February March 2007 Issue – Irish America https://irishamerica.com Irish America Magazine Sat, 20 Jul 2019 03:40:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.10 82361074 Mother, Life, Landscape, and the Connection https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/mother-life-landscape-and-the-connection/ https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/mother-life-landscape-and-the-connection/#respond Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:30:43 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=10968 Read more..]]> Edna O’Brien returns to world of The Country Girls in The Light of Evening, with the mother-daughter relationship as the main theme.

“A writer’s life is like an athlete’s life. You train every day of your life and even then it may not be as good as one had hoped,” says Edna O’Brien, who has written 20 books. Her latest, The Light of Evening, tells the story of Eleanora, a famous Irish author, and her relationship with her mother, Dilly. Part memoir, part imagination, the book is based on O’Brien’s relationship with her own mother, whose real letters to O’Brien are used in the book. The Light of Evening is a beautiful work. To quote Frank McCourt, “each page is so seductive, so dazzling, you won’t want to leave it.”

Like all of O’Brien’s books, it is set in Ireland. “Like Joyce she has lived in exile but never forgotten a single thing,” said Professor Declan Kiberd of the UCD School of English and Drama, which awarded O’Brien the Ulysses Medal in June, 2006.

Born in Tuamgraney, County Clare, O’Brien moved to London in 1954 with her husband, the Czech/Irish writer Ernest Gebler and two sons. Divorced in 1964, she stayed in London, where she lives to this day. Her “voluntary exile” was due in part to the furor over her first book, The Country Girls, published in 1960. Part of a trilogy of novels which also includes The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964), the books trace the lives of two Irish women, Kate and Baba, whose Catholic upbringing comes in conflict with their sexual awakening. The books were banned and even burned in Ireland. The brouhaha caused great shame to O’Brien’s family, particularly her mother, Lena, who was suspicious of anything to do with books. Hurt but undaunted, O’Brien continued to address the mores of Irish society in such works as A Pagan Place (1971), Down by the River (1997), and In the Forest (2002) which is based on the murder of a young mother in County Clare.

I caught up with O’Brien in San Francisco on December 9. She was in the final stages of a book tour that included Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and St. Paul, Minnesota, where 1,000 people filled the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater to see her. Our interview took place in the Getty mansion (Gordon and Ann Getty are friends of longstanding), where she was recuperating from a foot operation and working on a new play for the San Francisco based Magic Theatre, which enjoyed great success with her play Triptych in 2004.

Has your relationship with Ireland changed, now that the country itself has changed?

I feel more welcomed as a writer in America than I do in England and to a greater extent, than I do in Ireland, although Ireland has softened towards me at last [laughs].

I think that it’s inevitable. First of all, we ourselves change and our relationships, whether with a country or a person, change. I think we become more, forgive the word, philosophical about our own plight contrasted with the carnage, upheavals and barbarity of the big wide world.

When you were writing The Country Girls did you think it was going to cause the furor it did?

No. I would never have finished it if I thought that. In fact, I thought nothing. I used to read manuscripts for publishers and I was a little over ambitious in my evaluations and so was given a commission of fifty pounds to write The Country Girls, half from the publisher in England, Hutchinson, and half from Knopf in the United Sates.

I was young, married with two children and I spent the money on practical things. I bought a sewing machine, which I thought would please the person I was married to. We had come to live in London – way, way out in the suburbs. I didn’t know anyone. It was so alien. I wrote The Country Girls in less than three weeks. If I had even thought ‘What will my mother think?’ ‘What will the nuns think?’ ‘What will anyone think?’ I would have been stricken.

Isn’t it difficult to balance the human need for affection and appreciation and the life of a writer, which can be lonely?

It is very hard, and that is why I say from my own experience and from reading the diaries of writers; writing is the loneliest occupation on earth.

Flaubert’s mother said that his love of words had hardened his heart. And it might seem, to some extent it is true that the writer, in this case me, has hardened my heart to the extent that I will recede from life, cut myself off and go into solitary to write a book.

I know it is only a book and yet it is everything to me when I am doing it. Ironically, when it is done it’s over for me. I have no guarantee when I finish something that I will ever write something else, nor have I the comforting notion of resting on my laurels. Each new book is another journey into the tunnel, and that is painful.

It sounds like you approach each new work with trepidation.

I do. Great fear. The fear of doing it. The fear that even if one does it, it won’t realize itself as perfectly as it must. The fear of what people will say, and inevitably critics get out their knives and other implements of torture.

The Light of Evening is as close to a memoir as you have written.

It’s part memoir, part fiction, part journal and hopefully the wings of imagination. I wanted to make it a novel because a memoir would have limited me to reality. By choosing it to be a work of fiction I could start with a frosted morning in Rusheen in County Clare with the crow – in mythology the crow or raven is the warning emblem of death – and the mother Dilly talking back to it.

‘Will you pipe down out of that,’ Dilly says. ‘I said will you pipe down outta that,’ Dilly says.

I know the book by heart, God help me.

Had I been writing a memoir I could not have matched landscape, emotion and narrative and not felt free to invent, reorganize, conjecture and get inside the psyche of the characters. Also the shifts in time were essential for me. There is the Brooklyn part and the County Clare part and the London part. The mother’s present time, the mother’s past, the mother and daughter conjunction together, the daughter’s marriage, the mother’s letters and the mother’s death. It’s like five different stories, and not every reader wants that. Readers want things a little bit easier.

You use some of your mother’s actual letters in the book. They are wonderful and rather Joycean in their stream of consciousness.

They are. They are pitch-perfect. Bulletins about her life. The dogs, the crops, the cattle, the paraffin heater conking out, crows in the chimney, and the hidden agenda not to let me get away.

Did your mother want you back?

My mother always wanted me back, back, back there. Yet my sister Patricia, who lives in South Africa and who responded warmly to the book, was surprised by it because hers was a different experience of our mother.

Why do you think your relationship with your mother was different from your sister’s?

I think that is true for everyone, the parents are perceived differently by each child and internalized differently. Moreover, memory plays its own tricks. My mother was very, very attached to me. I was the last child, as the others had gone away to school, and I identified with her totally. For example, these few lines from the book – ‘When she coughed blood we stared down at it together, down into the well of the kitchen sink. . . Death for her meant death for us both. . .  Thinking that if I picked primroses and put them in a jam jar to cheer her up that she would not die.’

It seems childish, but I always wanted to save her, to make her happier. When the time came to break away I could not do it completely. I both did and didn’t.

She was not happy that you were a writer.

She disapproved of writing and feared the written word, feared that its essence was sinful – she might have had a point! She would have liked me to have been a receptionist in a hotel, something more genteel and wholesome. And yet as you can see from her letters, she was a born writer herself, she had an enormous gift and power. She was powerful as a person but she was also powerful as a writer. So the irony is that friends say my mother made me a writer, and I don’t dispute it. Yet it was something that caused her a lot of suffering and shame, because with the first book, The Country Girls, everybody was in an uproar in County Clare, and indeed in the country at large.

There was the banning and the scalding exchange of letters between Archbishop McQuaid and Charlie Haughey who was minister of culture at that time, saying the book shouldn’t be let in the hands of any decent family. It was daft, daft [laughs].

Do you feel like you got to know your mother as a young woman in Brooklyn through writing this book?

Not really, I had to make it up. I went up and down streets in Brooklyn, went to chapels and graveyards – I was surprised to see that one can still buy a plot in Greenwood Cemetery. I traipsed hither and thither to try and get a sense of the place. I would look down and see Walt Whitman’s spires and say to myself, I cannot do this. I don’t know how.

I had great help from two women, two absolute stalwarts in the Brooklyn Public Library. I read the newspapers from that time, and some of the girls’ magazines, to get the flavor of what life was like for a young woman with not much money working in a big house in Brooklyn. Then for the big house [in the book] I went up to Prospect Park, because my mother had worked there. Those mansions, with a tall flight of steps, foot scrapers and bay windows, are still there and in the kitchens, the speakers by which the maids in their quarters could be summoned by the mistress for her morning breakfast or hot water for her footbath.

I loved the dinner scene.

People, including a critic in the Irish Times, have remarked that it has echoes of the Christmas dinner in Portrait of the Artist, and to tell you the truth, I read Joyce’s exquisite scene many times. It’s the same idea of pending jubilation, then things going suddenly wrong. Christmases are like that. They bring out old sores, grudges and unfinished business. It starts off so well, but by the time Christmas dinner arrives – that artificial four hours – the protagonists are either drunk, tired or belligerent.

With this particular book do you remember the day the idea came to you, or had it been haunting you for years?

I remember the day and the moment exactly. I was being driven to Chichester to do a reading and quite spontaneously I got out my notebook and began what would become the Journal section of the novel: the daughter’s dream, or perhaps nightmare, that her sick mother is recalling her and she is refusing to go, dreading what it might lead to. That was the little seed from which I started.

My mother always saw herself as my overseer in everything, but particularly in the romantic and sexual realm.

What we forget is that our mothers are also daughters. My mother had her own disappointments, her own thwarted aspirations and possibly her own bruised heart. What I wanted in the novel was to try and imagine her as her herself, the young Lena in all the vertigo of youth, setting out for America and envisaging big things.

Emily Dickinson writes about the mind having many chambers, and in one of the chambers of my mind, my mother Lena is permanently there.

So you started with the journal, which actually appears quite late in the book. How did you arrive at the beginning, the prologue?

I was with a cousin of mine up the mountains in Middleline in County Clare where my mother came from, and from an old stationery box he produced this photograph of my mother with her mother. It told a story. My mother’s mother, gaunt and mystical, looked like Maud Gonne. She was a country woman, knew hardship of every kind on this mountain farm, which wasn’t even a farm, just a few fields, and yet she was absolutely beautiful and patrician.

The photo is in sepia, the daughter in a white dress, and the mother seated on a kitchen chair, which they obviously brought out for the occasion. It was essential for me to have chanced upon it.

Joyce said that for his art he always got what he needed – and that photograph was certainly an inspiration to me.

It was a scalding hot day and I had gone to the heritage museum to do research, and then I went and got a little lesson from a woman who had an old-fashioned Singer sewing machine, again to recapture the 1920s, and afterwards, sitting with my cousin, he tumbled out the contents of an old box and all its memorabilia.

Was it a difficult task pulling all the different strands, or scenes as you call them, together?

Yes. It took a lot of doing, organizing the various material.

Writing the journal was the exhilarating bit; weaving the many stories was much harder, but the real challenge was to try and get the emotional entanglement between mother and daughter in all its variations. The reactions to the book have been varied, but Richard Eyre, introducing me at the 92nd Street Y in New York, said that for him it was a book of rage and reconciliation. I would like to think it is the story of two women, mother and daughter, inextricably bound up.

You write all your books in longhand.

I write and rewrite and then I dictate. It’s all quite unnerving. What I feel about writing by hand – I may have a few soul mates in this – is that there is a connection between mind and heart and hand and the sequence of the words themselves. I feel that a typewriter or a word processor would be an artificial barrier, would stymie the flow between conscious and unconscious. It is not a fashionable or a practical view, but then, I have never prided myself on being practical.

Do you have another book in mind?

In some fugitive way, perhaps I do. I shall call it Boglands. It would be a collage of my country, our country, down the centuries, witnessed or told by a spirit woman. More torture.

You talk of your mother not wanting you to have a successful romantic life. Do you think there was an element of the disappointed romantic about her?

I’m not sure my mother was an utter romantic. That’s where she and I probably differed. I am an incurable romantic. I can say that my mother’s life was not so rosy. She married my father, who was very well off, only to find that the money got frittered away. My father’s family – him, his three brothers and a sister who lived in Boston and apparently was the first woman to drive a car in Boston – had inherited legacies. Their uncles were priests in Lowell, Massachusetts who had patented a famous medicine called Fr. John’s medicine, which was a roaring success with the laity. It was probably cod liver oil with a few added ingredients, but it sold like a bomb.

By the time I was three or four, living on a farm in rural Ireland, I was very aware of rows over money, anxiety over money and the abiding fear of losing the place.

In the 30s there was the economic war, animals sold for next to nothing, there was no money to fertilize the fields, no machinery to work with and a sense of financial despair. Nowadays a little plot for a bungalow in County Clare is $100,000 and that’s not even with a glimpse of the Shannon.

My mother must have been disappointed at life taking a downward swoop. She had been born in the mountains, went to America, made a little bit of money, had nice clothes and trinkets and so on, and married, as she thought, into endless security. But it did not turn out like that. She was a stalwart worker. She fed calves, she fed hens, she boiled big pots of meal in the boil house and was kept going from dawn till dark. She held everything together, but I think she must have been truly exhausted, and to some extent broken. But though raised in the country, she was not a typical country woman, there was something other about her, as if perhaps she had wished for another fate, though I never asked her what that might be.

Do you think that on some level your mother was jealous of your success?

I think probably that was there. She feared that I was on the road to perdition. But she also perhaps resented my apparent success, because she would make little caustic comments such as ‘there was a photograph of you in the paper and people said you had drink taken.’ Yes, there would have been some element of jealousy because I seemed independent insofar as I was the breadwinner for myself and my children. To be frank, I would say she did not know me, she did not understand the compulsion, the necessity to write, and did not want to know that writing took one to another sphere. Beckett said in an essay on Jack Yeats that the artist who stakes his life has no country and no brother.

I think mothers identify very much with their daughters and therefore criticize their daughters more than their sons. I don’t have a daughter but I have sons. She would come to London, and in those days I gave rather lavish parties. I was head bottle washer; cooked, opened the bottles, lit the fires, answered the door, opened the champagne and the oysters, and my mother, witnessing this largesse, probably feared that I was heading downhill. The one thing in this world that I cannot bear, because I’ve had so much of it, is being controlled. People love controlling other people. I don’t even control my children. I sometimes think they control me, my follies.

Including men in relationships?

Men certainly want control and get it. But let me say, women want control also, in a more insidious way. My mother was a controller.

You are not bitter towards men.

Not at all, I love men. My experience hasn’t been all that blessed. I haven’t been in love often but when I have been, I have. I regard it as very profound and stirring and of course sometimes unrequited. Bitterness for a writer, or for anyone, is a dead end. To keep writing, one has to retain, against all the odds, some of the fervor and the innocence of childhood. Think of James Joyce, with his searing intellect, being able to write about Gertie McDowell in the Siren section of Ulysses and understanding her gushings, her longings and troubling himself to find out which exact dinky dye she used for her underwear.

I read somewhere that the first book you bought was about James Joyce.

Yes, it was a little book called Introducing James Joyce by T.S. Eliot, which included the Christmas dinner from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and one of the short stories, I think it was “Araby,” and an extract from Ulysses and an extract from “Anna Livia.” I love the “Anna Livia” section of Finnegans Wake. Anna, in all her personifications, going back to the sea, to her cold, mad feary father, knowing that for all her gifts and guile as a young woman, she will be quite forgotten. It’s ineffably beautiful.

Do you think you would have liked Joyce as a man?

I would love to have met Joyce, preferably in the evening hours when bottles were opened. He was a very cerebral man, but he was also a very witty man and undoubtedly a man of feeling. Someone once said to him, I think it was Arthur Power, that he had no feelings and Joyce smarted, his eyes filling with tears and said, ‘God, I, a man without feelings?’

You did meet Samuel Beckett. What was he like?

He was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. His intellect was formidable but his manner was genial and friendly. He was in no way boastful. I asked him on one occasion what he was writing and his reply with a shrug was, ‘Not much and anyhow what difference would it make?’ For many years it seems he felt as a writer the shadow of Joyce the master, saying in an interview that he worked from near nothing, whereas Joyce had the gift of omniscience and omnipotence. He needn’t have worried, he too is monumental.

Did you always have this love of writing?

Yes. I was childishly ambitious in national school and I would write little bits of their compositions for the other girls, often rewarded with a biscuit. I always thought of writing not as an escape but as a path into another kind of universe, another mode of thought and feeling. I believed that words were of themselves animate and when grouped together, had an alchemy to them.

But there were no books in your house.

No books, just bloodstock manuals and Mrs. Beeton’s cookery book, with its sundry stains of ink and egg yolk and tea and its marvelous recipes in which abundance was all. Then there were the prayer books and the missals, in which the devotional and the erotica went hand in hand and the paeans to Christ and the martyrs were like love letters to someone known. In fact, my earliest understanding of earthly love was implicit in these soarings. Then of course there were poems that one learnt by heart and in the one school book, extracts, mostly by English authors, Charles Dickens, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt and Thackeray, all for our edification. I did as well learn and imbibe the great and fabulous myths. I might add that I learnt everything through Irish, except of course English, which maybe accounts for my style. One of the first books I read from start to finish was the short stories of Joyce.

Obviously Joyce had a very big effect on you.

Yes, Joyce is prodigious. He wrote with the genius of man and woman, his words are blazing, his fracturing and reassembling of the English language as radical in literature as the splitting of the atom was in science. But I would be unfaithful if I did not mention that Joyce has a rival in my affections. It is Chekhov. He is the exact opposite to Joyce – his stories seem not so much to be written as to be breathed onto the page. Like Shakespeare, Chekhov knew everything there is to know about the heart’s vagaries and he rendered the passion and conflict of men and women flawlessly.

Yes, I would be much lonelier on this earth without literature, and I might even have gone mad. As a last word, let me say this: Literature is the big bonanza, and writing is getting down on one’s knees each day and searching for the exact words.


From The Light of Evening Moss

There were two men, an old man and a young man. A few stars still in the sky but pale and milky as stars are in the early hours before they slip away.

Ned, the young man, garrulous as if he were drunk, which he wasn’t.

Climbing the mountain road, a godforsaken stretch, the odd carcass of a dead animal, ruts and runnels, and in the fields of richly bronzed bracken a few scutty Christmas threes that never flourished.

They park the van by the television mast, a steel god looking down on the valley below, the cable around it juddering in the wind, the threads and messages within, passing unheard, and then a tramp over toughened heather terrain until they arrive at the boundary wall and climb it. Already feeling like felons.

Flossie knows the owner and has gone there on the quiet umpteen times to shoot woodcock and even once shot a wild turkey, which Jimmy said had come all the way from the Appalachians. Flossie was an apprentice then and Jimmy was boss. Going together, because the loveliest and most luxuriant mosses throve in that woods, so many varieties, the oak moss, the brook moss, the stair-step moss, and the green-gold moss that has no equal for color, not in any curtain, not in any carpet, not in any mountain range.

The owner, a bachelor, the last of his tribe, living alone, confining himself to kitchen, scullery, and pantry quarters, holy pictures on every wall, walls covered with Sacred Hearts and a medley of saints, a mammy’s boy who never married and who keeps a shotgun in case of trespassers, but loves his trees, loves his woodlands, and honors a covenant set down by his great-uncle, which was that no tree should ever be wantonly cut down.

Ned stands, then walks, then stands again, flabbergasted. He has seen woods, he has even worked in woods, young woods, putting down spruces and the like, but he has never set foot in a place like this, the peacefulness of it, spooky, the way the trees seem to have stood there undisturbed for generations, have a greater claim on the place than either man or woman.

For the best part of a year he has been pestering Flossie, asking when can he go with him to gather the moss to line a grave, to learn the trade and be the one to pass it on. Flossie only does it for close friends or relatives or kids crashing on their way home from discos. But each time he has been turned down, Flossie in his gruff way saying, “You see I’m not Jimmy” and nothing more. Flossie learned the art from Jimmy, who learned it from a Cornish man, and the Cornish man having got it from a Breton, and the Breton from God knows where, maybe the Appalachian Way.

With Jimmy gone, Flossie preferred going alone, gathering the moss for those creatures that have meant something to him and now for the woman he scarcely knew but had a bond with, a bond never acknowledged by him and never ever by her.

A ghostlike mist hangs over and above the trees and above that, pockets of it run and frisk about, like the Pooka man playing hide and seek.

A hush and the two men advancing into the very heart of the forest, where even Ned had the sense to pipe down. Flossie knows the trees with the best hangings, can already picture in his mind peeling back the beautiful copious strands, the green, the wetter green, and the orangey yellow, some meshy, some compact, some, even in winter, with little pinky purply flowers bedded in them. He already thinks what a beautiful sight it will make on the four walls of the woman’s grave. He has brought six black plastic bags, two for Ned and four for himself, and instructs the young boy not to rush it, the one thing he must not do is to rush it or the mosses will crumble, fall apart, and be useless. Slowly and with infinite care he begins to peel from the roots of the trees, the beech, the oak, and the elm, as Ned watches and follows, unfurling strand after strand, yet now and then Flossie has to shout, “Jesus, don’t rush it, you’re destroying it” and painstakingly they gather their crop and lay the strips along the boulders to dry off.

“’Tis a pity to be taking it,” Ned says, struck by the rich colors, now that the sun is half up.

“Ah, ’twill grow again . . . ’twill grow even better . . . that’s nature for you,” Flossie tells him.

Ned doesn’t know death, doesn’t want to know death, yet he is proud to be gathering a carpet that will be cut and trimmed and hung on lines of wire, then pegged to the grave to make it splendid. He knows their house with the rhododendrons and piles of trees around it, two avenues, the back avenue completely overgrown, a haunt for the courting couples. Once he saw the woman with a man’s hat on her, painting the bottom set of gates a silverish color.

“Was she a cousin of yours?” he asks.

“Mind your own feckin’ business,” he is told.

“Sorry, sorry,” Ned says, cowers, and after an awkward silence asks what color dead bones are and is told that they’re a dirty brown and all broken up, except for the skulls, the skulls stay intact, often three or four skulls in the same grave like they’re one family, still fighting it out.

“Did you know her?” Ned asks.

“Sort of” is the answer.

Only a kid when he saw her cross the water park and head for the river. He could tell just by the way she walked back and forth what was on her mind, pacing, not saying a word to him, eyeing him, wanting him gone out of there, to scoot it because of what she had come to do. Only a kid but he knew and he knew that she knew he knew, him standing there with the two big goose eggs that barely fitted into the palm of his hand, goose eggs that he had just stolen and she pacing and the river so wild and free and sporting, hungry for anything to be thrown into it, a stick, a rake, a person. She was white as a sheet and fuming at the gall he had by not moving off, her shoes in one hand and her stockings in the other and the waterfall a hundred yards away, sprouting a yellow-green foam. He can still see it and hear it and all else, for it was something he had never forgotten nor ever would forget, the picture had never faded, the pallor of the woman, her eyes desperate, darting, wanting him gone because of what she had come to do and without the words begging him to show her a kindness by going away. But he didn’t go because he thought he shouldn’t go. Only a kid but he knew that he must stand his ground. The roar of the water so gushing, the power of it, the thick curdling surface ready to suck anything into itself and go its willful way. He stood his ground, but he could still recall it, he with the two big white goose eggs in his hand, the one about to drop, and she with the saddest look he had ever seen and without the words imploring him to let her do what she had come to do. But he wouldn’t and he didn’t and after a long time or after what seemed a long time she walked away, away from the river and back up toward her own place, Rusheen. Not spoken of ever again. How could it. Seeing her at Mass and things over the years. He owed her the moss.

“You see I’m not Jimmy,” he said aloud, and the boy looks at him with a baleful look that is full of wonder.

The pelts of moss are drying out in the bit of sun, the sun’s warmth seeping into them, making the color to quicken.

From The Light of Evening. Author Edna O’Brien. Publisher Houghton Mifflin Company ♦

https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/mother-life-landscape-and-the-connection/feed/ 0 10968
The First Word: The Grip of Mother Ireland https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/the-first-word-the-grip-of-mother-ireland/ https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/the-first-word-the-grip-of-mother-ireland/#respond Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:29:04 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=11187 Read more..]]> “Like Joyce she has lived in exile but never forgotten a single thing.”  – Professor Declan Kiberd, UCD School of English and Drama, speaking about Edna O’Brien. UCD awarded O’Brien the Ulysses Medal in 2006.

To start the New Year off right, we bring you our “Arts Special” issue, featuring a plethora of interviews (and feathers in the case of hatter Philip Treacy), books, movies, and music. For what better way to while away the winter hours than by listening to some good music, reading a book or watching a great film or two?

Join NetFlicks or visit your local video store and rent any movie that features Brendan Gleeson (see Lauren Byrne’s interview page 58) and you will not be disappointed. For other movie favorites with Irish themes, and recipes to enjoy them with, read Edythe Preet’s Sláinte column (page 70).

While movies are certainly one of my favorite pastimes, there is nothing that quite measures up to a good book (well, maybe a good story told around a fire, followed by a song!). My mother enrolled me in the local library when I could barely read and I will always be grateful.

I have read, and appreciated, the work of all four authors featured in this issue – two Irish-Americans and two Irish-born – great storytellers all.

Let’s start with Peter Quinn, the author of Poor Banished Children of Eve, a historical novel about the post-famine Irish in New York. If you haven’t read this book (published in 1995) you have a treat in store – one that may last you through the winter (it’s 683 pages!). If you have read it, you will be glad to know that Quinn has a new book out, a remarkable collection of essays called Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. And, once again, he delves into the role that Irish immigrants, his own ancestors included, have played in American history and culture (see review by Tom Deignan on page 78).

Meanwhile, Michael Patrick MacDonald explores the world of his childhood in South Boston in Easter Rising: An Irish-American Coming Up from Under, which picks up where his earlier memoir, All Souls: A Family Story From Southie, leaves off. In Easter Rising, MacDonald tells of escaping Southie, where he lost four siblings to violence and poverty, and traveling to Ireland, which helped him see his heritage as a source of pride rather than shame. (See Lauren Byrne’s interview with MacDonald on page 62).

Irish-born writer Colum McCann also explores the past, but not his own. In an interview with Bridget English (page 52), Colum, who lives in New York, comments that he finds his inspiration in writing about what he doesn’t know.

The author of six novels, including the international bestseller, Dancer, based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev, Colum (who was once featured as “The Next Great Novelist” in Esquire magazine’s “America’s Best and the Brightest”), explores the world of the Gypsies in his latest book, Zoli.

Loosely based on the true story of the Romani poet Papusza, the novel vividly depicts how far one gifted woman must journey to find where she belongs. Which brings me to our cover story, and Irish author Edna O’Brien, whom I interviewed for this issue.

Like all good Irish conversations, O’Brien’s latest work is really five stories in one – and as close to a memoir as she’s written.

The Light of Evening centers around the author’s relationship with her own mother, and Mother Ireland, and the grip they both had on her. And, as always with O’Brien’s work, it’s the everyday, and sometimes what’s left unsaid, that is so evocative, especially when it comes to – as Van Morrison would say – the inarticulate speech of the heart.

“Ye needn’t have come,” Dilly (the mother) says to her husband Con when he finally gets around to visiting her in the hospital. The character of Dilly is so finely drawn that this tiny pebble of a phrase dropped in at just the right moment, has a ripple effect that reverberates throughout the book.

Though O’Brien’s work has universal appeal (I’ve discovered of late just how many people I know are O’Brien fans), no other writer so perfectly places me in my own landscape.

It’s not just the physicality of the rural Irish countryside, which she evokes beautifully, but her insights into the Irish psyche, family dimensions, and the ordinary (but extraordinary) characters that one encounters in her work: Hickey the day laborer in The Country Girls, and Jerome the Faith Healer in The Light of Evening, who, though he makes but a brief appearance, months after reading the book, I remember, “He never studied . . . the books he reads are the people that come to him,” and that “a fella has a gift for one thing but not another.”

I regret that I never got to read O’Brien’s books growing up in Tipperary, just on the other side of the Shannon from O’Brien’s County Clare. Her books were banned.

It wasn’t until I was in New York that I encountered her work (Night, of 1972, the first O’Brien’s novels that I read, remains a favorite), and learned the extent to which this gifted woman had been persecuted for her work – not unlike Zoli in McCann’s novel.

Through it all – the book bannings and the burnings – O’Brien kept writing in a voice uniquely her own – probing and examining the Irish psyche in all its manifestations, and producing a long chain of splendid books, which cannot be defined but must be experienced, a quality she shares with all other great writers.

O’Brien hasn’t gotten the credit she deserves, either for her writing, or for the swath she’s cut for modern Irish writers by her brave insistence that as a writer you are answerable to no one (“The minute you feel you are answerable, you’re throttled,” she says). But the presentation of the Ulysses Medal (by Univeristy College Dublin) to her last summer is a start. Professor Declan Kilberd in introducing O’Brien at the ceremony said, “Like Joyce she has lived in exile and never forgot a thing.”

Thank God for that. ♦


https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/the-first-word-the-grip-of-mother-ireland/feed/ 0 11187
Phoenix Couple Turn Tragedy Into Assistance https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/phoenix-couple-turn-tragedy-into-assistance/ https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/phoenix-couple-turn-tragedy-into-assistance/#respond Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:28:25 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=11212 Read more..]]> Phoenix couple Delia Garcia and Kelly Stokes decided to take what Delia called a “babymoon” last summer, a few months before the expected arrival of their baby boy. They had always wanted to visit Ireland and knew they wouldn’t have much time for taking trips once the baby arrived.

Delia’s pregnancy had been perfect up to this point; she didn’t even have morning sickness, and she had gotten the “okay” from her doctor to travel. Because she had been so healthy, she didn’t worry when she woke up feeling slightly ill one morning in Ireland. Attributing the nausea to the tolls of travel, she and her husband continued on with their plan to visit the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Once there, however, Delia, only 25 weeks pregnant, suddenly went into labor. By the time an ambulance arrived, baby Nicholas had already been born and it was too late to save him.

That night, as Kelly’s mind raced with troubled thoughts of the day’s events, he felt an overwhelming call to action. He knew that he had to make something positive come out of this tragedy, and together, he and Delia resolved to work towards bringing better emergency care to the Cliffs of Moher area. Upon arriving home to Arizona, however, the task seemed daunting. The couple didn’t know where to begin and wondered how two private citizens of one country could possibly have an effect on the medical care in another. Soon, however, they discovered that Phoenix and Ennis, where baby Nicholas is buried, are sister cities. From this point on the plan rolled out so smoothly that it seemed that there must have been divine help.

The Phoenix Sister Cities Commission, which had twinned Phoenix with Ennis in 1988, became passionate about the cause and opened the lines of communication for the couple. Clare County Council was equally supportive. Flan Garvey, the mayor of Clare, had planned a trip to the U.S. to talk about the new Cliffs of Moher Visitors Center project, which had been in the making for years. He added Phoenix to his list of destinations so that he could meet with Kelly and Delia, and while there he let them know that the plans for the new Center had been adjusted to include a first aid facility called “The Nicholas Room” in honor of their baby.

In October, Kelly and Delia returned to the Cliffs of Moher and exerienced a sense of peace, calm and comfort. On the phone with Irish America, Delia described reconnecting with the women from the Visitors Center who had helped during the emergency. “Being able to hug them, and say thank-you, was extremely healing for us, and for them. Nicholas was a part of their lives too,” she said.

Delia and Kelly have pledged to raise $86,000 towards the first aid facility, and will be involved in the improvement of health and emergency services throughout County Clare. They carry with them a sense of pride that their son Nicholas, as briefly as he lived, has left his positive and lasting impact on the world.

For more information contact Mark Dunphy of Dunphy Public Relations on 01135386-8534900 or e-mail: media@dunphypr.com ♦

https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/phoenix-couple-turn-tragedy-into-assistance/feed/ 0 11212
Irish Eye on Hollywood https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/irish-eye-on-hollywood-21/ https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/irish-eye-on-hollywood-21/#respond Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:27:46 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=11217 Read more..]]> Amidst all the hype (and jokes) concerning Sylvester Stallone’s latest return to the boxing ring as Rocky Balboa, little was said about the performance given by Belfast native Geraldine Hughes, playing a Philadelphia native opposite Sly. This could be the big break this theater veteran needed to crossover into Hollywood.

Until Rocky Balboa in December, Hughes had appeared in just a few small movies, including Duplex (2003) and St. Patrick’s Day, an Irish-American comedy from 1999.

Hughes is better known for her theater work, including a one-woman show called Belfast Blues, which she wrote and starred in, playing over 20 characters. The new year will also see her take Broadway in a new production of Brian Friel’s Irish play Translations.

Hughes was raised Catholic in Belfast, and began appearing in TV movies in the 1980s. She later came to the United States to study acting. Anjelica Huston (more on the Huston clan later) is among the luminaries who helped bring the critically acclaimed Belfast Blues to New York and wider theatrical audiences in general.

Another Irish actress we can expect big things from in 2007 also hails from Northern Ireland, Saoirse Ronan, who has a pivotal role in the upcoming Atonement alongside Keira Knightly, Vanessa Redgrave and Brenda Blethyn. Ronan plays a 13-year-old who, with one small lie, turns the lives of everyone around her upside down. The film is based on the best-selling Ian McEwan novel. Ronan was previously seen in the Michelle Pfeiffer and Tracy Ullman film I Could Never Be Your Woman.

Finally, on the Irish-American side, up and coming actress Kate Mara should have a big 2007. She appeared in the inspiring Christmas football film We Are Marshall opposite Matthew McConaughey. Mara (whose Irish football roots include being the granddaughter of New York Giants football owner Wellington Mara, and great-granddaughter of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Dan Rooney) has two March films set for release: Full of It, about a habitual liar who realizes his tall tales have become reality, and Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg as a secluded marksman asked to help prevent a political assassination.

The Irish were well represented at the Golden Globe Awards, which are usually taken as a harbinger of what the Academy Awards will bring when Oscar nominations are announced in February.

Martin Scorsese’s Irish gangster epic The Departed earned numerous Golden Globe nominations, including nods for Scorsese as director, as well as for Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie, which features Nicholson as an old-time Boston Irish crime boss and DiCaprio and Matt Damon as younger operatives who may be cops or gangsters, also nabbed a Golden Globe nod for Best Film, Drama.

Departed screenwriter and Irish-American William Monahan also received a Golden Globe nod, and is considered an Oscar favorite.

Monahan will be honored at the second annual “Oscar Wilde: Honoring Irish Writing in Film” event in Hollywood on February 22. Al Pacino, Van Morrison and Belfast-born writer/director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) are also expected to attend.

Monahan has long worked with Hollywood blockbuster veteran Ridley Scott, who asked Monahan to write the Liam Neeson flick Kingdom of Heaven.

Finally, also earning a Golden Globe nod is Irish-American TV star Patrick Dempsey for his role in the hit series Grey’s Anatomy. As one of the many Grey’s Anatomy fan sites puts it in Dempsey’s biography, “Patrick was born on January 13, 1966 in Lewiston, Maine, to Irish-American parents. He grew up in nearby Buckfield, Maine, graduating from Buckfield High School.”

Dempsey will also appear in the January release Freedom Writers, opposite Hillary Swank, in a film about a female inner city teacher trying to reach “unreachable” students.

The legendary Peter O’Toole also earned a Golden Globe nomination for his turn in Venus (check it out on DVD), which features O’Toole as an aging actor who falls in love with his close pal’s grandniece. Venus is a welcome return to the spotlight for O’Toole, often thought of as a British screen star but who was actually born Peter Seamus O’Toole in Connemara.

O’Toole recently told Esquire a story about a time when he and his daughter were in Ireland and received a visit from Katharine Hepburn.

“Daddy, there’s an old Gypsy woman at the door,” O’Toole’s daughter said. The actor continues: “We had a Gypsy nearby who would pinch our flowers. I went to the door and said, ‘No thank you, we don’t – oh, hello, Kate.’ She had four jackets on. One belonged to Barrymore, one to Spencer Tracy, one to me, and one to Humphrey Bogart. Khaki trousers and boots – this was her uniform.”

O’Toole (who actually made two other movies in 2006, Lassie and One Night with the King) added: “Good parts make good actors. I take them as they come.”

January 26 is the release date for the Liam Neeson/Pierce Brosnan/Anjelica Huston drama Seraphim Falls. The Irish leading men both play former U.S. Civil War soldiers hunting each other.

Meanwhile, Anjelica Huston is not the only member of that fabled Irish cinematic family keeping busy. Her half-brother Danny appeared in Children of Men at the end of 2006, opposite Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. Look for Danny Huston in 2007 in Thirty Days of Night as well as the Jim Carrey thriller (that’s right, the funny man is getting serious) Number 23, due out in February. In other news concerning Irish-American families in show business, John and Joan Cusack have several new projects planned for the new year.

Having appeared in numerous big time Hollywood productions, John Cusack (who’s been in movies over 20 years now, after debuting in 80s teen flicks such as Sixteen Candles) is going independent with his gritty next film Grace Is Gone. The film is a harsh look at the homefront consequences of the Iraq War, and made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival.

Noting that U.S. officials have made an effort to conceal the coffins of dead soldiers coming home from Iraq, Cusack recently told the New York Times, “If they’re getting away with that, then your job as an artist in this era would be to tell the story of one of those coffins coming home.”

In 2007, also look for John Cusack in the films 1408 and The Martian Child. The latter film also features Joan Cusack, John’s sister. Cusack (several family members began acting in the Chicago area theater where the Cusack clan grew up) also has a talk show in the works for ABC.

When St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, Cillian Murphy will certainly be getting plenty of exposure. First of all, he teams up again with director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) for another science fiction thriller called Sunshine. Set around the year 2050, the film explores a Chinese-United States mission to reignite the sun, which, well, has gone out.

Troy Garity (son of Irish-American activist Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda) also stars in Sunshine.

Meanwhile, Murphy’s much acclaimed Irish Civil War film The Wind That Shakes the Barley will be screened as part of the annual New York Craic Festival, which features music, short films, animated and more at various New York City sites in March.

Directed by provocative British film veteran Ken Loach, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a look at Ireland’s political and military struggle with Britain in the wake of the Easter Rebellion of 1916.

Craic festival organizers are also in negotiations to obtain the rights to screen the Robin Williams-Jonathan Rhys-Myers film August Rush, about an orphan who uses music to track down his parents. August Rush has been directed by Kristen Sheridan, director Jim Sheridan’s daughter. Both previously earned an Oscar nod for the screenplay to In America, which was directed by Jim Sheridan. Kristen Sheridan previously directed Disco Pigs in 2001 and Patterns in 1999. For more information about the annual Craic music and movies festival, visit thecraicfest.com.

Finally, it’s worth your while to keep your eye on BBC America or the DVD aisle for Cracker: A New Terror. Starring Robbie Coltrane, the latest entry in this British detective series has a story line featuring the complexity of post-9/11 terrorism, particularly as it pertains to debates over Northern Ireland and the Irish-American role there. ♦

https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/irish-eye-on-hollywood-21/feed/ 0 11217
Tara Keeps Her Crown https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/tara-keeps-her-crown/ https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/tara-keeps-her-crown/#respond Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:26:04 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=11222 Read more..]]> Tara Conner, Miss USA 2006 and Irish America cover story (Oct./Nov.) has been called to task about conduct unbecoming a beauty queen. It seems that the transition from the small town of Russell Springs, Kentucky to New York City has been a lot to handle for the petite blonde. On December 14, entertainment website TMZ.com broke a story saying she was going to be dethroned “due to inappropriate behavior.” The same day the Miss Universe organization released a statement saying that Conner “had not been dethroned,” but that Donald Trump and other executives would be “evaluating her behavioral and personal issues to see what we can do to work with her, and what we will do about her reign going forward.”

Further revelations in newspapers over the next few days alleged that Conner had been drinking while underage (she turned 21 on December 18) at New York City nightspots. The New York Daily News led its Saturday paper with the headline “Miss USA Run Out of Town,” saying Conner had already left the Trump apartment she shared with Miss Teen USA Katie Blair and Miss Universe Zuleyka Rivera and returned to Kentucky.

However, on December 19, Donald Trump showed a little Christmas spirit by confirming that Conner would be given a second chance and would head to rehab to address her problems. “I’ve always been a believer in second chances,” Trump, who owns the Miss Universe Organization with NBC, said with Conner at his side. Turning to Trump, a tearful Conner said, “You’ll never know what this means to me, and I swear I will not let you down.” “I told them [the Miss Universe organization] I wanted to be one of the best Miss USA’s they have ever had. I am passionate about this and I want to leave my mark,” Conner said in an interview with Irish America just a few months ago. Hopefully she can use the remainder of her reign to leave the mark she originally aspired to. One thing for sure, is that all the hoopla has guaranteed that the 5 foot 5 blonde, who has been competing in beauty pageants since age four, is now a household name. Irish America is predicting a bright future for Conner, whose reign as Miss USA ends in April. ♦

https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/tara-keeps-her-crown/feed/ 0 11222
Waking Up the Irish Echoes https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/waking-up-the-irish-echoes/ https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/waking-up-the-irish-echoes/#respond Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:25:16 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=11228 Read more..]]> Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies has become renowned for its scholarship and innovation. NIALL O’DOWD reports from South Bend, Indiana.

It is three p.m. on November 16, 2006, the Friday before Notre Dame faces Army in the annual pitched battle between two of the most storied teams in college football. It is a late fall day, some straggler leaves still bedeck the trees on campus, but winter’s grip is not far away.

The Notre Dame campus is alive with weekend visitors. The crowds at the Grotto are already gathering, while in the distance Touchdown Jesus gazes serenely down on the serried files of Fighting Irish fans and students.

Tomorrow over 80,000 Fighting Irish fans will pack the stadium for the last home game for the senior class of 2006. Millions more will tune in across the nation.

While Notre Dame remains the greatest draw in the history of college football, there is a different buzz over at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, which is tucked away in its own self-contained corner of the vast campus, far from the bustling crowds.

A stranger strolling the halls of the Institute is immediately struck by the fact that Gaelic, not English, appears to be the lingua franca. The renowned Gaelic poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill is conversing with Professor Breandan O Buachalla, perhaps the preeminent scholar in the Irish language today, and it is briefly surprising and then endearing to hear the Gaelic cadences so far from home.

Ni Dhomhnaill and O Buachalla are representative of the pioneering spirit one encounters at the Keough-Naughton Institute. Likewise, Professor Christopher Fox, director, and Professor Brian O Conchubair, who make it clear that they aim to make the Institute the best it can be.

O Conchubair, an enthusiastic young Kerryman, did not know what to expect when he first came to Notre Dame. “It was a very different experience, but I was overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome, and the sense that we were putting Irish studies on the map at the most important Irish university in America. It was a great undertaking,” he says, adding, “I am very proud to be involved with the first Department of Irish Language and Irish Literature in North America. We have over 400 students studying the Irish language, literature and culture for the academic year 2006/2007. Equally rewarding is the recognition we have received from the Irish government for our efforts.”

O Conchubair remembers that he was a little intimidated at first by the sheer intellectual star power at the Keough Institute, as it was then called. “You had Seamus Deane and Breandan O Buachalla and many other leading intellectuals on the faculty, and they were all on campus, in one building, on one floor.”

Like many before him, O Conchubair has come to love the leafy campus he and wife Tara MacLeod, also an Irish lecturer, now call home. The concept of a university as family is an alien one in Ireland, where the issue of alumni loyalty and a lifelong connection to the institution has only lately begun to catch on. At Notre Dame, however, even a casual visitor can sense the close bonds the university forges. Perhaps it is caused by the geographic isolation or maybe it is the storied tradition that ties one generation of families to another, for there is clearly something special at work at the Keough-Naughton Institute.

The Minor in Irish Studies requires proficiency in the Irish language and completing four courses across departments that include anthropology, Irish literature, film, television, theater, government, and history. The Minor in Irish Literature and Language requires proficiency in the Irish language and three courses in Irish language and literature.

Given that every student who takes a minor in Irish Studies or Irish Literature must study it, it is not entirely surprising that Gaelic is the fourth most studied language on the Notre Dame campus. O Conchubair sees a day when Irish Language and Literature will become a supplementary major at the home of the Fighting Irish.

On this Friday about 30 Irish Studies students are gathered for a lecture on Sean O’Casey’s later plays. Many of the students, who come from all over the U.S., have no Irish connections, but they are drawn to the Keough-Naughton Institute by its reputation for excellence.

The debate on the merits of the O’Casey plays is not as heated as that on the outcome of the Notre Dame game, but the fact that it is taking place at all is in itself noteworthy.

Just fifteen years ago, Irish studies were a desultory pursuit at Notre Dame. Then along came Donald Keough, president of Coca-Cola, whose children were educated at South Bend. He soon set about linking the two great loves of his life.

Keough’s ancestral homeland had come to play a huge role in his life. He also had a great love for Notre Dame, and a great respect for the education it had given his children. In 1992, thanks to his generosity, the Donald and Marilyn Keough Center for Irish Studies became a reality.

“Notre Dame didn’t really have any type of academic Irish studies program. It just seemed like a natural fit to me,” Keough says. “Instead of dispensing funds cafeteria style, we [Marilyn, Don’s wife and his life-long inspiration] decided we wanted to concentrate on something that could become an important contribution to Notre Dame and to Ireland.”

In May 2006, the Keough Institute became the Keough-Naughton Institute when Notre Dame trustee and Irish native Martin Naughton and his wife Carmel became major donors. It was just the latest chapter in an Irish success story.

Professor Christopher Fox, the initiator of the original Irish Studies program, is justifiably proud of the role he played in the new center but credits Keough for helping to realize the dream, and now Naughton with helping to advance the program.

As incoming chair of Notre Dame’s Department of English, Fox had felt that Notre Dame needed to be teaching more Irish writers within an Irish context. “Given its long-term links with Ireland and Irish America, it was appropriate for Notre Dame to have a major program in Irish Studies. But none of this would have happened without Don Keough, who learned about my idea from a Notre Dame priest, Father Patrick Sullivan, C.S.C.

“The assistance after that from Notre Dame’s President, Father Monk Malloy, Provost Nathan Hatch (now President of Wake Forest), Father Timothy Scully, our distinguished faculty, and our Ireland Council (made up of prominent Irish and Irish-Americans) has been instrumental in taking the program to a level none of us could have imagined when we started it back in 1992,” he says.

Keough and the college signaled their intent early on by signing Seamus Deane the preeminent Irish academic, critic and writer of his era, as the first Keough Professor. Deane’s assignment stunned the Irish academic world. It was clear that Keough and Notre Dame meant business. “Hiring Seamus Deane sent a signal that this was going to be a first class program, that we would search far and wide for the best academics,” said Keough. “We knew Seamus would never settle for anything but the best for our program and that is how it has turned out.”

Fox also says Seamus Deane was a key foundation block in building the reputation of the institute.

“I had asked colleagues in Ireland, if they were to start an Irish Studies program, who they would consider hiring. The answer was ‘get someone good, a student of Seamus Deane’s.’

“My thought was why hire a student when we could hire the master?” Fox knew Deane who had been a visiting Fulbright scholar at Notre Dame in the 1970s, when he taught a young quarterback named Joe Montana. In 1991, he was keynote speaker at a series of meetings Fox organized at Notre Dame on Irish Studies, in conjunction with the university’s Sesquicentennial.

Fox recalls that Deane’s arrival at Notre Dame in 1993 “sent shock waves through the profession and led to a new model for Irish Studies in North America – one that focused more directly on Irish cultural debate. Deane also attracted a talented interdisciplinary faculty who joined us from major universities in Ireland as well as from Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford.

“One Irish faculty member told Notre Dame’s legendary President Emeritus Father Hesburgh that ‘if Seamus Deane had gone to Gary, it would become a world center for Irish Studies.’ Our colleague was right. Deane’s role cannot be overstated.”

For students, the opportunity to study in Ireland is a particular draw. Over dinner Michael O’Connor (20) from Kingston near Scranton, Pennsylvania, talks excitedly about his upcoming six months in Ireland, starting in January, when he will begin a study program at University College Dublin.

“I was always drawn to Ireland through my roots and also watching movies like The Quiet Man with my father. I hope to study Joyce’s Ulysses and the modern playwrights like Brian Friel. I also want to learn Irish history and take in the Irish experience,” said O’Connor who is thoroughly enjoying his Irish studies.

“I have had a lot of great experiences, including meeting Jean Butler (who starred in Riverdance) and the poet Cathal O Searcaigh at the American Irish Studies Conference here.” He has also loved learning the language of his ancestors and has high praise for the skill and enthusiasm of the professors in teaching it.

Megan Mohrman (18), a sophomore from St. Louis, Missouri, says she was drawn to Irish Studies through taking Irish dancing lessons as child. “I loved everything about Ireland and wanted to learn what Irish identity was all about,” she says, adding, “the professors are really nice and enthusiastic.” Megan hopes to go to Ireland in the fall of 2007.

On the opposite side of the coin are Laoise Ni Thuairisg and Elaine Naughton from Galway who have come to South Bend to both teach and learn at Notre Dame. Naughton is one of the first Government of Ireland teaching fellows, which places promising Irish students as teachers in colleges across the world. Ni Thuairisg is a Fulbright scholar. Both find the atmosphere at Notre Dame exhilarating.

“It has been fantastic,” says Ni Thuairisg. “We are teaching, but we are also learning so much. I think this is the best experience possible for us.”

Fox, however, is not satisfied to just mark time. “When I look at the program today, I see how far we need to go, rather than how far we have come. We have established strong programs in Irish Literature, with a faculty led by Breandan O’Buachalla, who holds the Thomas and Kathleen O’Donnell Chair, the first new chair in Irish Language in America since the one at Catholic University in 1896. We are also in a very strong position in Anglo-Irish Literature. We need to strengthen the history program with two additional hires, one for a junior scholar to come in the next two years, the second for a newly-endowed Chair in Irish America made possible by Ireland Council members John and Lenore Madden.

“We have recently started a new Archeology of Ireland program that needs development and support. Beyond that, we need to develop our program in the social sciences, particularly politics and sociology, as well as in the arts. Our library, for instance, owns the world-renowned Captain O’Neill Collection of Irish Music, but we have no faculty at Notre Dame to teach a subject regularly offered at Boston College and NYU.”

Much done, more to do, but for the Keough-Naughton Institute, the old Gaelic expression “Tosach Maith leath na hOibre,” (a good start is half the battle) certainly rings true. There are even better times ahead. ♦

https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/waking-up-the-irish-echoes/feed/ 0 11228
Oileán Iathghlas Éireann: The Emerald Isle https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/oilean-iathghlas-eireann-the-emerald-isle/ https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/oilean-iathghlas-eireann-the-emerald-isle/#comments Thu, 01 Feb 2007 14:24:22 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=11235 Read more..]]> In late September, Irish America designer and photographer Patrick Cahalan took a CIE seven-day tour of Ireland. The photos in the next few pages give a taste of his experiences on his first trip to Ireland.

Beginning in Dublin, our CIE Tour visited the Guinness and Jameson breweries, Phoenix Park and the city center. The Phoenix Park photo (right) shows the cross that was erected on the spot where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in 1979 to over a million people. Below left is a photo of the Famine memorial at Custom House Quay in the center of Dublin where 35 life-size bronze statues by sculptor Rowan Gillespie haunt the sidewalk.

Leaving the capital, our next stop was the Abbey Tavern in Howth, County Dublin, where fine food and even better entertainment awaited us after our busy day in the city. The following morning, rested and replenished, we continued on to the Rock of Cashel, the famous castle in Tipperary, where Brian Ború was crowned King of Munster in 977.

On we forayed through Cork City down to Kinsale, always educated and entertained along the way by knowledgeable tour driver, comedian and guide Lorenzo Daly.

Kinsale is famous for the Battle in 1601 and more recently as a must-visit area for gourmands. It is also stunningly beautiful. After a hearty dinner, we were treated to a light–hearted ghost tour by the folks from the Tap Tavern. The contrast between Kinsale’s narrow, dark streets and the humorous way in which the tour was presented made the evening both memorable and unique.

The following day, after a brief coach tour which highlighted the history of Kinsale, we made our way north to Blarney Castle where hundreds of people were already lined up to kiss the Blarney Stone with all its fabled powers. If only every kiss paid such dividends!

Our next stop was Killarney. Kerry’s victory in the All-Ireland Football Final had the town in good spirits. Our driving tour through the Ring of Kerry was blemished by bad weather, but Lorenzo kept everyone amused and informed with uniquely Irish stories and jokes.

The weather had its way with us again the next day as we visited the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. But even seen through fog and rain, the Cliffs are stunning. The minor discomfort of being soaked head to toe was a small price to pay for the experience of seeing such a vast and beautiful sight with my own eyes.

On our way to Galway Bay where our tour concluded, we stopped briefly in Moycullen at the Connemara Celtic Crystal Factory. The elaborate and intensely detailed beauty of the crystal was symbolic of my entire trip.

The entire tour from start to finish was perfectly arranged by CIE Tours. The itinerary struck the perfect balance between guided activities and free time. Our hotels were first class, from the staff to the food to the rooms themselves. The bus was incredibly comfortable and made even more so by the knowledge, humor and courtesy of our driver Lorenzo Daly.

The privilege of being able to experience Ireland first hand was a great reminder that a place as beautiful cannot be truly enjoyed through the written word or photographs. It must and should be experienced in person.

For more information on CIE tours call: 1-800-CIE-TOUR or 973-292-3438 ♦


Morning on the water in Kinsale, Co. Cork

The sun rises on Fort Charles, also in Kinsale

Queuing to kiss the Blarney Stone

The sun rises on the mouth of the River Bandon in Kinsale


https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/oilean-iathghlas-eireann-the-emerald-isle/feed/ 1 11235
A River Runs Through It https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/a-river-runs-through-it/ https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/a-river-runs-through-it/#respond Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:23:43 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=11249 Read more..]]> One Irishman’s Dream Becomes Another’s Reality

Joe Dowling stands in the amber glass ninth-floor lobby of the Dowling Studio in the gleaming new Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis. Outside the mighty Mississippi runs alongside the cobalt building designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. This architectural marvel, which cost $125 million, is instantly impressive, its deep-blue exterior constructed of steel and glass and adorned with giant sized etched portraits of Irish and American theater giants, the theater’s namesake Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Eugene O’Neill, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams and Langston Hughes. The view encompasses the Mississippi River, the old Minneapolis milling district and the city skyline to the east. The striking lobby that flows upwards on several levels is equally compelling with images from the theater’s 43-year history.

“Since its founding in 1963,” says Dowling, artistic director since 1995, “the Guthrie has been embraced as a vital cultural and social resource by the people of Minnesota. The founders recognized that the Midwest had an appetite for great drama professionally produced and the will to support it through good times and bad.”

Forty-three years later, the Guthrie remains the heart of Minnesota’s cultural life and a beacon of the best there is in American theater. The Guthrie is one of the nation’s oldest and most respected centers for theatrical performance, production, education and professional training, and presents both classical literature and new work from diverse cultures. “Sir Tyrone Guthrie’s vision significantly influenced the development of American theater in the second half of the 20th century,” says Dowling. “The new Guthrie Theater has the opportunity to play a major role in American theater in the 21st century.”

Dublin-born Dowling, 58, would be a noteworthy theatrical figure anywhere but he is at home in Minneapolis. “The Guthrie gave birth to the American resident theater movement, which now stretches from sea to shining sea in theaters all around the country,” says Dowling. “But until now it lacked a center. With the new Guthrie we now have a national center of theater art and theater education.”

The Guthrie is a 285,000-square-foot facility that houses three theaters: The Wurtele Thrust Stage, seating 1,100; the McGuire Proscenium Stage, a 700-seat theater; and the black-box Dowling Studio, with flexible seating. A tour of the Guthrie’s nine stories reveals both the grand scale and meticulous attention to detail in Nouvel’s design, which was inspired in part by the mills surrounding the location. Nouvel believed that, in order to be fully appreciated, the main public gathering spaces must be high above ground level to fully capture the views.

The design of the building is noteworthy by any standard. One acclaimed feature is an “endless bridge”: a cantilever that extends outward over the Mississippi. This makes a stunning sight especially at twilight when the blue metal exterior blends into the night sky. Inside, screen-printed images of past productions and actors of the old Guthrie line the public spaces. These faint images of old Guthrie productions are both ghosts of the old and guardians of the new. Here, under Dowling’s inspired leadership, is theater as theme park.

The original Guthrie Theater sprang from Tyrone Guthrie’s desire for a new kind of theater that would encourage the production of great works of literature and attract actors seeking a break from the commercialism of Broadway. The Guthrie Theater opened its doors on May 7, 1963, with a production of Hamlet directed by Tyrone Guthrie himself. It is fitting that the Guthrie Theater moved to its new complex after a 2006 production of Hamlet. The first production at the new location, The Great Gatsby, opened on July 15, 2006, a nod to native St. Paul son F. Scott Fittzgerald.

Tyrone Guthrie was born in Annaghmakerrig in County Monaghan, where there is also a long-time cultural center (see sidebar.) He was director of the Scottish National Players during the 1920s and directed the Festival Theatre in Cambridge, England. During the mid 1950s, Guthrie was the artistic director and co-founder of the Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario. In 1959 Guthrie published a small invitation in the drama page of the New York Times soliciting community interest and involvement in a resident theater. Of the seven cities that responded, the Twin Cities showed the most enthusiasm for the project. Guthrie wrote that it was the Mississippi River that led him to choose Minneapolis over six other locations. “‘Eventually, the Twin Cities will realize that their river is a wonderful and life-giving amenity,’” Dowling quotes Guthrie. “‘It has taken 2000 years even to begin to appreciate this about the Thames. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to expect that the Twin Cities will take a mere hundred.’”

During its first season, the Guthrie Theater featured the well-known stage actors Jessica Tandy and Zoe Caldwell. Tyrone Guthrie served as artistic director until 1966 and continued to direct at the theater until 1969, two years before his death. In 1994, after an international search, Joe Dowling was named the Guthrie’s seventh artistic director. Dowling came to the Guthrie from Ireland’s Abbey Theatre, where he was the youngest artistic director in the theater’s long history. Dowling continued the Guthrie’s commitment to repertory theater and presided over a return to national touring. Under Dowling, the number of subscribers reached a new high of 32,000, and his 2006 production of Hamlet set record attendance.

“Overall, we’re still feeling like we’re settling in,” says Joe Dowling. “But it’s time for the hard work to begin.” He also acknowledges the suddenly grander scale on which his already big-budget regional theater is operating. “Our challenges include moving from one and a half theaters to a three-theater organization,” Dowling says. “The shift requires us to think more long-term, in our relationships with writers and designers, as well as considering how to diversify and expand our audience.”

The local reaction to the Guthrie’s 2006-07 season was at first one of skepticism. In addition to Gatsby, programming included The Merchant of Venice and Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. Plays on the McGuire proscenium stage included works by Tom Stoppard, Alfred Uhry, Tennessee Williams and George Bernard Shaw. The proscenium stage opened in June with the North American premiere of Ireland’s Druid Theater Company’s DruidSynge, prior to its Lincoln Center Festival run.

Dowling defends his selections on the grounds of artistic vitality and their contribution to the American cultural dialogue. “I think there’s inevitability in the argument that in a new theater people ought to do fancy new things,” Dowling says. “But our mission is unchanged. We moved in order to have better facilities. It would be foolish to ask an audience to move location and to also develop a taste for different theater.”

Nicolai Ouroussoff, writing in the New York Times, comments that, “the true heart of the new building is its connective tissue, such as the two-tier public foyer where theatergoers mingle during the intermission.” Dowling is a master of connecting art and community. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are undergoing an economic and social transformation. Ouroussoff notes, “The city too is a theater, a vast unstable laboratory that is constantly being reshaped by economic, political and imaginative forces.” Dowling knows well that his theater, like the Mississippi River, must challenge and connect people by promoting a national cultural awareness. That is the mission of this great new American theater as the curtain rises for a much anticipated second act. ♦

https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/a-river-runs-through-it/feed/ 0 11249
The Master Hatter https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/the-master-hatter/ https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/the-master-hatter/#respond Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:22:05 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=11257 Read more..]]> Philip Treacy, whose beautiful hats are works of art, draws inspiration from his Irish country childhood

As bells pealed out over the village of Ahascragh in County Galway, Father McManus stood under the eaves of his church, awaiting the bride. It was business as usual for the priest whose parish kept him busy most Saturdays with their weddings.

And, as usual, unbeknownst to the priest, the freckled face of a small boy with a crop of corn-colored hair and the palest blue eyes appeared at the window of the house opposite.

Mesmerized by the sight of the wedding guests in all their finery, the delicate child looked on with fascination and a sense of joy.

“We lived opposite the village church,” recalls world-famous milliner Philip Treacy, sipping tea in his workshop in Battersea in London. “I used to watch all these weddings and I remember thinking how unbelievable it was, the way people got all dressed up and how glamorous they looked.”

It was many years later in 2005 that Philip Treacy watched another wedding take place. Only this time, it was as milliner to the bride, and it was far from the tiny parish church on the West Coast of Ireland. Philip stood alongside the Prime Minister, political figures, diplomats and showbiz personalities who had gathered in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle to watch the Duchess of Cornwall wear his creation as she walked down the aisle as the wife of the Prince of Wales.

“Camilla was the coolest of customers,” says Treacy, “I think it was because she trusted me. Sometimes people come to you and act like they think you don’t know what you are doing. And, fact is, you know very well what you are doing.” He laughs. “Anyway you’d be an idiot to make them look bad.”

Today, surrounded by some of his innovative and exquisitely hand-crafted teak blocks which mold his couture hats, Philip explains where his confidence and security come from. “My father was a baker and my mother a housewife. They looked after us and we were completely self-sufficient. We didn’t want for anything. I grew up in a village of 500 people. I didn’t see a city until I was seventeen.”

Being the second youngest of seven boys, and with one sister who was the eldest child, Philip recollects, “I thought my sister, Marion, was the most glamorous girl in the world. She was a huge inspiration to me. She was my introduction to fashion and magazines. She worked as a nurse in London and used to come home on holidays with all these great magazines like Harper’s and Queen and Vogue, which I’d never seen.”

Discussing his creative journey, Treacy recalls, “As a child I always liked making things like puppets, toys, Christmas decorations, stuff like that. And,” he smiles, “when I was six, Mrs. McDonagh, a neighbor, taught me how to sew.”

After completing a Foundation Course in Galway, Philip went to the National College of Art in Dublin, where he excelled, winning a scholarship to go to the Royal College of Art in London.

“I studied fashion design first. I didn’t really have any heroes in the way of designers and I didn’t really care too much about them.” He explains, “When I came to college in London I found that many of the students were a little jaded but not me, because the city was all new to me.

“At that time I had no idea that I would become a milliner, I just liked fashion and style.”

Inviting me in, he opens the door to an adjoining room, saying warmly, “Come in and meet the girls.”

Almost hidden by an abundance of beautiful fabrics in velvet, satin and silk, about a dozen women work diligently and quietly at their craft. There are no machines here as the hats are all made by hand.

From behind one of the benches, Philip plucks a wonderful hat, a tiny burgundy velvet beret, adorned with pheasant feathers, as glamorous and dramatic as the rest.

“I was always influenced by beauty. At home in Ireland we were taught about the beauty of nature,” he recalls. “We had lots of chickens, pheasants and geese so the prime ingredient of the hats I make are feathers because I know them very well. I now appreciate the profound effect my childhood had on me.”

He also pays tribute to others who have helped him succeed. Isabella Blow, the famous and influential stylist and fashion director of Tatler magazine became his muse. “I loved Isabella’s irreverence with labels and designers. She really couldn’t care less as long as she liked the work,” laughs Philip.

The allure of Treacy’s designs is that they are completely original in their witty, amusing, romantic and sexy ways.

“Hats are very sexy.” He smiles. “When I started at the Royal College of Art, they thought hats were for old ladies and I thought that was completely insane. Why would you think like that? I love the idea of the unknown and the future; you don’t know what’s going to happen next week, and that’s a fashion attitude. It’s all very well, accusing someone of being a ‘fashion animal’ – I’m one, too! Fashion animals are obsessed with something for a moment, then they move on to something else. That’s the nature of fashion – it’s all about change.”

Pointing out that as prolific Ireland is for its writers and playwrights, it isn’t known for its designers, Philip declares, “There is a different type of ‘Irishness’ today; it has changed dramatically. I never thought in terms of second best; I thought ‘I can do that.’ So I didn’t have a geographical block.

“You make your own luck in a way, but you also have to leave. Ireland is small. Most artists have to leave to find their success elsewhere. Some people think worldly and some people think parochially.

“Our family has never been politically motivated; there doesn’t seem to be anything positive in thinking that way.”

What does he look for at first or see in a client or model?

“I look at them and at their personality. I’m thinking of them,” explaining, “My aim is to make that person feel and look like a million dollars. Which is the whole point of why people wear clothes, to look their best.” A tailor can hide defects in the human form; can a milliner? “Absolutely. A hat can completely change the personality of the wearer, make them stand differently and walk differently. A hat can make that person interesting. People think sometimes that people who wear hats want to show off. But human beings, since the beginning of time, have always wanted to embellish themselves. So hats have been around since the year dot. It’s a human thing to want to dress every part.”

“We look different today to how we looked twenty years ago. I think people look better now. They have more money to spend and there are more things available.”

I point out that the New Yorker magazine told their cartoonists to stop illustrating their men in hats because people don’t wear them anymore.

“Oh dear,” exclaims Philip “that’s very sad. People always ask me if I’d prefer to have been a hat designer in the 40’s or 50’s, but actually I prefer to be making hats now. It’s more exciting.”

Talking about exciting, what were the most memorable moments of his career?

“There have been many. Getting into the Royal College of Art was a very exciting moment for me. Working with certain designers is always exciting,” he enthuses. “I worked with Karl Lagerfeld for ten years. The first time I’d seen a fashion show in Paris, I was working in it. I made this wild hat for the Chanel catwalk show for Linda Evangelista, the supermodel. I’ll always remember because she was wearing a white short dress and all the models were going out really quickly, but I noticed that she waited until the runway cleared, which I thought was very interesting because now the runway was all hers. She was very smart.”

And the Royal Wedding?

“Well, that was amazing,” says Treacy. “The wedding was fantastic because everyone was expecting Camilla to look awfully overdressed. And she didn’t. She looked great – Robinson Valentine made her dress and coat.

“All you have to go on is your instinct, in what you do. I remember a couple of weeks before the wedding, when it was all coming together and this was a big deal – everyone was waiting to criticize – and I thought, ‘Unless I’m mistaken, I think she will look fantastic.”

Like with any bride, “I want them to be thrilled with the outcome because it’s expensive and it’s an important moment in their lives.”

Noting that Philip Treacy was part of the Metropolitan Museum’s “Anglomania” show in New York this year – the Duchess of Cornwall’s headpiece was exhibited – and that department stores throughout the U.S. sell his ready-to-wear line, I ask about his American experience.

“I love America because there is such a positive atmosphere surrounding the people.”

And what moves him?

Referring to recent news coverage of Romanian children being sold, Philip confides, “I cried yesterday when I saw those poor children in Romania.” He continues, “My sister went to China to adopt a baby, who had been born under a bridge and left in a brown paper bag in a village.” Brightening, Philip describes “and now she is an adorable, feisty three-year-old, who steals mascara from her Mum and wants to talk on the mobile phone all the time.”

Asked about his hobbies, Philip responds, “There is no such thing as playtime when you work in fashion, because it’s all-encompassing.”

His projects last year included “making hats for anyone who pitched up from all over the world,” designing for a Harry Potter movie, the Royal Wedding, and working on a new project, “The G” hotel in Ireland.

“I was asked to design this hotel in Galway and I didn’t want to do it because I thought it’s not what I do and I don’t know anything about it,” admits Philip. “I told them, ‘I can’t give you traditional Irishness,’ and then I thought ‘I’m giving them 21st century Irishness, which is what I’m all about. I just went for it and it’s the biggest success.”

What’s the best thing about your job? “What I love about being a hat designer is that my customer base ranges from Marilyn Manson to Prince Charles’s wife,” laughs Philip. “The most interesting people in the world wear hats, and I get to meet them.”

Living above his shop in Elizabeth Street in London’s Belgravia, and sharing his life with Stefan, his partner of ten years, and his Jack Russell, Philip always remembers his roots.

“You may want to escape where you grew up, but you never do because it’s in your heart. I always talk about where I come from as though it’s sort of Rome or something.” He grins. “And for all the fashion shows I’ve seen in my time in London, Paris, Milan and New York, none of them evoke in me the powerful way those little weddings in Ahascragh did.”

And even more profoundly, he says, “Fashion is not known for its humanity. It’s about everything but that; fashion people are very unusual, they are obsessed with perfection and life isn’t like that. I think that is what my Irishness does for me; it gives me humanity.” ♦

https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/the-master-hatter/feed/ 0 11257
Imagining the Unknown https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/imagining-the-unknown/ https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/imagining-the-unknown/#respond Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:21:42 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=11262 Read more..]]> In his latest novel, Zoli, Dublin-born Colum McCann proves that part of his talent as a writer lies in his ability  to imagine and capture the lives of the forgotten and oppressed.

Colum McCann doesn’t write about what he knows. That, he insists, would involve sitting in the study of his apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, surrounded by books and family photos, staring at the painting that hangs above his desk and writing about middle-class life. Instead the Dublin-born author does just the opposite: he focuses on what he wants to know more about. McCann’s pursuit of knowledge has led him to some unusual and decidedly non-middle-class places, notably into the subway tunnels of New York for his novel This Side of Brightness and the ballet for his 2003 novel Dancer, based on the life of Rudolph Nureyev. In his new novel, Zoli, McCann takes on an even more foreign subject: that of the Romani or Gypsy camps of Eastern Europe.

The writing of Zoli was inspired by the true story of Papusza, a mid-twentieth century Polish Gypsy poet, who, following the publication of her poems, was banished by her own community. Viewed as an accomplice in the destruction of the traditional Roma way of life, Papusza was put on trial before the highest authority of the Polish Roma and named a culprit in the socialist campaign to “settle” Gypsies. Exiled from her people, she spent time in a psychiatric hospital before living the rest of her days in isolation. Barring a brief period in the late 1960s, Papusza stopped writing and performing her songs.

A winner of Ireland’s Rooney Prize for Literature, and a finalist for the IMPAC Award, McCann, whose writing credits include The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and GQ, and whose story Everything In This Country Must was made into a short film and nominated for an Academy Award in 2005, is certainly up to the task. As one of the New York Public Library’s Cullman Scholars, he had the opportunity to spend nine months at the library researching and writing Zoli. His research culminated in a trip to Slovakia where Colum spent two months living in the Romani camps.

I hear that you got the idea for Zoli after reading Bury Me Standing, Isabel Fonseca’s non-fiction account of the Gypsies in Eastern Europe. You saw a photo of the Polish poet Papusza and became enamored?

Exactly. I saw Papusza’s face and it was really fascinating to me. She looked a little bit like Nadia Mandelstam, the Russian poet that I’d been reading a lot of, and I was struck by the connection. I couldn’t get her face out of my mind. I kept trying to write other things but she kept coming back to me and I thought it was a fascinating story.

I didn’t want to write about Papusza directly because to do that I’d have to write non-fiction and also because it was such a sad story in the sense that the same thing happens to her as happens to Zoli except Papsuza went to a cottage in Southern Salacia, in Poland. She died in 1986 sort of completely forgotten, never having written any more poetry. If I wrote that story it would become a spectacle of disintegration or a comment on the culture and I didn’t want that to happen. The more I got into it, the more I felt there was a responsibility to write about the Roma because they’re so misrepresented. The nicest thing that happened to me with this book was the director of the Romani archives in the University of Texas called me up and he’s an English-Rom, an English Gypsy, and he thought it was authentic.

Do you write as you research or do you do all your research and then sit down to write?

I went there [to Slovakia] to put a map on what I’d already imagined. I did the same with Dancer where I wrote it [from my imagination] though I’d never been to a ballet. I wrote about the Gypsy camps before going there and tried to imagine what they would look like. It’s sort of interesting that imagination can do an awful lot. More so than with my other books, things changed for me because the subject matter was so foreign. This was the most difficult book that I’ve done. This Side of Brightness was a tough enough book because, you know, it’s homeless people in subway tunnels. But this was easily the most foreign. Because I didn’t know any Czech, I didn’t know any Slovak, I didn’t know any Romani. I had to find Gypsy guides into no-go areas. It’s like spending three or four years in a university course and studying only the Romani way of life. I read a quote one time, I forget who said it:“If you want to know about a subject, write a book about it.” So you write towards what you want to know rather than what you actually do know.

So with Zoli did you have a clear idea in mind of what you wanted to know?

I cared about the character, so I had to know where she came from. It’s an amazing story, that you can be exiled from the Gypsies who were the world’s greatest exiles in the first place.

What about the whole idea of the Roma culture where they don’t believe in writing things down?

The cliché is that they don’t believe in writing things down. There were some Romani writers but in general the Roma have been so used and abused by officials all the way down through history that they sort of distrusted everyone, distrusted the pen. So the stories were passed on by mouth. When the socialists came into power and started encouraging Papusza to write her stuff down, that was an extraordinary leap. There had been poets before but they generally weren’t acknowledged. There are issues here of memory, but how do you create a memory and a culture? There are twelve to fourteen million Roma people in the world. And there’s also anywhere from twelve to fourteen million Jewish people, no one knows exactly. From one culture we get a wealth of information, of tradition and heritage and stories. Of the other we know nothing.

A lot of what’s known is perpetuated by stereotype, which encourages discrimination. The Roma who do well and integrate tend not to call themselves Roma or Gypsies because there’s a certain shame there. That’s only changing now because these young Romani poets are starting to write things down, and other Gypsy intellectuals are actually going to the conferences and a civil rights movement is being formed. People laugh and say that there’s no civil rights movements left in Europe, that Europe is free and enlightened, but racially that’s not true.

In Europe “Gypsy” is analogous to the word Nigger especially with regard to the lower-class Gypsies. The children are sent to schools for the mentally disadvantaged, just because they’re Gypsies. People get burnt out, walls built around them. In 1993, Miss Czech-Slovak said she wanted to become a prosecutor and get rid of all the brown-skinned inhabitants of her town. You talk with these Czech or Slovak intellectuals who knew even more about Irish Civil Rights than me and I’d listen to them and I’d be flabbergasted. I’d ask, what about the Roma right here in this country and they’d look at each other and say, “they’re just Gypsies.” We don’t understand the extent of the racism that’s going on. So my small little contribution is to try and write down a story and not to brutalize or sentimentalize.

One of the things Ian Hancock [world renowned Romani scholar] said that he liked about it [Zoli] was that it wasn’t sentimentalized, because she gets kicked out of the Gypsies and it’s hopefully not a sentimental portrait of Gypsy life when she loses it. The vast majority of Gypsies who live in Europe are seen as liars, thieves, cheats, and rogues. It’s like how the Irish were treated in the fifties and sixties. You know, we were drunks and they romanticized the exotic in the Irish like the writer or the singer. The same thing happened with the Gypsies, with the exoticized traveling life, which none of them really do anymore, or we exoticize the music.

The Irish and other marginalized peoples have found a voice through literature. Why did the Romani treat Papusza, who was a voice for her culture, so badly?

Well, it was because they thought that she had made a link with the white community and betrayed the secrets of their culture to an extended culture that was brutalizing them at the time. There’s a real fondness amongst the Roma in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Russia, for the communists because they were treated better under the communists and socialists than by anyone else. They were given jobs and health insurance. They were called comrade; they were invited in to be represented. They were still discriminated against but not as badly as they were before under the fascists. We don’t recognize that the Roma are diverse. Because we’re not educated enough yet ourselves and we haven’t embraced the story, and quite frankly, they haven’t told the story. Hopefully this will get some young Romani poets or whatever really angry that this f–ker, this middle-class Irish writer comes along, and presumes to be able to tell their story.

Did you worry about resentment from the Romani when you were writing Zoli?

You know what, I’ve done it so much now with the African-Americans in This Side of Brightness and with the gay community in Dancer that I’m not really so worried anymore.

What are some of the differences you noticed between Western culture and Roma culture?

In the Western imagination we have timelines and we’re very logic oriented. The Roma have more literary references like, it happened at a time when the snow came above the telephone poles or when my Uncle Joseph died. We crave facts and figures and they don’t think in that way. The thing I keep coming back to is that the Roma are the same population as the Jewish people and yet we don’t know anything about them. My book is just like a tiny little drop. But if that drop opens a door for somebody else or somebody to get angry and do something better, that’s great. I’m lucky that I’m a widely published writer, maybe not in the United States, but Dancer was published in twenty-six languages. So the idea that this book might go to twenty-five, twenty-six languages and tell a story in those cultures to me sort of says, well, the book will do something. I’ve already had a woman send me a picture of what she thought Zoli looked like. I just hope that it does change something.

How do you reconcile the historical facts you come across in your research with the fiction you’ve created?

You can get diseased with facts. The most important thing is to get the texture right, and then the facts will take care of themselves. A writer has to know where a fact comes in and where it doesn’t and how much power and weight it has.

You once said in an interview that every novel is a failure and that the only triumph comes in getting as far as possible in what you want to know. Do you think you succeeded as far as your own goal in writing Zoli?

Yeah, well, I succeeded in that I failed as far as I could. Samuel Beckett said it far better than I could with his famous quote, “No matter try again. Fail again. No matter fail better.” I suppose I would say fail as far as you can. If you think you’ve written the proper thing, then why not just finish?

Do you hold certain of your books above others in terms of what you wanted to accomplish?

For a while I was really scared about Zoli, but what’s happening now is that people who read it a couple of months ago say it comes back to them more than any other book of mine that they’ve read, that she is somehow in the atmosphere. Other books may have been more daring linguistically or structurally but Zoli seems to stick with people more than any other characters. I was worried about it. I didn’t know, you never know. At the end of a book you think, Jesus Christ, I just spent the past four years making a complete mess of my life, you know?

Do you think that your Irish identity has any effect on your work?

I think that’s an interesting question in that the Irish really have gone everywhere. So in this way it seems sort of natural to me that a writer should be able to go imaginatively anywhere. And being Irish actually helps an awful lot. When I was down in the tunnels it really helped, these African-American guys were like, he’s Irish, he knows what discrimination is about.

When I went into the Gypsy camps every now and then I’d be sitting around talking to these guys and a song would come up. And I’d sing an old Irish song. It was actually quite beautiful to sit in these old mud and waddle huts just sort of swapping songs back and forth. They sounded vaguely similar, and there’s something vagabond in the Irish soul that isn’t necessarily Gypsy but it is sort of empathetic of other people. I don’t want to be romantic about the Irish, because there are some Irish a–holes with no empathy whatsoever, but there’s something about the collective Irish imagination, which is able to go elsewhere.

When you were twenty-one you took a bicycle trip across the U.S. because you felt you hadn’t experienced enough of life to be able to write about it. How much do you think a writer needs to experience to be able to write?

A writer needs zero experience to be able to write. For me personally, I need to experience virtually everything. But for the general writer it depends on the person. There is no formula – otherwise all books would be the same. I sometimes envy someone like Frank McCourt because he had that wonderfully miserable Irish childhood, you know? And I didn’t. Of course I don’t want to be miserable, but that was for him territory that was there to be explored. For me I have to go out and find the territory. But eventually the territory is within, the only thing you really write about. Even though you write about what you supposedly don’t know, you can only philosophically, logically write what you do know.


Colum McCann is the author of two collections of short stories and three novels, two of which were international bestsellers. In the following excerpt from his new novel, Zoli, six-year-old Zoli is traveling with her grandfather after the majority of her family drowned after being driven onto a frozen lake by fascist Helinka guards.

We went down the road, Grandfather and I. My days were spent still staring backwards, waiting for my dead family to catch up, though of course I knew then that they never would.

We ate from the forest: boiled leaves, pine cones cracked open in a fire, wild garlic grass, and whatever small animals he’d caught in a trap the night before. We could not eat birds, we were not allowed, it was ancient law, but we ate rabbit and hare and hedgehog. We filled our canteens from the taps of houses where they welcomed us, or from the fast-running streammelt that came down from the mountains, or from wells abandoned in the fields. Sometimes we stopped with the Roma who lived in tin huts and underground hovels. They opened up with great friendliness, but we did not stay in the settlements, we kept moving on, there was no time for that, Grandfather said we were meant for skies not ceilings.

In the evenings Grandfather sat and read – he was the only person I knew who could read or write or count. He had a precious book I did not know the name of and in truth I did not care, it sounded strange and ridiculous and full of what I thought were huge words, nothing like his stories. He said that a good book always needed a listener, and it sent me to sleep quickly – he always read from the same pages, they were heavily thumbed and they even had a tobacco burn in the bottom left corner. It was his only book and he had stitched another cover on, a brown leather one with gold lettering from a Cathechism to fool anyone who questioned him. I found out years later that it was Das Kapital – the notion still makes me shiver, though in truth I’m not sure, honorroeja, if he ever got a lot of meaning from the pages, they confused him as much as they finally confused others.

Why didn’t Mama read? I asked him.


But why?

Because she didn’t want to feel the weight of my hand, he said. Now run along and stop asking me stupid questions.

Later he gathered me up in his arms and I snuggled against his long hair and he said it was tradition, it had always been so, only the elders read, and that one day I would understand. Tradition meant sticking with ways, he said, but sometimes it meant making new ways too. He sent me off to bed and tucked the blanket around me.

On our slow trip eastward, under the shadow of the mountains, he promised that if I kept quiet he would teach me to read and write, but I must keep it secret, nobody else could know, it would be better that way, it would cause a fuss among those who did not trust books.

He unbuttoned the breast pocket of his shirt where he kept his eyeglasses safe. The glasses were broken, wrapped in bits of wire and tape. The cross frame was held together with a supple twig. I laughed when he put them on. When he began he did not start with A, B, C, but with a Z, although my other name was Marienka.

We slept under the sky, the weather was fine and the nights were full and soft, except of course for our yearning for those we’d left behind. We had little left to remember them by, but there was an old song my mother had sung: Don’t break bread with the baker, he has a dark oven, it opens wide, it opens wide. There were times I would sing it for Grandfather while he sat on the low steps and listened. He closed his eyes and smoked his tobacco and hummed along, and then one day he stopped me cold and asked, What did you say Zoli? I stepped back. What did you say, child? I sang it again: Don’t break bread with the Hlinka, he has a dark oven, it opens wide, it opens wide. You changed the song, he said. I stood there, trembling. Go ahead, sing it again, you’ll see. I sang it over and he clapped his hands together, then rolled the word Hlinka around in his mouth. He repeated the song and then he said: Do the same with the butcher, precious heart. So I did the same with the butcher. Don’t chop meat with the Hlinka, he has a sharp knife, it slices deep, it slices deep. He said: Do the same with the farrier. Don’t shoe horses with the Hlinka, he has long nails, they’ll make you lame, they’ll make you lame. I was too young to know what I had done, but a few years later, when we found out what the Hlinkas and Nazis had done with ovens and nails and knives, the song changed for me yet again. In fact when I see myself now from a distance, when I look back on it all, I was just another girl in a polka dot dress on the back roads of a country that seemed strange to me at every turn.

From Zoli by Colum McCann. Published by Random House. ♦

https://irishamerica.com/2007/02/imagining-the-unknown/feed/ 0 11262