sixth century. 

While she made a brief stop in Atlanta, she was in the U.S. for a different purpose: visiting New Orleans for a commemoration of the Irish famine, which drove much of the Irish emigration to the United States in the middle of the 19th century. She noted that 1 million Georgians claim Irish or Scots-Irish heritage, and that Ireland is ready to welcome them back. 

Each Irish county, said the former mayor of Monaghan County Council, has both an arts and heritage officer to help visitors on their quest to uncover their personal history. 

“We want not just to welcome them, but to help them on their journey, and we will continue to invest in the offering for people who want to explore their Irish roots. We want them to visit their homeland, the homeland of their ancestors,” she said. 

That benefits the economy while pointing to something much more important, she said. 

“Nations that appreciate art and culture are progressive nations, and I intend to do do my utmost to ensure that everyone feels part of the arts. We are, after all, the curators of our own cultural destiny.”

Curious about your cultural heritage?Visit http://www.irishgenealogy.ie/en to search the country’s national library. 

Learn more about the Georgia-Scots-Irish connections here: How to Trace Your Northern Irish Heritage

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...