By Harry Keaney
Pauline Turley, executive director of the Irish Arts Center, gasped in disbelief on hearing that Chieftains promoter Charles Comer had just died.
The Manhattan center was the first to bring the Chieftains to New York, in the early 1970s. Indeed, having been in existence for 27 years, 25 of them at West 51st Street, the Irish Arts Center has been both an outlet and a nursery for Irish art long before Irishness became the hot property it is today.
Drama, art exhibitions, film screenings, lectures and a music outreach program, as well as an array of classes and workshops by Linda Downes and a group called Rince Ceól Amhrán, form the nucleus of the Irish Arts Center’s activities. It is Turley who manages the whole operation, the person who, literally, takes care of business, the one who is responsible for "everything down to ensuring there’s enough paper in the toilet roll."
Although she holds an honors degree in drama and theater studies from Trinity College in Dublin, one senses it’s her no-nonsense get-the-job-done approach that has propelled her, at just 27, to head of the Irish Arts Center.
"I’m not wholly ambitious, I’m practical," she said. "If something needs to be done, I’ll do it. I like to get a job done. I’m not afraid of hard work."
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Turley is a native of Saval, just outside Newry, Co. Down, the fifth of seven children, four boys and three girls. Her first experience of theater as a child was when the O’Casey Theater Company came to Newry Town Hall with "Shadow of Gunman" directed by O’Casey’s daughter Shiván.
But, even at 7 or 8, the idea of theater, of putting on a performance, was not totally new to Turley. Her father, Leo Turley, "took a stab at amateur dramatics in the local parish hall," and Pauline herself played triangle, cymbals, accordion and even bass drum in the local Mayobridge Marching Band.
In the Sacred Heart Grammar School, in Newry, one of her teachers, Brenda Rankin, was "a total Beckett fanatic." However, Turley’s computer teacher told her it would do her no good to skip classes for theater.
Turley became a member of an after-school drama group that staged a Beckett festival in the Newry Arts Theater; she also began studying theater at the local technical college.
"I enjoyed theater, I was doing physics and computers but I knew I didn’t want to pursue a career in those," she said.
And so, while some of her friends were accepted into Trinity to study subjects like law or medicine, Turley opted for drama and theater studies, graduating in 1996.
While her courses in Trinity covered both the academic and the practical, it was her involvement during that time in the Players Drama Group that gave her hands-on experience of actually running a theater group.
"I was a trustee and chairperson for about three years, that’s where I got a lot of my practical training in marketing and producing," she said.
During this time, she wrote and directed her own play, "Masquerade," a religious satire. She also directed and produced "A Beckett Exhibition," which became part of the Beckett 90th Festival in Dublin in 1996. "This was my first professional experience, the Irish Times gave it a good review and, as a student, this was a huge deal," she recalled.
But close as she was to the stage, being in the actual limelight held little lure.
"To be a successful actor, you have to be 200 percent committed," she said. "I was too intrigued by other aspects of theater to concentrate on acting."
She arrived in New York in 1997 and, almost immediately, began volunteering at the Irish Arts Center. Waitressing and nannying helped "pay the bills."
She worked as production assistant for Brian Mallon’s "Secrets of a Celtic Heart" and was producer of Brian Friel’s "Translations."
Subsequently, she spent six weeks visiting friends in Kenya and, after returning, was appointed in February 1998 to the full-time paid job of managing director of the Irish Arts Center. Last month, she was promoted to executive director.
Now, she is steering the center toward the new millennium and is seeking members for its Year 2000 Committee. It is a role that will utilize all her talents, including her knowledge of computers, and perhaps even physics.