December January 2009 Issue – Irish America Irish America Magazine Mon, 22 Jul 2019 14:31:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 82361074 The Irish Oil Man: Dave O’Reilly Thu, 01 Jan 2009 12:00:27 +0000 Read more..]]> The highest- ranked Irish-born CEO in the U.S., and the longest- reigning CEO of an oil company, Chevron’s DAVE O’REILLY talks to Patricia Harty.

Dave O’Reilly loves oil. It is why he became a chemical engineer. He doesn’t know how exactly this love came about – he wasn’t influenced by any American westerns featuring Texas wild-catters that populated the fledgling Irish television network RTE in the 60s. And he didn’t get it from his father who worked as a buyer in the men’s department at Arnotts store in Dublin, or his mother who migrated from Co. Kerry to Dublin in the late 1930s to join the civil service – one of the few job options for Irish women of that era. The closest he came to any kind of engineering was when as a youngster he used to visit his uncle who worked for the aluminum factory in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, on his way southwest to his mother’s family in Kerry on summer holidays.

But from an early age O’Reilly wanted to be an oilman, and he has lived his dream.

It was serendipitous that the first time Chevron recruited in Ireland, O’Reilly was graduating from University College Dublin. He left for the Chevron plant in California soon after. Forty years later, he is still with the company. He started with Chevron Research as a process engineer and, after stepping in as a manager during a strike in 1973, a series of positions with increasing responsibility followed. He was named general manager of Chevron’s refinery at El Segundo, California, in 1986. In 1991 he was elected a vice president of Chevron Corp., and by 1994, he was president of Chevron Products Co., responsible for the company’s U.S. refining and marketing operations. In 1998 O’Reilly was named a vice chairman of the board of Chevron Corp., and in 2002, as CEO he oversaw the Chevron/Texaco merger. In fact, he received the Petroleum Executive of the Year Award for 2004 – chosen by his peers in the industry “for his strong leadership of Chevron during and after its merger with Texaco and the company’s robust financial and operational performance.”

O’Reilly is the longest-reigning CEO of an oil company, and, to the best of my knowledge, the highest-ranking Irish-born CEO in the United States.

He is one of the few, if not the only oil executive that you will see on television – or interviewed in Fortune magazine.  The oil companies tend to be maligned in the press, and O’Reilly is committed to informing the public of the situation from his perspective.

Our interview took place in Chevron’s headquarters near San Ramon, an area that’s pretty much all industrial park. Chevron Way leads to the low-lying office buildings fronted by a huge fountain. Once inside, the atmosphere is strictly corporate. I’m handed a Visitor Safety Information leaflet and Map for Chevron Park, and I’m vetted by media relations man Lloyd Avram who sits in on the interview and gives me a three-minute warning when my time is drawing to a close.

I find O’Reilly to be by turns affable and intimidating. One gets the impression that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and I’m no expert on the oil business. He is most animated and relaxed when talking about Ireland – he has a brother, two sisters and extended family there and he gets back often. He also brightens when he’s talking about Chevron’s community-building schemes.
I was working my nerve up to ask him about a lawsuit, currently in the courts in San Francisco, over Chevron’s response to a 1998 protest at its Nigerian subsibary’s off-shore platform, when I got that three-minute warning.  Instead we talked about the award that O’Reilly would receive on the morrow – the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship, which is given to those executives who “by their examples and their business practices, have shown a deep concern for the common good beyond the bottom line.”

Do you go back to Ireland often?
A couple times a year. I have a brother and two sisters, nephews, cousins, uncles, aunts – still a lot of relatives there. So we’re usually there a couple times a year. Mostly it’s to visit the Dublin area. My parents’ generation grew up in different parts of Ireland, but they were part of the labor migration from the rural parts of Ireland to Dublin.

My mother grew up in Rathmore, County Kerry, and ended up in Dublin because she went into the civil service in the late 30’s and stayed there until she married my father in 1945 at the end of the war. He was from County Meath and worked in Arnotts [department store] for his whole career – 40 something years. He was the manager and buyer for the menswear section.

Was education something that your parents emphasized?
Yes. They both knew the value of education. And the education I received was top notch.  I went to Blackrock in Dublin, and then from there to UCD [University College Dublin]. The chemical engineering department was really small. Between all three years – second, third, and fourth year – there were 40 students. So you get a lot of close attention in an environment like that.

Was it a normal thing for Chevron to recruit in Ireland?
I don’t think they had ever done that before. They were interviewing in the U.K., so they decided they would include Dublin on the interview schedule. So it was not a routine thing at all. But it was a happy coincidence. [Chuckles]. I wouldn’t be here, I would be somewhere else.

Chemical engineering at that time was also a bit outside the norm for an Irish student.
There were very few of us. Most engineering students were in civil, mechanical, and electrical. But I wanted to be in the oil industry.

Again, unusual. Had you been watching American westerns of Texas oilmen on Irish TV?
[Laughs] No, no, no. I just got interested and chemical engineering was a path to that. I also had an offer from G.E. [General Electric] but I was much more interested in oil, and the oil business from a business, technical and geopolitical standpoint – all three of them. The oil industry is right at the intersection of those three things.
There were no jobs, or very few, for chemical engineers in Ireland in 1968. So I came to work for Chevron – in
the research part of the company in Richmond, California.

What was that like?
It was a really disruptive time. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. You had riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. There were a lot of protests and disruptions. In Berkeley there was tear gas, up and down University Avenue. It was a very tumultuous time, but there was plenty of work to do.
I was in Richmond at a research plant, which is still there right next to a refinery. There were three of us that came from UCD at the time. We kind of hung around together, but eventually we went our own way. They went back to Ireland.

And you met a nice American girl?
Yes.  I married her in 1970 and we’re still married. We have two daughters, two sons-in-law and two granddaughters.

How does the recent oil crisis compare to the crisis in 1973 and the oil embargo?
That was a lot worse. When you don’t have oil, and you have lines at  gas stations as you had in ’73  to ’75 – when there’s actually a cutoff in supply for geopolitical reasons, and people have to line up on alternate days, that’s a very, very distressing thing. But since ’79, we haven’t had an incident like that. And the reason we haven’t had it is we have had an auto-regulated market. It’s an open market so that the market can respond through the price making. And sometimes that means we pay more, but it regulates the demand, and sometimes it means we pay less. When that supply comes to compensate for the high price, it attracts supply, and you get the benefits of the marketplace working.

So the marketplace has been a much better arbitrator of supply than a regulatory system that was very disruptive — that caused lines to be created in ’73 and again in ’79.

Do you think the oil companies get a bad rap?
I think that our leaders, our political leaders, tend to resort to rhetoric when gasoline prices get high like they did a few months ago because of certain events that are outside the control of the industry. You know, we had a global run-up in crude oil prices, and all sorts of commodities, not just oil. Steel, iron ore, corn, you name it. All those things went up. That’s a global inflation push.

And to blame us for something like that, to vilify us for high prices that we had no control over, doesn’t seem fair. And particularly when we all know that commodities go through a cycle and you don’t hear anybody sympathizing when we’re at the low end of the cycle, and we have been in the past and we will be in the future.

There will be times when the price of a commodity goes low, so you have a cyclical business, and ups and downs. Gasoline prices fluctuate. But when you go to buy, say, a bar of soap, or a candy bar in a store, it doesn’t fluctuate. But it very slowly goes steadily up every year.

I think you’re the only chief of an oil company that’s been on Charlie Rose.
Charlie Rose and Larry King. The reason I go on shows like that is to help with energy literacy, because a lot of people don’t understand where it [energy] comes from, how much has been used, where the vulnerabilities are, what the opportunities are, and so you’ve got to talk to the public. Otherwise, nobody knows. And I think it’s very important that you communicate.

So do you see the incoming administration helping?
I think both candidates were short on energy policy, for different reasons. I think the McCain campaign, and I say campaign because it’s hard to know what the candidates themselves actually thought. But the McCain campaign, I think, underestimated the power of energy efficiency and conservation and was very supply oriented.

The Obama campaign on the other hand was very energy efficiency oriented. They were very short on the supply side. In my view, they’re both wrong. You need both. You need to work on energy efficiency, and conservation, and use energy wisely.

You know, at a low, we’re using 120,000 gallons of oil a second. But we also have to find it and supply it. We still need it. We still need lights, we still need electricity, you still need to drive your car, there are a lot of things we need to do. So I think both [candidates] were short in my view.

What will we get out of a new administration? I don’t know.

Have you ever been invited to talk to the people who set the policies?
Well, no,  . . . but what we do with incoming administrations is, we send a letter. We send it to all the committees, both sides of the aisle, Democrats, Republicans, the whole lot. And we’ll do that again. And then, if they want to talk about it, we’re there to talk about it.

And your message is?
One – work on energy efficiency. It takes leadership and let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of the fact that we have to be a more energy efficient nation. Congress took some steps last year to improve the energy efficiency of cars, vehicles, and appliances over the next decade. And it’s very important that that continues. So, energy efficiency is the first message.

The second message is energy supply. And our message isn’t just about oil and gas. Obviously, oil and gas are included, but it’s about oil, gas, nuclear, coal, wind, you know, solar and other renewables – all of them. And the importance of having a balanced approach to energy supply. So it’s working on both. Those will be the key messages to the incoming administration.

What is Chevron doing in terms of investing in alternative energy?
We’re the biggest renewable energy producer of any major oil company –  geo-thermal in the Philippines and Indonesia. We’re the biggest geothermal producer in the world. It’s using hot steam from volcanic deposits. Either you inject water down and make steam out of it, or you actually find pockets of steam. Produce it through a well, like you would oil, and use the steam to drive and generate electricity. You need to have a kind of volcanic rock.

Is it more difficult as more and more countries are nationalizing their oil resources?
No, no. I think there’s that perception, but the reality is, there’s more opportunity today than there has been for most of my career in the oil industry, because for my first 15 years – from the late sixties to the middle part of the eighties – most of everything we were involved in was nationalized. We lost it. It was taken away. And we had to go find oil and gas in places that were not nationalized. What happened in the last 15 or 20 years is, most of the areas that were nationalized, many of them have opened up. So there’s a lot more opportunity today than there has been for a long time. You know, I hear a lot about this.

I guess the public is confused. There’s the perception that the war in Iraq is about oil.
Yeah, and in those countries that you’re talking about, it is primarily the governments that run the oil industry. Where we’re operating, it’s not. The places we operate have been growing and are places that truly are open. And some of them weren’t even available to us before. Central Asia was all part of the former Soviet Union. That’s open now. We’re operating in Venezuela.

I thought Venezuela had now nationalized its oil.
No. They did not nationalize it. A lot of people think that, but that’s not the case. There are still private investors in Venezuela. We’ve found enormous vast resources in Australia. We’re big in Thailand, and all of the southern part of Asia. We’re expanding in China. I was just there last week. We’re developing a big gas field in Central China – that wasn’t available even five years ago.
So this idea that somehow the opportunities are less than they were is not right. It’s looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

What about the fact that our domestic oil production is down?
Now that’s a problem. U.S. oil production, over the last 20 years, has dropped by about four million barrels a day. So we’ve gone from about nine million barrels a day of production to five. In the meantime, our consumption has gone up by four million barrels a day. So we’re consuming about 18 or 19, close to 20 million barrels a day. We’re only producing five. We’re importing the rest.
And one of the reasons for it is a lot of the areas that we would like to look for it are off limits. So, yes, that is a valid point that you’re making. That’s reality. And, we’re becoming more dependent on oil imports and it’s not a good policy.

Part of the election debate was about opening Alaska to exploration.
Alaska, the off-shore, and other on-shore areas where access is limited – 85 percent of the coastline of the United States is off limits to oil and gas. Now, the moratorium was actually lifted in September because Congress did not choose to extend it. So now it [exploration] is potentially open again. But before we can [explore], there still has to be a process by the Department of Interior to actually identify and award leases, and a filing process so that people can bid on the leases and then do the exploration work, and if they find something then produce the oil. There are a lot of steps that have to be taken to move forward from where we are. But at least the moratorium has been lifted.

There was also talk about taxing oil companies’ profits.
What we would like to do is invest more. And to do that, you need to create the opportunity for investors. And adding taxes on an industry that’s already highly taxed – we’re already much more highly taxed than any other business, and paying much higher taxes as a percent of our income than other business. So increasing taxes further just takes away money that could be used for investing. And we’ve done this before. We had what were called profit taxes in the early eighties. Congress went back and studied the impact of those windfall [profit] taxes, and what it found out was that it accelerated the decline in oil and gas production in the U.S. It made us even more dependent on imports. So it had exactly the wrong impact. We want to be a country where we’re less dependent on foreign oil and more independent — able to produce more of our own energy here in the United States.

So taxing more is the wrong answer. Opening up more opportunity for investment has the advantage of not only producing more energy domestically, but it also creates jobs, when you think about it. You go down to the Gulf of Mexico and look at where we’re producing oil and gas today and look at all the high-quality jobs that we’ve created. There are well-paid engineers, we’ve got mechanics, operators, we’ve got a whole supply chain of people that are involved in our business — tens of thousands of people that are employed for Chevron alone in that area. There are 1.8 million people employed in the industry in the United States directly, and another four million indirectly.

That’s six million jobs. And most of those jobs are very high-quality jobs, with good pay, good benefits, funded pension plans – not like the mess that you see in Wall Street or in some of these other places. So this is an industry that a country needs to be proud of and recognize the value that it creates. Not just the value for shareholders, but the employment we create, the energy we supply, it’s a good thing. [The oil industry] shouldn’t be vilified like it has been because it’s convenient to do so.

Ireland has potential reserves of 10 billion barrels of oil in the North Atlantic, but they are difficult to develop. Would Chevron be interested in taking on the challenge?
Well, we are exploring in the North [Sea], and they’re producing oil in the North [Sea]. We have nothing currently in the coastal area off Ireland.

It’s a possibility?
Yes.  It’s all possible. We’re a big operation, you know. North America obviously, Central Asia, Latin America, Asian Pacific, Africa –

How did growing up on the small island of Ireland affect your worldview?
One thing about growing up in a small place is it makes you completely aware of what’s going on in the world because you have no choice. I’ll always remember the night of the Cuban Missile Crisis – I’ll never forget that. Just sitting there wondering if these two countries start shooting rockets at each other, if we could see the rockets from here in Dublin as they’re coming. [Chuckles].  I’ll always remember that. You have to be very aware of what’s going on. Right now, in the last six months, all anyone’s been talking about in Ireland have been two things – house prices, which are going down, and the [American] election.

What would your advice be toward the Irish now that they are facing a downturn in the economy?
They have gone through 20 years of almost incredible economic growth. What brought about that growth? It was open markets, it was labor flexibility, and it was investment in education. There were a lot of things that were fundamental to that growth. I think it would be a big mistake to say, “Well now, we need to do something completely different.”

The cause of the setbacks in Ireland has been too much focus and too much money chasing into real estate. That’s the issue. Property values got inflated. That needs to be corrected. And that could be helped by better lending practices, just like it could be corrected here [in the States]. They’re going to have to live through that transition. But it should tell everybody how important it is to continue to diversify the economy so that it’s not so property value focused. But a lot of things have been done right, and they shouldn’t lose sight of that.

What is Poland doing today? It’s doing what Ireland did 20 years ago. And so, what has to happen, Ireland has to continue to move up the scale of [higher value] work. A lot of the lower value work has already moved away. It’s no longer a country for call centers and all that sort of stuff. It’s higher value and you can only do that if you have a competent, well-trained, and flexible workforce. And keeping the corporate taxes low to be competitive so that Ireland is an attractive place to invest.

Any advice for President-elect Obama?
I think getting the economy right is probably the number one priority for Obama. Getting energy right is an important issue too. And it’s not a short-term issue. You have to have policies that are sensible, and then stick with them for a long term because, you know, changing the energy system in any meaningful way isn’t gonna happen overnight. It takes decades.

The investments that we make are not for just next year, they are investments for the long haul. So, we have to take a long-term view, and I think that the incoming administration and the Congress are going to have to take a long-term view. If they try to manage this by making short-term changes back and forth every year or two, we’ll never get there.

One of your catch phrases is “getting results the right way.” Can you explain?
That’s really what Chevron is about. We’re a business organization, so our primary role is to invest, employ, produce goods, make money so that the investors in our business garner a reasonable return. However, one of the things we want to do is add value to the communities in which we operate. And in some places, it’s almost essential to do that so that you have a sound base from which to draw employees, suppliers, or whatever.

In Angola, AIDS transmission from mother to child was a big issue. With our involvement in the health care system, there hasn’t been a case of that in the last two years. The blood bank has gone from being 10 percent contaminated to minute levels of contamination. In another part of Angola, we’ve helped reinvigorate the central highlands that had been gutted by civil war in 2001. Angola’s got tremendous agricultural potential and it had been absolutely decimated. By working with World Vision and USAID, we were able to reengage two million people out of a population of 13 million back into the agricultural sector.

In Indonesia we just opened up a big Polytechnic Institute in a province that had been decimated by the tsunami. We’ve trained thousands of people. We had already built an institution in Pekanbaru. Why do we do that? Well, these people are going to be employed by our company, by our suppliers and our business partners. So it’s good for our business, but it’s a tremendous benefit to the local community. I’m very proud of our organization. I can’t even keep track of all the things that they do, but we’ve had some very great successes in community engagement. I’m getting this award [the Woodrow Wilson Award], but certainly the company’s getting it more. I just happen to be in the lucky position of being the leader of the company.

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The First Word: A Tide of Hope Thu, 01 Jan 2009 11:59:42 +0000 Read more..]]> I’m flying from New York to San Francisco in a window seat looking out over the great expanse that is America.   It’s my favorite route to fly. As always I’m struck by the majesty of the countryside – the mountains and lakes and rivers and the tiny dots of houses that hunker down into the landscape like covered wagons. Invariably, the words to “God Bless America” enter my head. I picture the early settlers making their way across the country.  I think that in another life I was on one of those wagons (I always see myself in the driving seat!).

It’s the day before the election. I knew this trip was coming up so I already voted by absentee ballot. It took me a long time to earn my citizenship so I never miss an opportunity to vote and I sure didn’t want to miss this one.

I have an immigrant’s love for this country. And in these difficult days ahead, I also have an immigrant’s optimism. It’s born out of my own experience, and the stories that come across my desk every day that tell me that this country is made up of people with strong survivor genes.

Election Day: I watch the results with my mother who will be 89 in exactly one month. Born at the end of  WWI, she lived in London during WWII and was injured in a bombing – an injury that pains her still. She has seen many changes, lived in many countries.

I am glad that she has lived to see this day.

“Well, I think it will be good,” she says, nodding her head as we watch President-elect Obama’s speech from Grant Park.

I look at the extraordinary size and diversity of the crowd.

Yes, it will be good.

I tell all who will listen that Obama has an Irish great great-grandfather. It seems important to me to make that connection. He represents the hopes of so many ethnic minorities and people at the bottom of the totem pole, and I want to remind people that the Irish too had their struggle. And also that there was an Irish element to this election – from my own friends who knocked on doors in Pennsylvania (Peter Quinn and Mary Pat Kelly among them) to the Kennedy family, and Joe Biden – who will make a wonderful Vice President.

I look at that photograph of Obama’s mother and it reminds me of my aunt Breda who grew up in the same Irish farmhouse that I did. After first immigrating to California, she settled in Hawaii where she married Tom O’Brien from Wisconsin, who attended university there. Her yearly Christmas cards, pictures of her family with palm trees in the background, brought a burst of sunshine to an Irish winter.
The President-elect has brought the sunshine of hope to us.

He has a daunting task ahead, and as the kind nuns who look after my mother say, “He will need our prayers,” but he will surround himself with good people and get the job done.
You have my prayers Mr. President-elect. I leave you with the words to an Irish blessing, that ironically, I first heard from an Indian Sikh, Yogi Bhajan.
“May the longtime sun shine upon you. All love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way on.” Sat Nam.

(Note: Yogi Bhajan first heard the words to this blessing performed by the Incredible Spring band at a concert in San Francisco. He decided to use it as a closing prayer to end each Kundalini yoga class (the yoga of the Sikh Warriors that he brought to the U.S. in 1969). He added the words Sat Nam which mean, “Truth is your name.”)

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Identical Triplets! And They’re Irish! Thu, 01 Jan 2009 11:58:19 +0000 Read more..]]> An Irish-American family went from four to seven in the space of an hour when Cormac, Declan and Kevin – identical triplets – were born to Desmond and Kerry Lyons on October 10 at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.

It was at the ten-week ultrasound that Kerry and Desmond – also parents to three-year-old Liam and one-year-old Ciara – discovered the “shocking yet wonderful” news that Kerry, who had not undergone any fertility treatment, was expecting identical triplets, something doctors say is a one in 100 million chance.

Planning for just one more child to complete their family, Kerry, 37, and Desmond, 41, said it was “a total shock but we were absolutely delighted.”

The triplets arrived after 36 weeks of pregnancy via a Cesarean section.

Kevin was born weighing six pounds, Declan was five pounds, eight ounces and Cormac was five pounds, three ounces. Desmond said it was important to them to keep their Irish heritage alive through giving all five of their children Irish names.

Creating a system to identify each triplet, Kerry explains that for the moment, clothes color is the way they distinguish each child from the other.

Cormac is always dressed in green, Declan in blue and Kevin in everything else. “We haven’t yet had to paint their toenails to tell them apart,” laughs Kerry.

Desmond Lyons, whose father, the late Dr. Michael Lyons of County Cork, was honored by Irish America magazine in 2004 for his work in discovering the links between smoking and lung cancer, is partner in Lyons/McGovern law firm in Sleepy Hollow with a second office in Manhattan. Kerry, who works as a clients’ service director with Mindset Media, an Internet ad network for brands located in Manhattan, is hoping to return to work in the New Year.

“Well, that is the plan for now but we will have to see how we can work it out with these little boys,” she told Irish America.

Looking forward to what the future has to offer, Kerry and Desmond and their five bundles of joy (and not forgetting Finnegan their dog) will spend much quality time together as a family. There will be, however, “no more babies,” smiles Kerry.

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Restoring Duffy’s Glory Thu, 01 Jan 2009 11:57:39 +0000 Read more..]]> The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly renovated Duffy Square was attended by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Bishop Dennis Sullivan of the New York Archdiocese, members of the 69th Regiment, the Coalition for Father Duffy, the Times Square Alliance and the Theatre Development Fund.

The renovations on Times Square have transformed what was once merely a tarnished statue of Father Duffy in the shadows of the half-price theater tickets TKTS booth. Duffy’s statue now stands against a 27-step amphitheater-style staircase constructed of red glass with seating room for more than 500 people, and a newly designed futuristic TKTS booth.

At the ribbon ceremony on October 16, Bruce Meyerson, chairman of the Coalition for Father Duffy said, “This renovation restores a true sense of glory to Father Francis Patrick Duffy and rightly features him as the centerpiece of this place of reverence, remembrance and reflection.”

Francis P. Duffy was a chaplain for the predominately Irish “Fighting 69th” regiment that became part of the 42nd Division during World War 1. Duffy, an ordained Catholic priest, is the most highly decorated cleric in U.S. Army history.

Duffy returned to New York after the war and served as pastor of  Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street, just off Broadway. He also wrote a best-selling book, Father Duffy’s Story in 1919, chronicling his experiences during the war.

Five years after Duffy’s death in 1932, New York City Mayor LaGuardia renamed a part of Times Square in his honor.

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A New Dawn in America Thu, 01 Jan 2009 11:56:54 +0000 Read more..]]> Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States on Tuesday, November 4, after he defeated Republican candidate John McCain. On a night of high emotion across the country and around the world, Obama became the first African-American to attain to the office of President. He also joins a long list of commanders-in-chief who claim Irish heritage.

So where exactly are Obama’s roots in the old country, and how can we claim him as one of the 40 million Americans with Irish ancestry? He may not spell his name O’Bama, or have red hair and a ruddy complexion, but there is an Irish strain in the new President’s DNA.  The woman who unearthed the green branch in Obama’s family tree was Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (born a Smolenyak and married a Smolenyak!), a genealogist and author of four books on family history research. “I was interested in Obama’s roots on his mother’s side. It started with the inscriptions on tombstones in Ohio with the last name Kearney. Being Irish-American myself, I was eager to see if there was any connection. The Kearney side has deep American roots; they stopped coming to America about the time Hillary [Clinton’s] family arrived,” Smolenyak Smolenyak told Irish America recently.  “Eventually I was able to trace it back to Fulmoth Kearney, Obama’s third great-grandfather who came from a tiny town called Moneygall in Co. Offaly, Ireland.”

Smolenyak Smolenyak, who also discovered the true fate of Annie Moore, received a congratulatory letter from Obama before the Annie Moore commemoration ceremony (see page 23). In it he wrote: “The idea of honoring those who came before you by sacrificing on behalf of those who follow is at the heart of the American experience. Irish Americans like your ancestors, and mine from County Offaly, understood this well. And because of that understanding and that spirit, America has led the world through great challenges over the last century. Now is our time to lead again. Together, we can overcome the challenges of our time with the same spirit and resoluteness that carried Annie Moore to our shores.”

Reaction from Irish-Americans since the election has been effusive.  In an op-ed in The New York Times just after the election, Maureen Dowd wrote about the feeling on the ground in Washington: “Americans all over the place were jumping for joy, including the block I had been on in front of the White House, where they were singing: ‘Na, na, na, na. Hey, hey, hey. Goodbye.’”

Senator Ted Kennedy released a statement heralding Obama’s win as a changing of the guard. “They understood his vision of a fairer and more just America and embraced it. They heard his call for
a new generation of Americans to participate in government and were inspired. They believed that change is possible and voted to be part of America’s future,” said Kennedy.

In Ireland Taoiseach Brian Cowen sent his good wishes to Obama saying, “Barack Obama’s remarkable personal story – allied to his eloquence and his huge political talents – sends a powerful message of hope to America’s friends across the world.”

An historic night in America, and one that will never be forgotten.

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Irish Eye on Hollywood Thu, 01 Jan 2009 11:56:33 +0000 Read more..]]> The end-of-year holiday season is, in the minds of many, the best time to be a movie fan. Theaters are flooded with crowd-pleasing blockbusters as well as critically-acclaimed dramas. Several movies based on the writings of Irish-Americans will be released during the 2008 Christmas movie season.

First up, with a December 12 release date, is the highly anticipated Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Doubt centers around a nun who suspects a parish priest of abusing a child. The film is based on the smash hit play by John Patrick Shanley, who is also directing the film version. Shanley is the Bronx-born Irish-American whose screenwriting credits include Moonstruck.
Another movie with Irish-American authorial roots is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Brad Pitt stars in this sci-fi film as a man who experiences the aging process in reverse. Directed by David Fincher and also starring Cate Blanchett,  Benjamin Button is set for a December 25 release.

Also hitting theaters on Christmas Day  is Marley & Me starring Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and Alan Arkin.  Based on the best-selling book by Irish-American John Grogan (whose next book will be about his Irish Catholic youth), Marley & Me explores the strange and funny relationship between Grogan, his wife and their irascible Labrador puppy.

Grogan recently said it was like an “out-of-body” experience watching Owen Wilson play him onscreen. Given that Marley was such a handful as a dog, perhaps it makes sense that it took nearly 30 dogs, as well as special effects, to bring Marley to life on the big screen.

Two actors from Belfast close out this decidedly Irish holiday season with films opening the day after Christmas.

The latest epic starring Tom Cruise, Valkyrie, will feature veteran thespian Kenneth Branagh. Also starring Eddie Izzard, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, Valkyrie is about a plot by German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War II.

Then there is Geraldine Hughes, who will appear in the latest project from one of the hardest working men in movies – Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood directs and stars alongside Hughes in Gran Torino, in which the Dirty Harry star (whose last film Changeling came out in November) plays an angry war veteran who builds a complex relationship with a kid who tried to steal his car.  Geraldine Hughes was last seen in 2006’s Rocky Balboa.

There are also a number of Irish film projects to look out for before the holiday season. In November, young acting wunderkind Saoirse Ronan will appear in the highly anticipated The Lovely Bones. The film, based on Alice Sebold’s best seller and directed by Peter Jackson (who made the Lord of the Rings trilogy), is about a young girl who is murdered but is still able to observe the lives of the people who are coping with her loss.

The Lovely Bones also stars Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci and Michael Imperioli. Ronan, just 14, is taking stardom in stride.

“I am becoming more well-known as an actress, which I like the sound of, that’s OK,” Ronan recently told Reuters.  “If I am around my friends, even if they are a bit older, I am a 14-year-old, I act like a 14-year-old.” (Ronan’s last film, City of Ember, with Bill Murray and Tim Robbins, is available on DVD.)

Also in November, look for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a World War II story based on Irish writer John Boyne’s novel. This film is about a German boy whose father is a Nazi officer. When the family moves to Poland, their home is located near a concentration camp. The boy meets and befriends a young Jewish prisoner from the camp, forcing the German boy to confront the horror of the Holocaust.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas also stars Vera Farmiga, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis and Cara Horgan.

On the documentary front, there was  a screening on November 12 of The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings at Fordham/ Lincoln Center. The documentary debuted two days earlier at Boston College, with performances of Irish tunes by the Makem and Spain Brothers.

The documentary (based on Thomas Maier’s excellent book) is being released as part of a new release of Oliver Stone’s JFK, or can be ordered separately.

Pierce Brosnan remains a busy man in his post-James Bond life. His next film is Vanilla Gorilla, about (you guessed it) an albino gorilla. Not only that, the gorilla develops the ability to use sign language, and communicates with a girl. Directed by Irishman Terry Loane (Mickybo & Me), Vanilla Gorilla is scheduled for a 2009 release.

Meanwhile, Brosnan is currently shooting The Greatest, a drama also starring Susan Sarandon.  The film (which marks the directing debut of screenwriter Shana Feste) explores the heartache of a family which lost one child and is trying to keep another sane.

Brosnan’s Irish DreamTime is one of the producers of The Greatest, which is shooting now in several locations around New York State.
It’s not all arty family drama for Brosnan these days.  He still knows how to make a good shoot-em-up action picture.  Down the road, he will appear in a sequel to The Thomas Crown Affair.

Daniel Day-Lewis is famously picky when it comes to  movies, but he may have been won over to shoot his first film since There Will be Blood, for which he won his second Oscar.  Day-Lewis is in talks to star in Nine, based on the Broadway musical of the same title which in turn was based, in part, on Federico Fellini’s film 8 1/2.

Day-Lewis is being discussed for the role of Guido Contini, originally meant for Javier Bardem, who dropped out of the project.  Contini is a film director who struggles to balance his romantic life and artistic pursuits.

Penelope Cruz, Marian Cotillard, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench are some of the women in Nine’s star-studded cast.

Also swirling around the Hollywood rumor mill is Colin Farrell’s name.  Last seen in the Irish family cop drama Pride and Glory, Farrell is said to be in talks to appear in a remake of the classic film Sunset Boulevard.  Farrell would play the role of the cynical screenwriter who is taken in by fading screen star Norma Desmond.

Glenn Close is among the names  mentioned to play Desmond, who utters the famous line: “I’m still big.  It’s the pictures that got small.”

On to TV news. Gabriel Byrne’s ambitious HBO show In Treatment will be back for a second season.  The show will begin shooting this fall and will air in 2009. Michelle Forbes, who plays Byrne’s wife on the show, recently said: “It makes my heart swell that it is touching people in a poignant and emotional way.”

Also, Spike TV has reportedly ordered a two-hour pilot from MGM Television Entertainment about Boston Irish gangsters. One artistic force behind the project is film and TV veteran Walter Hill, best known for many westerns as well as the 1970s cult classic The Warriors.  Among the producers is Irish-American Tom Lynch of the Tom Lynch Company.

Scheduled to shoot on location in Boston, the story revolves around “the explosive fallout that occurs when a Boston mob boss abruptly vacates his position and various rival factions face off in an epic battle to control the streets,” Spike TV said in promotional material.

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Exploring the Kerry Kingdom Thu, 01 Jan 2009 16:55:38 +0000 Read more..]]> Who was the first European to discover the Americas? Contrary to popular opinion, it may not have been Christopher Columbus. In fact, it may well have been St. Brendan – an Irishman who hailed from County Kerry.

Kerry is one of the loveliest of Ireland’s counties and if you have not yet paid it a visit, it might now be time for you to undertake St. Brendan’s journey in reverse. Do this illustrious saint who was known “the Navigator” the honor of visiting his beautiful home place.

A county of mountainous landscapes and dramatic coastlines, where ancient historical sites sit alongside post-Celtic-Tiger modernity, Kerry is what many people imagine Ireland to be.  Indeed, so superior is its splendor that it’s often referred to as the Kingdom – the high seat of all of Ireland.

So, where should you start your explorations of Kerry?  Where better than in St. Brendan’s own birthplace of Ardfert in the north of the county?  This village and its surrounding areas are rich in archaeological heritage – the most impressive of which is St. Brendan’s Cathedral, a medieval structure built in memory of the village’s most revered son.

Further north is Ballybunion, once a thriving holiday destination that drew hundreds of Irish families to its beautiful beach.  Though its allure has faded, this village still has its attractions, including a 14th-century castle, great natural beauty, and a golf course that’s listed among the top ten in the world (just ask Bill Clinton, who played there).

Ten miles down the road, you’ll come upon the bustling town of Listowel. A cultural Mecca of sorts, this town has produced stellar writers such as John B. Keane and Bryan McMahon and it celebrates this literary heritage with a writers’ festival every June.

Listowel has much more to boast of too. Its castle looms over the town center ,and the acclaimed St. John’s Theatre and Arts Centre right in the heart of the town square stages the best in Irish and international plays, music and exhibitions.

Once you’ve had your fill of cultural activities, you can pay a visit to Tralee, Kerry’s largest town.  With its abundance of high-quality hotels, Tralee can make a good base for exploring Kerry.

It also has attractions of its own.  There’s Ireland’s second-largest museum, Kerry the Kingdom in the Ashe Memorial Hall.  This tells the story of the county from 8000 B.C. to the present day, using a mixture of audio-visual displays and an evocative re-creation of the medieval town streets, complete with nose-wrinkling stench.

From Tralee, you should head west along the Dingle Peninsula, one of the most stunning stretches of scenery in all of Ireland.  Approach the town of Dingle via the northern route and if you’ve got the time, allow yourself a few stops on the way.

First, there’s the small village of Castlegregory. Surrounded by pristine golden beaches, this is an ideal place to practice your surfing. Next up is the small fishing village of Brandon. Here, you can enjoy a pint and a bowl of soup on the pier; hopefully while you watch a local crew take a currach (a traditional boat) to the water in preparation for the summertime regattas.

From here you can climb Mount Brandon – named for our aforementioned saint who established a small monastic settlement on its wind-battered summit – over to the more touristy side of the peninsula.

But you may prefer to continue driving and, assuming that you do, your route will take you along the Conor Pass, a winding road carved into the cliff sides and overlooking valleys hewn during the last Ice Age. Pull in at the roadside waterfall and climb up to Peddler’s Lake – named for a traveling tradesman who lost his life and wares to brigands nearby.  Have no fear though. This happened long ago.

The town of Dingle (or Daingean) lies at the end of the Conor Pass road.  A seaside town of pretty and brightly-colored houses, Dingle is known for its traditional music sessions, its seafood restaurants, Fungi its gregarious dolphin and the craic.

While you’re in town, you should call in for a singsong at John Benny’s Pub on the quayside.  Don’t be afraid to join in if the mood takes you. Take a trip out to see Fungi (the resident dolphin) in the bay.  And spend hours strolling the streets, visiting the many craft shops run by local artists.

You’re in for a treat when you venture west of Dingle. The loop that takes you around the rest of the peninsula is known as the Slea Head Drive and it’s very impressive. There are jagged cliffs, crashing waves, rolling green hills, historical sites aplenty and lots of friendly locals to set you straight if you get lost on the twisting roads.

If the day is fine, plan a trip to the Great Blasket Island. Inhabited until the 1950s, this island seems to exist outside of time, its abandoned houses crumbling under the weight of memories.

The Great Blasket was home to a unique community of people who lived the most traditional of Irish lives – self-sufficient, bursting with oral history and folklore and bound to the hard-won wisdom of the past. Several islanders captured their lives in memoirs and stories.

You can’t help but be struck by the poignancy of all of this as you walk around the island and peer into the ruins of former homes.  Back on the mainland, you can learn more about their history at the Blasket Centre. Here, audio-visual displays will reveal all you need to know about a bygone way of life.

You can travel even further back in time with a visit to nearby early Christian sites Riasc and Gallarus. Riasc is the remains of a small monastic settlement complete with intriguingly engraved standing stones, while Gallarus Oratory is an 8th-century church made entirely of stone, baffling builders to this day with its lack of mortar.

If you’re still in St. Brendan mode, you can stop off at Brandon Creek, a picturesque spot at the foot of Mount Brandon.  St. Brendan apparently departed for America from this very location.

Nearby is the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) village of Ballyferriter, or Baile an Fhirtéaraigh. Here, you’ll hear the language being spoken in the shops, in the church and in the pubs. It’s the ideal place to come if you’re hoping to attend an Irish-language course.

After all this sightseeing, you’ll eventually find yourself back in Dingle. At this stage, some refreshment might be in order and what could be better than an ice cream from Murphy’s?  Run by two New York brothers of Irish heritage, this ice cream shop is known all over Ireland for its mouth-watering range of ice creams and sorbets.

When you finally decide to leave Dingle, be sure to take a different route than the one you approached the town by.  This time, go towards Killarney. If you’ve got the luxury of time to spare and the sun happens to be shining, stop off at Inch Beach. Its name is misleading for it’s actually three miles long and very popular with surfers, walkers and water sports enthusiasts of all kinds.

After your exertions on the beach, you’re bound to be feeling hungry.  Hold those hunger pangs in check and head for Milltown’s organic market. Attractively located in an old church, this market always has something to tempt the taste buds, especially the melt-in-the-mouth chocolate brownies.

After Milltown, continue west for the Ring of Kerry, a drive that rivals the Slea Head Drive for beauty. The first town you’ll pass through is Killorglin. If you notice any grand processions with a goat, don’t worry unduly. You’ve just stumbled upon Ireland’s oldest festival—Puck Fair.

After Killorglin, the road brings you to Cahersiveen, the birthplace of patriot Daniel O’Connell. There’s an interesting museum devoted to the man known as “The Liberator,” for those of you keen to learn more about Irish history.  And having had your fill of history, you can venture out of town to the White Strand, a popular swimming spot.

Further along the country roads, you’ll arrive at the bridge linking the mainland with Valentia Island. With its beehive huts, ogham stones (standing stones inscribed with an ancient Celtic script) and ruins as well as its stupendous view of the mountainous mainland, Valentia is well worth a visit. And here’s a fact for history buffs: the first transatlantic telegraph cable connected this small island off the coast of Kerry to Newfoundland.

This part of Kerry offers an abundance of attractions, one of which is the nearby Skellig Islands. Regarded by many as one of the foremost natural and historical sites in the country, a visit is not to be missed.

You can take a ferry from various locations on the mainland or from Valentia Island. It will bring you past Little Skellig, a bird sanctuary that is now home to hundreds of thousands of gannets.

As if that weren’t marvel enough, the ferry will then bring you to the larger Skellig Michael. Here, you will disembark and climb 650 vertigo-inducing steps to the top, huffing and puffing as you pass by more gannets, puffins, kittiwakes and petrels.

Right at the summit, there is a monastery built by 6th-century monks who sought to live a most austere life.  Their beehive-like dwellings are still intact and offer us a fascinating insight into what life must have been like here, eight miles from shore, being lashed by the waters of the often harsh Atlantic.

You are sure to breathe a sigh of relief once you’re back on dry land.  So, why not relax by sunbathing on one of Ireland’s best beaches, nestled beside the nearby village of Caherdaniel? (Did I mention that the weather is better in Kerry thanks to the Gulf Stream?) Derrynane Strand offers visitors two miles of gorgeous sandy beaches ringed by rolling sand dunes.

With your energy sufficiently restored, you can then head for Kenmare, one of Kerry’s true gems. Here, you’ll find a delightful town of colorful houses, gourmet restaurants and artisan shops surrounded by misty mountains.  It’s a town to explore at leisure as you soak up every one of its many charms.

Your tour of Kerry is now almost over but one final destination remains—the town of Killarney.  Known worldwide for its appealing shops, bars, restaurants, music and traditionally Irish welcome, Killarney truly has something for everybody.

However, if you have to choose one highlight, it should be the surrounding national park.  The scenery here is sensational.

There are the tranquil Lakes of Killarney where trout leap from the waters.  There’s the genteel 19th-century manor of Muckross House, well worth a visit in itself.  There are the oak and yew woods with their herds of native red deer.  There’s the Gap of Dunloe with its incomparable mountain views and the delicious food available in the nearby Avoca Café.  There’s the Torc Waterfall.  And there’s much more.

You can explore all of these sights on foot, by bike or in a traditional horse and cart.  These can be rented from various locations in Killarney town.

What better way to end your trip to Kerry than clip-clopping your way through Killarney National Park?

You may remain unconvinced that St. Brendan was the first to discover America but by now, I’m sure you would like to discover Kerry.  I’ll see you in the Kingdom!

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The Original Irish Tenor: John McCormack Thu, 01 Jan 2009 11:54:57 +0000 Read more..]]> The year was 1906. The setting was a stage in Savona, Italy, a northwestern port town south of Milan. The opera to be performed that particular evening was L’Amico Fritz by Pietro Mascagni, with a fresh-faced 21-year-old named Giovanni Foli included among the cast members. Though he had only a supporting role, Foli earned quite a bit of attention for his performance. This should not be surprising. After all, this performer would go on to conquer the world, becoming one of the most popular singers of the first half of the 20th century. He shattered box office records during his many trips to the U.S., where he became one of radio’s first mega-stars, and was, according to one account, “the best-paid concert singer in history.”

If you can’t recall any popular singers named Giovanni Foli, that’s because it was a decidedly operatic stage name for the acclaimed Irish tenor John McCormack (1884 – 1945).

“Almost everybody who owned a talking machine in the days of World War I was sure to have, along with Caruso’s Pagliacci, John McCormack’s ‘Mother Machree,’” Time noted, after McCormack died at the age of 61.  “He sang up & down the land, and was always good for a benefit — for the Irish, the Red Cross, the Catholics, the U.S. (he sold a half-million dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds).”

A Gala Concert
To some, McCormack is simply Ireland’s greatest musical artist. Others have compared his massive U.S. popularity in the 1920s to that of Elvis Presley in the 1950s.  McCormack also paved the way for later crooning stars such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

But while audiences and critics remain fascinated with Elvis, Sinatra and Crosby, McCormack’s light has dimmed somewhat.  In terms of sheer talent and popularity, however, McCormack should always be remembered — especially by the Irish in America.

Towards that end, a very special concert will be held at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium in Manhattan on December 17, 2009. “Icon of an Age: A John McCormack Gala Tribute Concert” will feature songs made popular by McCormack.

Next year also marks the 80th anniversary of another important McCormack concert, this one in Dublin.  The year was 1929, and the Irish were celebrating the 100th anniversary of Catholic emancipation. The world, of course, would soon be sinking into a Great Depression. Ireland itself was only a few years removed from a grueling Civil War.  But McCormack was able to transcend these divisions, blending art, faith and history through his powerful music, which one critic has said “speaks from the heart, to the heart.”

So who, exactly, was John McCormack? How did a fellow dubbed Giovanni Foli become the first in a long line of popular Irish tenors? And what role did he play in cultivating Irish-American pride?

Gold Medal Winner
McCormack was born on June 14, 1884, the fourth of 11 children, and baptized at St. Mary’s Church in Athlone, County Westmeath. McCormack’s parents worked in nearby mills, but despite this working-class upbringing, young John was able to cultivate his impressive singing talents. Though countries such as Italy are better known for producing opera singers, Ireland’s musical tradition served McCormack well. John sang in the church choir as did his father Andrew. He went to the 1903 Feis Ceoil (the Irish National Music Festival) in Dublin and emerged as a gold medal winner.

McCormack first gained U.S. attention while performing at the Irish Village section of the 1904 World Exposition in St. Louis. His engagement was short-lived as he objected to the “stage-Irish” aspect of the show. He quit, but not before he met the love of his life, Lily Foley, also a member of the troupe, whom he would marry two years later.

It was a performance by another towering artist the following year that left a lasting impression upon McCormack. At London’s Covent Garden, McCormack watched Enrico Caruso in La Boheme. “The best lesson I ever received,” McCormack later said.

McCormack now knew what he wanted to do, and also knew he had the raw talent.  So, he traveled to Italy, where the acclaimed Vincenzo Sabatini was charged with honing the Irishman’s technical singing skills.

McCormack then made his famous debut in Savano, before, in the fall of 1907, he made his London debut. McCormack was just 23 years old, making him the youngest principal tenor ever to sing at Covent Garden, according to the John McCormack Society, founded in 1960 to preserve the Irish tenor’s great achievements.

A Hit Around The World
McCormack quickly showed he had the stuff to be an international star, selling out shows in Ireland, England, the U.S. and Australia. This wide appeal can be explained, in part, by the fact that McCormack blended high artistic music and more popular, accessible singing. In fact, McCormack biographer Gordon Ledbetter believes the tenor was the last singer to successfully bring together such divergent styles. Attempting to convey McCormack’s widespread fan base to contemporary audiences, another biographer said John McCormack was Pavarotti, Madonna and Johnny Carson all rolled up into one.

Though he was a hit around the world, Irish songs were always a favorite of McCormack’s. Given the events of the day as well as his Irish background, it makes sense that McCormack’s was the first well-received version of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” recorded after World War I broke out in 1914.

McCormack also recorded nationalist songs, such as “The Wearing of the Green,” which did cost him some British fans. But the singer’s devotion to his adopted country (he became a U.S. citizen) could never be questioned. McCormack donated thousands of dollars to the U.S. effort during World War I, after America entered the war in 1917.

This begins to illustrate why McCormack may have been so popular among Irish-Americans. “Growing up, almost every Irish household in New York would have a John McCormack record,” a distant McCormack relative (found driving a taxi cab in New York City) told one documentary filmmaker. But McCormack was not merely a great singer who happened to have been born in Ireland. The era in which McCormack performed was also important for the Irish. After all, many Irish nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic were skeptical about or openly opposed to U.S. involvement in World War I. This rekindled the old charge that Irish Catholics could never become truly American. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was among those who suggested “hyphenated Americans” were inherently disloyal to the U.S. – especially the Irish, given their anger towards the British, who were America’s ally in World War I.

Enjoying McCormack’s music was one way Irish-Americans could prove they were patriotic, while also displaying pride in their native land.

Music to Movies
Of course, it was not the just the Irish who embraced McCormack. He sold out venues all over the country, and when he came to any large city, he was greeted by their most famous residents, such as Detroit’s Henry Ford. By the time Caruso died in 1921, it was widely believed McCormack was not just the most popular, but also the most talented, singer alive.

As sales of recorded music increased, and the reach of radio widened, McCormack was there to ride the new technological wave. He also crossed over into the movies. In 1929, he was paid $500,000 to appear in a stage-Irish film entitled Song O’ My Heart.

At various times McCormack had an apartment on Park Avenue, a farm in Connecticut and a home in the Hollywood Hills. But despite his nearly global reach – he also toured Asia to great acclaim – McCormack never forgot where he came from.

In 1925, the McCormacks spent their summers on a large estate in Kildare. That same year he honored his parents at a Dublin concert, singing “When You Are Old and Grey” to his father, while seranading his mother with his show-stopper “Mother Machree.”

Understanding how blessed he was, McCormack also dedicated his life to helping others. The Red Cross and various Catholic charities were among the many causes to which he donated vast sums of money.

Following his performance at the 100th centennial of Catholic Emancipation in Dublin, McCormack was named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, an honor he cherished. So dedicated to these causes was McCormack that at times he failed to take his own health into account, touring until he was exhausted. By 1938, McCormack had more or less retired, performing only at his son’s wedding in 1941.

McCormack died a few years later but his legacy clearly lives on.  “The Irish tenor” is now a beloved brand on the international music scene, thanks to the trail first blazed by John McCormack.  Meanwhile, every time the latest pop singer or rap star crosses over into movies or television, they should be reminded that McCormack did it almost a century earlier.  Not only that, he worked tirelessly to return the many blessings he’d received. Not bad for a young kid from Athlone named Giovanni . . . uh, John, that is.

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Stalking Irish Madness: Patrick Tracey Thu, 01 Jan 2009 11:54:00 +0000 Read more..]]> Patrick Tracey’s first book, Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family’s Schizophrenia, is a memoir, a research document, a medical ethnography, and certainly a page-turner. As Tracey says, “There’s many, many ways to write a book about schizophrenia. But I had my story to tell and to tell it this certain way.”

The story Tracey has to tell is one that begins years ago, with a woman named Mary Egan. The Egan line is the one Tracey chooses to follow in his search through Ireland, as Mary Egan serves as the historical link that brought the “Irish madness” down to Tracey’s grandmother, May Sweeney, and eventually to two of his beloved sisters, Chelle and Austine.
The diagnosis first of creative, theatrical Chelle, then later of Tracey’s confidante and best friend, Austine, smashes a fragile family dynamic and sends Tracey into the depths of his own drug addiction and despair. “There’s stuff there just from my own life—I didn’t want to do a big drunkalogue, or a drugalogue, you know. But I let you know that it was pretty severe,” he says.

Out of this period came the decision to undertake the journey to Ireland that shaped and became Tracey’s book. “I just sort of woke up sober in London,” Tracey reflects, “and there it was, Ireland was right next door. I’d heard about this gene link and just thought, I’ve got to go investigate it, you know, and I sort of realized at some point that this could be a book and the book could be worth something. I didn’t know what. I also knew that I had to basically go there and bring the news back home to my sisters.”

Tracey is clear about the fact that Stalking Irish Madness was written, first and foremost, for Chelle and Austine. “My sisters wept when they read it and felt that it was a nice—you know, it was an offering. And that’s what it is. I think every book is sort of an offering. Here it is; this is mine.” This emotional attachment to the subject matter shines through on every page, but the book is also a gritty and engaging travelogue that pulls the reader along with it through the gorgeous Roscommon landscape as well as the muddy campgrounds where the author sleeps.
While his own story is not the focus of this book, the writing and the experience clearly belong to Tracey. “It’s definitely a memoir in the sense that it’s the world through my eyes. It’s not really about me, it’s how I see the world, trying to get the reader in my body, or rather, in the passenger seat, and I’m just telling you the story as I’m bumping through Ireland in my ’94 Nissan minivan with the bad radio. That just seems like a natural way to tell a story, especially in the oral Irish tradition.”

Stalking Irish Madness opens with a spooky scene of Tracey exploring the caves of Roscommon on Halloween night. Tracey speaks of how Irish fairy legend was blamed for people hearing voices in older times, a mythology that still holds weight among some believers. Tracey, however, is ready to move on to a different explanation.  “I try not to club people over the head with science, but it’s important to understand that the fairies were framed. They said the Irish were away with the fairies, but it wasn’t fairies, it was what I call a three-legged stool of schizophrenia. The famine—[specifically] maternal malnutrition—alcoholism—and the last one is late age of paternity. That’s the three-legged stool of schizophrenia, and specific conditions were set up in the west of Ireland for that. It was all in the same DNA stew.”

I’m not surprised by his mentions of famine and alcoholism, but the late age of paternity factor is one I haven’t heard before. Tracey explains, “You couldn’t get married, you didn’t become eligible until you hit about fifty and inherited the family farm. So there were a lot of copy errors in the sperm of old men. The science is a bit boring, but I’ll just give you a little bit. Men’s sperm cells copy every sixteen days and they replicate. By the time we’re fifty there’s a lot of what are called ‘copy errors.’ It’s just that, just what it sounds like. There are errors that are made in the DNA of the cells that get copied. There’s more than twice the rate of schizophrenia in children born of fathers for every ten-year jump in the age of paternity. So really, the lesson is that men should be having children at a young age if you want to reduce risk.

“The other thing that’s well known is the link between famine and schizophrenia. That also doubles the risk. And in people who were born of mothers who carried them through a famine, the risk of schizophrenia is nearly triple.” Much of Tracey’s theory comes from the Dutch hunger studies done in Rotterdam during World War Two. “They have found much higher rates of addiction, schizophrenia and manic depression among children who were carried through that famine. They tracked them for decades. These are solid gold studies. They don’t really say too much about the experience of the Dutch, but if you take that set of data and apply it like a grid to Ireland, it’s a no-brainer…it simplifies everything.”

While treatment of schizophrenia in America still largely focuses on antipsychotics and other pharmaceuticals, “we’re actually behind now,” says Tracey. While in Ireland, Tracey encountered the Hearing Voices Network (HVN), which holds meetings that consist of “likeminded voice-hearers helping each other out—they’re just taking basically the drug and alcohol recovery model, twelve-step recovery.” The HVN is based on the concept of allowing schizophrenics to acknowledge and eventually learn to control their voices. “They are finding that a cure for schizophrenia is really not in the cards. What is in the cards is recovering, on a daily basis, from the worst of their voices. It turns out that mental health for [schizophrenics] is really no different from mental health for us. We all have our voices. My voices might be telling me, ‘Oh, I’m going to be nervous in this interview and I’m going to say something and slip up and I won’t sound good and smart’—and that’s my first-person voice. My sisters have third-person voices; they come from outside their heads. But they can control their voices in the way that we need to control the better ranges of our nature and just try to be positive. They can tap into their positive voices. When doctors tell them that their voices are bollocks, that their voices don’t exist, it completely invalidates their experience. They’ve got nowhere to go. This is why the Hearing Voices Network will be the biggest thing there is in schizophrenia. And it already is in Europe… It’s undeniable. The proof is not measured in gene variants that have been replicated in twin studies in other countries and stuff. Science likes that, they like hard empirical evidence. But the proof is in the pudding. You talk to these people and they’re dealing with life, they’re recovered. But they have to tend to themselves like a garden every day.”
Along with the HVN, the Mad Pride movement has also emerged from within the schizophrenia community. “They call themselves the last barricade of the civil rights movement,” explains Tracey. “And they demand to be heard and they don’t want to be forced to take medicine. They’re willing to take medicine, many of them want to take medicine, but they don’t want to be forced…these are very progressive people and they’re the people that are leading this movement. It is a movement.”

As anyone who has gone to Ireland to search for their genealogical roots can tell you, the journey can be filled with dead ends and frustration. The process becomes even more difficult when the focus of the search is schizophrenia. “Well, I mean, in Ireland [genealogy] is an industry and they’ll welcome you with open arms,” says Tracey. “But the word schizophrenia—it’s a country no one wants to visit… So I knew I had to step very lightly, I had to tread lightly. Because this is the most severe form of mental illness, and it scares the s*** out of people. So you just don’t go poking around in the back lanes of Roscommon asking about this.”

Along the way, Tracey does encounter refusals to discuss what is often seen as a private family matter.  When I ask how he approached the subject with the Irish with whom he spoke, he replies, “I did tiptoe, I didn’t knock hard, I didn’t kick down doors, because it’s just the beginning of the conversation. I hope [the book] opens up a conversation with the Irish, between Ireland and America, in families afflicted, and  that we begin to talk more about it.”

Transforming generations of shame and suffering into an open dialogue between schizophrenics, those who love them, and the medical community in both Ireland and America is an ongoing process, and Tracey’s book is indeed a great contribution.

Stalking Irish Madness has already garnered critical attention, and has been chosen by the American Booksellers Association for their Indie Next List and featured on “I’m really happy about that, it’s very positive,” says Tracey. “Oh, and they sent me a t-shirt, and then I went and had my man Arturo snap a photo of me in the t-shirt and I sent that to the guys in sales, whoever they are. But just the fact that there are people in my life who are called the guys in sales! It means things are on the rise.”

Patrick Tracey, a former contributing writer for the Washington City Paper and Regardie’s in Washington, D.C., has also written for Ms. magazine and the Washington Post. Tracey now lives with his sisters in Boston, Massachusetts.

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An Epic Story of The Famine Irish: Peter Quinn Thu, 01 Jan 2009 11:53:57 +0000 Read more..]]> A crowd of admirers awaited Peter Quinn when he came to Glucksman Ireland House, NYU on October 16th to launch Overlook Press’s new edition of his award winning novel, Banished Children of Eve, the tale of Irish-Americans in New York during the Civil War.  Many had read the much praised novel that celebrated writer William Kennedy called “terrific … an ebullient mingling of fiction and history,” and the esteemed author Thomas Flanagan judged “one of the very very best of modern historical novels.”

Professor Joe Lee, Director of Ireland House, said Banished Children of Eve showed how a historical novel could be significant in both literature and history.  “It’s a landmark book,” he said.  “Peter Quinn was able to blend history and literature, to transcend them into something beyond them both.”

In his talk that followed, Peter Quinn blended humor and erudition to elicit both laughter and thoughtful attention from his audience.  He will be speaking in various venues, so readers can consult the schedule on the Overlook Press website for the chance to hear him.

In this interview, Peter Quinn went behind-the-book to explore the process of writing Banished Children of Eve and his non-fiction exploration of Irish-American life, Looking for Jimmy.
“I grew up in an Irish-American family in the Bronx, but we really didn’t know that much about Ireland, and we didn’t know that much about ourselves.  My first ancestors came over in 1847.  I had this general story of our family beginning on the Lower East Side, but I never thought of it as anything very epic.  Ireland was way in the background.  We were more Catholic than anything else.  That’s what it meant to be Irish in the Bronx: identification with your parish, your school, knowing you were Irish but not knowing much about it.

“In the sixties I was a Vista volunteer in Kansas City, an education teacher, thinking I would go live in California.  It was the first time I ever turned around and said, ‘I’m leaving all of this – but I don’t know what it is.’

“Everything was going down in the Bronx in the ’60s.  People were moving, the buildings were burning down, the church was changing.  And I thought, I’ve got to go back and find out something about it.

“So I studied history at Fordham – got a doctorate eventually – with Morris O’Connell, who was Daniel O’Connell’s great-grandson.  I learned a lot of Irish history, and then went over to spend a semester in Ireland at University College Galway.

“I was about to finish my dissertation, but was on this demographic curve and all the jobs had gone away.  So I was writing articles for America, the Jesuit magazine.  Kevin Cahill, Director of the American Irish Historical Society, saw one and gave it to Governor Hugh Carey.  He hired me as a speechwriter.

“Working in Albany, I started to think about writing a history, not of Ireland but of the Irish coming here during the Famine – what it was like, a social history like the book Irving Howe wrote, World of Our Fathers, about the Jewish experience.

“I began to research that, looking at housing reports, police reports, and came upon the Draft Riots, this great explosion, which I immediately connected with the Famine immigration.  Then at one point I realized that I didn’t want to talk about the great social forces – I wanted to talk about individuals. So then it was on to try to write fiction.”

Was there any individual or story that moved you to write this book?
“I discovered that Stephen Foster, the progenitor of the American song industry, committed suicide, I’m sure, on the Bowery in January of 1864.  And I realized the man who wrote ‘Oh Susanna,’ ‘Gentle Annie,’ ‘Hard Times’ – some really great first American songs — was down there during the Draft Riots.

“I stood outside the hotel on Broadway and Bayard, where he had died.  I thought, ‘I know who he is and I can hear his voice.’  I had the idea for the book in 1982, then I researched until 1988.  I started writing on Columbus Day, 1988 – twenty years ago today.  I remember because I finished three and a half years later on the Feast of the Epiphany.”

What was that process of writing the novel like?
“I never start with an outline.  Banished Children, Hour of the Cat, and the book I’m working on now all started out in my mind with two people having a conversation.  I have the setting, I know what year it is, and they start talking.  The plot comes out of that.  There were moments I had to wait.  I would write and realize I don’t know what they’re going to do next, but two novels later they’ve never let me down. They’ll tell you what they’re going to do.

“My experience of writing is that there is no one way.  What I think you have to do is make the time, a time when you show up.  You don’t know if you’re going to get one page or two or nothing, but you’re there for them.  The rest is mystery.”

How did this mystery affect you?
“The deeper I got into Banished Children of Eve, the more I saw that the Irish Famine immigration was an epic story of the movement of agrarian people who moved into cities — which is still going on all around the world.  My family had been part of this.  And I said if I get everything wrong, but people come away with a sense of this epic dimension to Irish-American history, then I’ll feel I have succeeded.

“We take so much for granted: Our ancestors came over and built all these schools, churches, hospitals, the unions, the Democratic party – a whole world.  But they had to build it all from nothing. There were a lot of reasons why they should have fallen apart or just disappeared. You know, if it were just a matter of skin complexion they could have become Protestants, but something deeper and more complex was going on.”

Could you talk about the complexity?
“Once the immigrants stepped off the boat in America, they were no longer just Irish. They had to deal with a whole different society. The culture of the diaspora is not the same as the culture in Ireland.  It’s rooted in that but it becomes something else when it comes here.  An urban culture is created.

Looking for Jimmy is the non-fiction handbook to go along with Banished Children.  In the book, I say one of the reasons the Irish were able to have such an impact on the urban experience was because they had to make it up.  They didn’t come over with useable habits or customs.  Everything they’d come to know in Ireland was useless in New York and Chicago.  So the whole thesis of Looking for Jimmy is that they’re making up an urban personality because they don’t have anything else to fall back on.

“The Irish felt safe in cities.  My ancestors never wanted to see the land again.  They came out of the worst agricultural trauma in 19th century Europe.  A million die and two million leave?  Get me to the city.  Yet they found a deeply ingrained prejudice in Anglo-American society towards the Irish. They weren’t taken seriously.  There’s a line by Samuel Eliot Morison in the Oxford History of the United States, published in 1961, I believe, that I read in high school.  It said, ‘The Famine Irish made surprisingly little contribution to the economics or culture.’  Yet look at popular entertainment: They made a tremendous contribution, beginning with the minstrels theater and traveling shows.  And the economic contribution — who does Morison think dug the canals, the reservoir; who dug the Erie Canal?  Yet a leading American historian could write that the Irish almost didn’t exist.

“The Irish were looking for survival.  They built political machines and out of those machines came the first social welfare system – the use of public funds to support citizens.  “Little or no effect” – how wrong that was.  Yet I was going to a Catholic high school in the Bronx in the 1960s and I’m told to read this book and it goes unchallenged.”

Why was that view not challenged?
“I think so much of Irish-American experience is getting on with it, not stepping back to take an honest look at it.  Until very recently the main concern of the Irish-American was just taking the next step. The Irish peasant society dissolved when the people came over here.  All those institutions that we take for granted — the Catholic parishes, the labor unions — are all embodiments of efforts to survive that trauma.  So we didn’t look back.  We created parallel social institutions.

“The Irish responded to the ferocious anti-Catholicism they found in America by saying, ‘We’re forming our own schools. We’re not letting you form our children.  We’ll form them in their own culture, then they’ll go into America.’

“My parish in the Bronx, St. Raymond’s, had a church, a boys’ grammar school, a girls’ grammar school, a rectory, a brothers’ house, a convent.  The amount of money that people poured into those institutions, as well as womanpower and manpower –- so much volunteer labor.  This tremendous outpouring to create their own hospitals, their own schools is a pretty amazing story.

“My mother went to Holy Angels Academy in Fort Lee, New Jersey and the nuns there got their master’s degrees at Columbia — women, in 1920.  Think of it.”

Then the numbers that went into the religious orders were stunning.  Certainly there’s been a lot of scandal and abuse and all sorts of
problems with the system, but there were so many good people in it.  I think it’d be a tragedy if they were totally forgotten. Where are we now?

“The diaspora experience that formed in the Famine lasted really from the 1840s until, I think, John F. Kennedy’s election.  And then the breakthrough began.  The Irish were no longer threatened.  Their religion wasn’t threatening anymore.

“So those very strict schools, the solidity of party loyalties weren’t necessary for Irish survival anymore.  We’re at the tail end of the post-Famine Irish-American experience.  I’m not saying it’s over, but it’s not going to be the same.”

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