Six people standing on steps

Emerald Isle’s musical fusion draws new audiences

Art can serve many purposes, and at the Emerald Isle Immigration Center (EIIC), reaching out to new communities is one of them.

Established in 1988 to assist Irish immigrants to New York, today the Center provides free advice on immigration, healthcare and social services to thousands of immigrants in the Bronx and Queens areas, regardless of their origin or identity.

Power of creativity

Now, through an artists-in-residence programme, the Center is harnessing the power of creativity to support pioneering artists - and raising awareness of its services among new communities of immigrants in the process.

Irish beats with West African melodies

The first ensemble performance of “EIIC Creatives” treated a full-house audience at the New York Irish Center to a musical experience that fused traditional Irish beats with West African melodies on May 11th.

“Music is a universal language,” says Mary Courtney, a singer and guitarist and bodhrán-player originally from County Kerry.

“Everyone has an emotional response to music whether it’s Irish or African or wherever–the heart responds. That makes it easier to connect as humans.”

Courtney is one of six artists in a cohort chosen by the Emerald Isle Immigration Center as recipients of a two-year guaranteed living wage, which is funded by a grant from Creatives Rebuild New York.

Emigrant Support Programme (ESP)

The Center also receives annual funding from the Government of Ireland through the Emigrant Support Programme (ESP).

Other EIIC Creatives include guitarist and singer Allen Gogarty, Peruvian-American filmmaker Erika Gregorio Lopez, Chinese-American blues musician and singer Jeff Lum, Colombian painter Alejandro Pinzón, and West African musician and singer Abdoulaye Alhassane Touré.

Creative traditions

The team’s diversity of backgrounds allows them to explore the creative traditions of other cultures and identify commonalities between them, a collaboration Touré calls “fantastic, inspiring and interesting.”

“We have a lot of things in common,” says Touré, originally from Niger and Mali. “[West African and Irish song] lyrics are quite similar - themes like struggle, exile and traveling for a better future. My Irish brothers and sisters and me; all of us came to America for a better life.”

Legal and social services

For Courtney, the group is an opportunity to raise awareness of the essential legal and social services EIIC provides. “I got my visa here thanks to the EIIC, and the same with my citizenship. They work with over 100 nationalities and I thought we should do something to help.”

Other activities planned by the cohort include free painting workshops during the “Open Streets” festival, and a film festival in August focusing on resilience in immigrant communities.

Supporting artists

A guaranteed, basic income for artists is not a new idea, but interest in novel ways of supporting artists appears to be growing, including in Ireland. In September, the Irish Government announced a three-year pilot program guaranteeing 2,000 artists a basic income, a “transformative initiative to support the arts and creative practice.”

Services available for artists

If the EIIC Creatives are successful, programme co-coordinators Eileen Condon and Liz Baber anticipate benefits on two levels: enabling artists to enjoy more just compensation and greater financial stability while honing their craft, and broadening EIIC’s impact by spreading the word of the center’s healthcare access, legal, and social services to those community members who need them most.

“Giving artists stability and security to immerse themselves in their creativity is a key goal,” says Condon. “But if these activities can also help us get the word out to people who most need our help accessing healthcare and legal assistance, then that’s a big win for us.”