August September 2008 Issue – Irish America Irish America Magazine Thu, 18 Jul 2019 14:56:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 82361074 The Global Irishman: Brendan McDonagh Fri, 01 Aug 2008 12:00:34 +0000 Read more..]]> HSBC’s Brendan McDonagh is a new breed of international Irishman.

Just six months after assuming his job as head of HSBC Finance in North America, Brendan McDonagh volunteered to appear before Congress, in March 2007, to address the growing subprime mortgage-lending crisis.

It was a typical move by the 49-year-old Irishman who has become known throughout his career for a straightforward type of management, which addresses problems head on.

Like many other banking leaders, McDonagh could have tried to duck and dive on the issue and refuse to appear at the televised hearings, but that was not his way. Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd was certainly appreciative.

“We take the situation very seriously and we’re taking strong steps to correct problems,” McDonagh told the legislators, and his bank directly proceeded to do that, seeking to ensure above all that a way was found for homeowners to keep their properties. “Otherwise everyone loses,” McDonagh notes.

HSBC had gotten caught up in the sub prime crisis after it purchased Household Finance in 2003, before McDonagh took the top job.

Last year, the company wrote off $11.7 billion in bad debt as a result of the crisis, but under McDonagh’s management the worst of the crisis now seems over.

The subprime segment is but a very small part of the global HSBC brand. Forbes magazine recently rated HSBC Holdings number one in its Global 200 ranking of companies worldwide.

The banking behemoth earned the distinction by showing a phenomenal annual 26 percent growth in revenues, by having 10,000 offices worldwide in 83 countries, and by having $2.3 trillion in assets.

HSBC is the little foreign bank that could. It started in Hong Kong in 1865 with just two branches, one in Hong Kong and one in Shanghai, capitalizing on the trade winds that were blowing strongly between the Chinese capital and the then crown colony.

At a time when the world center of banking was London, HSBC’s incredible growth since their modest colonial beginnings has been staggering.

As CEO of HSBC North America (the holding company for all of HSBC’s U.S. and Canadian businesses; the company serves nearly 68 million customers), McDonagh has no doubt that the bank has gone from strength to strength because of its global reach.

In fact, the Dublin native embodies the global nature of a bank that has managed to bestride the world. McDonagh’s stellar career in banking was foreordained from an early age. Born in 1958 on Dublin’s Northside, as a kid he showed an aptitude for numbers, which came in handy in the family business. His father was a butcher who supplied meat to the Guinness Brewery and the Rotunda Hospital.

“What we did in those days, because my father had a cash business, we would bring the cash home and I ran a ledger for him and then we would cash checks for our neighbors who were in the check business and needed to pay salaries and wages. So we ran a bank out of the dining room in the evening time,” McDonagh recalls.

It was no surprise when McDonagh took the economics and accounting route and went to Trinity College Dublin to study business and finance. Once he qualified and anxious to see the world, he sent his résumé out to several international banks and waited. It was 1979 and jobs were not plentiful in Ireland in the pre-Celtic Tiger era.

The best offer was from a vaguely exotic sounding company known as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in London. His parents were surprised.  “They were a little shocked when they realized it was based in the Far East and I wasn’t just going over to London for a job,” McDonagh remembers with a smile.

Thus began the journey from butcher’s boy to HSBC’s top job in America. McDonagh now oversees one of the top 10 financial services organizations in the United States, with assets totaling $557 billion and over 40,000 employees.

The journey to the top was one that would include living in eight different countries and developing deep cultural and business ties on several continents.

“A lot of us at HSBC have worked in many countries, and that richness of experience means that you have a deeper understanding, a global understanding, how things work in, and between, different countries,” McDonagh explained in our interview, which took place at HSBC’s New York headquarters on Fifth Avenue. “The foundation for us [HSBC] is free trade. Globalization, at the end of the day, is good for everybody,” he says.

McDonagh, who is now based at HSBC headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Mettawa, Illinois, worked with several developing nations early in his career.

“In those days we were headquartered in Asia and most of our operations were in the Far East and Middle East,” he explains.

McDonagh was in Guam for six months. Then he was sent to Brunei, in Southeast Asia. His first managerial position followed, in Hong Kong. It was quite an experience.

“We had a very large cash department.  It was like mini Fort Knox,  and I was the operations manager.”

Soon after arriving in Brunei, McDonagh met Kenane, an English nurse and midwife, who would become his wife. The newlyweds set out for Oman, McDonagh’s next posting, where he had to adjust to the life style of the Middle East after the years in South Asia.

His globetrotting pace increased when he was sent to Tokyo after Oman.

He enjoyed his time in Tokyo enormously. It was the first of two postings in Japan – the second came a few years later, when he was sent to Kobe.

In Kobe, McDonagh’s Irish roots and philanthropic leanings came into play. He helped set up the Irish Network of Japan which was an organization of younger Irish who were living in Japan.

“Actually, three of us set up a St. Patrick’s Night function in Kobe,” he recalls. “We got various people to sponsor – to buy the Guinness and whatever. We were planning to run it on the fly, but people came from all over – we were surprised by the numbers. We made a handsome profit and found, through a local priest, a Korean orphanage that needed support. There’s a large Korean population in Japan and they, largely, are less well-off. The event became so successful that it became an annual affair. I think the orphanage is still wondering who these crazy Irish people were who were dropping money off with them once a year.”

In 1993, McDonagh, on an upward trajectory, was transferred to London, thus ending his Asia sojourn. He says that he learned “cultural sensitivity” during his time overseas. “You value diversity, you value, and you recognize, the richness that each people can bring.”

Back in London, he was soon on the move again, taking over the company’s offshore operations in the Channel Islands before going back to London and joining the global headquarters staff.
He made it to head of strategy there before the call to come to the U.S. came. He was sent over to run the retail and commercial banking side of the U.S. business, which was based in Buffalo, New York. Soon he was made COO of the banking operation.

Then HSBC acquired Household Finance, one of the largest subprime mortgage lenders, but also one of America’s largest credit card companies. When the company began suffering under the subprime mortgage deluge, the search for a topnotch executive ended at McDonagh’s desk.

McDonagh moved to Chicago to become CEO of HSBC Finance and to deal with the subprime crisis, which he has done successfully.

In February this year, he was promoted to CEO of HSBC North America Holdings Inc., which oversees both HSBC Finance and HSBC Bank.

By now the McDonagh management approach was tried and tested. He expresses it this way:

“If you’ve got good ideas coming from your team, try not to stop them. Your job is to manage the bright people around you and to be comfortable and not be threatened by them. And if you can trust them, and you think they have a good idea, let them go for it.”

He is an innovator too. He and the bank leadership have focused on green technology and making the bank a carbon neutral one globally. He speaks with pride of how all the office buildings in HSBC will eventually conform to the highest green standards. Their new headquarters outside Chicago was recently featured in the New York Times because of its green focus.
It would seem counterintuitive for a bank chief executive to focus so intently on this issue, but McDonagh is a new breed of manager who realizes that green technology benefits everyone, as does good employee relations, another area he spends considerable time on.

When the subprime mortgage crisis hit, McDonagh worked hard to reassure his work force and deal with the problem head on.

“One of the first things I did was to go on the road. There are close to 3000 managers around the country, and I spent six weeks just talking to them. Explaining, ‘This is the problem, this is the size of it, this is what we’re going to do. You’re over here, look after our customers and meet our plan.’”

Many observers are predicting hard economic times ahead, and McDonagh himself sees the U.S. economy as being at a critical crossroads.

“I believe that parts of America are already in recession, but it won’t be that deep and it won’t be that long,” he says, adding reassuringly, “The American economy is very resilient.”

Ireland, always close to McDonagh’s heart, has changed enormously since he left, and he is glad for that. “It has become far more multicultural, which is a good thing. For decades, the world took the Irish in, and perhaps it’s our turn to take other people in. We owe them that. We are a very wealthy nation now, and we have to start to help others,” he says.

McDonagh does his part. He is involved with The American Ireland Fund, a philanthropic organization which supports cultural and educational groups in Ireland, and also, through Enterprise Ireland, he serves as an advisor for new Irish companies seeking to enter the U.S. market. His wife, Kenane, meantime, is involved in charitable organizations in the Chicago area, where their daughter Alison is in school. The couple’s son, Rory, following in his father’s footsteps, is studying economics at Trinity College, Dublin.

McDonagh, who sees the Irish economy as now going through a difficult phase after the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, believes a highly educated work force, preferably one that is flexible and multilingual, can help Ireland find that “sweet spot” in areas such as financial services, and keep the economy turning over.

His own accomplishment embodies that very successful aspect of the new Ireland – its ability to compete globally. As one of the first generation of the new “Global Irishmen,” Brendan McDonagh is an example of how much has changed since the days when the Irish left on Famine ships and were rarely heard from again.

He is living the dream of generations of Irish to better themselves abroad. Except in his case, he is proving it with one of the world’s truly global companies. With their combined global visions HSBC and McDonagh seem right for each other.

]]> 0 8784
The First Word: Global Irish Fri, 01 Aug 2008 11:59:13 +0000 Read more..]]> As more and more talk turns to globalization, the Irish are in a unique position – in terms of the global context, we are already there.  Whether it is running the world’s top rated hotel in Dubai, in the operating room of Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, or running a telecom business in the Carribean – no matter where you turn you will find the Irish.
We have spread all over the globe. In proportion to population, Ireland has dispersed more emigrés than any other country in Europe. Today an estimated 70 million people of Irish descent are living around the world. The largest portion, some 40 million, are in the United States, but there are pockets of Irish in Argentina, Mexico, Australia, Canada, and increasingly in Asia.
We are global by virtue of a history that has flung us far and wide – but there is something else too, something migratory in our make-up. Our ancient ancestors traveled from afar to inhabit our small island – some say they came from Sicily by way of Greece, Cappadocia, Gothia and Spain – so perhaps there is something in the blood that makes our island people want to see the rest of the world.

While the present economic situation in Ireland means that the Irish are not forced to emigrate in the same numbers as before, there are still those who want to leave  – perhaps not forever, but leaving the homeland for a few years after college is becoming a rite of passage for some, and the first step on a career path for others.
At Irish America’s Silicon Valley dinner honoring the Irish in technology last March, I met several young Irish men and women in the industry who had emigrated to Asia before ending up in California.

Which brings us to our cover story on Brendan McDonagh.

Brendan didn’t take the emigrant route as mapped out by earlier generations. He left Ireland in 1979, when the economy was still in the doldrums. (Many of the Irish who went to the States at that time ended up as undocumented workers; though educated, they were confined to the sidelines in terms of jobs. Few managed to make it into corporate America.) Instead of looking West as so many others did, McDonagh chose to look East.  He went to work for the Hong Kong bank HSBC in Asia.  His move to the East still resulted in his eventual move to America. Today he is the CEO of HSBC North America.

McDonagh, who lived in Japan, Hong Kong and Guam, as he ascended the corporate ladder, represents a new (or, perhaps in terms of our history not new but one rooted in tradition) phenomenon: the global Irish.

The Irish have an uncanny ability to get on wherever they go – perhaps it’s a skill honed over centuries of diaspora.  Perhaps it’s some historic memory of oppression and poverty that allows us to identify with others, and to succeed, even in cultures that are traditionally suspicious of Westerners.

Meanwhile, the fact that more and more of our Wall Street 50 are Irish-born (33 percent of this year’s honorees) seems to indicate that American companies are realizing that they gain a competitive advantage in the global marketplace by enlisting more foreigners into their management ranks (note to Presidential candidates, it’s time to reopen the immigration debate), and the Irish with their ability to cross cultural divides are increasingly moving up the corporate ladder.

The connections that the Irish have made abroad are also important in terms of Ireland’s next stage of economic development.  Irish universities have forged links with American universities, including the renowned Georgia Tech, which has placed its first applied research facility outside the United States in Ireland. The development of these special links is helping to position Ireland in its fight to lead the world in the area of technology convergence, and already many of the world’s most innovative companies in the life sciences and ICT sectors have located to Ireland.

Ireland has other advantages too. Following in the tradition of the emigrants helping those back home, many Irish-born CEOs on our list are on the advisory boards of Enterprise Ireland, and are helping Irish start-up companies reach the American market.  But perhaps our greatest strength comes from our “social networking” abilities. For, much as they like to leave home, the Irish like to keep in touch. And with the increasing emphasis on globalization, what the Irish already have in place, thanks to the tradition of emigration, is a worldwide network.

Brendan McDonagh in an interview in this issue tells Niall O’Dowd about starting an Irish network in Japan. (What especially appealed to me about the story was how he and a group of young Irish turned a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Kobe into a fundraising event for a local orphanage.)

The Irish are also skilled in using the latest technology to keep in touch with each other. On April 2, BioConnect Ireland linked its members in Ireland to their network colleagues in the U.S. (Biolink USA-Ireland) and the UK (Techlink UK-Ireland), via video and weblink to create a network of networks – from Chicago to Cork to Cambridge, the meeting charted the way of the future.

And so, as emerging markets – the crucial economic battleground of the coming decade – become more important, the Irish, with their global connections and understanding of other cultures, are eager and ready to play their part.

]]> 0 8787
Robert Downey Jr. & Sr. Moments Fri, 01 Aug 2008 11:58:26 +0000 Read more..]]> Iron Man started the summer block busting season with a $100.7 million opening at the box office, and marked a tremendous comeback for 43-year-old actor Robert Downey Jr., who in recent years has waged a public battle against drug addiction, which included a stint in jail. Jr., who plays a billionaire industrialist who invents a hi-tech suit of armor that transforms him into a superhero, used the opportunity of the Time 100 gala at Lincoln Center to pay a moving tribute to his dad, Robert Downey Sr., who helped him through the worst of times.

“I remember seeing Greenwich Village from seven feet up in the air [Downey Sr. is 6’ 5”] growing up as a kid, because he’d have me on his shoulders and we’d be tripping around. And at a time before underground and independent film became a hot idea, then a dirty word, then a hot idea again as it is nowadays, my dad was making films that influenced a generation of filmmakers – films like Putney Swope. Here’s just one of the lines from it. [Sings] ‘I have a malignancy in my prostate / but when you’re in my arms, it’s benign.’

“Growing up in Downey Sr.’s house, the commodity was wit, the commodity was political commentary, the commodity was innovation, and that’s what I grew up feeling very inspired by,” Downey Jr. continued. “And I wound up getting recruited … I had the dubious honor – hey Lorne [waves to producer Michaels] – of being on probably the worst season of Saturday Night Live. And I still had a great time and it was a great experience. Thanks for not kicking me off the show – I was up to some pretty nefarious acts in the dressing room. Unless I need mention the obvious, it was a period of time when being a Gen X guy . . . If I’m influencing anything, it’s about survival, surviving a time of that post-sixties, we-don’t-know-who-we-are-or-what-to-do. It was a time when being self-destructive seemed in. And we weren’t quite sure what we were rebelling against, but we took a pretty heavy fall and we lost a lot of people. So I remember when I was at my very lowest, my dad, who had put down all that dumb stuff twenty years before, said, ‘Hey, kid, stick around. It’s not so bad. Just stay on the planet.’”

Jr. turned to his dad, but his voice broke and he couldn’t quite get out his sentence. “And so tonight [long pause] I just want to honor my dad for being every inch the man I remember him to be and thank him.”

As the audience applauded, Downey Jr. turned the mike over to Sr., who deadpanned, “I’m not your father.”

Jr. stood there, mouth open for a moment, before doubling over in laughter and hugging his dad and exclaiming, “You son of a bitch! You just let me get all f–ing emotional,” he said.
Downey Sr. is, of course, rightly proud of his boy. “I’m happy and proud of him,” he told Irish America (father and son were named to our Top 100 list this year). “He is an iron man in real life to go through what he went through and be where he is today.”

Downey Sr. said he enjoyed Iron Man. “This is a good one. It raised the genre of action movie because of the great acting – it will be around forever.” He also reported that Jr. has “a great film coming in August called Tropic Thunder – a great one – he and the director [Ben Stiller] really worked well together.”

Downey Sr. also took the opportunity to clear up a  point in his bio as it appeared in our Top 100 issue: the claim that he struck out Yogi Berra. “I was in the Army in Okinawa – in fact, I was in the stockade [for some infraction] and they took me out to pitch against the Yankees who were touring the Far East. I did alright for a couple of innings and walked a few guys and then Yogi Berra hit a triple and I was right back in the stockade,”  he said.

Downey Sr. was writer and director of Greaser’s Palace, ranked by Time as one of the top 10 films of 1972,  and of  the aforementioned Putney Swope  (1969), which is being reissued with a commentary by Downey Sr. He is currently working on a documentary on the music of German-American composer Kurt Weill.

Meantime, it’s just been announced that Downey Jr., whose Tropic Thunder, with Jack Black and Ben Stiller, will premiere on August 15, and whose sequel to Iron Man will hit theaters in 2010, will be among the next batch of celebrities to receive stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – truly confirming his return to the Hollywood A list.

]]> 0 8791
Irish Eye on Hollywood Fri, 01 Aug 2008 11:56:37 +0000 Read more..]]> Amidst the popcorn blockbusters of the summer, keep an eye out for veterans as well as up-and-coming Irish talent in Hollywood.

First up, Pierce Brosnan stars alongside Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia!, based on the musical, which itself was based on the songs of Swedish supergroup Abba. Mamma Mia!, scheduled for a July 18 release, is about a bride-to-be who is searching for her father.  The musical was such a hit that superstar Tom Hanks (along with his wife Rita Wilson) snatched up the film rights and produced the movie. Along with Streep and Brosnan, Mamma Mia! also stars Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard. Brosnan is also set to star in the next film by Irish director Terry Loane, the 2009 release Vanilla Gorilla.

Speaking of young Irish directors, John Crowley impressed many with his star-studded 2003 movie Intermission, which featured Colin Farrell, Colm Meaney, Cillian Murphy and a slew of other Irish actors.  Crowley, who established his reputation as a brilliant theater director, is returning to film again this summer with the controversial Boy A.

The film, slated for a July release, takes a close look at a juvenile criminal, and what happens when the guilty boy is released back into society with a new identity.  He struggles to put the past behind him, but can never put his heinous crime completely out of his mind. Boy A is based on a novel by Jonathan Trigell, and, in part, seems to have been influenced by the infamous Liverpool murder of three-year-old James Patrick Bulger  at the hands of two ten-year-old boys. Boy A stars Andrew Garfield as well as Scotsman Peter Mullan, familiar to many Irish film fans for directing the explosive film The Magdalene Sisters, about abusive priests and nuns.

One Irishman you will not be seeing this summer is Brian F. O’Byrne. True, he is starring in the political thriller The International, alongside Naomi Watts and Clive Owen. The film is about an agent seeking to bring down a prestigious financial firm which has taken to smuggling arms. The International was initially slated for a summer 2008 release. The latest word is that the film has been pushed back to February 2009.

It’s not surprising that the director of the Irish political prison film Hunger went into film. His name is Steve McQueen, after all. McQueen, however, does not make suave action films like the 1970s American icon did. Instead, McQueen made one of the most unforgettable films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Hunger, in fact, won the Camera d’Or prize for best first film.

Hunger was co-written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh and chronicles the infamous 1981 hunger strikes in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. The film features what has widely been described as a star-making turn by Michael Fassbender, who plays Bobby Sands, who became an international symbol of injustice when he died in the Maze while on hunger strike at the age of 27. “Within the prison, there were prison officers who I identify with and protestors with whom I identify,” McQueen said after winning the award. “The film is about people in a situation and what these people do.”

Interestingly, neither of the two driving forces behind Hunger are Irish-born. McQueen is British while Fassbender was born in Heidelburg, Germany, though his family moved to Killarney, Ireland, when he was young. Fassbender appeared in the swords-and-sandals comic book film 300 and Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, alongside Colin Farrell. Fassbender has also been seen in numerous British and American TV shows, including Band of Brothers. He is next slated to appear in the upcoming Joel Schumacher movie Town Creek. It’s worth noting that Colin Farrell’s big breakthrough was Tigerland, also directed by Joel Schumacher. Perhaps the director can do the same for Fassbender.

Hunger was funded, in part, by the Northern Ireland Screen and The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. It is expected to be distributed in the U.S. by IFC films, though no release date has been announced.

Another highly anticipated Irish movie is Mineville, directed by Dublin native Jason Barry.

Barry, thus far, is best known for his supporting role alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, playing Tommy Ryan. Barry is moving behind the camera for Mineville, which tells the story of Irish immigrants working in the iron ore camps of upstate New York.  Set around 1910, Mineville explores the workers in the camp, as well as a man seen initially as a savior for the laborers, who actually becomes their worst nightmare.

Mineville, which begins shooting in September, is being made by a production company owned by Barry and his wife Nicola Charles.

“Jason and I are really excited about the film,” Charles was recently quoted as saying. “It’s a great script, and a story that hasn’t been told before.” Giovanni Ribisi, William Sadler, Anthony Lapaglia, Ian Hart and Tony Curran are among the actors expected to appear in Mineville.

Meanwhile, Irish actor Colm Meaney has been busy shooting British films which should either be available on DVD in the U.S., or may yet make it to theaters over here.
Earlier this year, Meaney appeared in Three and Out, a comedy about a bus driver who hits two people in one month. The driver finds out that if he hits a third anytime soon, he will lose his job – a prospect which actually appeals to him. Now all he has to do is find a person to hit with his bus, or willing to be hit.

Next up for Meaney is a soccer flick called The Damned United. Directed by Tom Hooper (who recently directed the heralded John Adams mini-series for HBO), The Damned United tells the story of former soccer player and coach Brian Clough, who coached Leeds United for just 44 days one miserable season in the 1970s before he was fired. No word yet on whether or not The Damned United will be released in the U.S. It is slated for release in the U.K. some time next year.

Cable giant HBO is producing a new drama series called The Anatomy of Hope, which will explore patients battling cancer and other terminal ailments. Among the stars will be Irish actress Kerry Condon, who previously appeared in HBO’s mini-series Rome. Chris Messina (Six Feet Under) and Simon Callow will also star in Anatomy of Hope, which will be produced by Lost wunderkind J.J. Abrams.

In September, the troubled biopic of boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward is supposed to begin shooting. Star Mark Wahlberg says he’s still behind the film, but even he cannot guarantee the film will get made.“I’ll be disappointed (if it doesn’t happen), because it’s been a dream of mine,” he told Men’s Health magazine recently.
Also in September, Taken – Liam Neeson’s next film – is slated to hit theaters.  The film sounds a bit like a remake of the 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-em-up Commando.  In both films, the daughter of a former soldier is kidnapped, then (presumably) heroically rescued.

Cillian Murphy has joined the stellar cast of Peacock, a drama to be directed by Michael Lander. Set for a 2009 release, Peacock also features Susan Sarandon, Bill Pullman and the young star of Juno Ellen Page. In Peacock, Murphy plays a small town clerk who discovers that a homeless woman has been secretly living in his back yard.
Finally, Irish beauty queen Gemma Garret is branching out into movies – at her peril. The onetime Miss Belfast and Miss Great Britain is teaming up with 80s action star Dolph Lundgren to shoot Direct Contact in Bulgaria and is planning to shoot another film with the muscular leading man. Garret was Sienna Miller’s body double in Layer Cake and has also been seen in the movies Johnny Was and Buy Borrow Steal.

]]> 0 8818
A Wilde Hotel in London Fri, 01 Aug 2008 11:56:36 +0000 Read more..]]> The Irish are travel birds. There’s probably not a spot on the globe where they haven’t touched down and built a nest or two. And finding corners of Ireland even in the most obscure places is always a fun travel thing to do.

On a trip to London late last year, I stayed at the Cadogan Hotel, which proved the perfect spot for an Irish-tinged weekend (I was in London to attend the premiere of Doubt by Irish American writer John Patrick Shanley).

Located at 75 Sloane Street, the Cadogan exudes Old World charm with a hint of Edwardian decadence, and it has an Irish connection to boot. It was here that Irish playwright and author Oscar Wilde was arrested in 1895.

Wilde lived a couple of blocks away on Tite Street, and he was a frequent visitor to the hotel, where today a suite is named in his honor. (There is also an Edward VII Suite, named to celebrate the future King of England’s liaisons with Oscar’s close friend, the actress Lillie Langtry.)

The Oscar Wilde Suite is an experience in sumptuous luxury. Large and airy, with a huge bed, velvet-covered duvet, padded headboard, marble bathroom, and a dressing area where the closet reveals a smoking jacket à la Oscar. It is in fact a replica of the one the writer is wearing in a photograph with Bosie (Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the youthful lover who was Wilde’s downfall) that hangs in the room.

The photograph of Oscar Wilde in the suite is the only one of him that I came across in the hotel. The celebrated beauty Lillie Langtry has more of a presence – the restaurant is named in her honor. (I had a wonderful dinner there – Fisherman’s Pie with bread pudding for dessert.)

Langtry (Wilde helped launch her theatrical career) lived at the property from 1892 to 1897. She sold the house, in 1895, to the Cadogan Estate, but retained her bedroom and living quarters.
As Richard Ellman says in his biography of Wilde, “She welcomed [Wilde] as a friend. For him, her beauty was a ‘form of genius.’ He was engaged in the same storming of London by his wits that she was achieving by her looks. Then too, they were both weary, Wilde of being an over-age undergraduate, Mrs. Langtry of being the wife to a nondescript Irish yachtsman, and both eager to perform on a larger stage.”

Langtry divorced her husband Edward, the son of an Irish land-owning family from Belfast, and went on to great fame and fortune – she even owned a winery in California at one point.
Wilde went to jail.

Found guilty for “acts of gross indecency with other male persons,” he was sentenced to two years of hard labor. He emerged from prison in 1897 in poor health, and died three years later in Paris.

The Cadogan is light on Wilde memorabilia. However, the lounge bar (now completely refurbished) has its resident historian and storyteller. John — one would hesitate to call him a server  — he would be perfectly cast as an upper-class butler — regaled me with stories of the history of the hotel, Wilde, and his friendship with Lillie Langtry. Meanwhile, the staff of the hotel were most welcoming and helpful, particularly Richie at the front desk, whose mother is from Monaghan, and Fabio, the unflappable Italian manager.

The Cadogan, which has 65 rooms and suites, tennis courts, private garden, conference and banqueting facilities, is the perfect place to stay in London – and if you are not seduced by the Old World charm and connection with Wilde and Langtry, perhaps you will be seduced by Gucci, Tiffany, Harrods and Harvey Nichols, by the 24-hour pulse of the West End and by the grand luxe  of this most decadent of Edwardian hotels.

For more information on the Cadogan visit
Or telephone + 44 207 235 7141

]]> 0 8794
More Than Just Round of Golf Fri, 01 Aug 2008 11:55:57 +0000 Read more..]]> I was fortunate to play the Old Head Golf Links on my most recent trip to Ireland.  The Links is one of the most unique golf courses ever conceived. It is built on a 220-acre diamond of land, jutting out over two miles into the Atlantic Ocean.  The links and practice area occupy 180 acres, and the remaining 40 acres of unspoilt cliff (rising in places to over 300 feet) frame the course. It is located seven miles beyond Kinsale, which is one of the most fashionable and scenic resort towns in Ireland, and only 30 minutes from Cork airport.

As a Cork City native, I was particularly thrilled to be playing on this world-class venue, just a short distance from my childhood home.  I remember going there when it was a popular spot for a Sunday afternoon stroll and now I was back walking it again, this time chasing a small white ball.

The Old Head region is steeped in history.  It is one of the few landmarks in Northern Europe shown on a map by the Greek historian Ptolemy in 100 A.D.  After the first Norman invasion in 1169, control of the headland passed to the de Courcey family.  The ruins of the de Courcey tower house and medieval walls form the entrance to the golf course today.

Over the centuries, primitive lighthouses were built to assist navigation and warn against invasion. The existing lighthouse was built in 1853 and is situated on the southern tip of the headland behind the 18th tee.  The remains of two earlier lighthouses built in 1667 and 1814 can still be seen near the 7th tee.  There have been countless shipwrecks in the vicinity of the Old Head over the centuries. The sinking of the Lusitania just over 40 miles away from the Old Head by a German U-boat in 1915, at the cost of 1,200 lives, was instrumental in causing the United States to enter World War I.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the headland was used by local farmers – mainly rough grazing for sheep.  In 1989 the land was acquired by John and Patrick O’Connor, and the links opened for play in 1997.  Over half a million shrubs, plants and bushes were planted at the Old Head, creating new wildlife habitats for pygmy shrews, bank voles, kestrels, foxes and hares.
From the moment I entered through the impressive historic walled entrance, the tone was set for a once-in-a-lifetime golfing experience. I was not disappointed.
After a short warmup on the practice range, we set off to the first tee.  Here we were greeted by the starter, who gave us a hearty Irish welcome and some useful tips on managing the task that lay ahead.

Stretching over 7,200 yards, the par 72 course is comprised of five par 5’s, five par 3’s and eight par 4’s. With six tee positions per hole and an ever-changing sea breeze, the Old Head provides a stern test to the touring pro and high handicapper alike.  It is surrounded by the ocean on all sides and commands the most spectacular and stunning views (which can at times be distracting to your golf game!) throughout your round. Nine holes are played along the clifftop with views that will take your breath away. At one point I caught myself admiring my misfired tee shot as it sailed over the cliffs, down into the crashing surf below!

After our round, we headed to the clubhouse where we retired to the Lusitania Bar that also offers stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Old Head Lighthouse. We were treated to a tour of the 15 new luxurious suites which are beautifully furnished and offer magnificent views. An overnight stay will also grant you access to the fitness suite and the Old Head thermal spa, where they offer a range of beauty care and therapeutic treatments for women and men, and a place for members and residents to unwind and restore.
As our day came to a close I knew this was a day that I would remember as a truly one-of-a-kind golf experience. On a personal note, I would like to thank all the staff that made this day so memorable for us.

For more information on the Old Head golf course go to or email

]]> 0 8799
The Tragedy of the Hannah Fri, 01 Aug 2008 11:55:47 +0000 Read more..]]> In April 1849, a ship carrying Irish immigrants hit an iceberg in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. John Kernaghan writes on the incident, and of plans for a documentary as Quebec celebrates its 400th anniversary.

The crew of the Nicaragua could scarcely credit their eyes when they closed on the iceberg in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Some 120 Irish immigrants clung to a bit of frozen salvation, desperately cold in their nightclothes after almost 18 hours on the ice that April night in 1849.

The boat bringing them to the promise of a new life had sailed from Newry, County Down on April 2 and until April 17, according to newspaper accounts of the day, the passage had been fine.

The 200 passengers were mostly from the Forkhill area of Co. Armagh.

But the brig Hannah failed to skirt the pack ice on the harsh gulf. Its hull was crushed by an iceberg. Passengers, jolted from their sleep, were bruised and cut in the scramble off the ship. Others perished in the chilling waters, unable to gain the ice, or were lost in rescue attempts.

Almost 160 years later, the Montreal documentary maker Gala Films is hoping to include this remarkable incident in its survey of the Irish famine migration to Canada. It is seeking descendants of those who survived the sinking of the Hannah.

One of those descendants, Paddy Murphy, says the incident is laced with both cowardice and courage. He notes accounts of the day which reported that the Hannah crew and captain had departed in a lifeboat, leaving the boat’s passengers exposed to the elements. All would have died had Captain Marshall of the Nicarague not made his ship fast to the iceberg at great risk to himself and his crew.

“‘No pen can describe the pitiable situation of the poor creatures,” Marshall reported to the Armagh Guardian on June 4, 1849. “They were all but naked, cut and bruised and frost-bitten. There were parents who had lost their children, children with loss of parents. Many, in fact, were perfectly insensible.”

Three other ships also pitched in to bring survivors through the ice floes to Grosse Ile, the immigrant quarantine station in the St. Lawrence River.

Paddy Murphy’s great-great-grandparents John Murphy and his wife Bridget (McParland) had already endured tragedy before setting out for Quebec in April, 1849. In January of that year, their house had burned down and one of their children had died in the blaze.

On the Hannah they had four of their children, and the two eldest were lost.

“The children went into the water and John went in after them. The story in our family is that his hands were so badly frozen he couldn’t handle the rope he’d taken to try to pull them to safety. He held the rope in his mouth in the hope he’d find them and they could grab on. But he couldn’t save them. He lost all his teeth as a result,” Paddy recounts.

“Rose, who was approximately three years old, fell in the water and was rescued but did not speak for years because of the shock. Bernard, ‘Barney,’ aged two, also fell in the water but was pulled to safety by the wife of Henry Grant who thought he was one of her own children.”

It was Barney’s son, Mike, who recounted the incident to Paddy on the occasion of Paddy’s marriage to his wife Jane, in the summer of 1962.

“Grandfather Mike was delighted at the marriage because Jane’s maternal great-great-grandfather Michael Coburn  came from the same area in Forkhill, County Armagh as the Murphys. He said we were two old Irish families uniting. Michael Coburn had left Ireland in 1848, a year before the Hannah disaster, and Grandfather Mike, whose mother, Ellen Bennett, was also from Forkhill, told us about John Murphy coming over on a ship that hit an iceberg, the many lives lost, and his father who was saved from the water.”

Paddy, who grew up in the township of North Crosby, south of Ottawa, where many of the Hannah survivors settled to farm, went on to conduct his own research into the shipwreck, and his findings later became the basis of a book called A Famine Link: The Hannah, South Armagh to Ontario. The authors, Kevin Murphy and Una Walsh, are members of the Mullaghbawn Community Centre in Forkhill, South Armagh.

Clearly the story of the Hannah is a stirring tale that speaks to the times and to the Irish in Quebec.  It is estimated up to 40 percent of the province’s citizens have Irish blood.

Gala Films is seeking descendants of the survivors who settled in Quebec, Ontario and the United States, but particularly those who now live in Quebec. (See sidebar for family names).
The story has a greater chance of coming to video life with a direct Quebec link, says Gala Films’ Hugh John Murray.

“In order to get public funding from the Quebec government to make the documentary, we need to find Quebec-based descendants,” he explained.

The documentary would explain the tragedy in the context of the famine-years migration to Canada through Quebec City.

And with Quebec City celebrating its 400th birthday this year, its deep Irish roots in the city and province are part of that observance.

Almost 100,000 Irish came to Canada in 1847 during the famine. And about 475,000 preceded them and spread across the province and through intermarriage produced that aforementioned 40 percent estimate.

Even if, as some suspect, that estimate is high, most historians agree about a third of the people in the province have Irish blood.

That is still remarkably high when measured against the 15 percent of people who claim Irish heritage in the rest of Canada.

And there’s a simple answer for it. The Irish who survived harsh voyages across the Atlantic – the voyage often took up to six weeks and longer, depending on weather conditions – and landed on Quebec’s shores found it much easier to marry into an existing society that was mostly Roman Catholic. And families in Quebec were traditionally large.

While there were Irish Protestant pockets in Quebec City and Montreal, the Catholics tended to quickly meld into Quebec life and families. And in the most unique aspect of the haunting Irish diaspora – the dispersal of millions from their homeland – some of these new Quebecers became trilingual, mastering French on top of English and Gaelic.

Even in cases where Irish orphans were taken in by French-Canadian families, the Irish names were often preserved either as surnames or Christian names. That’s why you’ll see names like O’Neill Marois. Or Emile Nelligan, famous as the ‘national’ poet of Quebec.

Quebec Irish historian Marianna O’Gallagher notes, moreover, that Irish names might have been made French over time. For instance, singer Celine Dion might be the descendant of a Dillon.
There are also romantic and possibly solid theories about the earliest Irish presence in Quebec, notions that Irish monks visited islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence around the time in the mid-1500s when Irish fishermen were apparently working seas off Newfoundland.

The explosion of immigration to Canada from 1825 to 1850 shows 60 percent were Irish. There was more misery than glory in the passage and in the early years in Quebec. That misery strained the ability of immigration and medical authorities when the potato famine hit Ireland in the mid-1840s and desperate farmers scratched together passage for families on overcrowded boats to North America.

They lived in wretched conditions and rode rocking seas. Diseases like cholera and typhus flourished. So Grosse Ile, a rocky outcrop downstream from Quebec City, became the first Canadian shoreline for four decades of Irish immigration. The quarantine station is now a Parks Canada national historic site, a bucolic spot with the haunting counterpart of a Celtic cross commanding a cliff overlooking the river and a moving memorial naming the poor newcomers who never made it off the island alive.

Tour boats from Quebec City offer daily outings to Grosse Ile in spring and summer, a combination of bracing river voyage and sobering tour through reenactments of how authorities processed the masses.

The numbers wrought by Ireland’s famine, often called The Great Hunger, were staggering. The famine hit its depths in 1847 when 100,000 people, six out of seven of them Irish, headed for Quebec. Some 5,000 died at sea or while waiting offshore of Grosse Ile as the overmatched facility verged on anarchy due to some 12,000 inhabitants, many badly ill.

When the count was taken later, 5,424 died on the island and thousands more died in Quebec City, Montreal and Kingston. For those who survived, tragedy or travail often caught up with them later.

It was mainly Irish who dug the Lachine Canal at Montreal and the Rideau Canal to Ottawa. And it was mostly Irish who died due to typhus and malaria. Even so, as you follow the often-tragic trail of Irishmen and Irishwomen down the St. Lawrence, you see the roots of Celtic culture setting down in a new land. The Irish reel fused into the work of Quebec musicians and dancers and lives on still in the work of groups like Les Cowboys Fringants.

Also, there is a line of thinking in political science circles that it was Irishmen who provided an important bridge between the French and English on the way to Canada’s Confederation in 1867.

Concordia University’s Irish Studies program in Montreal examines this and other contributions to Canada. Robert Baldwin, son of an Ulsterman, was able to forge a Liberal alliance with Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine to get French-Canadian support for responsible government. And a native of Cork, Francis Hinks, nurtured the partnership to take the national railway sea to sea.

But the most colorful Irish-Canadian was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a brilliant orator and the only federal Canadian politician ever assassinated. He had escaped Ireland with a price on his head for fomenting rebellion and landed in Boston to establish a newspaper pandering to Irish sentiments.

But he grew impatient with lack of movement in government circles to improve the lot of his countrymen and moved to Canada, where he believed Irishmen would get a better deal. McGee was soon elected to Parliament but his political career was marked by differing results: success in fathering Confederation but vicious opposition to his distaste for secret societies like the Fenians.

McGee believed that Canada represented the best chance for Irish people of both religions to coexist peacefully and argued that the improving condition of his countrymen would be lost if they backed an American-led radical movement. He was thrown out of the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal as a result and his life was threatened.

Still, he prevailed, winning re-election in 1867, Canada’s Confederation year. But the founding father was dogged by extremists and near midnight April 7, 1868, just shy of his 43rd birthday, he was gunned down as he turned the key to his apartment.

Historian Bill Davis wrote “he made precious contributions to his adopted country,” easing “the religious and racial strife that had threatened to tear the country apart.”

You can raise a glass to his memory in the building where he died, D’Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub on Sparks Street in Ottawa, as well as retrace his killer’s steps to the gallows. Patrick James Whelan, a rabid critic of McGee, was hanged in the last public display of its kind in Ottawa, Feb. 11, 1869.

The old Ottawa jail is now a hostel and some inhabitants have claimed to see his ghost over time.

McGee’s dream, offered in a stirring speech seven years before Canada’s Confederation, was prescient.“I see in the not remote distance one great nationality, bound like the shield of Achilles by the blue rim of ocean.  I see it quartered into many communities, each disposing of its internal affairs, but all bound together by free institutions, free intercourse, free commerce.”

]]> 30 8802
In the Name of the Fada: Comedian Des Bishop Fri, 01 Aug 2008 11:54:53 +0000 Read more..]]> God help the Irish language!  Faced with insurmountable obstacles, it’s on the brink of extinction.

You’ve heard such doom-laden predictions before, perhaps even in articles I’ve written.  But I’ve tired of pessimism.  Instead, I’m here to tell you about a new campaign to revitalize the language.

It’s spearheaded by one of Ireland’s most prominent Irish-American personalities, comedian Des Bishop, or Deasún Mac an Easpaig as he might prefer to be known.

Born in New York, Des moved to Ireland when he was 14.  In recent years, he has built a comedy career based on his outsider’s view of a changing Ireland.

His latest TV show is a case in point.  In the Name of the Fada (fada being the Irish word for the accent placed on a vowel – such as á) chronicles the year he spent living in Connemara learning Irish and acquiring the love he developed for the language.

I spoke to Des while he was touring Ireland with his stand-up show.  We started our interview in Irish.  Read on and be impressed by his fluency and passion.

Dia dhuit, Des.  Conas atá tú?
Dia is Muire dhuit. Tá mé go h-an mhaith.

Hello, Des.  How are you?
Hello.  I’m great.

Cad as duit agus caithin ar tháinig tú go hÉireann?
Is as Flushing, Banríona mé agus tháinig mé anseo nuair a bhí mé ceithre bliana déag d’aois, i 1990.

Where are you from and when did you come to Ireland?
I’m from Flushing, Queens and I came here when I was 14 years old, in 1990.

Cén aois tú anois?
Tá mé tríocha dó.

What age are you now?
I’m 32.

Níor fhoghlaim tú Gaeilge ar scoil.  Cén fáth gur theastaigh uait í a fhoghlaim anois?
Níor fhoghlaim, buíochas le Dia.  Bhí suim agam sa teanga i gcónaí agus theastaigh uaim eolas a bheith agam faoi, tar éis dom freastal ar an ollscoil ach go h-áirithe.

Lá amháin, cúig bliana ó shin, bhí mé ag labhairt le cara liom, stiúrthóir teilifíse, agus dúirt mé leis faoi mo smaoineamh clár a dhéanamh mar gheall ar dhuine cosúil liom féin gan aon Ghaeilge ag iarraidh an teanga a fhoghlaim.

Thárla go leor rudaí idir an dá linn ach chuala bean in RTE mar gheall ar an smaoineamh agus bhí rud éigin mar sin in aigne aici ar aon nós agus is mar sin a thosaigh an clár.

You didn’t learn Irish at school.  Why did you decide to learn it now?
I didn’t, thank God.  I was always interested in the language and I wanted to find out more about it, especially after I attended university.

One day, five years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who is a TV director and I mentioned that I’d thought of making a TV series about somebody like me, somebody who couldn’t speak a word of Irish and was trying to learn it for the first time.

A lot happened in the meantime but a woman in RTE eventually heard about the idea and she had a similar idea in mind and the show started from there.

Tar éis bliain amháin, tá leibhéal sách maith bainte amach agat sa teanga.  An bhfuil tú sásta leis?
Tá mé beagáinín sásta. Tá mé á fhoghlaim anois le bliain agus ceithre mhí ach níl aon ranganna á dhéanamh agam faoi láthair.  Tá mé ag iarraidh mo Ghaeilge a choinneáil suas ach tá mé saghas “stuck”.

Rachfaidh mé ar ais go Conamara i rith an tsamhraidh. Tá mo thuismitheoirí ag teacht agus rachfaimid ann ar laethanta saoire.

After one year, you now have a reasonable level of fluency in the language.  Are you pleased with that?
I’m quite pleased.  I’ve been learning Irish for a year and four months now but I’m not doing any classes at the moment.  I’m trying to keep my level but I’m pretty much stuck where I am for now.

I’m going to go to Connemara during the summer.  My parents are coming over and we’ll go there on holidays.

An raibh sé deacair an teanga a fhoghlaim?
Ní raibh sé ró dheacair. Bhí go leor ama agam agus rinne mé é trí tumoideachas.  Mar sin, bhí mé ag foghlaim an t-am ar fad, gach aon lá agus tar éis tamaill, thárla sé. Am fada is ea é bliain.

Was it difficult to learn the language?
Not too difficult.  I had enough time and I did it through total immersion.  So, I was learning all the time, every day and after a while, it just happened. A year is a long time.

Ar bhain tú taithneamh as bheith i do chónaí i gConamara?  Cad iad na rudaí ba mhó a thaithin leat?
Bhain mé an taithneamh as.  Rachfainn ann arís.  Chaithfinn mo shaol ar fad ann b’fhéidir. Is breá liom an pobal.

Did you enjoy living in Connemara?  What were the aspects you enjoyed most?
I really enjoyed it. I’d live there again.  I might even spend my life there. I love the sense of community.

An dtéann tu ar ais go Conamara go minic?
Bhí mé ann an tseachtain seo caite agus beidh mé ann arís sa tsamhradh.

Do you go back to Connemara often?
I was there last week and I’ll be there again this summer.

Agus an bhfuil tú fós ag foghlaim na Gaeilge?
Tá agus beidh.  Is breá liom é.

And are you still learning Irish?
I am and I will be.  I love it.

Go raibh maith agat, a Dheasúin.

The Irish language has a new and unexpected hero. His name is Des Bishop and he hails from the unlikeliest of locations – Queens, New York. His mother is Irish-American. His father is from Middleton in County Cork.  Neither has a particular interest in the Irish language. “My mother doesn’t speak a word and Dad has a few words – a h-aon, dó, trí (one, two, three),” Des explains.

Indeed, Des himself had very little knowledge of Ireland or Irish until the age of 14.  At that stage, he was a troubled adolescent who had just been expelled from school in New York.

“I wasn’t happy,” he remembers.  “I’d never been to Ireland but my Irish cousin and I came up with the idea that I should go to boarding school in Wexford.  Within a month, I was there.”

This rash decision, taken in 1990, was to be a definitive one for Des. After high school, he enrolled in university in Cork and there discovered his comic talents.

“My natural inclination had always been to be a performer,” he says. “That had gotten me into trouble in the past but it’s all worked out now.”

It’s worked out so well that Des is currently regarded as one of Ireland’s top comedians. What has made him so popular is the use he makes of his status as an outsider to explore the margins of Irish society.

For example, in his TV series, Joy in the Hood he tackled inner-city deprivation. Living in disadvantaged communities, he encouraged the teenagers to express themselves through comedy.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Let’s go back to Des’ school days.  Because he was 14 when he arrived in Ireland he was exempt from learning Irish in school, something he is grateful for. “The curriculum is s**t,” he says, never one to mince his words. “School is not a nurturing environment for the language and it would have killed my love for it.”

Many people would have regarded this as the end of the matter but not Des. He has a boundless curiosity and as time went on, he started to think he had missed out by not learning the language.

“All Irish people had the experience of learning or trying to learn the language and I’d been excluded from that rite of passage,” he explains. “I thought it would make for an interesting program if I were to try to learn it in the Gaeltacht.  It was a final frontier in Irish life that I didn’t know anything about.”

So, just as he did when he was 14, Des took a leap of faith. He moved to Leitir Móir in Connemara where he lived with an Irish-speaking family and attended Irish classes for an entire year.

Virtually everyone – from his Irish friends to the media – reacted with shock. Why would anyone voluntarily submit to the torture of learning what is widely regarded as an impossibly difficult language?

Des had expected this reaction. After all, many Irish people harbor a sense of resentment towards the language from the way it’s taught in school. So, instead of worrying about it, he got on with the task of settling into a new community – something he is practiced at.

“I’ve moved between cousins, friends and boarding school since I was fourteen,” he says.  “Fitting in is what I do.”

He joined the local Gaelic Athletic League team where he came to know some of the area’s many characters – including a man who made a point of always chewing some grass from the pitch before a game. He also learned Irish dancing.

To some, learning the language and adapting to life in the Gaeltacht would have been challenge enough. But Des is an audacious character who sets himself ambitious goals.  At the beginning of his term in Leitir Móir, he declared that he would perform a stand-up gig in Irish by the end of the year.

Was he mad? There were times when he thought so.

“I thought I mightn’t make it,” he admits. “I didn’t know if I could be funny in Irish.  But as time went by, my confidence increased and I started to joke in Irish naturally.”

The show, which took place in Dublin in March, was a sell-out success. Ever since, the reaction to Des’ adventures in the Gaeltacht has been extremely positive.

“Everyone is saying the show is entertaining, meaningful and powerful,” he says.  “And even better: Gaelcultúr – an organization that offers Irish language lessons – has reported a 600 percent increase in admission figures.”

These are impressive results but they are nothing compared to the profound effect the experience has had on Des himself.

“I thought the Gaeltacht would be an interesting place to explore, but living there proved momentous for me,” he says. “I feel more Irish now, without a shadow of a doubt. In learning and living the language, I’ve become passionate about it. The whole thing raised questions of emotions, identity and a sense of belonging that I didn’t expect.”

So affected was he that Des is now a zealous advocate for the language.  Recently, he has lobbied the Department of Education to change the school curriculum, which is often blamed for students leaving school after 14 years without being able to speak a word of Irish.

“There is too much emphasis on grammar and spelling,” says Des. “That should come later.  Students should learn to speak it first.  Right now, Irish is seen as an endurance test, and that kills it.  There is no love.”

Thanks to the popularity of his TV show and the forthrightness of his manner, Des is having an impact.

The Minister for Education, Batt O’Keefe, said, after a meeting with Des, “It is heartening to see someone like Des achieve great fluency in Irish in such a short period. Des has brought fun back into mastering the language, and it shows that with a positive approach we can stimulate the interest of students in our native language once again.”

This is what Des is trying to do and he hopes everyone will give it a go, not just students who have no choice but to learn the language. He has even developed an Internet course in Irish which can be accessed free of charge from his website

“Just start learning it,” he urges. “And if you’ve got any Irish at all, use it. You’ll be amazed how much you remember if you just use it.”

Having had a life-changing experience in the Gaeltacht, Des is optimistic about the future of the language. “It’s on the way up,” he insists. “Twenty years ago, the majority had a disdain for the language, but now it’s the minority that think like that.”

He attributes this change in attitude to the increase in immigration into Ireland and the march of globalization worldwide.

“People are paying attention to what’s unique about their culture,” he says. “It’s changing how people think about the language.”

Learning the language has certainly changed his own perceptions. So much so that this once hyperactive personality now claims to have no fixed plans for the future. “It’s been a long year,” he says.  “I just want to let it all sink in and do as much as I can with what happened.”

And while he’s absorbing the impact of his year in the Gaeltacht, he’ll also continue improving his Irish.  “I just love it,” he says.

Des Bishop visited Irish America/Irish Voice offices in February and practiced his Irish speaking skills on fellow Gaelgoir, publisher, Niall O’Dowd. While in New York, he performed at a fundraiser for the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.

]]> 1 8805
Chicago and the Irish Fri, 01 Aug 2008 11:53:21 +0000 Read more..]]> Before he was president, Barack Obama was an ambitious young politician who learned a valuable lesson thanks to the Chicago Irish.

The year was 1999. Obama, a state senator, announced he was going to challenge Congressman Bobby L. Rush, a legend in the working-class African-American wards of Chicago’s South Side.

Decades earlier, the South Side was heavily Irish. It was the world that James T. Farrell recreated in his famous Studs Lonigan trilogy of novels from the 1930s.

In fact, for all the changes in Chicago, the same rules have always applied when it comes to politics: you have to pay your dues before you challenge a veteran.

Meanwhile, though it’s true that the district that Obama hoped to win was 65 percent black, it also had “several relatively affluent Irish-American neighborhoods,” as The New York Times noted recently.

Obama (himself Irish on his mother’s side) was ultimately trounced in the South Side race, and learned that when it came to Windy City politics, he still had some dues to pay.
Obama’s loss illustrates key facts about the Chicago Irish experience.  First, the Irish have been playing a crucial political role in Chicago for over 150 years.  Furthermore, the Irish have always had to build coalitions among other racial, ethnic and religious groups. Often, they did so successfully, though other times, the result was tension and violence.
Either way, from Studs Lonigan, Michael Flatley and Mrs. O’Leary’s infamous cow to Comiskey Park and O’Hare International Airport, the Irish have left a deep impression upon Chicago.

“City on the Prairie”
Unlike Boston, New York or Philadelphia, Chicago was not settled until the 1800s.  So the Chicago Irish did not face the worst kind of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish bigotry from established, native-born elites. This also allowed early Irish immigrants to, in a sense, get in on the ground floor of Chicago.

“For the Irish, Chicago’s emergence as the nascent city on the prairie was timely,” writes John Gerard McLaughlin in his book Irish Chicago. “The construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which would connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, began in 1836, drawing Irish laborers. . . . The completion of the canal in 1848 coincided with the mass emigration from Ireland caused by the Great Famine.”

Kerry native Dr. William Bradford was among the earliest boosters of Chicago and the opportunities presented by the canal’s construction. Bradford, a physician, was also one of Chicago’s earliest successful real estate speculators.

Canal work brought hordes of additional laborers – as well as class tension and cries for unionization. It also meant that when the Great Hunger struck Ireland, some Chicago laborers were able to send money, food and other materials back to Ireland.

“Depraved, Debased, Worthless”
Although Chicago was spared the anti-Irish violence of other large American cities, there was no lack of rabid anti-Irish sentiment. The Chicago Tribune, edited by Joseph Medill (a descendant of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians), regularly dismissed the Irish as lazy and shiftless.

“Who does not know that the most depraved, debased, worthless and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community are Irish Catholics?” the Tribune sneered. This came even as Irish laborers worked feverishly to complete Chicago’s stately St. Patrick’s church at Adams and Desplaines Streets in the mid-1850s.

Besides Dr. Bradford, another example of Chicago’s Irish rising class was Cork native James Lane.  In this city which would lead the nation in meat production, Lane is said to have opened Chicago’s first meat market in 1836. He marched in the city’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1843 – and was still doing so five decades later, in the 1890s.

Meanwhile, decades before Jane Addams and Hull House became synonymous with Chicago charity, Carlow native Agatha O’Brien and nuns from the Mercy Sisters worked in hospitals, schools and asylums caring for victims of cholera and other diseases.

By the 1870s, the Irish-born population of Chicago was approaching 70,000 – over 25 percent of the people. Then came a calamity which transformed the city forever.

The Great Fire
According to legend, the Great Chicago Fire was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. The immigrant family was ultimately exonerated, but the O’Learys were subjected to awful harassment. The fire scorched large swaths of Chicago, including a dressmaking business owned by Cork native and future labor leader Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who entered the labor movement soon after the fire. The newly rebuilt city saw further upward mobility for the Irish.

A priest at St. John’s parish on the South Side, Father Woldron, watched “in sorrow as hundreds of beloved families surrendered their humble homes and moved.”

By the 1880s, 30 percent of Chicago’s police force and other civil service jobs were held by Irish Americans. Many of Chicago’s Irish Americans now earned enough money to move to neighborhoods such as Englewood, where (much to the dismay of local Protestants) they laid foundations for working- or middle-class parishes such as St. Bernard’s.

Politics, Labor and Religion
The Irish, as they did in many other cities, proved adept at politics, as well as parish life.

Again, Chicago is unique in that, while the Irish were the largest immigrant minority group in other large cities, they were just one of many in Chicago. Germans, Poles, Jews and other Eastern Europeans flocked to Chicago in large numbers.

“Second generation Chicago Irishmen assumed the role of buffers between the strange speaking newcomers and the native, older residents,” Paul M. Green has written.

Affairs in Ireland were also profoundly important to the Chicago Irish. The revolutionary group Clan na Gael had a strong presence in the city, where support was strong for controversial measures such as the London bombing campaign of the 1880s, meant to draw attention to the cause of freedom for Ireland. This became a tougher stance to defend, however, in the wake of the infamous Haymarket Square bombing of 1886, when Irish nationalists in Chicago struggled to draw distinctions between anti-British nationalism and homegrown American anarchism. Meanwhile, Irish pride in Chicago was not merely confined to the continued struggle against the British.

According to Ellen Skerrit: “Since the 1890s, the city’s Irish have played a leading role in the cultural revival of traditional music and dance.”

Cork native Francis O’Neill, a police chief, was one of the driving forces behind reviving traditional Irish music in the Chicago area.

Meanwhile, as Charles Fanning has noted, Chicago writer Finley Peter Dunne created one of the great voices in American letters at the turn of the century: Mr. Dooley, the saloon keeper/philosopher with the exaggerated brogue who was beloved by millions in nationwide newspapers and books.

Finally, early 1900s labor leaders included Margaret Haley, president of the Chicago Teachers Federation, and John Fitzpatrick, leader of Chicago’s Federation of Labor.

Gangsters and “Studs”
There was also a dark side to Chicago Irish life, painted most memorably in the 1930s Studs Lonigan trilogy of novels by James T. Farrell.  Particularly disturbing is the racism, violence and narrow-mindedness we see among Studs, his family and friends. It should be added, however, that Farrell also wrote another series of novels about a youth named Danny O’Neill, who escaped Chicago and chased his dreams. Chicago groups such as the Catholic Interracial Council also showed that some Chicago Irish were promoters of racial justice.

Meanwhile, by the 1920s, though many Chicago Irish moved into the American mainstream, another group chose a very different path. This was evident on the morning of February 14, 1929 – Valentine’s Day – when two men dressed as police officers ushered six gangsters into a garage on Chicago’s North Side. A hail of bullets followed.

The famous massacre had been ordered by Al Capone.  He was gunning for Bugs Moran, but the Irish crime boss had escaped. The St. Valentine’s Day massacre was the culmination of Irish-Italian turf wars which dominated the 1920s. Prohibition, and competition over the sale of illegal booze, led to these gang wars, and Chicago was the center of Irish organized crime. (Jimmy Cagney’s electrifying film The Public Enemy, from 1931, was set in the Windy City.)

Deanie O’Banion was the era’s most prominent Irish gangster.  He grew up in a notorious neighborhood known as Little Hell. Even when he became a full-time murderer, O’Banion sported a rosary in his pocket and a carnation in his jacket. In fact, O’Banion so loved flowers that he opened a flower shop on North State Street, which was where he was killed in 1924, after he had swindled members of Capone’s crew.

The Daley Dynasty
All in all, Chicago has had a dozen Irish mayors. Early city leaders include John Comiskey (father of White Sox baseball owner Charles Comiskey), John Coughlin, “Foxy” Ed Cullerton and Johnny Powers. Later, in 1979, Irish-American Jane Byrne was the first woman to serve as Chicago mayor.

The most powerful Irish-American mayor ever was Richard J. Daley, who ran Chicago for over 20 years, beginning with his 1955 election. Daley was a humble, devout Catholic who raised his family not far from the South Side Irish enclave where he grew up. As a multi-ethnic town, Chicago required a mayor who knew how to reward all ethnic groups, a task which Daley mastered.
Daley became such a key figure in the Democratic Party that he was known as a “president-maker,” whose support was needed to nominate any White House candidate.

Daley’s image was tarnished by the violent events of the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. But in the mayoral election of 1971, Daley received nearly 60 percent of the vote. He died while in office in 1976.  Fittingly, his son, Richard M. Daley, was later elected Chicago mayor in 1989.

The New Chicago Irish
By the 1980s, many Chicago Irish had been in the city three or four generations. But a whole new wave of immigrants then arrived, escaping an Ireland which was still struggling economically.
These immigrants breathed new life into Chicago’s Irish-American life and culture. A daughter of immigrants, Liz Carroll is a Chicago native who is one of today’s top Irish fiddlers. Then, of course, there is Riverdance star Michael Flatley. A native of the South Side, Flatley reinvented Irish dance and brought it to the international masses.

Dance is not something we would expect to arise from the streets once stalked by Studs Lonigan and his band of roughs. But history shows us that, when it comes to the Chicago Irish, there is one thing you should expect: the unexpected.

]]> 2 8808
A Flying Javelin: Marjorie Larney Fri, 01 Aug 2008 11:52:49 +0000 Read more..]]> When I competed for the U.S. in my first Olympics in Helsinki in 1952, I was only 15, the youngest javelin thrower ever and that record still stands today. But the most wonderful part about participating in the games was the reception from the Finnish people and a very special gift to me from a Finnish Olympic champion of the past, the first great “Flying Finn.”

In Helsinki the week before the games, our track and field squad practiced every morning. Then, we would return to the Women’s Nursing College where we were housed, have lunch, and at the suggestion of our manager rest for the remainder of the afternoon. But my roommate Mabel Landry, long jumper from Chicago and I, javelin thrower from New York, just couldn’t follow our manager’s advice. We had too much energy, and we wanted to see the sights. It was our first time ever in a foreign country. So, we asked a nursing student to write the name and address of the nursing college on a piece of paper. After we practiced saying the name aloud and secured the paper in a safe pocket, we slipped out a side door, hopped a trolley and headed downtown.

That whole week, Mabel and I had a great time exploring the Finnish capital. Yes, we were lost once or twice, but always an English-speaking Finn would turn up to steer us in the right direction. We were dressed in our navy blue jackets with the U.S. Olympic shield on the breast pocket, and everywhere people stared and eventually smiled at us. Most Finns were towheaded blonds and I with my dark curly hair and Mabel with her honey-brown complexion were an unusual sight for their eyes.
One day, while strolling down a street of small shops, we came upon a sporting goods store. In the store’s front window, javelins and other track and field equipment were prominently displayed. No sporting goods store back home had javelins in the window. I had to go in and see those javelins for myself.

The javelins were all sizes—women’s, men’s, and even a children’s size, and they were a dazzling creamy white birch, not dull grey metal like what I threw in New York. As I began to pick out a women’s spear from the rack, an elderly, bald, chunky man came to help me. He selected a women’s javelin that was birch, inlaid with four strips of a darker wood. He handed it to me and said, “Very special.” The javelin was perfectly balanced, and its soft blue and white corded grip felt wonderful in my hand. The salesman smiled when he saw I held the javelin with the middle finger resting alongside the cord – the Finnish Grip. Then I stretched my arm back and walked through my five-step throwing position, and his smile widened, because I used the Finnish Front Cross Step. Most Americans used the American Back Cross that came more naturally from throwing baseballs in from the outfield, but my coach Sgt. John P. Brennan of the New York City Police Athletic League had studied a film of Finland’s Nikkanen, the men’s javelin world record holder for fourteen years, and Coach Brennan insisted I learn the Finnish style and only the Finnish style. He had coached sixteen-year-old sprinter Mae Faggs to a berth on the 1948 Olympics. When he saw me throwing a football with the boys before practice, John Brennan switched me from the sprints to the throws. “You’ve got some arm, Marjorie, and if you do everything I tell you, you’ll be on the next Olympic team just like Mae.” Coach Brennan had a firm and gentle way about him that inspired trust, and he won mine from the first day I met him when I was eleven years old. I obeyed every instruction he gave me and never doubted that what he said would come true.

The “very special” javelin was expensive, but I wanted it more than anything, more than the Jimmy Foxx Louisville slugger I got for Christmas when I was ten, more than the Gil Hodges first baseman mitt I got for confirmation when I was eleven and even more than the NFL real pigskin football my grandpa presented to my brother and me one fall day when I was twelve. My grandpa, Patrick Henry Larney, was ahead of his time in equalitarian thinking about women’s rights. A progressive politician, he represented Brooklyn’s Irishtown in the New York State Assembly.

For my three weeks at the Olympics my parents and relatives had chipped in thirty dollars for my spending money, but I had used most of it for souvenir presents. (When my dad, Leo F. Larney, passed away in 1968, I found in his suit pocket my souvenir gift of a leather billfold embossed with a color impression of the ’52 Olympic stadium.  He had used it every day for 16 years. I still have it.)

Mabel offered me the money she had with her, and we pooled it with mine, but it wasn’t enough for the “very special” javelin. It was enough, though, for another one, a plain wooden javelin, without the inlays and with only a white cord. Half the price of the beauty. I gripped the plain one and again walked through my steps. The javelin was OK, better than what I had ever used before, but my face flashed my feelings; I was really still just a kid. The salesman read my disappointment, took the ticket on the beautiful javelin and wrote a new price—the same as that of the plain one. I couldn’t believe it, what New Yorker could? The salesman said he was the owner of the store. He was beaming the whole while as he carefully wrapped the special javelin. It truly was a work of art.His giving me that “very special” javelin at half price made me feel very special, too.  I sensed that this elderly Finnish man believed in me, that I was meant to have and throw the best javelin made. Before we left his store, he asked for our autographs, and we asked for his. I wondered if he was an old trackman himself, and he nodded and said “long distance” with a grin. He signed his name Hannes Kolehmainen.

In the games, I didn’t get to throw that special javelin, as no competitors could use their own implements. I did, however, use a Finnish one just like it, and I threw my personal best performance for the year. Almost ten feet better. The Finnish champion, a woman of thirty-five, befriended me and quieted my nerves in the qualifying round as I finished eighth. In the final, I placed 13th; she placed one behind. I aimed to win a medal as everyone did, but I felt content with my result. I was the youngest person, male or female, ever to compete in the Olympic javelin throw, and that record stands today. Mabel had competed well the day before. She came 7th in the long jump and jumped further than the previous Olympic record for the event.

Now, what touches me most is that the elderly Finnish man was no ordinary sporting goods storeowner. We saw him one more time. As we marched into the Olympic stadium on opening day, July 19th, it was pouring rain. I was chilled to the bone, my jacket, hat and skirt soaked clear through. We weren’t issued raincoats and stood in the downpour for two hours before we marched. The U.S. team was the next to last contingent to enter the stadium. The parade of athletes took 56 minutes; the spectators endured the steady rain for as long as we did. But let me tell you, when our flag entered the stadium the roar that went up from the crowd was like a rolling wave of thunder. It followed us around the track to our place near the tower. Seventy thousand people were on their feet cheering the U.S. team. Later, I asked why and learned that the Finns wanted to show their appreciation for what we did to defeat the Nazis and that we were now standing up to the Stalinist Soviet Union. The Russians were their century-old subjugator who defeated tiny Finland in a war from 1939 to 1944. We received the loudest ovation next to the Finnish team who entered after us. We forgot all about the rain.

One thrilling highlight was the entrance of the Olympic torch carried by the Finnish champion, 55-year-old Paavo Nurmi, winner of 5 golds in the 1924 Olympics. To the cheers of the crowd, he ran at a good clip to the tower. He touched the torch to a wide bowl on a high stanchion in the infield that immediately flamed up, and then he gave it to a Finnish teenager who ran with the torch up the steps of the tall tower to the top. The youth passed the torch to another athlete  wearing the Finnish team’s singlet and shorts. When a burst of flames arose from the gigantic bowl that would stay burning until the end of the competition, there was another great roar from the crowd.  The scoreboard flashed, “Fire in the tower lit by Hannes Kolehmainen.”

“Mabel, Mabel,” I shouted, “that’s the man in the javelin store!” The next day I learned that in the 1912 Olympics 22-year-old vegetarian Hannes Kolehmainen won the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races and the 12,000 meter cross-country run. He also earned a silver medal in the 12,000 meter team race. In the 1920 Olympics he won another gold in the marathon.

As for the 1952 Olympics, 62-year-old Hannes Kolehmainen helped make the rain-soaked opening day bright and memorable for the Finnish people and everyone in the stadium. As for me, I’ve never forgotten a great and modest champion’s generous gift of encouragement to a hopeful young athlete. As we marched out of the stadium the Olympic creed flashed on the scoreboard:

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Once home, the very special javelin became my “Flying Finn.” I threw it to win two National Championships and to earn spots on the ’56 Olympic team, the ’55 and ’59 Pan-American teams and the teams for the first and second U.S. versus USSR dual meets in ’58 and ’59. My throwing career culminated in being inducted in 1964 into the Helms Track and Field Hall of Fame in Los Angeles. That very special javelin really flew true.

Sadly, Grandpa didn’t see me make the Olympic team; he passed away in the spring of 1952. Then, in the spring of 1956, John Brennan had a massive heart attack and died at the age of 49. For his vision and dedication in creating the Police Athletic League’s track and field program for underprivileged youth, the City of New York constructed Brennan Field in Middle Village, New York. An Irish immigrant, Brennan arrived in New York with his widowed mother and younger sister when he was ten years old. His stellar middle-distance running career began at Newtown High School and continued at Fordham University and with the Police Sports Club. In the mid-1940s the NYC Police Athletic League and the Chicago Catholic Youth Organization women’s track and field teams were the first and only teams in the U.S. to be racially integrated.

]]> 7 8815