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Ireland's 'amazing' Expo pavilion likely to attract millions of visitors

2010. 13 May

by Clifford Coonan
( IT’S A fair hike to get to Ireland’s pale and beautiful Expo pavilion in Shanghai, so be prepared to walk if you are lucky enough to visit the World’s Fair. To get to Ireland’s pavilion, just go past the Greece and Iceland pavilion, they’re right beside each other.

In China, everyone is moaning about Expo, saying it’s too expensive, a bit meaningless, and why should we go anyway.

The Communists are trying to stop this kind of dissenting talk. But they would do well to allow a situation find its own level. Because Expo is actually really cool.

And, fears of contagious economic collapse aside, Ireland’s contribution to this world fair is a real success, something that is beautiful now and will grow over the six months of the Expo period. The show is all visual, with relatively little textual input, and it works well. And you come out at the end to a collage of Irish images. These, incidentally, could go either way – invest in Ireland, or find somewhere less frantic.

Back in November, the Irish pavilion was just a girder atop another girder, and one had to raise an eyebrow when a clearly competent Hong Kong engineer said: “It’s going to be amazing.”

He was right. So was architect Michael Bradley, and deputy commissioner John Lynam. They all said it would work, and they were right. The €8 million, which looked like a pile of money back in 2008, but is now nothing compared to the whole banking debacle, has been well-spent.

Having witnessed the build-up to Expo before, in Hannover 10 years ago, and those dissenting and sceptical voices, the Irish pavilion is great.

The country’s reputation may have been battered by its recent performance in the global financial markets, but the Chinese visitors at the Shanghai Expo are uniformly enthusiastic.

“This is Ireland. Great. This is Ireland,” said one group of Chinese retirees, knocking me sideways in their enthusiasm to join the lengthy queue to get into the Irish pavilion at this year’s Expo.

Perhaps they had just visited the UK pavilion – far and away the most spectacular building in the Expo site, but curiously low on content. Or the German pavilion, which again meets national stereotypes by being functionally attractive, and then interesting once you actually go beneath the graphite surface.

Asking questions of the people in the line is not very fruitful. Many are keen to get the country “stamps” on their Expo “passports”, documents that will mean a lot in years to come, as one young man explained.

Once you get past the queues, and enter one of the pale glass arms of the pavilion, you are thrown back in time to the gates of Newgrange, and the focus of the exhibition is a walk through Irish history.

It’s not a mould-breaking exhibition, but that’s not what Expo is about, and it is a tribute to the Irish organisers that the content of the Irish pavilion is so fresh and fun.

Jim Blighe, director of Ireland’s pavilion at the fair, says that this week has been the busiest since the Expo got going.

He says this as we walk over a video installation in the floor which represents the Irish weather, or its effects. Obviously much of this is water-based. Mr Blighe has orchestrated Ireland’s input to Expo in Aichi and Hannover, and he is happy to take on this challenge despite taking early retirement from the Office of Public Works.

“We’ve had 81,000 visitors in the last week or so,” he said. We do the maths – if even 10 per cent of the projected 70 million visit the Irish pavilion, that’s seven million people.

“We’d be ecstatic,” said Mr Tighe as we walk upstairs to the roof-top area where the Irish foreign minister and the president can expect to view the Expo site.

Then we enter one of the main galleries, and pass through a series of portals representing Irish history through the years. And it’s illuminating.

In truth, complaining about Expo is like calling for Funderland to be banned because it emphasises the trivial. Get your walking shoes on, rub on the sun cream, fly to Shanghai and enjoy the Expo.

“Do you know where Ireland is?” I ask one visitor.

“No,” she said with easy candour. “But I’ve never been to Beijing either,” she laughs. “Is Ireland nicer than Beijing?”