June July 2011 Issue – Irish America https://irishamerica.com Irish America Magazine Sat, 20 Jul 2019 03:40:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.10 82361074 Imagining Ireland With Gabriel Byrne https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/imagining-ireland-with-gabriel-byrne/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/imagining-ireland-with-gabriel-byrne/#comments Fri, 01 Jul 2011 01:40:40 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3859 Read more..]]> The acclaimed actor discusses his role as Ireland’s first Cultural Ambassador, his experience as an emigrant, and his thoughts on the strong ties and the disconnects between Ireland and America.

The most immediately striking thing about Gabriel Byrne, aside from his very light blue eyes and the chunky silver Claddagh ring he wears on his right hand (and the fact that he is Gabriel Byrne), is the thoughtfulness with which he approaches every question and topic. As many interviewers before me have commented, his answers do at times seem to verge on the tangential or even evasive. But he lets nothing rest at a superficial level. Sure, ask him a prying question and he may step nimbly around the issue with a quote from Shakespeare and a loosely related anecdote. Why not? Celebrities need to be artful to maintain some degree of privacy. But ask him a question about film, or the Catholic Church, or what it is to be an emigrant, and you will receive a profound reply. These things too, after all, can be personal.

So I learned when we met one recent evening at a café in Soho to discuss his latest role, one he’s held since St. Patrick’s Day 2010, when then-Taoiseach Brian Cowen issued the official announcement that made Gabriel Byrne Ireland’s first Cultural Ambassador. It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to the part. Since 1988, when he moved to New York from London to be with his wife at the time, actress Ellen Barkin, Byrne has been, stardom aside, an Irish man living in America.

This, combined with his three decades as an actor in Ireland, in London, in Hollywood and on Broadway, puts Byrne at a fairly unique vantage point when it comes to considering Irish arts at home and abroad.

The question is, what exactly does a Cultural Ambassador do?

“Well, it’s never been done before, so nobody really knows,” Byrne says matter-of-factly, sipping on an Americano and picking at some bread he winkingly told our waitress was “lethal.” “But the stuff that I have done so far I’m quite proud of.”

As Ambassador, he works closely with Culture Ireland, the government agency for promoting Irish arts and culture, on an initiative called “Imagine Ireland,” an ambitious year-long program of Irish arts in the United States.

Byrne is quick to assert that he works on a strictly voluntary basis and that the job is “part-time.”  This sounds unlikely at first – Cultural Ambassador isn’t something that readily comes to mind when one thinks about part-time jobs – but it’s the truth when you consider his work load. In the past year, as Dr. Paul Weston on HBO’s therapy drama In Treatment, Byrne often worked fourteen-hour days to keep up with the show’s demanding schedule; when we meet he has just wrapped up a film in London with Charlotte Rampling. But in the midst of shooting various projects, Byrne has represented Ireland admirably – criss-crossing the States for various Imagine Ireland launches and events; recording his oral history at New York University’s Archives of Irish America for an exhibition at Lincoln Center’s Library for the Performing Arts; curating an Irish film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Eugene Downes, CEO of Culture Ireland, calls Byrne one of the driving forces behind the project, which had been in the works for some time: “When I first met Gabriel four years ago,” he shared via e-mail, “the range and depth of his vision for Irish culture in America threw down a gauntlet to everyone in the room. His thinking challenged us to develop a more ambitious strategy for cultural engagement that reflected the changing dynamics of Ireland’s presence in the United States. His ideas have helped shape the “Imagine Ireland” concept at every stage of its development…He has given a strong artistic voice to many of the issues at stake for Ireland as it comes through this time of crisis.”

His own career can be read as a sort of case in point for why Byrne feels so strongly about funding for the arts, for just how important and effective amateur groups and arts centers can be.

The Crumlin, Dublin native didn’t start acting until his late 20s, save for once. At 12, he left Ireland to study at a seminary in England, which he firmly decided five years later was not the life for him.  It was there, he tells me, that he stepped on stage for the first time – for “half a second” in the school production of the musical Oliver. Playing one of the men who bid on Oliver after he’s kicked out of the workhouse, Byrne recalls that he decided to add some personal flair to the role, stuffing a pillow up the back of his shirt to give himself a hunchback. It was something he liked to do at home when the men came to deliver coal: “I’d be sitting there with this big lump on my back and they’d look at me and say ‘Ah now, are you all right?’” He mimics their maudlin tone. “Then I did it on the stage and, whereas my mother would think it was hilarious, and the coal men would have thought it was hilarious, here I just walked on stage and walked off, and nobody even noticed.”

After that, he stayed away from Drama until he was about twenty-five, when he decided that amateur drama, which he now describes as “one of the most powerful institutions in Ireland,” looked like “a cool thing to do at night instead of being in the pub.” Nobody actually told me,” he says “I just stumbled into it, I realized that it’s a great way to spend your time. I couldn’t wait for work to finish, to get to the theater, cause there were great people there. And leading up to a play, the tension of it. I remember we all went to Athlone to take part in the All Ireland Drama Festival, we all went on one minibus. I had never experienced anything like that.”

One of the inspirations behind “Imagine Ireland” stems from Byrne’s early years in the Dublin theater scene: his time with the experimental, modestly government funded Project Arts Centre. “In 1979 in Dublin you had the two establishment theaters, The Gate and The Abbey, and anyone who didn’t fit in there went to The Project.” The list of misfits who got their start at The Project is impressive, to say the least: Jim Sheridan, Liam Neeson, Neil Jordan, Ciaran Hinds, Nigel Rolfe, Stephen Rea, and many more. “It was great,” he continues, “nothing was off the table. John Stevenson, who was the administrator at the time, said “Let’s take all this stuff that we do and bring it to England.’ And that was the first time that British audiences became aware of this Irish art. Imagine Ireland is a version of that.”

When an artist from one country brings his or her work to another, a palpable exchange takes place: both artist and audience are exposed to something new. In the case of the four-hundred-plus artists coming to the U.S. this year with Imagine Ireland, the potential for exchange goes both ways. On one hand, Irish artists stand to gain something from performing or exhibiting for audiences here. “If you’re an artist and you want to grow and expand and understand new things, then coming here will expose you to different viewpoints and opinions and experiences. It won’t necessarily make you any better, but it will do that,” says Byrne.
On the other hand, American audiences are getting a taste of more contemporary Irish art; a more comprehensive understanding of Irish culture today. “When we talk about artists here, we’re not just talking about writers, artists, musicians, theater people,” he explains, “we’re talking about performance artists, the full range. There’s Irish classical dancing; there’s Irish mime; there are young artists who are Irish but who draw their inspiration from all kinds of places.” After a pause he continues, “I would say that the perception here is a very dated and very limited one. People know certain names, and some of those names are not even known outside a particular circle. Would everybody know U2? Yes. Would everybody know Seamus Heaney? Debatable.”

In this sense, in addition to recognizing the strong cultural bonds between Ireland and America, the aim also seems to be to refresh those bonds, to update them. To expose Irish Americans and Americans who already appreciate Joyce and Synge and Yeats, who have seen The Quiet Man, who know Riverdance and The Chieftains, to a new generation of Irish artists. The Cultural Ambassador confirms this:  “That’s one of the things I want to try and do. Well, it’s the Culture Ireland agenda, I suppose, to increase that awareness here. To bring it up to date and to break down some of the outdated ideas that we have, that people have here, about what is going on over there.”

In Byrne’s opinion and experience, this disconnect is one effect of the emigrant’s journey, and is especially central to that of the Irish emigrant. He calls exile “the Irish story,” and is adamant that once you have left a country, you can never look back on it and see it in the same way. He raises the fascinating point that this idea plays a part in Irish myths from long before emigration was ever a word or an issue. He re-tells the story of Oisín returning home from Tír na Nóg, even though he was told not to, and aging the second he sets foot on land.

“That myth is [thousands] of years old. It’s powerful, and its telling people ‘You cannot return, it’s not possible to come back. You go to this place and you stay there.’ It’s a warning telling you to think very carefully about where it is that your spirit settles.” Byrne moves on to the Bible, to Lot and his wife, who turns into a pillar of salt for looking back; to the Children of Lír, exiled as swans in their own land; to a tale from Co. Cavan he had read the night before about a woman who is banished from her town and turned into a hare. (Throughout all this it becomes abundantly clear that he used to be a teacher.) “Before people even left Ireland,” he muses, “they were concerned about these things.”

Exile and the emigrant experience are two of the many themes Byrne aims to address in his film series, Revisiting The Quiet Man: Ireland on Film, which is running at MoMA form May 20 – June 3. John Ford’s iconic and extremely romantic portrayal of 1950s Ireland will be the starting point for a larger discussion Byrne hopes to provoke. Via The Quiet Man and other films about Ireland, ranging from Robert Stevenson’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People to the Bobby Sands biopic Hunger, the series will consider themes of “emigration, exile, the role of the rebel, the religious figure…identity, myth, ethnicity, assimilation, gender, the role of the woman in Irish film.” Beyond this, the aim is to raise – but not, he emphasizes, necessarily to answer – the questions “Who are we as a group? How are we portrayed? How are we perceived?” It has always fascinated him, he says, that “[As Irish,] in terms of film, our story has, up to a certain point, been told for us, not by us.” This is problematic, he believes, because “a great deal of what we know about each other as people comes from our knowledge of film.”

One night of the retrospective will feature Byrne in conversation with Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan. Another, with Martin Scorsese, whom he looks forward to talking to because “He’s an Italian American. He comes from, he understands, that dual conflict about ‘Where am I from? And where is this place that I’m living in? Who am I as a result of that journey?’”

Listening to Gabriel Byrne pose these questions, I get the definite sense that he doenn’t do so with the detached curiosity of a  critic or a scholar, but with real personal investment. He is, after all, not just a spectator of Irish film but part of its history, too.

So who are we, as Irish? Byrne doesn’t think there can be one answer. In fact, he encourages everyone to imagine his or her own Ireland (apparently that’s why he pushed for it to be called “Imagine Ireland”). But he does offer this: “I think the artistic influence is continuous; it’s part of who we are…We are also a result of our history, and our history and our literature are entwined so that we have, on the one hand, the saddest music and the most joyful music, and we have the saddest poems. If you look through an anthology of Irish poems, it’s incredible how melancholy we are. You know what G.K. Chesterton said about the Irish? ‘The Irish were the race that God made mad. For all their wars were merry and all their songs were sad.’ Bit stupid as a remark, but it does capture something.”

And who is he as a result of his journey? He doesn’t say specifically, but he says a lot generally. Of leaving one’s homeland, he remarks, “It allows the artist a distance from where he lives and where he was born and the influences that shaped him, so that you can do a different version of looking back. So that, instead of yearning, you can look back over the other shoulder and do it more with objectivity.” When asked about Ireland today he expresses great anger towards the Catholic church – an emotional issue,  considering his disclosure last year of the abuse he suffered as a boy under the Christian Brothers. He shows concern over the possibility that Ireland might be losing its unique voice: “I could write you 20 pages of words where, if I went back to the part of Dublin where I grew up, kids there today wouldn’t understand them,” he tells me. He’d like to see that voice grow stronger so that, particularly in film, Ireland can tell its own story. He also, however, seems genuinely in awe of the talent that has emerged from Ireland in the past few years – in spite of the Celtic tiger and the economic downturn, or maybe because of it.

The connections still run deep. Despite having lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years and raising his two children here (his daughter is starting college in the fall), he still very much considers himself Irish, not Irish American. But then, for him it seems that there are different kinds of home: “Home in the most profound spiritual sense is always Ireland. [But] your children determine where home is.”

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The First Word:Let the Irish Apply https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/the-first-word-let-the-irish-apply/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/the-first-word-let-the-irish-apply/#comments Fri, 01 Jul 2011 01:39:54 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3866 Read more..]]> A letter from our Editor…

After all these years in America, I still feel like an immigrant. Though I proudly hold American citizenship, it is other immigrants that I most readily identify with.  “Where are you from?” I ask waiters and cab drivers, even a woman on the subway (we were so caught up in our chat about how “there is no place in the world like New York City” that I missed my stop).

The immigrant contribution to America is especially on my mind as the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is being commemorated at every turn.

Other immigrants enlisted, but no other ethnic group is so closely linked to the Civil War as the Irish. As many as 200,000 soldiers in the Union Army, including seven generals, were born in Ireland. (When you consider the small size of our island, practically every family must have had a son in the Union army.)

And surely the Irish who survived the Famine only to end up fighting in the Civil War must have thought they were in hell – 600,00 soldiers dead and as many maimed for life.

The first casualty was an Irishman, Private Daniel Hough from my home county of Tipperary. Born in 1825, Hough immigrated to America and enlisted in the Union Army in October 1849. He was killed in the attack on Fort Sumter (a cannon he was loading exploded) on April 12, 1861, the day that marked the start of the four-year war.

“When anything absurd, forlorn, or desperate was to be attempted, the Irish Brigade was called upon,” Civil War correspondent George Alfred Townsend noted.

It’s a moot point to say that the Irish were not highly regarded as an immigrant group before the Civil War, but as Matthew Brennan, writing on the Irish Brigade in this issue, concludes, “With their bold courage they made a name that was carved so deeply into the American heart that there would never again be a question as to whether the Irish had the right to call themselves ‘Americans.’”

The Irish continued to serve with distinction in America’s military, and have the proud record of holding more medal of honor citations than any other ethnic group.

Which brings me to the thorny subject of immigration today. As the debate rages on about the undocumented, I find that my immigrant past plays a continuous influence on who I am. My loyalty is to America, but part of my history is colored by my experience as an immigrant, and my sympathy lies with the undocumented. Given a chance, I believe many of those undocumented Mexicans, Irish, and others would prove their loyalty if they were allowed to enlist in the U.S. Army as a path to eventual citizenship.

America’s closed-door policy on immigration is also particularly troubling now as more and more young Irish people are forced to leave Ireland. We had hoped that immigration would skip a generation in my family, but not so. On Easter Monday, my niece Aoife left from the very same farm that I left years ago, except her journey will not end in New York, much as she would love to come here, but very far away in New Zealand.

I have a dream that some hero will step up to the plate – someone of the ilk of Brian Donnelly or Bruce Morrison who were able to procure visas for the Irish in the past – to make a case for preference visas for Irish-born with family already here. Let’s say 200,000 visas (in honor of those 200,000 Irish-born who fought so gallantly and died for the United States of America) extended over a four-year Civil War commemorative period.

Yes, I know that would be showing favoritism, but given the disproportionate contribution that the Irish have made to America, I think it would be appropriate. (In 2009, of over a million green cards issued only 1,637, went to the Irish). Australia and Canada are already seeing the benefits of  the influx of Ireland’s young, highly educated workers. And as in the past, America would benefit if it were to open the door just a crack, and let some more of our people in.

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Irish Eye on Hollywood: Upcoming Film Releases https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/irish-eye-on-hollywood-upcoming-film-releases-2/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/irish-eye-on-hollywood-upcoming-film-releases-2/#respond Fri, 01 Jul 2011 01:38:23 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3856 Read more..]]> Tom Deignan with the latest Irish and Irish American happenings in film and television.

Carlow actress Saoirse Ronan apparently enjoys playing a killer. In April, Ronan starred in the action flick Hanna, which should be out on DVD soon. Ronan played a teenage assassin raised by her dad (Eric Bana) to be a ruthless killer.

Now comes word that Ronan – who shot to fame in 2007, at the age of 13, with her Oscar-nominated role in Atonement – will play another killer in an independent movie entitled Violet & Daisy. Set to be directed by Geoffrey Fletcher (who nabbed an Oscar himself for writing the screenplay for Precious), Violet & Daisy takes a look at two girls who are young, pretty and deadly. Gilmore Girls actress Alexis Bledel will play Violet to Ronan’s Daisy.

Ronan recently told Entertainment Weekly: “I was worried for [Fletcher] to have an actor who had just done a film where I am a killer.  But you’ll see when Violet & Daisy comes out, the characters couldn’t be more different [from Hanna].” She adds: “Daisy is a really, really sweet girl. She’s not a natural killer like Violet is. Violet is a bit messed up, and she’s quite tough on the outside. Daisy’s the one who keeps them together and keeps everything intact.”

Ronan added that while she hopes to re-team with Lovely Bones director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) for his highly anticipated The Hobbit, nothing is set in stone just yet.“I’d love to be in it. Pete and I want to work together again. It’s something that hopefully we’ll work out.”

May 27 is currently the release date for the highly anticipated Sean Penn-Brad Pitt flick Tree of Life, also featuring Irish actress Fiona Shaw. Directed by the reclusive Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven), the film explores several generations of a Texas family with many buried secrets.

The recent Tribeca Film Festival was very much a family affair for the Gleeson clan. No fewer than three members of the acclaimed Irish family of thespians were featured at the fest, which ran from April 20 to May 1 in downtown Manhattan, and gave Irish movie lovers a slew of cinematic offerings to look forward to.

First there was the much-discussed The Guard, featuring Brendan Gleeson, alongside Don Cheadle. Set in Galway, Gleeson plays Gerry Boyle, a cop with a dark side. Just how dark becomes an important question, however, when a corpse turns up, followed by a straight-laced American FBI agent with a lot of questions about the corpse, a drug ring and how things generally operate in the west of Ireland. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of playwright Martin McDonagh, The Guard has generated strong buzz on the festival circuit and is currently set to open in the U.S on July 29.
Gleeson plays another cop, alongside his real-life son, Brian Gleeson, in the Tribeca short film Noreen. Noreen also happens to have been directed by Brendan’s other son, Domhnall Gleeson. Noreen follows the misadventures of two Irish cops who stumble upon a body during what they’d assumed to be a routine call. Things go awry very quickly, which is not surprising since the film’s promotional material flatly dubs both of these characters “idiots.”

Domhnall, incidentally, is making quite a name for himself on both sides of the camera these days.  He had a role in the highly acclaimed Coen brothers flick True Grit, as well as Never Let Me Go with Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. He will also appear, alongside Irish lass Evanna Lynch, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which hits theaters July 15.Finally, and most ambitiously, Domhnall is set to appear in a film version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien’s challenging novel, to be directed by Brendan Gleeson. That project is still in the early stages of development, and rumor has it a host of Irish cinematic stars are vying for roles.

Another second-generation Irish film star featured at Tribeca this year was Kate O’Toole – daughter of legendary Connemara native Peter O’Toole. Kate O’Toole is among the stars of The Hideaways, an Irish/French/Swedish co-production. Also known as The Last Furlong, and written by Nick Murphy, The Hideaways also features Irish actress Susan Lynch, and takes a dark look at three generations of men from a single family. Young James comes from a line of men blessed – or, more likely, cursed – with supernatural abilities, which include the ability to switch off the electricity in any given area, as well as going temporarily blind whenever thoughts turn to a sexual nature. James is trying to figure out what sort of ability he will inherit, until he encounters a cancer patient who has run away from a hospital.  This inevitably forces James to rethink his curses – or blessings.

Also at Tribeca, Dublin-born filmmaker Alexandra McGuinness turned the camera on London’s young and feckless for her film Lotus Eaters. Alice, in the film, is a former model trying to maintain a living standard she grew accustomed to during her heady days on the runway. She dates Charlie, though neither of them seem mature or stable enough for any kind of commitment. The same can be said for a number of the well-dressed, hedonistic youths who populate this dark and revealing fable, which was shot in black and white.
Other Irish-themed shorts at Tribeca include Dublin-based writer/director Thomas Hefferon’s Switch, as well as Pentecost, about a conflicted altar boy in 1970s Ireland written and directed by Peter McDonald, the veteran actor known for films such as The Damned United, I Went Down and Felicia’s Journey.

And after all of this, the Tribeca fest was closed out by the latest romantic comedy from Brothers McMullen writer/director Ed Burns. Entitled The Newlyweds and starring Caitlin Fitzgerald, The Newlyweds is set in Tribeca itself, and looks at a newly-married couple hoping to survive their honeymoon.  The film supposedly cost a mere $9,000 to make and is expected to be released in theaters later this year.

What’s next for Belfast thespian Kenneth Branagh, now that his big budget comic book epic Thor has been released? After a summer spent promoting the film about the hammer-wielding Norse god, Branagh is set to return to his native Belfast and appear in a play entitled The Painkiller, by Rob Brydon, at the Lyric Theatre.

For now, Branagh has no movies on his radar. Instead, he will be returning to Sweden to film a third season of his acclaimed detective series Wallander, which has proven to be a hit among the Masterpiece Theatre set.

Another Irish actor dabbling in comic book movies these days is Michael Fassbender. Born in Germany but raised in Kerry by his Antrim-born mother, Fassbender will star in what is being dubbed as a prequel to the X-Men movies.  He is set to play Magneto in X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn. Fassbender will stay on the sci-fi action beat for his next movie, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which is currently shooting.

In October, Irish veterans Brian Dennehy and Anjelica Huston are among the big names slated to appear in The Big Year, set in 1998. Also starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin, this offbeat film will look at amateur ornithologists – bird watchers – who are expecting a magical year bursting with sightings of exotic species. That’s because the phenomenon known as El Niño has changed weather patterns so drastically that migratory patterns have been affected. Expect lots of quirky humor and awkward silences.

Finally, Ciaran Hinds will star alongside Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson in the August thriller The Debt. The film follows three decades of spies and espionage, with a focus on a team of Mossad agents for Israel who hunted down Nazis in the 1960s. What they did to complete their mission, however, still haunts them, and they have yet to come to terms with their past by the 1990s, when the film unfolds. Hinds plays one of the agents in the present day, as does Helen Mirren, though given her agelessness, it’s surprising director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) didn’t manage to have Mirren play the same female agent in the 1960s as well as the 1990s.

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The Pipe: Small Irish Town Meets Big Oil https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/the-pipe-small-irish-town-meets-big-oil/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/the-pipe-small-irish-town-meets-big-oil/#comments Fri, 01 Jul 2011 01:37:31 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3850 Read more..]]> A new documentary from Ireland sheds light on the Corrib pipeline plans in Rossport, Co. Mayo.

In 2005, Rossport was a small, peaceful costal village in Co. Mayo, Ireland. Risteard Ó Domhnaill was living there, on his uncle’s farm, and working as a camera man. Then Shell, the international oil company, came to town with plans to build a gas pipeline from the sea, through nearby Broadhaven Bay and the coastal land, to an on-shore refinery.

The problem was, nobody had exactly checked with the people of Rossport to see if this was all right with them. Understandably, they had something to say about it.

The controversy that ensued is carefully and artfully rendered in Risteard Ó Domhnaill’s 2010 documentary The Pipe, which was an Official Selection at the Toronto Film Festival and won the award for Best Documentary at the 2010 Galway Film Fleadh.

Ó Domhnaill began filming the protests and the proceedings for news coverage. But, as he told me when we met at the New York premiere of The Pipe, he took issue with the way the media portrayed the people of Rossport as “lunatic activists” rather than people with a genuine cause and concern.

He filmed everything: town meetings, confrontations between protestors and police, court proceedings. He interviewed the parish priest, politicians from the 70s who had been involved in creating the relevant legeslation; he traveled to Seattle to interview one of the world’s foremost pipeline experts; he doorstepped then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. He tried to talk with representartives from Shell, but they refused to participate unless they could have editorial control over the content.

Then, with over 400 hours of footage to work with, Ó Domhnaill made the rather unconventional decision to focus on the most important but most frequently ignored party in the conflict: the community itself.

“We had two stories,” he explained. “On the one hand we had the political, technical side of the story with politicians and experts discussing what was going on. And then, on the other hand, we had this beautiful, human local story, and we just couldn’t marry the two. So it’s not about Shell, it’s not about the politicians, it’s about the community.”

He chose to focus on four particular townspeople who played prominent roles in the fight against Shell, but the camera can’t seem to stay away from Pat “The Chief” O’Donnell, a local fisherman. The most powerful and heart-breaking scene in the documentary comes when Pat,  in his small fishing boat, confronts The Solitaire, one of the world’s largest pipe-laying vessels, knowing full well that he faces arrest, jail time, and that his boat will likely be impounded. It is this and other completely human moments that make The Pipe such a compelling,  affecting documentary.

The Pipe played in New York last month for one night at the IFC Center in Manhattan’s West Village, as part of its “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary series. The crowd that spilled out the door and down the block wasn’t like any I’d ever seen there before: it was filled with Irish emigrants and Irish-Americans who had come in from Woodlawn, from Sunnyside, from New Jersey to see the film.

One of them was Kathleen Lowry, one of Pat O’Donnell’s six sisters, four of whom attended the screening that night. When her brother and his neighbors were battling Shell, she and her sisters had tried to spread  the word here about the shocking injustice he was facing at the hands of a government more in support of Shell than its people. She got little response. When asked later on how she felt after watching The Pipe that night, she replied “It was very sad, very hard to watch him  [Pat] in so much pain. It doesn’t change anything, it can’t at this point, but we do feel vindicated.”

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Enda, Irial and Ali Honored by Fund https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/enda-irial-and-ali-honored-by-fund/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/enda-irial-and-ali-honored-by-fund/#respond Fri, 01 Jul 2011 01:36:20 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3847 Read more..]]> The American Ireland Fund’s annual New York Gala Dinner was held on May 5th.

More than 1,200 guests gathered in a tent at Lincoln Center on May 5, for the American Ireland Fund New York Dinner Gala,  the largest of the 100 events held annually by The Worldwide Ireland Funds.

The dinner, chaired by Duncan Niederauer, CEO of NYSE Euronext, exceeded its goal and raised $3 million: $2.65 million for charities across the island of Ireland and a further $350,000 for Irish charities in New York.

The evening’s special guest was the Prime Minister of Ireland, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Muhammad Ali was honored with the Fund’s Humanitarian Award for his contribution to charitable and educational causes through the Muhammad Ali Center, and in recognition of his ancestral links to Ennis in Co. Clare, Ireland.

The Fund also honored Irial Finan, Executive Vice President of The Coca-Cola Company and President of the Coca-Cola Company’s Bottling Investments Group.

The Co. Mayo-Born Taoiseach and Finan, who was born in Co. Roscommon, spoke eloquently about their personal and professional commitment to Ireland and both paid special tribute to Muhammad Ali. Indeed, the Taoiseach said he had particularly wanted to attend the event because Muhammad was a hero of his from childhood.

But perhaps the real star of the evening was Yolanda “Lonnie” Ali, who spoke on behalf of her husband who is incapacitated with Parkinson’s disease. She talked about how proud Ali was of his Irish roots and about going with him in 2009  to Ennis, Co. Clare, the hometown of Ali’s great grandfather Abe O’Grady.

“I can’t tell you how warm the people of Ireland where to Muhammad, he’ll never forget this, and I’ll never forget this, every individual in that town, even the infants turned out to greet him. They lined along the streets – there must have been one hundred thousand people there. It was something phenomenal. And of course, his Irish roots go way back and he’s very, very  proud of them.

And I know now that you all can take pride as well in his legacy, and in being somewhat apart of his pugilist abilities and the greatness that he has achieved in that arena.  I’m sure that’s due to his Irish roots, I’ve met quite a few, and I say that with all humility, I’ve met so many Irish people who have come through the ranks as being a boxer and I know that’s where he gets it from – his Irish roots.”

The bulk of the money raised at the dinner will go to charitable and non-profit organizations across the island of Ireland, while an additional $200,000 will be donated to the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, which is a focal point for promoting Irish culture in all its forms. A further $150,000 is being donated to Irish Centers across New York City that cater for the those elder Irish who have fallen on hard times.

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What Are You Like? https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/what-are-you-like-3/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/what-are-you-like-3/#respond Fri, 01 Jul 2011 01:35:50 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3841 Read more..]]> Bill Whelan, composer of Riverdance answers 15 questions.

Renowned composer, producer and arranger Bill Whelan has worked extensively in theatre, film and television. The Limerick native has produced and arranged for Irish rock legends U2, Van Morrison, the Dubliners, Richard Harris and Kate Bush. He boasts an impressive resume beginning with his position as composer to the W. B. Yeats International Theatre Festival at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1989. With an extensive theatrical career, his adaptation of HMS Pinafore received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination. His compositional work in film includes Dancing at Lughnasa, Some Mother’s Son and Lamb. “The Seville Suite” was commissioned for Expo ’92 in Seville and “The Spirit of Mayo” followed in 1993. “The Connemara Suite,” a trilogy of pieces written for chamber orchestra, premiered at Carnegie Hall in March 2005. Shortly after the world stopped to take notice of his work in Riverdance, Bill was honored with the 1997 Grammy Award for “Best Musical Show Album” for his Riverdance record. Bill is on the boards of Berklee School of Music in Boston, University of Limerick, the recently established music education body Music Generation, and was recently one of the first two artists to be inducted into the new IMRO (Irish Music Rights Organisation) Academy. He is currently hard at work on a new theatre project, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center in New York.

Your earliest memory
Playing a biscuit-tin with two knives as drumsticks while my dad played the harmonica.

Your perfect day
Walking the roads of Connemara followed by a pint and good food.

Your favorite extravagance
Ten-year tickets for Thomond Park.

What’s on your bedside table
My Internet radio.

Your hidden talent
Baking brown bread.

Movie that you will watch again and again
The Lives of Others.

Best opening line in a book   
“All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Your favorite quality in friends 
That they stay alive.

Prized possession
Scroll for the Freedom of Limerick.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of
My four children.

Favorite writer
No “favorites,” but I am really enjoying There Are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry at the moment.

Musician you’d love to work with
Steve Gadd.

Favorite hero in real life
Peter McVerry SJ.

Traditional seisiun or chamber orchestra?
Depends on the mood and the music…

What are you working on now?
Trying to answer these questions.

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Ireland’s New Prime Minister on the Way Forward https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/irelands-new-prime-minister-on-the-way-forward/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/irelands-new-prime-minister-on-the-way-forward/#respond Fri, 01 Jul 2011 01:34:50 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3838 Read more..]]> On his recent trip to New York, between visiting Ground Zero and being welcomed at an Irish American community reception, Ireland’s new Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, spoke with Patricia Harty about the changes taking place in the Irish government.


Until the recent election one party, Fianna Fáil, had been in power for fourteen years. What’s it like to lead a party change during such a tumultuous time?

It’s been like a tornado really in the last eight weeks. The ending of the general election campaign, the formation of the new government, and unveiling the economic challenges that the country faces. Abraham Lincoln used to say, tell the people the truth and the country is in safe hands. I see a number of priorities. To unearth the scale of the economic challenge in [Ireland] has taken some time.  No government in the history of our State faces the scale of the economic challenge that I face, and yet there has never been a time of better opportunity to deal with certain things that are wrong with our country, and that’s what we are about.

So we want to set about demonstrating that we are serious – a new government with a different set of priorities – no messing here.

We want to end the confusion and provide certainty. That’s why we have made decisive decisions about the banks. That’s why we are focusing on investment in jobs as a priority. And that’s why we are dealing with a restoration of good health to our public finances.
This is not easy. There are challenging times ahead for our people. But Irish people have always been pragmatic, and when they understand the scale of the challenge, they want and are willing to have a government leading them to sort these things out.

What decisions have you made about the banks?

We had six dysfunctional banks. We went through a series of very strenuous stress tests, and the government decided to have two pillar banks, Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Bank. We are following that with a whole series of issues about governance of banks. Those who have been responsible before will remove themselves or be removed, and we will ask the people in a referendum to give us the authority, through parliamentary inquiry, to  determine the facts of what actually happened in many of these cases.

What about the thoughts of some global financial leaders that Ireland is going to default?

I don’t accept that. The exchequer returns released yesterday for the end of April show that in the four major areas of tax – excise, VAT,  corporate tax, and income tax – we are running $600 million ahead of target. That’s an indication of confidence. It is not the end result that we want, because we are locked into a bailout deal with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and EU (European Union), but within those constraints that’s an indication and a demonstration that we can meet our targets and that we will meet our targets.

And I’ve made this point on so many occasions: we want less money from Europe but greater flexibility. And the big challenge for the government is to get to a point where we can go back to those bond markets as a country and borrow money at less interest rates and wave goodbye to the IMF and be in charge of our economic destiny again. And that is a challenge that we will not shirk, that we will not turn our backs on.

Do you think you will be able to hold on to the low corporate tax rate?

Yes, I do. This is a matter of national competence. When President Sarkozy was president of the council before the second Lisbon referendum, he made it clear and it was added in as a declaration to that Treaty, that tax is a matter of national competence and that remains the case. Ireland will not be moving from its 12.5% percent corporate tax rate. We will play our part by other decisions in measuring up to our challenges in the European sense, and we have made that very clear to our European colleagues, with whom we have good working relationships and we will continue to do so in the future.

Aside from political change, what do you think can be done to improve the national psyche right now?

I think the fact that the people had their say in a general election and decimated the previous government was a lancing of that boil and that frustration.  I think we have taken a series of decisions about reducing ministerial pay, about taking away state cars from people, about limiting the spending in elections, about putting an end to corporate donations. On the bigger decisions where we are moving decisively to deal with banks, our economic problems and our job creation 
programs – we are continuing our drive to ensure confidence by providing a jobs initiative so that it is going to be easier for employers to take on new employees, to remove obstacles by way of tax restrictions on employment.

We are showing people that we are delivering on the mandate that they gave to us. And that is the most encouraging and the most confidence-building measure that we can take to influence the national psyche.  And in that sense, our Irish diaspora, both in the States and Australia and around the world, are in constant contact with our country. Our exports have been running at a surplus for the last 21 months. We have very many of the global leaders [corporations] working in our country. 
So what we are doing now is directing our attention at stimulating our indigenous economy. We have a very high savings ratio – people were afraid to spend money because they saw no certainty for the future. We are going to provide that certainty and encouragement for people to get back spending. There’s great value now for construction, for tourism or for investment. So while it is a challenging time, it is also a brilliant opportunity to change the structure of the way government actually delivers for its people and the way it supervises the effectiveness of public monies being spent for the provision of services – get on and demonstrate that we are lean, efficient and forward thinking. So through this austerity program – through the end of it – I see the sun on the far shore and better times ahead.

You mentioned, at one point, the idea of a senator who would represent those who have emigrated from Ireland. Is that something you would consider?

I think the fact that we have such an enlightened diaspora – on the last occasion that my party tried to do this, one of our senators was willing to give up his seat in the Senate providing that the diaspora organizations were able to agree on a nominated candidate. Unfortunately, they were not able to agree, so it never happened. I’ve got the opportunity as Taoiseach to make a number of appointments to the Senate in the next couple of weeks and I’m going to give consideration to that.

Will you be talking to politicians about the difficulties of  emigrating to the U.S.?

Yes, and I want to follow through on this. Obviously the changed situation “on the Hill,” as they say in Washington, means that you are not going to have comprehensive immigration legislation in the near future. I do note the words of President Obama himself, where he said that he would work with all organizations, including Republicans, in respect of the immigration challenge. Now since the death of Osama Bin Laden, obviously the vigilance in terms of American borders will increase. And I think, perhaps out of this, might come a renewed reflection on the way both Republicans and Democrats, whom I can’t speak for, obviously, will look at the question of comprehensive immigration. If that’s not to be the case, Ireland will pursue and continue to pursue, the well-being of our Irish diaspora here through the E3 Visa situation, which provides some degree of certainty for those who are here, with an opportunity to renew visas. And I’m going to see to it that we continue to work with Democrats and Republicans on the Hill in that regard.

You just came from Ground Zero. Why did you feel it was important to go there and what were your impressions?

It’s a very different site, obviously, than after 9/11. When you stand on the reviewing platform you see a very congested 16-acre site now because seven buildings are actually under construction. It’s hard to imagine the scale of the slaughter and mayhem that occurred on 9/11 when you see it in its current form.  I know President Obama is going down there tomorrow [May 5]. So, it’s a nostalgic time for American citizens, it’s also not confined to New York because of the terrorist activities of Al Qaeda in Bali, and Madrid and London. Those people who lost loved ones, and we will reflect on that over the next days and I’m sure it will cause some very painful memories for people. Including a lot of Irish.

There were 12 who were born in Ireland who lost their lives and so many more Irish-American firemen and Port Authority officers. I remember reading an account of what happened on 9/11 at the Twin Towers, and I remember someone describing the courage on the faces of the young men going to rescue those who were trapped, and it wasn’t the courage on their faces coming down, it was the courage on their faces going up into those burning towers.

Are you looking forward to President Obama’s visit to Ireland?

Absolutely, I think it’s a brilliant opportunity. I’m so glad that the President has confirmed that he is coming, along with his First Lady. We will give them a real Irish welcome. They will be very, very welcome visitors to Ireland. His visit will follow, in such a short time, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland. It’s a brilliant opportunity for Ireland. And I must say, having met with him in the White House, and him having been so generous with his time, I really do look forward to it. My one [wish] –  and I’m not sure if it’s going to happen or not – but I did challenge him to a game of golf. It all depends on his schedule if he has time to play, and if not this time, the next time. I’ll be practicing.

Taoiseach, thank you so much.

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Citizen Artist, Robert Ballagh https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/citizen-artist-robert-ballagh/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/citizen-artist-robert-ballagh/#comments Fri, 01 Jul 2011 01:33:31 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3831 Read more..]]> The extraordinary life and work of Robert Ballagh is celebrated in a new book, “Citizen Artist” by Ciaran Carty

I’ve often called Robert Ballagh the perfect Dubliner. He married the city, walked it, photographed it, painted it, and Dublin in turn – no mean city – has embraced him. He’s just done a portrait of James Joyce for U.C.D. If Joyce were around, he would have a lot of respect for another Dublin, Ballagh’s Dublin. For Bobby has populated the city. What do I mean by that? He has painted everybody – politicians, artists, poets, musicians (Dublin is a great music town), architects, sportsmen, scientists. To be painted by Ballagh is an event. He negotiates the marriages of two minds – sitter and artist – with revelatory tact. He has left a record of Dublin at a certain era that is and will be an extraordinary window into the life of this city. Ballagh’s Dublin.

Just down the road here is the Frick Collection. You can go in and see the Holbeins. Holbein tells you about every character in the court of Henry the Eighth. Anne Boleyn looks as if she just sat down yesterday. The great Ambassadors in the painting of that name are to me often more alive than the people looking at them. Holbein gives you eyes that see microscopically. Such intensity of perception makes the subject almost unreal. It’s as if an hallucination had been materialized.

Why do I mention Holbein? Because – I’m not fooling – Ballagh’s technical gifts are just as perfect. With that hyper-vision, the unceasing appetite for perfection, every feature, every smooth cheek, every furrow and the light in every eye is posed and re-made. Vision become visionary, his sitter held in an intense, intimate grip.

Robert is one of the few people of major visual arts gifts who didn’t leave. He showed it was possible to make a living as an artist in Dublin. His reputation has gone far beyond city limits. He’s known and respected all over Europe.

I respect Bobby for many things. Not just his art, his theater designs, his posters, book covers, his gifts as a designer. I marked him long ago, in 1970, when I saw his free translation of Delacroix’s Liberty on the Barricades. Liberty. There’s no greater social conscience in Dublin, in Irish art and letters, than Bobby Ballagh. I call him Citizen Ballagh. Because he is a full citizen. He is not a political artist, but an artist who is intensely political. He is an active figure in his society, he has a voice, and he uses it. It is a voice that is respected in the troubled North, now precariously pacified. He has been vocal when government cowardice is on display. Those government officials seeking the ease and comfort of forgetfulness have been called to remembrance by Mr. Ballagh. He has been a leader for civil rights in the North. And for artists’ rights. He is an ethical man, whose values are often a rebuke to those without them. His art and mine are very different. But we admire each other’s work. We offer each other that deepest of courtesies.

Is Bobby admired by other artists? It’s always surprised me that this extraordinary artificer does not receive the praise from colleagues that he should. In the power Dublin literary community, Bobby is held in the highest regard. Why not in segments of the artistic and critical establishment? I’ve thought about that. Is there a kind of genteel holdover from our colonial days in parts of the Irish visual arts establishment? Bobby seeks no favors. His art speaks as frankly as he does. His art is seen as Pop. It’s not. It’s a kind of hyper realism secreted brushstroke by brushstroke by his temperament and character.

Speaking of character. We know that the arts attract their quota of poseurs and esthetes. Bobby – and this was shared by his wonderful late wife, Betty – detests pretentiousness and artistic snobbery. His realism is a rebuke to all kinds of fakery social and otherwise. That doesn’t make you popular with the pretentious. He has lived a simple life as husband and father. If you want to know how a Dublin life – Ballagh’s life – was/is lived, look at the marvelous paintings of his domestic life.

He is a realist in life and art. And when he turns his own eye on himself, the results – in a great series of, in my view, historical self-portraits – are uncompromising to the point of brutality. He gave himself no quarter. The self-portraits remind me of Messerschmidt’s great sculptures on human expression in Vienna. They are a confessional autobiography in paint. You can see them in the extraordinary book that is our reason for being here – a story of art and the life of Ballagh – that tells you more about this extraordinary man and artist I am proud to call, friend.

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Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Celebrates 60 Years https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/comhaltas-ceoltoiri-eireann-celebrates-60-years/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/comhaltas-ceoltoiri-eireann-celebrates-60-years/#respond Fri, 01 Jul 2011 01:32:03 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3828 Read more..]]> Held in San Antonio, TX for the first time, CCE’s annual celebration marked the organization’s 60th anniversary.

Hundreds of devoted Irish music and dance fans descended upon San Antonio for the annual Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann North American Convention on the weekend of March 25th. The annual event, held in different cities around the U.S., was extra special this year, as it was also a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the organization’s founding in Ireland in 1951. Today, there are over 600 CCE branches around the world – 44 in North America and Canada – all of them committed to the practice and preservation of Irish traditional music, dance and language.

Hellen Gallon, the Limerick-born chairperson of CCE North America, declared the San Antonio weekend a resounding success. “It was the first time that we went that far south with our conventions and [San Antonio] is our newest branch, so it was a celebration of the branch’s founding as well as the North American convention and the 60th anniversary,” she told Irish America, speaking by phone from her home in St. Louis. “We actually had some people drive all the way down from Canada to Texas, and musicians from all over the country, including such big names as Larry Reynolds, Joanie Madden, Joe Furlong and Margie Mulvehill and others, and about 600 people in attendance at our banquet.”

Gannon does a lot of traveling in her role as CCE’s chairperson: she was just back from Ireland when we spoke in early May. She and other Comhaltas members from around the world had gathered in Tullamore, Co. Offally, for Comhaltas Ireland’s 60th Anniversary celebrations with entertainment that included all-Ireland accordion and fiddle champions going back all the way to the 1950s. Barely home, she was just about to hop on a plane to Atlanta to hand out scholarships to musicians. She explained: “There are 299 feiseanna every weekend in the year in North America and we realized a few years ago that we were hurting for musicians that could play for this high-profile dancing, so we established a scholarship for musicians to come and play and see if they can keep time to the dancers. And it’s working. The feises are now vying for these competitions.”

Next up for Helen and CCE: working out the logistics of the Comhaltas concert tour of North America in October.

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Bill Clinton on Ireland’s Economic Crisis and Recovery https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/bill-clinton-on-irelands-economic-crisis-and-recovery/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/07/bill-clinton-on-irelands-economic-crisis-and-recovery/#respond Fri, 01 Jul 2011 01:31:34 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3825 Read more..]]> Excerpts from Bill Clinton’s address at the 2011 Irish America Hall of Fame celebration.

“Most of us go back to Ireland and feel immediately at home in a way that’s impossible to describe. Most of us feel an inexpressible pride, not only in our roots, but in the fact of the peace and the fact that, even amidst this horrible economic calamity, no one is talking about getting rid of it. I want to just take two minutes and say something really serious. The success and the endurance of the peace and the continued involvement of the Irish American community, not only in the North but with the Republic as well, brings with it both a staggering opportunity and a profound responsibility to help the Irish respond in this moment of economic calamity and social and psychological chaos. We just had an enormously profoundly upsetting election change in the deck chairs of the Irish political scene. And here’s what I think: number one, there’s an economic problem, but I also think that getting through the economic thicket requires us to deal with the profound damage to the Irish psyche done by this collapse.

When I was a little boy, I heard stories about the Great Depression. I grew up in a state where the income was barely 50 percent of America’s average, so whatever was happening in the United States Great Depression, you could multiply by a factor of 50 percent in my native state. When President Roosevelt came to Arkansas to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the state [in 1936], one of these Works Progress projects distributed whitewash to people to paint their houses so when the president drove by on the route he would see, not that they were prosperous, but that the people were proud enough to have him there that they could at least make their houses white. Except there wasn’t enough whitewash so they only gave people enough to paint the fronts of their houses, but paint it they did and happy they were, and they endured.

The thing that’s troubled me most about this whole economic crisis in Ireland has been the rise in the suicide rate, not just among the young, but…among people in their prime working years, who feel somehow their whole lives have been robbed from them…But it is not the end of the world. It is the beginning of another chapter in Irish history, and somehow we need to help our friends there, not just to recover, but to keep their heads on straight while they are recovering so they can think about what the real choices are before them. A good friend of mine was one of the young, phenomenally prosperous Irishmen who took his life, and it made me think about this all over again.

I thank you for this honor, I’d like to just make you laugh, but the impacted sense of shame from this economic crisis and the paralysis of it has put our beloved homeland in another fix. They have voted themselves to make a new beginning despite the political changes, but we should never assume again that any given level of prosperity is permanent, that any economic arrangement cannot be improved, and that any clever thing we knew may not be changed by a little arrogance. And we should remember that what we loved about Ireland was how green and beautiful it was and how beautiful the poetry and the prose are, and how wonderful the music and the dance is, and that is what we remember about life. I am convinced that if every one of us had 30 lucid minutes right before we passed away, we would spend almost none of it thinking about how cool it was when we got rich. We would think about who we liked and who we loved and how the flowers smelled in the springtime, and when we made the passage from youth to adulthood, and what it was like when our children were born or when we gave our daughters away at the altar. The thing we always loved about Ireland had almost nothing to do with whether it was financially successful or not. It was what it was at the core. Ireland will be great and prosperous and wonderful again, simply by recovering what it is at the core. So it is for us not only to give them good advice, and investment and support, but to scrape away the barnacles which have clouded the vision of the place we love. Thank you and God bless you.”

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