August September 2011 Issue – Irish America https://irishamerica.com Irish America Magazine Thu, 18 Apr 2019 19:22:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.10 82361074 Brendan Gleeson: The Good, the Bad and the Funny https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/brendan-gleeson-the-good-the-bad-and-the-funny/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/brendan-gleeson-the-good-the-bad-and-the-funny/#respond Mon, 01 Aug 2011 01:40:46 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3747 Read more..]]> The dynamic Irish actor talks about his latest role in The Guard, working with the brothers McDonagh and his upcoming directorial debut with Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds.

It’s a Thursday morning in late June, and I am sitting at a table in the empty ballroom of the opulent Beverly Wilshire hotel, waiting for Brendan Gleeson. The press conference scheduled prior to our interview is running a bit long, and I feel as though I’m waiting for someone at a grand, abandoned café.

Then I hear a booming yet mild Dublin accent working its way down the hallway and Brendan Gleeson, grinning and wearing all black, walks into the ballroom.

“Not very L.A., is it?” he asks with a laugh when our photographer, Kit, compliments him on his jacket, and he settles himself cheerfully at our impromptu table for two.

Well, you wouldn’t really describe Gleeson himself as “very L.A.,” either. He is incredibly tall, with broad shoulders and a build that has worked equally well for his work as criminals both thuggish and smart in films like John Boorman’s The General and Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges; his turn as the vigilant and eccentric Mad Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films; and his Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Winston Churchill in the 2009 HBO mini-series Into The Storm. His floppy ginger hair is tinged with white at the temples, and his expressive face shifts quickly from thoughtful and serious to wonderfully devilish. At fifty-six, after twenty-two busy years in film, Gleeson and his wife, Mary, still live in Ireland – in Malahide, not far from Artane, the Dublin suburb where he grew up. He’s here in L.A. for just a few days as part of a promotional tour for The Guard.

The first feature film by John Michael McDonagh (older brother of playwright and In Bruges director Martin), The Guard is a razor-sharp, at times uncomfortably dark comedy. It’s also a western of sorts, complete with good guys and bad guys, a final showdown, justice taken outside the realm of the law, and a soundtrack by Calexico. But, rather than Monument Valley or a dusty stretch of central Italy, it takes place in Co. Galway, along the verdant, rainy and totally desolate Connemara coastline.

And instead of John Wayne on horseback or a forbidding, gun-slinging Clint Eastwood, its hero is a burly police sergeant named Gerry Boyle, with a little too much time on his hands and a great talent for pushing people’s buttons.

This is, needless to say, Gleeson’s role, and his performance is a triumph.

“Boyle was a brilliant creation from the start,” says Gleeson, fondly. “I just looked at the script and said ‘God, this has to happen.’”

Gleeson’s Sergeant Boyle is a small-town enigma. As Don Cheadle’s character, American FBI Agent Wendell Everett, sums it up, he is either the dumbest person or the smartest. He is snarky to his co-workers and irreverent in the face of authority, but sweet and caring towards both his ailing mother (played by the always-wonderful Fionnula Flanagan) and the hookers from Dublin who visit him on his days off. There’s a sense of loneliness about him, but it’s something neither he nor the film spends too much time dwelling on. Mostly, he seems wryly fed up with the ennui he’s resigned himself to.

“He’s really bored, let’s be honest about it, and he just wants something to happen; he wants somebody to lose their temper,” Gleeson explains.

Fortunately, perhaps, things get more exciting for Gerry and the Connemara police force when it turns out that a strange murder in the area might be connected to a large shipment of drugs worth either €500 million or maybe €100 million – nobody is quite sure – en route from Colombia to Ireland and set to dock in Spiddal, or Cork, or…somewhere else. As all of his colleagues are either inept, corrupt or both, Boyle is forced to team up with the no-nonsense Agent Everett, who is totally mystified by his surroundings and the uncooperative Irish locals.

Everett is equally mystified by Boyle – by his penchant for breaking the law and his incendiary, sometimes racist remarks.

“It’s not unknown at home, people will kind of get up your nose a bit just to see how you react,” Gleeson says, raising a bushy orange eyebrow.

This is something, he admits, he’s a bit worried about: will American audiences get that Gerry doesn’t always mean what he says? That the aim of many of his cracks is to get himself through the ridiculousness going on around him?

“I mean, he actually says it,” Gleeson points out, quoting the script in Gerry’s defense: “I don’t mean anything by it, I’m only having a bit of fun, like.”

Even if viewers don’t quite get Gerry, they will definitely get the chemistry between Gleeson and Cheadle, who was also the film’s executive producer.

“I stayed in [for the screening] last night,” he discloses. “I wanted to see what an L.A. audience would make of it since it’s so removed from L.A. Don is fantastic. You see, he takes the American audience by the hand and leads them through it. He’s equally as appalled as they are and he can guide them through the maze that is Connemara.”

GLEESON didn’t begin acting professionally until he was 34, after a decade of teaching English and Irish. “I felt pretty much there as a teacher,” he reflects, “and I was prepared to do it for the rest of my life.”

But a love of acting was also there, right from his “messing around” days, when he and his friends did amateur productions; through his time in college, when he started working with playwright Paul Mercier; and into his years as a teacher, when he acted, directed and wrote for Mercier’s Passion Machine theater company.

At a certain point it became impossible to juggle everything, so he made a choice.

“When I first was able to fill in A-C-T-O-R for the occupation line on my passport,” he says quietly, “that was the first time I really felt ‘Wow, I’m home.’

“One of the benefits of starting out so late,” he offers, “was that I never had to do soap commercials.” After frequent stage work and smaller roles in films like The Field and Into the West, Gleeson’s blockbuster breakthrough came in 1995 when Mel Gibson asked him to join the cast of Braveheart as Hamish. Since then, he’s appeared in more than his fair share of Hollywood hits, including Mission Impossible II, 28 Days Later, Gangs of New York, Cold Mountain and Troy.

At the same time, he has remained fiercely committed to Irish cinema. He first starred as gangster Bunny Kelly in I Went Down, and later received acclaim for his portrayal of real-life Dublin crime boss Martin Cahill in John Boorman’s The General. He more recently played two estranged brothers in Boorman’s Tiger’s Tail, gave voice to Abbott Cellach in The Secret of Kells, and hunted down Cillian Murphy in Perrier’s Bounty.

Does Gleeson think he plays a certain type? He tells me of a recent conversation with director Daniel Espinoza on the set of Safe House, a CIA action film co-starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, set to be released in 2012. Espinoza remarked that Gleeson never seems to play good guys, to which Gleeson replied “‘Eh, that’s not true, hang on a second.’ And then everybody I [mentioned] to him that I’ve played who I figured was a good guy, Daniel said ‘Yeah, but he was a tough dude,’ or ‘he was a hard man.’ So then I was asking myself ‘Do I never play any good people? What’s wrong with me?’”

He realized, after the fact, that he just doesn’t think about characters in that way.

“I tend to look for the good in bad people and the bad in good people, to make them human. ’Cause I don’t think that people generally are that black and white. Maybe in movie-land they can be…but that isn’t necessarily all there is.”

No matter how improbable they may sound on paper, all of Gleeson’s characters share a human quality rooted in a place other than “movie-land.” This makes him perfectly suited (and, in a way, vital) for the grim, not quite real but not quite absurd worlds created by both of the McDonagh brothers, who grew up in London but spent every summer in the West of Ireland.

It’s almost irresistible to compare The Guard to In Bruges, so similarly dark are their plots and so related are their directors. If anybody is in a position to speak to what connects the brothers and what distinguishes them, it’s Gleeson. He did, after all, star in both of their first features: In In Bruges he played Ken, the older of two hit men laying low for a while in Belgium’s comically peaceful medieval city.

“I keep trying to emphasize the difference because I know it must be irritating at some point to always be mentioned in the same breath as the brother,” he says. But he does concede to some similarities. 
“They’re very fierce; there’s kind of a savage commitment to the quality of the writing. They aren’t easy on themselves or on anybody else…Their stuff is always economic, it’s always bright.”

On set, “they’re both very calm, quite painstaking,” he explains. “John in particular insists he’s OCD. I keep telling him that he’s just fussy, but right before a scene he’ll go up to you and just –” to illustrate, Gleeson carefully shifts my recorder a millimeter towards the left on the table between us and nods as though it made all the difference in the world. “But there’s an assuredness too. They’re very filmicly aware – encyclopedic, actually, in terms of film.”

The difference, he says, is between their voices and the worlds they create with them. “The only way I’ve been explaining it is, when I was working with John on The Guard there was nothing of In Bruges that ever came to mind. It’s a very odd thing. Even though there is that similarity of attack in terms of the humor, it was completely different.” Even for an actor who looks for the good in bad people and vice versa, the darkness of the work can be hard to grapple with.

He recalls a discussion he had with Martin before filming Six Shooter, which won the Oscar for best live action short film in 2006.

“There was a part about a cot death and I was saying ‘Martin…there’s stuff you have to be careful about in terms of pushing envelopes, some stuff you just don’t mess with,’ and all that. But we had a long discussion about what he was trying to do and in the end I was reassured.

“But then I remember, at some point after we wrapped, he said something about how in the end it’s all about love. And actually, when you take any of Martin’s characters, no matter what they do, no matter how appalling their behavior – and some of them are seriously appalling – you find it very hard to hate any of them. You don’t do it. So in a way, what’s frightening is that you’re understanding, you have some sympathy or empathy for people who are doing the most appalling things. And that to me is very singular.”

And does the same thing go for John Michael McDonagh, who Gleeson describes as a bit of a Gerry Boyle himself? “I’m not sure if with John it works the same way,” he muses. “I think John is prepared for you to hate some of his characters…With Gerry at least you kind of have to take it, you know? Whatever his flaws.”

AS WE TALK about In Bruges, Gleeson tells me about a radio interview he gave in Ireland with the other stars of the film. At some point, the host put the question of musical tastes to the group but added “Ah, I’m not going to ask you, Gleeson, you only go for this diddle-i-ay stuff.”

Gleeson, who did the majority of his own fiddle playing in Cold Mountain and appears on the traditional group Atlan’s 2009 live album, replied that he was into more than diddle-i-ay. Later, he took some heat from his trad-playing friends.

“You didn’t give us much good press,” they told him, “and I said ‘D’you know what, you’re actually right. I didn’t stand up for it very well.’”

He may regret that, but in the minutes that follow Gleeson gives one of the best defenses of diddle-i-ay music I’ve ever heard:
“I remember, years ago, I didn’t get what some old guy was doing that was so special. I asked somebody, ‘It’s all scratchy and everything, what does everybody see in it? I don’t get it.’ And he said ‘Ah, it’s the small print, the small print.’ Irish music is about that. It’s not about the showy stuff, it’s about little, small variations. And once you start reading it, the intricacy of it, it’s like…it’s like lace or something, it’s what people do on the inside.” He pauses. “When I started out at about 19, 20, it took me two years just to tell the difference between a jig and a reel. It does all sound the same, but what you can find once you go in – it’s never-ending. So that’s my love.”

His reverence for Irish music, for the literature, for the landscape, is palpable as he talks. But he also tells me, like many before him, that it’s been harder in the recent past to find motivation and imagination in his home country.

“I’d never had any problem finding inspiration; Ireland was always just there, you know? All this richness of culture was there to tap into. But I kind of felt like we’d been betrayed so utterly and completely by our own people in the last couple of years; we were the authors of our own disaster.” He somewhat ruefully implies that he and John Boorman tried to ring the alarm on the Celtic Tiger with the poorly received 2006 film Tiger’s Tail, but that “nobody wanted to hear it.”

When Gleeson wants to, though, he speaks up. And when he does, people seem to listen.

Recognized for wisely choosing his moments (a thoughtful tirade against the Irish health care system on the Late Late Show in 2006; his staunch defense of the Irish Film Board before the Arts Council and the Dail in 2009), Gleeson agreed to be a part of the Irish celebrity welcoming committee of sorts that greeted President and First Lady Obama during their visit to Dublin in May.

He was asked to speak at College Green about the kindred liberators Daniel O’Connell and Frederick Douglass, which he did – and well – but he also took the speech in his own direction. “Now we’ve had a rough few years here,” he said, speaking plainly to the crowd of a few hundred thousand. “I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up looking at the ground. It’s time to stand up, breathe the air, look around: What a people! What friends we have! I’m bloody sure we can!”

“I want to stick to my job and what I know,” he’s quick to say when I ask about his rousing oratory. “I don’t want to be a pulpit crasher in any way, shape or form. But there comes a time when you’ve just got to nail your colors to the mast, I think.”

Gleeson will be doing just that with his next major project, one that has been a long time coming. He will be directing his own adaptation of At Swim Two Birds, the notoriously un-adaptable novel by Flann O’Brien (a.k.a. Myles na gCopaleen a.k.a. Brian O’Nolan). The book’s layers are more numerous than its author’s pseudonyms, and Gleeson has set himself a definite challenge in translating the books-within-the-book and all the anarchy that reigns between them into film.

“I’m after talking it up so much that the only way is down,” Gleeson says when I first ask him about it. “That’s a very Irish way of looking at it, isn’t it?”

Making At Swim Two Birds has been just out of Gleeson’s reach for a few years now, due to difficulty securing funding and various scheduling conflicts. But it’s been the subject of much hype and speculation, ever since word of the project got out following a star-studded script-reading in Dublin in December, 2006.

“I’ve had everything decided in terms of casting for ages,” he says, sucking air between his teeth excitedly, and proceeds to list a cast that sounds like a who’s who of Irish actors: “Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, Michael Fassbender, Eamon Morrissey, Sean McGinley, Marie Mullen –” and so on.

After all of the delays, Gleeson is clearly reluctant to say too much about it. But he does divulge that they will begin shooting in the spring, in Ireland and Luxembourg, and that he will be playing the main character’s hated uncle, who also figures in one of the books within the book. Gabriel Byrne will be playing the mystical Pooka McPhelimy. “You want to hear Gabriel do the Pooka,” Gleeson tells me enthusiastically, describing it as “languid, urbane and wicked.”

Another Irish actor joining the cast of At Swim will be Gleeson’s 28-year-old son, Domhnall, who plays Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films and recently appeared in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit. Brian, another of Gleeson’s four sons, has also worked with  his father a few times – as his son in Tiger’s Tail and as a fellow Garda in Domhnall’s recent short film, the family collaboration Noreen.

“I kind of dealt them one, as in ‘you’re on your own,’” Gleeson says when I ask what advice he’s had for his sons. “But generally it’s just been about how to work with your craft, how to counterbalance instinct and the intellectualization of the piece. How sometimes you can over-think something and then other times you’ve got to plan…Initially I’d go in and say ‘maybe if you took that down there,’ or ‘what are you thinking about here?’ And I enjoyed directing them in that way, I got a real kick out of it. And then they began to not need to ask me.”

He emanates clear pride as he tells me that Domhnall will be working on Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina in the autumn, and as he hints at a part Brian might have landed – “I’d love to tell you about it, but it isn’t exactly sealed and dealed so I don’t want to put a jinx on it. But it looks like it’s going to work out for him, and I’m so proud of that because I had nothing to do with it.

“I mean,” he pauses, “you have to give everything a whack at some stage, don’t you? Just like Gerry Boyle. Try it once.”

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The First Word: Imagining America https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/the-first-word-imagining-america/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/the-first-word-imagining-america/#respond Mon, 01 Aug 2011 01:39:09 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3744 Read more..]]> A letter from our Editor:

My image of the South and the Civil War was formed in part by the movie Gone With the Wind.  RTÉ, our one channel when I was growing up in Ireland, ran movie classics on Sunday afternoons. It was one of the features I enjoyed watching with my mother.

My desire to come to America was fueled by those movies, by the glamour of  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the talent of Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly. And, of course, Clark Gable, who was my mother’s favorite.

And when I did come to America “for the summer” (I arrived on July 4, 1972, which I always refer to as MY Independence Day), I took a trip around the States that ended in Hollywood, where I took a photograph of Clark’s hand prints on the Walk of Fame and mailed it to my mother.

I didn’t think about there being an Irish dimension to those Sunday movies. (Of course, years later I would interview Gregory Peck who was so proud of his Kerry roots, and Gene Kelly would also feature in our pages). The fact that Scarlett was an “O’Hara” and her plantation was called “Tara” didn’t register as anything out of the ordinary back then. But as David O’Connell, writing in this issue, shows us, Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With the Wind, published 75 years ago and still selling strong, was very Irish indeed.

On that same trip around the States in 1972, I stopped in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, the town where The Virginian was set. (In addition to American movies, TV shows such as Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Virginian, were our viewing staple). Back then, I didn’t think of cowboys, sheriffs, cattle rustlers and outlaws as being Irish, but of course, many of the most colorful characters in the Wild West were Irish, including Billy the Kid.

A photograph of Billy sold for $2.3 million recently, and at about the same time, Whitey Bulger, another Irish outlaw, was arrested.  In this issue, Tom Deignan takes a close look at these two Irish outlaws and the movies that have been made about them.

If America has its outlaws, it also has its super heroes, and in this issue, Tara Dougherty interviews “Spider-Man” Reeve Carney. Reeve’s great-uncle was Art Carney of Honeymooners fame. (Jackie Gleason may have had star billing but to my mind, Carney carried the show). The Honeymooners was one of my favorite shows when I first moved here. I still watch the reruns. So, I’m delighted to have the talented Reeve, who is well up on his Irish roots, featured in this issue.

I don’t know if  Brendan Gleeson is any relation to Jackie Gleason, but I’m sure you will enjoy Sheila Langan’s cover story on this fine actor who has played some very bad guys – though he always infuses them with a bit of humanity. He has a wonderful new film The Guard coming out so watch for it in cinemas soon.

Of course, movies are not real life and the Civil War is certainly a lot more complex than what I gleaned from Gone With the Wind, but my real surprise on coming to America, was finding out how Irish it is. For such a small country we sure have had an impact. The recent visit by President Obama  to Ireland served as an opportunity to look at other visits by U.S. presidents who had Irish ancestors, including an 1872 trip by Ulysses S. Grant, and we are delighted to bring you that story too. Isn’t it something  that the home of Obama’s ancestors is still lived in by family members? And indeed, Grant’s family homestead is also still standing. (I always had a thing for Grant, I think it’s because he looks like one of the heroes of those American westerns.)

With presidential visits and  capturing outlaws, the Irish have been in the news of late – not least of all because of  Rory McIlroy’s U.S. Open win. But there’s another golfing  hero that we remember in this issue, 19-year-old John McDermott, who won the U.S. Open in 1911. He was the first American to do so, and he just happened to be Irish American.

So, lots of good reading in this issue. And don’t forget to check out our Photo Album page. The  short profiles readers submit about the lives of their ancestors are the real story of how the Irish made it in  America.  In the last issue, Thomas Delaney, who fought in the Civil War, had his story told by his great-grandson Gerry Howard. Thomas Delaney, another great-grandson, read the story and contacted the magazine, and we were able to connect  these  two long lost cousins.

Now, that’s the stuff of movies.

Mortas Cine

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Irish Eye on Hollywood: Upcoming Film Releases https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/irish-eye-on-hollywood-upcoming-film-releases/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/irish-eye-on-hollywood-upcoming-film-releases/#respond Mon, 01 Aug 2011 01:38:17 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3735 Read more..]]> The latest Irish and Irish American happenings in film and televisio

1.An all-star cast of Irish and international talent gathered in Dublin to shoot a gender-bending film written by one of Ireland’s most acclaimed authors.

n

Glenn Close stars alongside Irish thespians Brenda Fricker, Brendan Gleeson, Mary Doyle Kennedy and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the film Albert Nobbs.

Close, who wrote the movie along with Booker Prize winning author John Banville (The Sea), plays the title character, a woman driven to transform herself into a man to get a job as a servant in the 1890’s. Suffice it to say, complications ensue as Albert attempts to keep his true identity hidden, and as romantic feelings begin to bloom among key characters.

Close has been trying to bring this story (based on a book by Irish writer George Moore) to the big screen for well over a decade. She performed the title role on stage in the early 1980s, and has been attempting to make a movie of the story ever since. She is even serving as producer of the Albert Nobbs film. Janet McTeer (Into the Storm) and Mia Wasikowska (who starred with Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre) also appear in Albert Nobbs, which wrapped up shooting in Dublin this past winter. The film was directed by Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives) and is expected to hit U.S. theaters in late 2011 or early 2012.

2. The 23rd annual Galway Film Fleadh opened in early July and featured the latest movie from Irish director Thaddeus O’Sullivan. Entitled Stella Days, the latest film from O’Sullivan (Ordinary Decent Criminal, Into the Storm) stars Martin Sheen as well as Stephen Rea.

The film is based on the book Stella Days: 1957 – 1967, The Life and Times of Rural Irish Cinema by Michael Doorley. Both the book and film explore the small Tipperary town of Borrisokane, where the local cinema provides respite from small town life and economic depression.

Tensions arise when a local priest (Sheen) who loves the cinema begins to knock heads with a powerful bishop, who is more concerned with raising funds, as well as the locals who have begun to ask tough questions about their faith.

Though his birth name is Ramón Antonio Gerard Estévez, Sheen’s Irish roots run deep, and this film is a homecoming of sorts for the veteran actor, whose love for Irish culture is well known. Sheen’s mom, Mary, was an Irish immigrant who hailed from Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary.

As part of the festivities surrounding the Galway fest, Sheen was also featured at the Fleadh’s annual Public Interview.

3. Also showing at the Galway Fleadh was Parked, directed by Darragh Byrne and written by Ciaran Creagh. Parked, which stars the always-busy Colm Meaney, was nominated for four Irish Film and Television Awards (IFTA) earlier this year and was also shown at Cannes. In the film, Meaney plays Fred Daly, a man so down on his luck he has ended up living in his car. But inspiration suddenly comes to him in the form of a pot-smoking fellow named Cathal (Colin Morgan). Parked also stars Irish actor Stuart Graham, who appeared in the acclaimed Northern Ireland film Omagh.

4. Colin Farrell will be having a busy summer. First up, we saw an all but unrecognizable Farrell (complete with cheesy mustache and balding comb-over hair-do) in the workplace comedy Horrible Bosses, which also starred Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman and Jamie Foxx, among others. (Little known fact: Horrible Bosses was co-written by Irish American John Francis Daley, the Illinois native and actor best known for his role in the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks as well as recent appearances on the show Bones.) In August, Farrell steps into a starring role in the remake of the campy 80s film Fright Night. Farrell,  above, plays a mysterious next door neighbor who just might be responsible for a string of murders because he just might be a vampire. The original featured Chris Sarandon as well as Roddy McDowell, and was not exactly screaming to be re-made. Let’s hope Farrell, as well as director Craig Gillespie, come up with enough twists to make this more interesting.

5. While we’re on the subject of summer movies, don’t forget that a number of Irish stars, from Fiona Shaw and Ciaran Hinds to Evanna Lynch and Domhnal Gleeson, will appear in the July 15 flick Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2.

Meanwhile, Olivia Wilde (who was raised in Ireland) will appear in the big budget July flick Cowboys and Aliens alongside Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, and in the August comedy The Change Up, starring Jason Bateman.

6. Also in July, look for Pierce Brosnan and the aforementioned Ciaran Hinds in the thriller Salvation Boulevard. Also starring Greg Kinnear, Ed Harris, Marisa Tomei, Jim Gaffigan and Mary Callaghan Lynch, the film explores the world of evangelism in the U.S.A charismatic preacher convinces the residents of a small town to follow him – and invest in what seems to be a lucrative real estate development. But when one follower sees the preacher in a compromising position, a battle erupts as the preacher’s dedicated followers aim to silence the doubter.

The former James Bond also has another film lined up for September entitled I Don’t Know How She Does It. Also starring Kelsey Grammer, Olivia Munn and famously curvy Mad Men star Christina Hendricks, I Don’t Know How She Does It features Sarah Jessica Parker as a working mom struggling to balance her responsibilities and her personal life.

7. Kenneth Branagh had a big hit behind the camera with the May popcorn flick Thor. Now the Belfast thespian has announced that his next movie project will be My Week with Marilyn. Branagh will star alongside Michelle Williams as well as Dominic Cooper in this British drama directed by Simon Curtis and written by Adrian Hodges. Based on a book by Colin Clark, My Week with Marilyn explores the making of the 1950s film The Prince and the Showgirl, which starred Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. Michelle Williams stars as Marilyn Monroe, in a role that is surely going to turn heads, if only because Williams is transformed into Monroe, at least to judge from early photos from the set. Fittingly, Branagh stars in the film as another famous thespian – Sir Laurence Olivier.

My Week with Marilyn looks closely at one week Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) spent with Monroe while her husband, famous playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), was out of the country.

8. Gabriel Byrne has spent recent months touring the U.S. as well as Ireland, serving as his native country’s cultural ambassador.  He has been talking up some of his favorite authors, programming screenings of Irish movies and participating in roundtables about the future of the arts in Ireland.
But, in the end, Byrne is best known as an actor and it’s apparently time for the Usual Suspects star to get back to work. Byrne is slated to star in a movie called Capital, to be directed by Costa Gavras. Byrne will star alongside Mathieu Kassovitz, who will play a manager at a prominent European bank, which is the target of a hostile takeover by American investors. Byrne is slated to play a representative of the bank’s shareholders.

Capital is slated to shoot all over the map in late September. Sites include Paris, London, Miami and New York. Gavras, the Greek filmmaker famed for directing international art house fare such as Z and Missing, has said the idea for a film on high finance came to him after he read a book called Total Capitalism, written by former Credit Lyonnais president Jean Peyrelevade. The book implies that the world is run by a small group of powerful shareholders.

As for Gabriel Byrne, he may eventually read this charged tome. However, he recently told the New York Post his current reading list includes The Commitments by Roddy Doyle, Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, and the 2011 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award prize winner Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

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Bring Them All Back Home https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/bring-them-all-back-home/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/bring-them-all-back-home/#comments Mon, 01 Aug 2011 05:38:04 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3741 Read more..]]> ‘Ireland Reaching Out’ is a pilot project that aims to reconnect all 70 million Irish people worldwide with their ancestral homeland.

The Ireland Reaching Out project is the brainchild of Mike Feerick, a Galway businessman who has his own personal experience of emigration.  Feerick, who now lives near Loughrea, was born in New York and lived for many years in America.

“I know what it’s like for people,” he says. “Their relationship with Ireland can be an unrequited one. They place a huge value on this country and their connections to it but often, when they visit, we Irish don’t reach out to them. We don’t appreciate how important our connections are.”

Mike’s project meets this problem head on, and in so doing, may completely revolutionize Ireland’s relationship with its worldwide diaspora.

“Our diaspora has been compared to a pot without a handle because we haven’t known what to do with it,” says Mike. “I want to connect people in a way that will enrich all of our lives.”

He is starting with his own part of Ireland – South-East Galway. With 44,000 people (approximately 1% of the total population of Ireland), this region has experienced long-term emigration and was particularly affected by the Great Famine.

“Take the parish of Clontuskert,” cites Mike. “Before the famine, there were 4,000 people and now there are fewer than 1,000. There are thousands of their descendants all over the world. Taking Galway as a whole, there are millions out there connected to the county.  Instead of waiting for them to find us, we are finding them and inviting them back.”

Last year, Mike approached David McWilliams, a well-known economist who has been soliciting new ideas for rebuilding Ireland, with his plan.  David instantly saw its potential.

“It’s about re-imagining Ireland,” says David. “We’re putting together a jigsaw and coming to a new understanding. We’re not just a small island off the coast of Europe, we’re the mother ship of a global tribe.”

With David’s help, Mike got the backing of the Irish government, and last November he started the process of inviting members of that global tribe home.  He and his team recruited volunteers from all of the parishes in the area. These volunteers then interviewed people in their local communities, asking them for details about people who had emigrated in living memory.

Those people were then contacted and invited to a “Week of Welcomes,” which took place from June 26th to July 3rd. The event was also advertised in brochures, through the Irish pub network and online.

“A huge amount of people were involved,” says Mike. “More than 500 volunteers from all of the parishes researched the history, sent letters and reached out to people.”

Thirty people came to South-East Galway for the very first “Week of Welcomes.” From America, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Britain, they converged on Cloghan Castle, a restored Norman watchtower in the townland of Kilchreest.

“The first people I met were Kathleen O’Brien and her daughters Kristine Davis and Julie Fennell from Boston.”  Their ancestors hailed from the Ballinakill parish, so they were thrilled to receive their letter of invitation.

“I came to Ireland for the first time with my husband five years ago,” Kathleen said. “We took a bus tour for our 40th anniversary.  We saw lots of the country but we didn’t meet many people.  I’m expecting it to be very different this time.”

Her daughter Kristine has never visited Ireland before. “I just want to feel closer to Ireland after this,” she says. “I want to meet family that I never knew existed.”

Kathleen’s other daughter Julie is a history buff and has previously visited Ireland in search of her roots. “I found lots of cousins and this time, I hope to find even more,” she says. “I’m also really looking forward to seeing my mother meet her family.  This really is the trip of a lifetime for her.”

It isn’t just visitors who are arriving at the castle. There are lots of local people too. Sister de Lourdes Fahy, who has been involved with the project from the beginning, is a history and genealogy enthusiast who runs a museum near Gort. Her task for the week is to help those people who have family connections with the parish of Gort.

“I was the one who invited them to come here and I’ll be showing them around during the week,” she explains. “I’ll be introducing them to their relatives, bringing them to graveyards and to the land their ancestors once lived on.”

It’s this personal touch that Mike Feerick emphasizes above all else. “Genealogy can be a lonely business,” he says. “What’s missing is the contact with people. We asked all of our visitors to tell us what they knew about their family connections before they arrived, and our team of volunteers has been working on finding out more. As a result, we’ll be able to put them in direct contact with living relatives. We’ll be able to bring them out to the parishes and show them the houses and fields they came from. They won’t be alone.”

Ed and Margaret O’Connor, originally from Holyoke, Massachusetts and current residents of Husdon, MA, are already impressed by this approach. They visited Ireland once before and explored Ed’s Irish roots. This time, they are focusing on Margaret’s side of the family – the Egans of Gort.

“I’m related to the O’Connors, Houlihans, Barretts and O’Donoghues in West Kerry and when I went to the place where my great grandfather was baptized, I felt a sense of homecoming,” says Ed. “I’d like Margaret to feel that about this part of Ireland.”
Although she has just arrived at the castle, Margaret has already been introduced to a local man who now owns the land her family once farmed. “It means so much to be welcomed by a community,” she says. “It would be so different and so much more difficult if we were just walking around on our own.”

Ed, Margaret and the rest of the visitors have a packed schedule ahead of them for the rest of the week. There are history lectures telling of what Ireland once was. There are genealogy sessions. There are trips to the various parishes the visitors hail from. There are sightseeing tours and cultural excursions.

“We want to tell them all about this part of Ireland, what it once was and what it is today,” says Mike Feerick.  “These people are not just anybody.  They are our relatives.  We are part of them and they are connected to us.  Let’s explore the bonds that unite and define us.”

Although the week has only just begun, it’s clear it’s already a success. Mike already has more than 200 people signed up for next year’s “Week of Welcomes,” and plans are afoot to roll the project out on a nationwide basis, with the support of Fáilte Ireland, the country’s tourism body.

But Mike has plans to develop it even further. It’s not just going to be a week of events. There will be permanent teams in parishes all over the country that will be available to help people who want to learn more about their heritage.

“People will be there to welcome you when you arrive,” says Mike. “It’s all about building lifelong connections.”

He hopes these connections will play a central part in Ireland’s future. “I’d like to see a day when all state boards were obliged to have a member of the diaspora,” he says. “I’d like to see a time when Ireland didn’t just focus on the Irish on our island but on the Irish worldwide. I want to connect people and reunify us all. Parish by parish, townland by townland, we’re starting here.”

To find out more about the Week of Welcomes and Ireland Reaching Out, visit www.irelandxo.com

 

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The Jig is Up! https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/the-jig-is-up/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/the-jig-is-up/#respond Mon, 01 Aug 2011 01:37:20 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3725 Read more..]]> A new documentary dubbed as “Spellbound meets Mad Hot Ballroom, with a touch of Riverdance”

As an Irish American who had a very culturally rich childhood, I may be something of an anomaly in that I never once tried Irish step dancing. I never raised a foot to a jig or a reel, never donned a massive curly wig, never learned how to jump two feet in the air while keeping my arms perfectly still.

With the release of Scottish filmmaker Sue Bourne’s new documentary, Jig, however, I now have a vivid idea of what is might have been like. Or, at least, what it might have been like to be one of the 3,000 young competitive dancers dedicated and skilled enough to make it to the World Irish Dance Championships.

Jig revolves around the 2010 World Championships – “World’s,” as they are popularly known – in Glasgow, Scotland. Bourne narrows in on the stories of nine dancers, ranging in age from 10 to 19, and coming from some expected places like Ireland and the U.S., but others as far-flung as Russia and the Netherlands by way of Sri Lanka.

There’s young John Whitehurst from Birmingham, U.K., portrayed as the “Billy Elliot” among his sports-loving brothers. Also among the ten-year-olds dancing at World’s for the very first time are Brogan McCay from Derry, Northern Ireland and Julia O’Rourke from Long Island, New York. They are each other’s biggest competition, but the way they act will teach any viewer a thing or two about maturity and grace. Glimpses of their future can be seen in the story of Claire Greaney from Galway, Londoner Simona Mauriello, and Glasgow native Suzanne Coyle, three girls from the 19-20 age group, who have been competing against each other for years.

Then, of course, there are the parents – some supportive, some bemused, some even more fiercely competitive than their children.

Bourne readily admits that she went into this “not knowing anything about Irish dance.” Consequently, Jig isn’t presented from the point of view of a seasoned insider, but from the perspective of somebody exploring and trying to understand this intense, singular world. Bourne has made a film that respects its subjects more than it seeks to expose them. Some may take issue with the fairly objective angle Jig takes in place of a more critical one, but it makes sense considering the hoops Bourne had to go through in order to make the documentary at all. When we spoke during a press day for Jig, she explained that “An Comisiun [the World’s sponsor] had  never let anyone in before…To be honest I think they are a bit wary of outsiders coming in, criticizing them about the wigs, the makeup, the tan, so it’s easier for them to just keep the outside world out.”

Luckily for Bourne, though, her request to make the film coincided with the 40th anniversary of the World Championships and a change in attitude spurred on by the success of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance.

Bourne had to present her proposal before eighty committee members of An Comisiun, and was eventually given the go-ahead to make Jig. With all the secrecy and hesitation, one can’t help but wonder whether the committee ever tried to steer her from or towards certain aspects of World’s.
“Not at all,” Bourne said adamantly. After initial negotiations over editorial control, they were “fantastic, they didn’t interfere in any way, shape or form.”

For the dancers, Jig finally brings some wider attention to what they do. Joe Bitter, a California native whose father gave up a doctor’s practice and moved to the U.K. just so that Joe could study with one of the best Irish dance instructors, is now something of a celebrity within the close-knit community – known for his remarkable footwork and his tendency to win. Still, it was nice, he said, to be able to give people outside the world of Irish dance a taste of what it’s all about. “You spend so much of your time just practicing all day every day, every week, non stop, so it’s nice to show finally what you can do. You have to have the right mix of everything, like talent, work ethic, dedication, to be able to do this, and it’s all worth it in the end – that’s proved with Jig.”
Eleven-year-old Julia O’Rourke remarked that she now feels like her friends and classmates will start to look at Irish dance the way she does – as a sport.

“Irish dancing is definitely not one of the most popular sports in the world and Jig gives a chance for other people to see how Irish dancing is just like any other sport and how much work and dedication is put into it,” she told me, feet tapping quietly the entire time.

Visit www.jig-the-film.us to pre-order a DVD or request a Jig screening in your town

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Irish Dance Nationals https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/irish-dance-nationals/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/irish-dance-nationals/#respond Mon, 01 Aug 2011 01:36:48 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3720 Read more..]]> A look at the 2011 North American Irish Dance Competition in Nashville, Tennessee

On the July 4th weekend, the Gaylord Opryland Convention Center in Nashville, just a stone’s throw from the Grand Ole Opry, was descended upon by a mad rush of curly wigs, spray tans, accordions and fiddles.

The North American Dance Competition ran for 4 days and over 3,000 dancers came, not just from North America, but from all over the world. Dancers traveled from Ireland, Scotland, the UK, the Netherlands and from every corner of the United States and Canada to compete.

The competitors ranged in age from eight years old to over forty. On the second day of the competition, the producers of a documentary about Irish dance, Jig!, organized an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for longest Irish dance line. It was an overwhelming success; 691 dancers lined up, circled the massive room with held hands and danced a transitional jig for five minutes. After an eruption of applause, many dancers rushed back to the competition stages.

The solo competitions consist of three rounds. The first two rounds are light shoe and heavy shoe.

The hard shoe competitions are run with three dancers on stage at a time, and in addition to being judged on timing, crossed feet and posture, the heavy rounds place major emphasis not in the volume of the dancer’s beats and their speed. The light round is all about extension and movement. Following the first two rounds, the top scoring dancers are called back for the third round, the set dance. The sets, performed in heavy shoes, are danced to a selection of traditional music and are the showcase performance for each dancer.

In many ways, Irish dance has become a team sport. Friends ran from ballroom to ballroom to see their schoolmates dance, screaming at the end of each round for their friends. Most conversations were based on who danced with whom. “I had to dance with Simona,” Morgan Murray, a dancer from New York in the senior ladies over 21 competition told Irish America. “I saw a girl who looked like her and counted down the line and realized it wasn’t Simona. I was like ‘Oh great, I don’t have to dance with her’ and I turn around to see who I’m dancing with. There’s Simona saying ‘So which way do you go?’”

Simona Mauriello Maguire-O’Shea’s reputation precedes her. The London dancer placed fourth at the World Irish Dance Championships in 2010. The community in Irish dance is unlike any other sport. The dancers from across the world know their competition from years of dancing with them. They all chat before competition, mapping out their steps for each other, hoping to avoid any collisions. The dancers always frantically check their numbers, hoping they will not be paired with former champions.

“You don’t want to dance with someone really good because you want the judges to watch you. If you dance with someone who got first or second last year then the judge pays attention to them,” a girls-under-15 competitor from Georgia told me.

But it’s not all competitive. One of the most exciting results to see announced was in the Junior Ceili competition. Backstage the teams huddled in circles, waiting to hear their number called. As each place was announced the cheers backstage grew louder and louder until it was down to just two teams for the top spot.

“There is no second place,” the adjudicator announced, “we have a tie for first.” With that, it was impossible to hear anything as the two winning teams, both from the Cashel Dennehy school in Wisconsin, embraced and ran out on stage to receive their medals.

Other highlights included the boys under 17 competition, where the undefeated Joe Bitter, an English dancer, took the top spot and brought home a new trophy donated by Michael Flatley,  to be kept by the boys-under-17 reigning champion for one year.

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The Seisiún Network https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/the-seisiun-network/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/the-seisiun-network/#respond Mon, 01 Aug 2011 01:35:05 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3717 Read more..]]> Dubliner Tony Lawless may prove to be the Mark Zuckerberg of the traditional Irish music world. On April 28th, he launched TradConnect, a new website that aims to connect trad players all over the world, from cautious beginners to seasoned professionals. Lawless firmly believes that playing with other musicians is the most effective, not to mention the most enjoyable, way to improve one’s musical skill.

Unfortunately, for many this isn’t always an option.

Some newer players are put off by pub sessions, Lawless explained via e-mail, because “They find that the speed is too fast or they do not know the tunes.” Others simply don’t know that  there are other trad players nearby. “I spent 10 years in London in 87-97,” Tony said, “and I know the challenges of being abroad and connecting with others. There are many isolated places in the US where there are players who would get out if they knew the other players around them.”

That is precisely his goal: to get people out of their houses and into groups where they can play for practice or pleasure. The site currently has 422 members and is growing as more and more musicians hear about it.

Tradconnect features discussion forums where people can talk back-and-forth about various festivals or topics, or find out if there are, for example, any accordion players nearby. Those who want feedback can upload videos of themselves for fellow musicians to watch and listen to.

Though still in its early stages, TradConnect already seems to be fostering important connections. Lawless was proud to share that he had put a retired musician in Virginia in touch with some friends in Kildare – they had a video seisiún via Skype. Other members from the U.S. have already made plans to attend his weekly seisiún during a coming trip to Dublin.

Visit www.tradconnect.com for more information

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Once Upon a Stage https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/once-upon-a-stage/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/once-upon-a-stage/#respond Mon, 01 Aug 2011 01:34:53 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3731 Read more..]]> Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s Once to be a musical

Written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, the very anticipated stage adaptation of the acclaimed film Once will debut at the New York Theater Workshop this November.

Filmed using hand-held cameras and a humble budget, Once tells the story of two struggling musicians from completely different walks of life who find love on the streets of Dublin. In the film, Glen Hansard of the Irish rock band The Frames played Guy, a young struggling busker who makes a minor living fixing vaccum cleaners. His co-star, Marketa Irglova, played Girl, a Czech immigrant who spends her days selling flowers and taking care of her mother and daughter.

Hansard and Irglova won an Oscar in 2007 for their song “Falling Slowly.” They shot to fame quickly and fell in love behind the scenes in the process. The duo, who have since split but remain creative partners, then toured worldwide with their band and became the subjects of a new documentary, The Swell Season, which eloquently captures the bittersweet strain of this unassuming couple’s love under the pressure of their newfound celebrity. Hansard and Irglova have written the music for the upcoming off-Broadway production of Once, but will not be reviving the roles of Guy and Girl. Casting has yet to be announced.

Rumor has it that the theatre debut of Once is to be directed by John Tiffany with the help of producers John N. Hart, Patrick Milling Smith, Brian Carmody, Fred Zollo, Barbara Brocolli, and Micheal G. Wilson. With this amount of talent involved, many critics already expect this musical will eventually find its way to the Broadway stage.

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Irish America Hall of Fame Opens at Dunbrody Famine Ship https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/irish-america-hall-of-fame-opens-at-dunbrody-famine-ship/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/irish-america-hall-of-fame-opens-at-dunbrody-famine-ship/#respond Mon, 01 Aug 2011 01:33:03 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3713 Read more..]]> Celebrated with the opening of the new Dunbrody Visitor Center on July 8th

On July 8, the Dunbrody Visitor Center in New Ross, Co. Wexford was celebrated as a new home for Ireland’s emigration history. The Dunbrody is a three-masted replica of a sailing ship that brought many emigrants from Ireland to North America during and after the Great Famine. The connected center has been extensively expanded to four times the size of the original.

The experience begins quayside with an authentic recreation of the New Ross town of the 1840s. Inside the Dunbrody Famine Ship, various audio and visual displays capture the experience of a passenger setting sail for the New World, America in the 1840s. Upon leaving the ship the visitor arrives in the North America part of the exhibition, which explores the impact Irish emigrants have had on American life and culture.

The centerpiece of this part of the visitors center is the Irish America Hall of Fame, which was developed in collaboration with Irish America magazine, and celebrates the lives, works and achievements of noted Irish individuals such as President Bill Clinton and Michael Flatley. The Hall of Fame is an effort to bring home the stories of those who relunctantly left a tattered home and made their own success in a new land. Inductee Michael Flatley spoke at the opening, expressing the emotional significance of the Dunbrody, of the tears shed there as mothers and children separated for what they knew would be forever. Now they are in many ways reunited at the exhibition.

Commenting on the opening, Sean Reidy, chief executive of the Dunbrody Famine Ship, said, “Over ten years ago, we built a replica of a 19th century Famine ship. Since then, over 750,000 people have enjoyed our Quayside experience, and we found from our research a need to develop our project further to reinforce the emotional journey that so many people took during that important time in our nation’s history. We are delighted to be unveiling this world class visitor experience. The Irish America Hall of Fame illustrates the passion and drive of the Irish to succeed in difficult circumstances.”

Funding provided by the Irish Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism will be used for additional exhibitions and functions, including  a recreated New York street-scape, a showcase of Ireland during the Famine, and a genealogy facility.

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Presidential Visits to Ireland https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/presidential-visits-to-ireland/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/08/presidential-visits-to-ireland/#comments Mon, 01 Aug 2011 01:32:47 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3705 Read more..]]> President Obama’s visit brought the number of U.S. Presidents who have visited Ireland to seven. Tom Deignan looks back at some memorable visits and some that barely registered.

Ollie Hayes runs a cozy pub in Moneygall, County Offaly. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It was at Ollie Hayes Pub, after all, that President Barack Obama tossed back a pint when he visited Ireland back in May.

“My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way,” the president later quipped.

Now that the pomp and circumstance of Obama’s visit is over, a question remains: Will Ollie Hayes follow the precedent set by Ballyporeen publican John O’Farrell? Twenty-seven years earlier, O’Farrell poured a pint for a visiting U.S. president. Ronald Reagan paid a visit to his ancestral village in Tipperary in June of 1984. The visit made such an impression on O’Farrell that he famously changed the name of his pub to The Ronald Reagan.
Will Moneygall locals some day drop by The Barack Obama for a pint? Time will tell. What we do know is that Obama’s visit in May was not the first time a U.S. president electrified an audience in Ireland. Seven presidents have paid a visit to the Emerald Isle, each with a story as unique – and at times, as controversial – as the presidents themselves.

 

Ulysses S. Grant in Ireland

The first president to visit Ireland was no longer president when he arrived in Dublin in 1879. 
Ulysses S. Grant had dominated the American political scene for well over a decade. By the end of the U.S. Civil War he was Commanding General of the Union Army. Such a prominent role in the military made him a strong candidate for president in 1868, when he defeated Democrat Horatio Seymour, New York’s governor.

Following his two tumultuous terms as president, Grant announced he would be taking a trip around the world. Stops included Germany, China, Russia, Britain – and Ireland.

Grant arrived in Dublin on January 3, 1879 and over the next few days, visited Trinity College, the Royal Irish Academy and the Bank of Ireland. Speaking to a crowd outside of City Hall, Grant said: “I am by birth a citizen of a country where there are more Irishmen, either native born or the descendants of Irishmen, than there are in all of Ireland.”

But Grant’s public embrace of the Irish concealed some disturbing facts. For example, he had sympathized with the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement back in the 1850s. The anti-Catholic label stuck to Grant in Ireland. Catholic members of the Cork City Town Council objected to Grant’s visit, so Grant went to Ulster instead. Historians have speculated that Grant felt more comfortable in the heavily Protestant North.

Nevertheless, as President Grant had voiced support for the Irish Fenians movement, and did visit Pope Leo XIII during his world tour. Grant visited (what he called) Londonderry as well as Belfast, speaking warmly of Ulster’s deep connections to the U.S. Grant’s own roots are in Dungannon, Tyrone, where his great-grandfather left in the 1730s.

Grant, ultimately, was embraced by the Irish, even if the tour he was given tended to conceal the nation’s political and social problems. (Grant later wrote that he saw “no distress and no poverty in Ireland.”) Not long after Grant visited Ireland, a stevedore on the Boston docks was on his way to buying a saloon and becoming an influential ward boss. Little did P.J. Kennedy know that his grandson John would make a famous visit to the Irish village P.J.’s own parents had fled at the height of the Famine.

 


JFK’s Homecoming

When John F. Kennedy finally decided to visit his ancestral home in Dunganstown, Co. Wexford in June of 1963, most Irish Americans were thrilled. Not all, however.

“You’ve got all the Irish votes in this country that you’ll ever get,” Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell objected. “If you go to Ireland, people will say it’s just a pleasure trip.”

To which Kennedy responded: “That’s exactly what I want!”

Between civil rights and the Cold War, these were tense times for JFK. Right before he visited Ireland, Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Berlin Wall.

JFK’s trip to Ireland in June 1963 is now the stuff of legend. He met with de Valera and was greeted like a rock star.  In the weeks leading up to the trip, the humble cottage owned by Mary Kennedy Ryan – a distant relative – had to endure several modest improvements. Concrete was poured in the muck-filled front of the barn and indoor plumbing was installed.  (As Kennedy family historian Thomas Maier has noted, though Mrs. Ryan seemed like a quaint rural matriarch, she actually had an active past with the IRA.)

JFK told his distant relatives: “When my great-grandfather came to America and my grandfather was growing up, the Irish Americans had a song about the familiar sign which went: ‘No Irish Need Apply.’” He then said: “In 1960, the American people took the sign down from the last place it was still hanging – the door of the White House.”

In Galway, he added: “If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts. And if you did, you would see down working on the docks there some Doughertys and Flahertys and Ryans and cousins of yours who have gone to Boston and made good.”

The fact that JFK was assassinated months later only lends a more sentimental glow to this trip. As the Cork Examiner noted at the time: “When John Fitzgerald Kennedy set foot on Irish soil he made a mark on the history of this country that can never be effaced.”

 

Nixon’s “Forgotten” Visit

Richard Nixon’s trip to Ireland?  Not quite so memorable. In fact, a recent documentary about the trip dubbed it “forgotten.”

Nixon went to Ireland to visit the Mayo home of his wife’s ancestors.  Nixon also paid respects at the site of his own Irish Quaker ancestors in Kildare.  He then stayed in Dublin for three days in October of 1970.

Of course, this was at the height of the Vietnam War, and so protesters greeted Nixon while his motorcade cruised through Dublin. Several even pelted the president’s limo with eggs.
But other crowds for Nixon were much more enthusiastic. Journalist Donncha O Dúalaing covered the Nixon visit for RTÉ and heard the speech the president gave in Timahoe, Kildare.

“I remember President Nixon and the speech and being very moved and touched by it and the crowds that were here. I think that what comes back to me today is that Ireland has changed in many ways but in other ways it hasn’t changed at all,” O Dúalaing recently told the Irish Examiner. “I think of the wonder of an American president here talking about Ireland. It was unbelievable.”

 

Reagan’s Tipperary Roots

If JFK’s visit was about finally taking down the “No Irish Need Apply” signs, the Reagan era allowed Irish Americans to grant themselves a little hard-earned nostalgia.

Reagan himself acknowledged this when he visited Ireland for four days in June, 1984: “I feel like I’m about to drown everyone in a bath of nostalgia.” While in Ireland, Reagan visited the small Tipperary village of Ballyporeen and the church at which his great-grandfather Michael, who left Ireland in the 1850s, was baptized. Though some protesters voiced displeasure at Reagan’s Central American policy and the president’s tight relationship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher irked some, there was a festive feeling in the air as crowds cheered and a band played the theme from Rocky. Reagan famously visited John O’Farrell’s pub, which later changed its name to The Ronald Reagan.

The facade of that building was later transported to The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, where it still stands. “Of all the honors and gifts that have been afforded me as President, this visit is the one that I will cherish dearly,” Reagan told the crowd in Ballyporeen. “I didn’t know much about my family background – not because of a lack of interest, but because my father was orphaned before he was six years old. And now thanks to you and the efforts of good people who have dug into the history of a poor immigrant family, I know at last whence I came. And this has given my soul a new contentment. And it is a joyous feeling. It is like coming home after a long journey.”

 

Clinton Makes History

Arguably the most historically significant presidential trip to Ireland was Bill Clinton’s.

The first sitting president to visit the North, Clinton had already made his mark on the Northern Irish peace process by the time he visited in November of 1995.  Clinton had angered British diplomats as well as Unionists by granting Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams a visa in 1994.  That same year, George Mitchell was tapped as the lead negotiator in the ongoing peace process. The 1990s had already seen nearly 400 deaths as a result of the ongoing Troubles, so President Clinton was by no means intervening in a stable or easy situation. People from both sides of the divide, however, greeted him with wild cheers when he visited both the Shankill and Falls roads.

Perhaps most poignantly, 9-year-old Catherine Hamill told Clinton and his wife, Hillary, how her father’s shooting at the hands of Ulster Freedom Fighters had shattered her life.

After the Clinton visit, the IRA broke its cease-fire with the February 1996 Docklands bombing in London.  But the slow, steady march to peace had been set in motion.

Clinton later returned and visited Omagh, the site of a horrific bombing in 1998.

“President Bill Clinton’s domestic legacy, belittled by opponents and tainted by impeachment, will be picked over for years to come,” the BBC has noted. “But few doubt the importance of the role that he played in helping to get Northern Ireland’s divided community to sit down together with the common goal of consigning violence and inequality to the past.”

 

Protesting Bush

If there are parallels to JFK’s and Clinton’s historic visits, so, too, are there similarities between Nixon’s and George W. Bush’s.
Wartime tensions were high once again when Bush paid a brief visit to Ireland in June, 2004. Thousands of protesters hit the streets from Cork to Dublin. Then there was Bush’s infamous interview with RTÉ broadcaster Carole Coleman. Bush supporters felt the dogged Irish reporter refused to allow the president to answer her tough questions.

“The interview, broadcast from the White House on Thursday, 24 hours before the president’s visit to Ireland, so displeased President Bush and his advisers that it led to the cancellation of another RTE exclusive… an interview with the president’s wife Laura,” the Irish Independent noted in the wake of the incident.

Given this inauspicious start, it’s not surprising the trip itself was rather banal.  Bush arrived in County Clare for the annual EU-US summit, which took place in Dromoland Castle. It is estimated that 7,000 security personnel were on hand guarding Bush and other top officials during the visit, which lasted just 16 hours. Not enough personnel to keep a photographer from snapping a photo of Bush in undershirt, peering out the window of his bedroom at Dromoland that was published in the Irish tabloid newspaper The Star on Sunday despite a government ban.

Bush, however, maintained an interest in Irish affairs. In 2010, he broke his post-presidency diplomatic silence and phoned David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives in Britain. He made a plea for Cameron to press allies in Northern Ireland to support the ongoing peace process.

 

Obama’s “Blood Link”

And finally, there is Barack, er, O’Bama. As with JFK, there was something of a “pleasure trip” feel about the president’s May 2011 jaunt. But that does not make Obama’s trip any less historical. As 21st -century Ireland transforms, with its own assimilation of immigrants, it makes perfect sense that Obama would proudly assert his Irish roots – and transform our own conception of what the Irish diaspora looks like.

At the same time, Obama – America’s first black president – firmly reasserted Ireland’s long historic ties to the U.S.

“For the United States,” he said, “Ireland carries a blood link.”

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