Heroes for Our Time
“You cannot put a rope around the neck of an idea. … You cannot confine it in the strongest prison cell that your slaves could ever build.”
– Sean O’Casey on the death of Thomas Ashe.
Just as I was getting annoyed that no one on the Larry King tribute to Gregory Peck mentioned the actor’s Irishness, he mentioned it himself. “It must be that Irish stubborn streak in me,” Peck said suddenly filling the screen in a film clip from an earlier TV interview.
Gregory Peck was, of course, universal. He was loved by audiences the world over. “I thought he was Jewish,” a neighbor of mine said, recalling the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Peck’s character is a journalist who exposes anti-Semitism by pretending to be Jewish. And to African-Americans he will always be the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch who defends a black man in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
But it’s not taking from Peck’s universal appeal to say that he was proud of his Irish ancestry.
His “passion and curiosity about Ireland and all things Irish was unbounded,” Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, who shared in one of Peck’s literary evenings, told me. But I knew that. It was the reason why Peck finally consented to sit down with Irish America in 1997 for an interview, which we republish in this issue. I believe it was his last formal interview. After we published it, he told me that the New York Times called but he told them he had said everything he wanted to say to Irish America.
Peck’s roots were in Kerry. His paternal grandmother was born there and his father lived there until he was 10. Peck himself was born in La Jolla, California on April 5, 1916, just a few days shy of the Easter Rising in Ireland, in which his cousin Thomas Ashe with just 44 men managed to capture a police column, one of the few military successes of the Rising.
When Ashe died in prison on hunger strike (from a brutal forcefeeding) trying to win political prisoner status, Sean O’Casey wrote: “You cannot put a rope around the neck of an idea…. You cannot confine it in the strongest prison cell that your slaves could ever build.” It’s a quote that Peck, who kept a portrait of Ashe in his study, identified with. Like his cousin, he never walked away from an idea that might change someone’s thinking on racism, or discrimination, or the rights of the individual.
When I heard that he had passed on, a line from a half-remembered song, “Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland,” came to mind. Ironically, it’s a song about an Irish rebel who died on hunger strike in Brixton prison.
If souls do any traveling after death I’m sure Gregory Peck’s did a flight over Annascaul in County Kerry that was his heartplace.
Peck was a fan of Abraham Lincoln’s and the men of that era for their “willingness to sacrifice – not shirking the right thing to do – not preoccupied with material things or the struggle for money and power – lack of fearfulness.” I think he would have enjoyed our feature on Civil War reenactors in this issue. As a literary man he would have been interested in the story on Barney Rosset, the publisher who rescued Samuel Beckett from obscurity. And I’m sure he would have admired the tenacity of John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted. See Louise Carroll’s insightful interview on page 32.
Walsh’s style couldn’t be more different from Peck’s. Where the actor was persuasive, Walsh is combative – after all, his roots are in Tipperary Hill, in Syracuse, New York, where they insist that the traffic light be turned downside up with the green on top to celebrate the fact that Irish stubbornness won out after years of British “Redcoat” domination. They don’t call Tipperary people “stone throwers” for nothing. As a county with more than its share of rebel history, the nickname supposedly came from the citizens’ penchant for throwing rocks at passing landlords and bailiffs (from behind the wall, of course). References to the Walsh name in MacLysaght’s Irish Families show that two of the Walsh clan were killed “in rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.” So John Walsh has an inherited rebellious streak. He refused to lie down after the enormous tragedy of his son’s murder but used Adam’s death to fuel a mission against crime. Recently his persistence helped bring about the return of kidnapped Elizabeth Smart to her parents, and in countless other cases he has been responsible for the arrest and prosecution of some of America’s most notorious criminals. His new show, The John Walsh Show, which concentrates on his latest campaign for victims’ rights, is one of the many things he talks about in this issue.
“This is a hard time in human history, and we look for the bright spots that show us the way,” Jean Picker Firstenburg, the director of the American Film Institute, said just days before Peck’s death when the Institute named Atticus Finch its top screen hero of all time. Like Atticus, Gregory Peck showed us the way. He never shirked his duty. And in his own inimitable style, neither does John Walsh. ♦