Gemma Whelan and Ger Killeen. (Photo credits: Gary Norman and Ger Killeen)

Happy St. Patrick's Day, Portland! For the day that's in it, we talk to two different Irish-born artists who have ended up in Oregon and are now making art here.  

Poet Ger Killeen is from Limerick, and came to Oregon in the late 1980s. He’s the author of several books including the bilingual Irish/English A Stone That Will Leap Over The Waves (Trask House), the Bluestem Award-winning A Wren and most recently JuárOz (Headlandia). He currently teaches literature and creative writing at Marylhurst University.

Gemma Whelan was born and raised in County Laois, and has lived in the US for over 30 years. She moved to Portland from the Bay Area in 2008 and founded the Irish theatre company Corrib here almost four years ago. The company's next staged reading is of Our New Girl by Dublin playwright Nancy Harris, at Artists Repertory Theatre on April 27 and May 4 and 11.

We chatted with these two Irish artists about cross-cultural exchanges, creativity, and the many connections between here and there. 

Why did you choose Oregon as a place to practice your art?  How does this state inform your art? 

GK: In a way, Oregon chose me! My girlfriend was from Oregon and I moved here to check it out. I very quickly fell in love with the state in a way that surprised me: before moving here I was a total big city boy, having lived and worked in Dublin, London, and Paris. But here I was living in a fairly remote rural area and I discovered part of myself which had been partly dormant for all those city years. That constant engagement with Oregon’s natural beauty and wild places is now one of the deepest inspirations for my artistic work.

GW: One of the things I love about Portland is its scale. It’s not so large that you can’t get your head around it! I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years, and it’s vital and exciting, but very spread out, the energy dispersed. There’s a concentration of energy in Portland. There’s also a great curiosity here, and willingness to experience new things. I love that after only a few years I know a great number of the people and companies in the theatre scene, and feel part of the community. 

How do Portland’s artistic offerings compare to Ireland's? 

GK: Personally, I think Portland has an exceptionally varied and vibrant arts scene for a city of its size. The literary scene, with which I’m most familiar, compares very favorably with the offerings in Irish cities like Dublin and Cork. Before I left Ireland I was involved with a very wild and wonderful arts community in Limerick, and actually, the artistic scene around Milepost 5 in Portland that I’m somewhat connected with sometimes reminds me of that energy.

One thing which initially really surprised me about Portland was the Irish-related arts scene: it amazed and amazes me that many of the activities found in Ireland (traditional music, dancing, storytelling, and Irish language events) thrive in Portland.

 GW: Portland has a thriving artistic scene – theatre, film, dance, music, literature, and on and on. It has an extraordinary number of theatre companies for its size. It feels like it is growing and expanding artistically as the city develops. I know it’s gone through seismic changes in the recent past, and that we’re still in a period of transition and growth. Ireland also has a plethora of artistic offerings, and as a country has gone through profound social change in the last twenty years, which is being reflected in the arts.

Is the audience here different to the one you’ve encountered in Ireland, and does that affect how you present your work? 

GK: It’s a bit different in the sense that my Irish background seems more important to my American readers than it is to me. At readings people sometimes ask about Irish elements in poems which actually owe a lot more to my life here. Of course, you can’t really escape the place you grew up in, but in addition to Irish culture, I grew up immersed in American novels, poetry, and films; so artistically speaking I’ve always felt on a similar wavelength to my audience here. For example, I was reading William Stafford, Ken Kesey, and Ursula LeGuin long before I ever got to Oregon. So, basically I present myself as having a hybrid identity. 

GW: As a presenter of Irish theatre in Portland, I offer a representation of Ireland and the Irish to a largely non-Irish audience, so I feel a heightened sense of responsibility. I actually avoided directing Irish plays for at least the first ten years of my career in the Bay Area (except for Beckett), because I didn’t want to be labeled an “Irish director.” I eventually embraced this as a strength, and now with Corrib, I have the only Irish theatre company on the West Coast. Ireland has such a vast reservoir of plays, and new and exciting voices emerge all the time, so it’s a wonderful time to create and grow an Irish company.

What’s your favorite thing about Portland's arts and culture scene?

GK: If it’s not too paradoxical to say it I think a major element I love about the general sensibility of the Portland arts and culture scene is a serious quirky playfulness that’s both experimental and politically informed. For example, my wife, Kate Saunders, is a glass artist and at a recent opening of hers at the Guardino Gallery, the nearby street scene was filled with impromptu music, poetry, political activists, as well as the challenging visual art in the galleries. I love that kind of energy, and it’s not uncommon in Portland. 

What do you miss most about Ireland? 

GW: The people. My family and friends. There’s an ease and familiarity of being with the people you grew up with. My heart is in both countries (and a few others besides!). I’m leading a theatre tour to Ireland with Corrib next summer (I’ve done this twice before), and just love the opportunity to forge a connection between theatre lovers here in Portland and Ireland.

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