August September 2012 Issue – Irish America Irish America Magazine Sat, 20 Jul 2019 03:40:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 82361074 The Year of Michael – An Interview With Michael Fassbender Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:31:21 +0000 Read more..]]> An interview with Michael Fassbender.

Michael Fassbender looks tanned and relaxed as he strolls into the bar at Claridge’s Hotel in London to join me for a drink. Sporting a bushy red beard, he is thin and slight in appearance, and like the chameleon he is on screen, he glides through the hotel undisturbed by importunate fans. For someone who became so famous as an actor in 2011 – starring in a slew of movies as diverse as X-Men, Jane Eyre and Shame, among others – he is remarkably still able to fly below the radar when he’s on the street, in his civvies.

After his annus mirabilis last year, there is no resting on his laurels.  Fassbender’s plate this year is every bit as diverse. He stars in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the long-awaited $200m prequel to Alien; he’s doing another arthouse movie with Steve McQueen, Twelve Years a Slave, about a freed slave who is caught and re-enslaved. He’s also about to have his first stint as a producer on a feature film on the Irish legend Cú Chulainn, with his London-based production company Finn McCool films. Oh, and he’s also part of the Irish male acting aristocracy starring in Brendan Gleeson’s film adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds.

Overnight success was a long time coming for Michael, and when it did alight, just over four years ago, everything changed really fast. After causing an international sensation playing a mesmeric Bobby Sands in the low budget feature Hunger, for which he lost 30 lbs, Michael Fassbender went from being a jobbing actor and part-time barman in London to one of the most sought after leading men in Hollywood.

“I haven’t had much time to think about it, to be honest,” he says, giving me that sideways, impish grin. “When I was working behind the bar and doing any sort of odd jobs, the idea that I could actually make a living from this was like a dream. To be in a position to be working with all the big names that I have like Tarantino, Cronenberg, Soderbergh, Jarmusch, Scott, it’s kind of unreal.”

Fame brings many perks, but these days Fassbender (35) is very low key about those he chooses to enjoy and how he spends the currency of celebrity. Falling out of nightclubs and dating starlets has never been his thing, especially not since he broke out as a star. As someone who loves motorbikes and cars, road trips with his dad and his friends are where he gets his kicks, easily avoiding the other clichés of fame like the plague.

“I did go to Monaco to the Grand Prix recently and because of the position I’m in, I was allowed to stand beside Michael Schumacher in his car on the grid – that was pretty amazing and something of a childhood dream. I’ve been a fan of motor racing for 20 years. Other than that, I keep it pretty basic. Nothing has really changed in my everyday routine. It’s always about telling the story well that matters to me – the fame that goes with it is not enjoyable to me.”

Fassbender has lived in London since he moved there at 19, to study drama at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

He’d had a steady career for several years in British television before Hunger  in 2008, for which he won numerous accolades,  including a Best Actor nomination in the European Film Awards.

The following year, at Cannes, he stood out in two contrasting roles: as a magnetic philanderer in Andrea Arnold’s Jury Prize-winning Fish Tank and as Lt. Archie Hickox – a delightful caricature of a World War II British army officer – in Quentin Tarantino’s delirious fantasy Inglorious Basterds. Shrewd choices of action roles in Centurion and Jonah Hex (both 2010) led to an amazing twelve months.

In 2011, Fassbender first established himself as a Hollywood star in his role as the brooding, compelling Mr. Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s magnificent Jane Eyre. Then he took on an extraordinary range of other leading roles: Magneto in Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (in which he coolly evoked a young Ian McKellan); Carl Gustav Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method; and an Irish rogue posing as a British spy in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, in which he spectacularly wrecks a room at the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin, in a to-the-death battle with the Amazonian American wrestling star Gina Carano.

But the crowning achievement of last year was his second feature for McQueen, Shame, an unsparing portrait of a wretched, damaged, self-loathing sex addict in New York, a performance that sealed Fassbender’s status as a major star willing to risk (and reveal) all. The almost unanimous acclaim from American critics was in contrast to the attitude of the Oscar voters, who snubbed Fassbender come nomination time in favor of worthy but less ambitious performances. It was hard to recall an actor who could incarnate so many styles with such complete conviction and succeed. Fassbender is an improbable thing: an unforgettable chameleon, a man who can dominate the screen in myriad ways but who you can walk past on the street without noticing.

London was also where his parents, Adele, from Larne in County Antrim, and Josef, from Heidelberg, first met. Michael was born in Germany, where he lived until the age of two, when the family relocated to Killarney and opened a restaurant, The West End House, which they still run. He has a sister, Catherine, who works as a neuropsychologist and with whom he is particularly close.

Did his parents’ culinary skills carry over to him? “I do enjoy cooking and I can cook the basic things. I’m definitely not afraid to go into the kitchen,” he says, grinning. “Obviously I grew up around that sort of world, so it’s not something that scares me. My dad would probably say I should be cooking a lot more, because I haven’t been doing much for the past few years. He gave me a Jamie Oliver cookbook recently – now there’s a man who should be Prime Minister for all the positivity he brings into the world!”

At home in Killarney, the house was bilingual and today he is almost as comfortable speaking German as he is English, something which was put to use in Inglourious Basterds.

He credits both of his parents, and their cultural backgrounds, with granting him different strengths. “The Germans have a good work ethic, so I’ve inherited some of that. Then Ireland, for such a small nation we really love the arts and story telling, and there’s a great mix of the two in me. My mother loved cinema and introduced me to many films and actors, which made me want to pursue this profession. I have her to thank for that. I suppose the German side wants to keep everything in control, and the Irish side wants to wreak havoc!”

Although he could have his pick of women (or men), Fassbender is mostly single these days, content to focus the bulk of his energy on all the great work coming his way. He’s briefly dated a few co-stars (Zoë Kravitz from X-Men and Nicole Behaire from Shame) and has been receiving very strong public overtures from Charlize Theron (who was involved for over a decade with another Irishman, Stuart Townsend), but his true love and mistress these days is the work. It’s as though the hungry years trying to break out as a star have made him appreciate how easy it is to get distracted by the trinkets and entourages that come with fame, and how quickly these come and go. Fassbender already knows what he likes.

“I find women attractive in all shapes and sizes and although it’s a bit of a cliché, what’s attractive is someone who’s confident and doesn’t mind showing elements of themselves that society might consider weak or making a fool of themselves. Eating what you like to eat, that’s much more attractive. It’s a prison to be constantly worrying about what others think of you and wondering if you are coming across as attractive or interesting or socially popular.

“My home is in London. I love animals and would love to have a dog, but the nature of my work means I’d have to put it into a kennel and put it through quarantine and all that sort of thing and it really wouldn’t be fair to the animal.”

When Fassbender talks about the many big names he has recently been courted by, he never fails to mention his drama teacher at St. Brendan’s College in Killarney, who, along with Steve McQueen, he credits with getting him where he is today.

“I was very average at school and I didn’t really excel at anything. I thought ‘OK, I should do law.’ The idea of the showmanship connected to that appealed to me, but I’m a slow reader, so I didn’t think I would have gotten through the volume of material or gotten the results that would have gotten me into university. Then, I thought of architecture, but I failed my technical drawing exam. Journalism was another thing that appealed to me, especially war journalism. I thought it would be interesting to see the front line rather than just what’s filtered through.

“But then Donie Courtney, who’s a past pupil of St. Brendan’s, went to the Gaiety School of Acting and he came back and set up one of these comedy and drama workshop classes. I did one or two of these and I was like ‘God, this feels right.’ I really felt like this was a medium that I could express myself in and all these people in my head could finally find a place!”

The training he did with Courtney led him to produce his first play in Killarney, which he tells me today is still the thing he’s proudest of in all his accomplishments.

“I did a stage play of Reservoir Dogs when I was 18 in Killarney after I’d got in Bric Rua, the theatre company which Donie had created. It was the first professional theatre company in Killarney. We did puppet theatre and panto and I watched Donie like a hawk for the six months I spent with him. Then I went off on my own and did a production of Reservoir Dogs, which I also produced and played Mr. Pink. I learned so much from that experience, especially that there’s nothing wrong with falling on your face while you’re trying to learn.”

Winning awards and kudos left, right and center (with the exception of an Oscar), Fassbender seems untouched right now, but he admits to being a bit non-plussed by all the fuss.

“It feels kinda strange,” he acknowledges with a shake of his head. “I remember when I first went to Los Angeles, I was 24 and they thought I was 35. The agent who took me to a television show didn’t believe me and I had to show her my driver’s license to prove I was 24. I quite enjoy the lines on my forehead and the lines on my face, because that’s my life. That’s my history and I like to see it in other people. This wrinkle is down to some girl that broke my heart and I don’t want to escape it in any way.”

He chuckles again and shakes his head at how silly it all is, at the impermanence in life that we keep forgetting about.

“The problem is, we feel a lot of pressure about looking silly or appearing weak, whatever that means, or being a failure. You have to keep saying in your head: what’s the worst that can happen? I’m trying to tell a story – what’s the worst that can happen? You fall flat on your face, then hopefully you get back up again and go for it again and try something else. We’re all going to die one day. I’m stealing that off of Steve [McQueen]; it’s what he’d say when he ordered me to take my clothes off. ‘WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE ONE DAY!’

“I try not to take myself too seriously. When my best friend in Killarney, Emerson Johnson, and I were in school together and we’d bunk off at lunchtime sometimes, I’d always be really nervous, but I remember he used to say ‘what’ll it matter in 100 years’ time?’ and he’s right. If you can relieve yourself of that pressure and not take yourself too seriously, then you can afford to look like a bit of an idiot. I think I am quite immature, or maybe just childlike.”

Given the uncertain nature of his chosen profession, I wonder how far ahead he tries to look when thinking about work and where it might lead him.

“I try not to plan too much, because when I do it usually ends up a mess. I don’t have a strategy for dealing with fame, because none of it really interests me. I can really say that honestly.

Ten years ago, I would have been attracted and seduced by all of the things that come with fame, but it doesn’t interest me at all anymore. I consider myself lucky to have achieved what I have and that a lot of great film makers want to work with me. That’s plenty and more than enough for me to deal with. I spent a lot of time out of work. Now I’m trying to make hay while the sun is shining.”

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The First Word: Hunger and Silence Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:30:34 +0000 Read more..]]> “People think [the Irish] are such great talkers, but there is so much silence in Ireland about certain issues.” – Fionnula Flanagan

The image of Michael Fassbender on our cover is very different to how he was seen in Hunger, the 2008 movie in which he played Bobby Sands, leader of the 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland.

Fassbender, a Kerry native whose mother is from County Antrim and whose father is German, portrayed Sands in the last six weeks of his life.  His performance is especially gripping as he shows the physical decline of Sands in his last days. It is said that the actor existed on a diet of berries and a few nuts to get down to starvation weight for those scenes, in which he looks like a Holocaust victim.

Hunger, directed and conceived by Steve McQueen, is a truly painful film to watch. It’s excruciating as it shows the conditions in the Maze prison prior to the hunger strike, where, for four and a half years, in a sharply escalating power struggle between rights taken away and rights sacrificed in protest, the prisoners went naked or wore blankets instead of prison uniforms (they sought to be characterized as political prisoners), and lived in the midst of their own waste.

Except for one central scene when Sands talks about the morality of what he’s about to undertake with a priest played by Liam Cunningham, Hunger is almost a silent film although it is so visual and visceral that the message is loud and clear.

The lack of dialogue seems appropriate. The hunger strike, in which 10 men died, Bobby Sands being the first, is not an easy topic to talk about. And like so much of our Irish history, especially as it pertains to the North, it often gets the silent treatment in the south of Ireland. (Fionnula Flanagan who played the mother of a hunger striker in Some Mother’s Son, says, “People think [the Irish] are such great talkers, but there is so much silence in Ireland about certain issues.”

The national silence also applies to the Irish Civil War (1922-23). The conflict over the partition of Ireland took a terrible toll – more lives were lost than in the War of Independence – splitting families and pitting former comrades against each other. Perhaps that’s why in the ensuing years, the south, in the main, left the Northern nationalists to fight their own battles.

During the latter-day Troubles in Northern Ireland, which escalated with Bloody Sunday (January, 1972), the Irish government reacted with a broadcasting ban that prevented Sinn Féin members from having access to the media. The ban, called Section 31, lasted from 1971 until 1993, when it was lifted by Michael D. Higgins (now the president of Ireland, then the Minister for Arts, Culture & the Gaeltacht).

For much of the Troubles, I was in the United States and thus looking at it from afar, but also partaking in the debate, as it was more freely discussed over here than in Ireland. In 1991, I happened to be in Belfast as a tourist when an opportunity came to interview Gerry Adams for this magazine. I was happy to report back that Adams said it was time for political talks. And indeed, largely thanks to President Clinton and Irish-American involvement, the ensuing years brought talks, and the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1998.

I find myself reflecting back on this particular time in Irish history, not just because Michael Fassbender is on our cover, but because I was recently in Ireland. I discovered that the Irish are deeply divided on the hunger strike – and on the North in general – and that any mention of a desire for a united Ireland is liable to get one labeled as a rabid republican or worse, a terrorist.

As part of the induction ceremony into our Irish America Hall of Fame, Fionnula Flanagan talked about her part in Some Mother’s Son, the story of the hunger strike told through the eyes of two mothers. The movie was slammed in the Irish papers as well as the British tabloids as “provo propaganda,” and both Fionnula and Helen Mirren, who played the other mother, were vilified for taking part in the movie. On its release in 1998 it received scant distribution (you still can’t rent it on Netflix). I don’t think I was imagining the silence in the room when, after she was asked why she became involved in the project, Fionnula answered, “Ten men died.”

All of this looking back on our history reminds me of how much blame and pain had to be put aside for the recent handshake to take place between Martin McGuinness and the British Queen (whose favorite cousin, Lord Mountbatton, was blown up by the IRA).

“All those people killed, I can’t believe McGuinness had the audacity to shake the Queen’s hand,” is one comment I heard in Ireland.

McGuinness, meantime, is forthcoming on his handshake with the Queen, while making it clear that he is still a republican (see page 80), and he has called for further dialogue as a way forward towards the goal of a united Ireland.

“For too long, successive Irish governments have paid lip service to partition. They have tolerated the division of our country and people which has resulted in Ireland as a nation not reaching our full potential. In future, ending partition, and national reunification, need to become Irish government policy, not merely an aspiration goal,” he said.

I think he’s right. Ninety years after partition, isn’t it time for talks, even if it means breaking the silence and disturbing the ghosts of the Civil War?

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Martin McGuinness Meets the British Queen Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:29:57 +0000 Read more..]]> In a seemingly simple gesture that would have been unthinkable not too long ago, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth II shook hands for the first time, on June 27 in Belfast.

During the Queen’s two-day visit to Northern Ireland (part of her Diamond Jubilee celebration), in a private room at the Lyric Theatre, they shook hands as Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson and President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins, among others, looked on. They repeated the exchange later in public, and McGuinness bade  the queen “Slán agus Beannacht.”

The handshake was a highly significant sign of progress, and an important step following the Queen’s 2011 visit to Dublin, which Sinn Féin did not participate in.

A few days before the meeting, McGuinness, who was once a commander in the IRA, acknowledged the tension underlying the gesture of reconciliation.“I represent people who have been terribly hurt by British state violence over many years. I also recognize I am going to meet someone who has also been hurt as a result of the conflict, and someone who is very conscious that in many homes in Britain there are parents, wives, children, brothers and sisters of British soldiers who were sent here who lost their lives in the conflict,” he said.

Reflecting on the handshake in a speech at a Sinn Féin event at Westminster, McGuinness described the moment as “a result of decades of work constructing the Irish peace process.” Click HERE to read McGuinness’ speech.

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Bloody Sunday Investigation Launched Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:28:40 +0000 Read more..]]> Police in Northern Ireland are launching a murder investigation into the infamous Bloody Sunday shootings, which occurred on January 30, 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, and left 14 unarmed Catholic-civil-rights protesters dead at the hands of British soldiers. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott told the Irish Times, “It’s a lengthy investigation. This has to be done to modern standards of murder investigation which is both resource-intensive and prolonged.” The PSNI states that the major murder inquiry could take up to four years, and will involve as many as 30 police.

The decision comes after the 2010 publication of the Saville Inquiry. Commissioned by Tony Blair in 1998 and chaired by Lord Saville, the Saville Inquiry found that those who died on Bloody Sunday were killed unjustly, as they posed no threat to the armed soldiers.  Two of the soldiers, the report claims, fired into the crowd believing (though uncertain) that they had spotted a gunman, while five fired believing that no one in the area posed a threat. Campaigner John Kelly, whose brother Michael was shot and killed during the incident, responded on UTV news saying, “It shouldn’t take much longer to come to the point where these guys should be prosecuted for what they did.”

The Saville Inquiry also found that the soldiers went into the Bogside on an order from Col. Derek Wilford, which should not have been given.

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Keep ‘er Lit: The Olympic Torch in Ireland Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:27:56 +0000 Read more..]]> The Olympic torch relay, a throwback to ancient Greece, became a contemporary Olympic tradition at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. The 2012 summer games will open on July 27, in London, after the torch has completed a 70-day tour of 8,000 miles, carried by 8,000 torch bearers.

As the Olympic torch traveled its 5-day relay through Northern Ireland and Dublin  June 3 through June 8, the torch’s path was a whirlwind of running high-fives, cheers, and inspiring athletes and citizens.

The torch was welcomed by thousands on Sunday, June 3 as it traveled from Belfast to Portrush for day 17 of its journey. Starting at Titanic Belfast, Karen Marshall from the village of Tynan in Co. Armagh, the first of the 132 bearers of the day, was cheered on with encouraging signs saying, “Keep ’er lit.” The flame visited important sights, including Stormont, the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.

On June 5 the torch traveled from Derry to Newry, where it changed hands at a former border check point to 1992 Olympic champion boxers Wayne McCullough and Michael Carruth. As the torch progressed into Dublin, children and adults took breaks from school and work to watch its procession.

Songs of “Ooh, ah, Paul McGrath” were chanted ecstatically as Irish footballer Paul McGrath ran by. Sonia O’Sullivan, Olympic silver medalist for the 5,000 meter run in the Sydney 2000 Olympics, carried the flame down Dublin’s O’Connell Street for a 12 km circuit through the city of Dublin. O’Sullivan was the first of 40 sports champions who participated in this celebration that lasted approximately two and a half hours. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, President Michael D. Higgins and singer Jedward also carried the torch.

On June 7, the torch traveled from Newcastle to Clough, Downpatrick, Crossgar, Saintfield, Ballynahinch, Templepatrick, Antrim, Ballyronan, Magherafelt, Ballymena, and then up to Moorfields. The day ended with the torch’s trip on the ferry to Stranraer in order to begin the Scottish portion of this 70-day voyage. Paul McLister from Ballycastle, known as a “shining light for those with disabilities,” held the Olympic’s blazing light through the damp grey fog as the final torch bearer of the Northern Ireland portion of its journey.

Irish Minister of State for Tourism & Sport Leo Varadkar commented that “the visit of the flame [was] a wonderful opportunity for the whole of Ireland to be even more involved with the 2012 London games and for the Irish people to be part of the biggest sporting event in the world.”

Numerous international teams have selected Dublin as a training base for the London Olympics, and several Irish athletes will be competing in the London Games. The Olympic torch’s visit was a great reinforcement of the unifying strength of sport and the cooperation that exists today on the island of Ireland.

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Irish and Irish-American Olympians to Watch Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:26:03 +0000 Read more..]]> As the Olympic Games get in gear, Irish Americans with loyalties on both sides of the Atlantic will find themselves with an abundance of stellar athletes to root for.
With 525 athletes, Team U.S.A. is a force to be reckoned with. The Irish-American competitors receiving the most media buzz include 16-year-old gymnast McKayla Maroney; distance runner Shalane Flanagan, who set a new event record at the marathon trials; middle-distance runners Julie Culley and Kim Conley; swimmers Conor Dwyer, Tyler McGill, Claire Donahue and multi-medal-winner Natalie Coughlin; soccer forward Kelley O’Hara and cyclists Timmy Duggan and Taylor Phinney, to name just a few.

Though the Irish team is small, with 63 members, it is mighty. Great things are expected from boxer Katie Taylor, 26, who won Ireland’s first officially sanctioned female boxing match in 2001, and has since won the European championships five times and the world championships three consecutive times. Swimmer Grainne Murphy, who, at 19, is one of the youngest team members, shows significant promise in the 800m freestyle. In track-and-field, the four women of the relay team will be the ones to watch, after qualifying with the twelfth fastest time on average. Paul Hession, the fastest sprinter in Irish history, who holds the country’s records from 60m to 200m is on the path to secure a final place in the 200m, which he narrowly missed in Beijing in 2008. There is also much excitement over the Irish sailing team, which recently ranked 5th in the world at the ISAF World Cup regatta in June. We wish all of the competitors the best of luck!

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A Bridge for Ireland’s Nobel Physicist Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:25:41 +0000 Read more..]]> A number of Irishmen have been recognized as Nobel Prize winners: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett and Heaney for Literature, Sean MacBride and John Hume for Peace. But only one Irishman has ever received the Nobel Prize for Physics. In 1951, Irish physicist Ernest Walton and partner John Cockcroft won the Nobel Prize for their invention of the first particle accelerator to split the atom. The Institute of Physics (IOP) Ireland believes that Walton’s recognition is long overdue.

The IOP are now campaigning to have the Marlborough Street Bridge, which is in its early stages of construction, named “The Ernest Walton Bridge” in honor of one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. The institute created an online petition to garner support in pressuring the Dublin City Council. When the bridge is complete, it will span the River Liffey and will function as a transport, cycle and pedestrian bridge connecting Marlborough Street and Hawkins Street.

Aside from wanting to properly recognize Walton, the IOP has other reasons for calling the bridge “The Ernest Walton Bridge.” This year, Dublin was named European City of Science 2012. Additionally, 2012 marks the 80th anniversary of Walton’s work on splitting the atom in 1932. Therefore, the IOP and its supporters believe 2012 is the perfect year to commemorate Walton. They also hope national recognition of Ernest Walton will “inspire school children to pursue careers in science and technology, a key objective of the [Irish] Government,” said the institute.

Born Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton in County Waterford on October 6, 1903, he found himself excelling in mathematics and science from an early age. He studied at Methodist College, Belfast, and in 1922 he entered Trinity College Dublin. In 1927, he went on to receive his Masters in Science degree. That same year he received a research scholarship and attended Cambridge University to work at the Cavendish Laboratory.

He earned his PhD in 1931. In 1932, while still at the Cavendish Laboratory, Walton and Cockcroft built an apparatus that split the nuclei of atoms after bombarding them with accelerated protons. This invention paved the way for modern nuclear physics, including the groundbreaking Higgs Boson discoveries currently under way at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

After his work at Cavendish, Walton returned to Ireland and taught. He had a productive relationship with the government, often writing to propose new methods for economic and scientific development. Walton died in 1995 at the age of 91.

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In Dublin’s Little Jerusalem, Museum Begins Expansion Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:24:04 +0000 Read more..]]> The names of the most prominent figures of Jewish-Irish history are well known. James Joyce’s Ulysses follows the Dublin meanderings of its Jewish protagonist, Leopold Bloom.  Robert Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin, became a celebrated figure both in Ireland and abroad, and his sons, Joe and Ben, carried on his legacies in the military and in politics. But, as a small museum in Dublin’s Portobello neighborhood proves, there is all that and more to learn and celebrate about the two cultures.

Since its founding in 1985, the Irish Jewish Museum has educated visitors of all faiths and nationalities about the rich history of the Jews in Ireland, from the first mention of Jewish traders in the 1079 Annals of Innis, to William Ayers, who became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Cork in 1550, to Irish-born Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel. But with the majority of the museum’s exhibits in storage, and with its 10,000 visitors a year – a large portion of which include school groups – crowded into the museum’s limited space, plans are now under way for a much-needed expansion.

Speaking by phone from their home in Co. Kildare, former Lord Mayor of Dublin and Dáil senator Ben Briscoe and his wife, Carol, outlined the importance of the museum and its strong need of support – not just from those in Ireland, but also from Irish and Jewish ex-pats around the world.

Portobello, sometimes called Dublin’s Little Jerusalem, was once the heart of the Jewish community in Ireland. “Every second house in the area was Jewish,” said Carol, who helps archive the museum’s collection of historic and religious documents, cultural artifacts and educational displays. “There was a little prayer room on nearly every street, and the one where the museum is became very popular, so they built a synagogue.”

The Walworth Road Synagogue, as it was called, ceased functioning as a place of worship in the ’70s, as the majority of Jews in the area had moved farther into the suburbs. The synagogue became the home of the Irish Jewish Museum, which Carol says was lovingly built up by its curator, Raphael Siev.

Before his death in 2009, Siev purchased the three adjoining houses and bequeathed them to the museum, to ensure its expansion. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has declared his support for the plan, citing the museum as “a significant resource in the cultural life of the [Irish] State,” and commending its key role in Holocaust education and the government’s anti-racism program. The Irish government’s Office of Public Works has drawn up a comprehensive plan for the museum’s new home, which will feature a library with research and archival facilities, a conference hall for lectures and workshops, and expanded exhibition space dedicated to Irish and Jewish history, life, arts and culture.

Briscoe, who retired from a 37 year career in politics in 2002, on his late father’s advice that “it is far better to know when it is time to go than have people decide for you,” is acting as an unofficial ambassador for the museum, drumming up support at home and abroad. He shared that the expansion plans were met with great enthusiasm at an event at the Irish Consulate in New York in late May. “I have great interest in what we’re trying to achieve, and I am hopeful that once we get seed money, we can get going on some serious fundraising. There is considerable work ahead,” he said.

The museum has just embarked on the journey towards reaching its fundraising goal of $13 million, which will cover the expansion and lay the brickwork for funding the museum’s continued operation, as admission is free.

The Briscoes both emphasized the importance of the museum in contemporary Ireland. The Jewish population  increased significantly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when many Jews fled to Ireland to escape the Russian pogroms. The community reached its peak of around 5,500 in the mid-1900s, but has since  declined to a little over 1,000, due to general trends of immigration and because many move elsewhere in order to marry within the faith. Between the dispersion of what was once a strong community and Ireland’s increased multiculturalism, the Briscoes believe now is the time to fully commemorate and share the story of the Jews in Ireland.

“The Jewish community got on very well with the Irish people and became as  Irish as anyone else. They had no difficulty, no confusion between their religion and their nationality, as such. The history of the Jewish people and their experience in Ireland is integral, and it would be a dreadful thing to lose that,” Briscoe said.

“It’s very important that this museum should continue; it’s the only museum of its kind,”  Carol added.

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DruidMurphy Comes to New York Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:23:48 +0000 Read more..]]> In July, Galway’s Tony-winning Druid Theatre Company presented a mini-retrospective of Irish playwright Tom Murphy. Held in New York City, the festival, DruidMurphy, featured three productions – Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, and Famine – all directed by the Druid’s famed artistic director, Garry Hynes.

The Druid Theatre Company exposes audiences across the globe to contemporary Irish theater. DruidMurphy sets out to display works which, though written as much as 25 years apart, reflect similar themes of emigration, nationhood and identity.

Hynes raved about Murphy’s work and his willingness to communicate openly with the ensemble throughout the rehearsal process. She wrote of these works, “Murphy writes an inner history of Ireland, a nation that has now – under the pressure of a debt crisis that has become an identity crisis – come to re-examine the materials and rhetorical strategies out of which it makes itself.”

With the support of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT, which, under the presidency of John Lahey has been dedicated to spreading knowledge about the famine, DruidMurphy is a resounding success in its effort to present artistic insight into Ireland’s great tragedy. This fall, Quinnipiac will open the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, the world’s largest collection of famine art, artifacts and printed materials, in Hamden.

Jackie O’Halloran Bernstein, Deputy Consul General of Ireland, applauded  Quinnipiac for bringing Murphy’s important voice to the U.S.“This play cycle […] explores important and often painful themes in Irish life and culture, principally the famine and emigration. The themes have continuing relevance to Irish people in Ireland, and for the Irish diaspora. In this context, the co-sponsorship of DruidMurphy by Quinnipiac University is appropriate and visionary,” she said.

DruidMurphy will return to the U.S. October 17 – 20, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

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Charlotte Brontë: One of Our Own Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:22:21 +0000 Read more..]]> “I wanted to claim Charlotte Brontë as one of our own because she is,” said Irish actress Maxine Linehan, who portrays Brontë, the author of Jane Eyre, in the one-woman show Brontë: A Portrait of Charlotte by William Luce.

“Charlotte’s schoolmates have remarked that she spoke with an Irish accent,” says Linehan. “Her father, Patrick, was born in County Down at Emdale, Drumballyroney, near Rathfriland, about 20 miles from my own home place in Newry. The more research I did, the more I saw the profound influence their Irish heritage had on Charlotte and her sisters.”

Patrick, whose family name was originally Brunty, an Anglicized version of O’Pronntaigh – a family of hereditary scribes (appropriate, that) – was the oldest of 10 children. His father, Hugh, a farm laborer had eloped with his mother, Alice McClory, when her family objected to the marriage, perhaps because Hugh was an outsider, born in southern Ireland and adopted by an uncle – a tale that resonates with his granddaughter Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Whatever the facts, there’s romance enough in Patrick’s well-documented rise through self-education from blacksmith’s apprentice to young schoolmaster and then, amazingly, to St. John’s College, Cambridge and ordination as an Anglican clergyman.

This history is made palpable in the Brontë Homeland, an open-air museum in County Down that contains Alice McClory’s family cottage, the school where Patrick Brontë taught and the church where he preached. Juliet Barker’s recent book, The Brontës, discussed the family’s roots in Ireland and highlighted the involvement of Patrick and his brothers in the rebellion of 1798. Barker argues that Charlotte Brontë was not a victim of circumstances, but a vibrant and talented artist. This is the woman Maxine Lenihan plays. As Backstage put it, “Charlotte Brontë requires a more robust portrayer and she gets one in Maxine Linehan.

“Charlotte had passion and intensity and a determination to do something out of the limit that society imposed on women in those days,” says Lenihan. In other words, she was a  true Irish woman, as is Maxine Linehan.

“My mother is a McAnulty, one of thirteen, and my father, Patrick Linehan, has eight brothers and sisters. They met in London and came home to Newry where I was born and lived until I was eight, when we moved to Cork. We always returned to Newry for visits, so I knew the countryside around the Brontë homeland well. I got involved in acting and dancing at a young age and continued through wonderful years at the Presentation Convent in Crosshaven. Because I did well academically my parents and teachers encouraged me to pursue a degree from the University of London. I then went on to study at the Inns of Court, where I became a barrister and began working in London. But I had never forgotten the thrill of my first professional appearance in the theater. At seventeen I played Louisa in a production of The Sound of Music at the Cork Opera House. I got the bug. It never left me. When the London media company I was working for as in-house counsel moved to New York, I thought, this is it. I have to pursue acting. It’s who I am.”

Maxine won roles in musical theater productions and in dramas. Drawing on her own Northern Ireland roots, she appeared in the acclaimed New York premiere of Jacqueline McCarrick’s The Mushroom Pickers.

I experienced Charlotte Brontë in a completely new way while watching this production. Maxine Linehan reaches out to the audience and brings us into Charlotte’s emotional life. We feel her strength when she refuses to be defeated by the tragic death of her siblings or her unrequited love for the married headmaster of the Brussels school where she taught. Show Business magazine said that “Linehan’s portrayal of Charlotte is one of a heartbroken but plucky and at times humorous heroine.” But I was most affected by the scene in which Maxine as Charlotte puts on masks and in turn becomes each of her lost sisters and brother. She evokes this motherless family, an island unto themselves, who create their own independent nation using songs and stories, supported by family love. They are not deterred by hardship or the indifference of the outside world. Doesn’t that sound like the Irish experience itself?

The Brontë sisters gave the world masterpieces far beyond what seemed possible. Jane Eyre still sells in the hundreds of thousands every year, and has inspired classic movies and plays. Charlotte Brontë died too young but achieved immortality, as did so many Irish heroes. Charlotte Abú. Bravo Maxine Linehan. Don’t miss it.

Brontë: A Portrait of Charlotte has an open run at The Actor’s Temple, 399 West 47th Street, New York.

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