So, there came a point when I decided to spend a summer in New York. It was not going to be a holiday. I had a detailed plan of research for my next book. The whole project involved a lot of saving, serious organization, and making sure that I had somewhere to stay. That all worked out, flights were booked, and on the morning of 4 June 2013 I was amazed to find myself at Dublin airport with a large bag, a computer, absolutely no idea whether I’d meet new friends, but quite prepared to face whatever my journey in New York was going to throw at me. I’d never spent three months away from my home before; too many responsibilities for so many years. I was really looking forward to the prospect. I landed in John F. Kennedy airport, found my bag on a carousel that had a peculiar life of its own, and took a taxi to the East Village, my home for the duration of my stay.
The next thing was the launch of my book, Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation, which happened in the Residence of the Irish Consul in New York on 12 June. That was a fantastic night – my father flew to New York to attend, as did my publisher, Conor Graham, from Irish Academic Press, and the esteemed historian, Kevin Cahill, did me the great honour of launching the book. The entire evening took place 53 floors up in the air, and amid one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. Keating, who visited New York in 1930 and again in 1939, would have loved it! I didn’t realise it at the time, but I met many people who were to become very good friends at that book launch. Those friendships matured over the ensuing weeks and months, and will, I feel sure, last a lifetime.
After the excitement of the book launch, I saw my father and Conor off in taxis, and then, it was down to the business of researching for the new book. Alone in New York, I knew what I had to do, and I was fully aware that it was going to be a major research project involving archives in institutions all over the city and beyond, and in private collections in the city and beyond. Ultimately, of the eleven weeks in New York, ten of those were spent researching – and I mean morning, noon and night – to get to the level of detail that I required for the project.
One of the first things that I did on arrival to the city was to take myself to New York Public Library where I did a brief interview with a wonderful person who oversees the writers’ rooms. I explained my project, and must have passed muster; I was given a key card to the Shoichi Noma Writer’s Room where I had my own desk, shelves and access to whatever material I needed. My own desk in New York Public Library – a researcher’s dream! I spent many, many hours in the Shoichi Noma Writer’s Room. Indeed, on several occasions, myself, and a fellow writer in the room, were the last members of the general public in the building. I will treasure that image – being one of the last in the building. There is something wonderful about seeing what goes on behind the scenes, however brief the view might be, when major institutions close their doors to the public for the night. My imagination ran away with me on those occasions. Perhaps, I’d be thinking, the ghost of some frustrated writer stalks the corridors, and if we could hang about a little longer, we might see it/him/her?
The image of closing time at the library reminded me that I was one of the last people allowed into the Orangerie in Paris in 2000, just before it was closed for renovation. That was an amazing experience – me, my friend, and the two security guards, standing alone with our thoughts in front of some of the most amazing work by Monet that I had ever seen. While in the Orangerie, and faced with closing time, I found myself imagining Monet standing there, nodding his head in approval, and making an appointment to return for the re-opening.
So what will I remember most about my stay in New York during the summer of 2013? I’ll remember the people that I met; their kindness, their generosity, and their warmth. I’ll remember the Mosaic Man – who turned the lamp posts of the East Village into intricate works of art. I’ll never forget The Cell Theatre and all of those involved with it. I’ll remember the awe I felt in Columbia University, in New York Public Library, and in several other libraries and archives that I had the honour and privilege to visit. I’ll forever recall the emotion that I felt when I visited Flushing Meadow to try to ‘trace’ where the two Irish pavilions had been during the World’s Fair in 1939-40. I’ll remember the kindness of several archivists, in many institutions, who took a personal interest in my work, and who all did their utmost to help me in my quest. My theatre experience was an emotional journey – I’ll certainly remember ‘The Nance’ for the complex stories about human life that it illustrated. Most of all, I’ll remember the friendships that were forged among artists, writers, musicians, journalists, photographers, bloggers, historians, families, and so many other people who, for the purposes of privacy, shall remain nameless, but who know who they are.
Dublin beckons, and the journey towards the new book will continue – so will the blog about that journey. In the meantime, I have a final thought to share; one that says so much about New York, and about the people and my journey through the summer of 2013. When I had completed my interview for a place in the Shoichi Noma Writer’s Room in New York Public Library, I was handed the key card, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Imagine, I thought to myself – me, researching in New York Public Library – in New York, the city of dreams! The man who oversees the writer’s rooms smiled at me. Perhaps he could read my thoughts. “Welcome to New York Public Library” he said – and I never felt so welcome in another city in my entire life.