June July 2009 Issue – Irish America https://irishamerica.com Irish America Magazine Mon, 15 Jul 2019 20:00:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.10 82361074 Coco Rocha Rocks the Runway https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/coco-rocha-rocks-the-runway/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/coco-rocha-rocks-the-runway/#respond Tue, 02 Jun 2009 12:00:10 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8051 Read more..]]> She looks, if possible, even more modelesque in person, although this might have something to do with the high-heeled lace-up Balenciaga boots she’s wearing (along with an Urban Outfitters top, Marni belt, vintage gold lamé purse and a skort that once belonged to her mother). When I sit down with Irish Canadian Coco Rocha, who has taken the fashion world by storm before turning twenty-one with an unforgettable face, modish look and vivid persona, I’m struck by her openness and eloquence.

Discovered at the young age of fourteen by agent Charles Stuart, Coco (born Mikhaila Rocha on September 10, 1988) had never considered modeling or fashion as particular interests before Stuart approached her after seeing her perform in an Irish dance competition. She initially told him that she wasn’t interested, but Stuart, whose daughter also did Irish dance, persisted. “He would come to every competition, or he would have some lady come up to me and say, you know, ‘He is legit, try it!’ So a year later I decided to do it, see what it was like — and now here I am today. If it weren’t for my Irish dancing, I wouldn’t be modeling.” Coco can attribute both her dancing, which she practiced for twelve years, and her looks to her Irish ancestry. “My mom’s half Irish and my dad’s half Irish. We don’t know much about my mom’s side but my dad’s mom came from Belfast and married my grandfather, who was from Wales.” Her grandparents later moved their family to Canada.

Born in Toronto, Ontario, Coco grew up in Richmond, British Columbia. She has two siblings, and her parents are both in the airline industry. Coco says her parents are supportive of her career, if a bit out of touch. “For the longest time my dad didn’t quite understand. He’s like, ‘So what are you doing? Are you known?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I’m modeling now, people know what I do.’ He’s still a little bit, ‘What’s going on?’ My mom, though, she’s here a lot so she sees it all firsthand.”

Her lack of fluency in high-end designers before modeling has helped Coco to create a unique personal style, especially indebted to a great love of vintage clothes. “I didn’t know anything about fashion. You would see me in the biggest sweater with jeans or the tightest elastic pants. Not nice clothes. My mom took me a lot to consignment stores when I was younger and I never really got to go to fancy high-class stores so … vintage was like a step up. You can always find one thing that no one else has, which is nice. To wear things from the 1800s to the 20s and 30s is kind of amazing.”

The breakthrough moment of her career took place during Jean Paul Gaultier’s fall 2007 show inspired by the Scottish Highlands, which Coco opened and closed by Irish dancing down the runway. Vogue called it the “Coco moment,” and suggested that it marked her status as a genuine supermodel. “It was exciting. When you usually dance, you dance in front of a crowd that has no clue who you are, so you can mess up, fall down, be exhausted and no one will really know in the end what you did. But [at the Gaultier show,] I was really nervous because everyone knew what my name was, and if I fell over and everyone was laughing, it definitely would have hit everyone’s radar. … I don’t think I’ll ever have a peak like that in a show. My grandma went nuts. I mean, at shows usually, all you have to do is walk, so I don’t get nervous, but that was a bit maddening.”

Besides setting herself apart through fashion and Irish dance, Coco has earned a reputation as an outspoken model that isn’t afraid to let her personality shine underneath the clothes. “In the industry now, models are [expected] to be seen and not heard, and I think there’s a few of us that are kind of wanting to push the envelope a little bit more and trying to get models back to what they used to be. We want to be out there so people know models are also role models too. It’s not just the singers, the actresses, the dancers, et cetera. Models can be people too. But the only way to do that is to kind of step up and keep doing new things that no one has thought of, from new websites to new blogs, a newscast, doing speeches, talking to kids, it kind of opens a new headline every time: ‘Oh, a model hasn’t done this before, a model hasn’t done that before.’ So I think it’s always being the new fresh person, which is hard because everything’s been done before. It’s just redoing it in a different way.” Lately Coco has been speaking at schools about issues including body image and self-esteem, and is making a trip to Canada to help with a cousin’s cancer charity. In the past, parents and teachers have been wary of spokesmodels who seem to preach self-esteem in empty language without addressing the consequences of their industry’s focus on physical appearance, but it’s obvious that this is an issue genuinely important to Coco. “I think models have that huge say on self-esteem, because we were the girls that were nobodies in school and now have become the models. I think that every girl has a really sad story: nobody liked her, everybody hated her, and then once you do become a model, how things change.”

Speaking about the pressure to be thin in this industry, Coco expresses concern about models that resort to any and all methods of maintaining low body weight, but also emphasizes that not every designer wants the anorexic look. “When you start off you have to have a certain body type. I mean, that’s why we get [recruited] so young. Your body hasn’t even gotten to that peak yet. So when you start aging and your body is changing, people want it to stop, they don’t want that happening. … You can’t please everyone. If Client A and Client B want two different girls, are you somehow going to get both of them? No. If you don’t want me today, someone will want me tomorrow.”

For the last few years, it seems everyone has wanted Coco: she has done advertising campaigns with Balenciaga, Calvin Klein, Lanvin, Dolce & Gabbana and The Gap, and appeared on the covers of Vogue and Elle, among others. With a consistent and star-studded six-year career, Coco is a bit of a throwback at a time when America is introduced to their newest “Top Model” each season on reality television. Says Coco on this phenomenon of disposable models, “I think to be a supermodel is to stay in your own genre, to be 100 percent in everything in that specific area. If you need TV and all that to make you great — then it tells you right there how good of a model you probably are. But for the Heidi Klums and the Tyra Bankses, who have shows, those were girls who were already born and bred as supermodels and then went into new things. But girls of my generation, who aren’t really successful and then go off and become these huge things — I would say it’s more a celebrity model in the aspect of TV than a supermodel.”

Coco herself has plenty of plans for when and if she decides to retire from modeling. “I love the arts — drawing, acting, performing, dancing, all that sort of thing. Because I’ve been so lucky to be in this industry, I kind of have a back door to everything. Everything is at my disposal right now. I don’t need to go to school for arts and fashion, I’ve learned it. So I would like to stay in the industry — if that means photography, styling, editing, I don’t know. Right now this is my chance to kind of broaden out and feel everything and see what it’s like, and then we’ll see. I never plan tomorrow because I don’t even know what I’m doing today.” She has planned minimally for the near future, including a trip to Australia and a first visit to Ireland this summer. “I might see family that I’ve never met, and I’m very outdoorsy and sporty so I want to actually bike along one of the coasts.”

For now, Coco is busy with New York events and updating her new blog, ohsococo.blogspot.com, whose content ranges from updates on her friend’s cat to musings about returning to an era where models did their own hair and makeup. “We learn all the tricks, things to do with our hair, what looks best. You see a lot of girls backstage getting their hair and makeup done, and then you see them go in a corner and fix their makeup because they don’t like something about their eyes or whatever. You know your [own] face better than anyone. I notice more and more that the makeup artists will let some girls do their makeup. It’s kind of funny to watch that come back seepingly, but maybe one day.”

“As for the blog, I know sometimes it’s a little —” she pauses, laughs, and decides to be blunt, “a lot about me, but I think people don’t realize that we do things. People are like, ‘What, you play soccer? What, you go to Home Depot?’ I don’t know. They’re like, ‘Why would you? Why aren’t you sitting on a pedestal?’ Like, we live a life too. It’s not all glam.” She is so personable and so real that for a minute I believe her, but then she’s off to Isaac Mizrahi, where there will be interviewers waiting for her to choose a dress for the next week’s Met Ball and trying to soak up some of Coco’s captivating magnetism as she floats ten miles (or at least a few inches) above the world.

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The First Word: Celebrating Irish Heritage in Holyoke https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/the-first-word-celebrating-irish-heritage-in-holyoke/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/the-first-word-celebrating-irish-heritage-in-holyoke/#respond Tue, 02 Jun 2009 11:59:30 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8054 Read more..]]> If there’s a connecting theme in this issue it’s the Famine: Brian Moynihan’s ancestors came over at the end of the famine, Christine Kinealy writes about the international response to the famine, while David Fleitz brings us a story on the early days of American baseball that was populated with the first generation – the sons of famine immigrants.

Looking back over the years, I see that I  often write about the famine in those issues in which we profile Irish-American corporate chieftains. The incongruity that the descendants of the survivors of the famine should be handling with such vast amounts of money, always strikes me as profound.

In truth, I tend to see the history of America through Irish eyes, they were so much apart of it, from the America Revolution, through the Civil War, Gold Rush, the building of the railroads and canals, but my thoughts must often return to the those who left during the great starvation (there was plenty of food in the country, so it is indeed wrong to call it a famine), for they are the mainspring the source, the cornerstone of Irish America.

As I interviewed Brian Moynihan in the monumental billion dollar Steel and Glass structure that is the new Bank of American Building, appropriately on Avenue of the America in Manhattan, it’s an easy leap for me to turn back the pages to those ancestors of his who stepped off the boat in New York and made their way upstate to small farms, out of their brave, or desperate steps for they had no choice but leave, the managed to provide a roof over the heads of children, feed them, school them, so that just a short while later his grandfather could be come a lawyer, his father a chemical engineer, he a lawyer, and legal counsel and now head of global management.

Many of those profiled in these pages are descended from those early refugees. Indeed, some of the greatest Americans came out of those brave souls, or maybe they weren’t so brave, maybe desperation and hunger gave them courage to face that awful passage across the Atlantic. Georgia O’Keefe’s grandparents, Eugene O’Neill’s father, Henry Ford’s father.

Those ancestors who made it out – an so many thousands died on board ship on shortly after they got here – but many, many more survived, and they were made of strong stuff – they didn’t buckle. They made it but they had to work for it, and had the ability to take setbacks and reappraise them.  They enjoyed ordinary lives and it was good enough.

And in this tough economic times we can call on them as spirit guides. And see that our travails are nothing compared to what they went through. They would say to us tht it’s a time to look once more to family and community and to see who our friends are, and perhaps return to a simpler time of earlier generations who borrowed responsibility and banks make loans that people could afford.
I  sincerely to thank all of you “Friends of Irish America”  who supported us  with your advertising dollars for this issue. We hope to be able to continue to bring you the stories of your ancestors. Their contribution to America is immeasurable  and in many cased their love was America was unsurpassed, and we do our best to remember their sacrifices, and call on their strength when we need it.

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The World of Irish Dance https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/the-world-of-irish-dance/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/the-world-of-irish-dance/#respond Tue, 02 Jun 2009 11:57:37 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8059 Read more..]]> The second week of April certainly brought some confusion to Philadelphia residents as thousands of young girls in bouncy wigs and vendors with everything from Celtic t-shirts to Irish sweets descended on the Kimmel Centre of Performing Arts. The 39th Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, World Irish Dance Championships, was held for the first time in North America at the Kimmel Centre and the Marriott Hotel in downtown Philadelphia.

Over 6,000 dancers came to compete, all of whom qualified after winning top places in regional and national competitions. Dancers from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, United States, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Germany, Poland, Russia, and South Africa arrived to dance in a variety of categories of competition including solo dances, team dances which included upwards of eight dancers per team, and drama which utilizes dance as a storytelling tool. The dancers competed in several styles based on the pace of the music classified as reels, hornpipes, jigs, slip jigs and traditional dances.

The event attracted over 20,000 fans in addition to dancers. Fans included friends, family and teachers but also a vast number of vendors who sold endless amounts of Irish-themed commodities.

The opening ceremonies on April 5th included a parade of flags representing all countries registered with An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (CLRG), the commission which organizes the competition. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was in attendance.
The World Irish Dance Championships commenced in 1970 in Colaiste Mhuire, Dublin. This year marked the first
departure to North America for the competition. The primary sponsor of the event was Chicago native Michael Flatley, who in 1975 became the first American to secure a World Irish Dance title.

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Sea Fever: An Irish Surfing Odyssey https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/sea-fever-an-irish-surfing-odyssey/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/sea-fever-an-irish-surfing-odyssey/#comments Tue, 02 Jun 2009 11:57:13 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8056 Read more..]]> Ireland, with 3,000 miles of open Atlantic to the West, offers some of the best surf conditions in the world. Sea Fever, a documentary, covers the history of Irish surfing from the early 1960s to the present.

Surfing. The very word brings to mind golden sunsets over tropical locations.  The palm trees of Hawaii.  The warm seas and roaring waves of Australia and California. Certainly not the cold and choppy waters of the Irish Atlantic.
And yet Ireland is now emerging as one of the new frontiers of the surfing world.  This island perched at the edge of Europe, one of the first land masses to be pummeled by the turbulent Atlantic, has a growing community of surfers who extol what Ireland has to offer.

“People are surprised to learn that there is surfing in Ireland,” laughs Easkey Britton, the Irish and British  surfing champion who hails from Donegal.  “They think the water is full of icebergs.”

Ian Johnson, a South African surfer and surfboard shaper who now lives in County Clare, couldn’t agree more.  “There’s such a difference between Ireland and South Africa,” he says.  “It’s easy to get into surfing in South Africa.  Here you freeze your proverbials off!”

Despite these obvious disadvantages to surfing in Ireland, these surfers – both of whom have spent time surfing in well-known hotspots such as Tahiti and Hawaii – choose to live and surf in Ireland.  Why is this?

The answer to this question is at the heart of a fascinating documentary called Sea Fever: An Irish Surf Odyssey.  Filmed over the course of two years by first-time filmmaker Ken O’Sullivan, it captures Irish surfing throughout the seasons and chronicles the development of a surfing culture in Ireland over the past 40 years.

Ken, who is originally from Clare, had worked abroad for many years.  When he moved back to Lahinch six years ago, he was taken aback by the changes that had been wrought on the area.

“I was more aware of my environment when I came back,” he remembers.  “I was struck by the beauty of the place and amazed by the boom in surfing.  The passion of the surfers interested me too.  They live to surf and build their lives around it.  They surf every day and constantly push themselves to ride new waves.”

He started to film some of Irish surfing’s biggest risk takers – the surfers who ride Ireland’s most famous big wave, Aileen’s just off the Cliffs of Moher.  This wave was first discovered by photographer Mickey Smith and a group of Australian bodyboarders in 2004 and was first surfed the following year.

“Many people who visit the Cliffs of Moher are unaware of what happens there,” says Ken O’Sullivan.  His film captures the action as it unfolds.  Aileen’s, one of the world’s most formidable waves, starts to roll in from the Atlantic.  As the swells approach Ireland, they hit a narrow shelf of land.  The wave rears up to 50 foot in height and offers surfers a challenging ride right up to the dramatic 700-foot-high cliffs.

Easkey Britton, the first woman to surf the wave, describes it as “addictive.  With the cliffs rising up in front of you and a big mountain of white water coming up behind you, you just want to do it again and agin”.

Sea Fever documents the history of this wave and the enthusiasm of those who surf it.  It also travels back in time to explore the development of surfing in Ireland, a culture that is merely a few decades old.

Rod Bennett, who has been living in Ireland for 21 years, first visited the country in 1973.  “Friends told me about the surfing and the Guinness so I came to try it for myself,” he recalls.  “I spent three weeks traveling from Waterford to Clare, surfing along the way.  I didn’t meet one single surfer.”

Unbeknownst to Rod, there were some surfing enthusiasts in Ireland at that time.  The young Kevin Cavey had seen a picture of a surfer in Reader’s Digest and was inspired to try it for himself.  He ordered a board from Cornwall, placed an ad in the Irish Independent asking others if they were interested and in 1965 organized a “surfari” to the west of Ireland.

The sufari included stops in Sligo and Donegal, where the surfers met the Britton brothers.  Together, they started off a tradition of surfing in the North West of Ireland.

The film has archival footage which expresses the pioneering spirit of the time. Viewers are shown images of young men racing joyfully into the sea, lugging rudimentary surfboards.

Easkey Britton is the second generation of the Britton family to become passionate about surfing.  In the film, she recounts how her father and his brothers learned to surf.

Her grandmother brought back surfboards from California, intending to use them as decorations in her Donegal guesthouse.  “My dad and his brothers paddled on them when they were young,” says Easkey.  “But it wasn’t until they saw a visitor stand on them that they realized what they were really for.  Before long, they were up on the boards and it all progressed from there.  My nana probably regrets it now.  We’ve got salty blood because of her.”

So salty that Easkey was named after her parents’ favorite surf break off the West Coast of Ireland.  The name derives from the Irish word for fish (iasc), making it particularly apt for a surfing champion.

Within a few years, Kevin Cavey and the Britton brothers were competing in European surfing competitions.  This brought Ireland to the attention of the international surfing community and in 1972, it was chosen as the host country for the European Surfing Championship.

Unfortunately, the surf was disappointing on the day of the championship.  The waves were small.  The swells were calm.  There was no challenge.  It wasn’t until the day after that surfers got the opportunity to experience the thrills of surfing Irish style.
“It was epic,” says Mike Wingfield, a member of the English Surf Squad of the time.  “It was overhead, glassy and perfect.  Nobody could get out of the water.”

That year could be seen as a turning point in Irish surfing.  Ireland was now a feature on the international surfing map.  However, the number of surfers remained low – a mere two to three thousand people – until the boom of recent years.

Ian Johnson has surfed every day for decades.  Until five or six years ago, he was usually alone on the ocean.  “Now, I can’t even get parking close to the beach,” he says with a smile.

The Irish Surfing Association claims that at least 70,000 people have surfed in Ireland once or more.  It’s this jump that prompted Ken O’Sullivan to make his documentary.

It’s also what pushed the most enthusiastic surfers to conquer Aileen’s.  Traditional surfing spots were becoming crowded.  They had to discover new frontiers.

John McCarthy, another Irish surfing champion, was the first to surf Aileen’s, along with Dave Blunt.  They were part of a group that developed a new technique whereby a jet ski pulls the surfer who is on a specially adapted board.  The speed of the jet ski allows the surfer to get ahead of the swell.  He then lets go of the tow rope and slides across the wave.

Saul Harvey, a local surfer, initially thought Aileen’s surfers were mad.  “You look at the huge cliffs and the powerful wave and you think they haven’t a hope,” he says.

He has since been won over and even surfed the wave himself.  He describes it as like “standing in an elevator when all of a sudden, the floor drops from underneath you.”

Aileen’s wave is but one example of the many challenges Ireland has to offer surfers.  As John McCarthy, the first to surf Aileen’s, says, “the best thing about traveling is coming back to Ireland with the skills to surf better waves and realizing that the waves in Ireland are some of the best in the world”.

Surfers are now visiting Ireland from other countries, surfers such as the seven-time world champion Kelly Slater who has spent time here conquering our waves.  And surfers such as the people interviewed for this documentary, whose lives are dictated by weather charts, ocean swells and the next wave.

“Our only problem is the Irish weather,” says Ian Johnson.  “It’s diabolical.  It doesn’t stay the same for ten minutes.”

In typically optimistic surfer fashion, he can also see the positive side of this.  “Ireland is small and its weather is variable so you can usually travel to find the perfect offshore waves,” he says.  “Bundoran, Lahinch and Kerry can be three completely different worlds.”
No matter what the weather, Irish surfers will always surf.  In fact, the worse the weather, the more of them take to the waves.  In 2006, thousands traveled to the West Coast to catch the frenzied waves that resulted from Hurricane Gordon wreaking havoc over the Atlantic.

This is what Irish surfing is all about.  As Mickey Smith says, “Friendships, experiences and the opportunities to push myself and my surfing. I’ll always be grateful to the Emerald Isle for that.”

Or perhaps it’s how pioneer Kevin Cavey explains it.  “You’re tingling with the forces of nature when you emerge from the sea.  Surfing brings us back to our roots.  That’s why it’s catching on.”

With enthusiasts such as the characters captured in this film, Irish surfing looks set to grow and grow.  “Our secret is finally out,” says director Ken O’Sullivan.

For more information, visit www.seafever.ie.
For DVD information visit www.SeaFeverMovie.com

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Irish Eye on Hollywood https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/irish-eye-on-hollywood-7/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/irish-eye-on-hollywood-7/#respond Tue, 02 Jun 2009 11:56:24 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8063 Read more..]]> Dublin native Colin Farrell is teaming up with Irish-American screenwriter William Monahan for a new film, which seems to be an homage to a classic.
Farrell – who will be seen later this year subbing for Heath Ledger in the dead actor’s final movie The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus – will star in London Boulevard. The film, which also features Anna Friel and Keira Knightley, begs to be compared to the Hollywood classic Sunset Boulevard, and not just because of the similar titles.  In the 1950 classic, a down-and-out writer takes up with a former Hollywood star. In London Boulevard, Farrell falls for Knightley, who plays a similarly reclusive, though presumably younger, actress. Farrell’s character is slightly different from the one portrayed in Sunset by William Holden.  Farrell’s character is an ex-con, while Holden was an aspiring screenwriter.
London Boulevard will be directed by William Monahan, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of the Boston Irish film The Departed starring Jack Nicholson.  Monahan will make his directorial debut with London Boulevard, which should hit theaters in 2010.
One of the most inspirational true-life Irish-American stories is coming to the big screen later this year.

Back in 2001, just before St. Patrick’s Day, a woman by the name of Betty Anne Waters was thrust into the limelight when her brother, Kenneth, had been declared innocent of a gruesome crime for which he had been serving jail time.

It was Betty Anne, however, whose role in the saga was most fascinating. Though Betty Anne, at one point, had dropped out of high school, she was so convinced of her brother’s innocence that she worked her way through law school earning a degree so that she could help free her wrongfully convicted brother.

The Waterses’ family saga – which took place in the Boston area – has now been made into a film, which is expected to hit theaters in the fall or winter.

Starring Hilary Swank, and currently entitled Betty Anne Waters, the film will explore how Kenneth Waters became ensnared in the legal system, and Betty’s role in helping to free him.

Also starring are Melissa Leo, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role in last year’s indie immigration drama Frozen River. The role of Kenneth Waters will be played by Sam Rockwell.

After Kenneth was freed, Betty Anne gave many interviews and talked at length about her Irish background (both brother and sister were interviewed by Irish America).

This is not the first time Hilary Swank (a two-time Oscar winner in 1999 and 2004) has been linked to an Irish film project. She played spunky boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and also starred in P.S., I Love You, based on the novel by Irish writer (and Bertie’s daughter) Cecelia Ahern.

The Tribeca Film Festival recently swept into New York City once again. The fest’s opening film was The Eclipse, the latest project from prolific Irish scribe Conor McPherson. Best known for writing plays such as The Weir and The Seafarer, McPherson is also an accomplished filmmaker. His screenwriting/directing credits include I Went Down, Endgame and The Actors.

The Eclipse (directed and written by McPherson and Irish writer Billy Roche) is about a widower who has begun seeing mysterious things in his house.  Things only get stranger when he meets two authors who become involved in his life.

The film, which stars Irish veteran Ciaran Hinds as well as Irish American Aidan Quinn, is certainly generating buzz. Right before the film screened at Tribeca, Variety magazine said that The Eclipse is “a film of such seductive grace, humor and startling side trips into buttocks-clenching ghastliness that [audiences] won’t know what to make of it (although it won’t keep them from wanting to visit Ireland immediately). … Ciaran Hinds and Aidan Quinn are as good here as they’ve ever been.”

No word yet on when The Eclipse will hit U.S. theaters.

Speaking of Aidan Quinn, he was a busy man at Tribeca.  The Irish American – who has appeared in dozens of movies including Michael Collins and This Is My Father – also starred in another Tribeca film, Handsome Harry, alongside Steve Buscemi and Campbell Scott.

Handsome Harry is about a seemingly content man whose best friend becomes ill, forcing both to confront uncomfortable questions about their past. Handsome Harry should be in theaters later this year.

Liam Neeson, who is mourning the sudden loss of his wife Natasha Richardson following a skiing accident in March, must be hoping that work will help the healing process.

Neeson has agreed to star, alongside Ralph Fiennes, in Clash of the Titans, which will begin shooting soon in the United Kingdom.
Just as with the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans (which featured acting legends Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom and Maggie Smith, alongside Harry Hamlin and Burgess Meredith), this new Clash of the Titans will be about famous warring gods of mythology. Early word is that Neeson will play Zeus to Fiennes’ Hades.

Another actor struggling with loss, John Travolta – whose son Jett died earlier this year following what is believed to be a seizure – will star alongside Irish heartthrob Jonathan Rhys Meyers in From Paris With Love, set to be released early next year.

The thriller, to be directed by Pierre Morel, is about a young embassy worker (Meyers) and a U.S. secret agent who are sent to Paris and can’t seem to stay out of each other’s way.

It is not director Morel’s first thriller starring an Irishman. He also directed Liam Neeson’s smash hit Taken.

On to cable TV news. One of the major cable networks is expected to pick up a provocative, 10-hour mini-series about the Kennedy family being produced by one of the creators of the smash TV hit 24.

Simply entitled The Kennedys, the mini-series is the brainchild of Joel Surnow, an outspoken Hollywood conservative who has decided to put his own twist on one of America’s most famous liberal families.

According to publicity materials: “The Kennedys takes an inside look behind the secret doors of the White House, [and] the soiled and crooked steps it took to get there.  It also tells the historical stories that are associated with the Kennedy era – the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, the civil rights struggle, the mob connection – each one told in the context of personal, Kennedy-family dramas.”
Another producer, Michael Prupas, tried to play down the notion that this would be some kind of hit job on Irish America’s royal family.

“This will be the most interesting family saga to be brought to the screen in a very long time,” Prupas said. “It will be surprising, arresting and truthful … with human drama at its core. The series is neither a hatchet job nor a valentine.”

It is not often that the Irish immigrant experience finds its way into a slasher/horror flick. But that’s just what happens in director J.T. Petty’s The Burrowers, which is out on DVD now.

Set on the western U.S. frontier of the 1870s, the film follows a group of settlers who are trying to simply survive.  Among them is Irish immigrant Fergus Coffey (played by Irish actor Karl Geary), whose wife is presumed to have been murdered by Native Americans. As men ride out to seek revenge, only to vanish, it seems there may be something supernatural and very deadly at work.
Finally, two new Irish documentaries are making the rounds at festivals. Scenes from a Parish, by documentary filmmaker James Rutenbeck, recently premiered at the Massachusetts Museum of Fine Arts. The film, produced over four years at Saint Patrick parish in Lawrence, Massachusetts, explores how a reliably Irish Catholic parish transforms as more and more Hispanics move in.
Meanwhile, Butte,  America recently played close to home at Montana’s Emerson Center for the Performing Arts and Culture. The documentary (narrated by Gabriel Byrne) explores how the Irish and other immigrant families worked the mines in the Montana town that gives the film its name.

Butte, America was produced and directed by Pam Roberts, a Montana native who spent nearly a decade making the film.  Butte native Edwin Dobb, a descendant of Irish copper miners, co-wrote the script with Academy Award nominee Eugene Corr. Watch out for further screenings, including one at Glucksman Ireland House at NYU.

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Sisters of Charity: After All These Years https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/sisters-of-charity-after-all-these-years/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/sisters-of-charity-after-all-these-years/#respond Tue, 02 Jun 2009 11:55:43 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8069 Read more..]]> St. Patrick’s Day is always an important day for the Irish in New York and the 2009 St. Patrick’s Day Parade was a very special one for the Sisters of Charity. Not only was it the first time that they marched in their own congregational contingent, but the 248th parade was dedicated to the Sisters in recognition of their “200 years of dedicated service to the Poor of New York City.”
It’s a description that encapsulates the enormous impact and profound effect that the Sisters of Charity missions have had on so many lives.

For two centuries, four thousand Sisters have served Irish and other immigrants and their descendants, caring for orphans and the elderly, teaching young people, and providing job training to the poor. Their missions have supported families, nursed the sick, educated leaders, and  always nurtured the Catholic faith.

It all began in 1809 when Elizabeth Ann Seton, a New York widow and convert, founded the Sisters of Charity in Emmetsburg, Maryland. The Sisters of Charity’s mission in New York began in 1817, when Mother Seton sent three Sisters to care for orphaned immigrant children in St. Patrick’s Orphan Asylum.

Since then the Sisters of Charity have established over 286 foundations, from New York State, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, North Carolina to the Bahamas and Guatemala.

“When planning started for the St. Patrick’s Day event,” explains Christine Haggerty, the Director of External Communications, whose idea of the Sisters marching behind their own banner was presented to the parade officials by Bill Hurley, director of development, “the goal was to find 200 willing to march behind the Sisters’ banner – one person for each year since the founding of the Sisters of Charity. On the big day, over 700 turned out!”

After joining NYC’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg for a 7:00 a.m. breakfast, Sister Dorothy Metz, President of the Congregation, and Sister Donna Dodge, her assistant, joined other Sisters at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the 8:30 Liturgy, where Cardinal Edward Egan was the principal celebrant.

“Then it was down to 44th Street where the Sisters of Charity contingent formed to march up Fifth Avenue,” describes Christine. “The block was full of Sisters and their associates, family members and friends.” Colleagues from health and child care and housing ministries also attended.

“Our community also invited other congregations in the Sisters of Charity Federation as well as the Daughters of Charity of Albany, New York, and even some Sisters out of Leavenworth, Kansas, and Greensburg, Pennsylvania, who wanted to be part of this unique event.”

Three teams of Sisters took turns carrying the 10-foot banner, one of whom was Sister Peggy McEntee, who has been immortalized on stage and screen by the playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley when he dedicated his 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt: A Parable, to her. He wrote in the Playbill, “This play is dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?”

Such words of conviction and sincerity on behalf of the Bronx-born playwright came from personal experience: Shanley had never forgotten his first-grade teacher, Sister James (now Sister Peggy), a Sister of Charity, who had strongly influenced him by her attentive kindness and generous spirit.

He not only based a character of his play on his former teacher, he also hired her to consult on the movie version of Doubt when they were filming on location at the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx, one of the many institutions founded by the Sisters of Charity. Amy Adams won an Oscar nomination for her performance as Sister James.

“I loved marching in the parade,” recalls Sister Peggy, who had just returned from Hollywood where she represented John Patrick in accepting the award for Doubt as best picture from the Catholic in Media Association. “I made it to the end,” she said cheerfully. “It made me feel young.”

Three other Sisters had the honor of representing the first three Sisters of Charity who were sent by Mother Seton to New York in 1817. Wearing the traditional habit, Sisters Dominica Rocchio, Alice Darragh and Jane Iannucelli all marched in a row behind the banner, pleased to represent those pioneer Sisters Felicité Brady, Cecilia O’Conway and Rose White.

“As they passed the Cathedral, Cardinal Egan and other bishops came into Fifth Avenue to greet the Sisters,” describes Christine Haggerty. “During the day the Cardinal told Catholic New York, ‘Nothing could have made me happier than to learn that the St. Patrick’s Day Mass and Parade would honor, in a very special way, our beloved Sisters of Charity. The work they have done is nothing short of heroic, and we could never thank them enough.’”

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Lincoln’s Watch Holds Message from Irishman https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/lincolns-watch-holds-message-from-irishman/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/lincolns-watch-holds-message-from-irishman/#respond Tue, 02 Jun 2009 11:55:12 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8066 Read more..]]> The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch in March 2009, and discovered a secretly engraved message that turned an unsubstantiated family story into a confirmed historical event.

Jonathan Dillon, a watchmaker who immigrated to Washington, D.C. from Waterford, Ireland, repaired Lincoln’s gold watch in 1861 and engraved the following words on the underside of the watch movement:

Jonathan Dillon April 13- 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date.

J Dillon.
April 13-1861 Washington thank God we have a government. Jonth Dillon.

Dillon passed down the story of engraving his pro-Union sentiments in Lincoln’s timepiece to his descendants, and his great-great-grandson Douglas Stiles, a lawyer from Illinois, recently discovered an article in The New York Times from April 1906 in which the story is recounted.

Then 84, Dillon told of writing the inscription after the owner of M.W. Galt & Company, the Pennsylvania Avenue watch shop in Washington, D.C., rushed upstairs to announce that the first shot had been fired and the war was underway. “At the moment I had in my hand Abraham Lincoln’s watch, which I had been repairing,” Dillon recounted.

The watch was bequeathed to the Smithsonian by a great-grandson of Lincoln’s in  1958, but after Stiles brought the curators’ attention to the 1906 article, the museum enlisted the help of George Thomas, a master watchmaker from Maryland, who opened the watch using magnifying glasses, a strong light and minuscule instruments in an event open to the public. “It’s a moment of discovery, and you can only discover things once. We wanted to share it,” said Harry Rubenstein, curator of the Smithsonian’s “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life” exhibition.

In the 1906 article, Dillon recalled his inscription as reading, “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.” This description was not entirely accurate, but museum director Brent D. Glass was unsurprised that Dillon did not mention slavery in the actual engraving.

“In 1861 the preservation of the union was the key issue, and the abolition of slavery came later,” said Glass. Dillon’s inscription also misdates the opening shot of the Civil War, which was actually fired on April 12, and misspells Sumter. Still, the message is clear.
“It has that hopeful sound that the union will hold together, the country will go on,” said Rubenstein. “That Lincoln carried this hopeful message in his pocket unbeknownst to him – it casts you back.”

Two other inscriptions were also found on the back of the watch movement. One reads “LE Grofs Sept 1864 Wash DC” and was probably added by another watchmaker doing a repair. The other, “Jeff Davis,” may have been intended as a rejoinder to Dillon’s pro-Union inscriptions, as Jefferson Davis was the president of the rebel Confederacy.

According to Thomas, the timepiece was made in Liverpool but the case was crafted in America. He said that the watch, reportedly the only watch that Lincoln owned, was in perfect condition and looked as if it had not been worn very much. While the watch is unable to be wound after hundreds of years of no use, it will be reassembled and available for viewing at the museum with a photograph and transcription of the engraving.

Stiles claimed that the story of Dillon’s “graffitti” had been told to him in the 1970’s by a great-uncle, and his attention returned to it last year when an Irish cousin recounted the story as well. The revelation of the inscription lends a new credibility to generational tales and emphasizes the importance of oral history, persistent as it is in the Irish-American tradition.


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the June/July 2009 issue of Irish America magazine. 

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A Last Meeting With Beckett https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/a-last-meeting-with-beckett/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/a-last-meeting-with-beckett/#respond Tue, 02 Jun 2009 11:54:27 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8099 Read more..]]> ith the recent publication of the first volume of Beckett’s letters I started to recall the last time I met Beckett in Paris in 1988.   We first met in April, 1985.  It had been three years since our meeting at the café in the Hotel PLM.  At noon. Noon being the time he had suggested.  The suggested hour.  At the time, there was the usual feeling one gets upon meeting one’s hero.  Of sorts.  Heroes coming in all sorts of sizes.  Genres.  Modes of discourse.  Our first meeting was all that I hadn’t expected it to be: chatty, informal, with an air of melodious, yet melancholy, music to it.  Yet, in its own way, it was sacrosanct.  And so I looked forward to our next meeting, our last meeting.  At the café of his choice, the PLM; at the time of his choice, noon.

I had primed myself by seeing En Attendant Godot several nights earlier in case one needed priming for such a meeting since my anxieties were much less pronounced than they were three years earlier.  By now we had corresponded, almost called each other by first names, knew where each other lived.  He had even consented to reading some blather I had written even though he couldn’t read much by then.  Blather is all it was.  Can’t remember what I had sent him.

I was early.  Always early.  One waits for Beckett, if one respects time.  If one respects Beckett.   It is also a kindness afforded to greatness.  My time seemed expendable.  I started to smooth my hair, tapped my fingers on the marble table, would have smoked had I allowed myself to do it.  In between still another hair stroke, still another tapping finger, I saw him walk in and begin to look around.  Gone were the grey greatcoat and the blue sweater now replaced with a knee-length, navy blue coat and an orange stocking cap.  Tennies.

I walked across the room and tapped his shoulder.

“Mr. Beckett.”

“Mr. Axelrod,” he said as he turned.

Beckett had chosen a booth, in a corner of the café, away from the window, beneath a coat rack.  He removed a small, yellow cigar box and placed it on the table.  Weathered hands, bent from the fabric of so many rigid pens.  What I noticed this time that I hadn’t noticed three years earlier were the lines in his face.  The creases, deep, curvilinear, like furrows that had swallowed certain secrets and kept them irretrievably harbored.

“The weather’s been so bad,” I said, “How do you manage?  Morocco?”

A place he said he visited, at times, when Paris got too cold.

“My cottage,” he said, some miles outside Paris.  In what direction he didn’t say.  A reclusive habitat, no doubt.  Doubt needed for reclusion.  We ordered coffees: a café noir for him, a café crème for me.  He seemed much thinner to me.  Not a sickly thin, but an aged one, one that seemed to brook the onset of deliquescence.  Deathlike, it seemed to me.  I quickly discounted the idea.

“How’s the writing going?” I asked.  A legitimate question of one writer to another regardless of the legitimate disparity in our talents.

Not well, he said, as he fiddled with his cigars.

“Writer’s block,” I said as a jest to me, to him, but he answered that it had never lasted so long.  Then he looked at me with a smile that masqueraded nothing.  A realization that the Muse was finally eluding him and he said, all things come to an end.  And I realized that anything I said or did after that comment would never alter the fabric of that day, nor my life, nor his, nor any other life that had been or is or will be touched by his prose, by the supple salience of his prose which breathes across the page.  I had often thought of myself as fairly facile in conversation.  Able to pick up and move in any direction.  But I suddenly found myself unable to think of anything to say that would liquidate the vacuum of the moment.  Fortunately, the coffees came.  A caffeinated respite.
I remembered reading, that morning, on the Metro, an article in the now defunct Paris magazine, Passion, titled “Les l00 Poids Lourds Des Lettres” with a picture of a certain Regine Deforges, a writer unknown to me, on the cover.  The blurb beneath the title read ““Un hit-parade des l00 personnes-editeurs, écrivains, et…poètes-qui constituent le Tout-Paris des lettres.”  The article certainly piqued my interest since I wondered in what category they had ensconced Beckett since such natives as Michel Butor and Maurice Blanchot and Claude Simon and Nathalie Sarraute were included as were exiles such as Milan Kundera.  But though I looked and looked and looked again, Beckett was missing.  Some poseurs were there, yes; some Beckett, was not.  And so I said to him, ‘You’ve been living in Paris for all these many years and yet they haven’t included you among their ‘dinosaures des lettres Francaises.’  You live in France, you speak and write in French, yet they didn’t include you.  Why do you think they did that?”
At first he looked puzzled by the exclusion, but then, with another smile, merely said, it’s okay, I forgive them.  Maybe it was because he still thought of himself as Irish even after living fifty years in France or maybe it was because the redacteur en chef hadn’t edited the copy or perhaps the staff had thought him dead.  At any rate, I didn’t forgive them.

“But when were you last in Ireland?” I asked.

Sixty-eight, he said, for a funeral.  And then in a transition that wouldn’t have been a stain upon his craft, he said his mother was dead, and his brother was dead, and Blin was dead and so was Jack Yeats.  And one could see the furrowed frown in his forehead as he held his hand to his head, thinking, perhaps repeating thoughts, or losing them, within the confines of time, time in the Vaucluse, Rousillon, with his wife, with others, time with Watt.  The furrowed frown.  Through some set of verbal perambulations he came to talk of his early work, how he couldn’t make it as a teacher since he felt he knew no more than his students.  A last ditch writer, he called himself.  No one took his work, no one looked at it.  No one till Lindon, till Jerôme Lindon took his work.  Without reservations.  How fortunate he was, he said, to have found him, and how lucky he was to have found Roger Blin.  And John Calder.  How lucky I was, he repeated.  How lucky he was.  How lucky they were I thought, but he would have never said that.  Never.
It’s somewhat difficult to reconstruct the scene, seen so many years ago now, two decades on, now after his centenary.  I tend to think of how that meeting ended.  Of what things I took away with me the last time I met Beckett.  And I vividly remember two moments: first was his response to my simple-minded question: “What are you planning to write next?” acknowledged with the sublimely succinct answer, “All things come to an end.”  With that statement there was nothing more to be said, nothing less.  No symbols where none intended.  It was over.  One needed no redacteur to understand that, and yet hearing the words come from him rendered me depressed and sullen, rendered the day depressed and sullen.  At the end of that chat, I suggested that, perhaps, he needed to go, to leave, to do whatever he needed to do since I didn’t want to take up any more of his time.  He nodded, picked up his glasses, paid for the coffees and we both headed for the door.

The other moment was more sanguine.  I recalled from our first meeting that he smoked Dutch cigars.  Small ones.  Small ones that came in a yellow cardboard box the brand of which escapes me.  Holland stokjes or something of the sort.  The ones he placed on the table when he arrived.  As it was nearing his birthday, I had bought several boxes of those cigars to give to him as a present, as a gift and before he walked out of the café I told him I had something for him.  I removed the crudely wrapped cigars from my leather bag, crudely wrapped as only I could crudely wrap them and handed the cigars to Beckett.  He unwrapped the paper and when he saw they were the same cigars he smoked he looked at me with a look that was both perplexing and grateful, a look that would have suggested that what I had given him was a gift beyond all measure, a gift that was speechlessly invaluable.  He asked me how I knew; I said I merely remembered.

And so they stayed a little while, Mr. Beckett and Mr. Axelrod looking at each other with Mr. Beckett’s hand on Mr. Axelrod’s shoulder, looking straight before him, at nothing in particular, and then Mr. Beckett thanked Mr. Axelrod, stuffed the boxes in his coat, bid Mr. Axelrod a safe trip home, shook his hand and left.  A left turn, a right turn and he was gone though the sky, falling to the buildings, and the buildings falling to the river, made as pretty a picture, in the afternoon light, as a man could hope to meet with, on a waning day in April.

But the day wasn’t over for me.  What I could not fathom was the line “All things come to an end.”  Depressed and sullen discourse.  One fathoms such a line from a dictionary of well-worn phrases perhaps, but not in the context of someone of Beckett’s literary station.

I recall I left the café, ambled, turning down aleatory alleys until I eventually found myself walking along the Seine, somewhere along the Seine, perhaps near the Hotel Lauzun, perhaps not, it didn’t really matter, repeating the line, the same line he spoke not that long ago, “All things come to an end.”  The wind picked up.  I couldn’t light my Dutch cigars.  “No symbols where none intended.”  How prescient he was.  Fewer than two years later he was gone.

Mark Axelrod is a professor and former Chair of English and Comparative Literature at Chapman University, California. He is a multiple award winner for his work.

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How the Irish Took Over Cable TV https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/how-the-irish-took-over-cable-tv/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/how-the-irish-took-over-cable-tv/#respond Tue, 02 Jun 2009 11:54:26 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8075 Read more..]]> It’s been 10 years now since HBO took a chance on a little drama called “The Sopranos” and changed the face of television. When “The Sopranos” hit the airwaves in 1999, no one could have predicted that this offbeat drama about the mob and psychoanalysis would have been the first of many great cable dramas to win prestigious awards and earn huge ratings.

But here’s another thing few people would have predicted: that the Irish would come to dominate critically acclaimed drama all over the cable landscape.

Think about the best of the recent crop of dramas on cable:  “In Treatment,” “Rescue Me,” “Brotherhood,” “The Tudors,” even “The Wire,” which ended its glorious run last year.

All have Irish actors or deal explicitly with Irish-American characters or themes.

Perhaps most importantly, there is little in the way of shallow or stereotypical Irishness in these shows. In some ways, the 2000s have been a high point in the exploration of Irishness in pop culture.

That might have seemed unlikely a few years back when “Rescue Me” and “The Wire” hit FX and HBO respectively.  These two shows feature classic Irish-American male characters – the firefighter (Denis Leary as Tommy Gavin) and the cop (Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty).

Furthermore, both Gavin and McNulty have time-tested Irish flaws – bad tempers, drinking problems, lapsed-Catholic guilt.

However, once these shows started gathering steam, they explored the dark, complex sides of the Irish experience in big cities, in a way that seemed appropriate for the 21st century. For Tommy Gavin, it was dealing with life after so many of his fellow firefighters (many Irish-American) died on 9/11.  For McNulty, it was the difficulties of patrolling a city (Baltimore) where the Irish no longer rule the streets or the government.

But the crusading McNulty kept the spirit of the Irish cop alive. Among other things, whenever a cop retired (or died), all the cops would retire to a bar, get roaring drunk and sing. But they would not sing “Danny Boy.” Nope. They would sing Shane MacGowan and The Pogues’ “Body of an American,” about a raucous Irish wake.

“There was uncles giving lectures / On ancient Irish history. / The men all started telling jokes. / And the women they got frisky. / At five o’clock in the evening / Every b****rd there was piskey.”

Fittingly, the stars of “Rescue Me” – which is on FX Tuesday at 10 p.m. – and “The Wire” knew a thing or two about the Irish experience in real life: both Leary and West are the sons of immigrant parents.

If “The Wire” and “Rescue Me” played with classic Irish-American stereotypes, Showtime’s “Brotherhood” (Sundays at 8 p.m.) dug far and deep into the conflicts inherent in the Irish-American psyche: in the show, one brother is a politician, the other a criminal. Both must contend with one of the towering female characters in TV history, the boys’ mother, brilliantly played by Fionnula Flanagan.

Of course, the lines between right and wrong, family and foe, are blurry.  Like “The Wire” (not to mention Edwin O’Connor’s novel of 50 years earlier “The Last Hurrah”), “Brotherhood” explores the waning days of Irish-American influence, and the lengths to which the Irish will go to cling to whatever slice of power they continue holding on to.  The fact that “Brotherhood” also has the whiff of real life (the Bulger brothers of Boston come to mind) gives the show even wider resonance.

Once “Rescue Me”, “The Wire” and “Brotherhood” proved that great drama could be made about characters who were not named Tony Soprano, executives began turning to Irish-born talent.

Gabriel Byrne took on the challenging role of psychoanalyst Paul Weston in HBO’s “In Treatment.”  Based on an Israeli drama, the show’s ambitious first season aired every night of the week, showcasing Dr. Weston’s five patients. The show now airs Sundays at 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, over on Showtime, Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as King Henry VIII in the third season of “The Tudors,” which shows just how contemporary the trials and tribulations of a 16th-century royal family can be.

Interestingly, in June, yet another strong Irish-American character will show up on cable. Edie Falco will star in Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” about a nurse coping with adversity at work and home. Initially, Falco’s name in the show was Jackie O’Hurley. Producers played up her tough Irish girl image. But reports now suggest the character’s name has been changed to Jackie Peyton.

Is the great Irish moment of cable over? Time will tell. Either way, it has produced some of the greatest moments of TV drama ever.
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Lady of the Dance https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/lady-of-the-dance/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/06/lady-of-the-dance/#respond Tue, 02 Jun 2009 11:54:21 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8072 Read more..]]> Maggie Revis, native to Putnam Valley, New York, took to the stage in Belgium this past winter for her debut as the female lead dancer in Michael Flatley’s The Lord of the Dance. Born into a family of competitve dancers, Maggie began her dance career at the age of three and secured her first win at the Mid-Atlantic American Oireachtas (Regional) Dance Competition in Philadelphia by the age of six. She continued to compete until 2004 when she traveled to England fresh out of college to begin rehearsals as a dancer in Flatley’s Celtic Tiger. Now five years into her professional career, Maggie shines as the star in Lord of the Dance, which since its premiere performance in 1996 has enjoyed the highest success rate of any professional Irish dance touring company. The thrillingly dramatic show filled with Irish dance and music, based on a folklore story of good and evil, was created by Michael Flatley to follow up the Riverdance phenomenon. The initial inspiration for the show was an a cappella dance Flatley envisioned during his time with Riverdance which would later become the new show’s finale “Planet Ireland.”

Irish America sat down with Maggie in her hometown in Putnam County,  after just wrapping up her European tour. In a house complete with an array of Celtic music and a practice stage in the basement, courtesy of Maggie’s father, Fred of German descent, the Revises’ Irish step-dancing roots are undeniable. Maggie’s mother, Cathy, started her own dance school at a young age which would be Maggie’s second home and her introduction into the world of step-dancing.

“My mother growing up was an incredible Irish dancer, and when she became a dancing teacher and judge it was only natural for her kids to follow in her footsteps. … People who have watched me dance say I have her same style and stage presence,” Maggie said.
Growing up in her mother’s dance school, Maggie, her sister Katie, and brother Freddy (though he may deny it now) embraced step-dancing immediately. “My sister and I were always very active and loved Irish music, so we would just come to class and dance about with the other kids.” When Cathy sold her school to focus on a nursing career, Maggie’s training fell into the hands of Kevin Broesler, who took over the school. “That was when I started to compete. It became my after-school sport. Some people played soccer, I danced every day.”

Kevin Broesler described Maggie as “an inspiration” in his Irish dance classes. “She was a great competitor and an enjoyable student. All the dancers in my class looked up to her.” Maggie danced for Kevin’s school throughout her competitive career.

Tracing her Irish roots back to County Galway, the second-generation Irish-American made her first trip to Ireland at the age of twelve when she competed for the first of many times in the All-Ireland and World Championships.

“In those early days of trips to Ireland, it was not just about going to compete. It was about meeting our relatives, eating tons of the amazing ice cream, and  exploring the castles and ruins that we would pass along the road.” Since those early years, Maggie has continued to visit Ireland to see family and friends, and while she has become very familiar with the sites and the people, she will not get behind the wheel on Irish roads. “I will never feel comfortable driving on the narrow roads or on the roundabouts ever again. I still won’t rent a car!”

Maggie’s grandmother, Nellie Spencer, now 92 years old, was born in Galway and immigrated to the United States bringing with her a passion for Irish culture which she made sure to instill in her daughter and grandchildren. “They didn’t have competitive Irish dancing when [my grandmother] was young,” Maggie said. “It was just mandatory that they learned basic steps and ceilis. Even now I don’t think my grandmother at ninety-two could dance a full, choreographed step but she knows the basic posture and rhythms, and her gracefulness in dancing is something I would like to say she passed down through her daughter. She saw me perform with Michael Flatley at Madison Square Garden and she tearfully bragged about how she ‘started it all,’ and she is so right.”

While her older sister Katie eventually left Irish dance for a career in competitive gymnastics and her brothers Freddy and Danny focused their energy on soccer, Maggie continued to pursue dance competitively for close to two decades. In 2003, she reclaimed the title she held at six years old at the Oireachtas Regional Dance Competition in the senior ladies category. It was the following year when Maggie would achieve her career goal and win the North American Championship.

“I was just graduating from college at the time and finding the space, time and discipline to practice was difficult. But I made a promise to myself that I would not retire from competitive dancing until I claimed that title, and I did it,” Maggie said. “I think by that time, after competing for so many years, I knew that dancing was something that I genuinely loved to do, and when you love to do something that much, you perform better.”

Not long after her success at the North American Championship, Maggie retired from competitive dance but found she was not quite ready to hang up her shoes. “You realize that it’s a part of who you are. I think that’s what really started my thinking about going professional.”

After graduating from Loyola University in Baltimore, Maggie went to England to begin rehearsals for Michael Flatley’s production Celtic Tiger, inspired by the economic boom in Ireland. Touring with the show brought Maggie to unfamiliar places, performing everywhere from Budapest to London and also reunited her with some familiar faces. The cast included dancers from all over the world whom Maggie had encountered in various competitions early in her career. With the new adventure of touring and the competitive heat behind them, the cast was able to bond and form a family.

“I like the fact that I am now good friends with so many dancers that I used to watch in competition,” Maggie said.
After a successful run with Celtic Tiger, Maggie joined the touring troupe for Lord of the Dance. “I first started dancing with Lord of the Dance two years ago and I made it a career goal to audition for lead. I did not stop smiling during the audition, which I think helped me a lot.” Surpassing the goal of just auditioning, Maggie landed the coveted part of Saoirse. She shares the role with three other dancers, Tracey Smith McCarron, Siobhan Connolly and Louise Hayden, and plays opposite the male lead, a role played rotationally by Ciaran Connolly, Jason Gorman and Don McCarron. Newest to the role of Saoirse, Maggie will dance primarily in matinee performances in the upcoming North American tour.

“It was a dream come true, cheesy as it may sound. I worked really hard leading up to the audition, and my cast mates were so helpful and supportive throughout the whole process.”

While competitive Irish step-dancing involves its fair share of theatrics, bouncy wigs and intricate costumes included, Flatley’s shows utilize an entirely new style, unnatural at first for most competitive dancers. “For a long time my dance captains had to remind me to loosen up and perform for the audience more. It took me a while to get used to moving my arms and my upper body while dancing, something which traditional Irish dancing forbids.” After years of posture training and frozen arms, the dancers in Lord of the Dance have to embrace a new skill of maintaining their lightning-fast footwork and high leaps with upper body choreography. “I like to think I am better at it now, but there is always room for improvement.”

“I was on cloud nine the whole day of the first performance. I love the music I danced my solos to, I love the costumes I got to wear, and I love the other lead performers that I danced with. It is truly a blessing to be able to say that I reached the epitome of an Irish dancing career. My mother still looks at the pictures from that first performance every day.”

Performing as Saoirse for the first time on the European leg of her troupe’s tour, Maggie was unable to share that experience with her family back in the States. She looks forward to her upcoming North American tour which will provide her the opportunity to perform throughout the United States this spring.

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