February March 2009 Issue – Irish America https://irishamerica.com Irish America Magazine Thu, 18 Apr 2019 19:22:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.10 82361074 Obama’s Irish Roots: A House in Black, White & Green https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/obamas-irish-roots-a-house-in-black-white-green/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/obamas-irish-roots-a-house-in-black-white-green/#comments Sun, 01 Feb 2009 12:00:51 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8583 Read more..]]> When Barack Obama enters The White House as the 44th U.S. President, he will find that the Irish and African-American strands of his ancestry have been linked in many other ways throughout the history of the most famous building in the world.

On the day he assumes the highest office in the land, Barack Hussein Obama, the descendant of Ohio and Indiana immigrants who came from the borders of Counties Offaly and Tipperary, will join an exclusive club of twenty Presidents who claim Irish ancestry.

President Obama’s single Irish great-great-great-grandparent puts him at thirteenth position in an informal ranking, alongside James Polk and just ahead of Richard Nixon, whose Quaker immigrant ancestors also came from Ireland to Ohio and Indiana.

But the new president’s foreign-born father admits him to a smaller and more distinguished group of four that up to now has been exclusively Irish (the parents of Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan, and the father of Chester Arthur were all born on the island of Ireland).

And unlike many of his Irish-descended presidential predecessors, Barack Obama has a relatively close link to his forebear Fulmoth Kearney, who left Moneygall in County Offaly (then known as King’s County) in 1850.

Barack was nine years of age when his great-grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham (Fulmoth’s grandson) died in 1970 at the age of 76. The former Kansas cafe owner and auto mechanic, who had retired from Boeing as an aircraft fitter was well into middle age by the time his Irish mother died in 1936, on the same day as her husband Jacob.

Born in 1869, Mary Anne Kearney Dunham, Ralph’s mother, was Fulmoth Kearney’s youngest daughter, and she too was nine years of age when her father died, almost three decades after he had arrived in America on the good ship Marmion.

Although most of the media attention has focused on Fulmoth, the unusually named mid-19th-century immigrant, members of the family were in America from the early 1780s, when the Protestant Kearneys were still prominent in Shinrone, a more extensive King’s County community eight miles north of Moneygall.

There the family patriarch, 85-year-old Joseph, was presiding over the decline of a small textile and property empire he had set up with his enterprising brother Michael, a successful Dublin wigmaker and father of Trinity College Provost and later Protestant Bishop of Ossory, John Kearney.

Joseph’s grandson Thomas (c. 1765-1846) was the first to leave Ireland, settling in Baltimore and offering his services as a master carpenter (it is tempting to speculate that he might even have been engaged in building The President’s House).

By 1791 Thomas had married 17-year-old Sarah Baxley of Fairfax County at Baltimore Methodist Church, and within a decade they had taken up a land grant in Ohio, where they settled in Ross County near the site of the future county seat of Chillicothe. There Thomas was joined by his 23-year-old tailor brother John (1782-1870).

Their brother William, a Moneygall shoemaker and small-scale tenant farmer, then watched as virtually all his children – Sarah, Thomas, William, Margaret and Francis – emigrated and settled near their uncles in the American Midwest.

In Ohio, Francis Kearney’s early efforts at farming were relatively successful so that by the time he died in 1848, he had a sizable holding along the line between Pickaway and Ross Counties. The Ross County lands, located on the North Fork of Paint Creek, he willed to his 54-year-old brother Joseph, the only one of his generation left in Moneygall.

Joseph had inherited his father William’s shoe-making business on the latter’s death in 1828, and he and his wife Phoebe were well settled in the small King’s County village. They had four children, ranging in ages from twenty-two downwards. Margaret, the eldest, was already married to William Cleary, who was more than twice her age. Her brother Fulmoth, named for his maternal grandfather Fulmoth Donovan of Ballygurteen, was eighteen, and the two younger siblings, William and Mary Anne, were fifteen and eleven respectively.

Within a year, Joseph, his wife and family had made the decision to leave Ireland and by 1851 the two parcels of land that made up the smallholding near Moneygall (still known today as ‘Kearney’s Fields’) were put up for public auction by the then landlord, Rev. William Minchin, who lived at nearby Greenhills. The 63-year-old Protestant rector of Dunkerrin parish was selling his debt-laden estates and moving his family (which numbered nineteen in total) lock, stock and barrel to Australia and New Zealand.

In an interesting sidelight, Fulmoth’s Uncle Thomas, who died in 1845 in Wayne Township, Ohio, at the age of 45, has no recorded spouse, but his will refers to a son, Thomas, then living in Ireland, and to a favorite niece with the fateful name of Anna Minchin, indicating a connection with the landlord family.

Meanwhile Fulmoth Kearney married a local girl named Charlotte Holloway. The family (which would eventually include nine children) later moved to Tipton County in Indiana, just south of the present day city of Kokomo, and north of Indianapolis.

Sadly, the story was not all one of hope and joy: Fulmoth’s siblings, William and Mary Anne, who had come from Ireland as teenagers, died in their twenties in 1855 and 1866 respectively, and his sister Margaret’s husband William Cleary died in 1862.

By the early 1870s, Fulmoth and Charlotte Kearney’s eldest daughter Phoebe was attracting the attention of a young man whose family had moved from West Virginia to the Tipton community some years before.

He was David Dunham, one of the seven children of Jacob and Louisa Dunham. When he married Phoebe in 1873, they were both nineteen. Three years later David Dunham’s brother Jeptha married Martha Kearney.

Within two years of Martha’s wedding, the Kearney family lost both parents (Charlotte died in 1877 and Fulmoth in 1878, while still only in their forties). Mary Anne was nine and was raised by her older married sisters. This situation resulted in the sealing of the Dunham connection twelve years later with her marriage to a third brother, 29-year-old Jacob, who had already established himself as a druggist.

Jacob and Mary Anne’s second son, one of seven siblings, was Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham Sr., Barack Obama’s great-grandfather. Of Ralph’s brothers and sisters, all born before 1900, some were still living as late as 1980, and the husband of one died only in 1991.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham’s son, Stanley Armour Dunham, became the beloved grandfather who with his wife Madelyn Payne ‘Toot’ Dunham raised Barack Obama from the age of ten.

Stanley’s life and progress as furniture salesman in Kansas, Texas, Washington and then Hawaii has been well documented in his grandson’s books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. His death in 1992 deeply affected the thirty-one-year-old community activist, who married lawyer Michelle Robinson later in the same year; three years later, Barack’s mother, Dr. Stanley Ann Dunham, died at the age of fifty-four.

From these inspiring alliances and devastating losses would grow the strength of character that was to lead to Barack Obama becoming one of the forty-two (George Washington was the exception) chief executives who have occupied the most famous residence in the world – one that was built, rebuilt, extended and staffed by Irish and African-Americans, working side by side, during its two-hundred-odd years as executive mansion.

African-American and Irish Connections at the White House

In 1790, the first plans for the setting out of a street grid in the new capital of the United States involved two interesting characters, both mathematicians: Benjamin Banneker, the African-American grandson of Molly Walsh, thought to have been an Irish-born indentured servant, and James Dermott, an Irish-born teacher at an Alexandria school attended by the extended family of George Washington.

Banneker’s almost photographic memory of the marker placements in the original survey of the Maryland side of the Potomac River allowed him to recreate for the Ellicott brothers the outlines of streets and circles as conceived by Pierre Charles L’Enfant after the latter’s dismissal by President Washington.

Dermott saw opportunity here and moved from his teaching post to becoming an early entrepreneur in the new Federal enclave. His 1792 survey of the capital site gave him an important foothold in the ordering of the early civil works that prepared the way for the construction of the President’s House and the U.S. Capitol.

Dermott’s slaves helped to haul the Aquia stone from the barges at the Potomac landing to the elevated site where the executive mansion would rise, but it took another Irishman and his slaves to bring the project to fruition.

Kilkenny-born architect James Hoban brought with him the most talented and dependable of his slave carpenters and brick-makers from Charleston SC, where he had run a small construction business and drawing school with fellow-Irishman Pierce Purcell. Hoban and Purcell’s flexible regime ensured that the slaves were recognized for their skills, and for their ability to supervise the less experienced slaves hired from Maryland and Virginia estate owners.

Although Hoban maintained a business and a personal household dependent on slave labor to the end of his life, he insisted that on his death the South Carolina slaves be allowed to remain in the District of Columbia, where a more enlightened regime was in place in a territory largely controlled – then as now – by the U.S. Congress.

From the early 1800s, when one-third of the new city’s population was African-American, education became more accessible, property rights were extended, and government employment was open to the increasing number of freedmen, who outnumbered slaves almost ten to one by mid-century.

In Thomas Jefferson’s time, the Virginian’s relaxed approach to both race and fashion resulted in a strange household at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. While Jefferson shuffled around in stained jacket and slippers, his house staff of freedmen and slaves were turned out in a fetching livery of blue and red ‘with plated buttons and a decorative woven edging in silver.’ Presiding over all was Derry-born major domo Joseph Dougherty, who with his wife Mary and brother Robert, effectively ran a domestic team that also included a French chef, a German butler, and an Irish washerwoman named Biddy O’Boyle.

When he assumed the Presidency in 1808, James Madison brought from his Virginia estate an interesting trio who represented the amazing diversity of the young independent republic. Charles Bizet was a talented French horticulturalist who had looked after the Montpelier landscape; the African-American Paul Jennings was Madison’s trusted personal servant; and Irishman Thomas McGrath was an assistant to Bizet, whom he helped in organizing the vast untamed spaces around the executive mansion.

It was McGrath who ‘rescued’ Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington from the impending conflagration when the British slashed and burned their way through Washington City in 1814; and it was James Hoban who returned with his trusted team of Irish and African-American laborers to rebuild The White House.

Andrew Jackson brought from his Tennessee estate a highly-regarded personal servant named George Washington Jackson (who, in the manner of the time, shared both name and sleeping quarters with the President) and also employed a doorkeeper named Jemmy O’Neil – both were African-American.

Although Thomas Jefferson’s tree plantings in the grounds of the President’s House were beginning to take shape, the destruction of the capital and its largest building by the British in 1814 required that the entire area be re-planned and replanted.

It was Jackson who carried out the most ambitious undertaking in this regard, using the services of the Irish-born Jemmy Maher, an Alexandria nursery owner who became the official gardener to Washington City, and some of the slaves he had purchased from Colonel Hebb or brought from his huge complement (150 by the time he died) at ‘The Hermitage.’
In the mid-nineteenth-century administrations from Van Buren to Pierce, the White House door was kept by Kilkenny-born Martin Renehan, a trusted presidential adviser. Renehan became a prominent local grocer when he retired, and enjoyed the custom of many of his former African-American colleagues (most of them now unemployed – President James Buchanan, son of a wealthy Donegal-born merchant and the only bachelor to serve in the highest office, decreed that only British subjects should be employed on the staff of his White House).

But elsewhere African Americans continued to make inroads into the ranks of paid and respected government employees in Washington, and it was President Andrew Johnson, the grandson of an Antrim-born immigrant, who appointed William Slade, Abraham Lincoln’s personal messenger and friend, as the first African-American steward of the First Residence in the wake of the Civil War.

In 1948, when President Truman ordered the gutting of The White House and the restoration of George Washington’s ‘lost’ third floor, the massive refurbishment was carried out by the construction firm of John McShain, the son of a Derry-born carpenter who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1885. As in the case of the Pentagon, where five years earlier McShain had completed over five million square feet of space for 40,000 employees in less than two years, much of the excavation and structural work was carried out by Irish and African-Americans working side by side.

President John F. Kennedy’s appointment of Andrew Hatcher as Associate Press Secretary was the first senior posting of an African-American in the West Wing, at the same time as his wife Jacqueline was planning the famous Rose Garden with Rachel Mellon, wife of the financier Paul, who was the grandson of Tyrone-born Thomas Mellon.

The Obama White House may not be as ‘Irish’ as the Kennedy one, but its African-American credentials have already been secured. The day-to-day running of the most high-profile household in the world is in the hands of Chief Usher Admiral Stephen Rochon, a former Coast Guard officer with a passion for historic preservation, and Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, a convent-educated native of New Orleans.

And long before the question was raised as to whether an African-American should be elected to lead the nation or run its executive mansion, the question of whether one should ‘rule’ the national capital had been settled, as it has in many other major American cities.

In the early years of American independence, there were prominent Irish community leaders in Alexandria (Rathdowney-born John Fitzgerald, a former aide to George Washington), Georgetown (Limerick-born shoemaker and merchant Thomas Corcoran) and Washington City (where Thomas Carbery was one of a handful of Irish council members – with James Hoban – and served as mayor from 1824).

But since 1967, when the appropriately named Walter Washington first took office as President of the Board of Commissioners, the head of local government in Washington D.C. has always been from the city’s majority African-American population.

Forty years on, nearby Baltimore got its first African-American, and first female, mayor in Sheila Dixon, who succeeded Governor-elect and prominent Irishman Martin O’Malley.
And so as Barack Obama stands outside the iconic building that will be his home for the foreseeable future, and looks across Lafayette Square at the statue of Andrew Jackson on his rearing steed, he may sense a number of unearthly presences.

Some will be the spirits of his revered departed – the parents and grandparents who helped to shape the most tradition-shattering figure in American presidential politics since John F. Kennedy.  But others may well be the ghosts of all of those prominent Irish and African-American ancestors and pacemakers and builders – and the hundreds of every race and nation who have thronged the hallowed halls of The President’s House during more than two hundred years.

They will be looking on in disbelieving fascination at the most momentous gathering since Andrew Jackson threw open the doors to one and all at his infamous inaugural ‘levee,’ when ‘All Creation Went to the White House,’ as it will again on January 20, 2009.

Note: Genealogical information used in this article is based on preliminary research by Eneclann, Ancestry.com and Roger Kearney of Troy, Ohio (including the latter’s transcriptions of tombstone inscriptions and wills), as published on their websites and may be subject to later amendment or revision.

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The First Word: The Comfort of Tradition & Ritual https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/the-first-word-the-comfort-of-tradition-ritual/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/the-first-word-the-comfort-of-tradition-ritual/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2009 11:59:49 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8586 Read more..]]> “The robins came – that’s a sign of luck,” my cousin whispers in my ear as the men start to shovel the clay.

Sure enough, I look up and see a pair of robins swoop down over the heads of those gathered and then fly off together.

It’s a bright sunny day, but the temperature is below freezing and I worry that the clay will be frozen solid. Perhaps it is. But the men – whom I still think of as young lads – they were boys when they first knew my mother – barely break a sweat as they bend to the job.

They have lines on their faces now and children of their own but I see them as they were – boyhood friends of my brothers always about the place.

“Your mother would be standing over a pot of potatoes on the stove and she would lift the lid and just add some more to the pot when she saw us coming,” is how one of them put it.

My mother passed away on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco where she lived for the past 20 years. In her final days all she talked about was going home to Knigh.  So we brought her.

We waked her in the front room, with a fire blazing in the hearth, and the neighbors came, and the cousins from England and Spain, and people I hadn’t seen since I was in primary school, and friends of my young nieces and nephews, and friends of my mother – people who knew her when she worked in Nenagh Hospital.

In Carrig Church, the school choir sang and Fr. Slattery gave a nice sermon and my brother Noel gave a great eulogy that spoke of  my mother’s long life – her first journey when she was a month old traveling by ship to India and by train to Quetta, on the border of Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan. (My grandfather was a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps. and my mother spent her young life at British colonial outposts). She lived in London during the Blitz, and then Tipperary, and emigrated to San Francisco, a widow in her late sixties, to be near her children and grandchildren.

Now she had made her final journey and come to rest beside my father (d. 1978) in Knigh graveyard.

In truth, in those last days in San Francisco, as I sat beside my mother’s hospital bed, I wondered why she wanted to go back to Ireland. She had enjoyed her life in San Francisco, and had known grand times in cities and foreign parts before meeting my father and settling in Tipperary. Life was hard – especially on women – in Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, even up to the time she left in the 1980s, the economy was still in the doldrums.

But on this day, in this tiny churchyard,  just a field away from our family farm where my father’s people have been buried for generations –  I know what she found here and why she wanted to come home.

I look around me and I see the spirit of a community that had stood together in tough times and is readying itself for tough times again. I take comfort in the symbolism of robins, and the young men who quietly take up the shovels without being asked.  And I think that one day at the end of my traveling, I would like to rest here too.

Tonight we will eat good food, tell great stories and sing songs into the wee hours, and no one will mention the decision by Dell, the largest employer in the area, to cut 1900 jobs which is a huge blow to workers and their families in this community. (Perhaps America’s new President whose great-great-great grandfather came from this locale will look at the long-standing Ireland-America relationship and rethink the present policy on immigration?)

Tonight we will look to the old ways, as we toast the new, and the legacy of our parents and grandparents who made the best of things in the worst of times, and remember, as my mother used to say, “As long as you have your health, you have everything.”

God bless.

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Bobby Kennedy’s Bridge https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/bobby-kennedys-bridge/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/bobby-kennedys-bridge/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2009 11:58:23 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8589 Read more..]]> Senator Robert R. Kennedy represented New York from 1965 until June 1968 when he was fatally shot in Los Angeles while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. On November 19, 2008, forty years after he was assassinated, the Triborough Bridge, which connects Manhattan with the Bronx and Queens, was renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.

“It is an honor to join the Kennedy family today to celebrate their beloved father, uncle, brother and husband – a man who served the people of our state and nation with distinction,” said Governor David Paterson. “Robert F. Kennedy was a champion of social justice and human rights, and his spirit is kept alive by his family’s continued commitment to those causes. I am particularly pleased to have had the opportunity to sign this bill into law, making possible the renaming of the Triborough Bridge as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, which is a fitting tribute to the man and his legacy.”

Governor Paterson was joined on the occasion by members of the Kennedy family, including Robert’s widow Ethel, her children and grandchildren; former president Bill Clinton; and various politicians, including former New York governor Hugh Carey.
“It was awesome,” Courtney Kennedy, Robert and Ethel’s daughter, said on the phone to Irish America a couple of days after the naming. “The night before, we were in a cab having flown in from Washington to JFK and as we crossed the bridge on our way into the city they were putting up the sign.  Saoirse [her 10-year-old daughter whose father is the Irish activist Paul Hill] said, ‘How cool. When we leave we can ask the driver to take the FDR to the RFK to the JFK!”

So what did the cab driver think?

“He said that he hated the idea, that no one would call it that, and that in New York, bridges are named for the places they take people to, like the 59th Street Bridge, not for people,” Courtney reveals with a laugh. “Of course, by the end of the ride he said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re one of them.’ I admitted that we were Bobby’s daughter and granddaughter and he completely fell apart.”
It’s very Irish, and also a New York thing, to give nicknames, and Courtney admits that she and her mother, who is “over the moon” about the renaming, thought that “Bobby’s Bridge” sounded good but that she’d be happy with “the RFK.” And already that’s what the bridge is being called.

The bridge renaming coincided with the annual RFK Ripple of Hope dinner that took place at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan that same evening, at which the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Moral Courage was presented to Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

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McAleese Honored on West Coast Trip https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/mcaleese-honored-on-west-coast-trip/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/mcaleese-honored-on-west-coast-trip/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2009 11:57:42 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8592 Read more..]]> On a whistle stop tour of the West Coast in early December, which included stops in California, Oregon, and Arizona, President Mary McAleese met representatives of local Irish and Irish-American organizations to strengthen cultural, trade and business links between the two countries.

On December 11, The University of San Francisco (USF) awarded President McAleese an honorary doctor of humane letters degree in a special ceremony at the McLaren Conference Center on the USF campus.

In a gathering of almost 700 people, USF President Stephen A. Privett described the President as “a leader who exemplifies a dedication to reasoned discourse and working for the common good – two skills we strive to instill in our students.

“In honoring President McAleese for her steadfast commitment to the promotion of peace and unity in her homeland of Ireland and around the world, USF underscores its mission to fashion a more humane and just world.”

For her part, President McAleese stressed that the recent peace and prosperity in Ireland was linked to the Irish diaspora all over the world, particularly in America, and underlined the key role that education played in the process of regeneration of Ireland. “Our narrative has changed. Thankfully, and in this place it is important to say it, one of the reasons our narrative has changed is largely thanks to widened access to education. That has made a huge, big difference to us,”  said the President. “I can say, without fear of contradiction in this university, that peace really began to be constructed and to emerge with the best educated and most accomplished generation in our history. It came to us as a feature of our education, of being able to critique ourselves and also construct more imaginative outcomes.”

On December 14, President McAleese visited the Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix where she gave a speech on the Irish diaspora. Over 400 people turned up to meet the head of state. She also unveiled a plaque to commemorate her visit  on the site where a proposed library will be built at the Center – and where the plaque and Irish culture will ultimately find a home.

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Irish Eye On Hollywood https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/irish-eye-on-hollywood-9/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/irish-eye-on-hollywood-9/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2009 11:56:11 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8595 Read more..]]> Martin Scorsese just can’t get enough of the Irish!

Just as the legendary director of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver is wrapping up his next movie (based on a novel by Irish-American best seller Dennis Lehane), word is that Scorsese’s next project will explore the Irish and their role in the creation of New Jersey’s gambling mecca Atlantic City.

Best known for exploring the Italian-American underworld, Scorsese has been involved in numerous Irish projects in recent years. There was the epic Gangs of New York in 2004, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson, which explored the Famine-era Irish and how they transformed 19th century New York.

Then there was the critically acclaimed The Departed, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon as Boston Irishmen trying to decide if they are cops, gangsters or both.

Next up for Scorsese (set for a fall 2009 release) is Shutter Island, based on a book by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Mystic River and whose latest book, The Given Day, is an epic about the Boston Irish in the early 1920s. Reteaming Scorsese with DiCaprio, Shutter Island is about the search for a murderer in the 1950s.

After Shutter Island, Scorsese will reportedly direct a series pilot for HBO called Boardwalk Empire. It will explore the roots of Atlantic City. Acclaimed actor Steve Buscemi will reportedly play the lead, a businessman who turns to bootlegging during the Prohibition era in which Boardwalk Empire is set.

The series also features an Irish immigrant woman who entered into a bad marriage just to escape her parents in Ireland. Scottish actress Kelly McDonald (who has played Irish characters in numerous films, such as Intermission and Two Family House, and was seen more recently as Josh Brolin’s wife in No Country for Old Men) is in talks to play the role.
Buscemi is not the only Sopranos talent linked to Boardwalk Empire. The series has been written by Terrence Winter, another veteran of the acclaimed HBO show.
The schedule of films for this year’s Craic Festival of Irish music and movies is set, and it looks like another great opportunity to see a wide range of much-discussed Irish films. The festival will be held March 11 – 14 in Manhattan, and features new, established and experimental Irish films as well as music.

Included in this year’s Craic lineup is the Cannes Film Festival winner Hunger directed by Steve McQueen and starring Liam Cunningham and Michael Fassbender. The movie explores the hunger strikes which turned men like Bobby Sands into international icons.

Also on the Craic bill are 5 Minutes from Heaven starring Liam Neeson,  Hippie Hippie Shake starring Cillian Murphy and 32A starring Aidan Quinn.

Perhaps the most provocative film on the bill will be a documentary about Gabriel Byrne, in which the famously private star opens up about many of his demons.  The documentary was shown at the Galway Film Fleadh in the summer of 2007 and is now making the rounds on Irish TV and at festivals. Byrne reveals, for example, that he struggles with a serious drinking problem related to depression. No wonder Byrne earned raves as James Tyrone on Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten.

The documentary also features Byrne’s ex-wife Ellen Barkin caring for their children.

“I don’t miss drinking now at all,” Byrne says. “But it did lead me to a place where, had I not pulled back, it would have led to an early grave. I was a periodic drinker. I could go off it for weeks at a time, but I could go to a hotel room and be there for three or four days with the curtains closed and the phone off the hook.”

The Craic Fest is not just about movies. The music series coincides with the South by Southwest Music Festival in Texas. Performers such as Paddy Casey, Gemma Hayes, Foy Vance, Fight Like Apes and Screaming Orphans will hit the stage at New York’s Mercury Lounge before heading south.

There will also be a free Kids Fleadh on Saturday afternoon March 14th.

One of the great Irish movie success stories in recent memory was Once, the humble musical about an Irishman and a Czech woman falling in love and singing songs. The movie, which starred Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, was a smash hit and eventually brought the duo to the Oscars.

Once is now being turned into a Broadway musical and is set to premiere during the 2010-11 theatrical season.

Ciaran Hinds is set to appear with Paris Hilton in a (for now untitled) comedy-drama about family and war. As far as we know, everyone will be keeping their clothes on. Allison Janney and Charlotte Rampling will join them in this new film from critics’ darling Todd Solondz, best known for Happiness.

The Belfast-born Hinds, who was the subject of our February/March cover story last year, has built a strong reputation as a supporting actor in films such as There Will be Blood and Miami Vice. He was seen (or heard) most recently in the animated film Tale of Despereaux. His film The Race to Witch Mountain will also hit theaters this year.

Phil Lynott was a groundbreaking rock star, a biracial singer-songwriter from Ireland who changed the face of rock-n-roll. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make a movie about Lynott, who died when he was just 36 following a long struggle with drugs and alcohol.

A  movie based on Lynott’s life has been postponed following accusations that the film exaggerated Lynott’s addictions. The bio-pic was reportedly ready to shoot, and was slated to feature CSI actor Gary Dourdan in the lead role. But former members of Lynott’s band Thin Lizzy insist that the depiction of Lynott be more accurate.

Guitarist Scott Gorham was quoted as saying: “There was a lot more to Phil and the band than just taking drugs. It irritates me that the personal stuff overshadows the musical legacy. You only get one shot at getting a movie right. We won’t give it the green light until everyone is happy.”

Lynott died in 1986.

When it first began shooting, the late 1990s Boston mob movie Boondock Saints initially turned Irish-American director Troy Duffy into a rising star. But many snags along the way meant that Duffy had to be satisfied just to see the flick make it into a few theaters.

In fact, Duffy’s journey from the heights of promise to the fringe of indy cinema was captured in the subsequent documentary Overnight, which depicted Duffy as a petulant egomaniac.

Nevertheless, it looks like the Boondock Saints crew is getting together for a sequel.

Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus will star again as Connor and Murphy MacManus, Irish twins at war with the mob, in Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.
Judd Nelson and Peter Fonda are also set to star.

Another Boston Irish filmmaker to watch out for is Mike O’Dea, who was shooting a Boston Irish crime film on a shoestring, put some of the footage on YouTube and got the attention of Hollywood producer Michael Z. Gordon.

Initially entitled Townies, the film will now be called Code of Silence.

Why? Because Ben Affleck is shooting another Boston mob movie, entitled The Town.

Code of Silence is due to start shooting on St Patrick’s Day.

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Restoring Lisadell https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/restoring-lisadell/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/restoring-lisadell/#comments Sun, 01 Feb 2009 11:55:47 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8603 Read more..]]> A mansion in Sligo steeped in history lay in ruin, until one couple decided to revitalize this jewel of the western landscape of Ireland. 

The old lady held her hands up to the flickering fire as she contemplated the decline of her aristocratic family.  All around her, shadows danced on the walls of the drawing room that once hosted celebrated artists and illustrious politicians.

It was cold, but hers was the only room in that mansion of more than 70 rooms to be heated on that winter’s night.  The rest of Lissadell House lay in darkness while outside what were once world-renowned gardens grew choked with weeds.

What had reduced the Gore Booth family, which for generations had been at the center of Irish cultural and political life, to this sorry state? What had caused Lissadell House in County Sligo – home to poets, patriots and philanthropists – to become so dilapidated and decayed?

These would have been your thoughts had you visited in the 1990s, but visit today and you’ll witness a revival. The Gore Booths no longer live at Lissadell but their story lives on thanks to the dedication of husband and wife Eddie Walsh and Constance Cassidy.

In the five years since they bought the estate, they have reversed its decline.  Lissadell once again houses a family: Eddie, Constance, their seven children and Constance’s sister Isobel.  It has also been restored to its former grandeur and opened to the public who are eager to rediscover Lissadell’s rich history.

This is what I decided to do one sunny day in August.  Arriving at Lissadell, I was welcomed by Isobel who was unstintingly enthusiastic about her job as manager of the estate.

“It’s become a labor of love,” she said.  “Just look at the coach houses where Caroline Gore Booth set up a soup kitchen during the famine.  It was damaged by fire but we’ve restored it and it now houses the Countess Markievicz exhibition, the tea rooms and the gift shop.  Over there are the newly-restored kitchen gardens where we grow fruit for our jams.  Then there are the Alpine gardens…”

Isobel soon realized she was overwhelming me with information and sent me off on a tour of the house.  During the next hour, I learned all about the Gore Booth family.

Sir Robert Gore Booth built the house in 1833.  A member of the English aristocracy, he commissioned Francis Goodwin, a leading architect of the time, to design the house for his Irish estate, which then totaled more than 30,000 acres.

He spent the modern equivalent of 100 million euros and ended up with an austere Georgian mansion set on an estate that at the time was said to be one of the finest in all of Great Britain and Ireland.

Sir Robert’s great wealth was matched by his compassion. My tour guide recounted how he was known as one of the only landlords in Ireland not to evict tenants during the famine.  An older gentleman who joined me on the tour corrected him by saying that Sir Robert practiced “gentle” evictions.

“Ah yes,” said the tour guide.  “He had an ‘assisted emigration program.’  He offered tenants who were unable to pay rent the price of a ticket to America along with a ‘landing fee’ – some money to start new lives abroad. A lot of people emigrated thanks to Sir Robert.”

Meanwhile, his wife Caroline ran a soup kitchen from their coach house – often serving up to 200 gallons of soup a day.

This concern for the poor passed down through the generations of the Gore Booth family.  Sir Robert’s son Henry inherited Lissadell. He was an Arctic explorer and keen hunter. There are still testaments to his hunting prowess in Lissadell House – a stuffed and snarling bear is just one of them.

Of Henry’s four children, three were remarkable.  Constance was the eldest.  She was presented to Queen Victoria’s court in 1887, but soon after marrying Ukrainian Count Markievicz, she embarked on a life as a painter and a patriot.

Having studied at Slade in London and at the Académie Julian in Paris, Constance’s artistic work was accomplished.  Much of it is on display at Lissadell today.

Art, however, was not her vocation in life: politics was.  Politically, she was at odds with her Unionist father. She embraced Irish nationalism and was one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising.  Later, she became the first female minister in the world, sitting in the first Dáil. She was also a founding member of Fianna Fáil.

Constance’s political stature was recognized at her funeral in 1927.  Thousands of people lined the streets of Dublin as her cortege passed by, and Éamon de Valera gave her funeral oration.

She is still remembered fondly in Ireland today. Indeed, Constance Cassidy who now owns Lissadell with her husband Eddie Walsh was christened in her memory.  “Her name was a large factor in their decision to buy Lissadell,” said her sister, Isobel.

The original Constance had two sisters, Mabel and Eva.  Eva gained recognition as a poet and as an outspoken suffragette.

And finally, there was Constance’s brother Josslyn. He was heir to Lissadell.  He did not have his sisters’ political fervor, preferring instead to develop enterprises on his estate.
He set up one of the finest horticultural businesses in Europe, exporting seeds all over the world.  Under his stewardship, the estate supported more than 200 people.

However, Josslyn did inherit his family’s compassion.  Under the Wyndham Land Act of 1903, he sold 28,000 acres to his tenants on favorable terms.

As they grew up between England and Sligo, these remarkable young people made friendships with prominent Irish personalities who were to become frequent visitors to Lissadell.

Among the 1,000 visitors who dined in the house every year were W.B. Yeats, his artist brother Jack and Maud Gonne.

Yeats, who as a young man had made friends with the Gore Booth sisters, was a frequent visitor and is said to have had his own bedroom on the first-floor landing. He remembered the happy times, when he “wandered by the sands of Lissadell” in the celebrated verse:

Many a time I think to seek
    One or the other out and speak  
    Of that old Georgian mansion, mix    
    Pictures of the mind, recall      
    That table and the talk of youth,      
    Two girls in silk kimonos, both      
    Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Their generation was a golden era for the Gore Booths.  The next – Josslyn’s four sons and four daughters – were to witness the decline of this grand house and great family. The problems started when Josslyn’s eldest son, Michael, developed mental instability.  Josslyn decided that Michael should not inherit the estate outright.  Instead, his brother Hugh would help him run it.

Tragically, Hugh and another brother, Adrian, were killed in WWII.  Josslyn died of grief shortly afterwards.  With Michael unable to manage the estate, Lissadell passed into the hands of the Office of the Wards of Court.

Three siblings – Gabrielle, Aideen and Angus – remained in the house. They tried to collaborate with the government officials and to continue with the various horticultural businesses being run from Lissadell.

However, the relationship between the Gore Booths and the officials grew strained.  It eventually deteriorated to the point where the enterprises were closed and the estate fell into disarray.

The elegant avenue leading to the house filled with potholes.  Weeds strangled plants in the gardens.  And with no significant source of income, the Gore Booths retreated to three small bedrooms and a cramped kitchen in the mansion.

So it continued until plans were proposed to sell the estate in the late 1990s.  Hopes were high that the Irish government would purchase it, but this never materialized. Instead, in 2003, two Dublin barristers undertook the challenge of a lifetime.

“They wanted to restore Lissadell’s authentic character,” explained Isobel.  “They wanted to return the house to being a family home and to its former self – a house with history and with gardens that work as enterprises and as an amenity for the local community.”

Thanks to their hard work, Lissadell House has come back to life.  Surrounded by woodland, with Ben Bulben rising majestically behind it and the sandy beaches of Sligo Bay running alongside it, the 400-acre estate is once again humming with activity.

The house itself is a marvel.  I started my tour in the Billiards Room, a room full of photos and memorabilia of bygone times.  There are pictures of Sir Henry and Constance hunting in the nearby hills and first editions of works by the likes of George Russell lining the bookshelves.

The gallery, a formal oval-shaped room with a grand piano and organ, evokes the memories of many musical performances.  The Bow Room was one of W.B. Yeats’ favorite rooms.  With its bay windows, open fire and comfortable window seats, it’s not difficult to understand why.

The dining room is decorated with portraits by Count Markievicz, Constance’s husband.  He painted them during a long winter spent at Lissadell and they feature some of the many characters who inhabited the estate, including the game keeper, the woodsman and even Sir Henry’s dog, Flip.

Downstairs, the servants’ quarters tells the story of the 40 members of staff who ran this house in its heyday.  The kitchen still has its long pine table, some parts worn away by over-arduous application of elbow grease.  There are dumb waiters linking the kitchen to the upstairs dining room and a bell system for summoning the staff.

There’s the servants’ hall where they held a weekly dance.  There are the pantries, the wine cellars and the sleeping quarters – all the different aspects that made up the life of a servant.

But there are signs of new life at Lissadell too. Color photographs of Constance and Eddie’s children are displayed alongside the valuable books, and as our guide shows us around, a teenager with an iPod plugged into his ears runs up the grand staircase to the floor where his family now live.

Works of art decorate the walls throughout the house.  Some are by Jack Yeats; others are by Constance and Eva Booth.  Sill more are by other artists from the Gore Booth family’s time, and even more are by contemporary artists.

“Eddie collects art,” explained Isobel.  “He wants to maintain a living link with the local community, artistic and otherwise, just as the Gore Booth family did when they lived here.”
The community have responded in kind. Many remember a time when the Gore Booths would open the estate to the public or have heard stories of the family’s many characters.  They have come to visit, bringing personal stories and photographs to add to the growing exhibitions.

When they come, they see that it’s not only the house that has been restored: the entire estate has been transformed.  The kitchen garden is bursting with vegetables, salads, herbs and soft summer fruits.  These supply restaurants in Sligo town and are also used to make Lissadell’s own-brand jams and chutneys.

The Alpine garden is no longer overgrown.  Its rose gardens, stepped ponds and rockeries would make Josslyn proud.

Then, there are the coach houses.  They are now home to tea houses, a Countess Markievicz exhibition and an impressive gift shop. “We’ve got other plans too,” said Isobel. “By this time next year, we’ll have an art gallery showing work by local artists, a Yeats museum and a garden museum.  We’ll also open up more public walks through the woods and fields.  We’ll start a pet farm and we’ll renovate the gardener’s house.”

The aim is to make Lissadell as self- sufficient as it once was and to do so in a way that allows it to retain its unique character.  Having already spent more than 8 million euros on purchasing and restoring the house and grounds, Eddie and Constance still have a way to go in making it self-sufficient.  However, with 30 employees, a growing range of homemade produce and plans to introduce more museums and exhibition spaces, that time can’t be too far off.

In the meantime, they can be proud of what they have done to restore its character. Their children, who range in age from 4 to 15, can often be seen helping out on the estate.  Locals frequently come to visit, walking on the grounds or catching up with the latest conservation project, just as involved with Lissadell as they were in the past. “We see ourselves as custodians or caretakers,” explained Isobel.  Having reversed the decline of the past 70 years, Eddie Walsh and Constance and Isobel Cassidy have restored one of Ireland’s cultural gems to its rightful glory.  Lissadell lives on.

Note: At the time of writing, Lissadell House has entered yet another unexpected  chapter in its already rich history.  Following a disagreement with Sligo County Council, the owners of Lissadell have decided to close their home to the public.

This follows a decision by Sligo County Council to preserve public rights of way along routes through the estate. Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy maintain that there are no public rights of way over the property.  They claim to have verified this prior to purchasing Lissadell in 2003.

They have also stated that it would be impossible to continue to operate the house as a tourist destination or as a private home if such public access were to be allowed.

“No property whatsoever, let alone a large tourist facility, could be operated on the basis of unregulated, uncontrolled and unfettered access,” they said. Sligo County Council has agreed to enter into discussions with Edward, Constance and local people in an effort to have the matter resolved as soon as possible. We will keep readers updated on all developments in upcoming issues.

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Second U.S.-Ireland Forum a Success https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/second-u-s-ireland-forum-a-success/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/second-u-s-ireland-forum-a-success/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2009 11:55:15 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8597 Read more..]]> Over 400 delegates attended the second annual U.S.-Ireland Forum hosted at University College Dublin in early November, which was yet another extraordinary success. The delegates were drawn from Irish politics, business, students, academics and ordinary members of the public. The topics ranged from the role of America in the Obama era to how deep the Irish financial crisis is and how the diaspora might help.

The delegates came from as far away as Melbourne, Australia, and there were many from the U.S. Discussions were lively and sometimes contentious as the role of the Irish abroad was analyzed and examined from every angle.

President Mary McAleese took the podium at around 3 p.m. on Monday, November 10, at the Global Irish Institute Center, which is smack bang in the middle of this impressive campus. She wowed the crowd with a heartfelt endorsement of the new movement to embrace the Irish diaspora, which is becoming an ever increasing and important part of Irish identity.

She highlighted the extraordinary potential of that diaspora as well as the challenges it represents. “Over one million people born on the island of Ireland are estimated to live abroad, a remarkable figure for a population of some six million,” McAleese said. “When people who claim Irish descent are included, the number who can be counted as part of our global Irish family rises to an estimated seventy million. These figures are at once both a frightening testament to the searing legacy of forced emigration, and an awesome contemporary resource from which to forge new synergies and opportunities for this still new century.”

Just a few years back such talk from an Irish president would not have happened. The word diaspora was avoided at all costs. Different views on issues such as Northern Ireland kept many leaders in Irish America and Ireland apart. That is all in the past now. McAleese and her predecessor, Mary Robinson, deserve great praise for highlighting the Irish family worldwide and the extraordinary potential it represents.

That potential was the theme of this year’s event, which took place against the backdrop of severe economic times in Ireland and abroad. As much as the country was hyped up during the period of the Celtic Tiger, now it seems to have come down in the manner of a manic-depressive given too much Valium. Rumors swirl that some of Ireland’s richest men are actually broke. One trusted source told me that five of Ireland’s top ten billionaires would be bankrupt if the banks called in their loans. Those same banks are plainly ailing, with Bank of Ireland shares a fraction of their worth during the boom.

At such a time the diaspora, especially those in the business, media and political world, becomes even more important. Most other countries are deeply envious of the political clout that Ireland has in America because of that diaspora. In terms of business investment, press coverage and political clout, it is never more important than now that Ireland reaches out. That was the salient point offered by Dr. Hugh Brady, president of University College Dublin, who made clear that the future, in trying times for Ireland, is tied up in many ways to embracing that diaspora and understanding its value to Ireland. The fact that this second forum was held with so many of Ireland’s movers and shakers present is a testament to how the idea has taken hold.

The first forum was held in New York last year, jointly hosted by Irish America magazine, University College Dublin and the American Ireland Fund. The Irish government was also an underwriter. Next year the venue has yet to be decided, but there is interest in both Britain and Australia. That is how it should be. This is a global family that is only beginning to explore, like distant cousins, their shared heritage.

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Inside the Kennedy White House https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/inside-the-kennedy-white-house/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/inside-the-kennedy-white-house/#comments Sun, 01 Feb 2009 11:54:57 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8606 Read more..]]> When Barack Obama moved into the White House, many felt a sense of optimism despite the vast challenges facing America. Such feelings, naturally, recalled January of 1961 when, on a bright, frozen Washington morning, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated, declaring that “the torch has been passed to a new generation – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.”

It wasn’t just Kennedy’s speech, youth and good looks that gave people a reason to feel optimistic. It was also the undeniable history of the occasion. Kennedy was the descendant of an Irish Famine survivor and America’s first Catholic president.

So, awareness of this “ancient heritage” was inevitably going to trickle down and change the kinds of people at the center of American power.

As a trailblazer himself, Kennedy opened doors for those who might otherwise not have made it to the corridors of power. Specifically, Irish American Catholics played a central role in early 1960s Washington. Who were these movers and shakers who were so close to Kennedy, so Hibernian in background and temperament that they came to be called “the Irish mafia”?

The Irish “Murphia”

Of course, there had been Irish powerbrokers in Washington before Kennedy. Both James Farley and Thomas (the Cork) Corcoran were close aides to Franklin Roosevelt, while Mike Mansfield (the son of Irish immigrants) was elected to the Senate the same year JFK became president.  However, the Irish – even when they achieved great power in New York, Boston and Chicago – generally ruled over their native cities, rather than Washington. All that changed with JFK’s election in 1960.

The most prominent Irish Americans surrounding Kennedy were David Francis Powers, Dick Donahue, Kenneth O’Donnell and Lawrence O’Brien, a quartet of political wizards who were aiding JFK long before he ran for president. When you also consider that JFK’s brother, Bobby, was one of his closest aides (and his Attorney General), as well as the informal advice often given to JFK by his father, Joe Sr., you see why it was whispered that Kennedy presided over an “Irish Mafia” – or “Murphia,” as Jackie Kennedy once called them. (Kennedy confidant and biographer Theodore Sorensen once commented that despite the jovial nature of the term, the group actually disliked the term “Irish Mafia,” at least initially.)
“Powers” That Be

David Powers was the son of Irish immigrants from Cork who settled in Charleston, Massachusetts. Always humble, Powers once said he was merely “a newsboy who met a president,” referring to a childhood job. Powers – “Boston to his fingertips,” according to the Encyclopedia of the Irish in America – first worked for Kennedy in 1946, when JFK ran for Congress.

Powers “was recruited to add a sense of working-class realism to what the Harvard-educated Kennedy feared might be perceived as his own lace-curtain credentials as a political candidate,” the Washington Post once noted. Powers himself once said: “While Jack Kennedy was a completely new type of Irish politician himself, having come from such a different background, he was, at bottom, very Irish and he could never hear enough of the old Irish stories.”

Meanwhile, in recent years, Kenny O’Donnell’s legacy has grown in prominence, thanks in part to the Hollywood film Thirteen Days. Based on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film’s star was Kevin Costner who portrayed (you guessed it) Kenny O’Donnell, who tries to mediate between the “hawks” and “doves” in Kennedy’s inner circle. (For what it’s worth, Defense Secretary Bob McNamara later commented that O’Donnell’s role in the movie was “totally fictional.”)

O’Donnell also was from Massachusetts (Worcester). His father was a legendary Holy Cross football coach. Thanks to the GI Bill, O’Donnell attended Harvard where he met Bobby Kennedy, who became his roommate. O’Donnell and the Kennedys “couldn’t gain acceptance into any of the elite clubs because of (their) religion,” Thomas Maier writes in his excellent book The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings.

Finally, there’s Lawrence O’Brien, whose parents came from Cork. They were a deeply political family. Young Lawrence proudly recalled shaking the hand of Al Smith, when, in 1928, Smith was the first Catholic to run for president as a major party candidate. In 1952, O’Brien served as director for JFK’s Senate run, and was seen as so integral to Kennedy’s victory, that he was a natural to join JFK when he set his eyes on The White House.

The Election

The big question during the 1960 presidential race was whether Americans would elect a Catholic for president. If Kennedy’s Irish inner circle didn’t know this initially, they learned it quickly at a meeting in West Virginia. O’Brien, O’Donnell and Bobby Kennedy asked local voters to discuss any problems the Kennedys might face. A man stood up and said: “There’s only one problem.  He’s a Catholic. That’s our goddamned problem.” O’Donnell later recalled: “(RFK) seemed to be in a state of shock. His face was pale as ashes.”
Of course, the campaign overcame this issue and won – in no small part thanks to the campaign’s Irish advisers. O’Brien was even put on the cover of Time magazine in September of 1961. “To the Kennedy team, O’Brien was and is more than a skillful political organizer. He has the experience and understanding to serve as a bridge between the Democratic Old Guard and the New Frontier,” the magazine noted.

“The bright, eager young men around Jack Kennedy have always baffled and often offended the (old machine) Skeffingtons of Massachusetts; but Larry O’Brien can talk to politicians in their own language and win them over,” Time said.

Bobby Kennedy added: “He was the essential transition man for us with the Old Guard.”

O’Donnell, meanwhile, more or less controlled access to Kennedy, whose press secretary Pierre Salinger once dubbed O’Donnell the most powerful man on Kennedy’s staff. Another observer said O’Donnell – nicknamed “the Cobra” for the tight grip he had on access to the president – was Kennedy’s “political right hand, troubleshooter, expediter and devil’s advocate.”

The Crisis

Thirteen Days might have blurred the line between fact and fiction, but Kennedy’s Irish advisers did have a front row seat for the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
In one conversation with Powers, JFK pondered the vast questions of life and death.“Dave, we have had a full life,” Kennedy said, adding that he feared most for the lives of his children. On the brighter side of the Kennedy years, there was his famous trip to Ireland.

Interestingly, according to Maier’s book, Kenneth O’Donnell was not exactly sentimental.“It would be a waste of time,” he said, noting that the Cold War remained a demanding issue, and that civil rights also needed to be dealt with.  “You’ve got all the Irish votes in this country that you’ll ever get. If you go to Ireland, people will say it’s just a pleasure trip.”
JFK responded: “Kenny, let me remind you of something.  I am the President of the United States, not you. When I say I want to go to Ireland, it means that I’m going to Ireland.  Make the arrangements.”

November 1963

Sadly, having been there for the historic moments of JFK’s brief presidency, the Irish Mafia was also there when it ended.  Powers was actually in the car behind Kennedy when he was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Powers even helped remove Kennedy’s body from the car. One observer, in Maier’s book, noted that the diverse cultural groups in Kennedy’s inner circle reacted to his death in different ways. “The Irish were having a wake, the Protestants were at a funeral, and the Jews were weeping and carrying on.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that as conspiracies have come to surround JFK’s death, the Irish Americans are said to have played a role in that, too.

After Kennedy was declared dead, doctors reportedly wanted to perform an autopsy in Texas. It has been said, however, that O’Donnell forcefully persuaded doctors to allow the autopsy to instead take place in Washington, raising questions about the accuracy of the procedure. Either way, O’Donnell took the death of Jack – and, in 1968, Bobby – very hard. He fell under the sway of alcohol and was just 54 when he died in 1977. His daughter Helen O’Donnell later wrote a book entitled A Common Good: The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O’Donnell.

Powers, meanwhile, became a driving force behind the JFK Library and Museum in Boston. He served as curator when it opened in 1979, and retired in 1994, before dying at the age of 85 in 1998. Finally, O’Brien became chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1968, and later was targeted for investigation by Richard Nixon. O’Brien later left politics and became commissioner of the National Basketball Association, before dying in 1990 at the age of 73.

“The Irish,” JFK once said to O’Donnell, “do seem to have an art for government.” The president then paused, considered his company, and added: “Perhaps we are both prejudiced.”

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Berlin Museum Honors The Kennedys https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/berlin-museum-honors-the-kennedys/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/berlin-museum-honors-the-kennedys/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2009 11:54:30 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8600 Read more..]]> Most Americans, even those who were not yet born, know about John F. Kennedy’s famous words spoken before hundreds of thousands of cheering people in Berlin in 1963. When he said “Ich bin ein Berliner,” Kennedy offered his and America’s solidarity with the people of West Berlin and his words became an iconic phrase of the Cold War.

Today, just steps from the Brandenburg Gate, where the American president got his first look at the infamous Berlin Wall, there is a small, elegant museum that aims to make young and old familiar with the lives of this still influential Irish-American family and their belief in democracy, human rights, and peace. Simply called The Kennedys, the museum is home to a collection of photographs of public and private moments, memorabilia, and official and private documents of and related to the Kennedy family from the time they left Ireland. A small collection of objects includes the Hermes crocodile leather briefcase that President Kennedy carried with him until the day he died.

The museum is operated by Camera Work AG, a corporation that owns one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of photographs and photo books. They first presented the Kennedy photographs and some objects in 2004 in their Berlin photo gallery followed by an exhibition in Rome the following year. The success of these exhibitions—with the public and the press—inspired the creation of a permanent exhibition in Berlin. Once an appropriate building was found in the Pariser Platz, a professor of American History from the John F. Kennedy Institute of the Free University of Berlin, Dr. Andreas Etges, and his team curated the exhibition. Most of the 25,000 annual visitors are Germans, followed by the Irish, British and Dutch with Americans accounting for about 20 percent.

Part of the exhibition is the continuous showing of two short films with excerpts of President Kennedy’s tour through West Berlin, which so boosted the morale of the people of the walled city.  For an American visitor, watching the response of Berliners to our president is a powerful emotional experience. The films were provided to the museum by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. There are also DVDs available at the museum with two and a half hours of footage, some that include Kennedy’s entire speech. That historic visit along with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 stand out as the two great peaceful events in Berlin’s 20th century history.

“Both days have formed a distinct picture of Berlin and its citizens in the minds of people around the world,” said museum director Kathy Alberts.  A special exhibition during 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall “will attempt to connect these two events, to show their similarities and their differences,” said Alberts. “The museum hopes to continue our cooperation with the U.S. Embassy on its Literature Series, hosting readings by American authors in the museum.” Alberts, who is half American and half German, majored in North American Studies at the Free University in Berlin and she also spent a year as an exchange student in the United States.

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m.to 6 p.m. Admission is seven euros,or half price with a special Berliner city card. Guided tours are available in German and in English. Visit: www.thekennedys.de.

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Gaelic Games’ New Future in San Francisco https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/gaelic-games-new-future-in-san-francisco/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/02/gaelic-games-new-future-in-san-francisco/#comments Sun, 01 Feb 2009 11:52:59 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8609 Read more..]]> Hard times are falling on communities across the country, and even in the affluent San Francisco area, belts are tightening and the economy is in decline.  But on a recent December afternoon, on an island in the middle of the Bay, on a plot of land surrounded by cracked concrete and crumbling buildings, a lively celebration was gearing up, one that defied the growing gloom all around.”

By the day’s end, Ireland’s 2007 and 2008 Gaelic football All-Stars had faced off against each other in front of over 2,000 fans, and San Francisco’s Gaelic Athletic Association (SFGAA) had formally opened three new, world-class fields, named Páirc na nGael.

Players and fans of Gaelic football and hurling are ecstatic.  Before the park materialized, they had never had their own base.  They were “wandering aimlessly,” with “no real homes . . . a rudderless ship,” according to Pat Uniacke, President of the SFGAA Treasure Island Board of Directors.

In just eight months, workers and volunteers turned unused land owned by the U.S. Navy into high-quality pitches, where players can now pass a football or strike a sliotar without tripping in a gopher hole or having to surrender the pitch to other sports.

But the new fields on Treasure Island go far beyond sport in their significance to the Bay Area and the Irish-American community.  The second phase of the project involves a 25,000-square-foot community center and clubhouse, and will be open to any organization that wishes to use it.  The space will host feiseanna, banquets, conferences, and the like and serve as a center where people can gather to socialize and celebrate – a physical hub in an increasingly virtual society.

This new foothold for Gaelic games is also a link between families and across decades.  Irish President Mary McAleese praised this aspect when she appeared later the same week at the opening ceremony for Páirc na nÓg, the new youth field that is part of the same project.

In front of children from 25 area schools dressed in brightly colored football jerseys, McAleese recalled the largely Irish immigrants who came to San Francisco in the 1850s “with so little – but they still had the love of their games.  And here we are a century and a half later, in very different times, honoring their memory.

To the Irish-American families and the dignitaries, fans, players, and volunteers who attended the opening ceremonies that week, the new GAA center is more than just well-kept grass for games and competition.  It’s a knot joining America back to Ireland, and the Irish-American past to its unwritten future – a knot that’s being tied and tightened even as you read.

A Long Time Coming

Work was finished on the fields less than a year after the lease was signed, but in a sense they were 155 years in the making.  Ever since Irish immigrants played Gaelic games in San Francisco as far back as 1853, they’ve never had fields of their own.

In the decades since, participation levels have waxed and waned, largely in relation to the economy here or in Ireland and to the resulting immigration rates.  But the sports and the culture have always lived on, in one way or another.  McAleese likened it to a baton handed on from generation to generation.  That baton has never been dropped, but now – with a home base – Gaelic games are much better positioned to grow.

As is the culture at large.  John O’Flynn, another key SFGAA board member and chair of the Irish Football Youth League, sees Gaelic games as “a very important cog in the wheel in promoting Irish-American culture.”  The games get people together who might not know each other, and those connections last throughout life.

Ray O’Flaherty, a native of County Offaly and owner of a popular Irish pub an hour’s drive south in San Jose, considers the games as an important cultural link to bygone days.  “It keeps us living with the past, with stuff we all did when we were young people . . . it’s the preservation of our traditions.”

Indeed, the desire to preserve Irish culture and pastimes inspired the very creation of the GAA back in 1884 in Thurles, County Tipperary.  At the time, hurling and other Gaelic games seemed threatened by British rule and the general dilution of Irish language and identity.

Those threats seem distant now, but other things challenge the growth of Gaelic games in the U.S. today:  the periodic declines in Irish immigration and competition for the youths from other sports, like soccer.

Supporters of the games see Páirc na nGael as a counterforce to those factors, and a unique opportunity to build community.

The games also link Irish Americans to their Hibernian roots in another, more direct way.  Many of the youths know little of Gaelic culture or of Ireland itself.  But every two years or so the GAA raises money to send some of the underage teams back to Ireland to take part in the Féile na nGael, a tournament for youths.

“It’s a process of acculturation,” says Liam Reidy of the SFGAA, “to take them home to Ireland where a lot of their parents and grandparents were born and raised.”  For many, it’s their first real exposure to Ireland beyond family stories and a Gaelic surname.

So what may seem to some like merely sport or competition is in fact a link to the past and a gateway to Ireland.

Thanks in part to the new home for Gaelic games on Treasure Island, Irish sport and culture in the region now looks well situated.  But there was nothing inevitable about Páirc na nGael.  In fact, it owes its development – on a deserted piece of real estate, in the early days of an open-ended recession – to a combination of vision, volunteers, and plain luck.

Leaves of Grass

Treasure Island is a former naval base on a man-made island nearly a mile square, sitting in the bay halfway between Oakland and San Francisco.  The GAA’s 13 acres are surrounded by neglected land and abandoned buildings, but in the background stand the iconic towers of the Bay Bridge and the downtown skyline.  And soon, a large-scale, high-tech, eco-conscious “city” is due to spring up around it, a massive development that promises to make the whole island a greener and safer place.

The GAA’s $5.2-million project started with a $100,000 donation from an anonymous individual and received two half-million-dollar boosts along the way:  one from Croke Park (the GAA headquarters in Dublin) for infrastructure like fencing and bleachers, and one from the Irish government to develop the community center.

But everyone I spoke to stressed that the fields would not be there today without the labor and equipment offered by volunteers.  Alan Coughlan, an electrician from Cork, spent a day and a half each week over the course of eight months “doing anything:  laboring, operating machines, electrical work. . .  if volunteers didn’t step up, it wouldn’t get done.”  Coughlan is looking forward to using the fields with his local club, The Séan Treacys, which won the 2008 North American Senior Football Championship.

Volunteer Pat Power from Waterford worked most Saturdays over the course of the project.  Power has lived in the States for 32 years and his children all went through the youth program.  Kids want an extra connection to their culture, he said, and parents want a link to their kids.  He thought it “marvelous to be able to give something back.”

The All-Star players certainly appreciated the final product.  President McAleese described them as “absolutely thrilled . . .  as well they might be, knowing how much love and passion and commitment have gone into every single blade of grass.”

According to Pat Uniacke, the fields are “as good as you’ll get in Croke Park or any field in Ireland.”

Beyond the devotion of the 300 or so volunteers, the project also benefited from luck.  Uniacke reflected, “We were very fortunate in our timing.  When we commenced last March the economy had not started to turn down yet.”  Since then, he knows, capital has grown quite scarce.

Uniacke added, “We were [also] fortunate that there were so many Irish contractors involved in the business of heavy earthmoving equipment.”

Fortune works in mysterious ways.

Money to complete the community center and pay off debt will be raised by renting out the fields to other sporting groups in the off-season and throwing fundraisers like “Gaelic Fests,” Gala Nights, et cetera.

John O’Flynn reflected on the hard work and planning and what it has achieved.  “In our own little parishes in Ireland, we all strived to have our own place to play.  We’re doing the same thing here.”

Writing the Future

The first major event the fields will see is the Continental Youth Championship in July, the biggest youth GAA event in North America.  It connects players throughout the U.S. and Canada – wherever there’s an Irish diaspora that plays Gaelic football or hurling.  Over 2,000 young players will compete in 250 games over the course of three days.
The event is growing fast, as are Gaelic games among youths in general.  This is partly due to a conscious effort to focus on younger players.

Liam Reidy concedes, “For generations we were relying on the immigrant influx” from Ireland and “too heavily on adults to play the games.”  But now the philosophy is, “Today’s juveniles are tomorrow’s seniors.”

To expand participation among youths, the SFGAA is taking the Gaelic games directly to them.  It has convinced Rhythm and Moves, a company which provides physical education curriculum to schools, to adopt Gaelic football as one of their programs.  And it has exposed hundreds more kids to it through the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club of America.  In fact, the latter group is active on Treasure Island and through it the GAA has introduced Gaelic football to about 500 disadvantaged kids.

And what do they think of it?  John O’Flynn, who for 14 years now has been bringing the games to thousands of young people, says kids like Gaelic football because it’s very aerobic, you’re able to move with the ball, “and there’s a lot more scores.”  And, he added, “There’s the opportunity to travel.”

Organizers hope that many of these youths will go on to play as adults, helping to establish the games better in the long term.

Interestingly, their strategy seeks to involve not just more Irish Americans – though they are still doing that, through the Catholic Youth Organization, for example. They’re now more actively inviting everyone to participate in Gaelic games, in part through the groups mentioned above.

“When you look at the team sheets now,” Liam Reidy remarked, it’s not just “O’Connells and Ryans and Murphys.”  It’s Berillios, Medinas, and so on – Italian Americans, Latin Americans, African Americans.  They may connect to the Irish community through marriage, or may have the ubiquitous 1/4 or 1/16 Irish heritage.

“Gaelic games here amongst Irish, Irish Americans, and other cultures is actually growing now for the first time,” Reidy added.

In a city as diverse as San Francisco, in a country comprised of immigrants from many lands, preserving one culture too strictly can backfire, detaching it from the larger community and leaving it to grow stale and irrelevant.  If culture is valuable – and if it is to stay vital and lively – then it seems it should be shared far and wide.

Pat Power appreciates that spirit in his children’s teams.  “The kids’ friends come out and play, they’re from diverse backgrounds . . .”  It’s not as much about the sport, in the end, as the community it fosters.

Speaking to the children gathered on their new pitch, President McAleese summed it up well:  “Whether you’re Irish or not . . .  it’s a wonderful thing to be able to share the Gaelic games with our friends and with our neighbors.”

More than ever, those games and the bonds they create look set to shine, whatever the economic forecast.

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