If TV talent shows like The Voice and X Factor had a category for singer-dancer-instrumentalists specializing in traditional music, Irish performer Eimear Arkins would be a shoo-in for the finals. Since fall 2014, Arkins has spent her semesters studying for master’s degrees in law and journalism at MU. But the native of County Clare could as easily be found touring Europe or the United States, representing Ireland as a performer.
Such is the push and pull of her life: In following the call to educate audiences about Irish culture, she must leave her beloved soil. But she is on a mission because, as Americans’ fixation with shamrocks and a certain malty beer underscores, knowledge of Ireland is oversimplified to the point of cliché.
Arkins comes by her talent and cultural evangelism honestly enough. She hails from the small village of Ruan in rural Clare, a county that is a hub of traditional Irish music. She appears to take inspiration from each parent. Her mother, Concepta, teaches Irish, aka Gaelic, at a nearby high school. Her father, Joe, a county-level administrator and former county mayor, not only sings traditional ballads but also performs as a storyteller, touring Ireland, Britain, Germany and the United States.
She was like a sponge when it came to learning stuff, and she always had a competence well in advance of her years.
Even if Arkins seems born and bred to take the stage on Ireland’s behalf, she has paid her dues. She started on stage at age 5, when she won a traditional dancing competition. Before long, she was performing songs, dances and fiddle tunes for tourists. At about age 9, she landed a job with a tour company catering to Americans, Joe says. “They’d stay a number of nights in Ennis and make day trip to Aran islands and the Burren, and Eimear used to go along to teach the kids songs and show them tunes on the tin whistle.” She was about the same age as her charges, Joe says. “But by then she already knew so many songs. She was like a sponge when it came to learning stuff, and she always had a competence well in advance of her years.”
Arkins’ résumé keeps growing. Performance highlights from the past few years include tours in Europe and the U.S. with: all-female super group Cherish the Ladies; the National Folk Orchestra of Ireland; international music organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann; Ennis & Nenagh Singers Club; Maids of Éireann; and Irish Rambling House. She has performed for the last five seasons with Brú Ború and was part of the troupe that represented Ireland at World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. She also performed at World Expo 2015 in Milan with St. Louis Irish Arts.
Arkins has folkie star power, but she does not aspire solely to take the stage. She attended the University of Cork from 2009 to 2013 and earned an undergraduate law degree. Law, she says, is good preparation to work in business or for large organizations, such as the European Union. During those undergraduate years, she moonlighted teaching traditional music at organizations in Cork City to people of all ages. In 2010, she worked with the University College Cork Music Department and Cork Arts Council on a pilot project that introduced primary school children to Irish music. After graduating and before coming to Mizzou, she took a year off to serve as a tutor with Comhaltas Schools Outreach and Music Generation on programs designed to teach primary school children the rudiments of Irish music in school courses and extracurricular activities.
Strat-comm and paddywhackery
With so many talents and so much experience, Arkins has options. But for now, she says she has found a good fit in the J-School’s strategic communication program. For instance, she has enjoyed working in MOJO Ad, a student-staffed group that works with national advertisers to reach young audiences. “That has been a fantastic experience — getting hands-on experience working with talented peers under the direction of some fantastic professors,” she says. Arkins plans to finish coursework in May and complete her thesis in time to graduate in December.
There’s a lot more to us than red hair, freckles and Guinness.
The thesis will deal with the branding of her nation, especially through images (including clichés). “There are so many images produced of our beautiful landscapes and green fields,” Arkins says. “But there’s a lot more to us than red hair, freckles and Guinness.” Still, that’s the sort of simplistic “paddywhackery” Arkins met on her arrival in the U.S. Some would ask if Ireland has Wi-Fi and if she got her first cell phone in the U.S. “It got me thinking about the way we package Ireland and how we entice tourists,” Arkins says. “I’m interested in the cultural symbols we use and how that influences people’s perceptions of Ireland and Irish people.”
For instance, she says, middle-aged and older people can summon images of Ireland as a place to enjoy the quiet beauty of green hills and stone fences in the countryside. In contrast, the Emerald Isle’s largest city, Dublin, attracts young visitors looking for excitement. She thinks the younger group could enjoy other parts of Ireland as well. World traveler that she is, Arkins sees an opportunity in Ireland’s role as an airline hub for people coming and going to and from extended tours across Europe. “I’d like to get more young people to go past Dublin and see the rest of the country.”
Arts in Ireland
For all that, Arkins’ heart remains in travel and performance. “Being an ambassador for Ireland is something I enjoy. It’s really cool to travel and meet people, and I love being able to stand up there and showcase my culture and what Ireland has to offer.” She has had many opportunities to do just that at festivals around the world, including Rennes Expo (France); Festival Interceltique de Lorient (France); Viljandi Parimusmuusika Festival (Estonia) Catskills Irish Arts Week (New York) and World Expo. “In Rennes, for example, we would show videos of Ireland, talk about our country and perform as well. I enjoyed that a great deal, but I don’t know yet how to make it a real job.”
Helen Gannon, an Irish expatriate living in St. Louis, has seen Arkins’ qualities up close. Gannon founded and directs St. Louis Irish Arts, where Arkins regularly teaches music and traditional singing. “Among her talents, Eimear has wonderful communications skills,” she says. “It is amazing how well she can communicate with a child or adult or with the board of directors. Eimear is the pure drop. Undiluted Irish, 100 percent.”