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Panti, Yeats and SJP: An Irishwoman In New York

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Kathy Rose O’Brien writes about how Yeats and Panti Bliss took New York Society by storm this month.

Last week was a good week to be Irish in New York. On top of that, it was also a hot week. We had just said goodbye to some epic rain that had caught me completely off guard and I’d found myself tearing around Barney’s at the last-minute on the hunt for something to keep me dry at the Mumford and Sons gig at Coney Island. So determined and ill- equipped for Irish weather was I that laid out a small fortune on a gorgeous raincoat made by Swedish company Stutterheim but in last week’s baking sun it seemed like a moment of lunatic extravagance and the handmade, navy waterproof had been stashed in the back of my ‘closet’ in Brooklyn.

Still basking in the glory of the YES triumph, the great and the good of Irish-American society turned up to the infamous Town Hall Theater on Monday night for a gala Yeats- themed fundraiser in aid of the Irish Repertory Theater, the home of Irish theatre in New York City. Irish fan and literary luvvy Sarah Jessica Parker, who seemed to float in a stunning Elie Saab gown, hosted the night with husband Matthew Broderick. Superstar novelist Colum McCann, Actors Peter Gallagher, Olympia Dukakis and Broadway star Ciaran Sheehan also performed Yeats classics alongside musicians, singers and dancers. At the subsequent Bryant Park gala dinner, I lost my cool a little around white-haired actor John Slattery – known as Roger in ‘Mad Men’ to most but to me he will always be Carrie’s politico love interest Bill Kelley in Sex and the City.

The next night was a different kettle of fabulous fish.

The Irish Arts Center can be found in Hell’s Kitchen in midtown Manhattan. Panti Bliss was in town making her New York debut and had sold the place out for the week. The theatre was crammed with giddy enthusiasts and multiple New York Times journalists. Panti took it all in her stride and corralled the throngs with her razor-sharp wit. Post-show we moved en masse to a club called Hardware and danced with drag queens Bootsie LeFaris and Pixie Aventura until 4 am. There was definitely a model walk-off that we all competed in. Regrettably, I don’t believe I won. Neither did Panti. For shame.

By the next night I was feeling like ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’ myself so it was nice to see the familiar faces of a number of Abbey Theatre folk performing some of Yeats’ letters at The Morgan Library on Madison Avenue where a rarely seen collection of Yeats correspondence was on display.

Finally, it is Saturday night and I am at the Irish Consul General’s elegant penthouse wearing an Isabel Marant dress and tasselled Ulla Johnson heels that I found on sale in chicer-than-chic Fort Greene boutique French Garment Cleaners (as recommend to me by stylish Irish designer and new Brooklynite Petria Lenehan) It was the closing of the city’s Yeats celebrations and I had been asked to perform. I was the last to take to the floor with my Noble Call. As I watched eminent writers, musicians and stalwarts of the New York scene recite Yeats’ beautiful words before me, I began to panic.

Perhaps inspired by Panti’s moxie or just miffed by the heat I had entirely eschewed the actual words of 150 year old W.B. in favour of a section of Joseph O’Connor’s novel ‘Ghost Light’ where the author imagines a scene in which Yeats tears strips off a young Dub actress during a rehearsal at The Abbey. I was simply looking forward to doing all the voices. Particularly the dithering, womanising electrician Dossie Right. But suddenly such salty speech seemed a little incongruous at the Consulate. Consul-General Barbara Jones called my name, and I stepped forward. I looked down at the book in my hands and began. Out of my mouth rang a coarse Dublin accent spitting a slew of obscenities. As the room erupted in laughter, I breathed a sigh of relief. We were with Irish people after all no matter how many tens of floors up in the Manhattan skyline! Perhaps a week of literary greatness needed to be punctured with a touch of irreverence.

As the week came to a close, the rain made a thunderous return. Wishing for the posh rain mac hanging in my wardrobe back in Brooklyn I made my way home in the downpour feeling like New York and Dublin weren’t so very different at all. Not this week at least.

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