October November 2008 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 The Real Bill Maher https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-real-bill-maher/ https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-real-bill-maher/#comments Wed, 01 Oct 2008 12:00:57 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8719 Read more..]]> Bill Maher gets real with Kelly Carlin-McCall about life, work and religion.

Smart, funny, bold, proverbial line-crosser – all of these words could be used to describe Bill Maher.  They also could have been used to describe my father, the late George Carlin.

Earlier this year, I got the chance to meet Bill Maher.  Unfortunately it was under circumstances I could have done without – the death of my father.  At my dad’s memorial service, Bill spoke about his personal feelings about my father’s work and the impact it had on him.  Bill said that my father had always been his rabbit – out front keeping him sharp and striving for the next line to cross that might  wake up the audience.   That observation hit me hard.  I thought, what are we going to do without our rabbit now?  Who will push the edge of our thinking, slap us into higher consciousness, all the while doing it in such a way that you can’t help but smile?

Bill Maher.  That’s who.

Maher was born January 20,1956, in New York City to an Irish Catholic father, William Maher Sr., and a Jewish mother, Julie Berman.  Raised in River Vale, New Jersey, Maher was exposed early on to talk of current events and political views by his father, who was a news editor for NBC. Unlike most families sitting around the dinner table in the early sixties, Maher’s parents (his father died in 1992 of cancer) immersed their kids (Bill has an older sister Kathy who is a teacher) in conversations on the big issues of the day, such as civil rights and politics. Couple this open and questioning environment with Maher’s father’s gregarious and comedic nature, and you have a perfect recipe for a political comic to be born.

Maher knew early on that he wanted to go into comedy, although he did not share his dream with his family until after his 1978 graduation from Cornell University. He climbed his way through the stand-up world cutting his teeth at Catch a Rising Star in New York City, then began appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1982.  For the next fifteen years he was a frequent guest with Carson and Letterman, and had a successful career as a stand-up comic. But, like most comics back in the 1980s, the goal was television sitcoms and movies. And although Maher did both, neither materialized in a satisfying way.

Then in 1994 a fledgling network, Comedy Central, was looking for something to put them on the map, and they turned to Maher.  Politically Incorrect, Maher’s show for the network, highlighted his unique ability to bring together a disparate group (from B-list actors to heads of state) to talk about the big issues of the day. And although the show moved to ABC and then was cancelled in 2002 after Maher made what the network considered controversial remarks about 9/11, it seemed that Maher had found his calling. He continues to follow this path on HBO with Real Time with Bill Maher.

I was thrilled to reconnect with Bill recently to talk to him about his life and work, and Religulous, his new documentary about religion directed by Borat director Larry Charles, that looks at religion from many angles. Bill too was happy to reconnect and just be talking to someone who was not a professional entertainment journalist.  The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What does it say about our country that it’s the comedians – Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report – who are in charge of the truth right now?

Well, I think it says that there’s a lot of bullshit [out there]. And I think it says that media, in general, is part of the problem.

I’m not even sure that they [Stewart and Colbert] are getting at the truth. I mean, just because you’re on the side of the liberals doesn’t make it true. People are lazy.  And I’m talking about media people too. So they’re very insecure about what’s the right answer, and if someone with confidence gives an answer, and it seems right and people are applauding, they all flock to it. It’s a sad state of affairs when the people who are supposed to be separating truth from fiction themselves don’t know what it is.  It’s like having a bad teacher in school. If the teacher doesn’t know, then the kids can’t know.  And if the media isn’t up to their job in delivering the news then the people are not going to be well informed.

And then where does that leave us, as a nation?

We’re all groping. It leaves us panicking.  We’re a panicky nation. We torture people.  Attack the wrong country.  That was panic, you know? Why do people panic?  They panic when they’re in the dark. When you’re ignorant, you’re in the dark.  And when you’re in the dark, everything scares you.

We had no clue [about the attacks on 9/11].  “Why did they do this to us? Why us Americans? We’re perfect. Doesn’t everybody know that?” I’m not saying it [9/11] was justified.  I don’t think it was.  But there’s a big difference between not being justified and people being so ignorant that they have no clue as to where it came from.  [The attack] didn’t come out of thin air.

Tell me about your Irish background and how you connect with it.

I’m half Irish. My mother certainly was not Irish. But my father was very Irish. I went to Ireland to find my roots, in 1999. There were a lot of Mahers. There are variations on the spelling. I think originally it had even more weird letters in it that aren’t pronounced.  I’ve seen it M-E-A-G-H-E-R, as many as seven letters. In Ireland there were a couple of towns where I took pictures of Maher’s Pharmacy and Maher’s Delicatessen and Maher’s this and Maher’s that.  So yeah, being Irish is part of my heritage.  But in your father’s last special, he said something that I had never said publicly but I’d always thought, which is, “I don’t see any reason to be proud of what you’re born. You’re proud of what you achieve.” It’s silly to be especially proud that you’re Irish, or Jewish, or Hungarian, but let’s say I’m not ashamed to be Irish. I’m kind of glad, because I like a lot of the traits that I think I get from having Irish blood flowing in me.  So I’m kind of glad that my father was Irish.

And what are some of those traits?

The Irish are a poetic people. I think they have communication skills above the ordinary. When you look at all the Irish authors and poets and playwrights, the list is pretty impressive.
And so I probably get some of my comedic skills from [being Irish]. I imagine it played a part.  And being a comedian has given me a great life. I can’t imagine being anything else. So I kind of attribute that to my Irish side.  Of course, the other half is Jewish. And they [the Irish and the Jews] have a lot more in common than you might think on the surface. The Jews were denied a homeland, just like the Irish, and they too made something of the soul and the artistic, as opposed to, say, the Romans building roads. So the fact that I’m half Irish and half Jewish, they both contributed to a sense of humor. But there’s no doubt that my father, the Irishman, was a gregarious, funny, living room comedian.

As my dad used to say, “You don’t lick it off the rocks.”   [Laughs]  Tell me a little bit about the atmosphere you grew up in.

I think it was atypical of an American upbringing, in the sense that we did talk politics. I think it was more like a European family in that sense, as opposed to most kids I knew who had an upbringing where it was almost considered impolite to talk politics at home with your family.  My mother and father talked and they certainly weren’t shy about sharing it with the kids. And my father certainly wasn’t shy about telling me how to think about matters that usually kids of a young age are not asked to think about, like civil rights. I grew up in an all-white town and yet my father did impress upon me at a young age that this country had a lot of work to do for the civil rights of black people.  I think they were called “negroes” then. So it was in my head even though I really [laughs] had never even met a “negro.”

You were raised a Catholic.  Did you ever buy into it?

Oh, yes, of course.  Well, you’re a child; they stuff it into your head. What are you going to do?  Who could argue at that age? I used to have a joke in my act that I, you know, at one time believed everything. I believed that there was a virgin birth. And I believed a man [Jonah] lived inside a whale. And I believed I was, you know, drink-eating the body of a space god when I had the wafer. But then something very important happened to me: I graduated from the sixth grade.

And that was the end of it?  

Of course it certainly wasn’t over that quickly. One thing we try to show in Religulous is that my evolution to where I am today was gradual, as I think it is for a lot of people. And especially when you’re raised Catholic, you know, you’re starting from a point of indoctrinated religious belief. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room. I kept a list of questions that I was given when I couldn’t have been more then seven years old.  I think it was to study for my first communion.  And it’s a series of questions like, you know, “Who is God?”  “Who am I?”  blah, blah, blah, that we had to memorize. There was a question, there was an answer for it, and that was it.  And there was no deviation from that answer. And that’s what religion is.  That’s why your father [George Carlin] and I, and people like us are against it; it’s the absolute antithesis of what we would consider free thinking.

But, yes, I went to church [as a kid].  We went to church every Sunday. I didn’t go to Catholic school, but we would be dropped off at catechism class. It wasn’t like school, because I didn’t know any of the kids. The classrooms were very crowded. The nuns were mean. I was young and scared. It just frightened me and I hated it. And then we went to church, which I didn’t hate as much. I was with my father and my sister so I felt safe.  It wasn’t scary.  It was just boring, and I thought, “What are they rambling on about?”  Half of it was in Latin.

During that time, the late 60s/early 70s, there was an evolution of thought going on in this country.  People were walking away from institutions.  They were questioning authority on a huge level.

My father stopped going to church when I was about 12 or 13, right before I was supposed to be confirmed, which is why I don’t have a middle name, because that’s where you get your middle name, at your confirmation. That was about 1968/’69 and my father just pulled the plug. I don’t think he ever said why, we just stopped going. And I wasn’t about to argue. It would have been like the kid asking for more homework. I just shut up. I was like, great. I hope this lasts forever.  And, you know, I don’t think I ever went back. And I don’t think he did either. He was much more conflicted about it than I was. I was thrilled. He, because he grew up in a very Catholic household, and had been a devout Catholic for all those years, I think it troubled him and gave him some guilt right to the end.

It was around that time that you found out your mom wasn’t going to church with you because she was Jewish.

Right. I wouldn’t say it was traumatic to find out [that she was Jewish], but what was more traumatic for me was that here I was, 13 years old, and I was just finding out this important thing about my family that I hadn’t ever been told.  It didn’t bother me that she was Jewish; it bothered me that we didn’t we talk about it.

This was one thing I really wanted to have on film, and luckily [my mother] lived long enough to be interviewed in the movie, because I had never really asked her the question, “Why didn’t we ever have a family discussion about this?”  And she didn’t really have a good answer [laughs].

Why do you think that was?

I guess they just figured, well, he’s too young, he can’t really understand, or perhaps they thought it would be very confusing.  You’re trying to tell a kid, Hey, there’s only one way to think about the afterlife, and that’s in these questions and these answers. I just think the years rolled by and they forgot about it.  It just became part of the routine. Every Sunday my father, my sister and I would go to church; Mom would stay home. I never thought anything of it.

What did you learn about religion, or yourself, or the world by doing Religulous?

I learned I didn’t want to make any more movies [laughs]. It’s a lot of getting up really early and having makeup on your face all day. And I didn’t learn much about religion, or rather what I learned is that it’s as nutty as I thought it was, even nuttier. We spent a week in Jerusalem, which I call “the funny-hat capital of the world” because everybody in that town is wearing some weird hat and getup. There are so many different sects, so many different offshoots and branches of the three major religions, and they all got their own uniform.  That place is a feast for the eyes. I would say that in general, my belief about religion wasn’t shaken. I certainly didn’t see a cross on the road to Damascus.

No Virgin Mary in your soup or anything.

You know, there’s just some crazy stuff they believe and do, and a lot of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). A lot of really cuckoo stuff there in Jerusalem. I think Judaism in America, except for the very Orthodox, is much more just cultural.

If people shouldn’t believe in religion, what would you have them believe in?

Ethics. Religious people don’t need to be ethical, because [religion] is mostly about salvation. It’s about closing your eyes, very tightly, and believing in someone so much, without question, that when you die he will save your ass.  [Religion is] about saving your ass.  And that ain’t ethical. There’s a million reasons I could give you as to why a religious [person] is less moral than an ethicist, but here’s just one. Religious people think that animals don’t have a soul – we’re so sure people do – so it’s okay to torture and kill and do anything you want to animals because there’s some bullshit in the Bible about how we have dominion over them and they don’t have a soul.   For that reason alone I dislike religion.

Where do you think America is right now?  And what direction do you want to see the country take?

I want it to go towards the light! God, there’s so many areas where it needs to be patched up and fixed. In general, I want to see America get out of the [Iraq] war, so that we have the money and the energy to do something else. I want us, obviously, to address the environmental problems that are becoming so frightening. The frogs are dying, the bees are dying, the glaciers are melting. I don’t know what has to happen before the world takes notice. And, you know, America always bragging that it is Number One. Well, if it’s Number One, it’s got to take the lead. And it hasn’t taken the lead, so why should other countries fall in line behind us?

And I would just like us to become a nation that thinks more.  This stuff that’s going on now about oil drilling offshore – you know, even the oil companies [laughs] are saying, “You know what?  It really wouldn’t help anything, long range or short range.” You’d think that would be enough for people. And yet, two-thirds of America are like, “No, let’s start drilling.  That’ll lower gas prices.” We need the type of leader who will say, “Hey, folks, wrong answer. Not going to help anything. Not going to fix your short-term problems. Definitely is bad for the long range.”  We really need to get off the oil. You know, when you’ve got 80-year-old oil men like T. Boone Pickens who are against drilling offshore and want to convert to wind and solar power, that says something about where this nation is.

One of the things that you dive into in Religulous is the Founding Fathers’ take on religion, and how the Christian religious right has said that this is a Christian nation and how you found out that that just wasn’t true.

We are a nation that was founded by people who were trying to get away from religious dogmatism and the authority of kings and priests. The founding documents are very vague. They talk about “the Creator” but nothing very specific – nothing at all about Jesus Christ. You’d think, if it was [to be] a Christian nation they would mention Jesus in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. That alone should tell you something.  They [the religious right] try to take quotes out of context. Jefferson wrote that bible where he took out all “woo-woo” from Jesus; just left the philosopher. And he [Jesus] is a great philosopher. We can all admire the philosophy.

So,  how would you categorize the Founding Fathers?

The Founding Fathers were more deists.  If you had to categorize them as anything. There was some sort of moving prime force. But it’s an impersonal force. Some people call it Nature.  Certainly not this personal god who you have a personal relationship with, who listens to your prayers and answers them, or doesn’t. You know, not the silly stuff that most Americans believe because we’re such a dumb nation.

Clearly you’ve walked away from the dogmatic stuff.  But do you have your own private spiritual path?

One thing people don’t often ask me is “What do you actually believe? We know what you don’t believe.” I mostly preach the doctrine of “I don’t know.” It doesn’t trouble me that much that there are big questions that I can’t answer.  I’ve never been able to answer them; I never will. I just kind of let it go.  “Where did we all come from?” “What’s the meaning of it all?” “What happens when you die?” Who the f—- knows?   What I do know is that it [laughs] gets my Irish up, to beg the point of our interview, when people make up stories and sell an invisible product. It’s such a scam. I just think people should man-up, suck it up, and just say “I don’t know,” instead of closing their eyes very tightly and insisting on believing something that part of them must know is not true.  So when people say, “Yeah, but could it be Jesus Christ?”  Yes, it could be.  And it could be the lint in my navel. It could be a lot of things. I tend to doubt very strongly [the story of] Jesus Christ or any other story that just smacks of the kind of thing that primitive men would come up with.

One part of the movie that blows people away is when we present the different gods that preceded Jesus Christ, who were also crucified. Who they said died for people’s sins, died for three days, came back to life, born of a virgin, baptized in a river. Horace in Egypt and Mithra in Persia and Krishna in India – almost the exact same story as Jesus Christ.

So my main doctrine is, just suck it up and say “I don’t know.” But I also understand that it’s a bit of a luxury to not need to have this sort of spiritual reassurance. And I’m not trying to point fingers, but I do sincerely believe that, unless we shed this skin of myth turned into religion, mankind can’t progress very far, to the point where we need to solve some problems, especially now, that are becoming life-threatening. And [religion] diverts us from so much that needs to be accomplished.  And there are so many people who – and this is very frightening to me – are okay with the world ending.


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The First Word: Sharing the American Dream https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-first-word-sharing-the-american-dream/ https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-first-word-sharing-the-american-dream/#respond Wed, 01 Oct 2008 11:59:42 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8725 Read more..]]> This issue is a feast of Irish-Americana. There’s something to suit every taste and even the pickiest reader. Some history, some humor, some of who we are today.

There’s the inspirational songbird Kelli O’Hara, whose Irish ancestors settled in Oklahoma during the Land Rushes, and Bill Maher who was born in New York to an Irish father and a Jewish mother. There’s even a salute to the Year of the Potato. No doubt, what Bill Maher has to say will find agreement with some and give others apoplexy. But hey, there’s nothing like a little diversity of opinion to stir the soup.

And today’s Irish are nothing if not diverse. The old stereotype of the Irish, confined to neighborhoods, church-going citizens in public service jobs, does not apply.

Nowadays, A Portrait of Irish America is more likely to include a photo of Eileen Collins, the space shuttle commander, as it is an Irish laborer.

We have spread out across the U.S. and have found success in every segment of American society. Yet we still carry the traits and characteristics of hardscrabble ancestors. Handed down from generation to generation, is a love of politics, education, the church, and yes, a good argument.

Maher has inherited the mantle of the  late great contrarian George Carlin who said, “As long as I have sound ideas, a sound underpinning of argument and analysis, then there’s nothing I can’t or shouldn’t talk about.”

In this issue Bill Maher sits down with Kelly Carlin-McCall, George’s daughter, to discuss among other things, God (he has a new movie out, Religulous), the state of America, and his Irish father. He’s not “proud” to be Irish, but he’s not “ashamed” either.  Like George Carlin, he thinks that it’s ridiculous to be proud of something that you had no control over, but at the same time he’s glad to have inherited his father’s humor which he says has helped him in his choice of career.

Humor is the great leveler. It’s a great communication skill. It’s an Irish specialty, honed on the horns of adversity as a way of coping. And God knows, we Irish have had enough grievances to make us very funny indeed. “Humor” was also a way to keep us down. The stupid Paddy jokes, as told by the English, the offish cartoons in Harper’s magazine, which the publishers now ruefully admit were “some of the worst humor ever to reach print.”

But who’s laughing now?

As writer Pete Hamill says, “The Irish won all the late rounds.”

We are top of the heap. But the slurs haven’t gone away. They have just been redirected – today they are aimed at the newest immigrants, in particular the Latinos, and it’s ugly.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘We don’t want to send our kids back to school because we’re afraid people don’t like Mexicans,’” said Mayor Thomas O’Neill of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. O’Neill was speaking in the aftermath of the recent brutal beating that resulted in the death of Luis Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant. Four teenage members of the high school football team have been charged in his death. One of whom, sad to say, is Colin Walsh – Irish, at least in name.

Would Colin have raised his boot had he been more aware of his own history?

Shenandoah is coal country where the “papes,” the Irish Catholic famine immigrants, labored  and lived under ethnic slurs that followed them out to the coal fields. They were given the worst jobs, bringing the coal to the surface where children as young as seven worked on the slag heaps.  Back then (it’s not that long ago – just two lifespans) not only were the Irish miners discriminated against, they were unprotected by the law. A congressional act of February 27, 1865 authorized the formation of private police forces, the armed Coal and Iron Police who were brutal in suppressing any labor organization.

Not far from where Ramirez was killed, on December 9, 1875, Charles O’Donnell, a miner who was thought to be involved in the labor movement, his daughter and young son were murdered by an armed vigilante group. No one was arrested for the crime.

Knowing our history gives us a deeper understanding of who we are, and it should be the key to understanding the struggle of others. We triumphed through hard work, education, the church, politics, and military service. Most immigrants are only looking for the same opportunities.

The Irish-American story is an inspiration to those struggling today. Now that we have a platform, we can bring a voice of reason to the debate. Here’s one fact that is often hidden: the economic contribution of the undocumented. According to a New York Times story, Social Security receives up to seven billion a year from undocumented immigrants – money they can never reclaim.

The American dream is not ours alone. We cannot separate ourselves from our past or pull the ladder up after us.

Mortas Cine.

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The Brilliance of Beckett https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-brilliance-of-beckett/ https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-brilliance-of-beckett/#respond Wed, 01 Oct 2008 11:58:30 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8727 Read more..]]> On Wednesday, July 23, as part of Lincoln Center Festival’s stunning Gate|Beckett series, an audience of some 75 Samuel Beckett devotees gathered in Lincoln Center’s Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse to listen to Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan, actor Barry McGovern (I’ll Go On), and John Collins, Founder and Director of New York’s Elevator Repair Service (Gatz and The Sound and the Fury) in conversation with music critic, editor, and dance critic John Rockwell. In addition to talking about the works of Samuel Beckett, the men discussed their experiences with adapting his novels and novellas for the stage. Excerpts from that discussion follow.

On making changes to a writer’s work:

Michael Colgan: Barry and I got to know Beckett and he was very precise.  If an artist wants his canvas to be four feet off the ground on a grey background it’s arrogance not to do it the way the author wants it. But then, when I made the films of all the Beckett plays, some of the religious fans said they should not be done as films, just as plays.

Barry Mc Govern: Beckett was a great experimenter.  He was always tinkering with his plays. Krapp’s Last Tape was made into an opera with his blessings.  There is a lot of nonsense talked about Beckett and crossing genres.

Question from John Rockwell: You’ve done all of the official stage plays by Beckett.  Now you are doing material not meant for the stage. Why?

Michael Colgan: Lust for Beckett is the answer. When I took over the Gate in 1983 I wrote to Barry and we talked about Barry doing something at the Gate. There were one-man shows in the 1970s and 1980s by actors but they would take pieces out of context.   We decided not to take the pieces out of context.  So Barry decided to do the adaptation with Gerry Dukes.

Barry Mc Govern: We were reading the canon of Beckett deciding what to do. I said, “Why not go with these three great novels?  There’s a load of something we could mine.”  Gerry Dukes and I worked on the text over a number of months. We came up with the formula. Three months to the day we came up with the final script.

Question from John Rockwell: There is a ton of humor in I’ll Go On.  Did you stress the humor?

Barry Mc Govern: We wanted to find a balance. The essential story is the search for identity and the search for self.  He is seeking release and peace but he can only find these by speaking words. The play is a meditation on what it means to be alive in the world.

Question from John Rockwell: Do you have any other Beckett projects in view?

Barry McGovern: We will do a tour of Waiting for Godot in the 32 counties in Ireland in September and October this year.  But I have done more Shakespeare and Yeats than Beckett. I see myself as a working actor, not as a ‘Beckett’ actor.

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Galway Arts Festival https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/galway-arts-festival/ https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/galway-arts-festival/#respond Wed, 01 Oct 2008 11:57:54 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8733 Read more..]]> The 31st Galway Arts Festival, which ran from July 14-27, was another huge success for both the city and lovers of the arts.  Though Ireland was soaked with enough rain to dampen the most ardent optimist this summer, for 14 days the city of the Tribesmen was drenched with music, theater and art.

One couldn’t take a stroll down the quays without encountering some jovial interference from the many street performers that combed the winding streets of the packed city.

Festival highlights included an installation exhibit by Toronto-based artist Max Streicher, who has spent over 17 years working with large-scale inflatable forms.

The Northlight Theatre Company from Chicago made its Irish debut at the festival with Better Life.  John Mahoney, frequent visitor to Galway and co-star of TV’s Frasier, was lauded for his performance in the play by Larry Gelbart.

Music acts from Blondie to  Tinariwen, and The Dandy Warhols to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, graced the Festival Big Top at Fisheries Fields. Irish stars Ash, Damien Dempsey, Cathey Davey and Lisa Hannigan kept the home flag flying, while the likes of Lúnasa and Maigh Seola made sure traditional Irish music was well represented.

As well as the big names, scores of impromptu musicians and groups busked on the streets in the evenings. Roll on 2009!

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The Conventions https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-conventions/ https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-conventions/#respond Wed, 01 Oct 2008 11:57:40 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8730 Read more..]]> Ireland was in the background at this year’s Democratic and Republican National Conventions, but it was there.

On the eve of the Democratic Convention in Denver, Senator Barack Obama appeared in Springfield, Illinois, to introduce his candidate for vice president, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.

Biden has long been an outspoken advocate for Irish-American issues and Obama has struggled to win over Irish-American voters, so part of the calculus that went into the choice of Biden was the hope that Biden can bring voters in places like his home town of Scranton, Pennsylvania into Obama’s column. Between them, they mentioned “Scranton” five times and “Catholic” three times during the speech.

“He was the son of a single mom, who struggled to support herself and her kids and raised him to believe in America,” Biden said about Obama. “I was different. I was an Irish Catholic kid from Scranton.”

When he got to the convention and gave his speech on Wednesday night, Biden pointed to his mother, Catherine Eugene Finnegan Biden, sitting in the audience. Some conservative bloggers criticized Biden for referring to her as a great “American” in Denver when in the past he has complimented his mother – of Derry heritage  – with being “quintessentially Irish.”
“Biden 08 plagiarizes from Biden 06 – transforms his mother from Irish to American,” one anti-Obama website railed.

Returning to his hometown of Scranton the Monday after the convention, Biden recounted that when he grew up there, “To be Irish was to be Catholic was to be Democrat.”
Back at the convention, Senator Edward Kennedy, recovering from cancer treatment, made a surprise appearance and was greeted with a tumultuous ovation.

“I have come here tonight to stand with you to change America, to restore its future, to rise to our best ideals and to elect Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States,” Kennedy said to a standing crowd.

“Together we have known success and seen setbacks … but we have never lost our belief that we are all called to a better country and a newer world,” he said. “I pledge to you that I will be there next January on the floor of the Senate.”

His brief speech marked only the second time he has been seen in public since undergoing surgery for a brain tumor on June 2. His appearance came at his own insistence, a source close to the Kennedys said.

The 76-year-old senator compared Obama to his brother, the late president. “We are told that Barack Obama believes too much in an America of high principle and bold endeavors,” Ted said. “But when John F. Kennedy thought of going to the moon, he didn’t say, ‘It’s too far to get there – we shouldn’t even try.’

“Our people answered his call and rose to the challenge, and today an American flag still marks the surface of the moon.”

He added: “This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans. So, with Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”

“[Ted Kennedy has] been a powerful force around the world for human rights and human dignity, for refugees and the dispossessed; he helped end apartheid in South Africa and bring peace in Northern Ireland,” his niece, Caroline Kennedy, told delegates.

On Monday night of the convention, Senator Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel held a party at Fado’s Irish pub which filled a city block. Maryland’s bodhrán-playing Governor Martin O’Malley repeated the feat on Wednesday night at the convention. O’Malley grabbed a guitar and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, a runner-up to Biden in the Veep-stakes, joined him on harmonica.

In Minnesota’s Twin Cities at the Republican National Convention, Irish-American Republicans and Carribean-American Republicans held a joint celebration at the Minneapolis City Hall where the corned beef overwhelmed the jerk chicken. Former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) John Bruton; Irish Ambassador Michael Collins; former Reagan cabinet secretary and ambassador to Ireland Margaret Heckler; Irish-American Republicans Director Grant Lally; and others were on hand to push the Irish agenda.

Republican nominee John McCain backed a plank in the Party platform supporting a special envoy to Northern Ireland.

A video shown at the convention touted the Irish roots of aspiring first lady Cindy McCain. Republican National Committee members held court at the Liffey Pub across the street from the Excel Center in St. Paul where the convention was being held. The Illinois delegation, led by State Rep. Jim Durkin and Republican National Committeeman Patrick Brady, plotted ways to bring John McCain on a fact-finding tour of Ireland should he win.

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Irish Eye On Hollywood https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/irish-eye-on-hollywood-11/ https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/irish-eye-on-hollywood-11/#comments Wed, 01 Oct 2008 11:56:00 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8736 Read more..]]> Liam Cunningham is an Irish actor to look out for as fall approaches. He has built up an impressive resume of Irish and British movies, including Ken Loach’s provocative Irish Civil War Epic The Wind that Shakes the Barley as well as Breakfast on Pluto, in which Cunningham co-starred with fellow Irish actor Cillian Murphy.
Cunningham’s most recent appearance was in the summer horror movie The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor starring Brendan Fraser.
Keep an eye out for Cunningham in Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s riveting depiction of the Northern Ireland hunger strikes which made a global icon out of Bobby Sands (played by German-born, Irish-reared actor Michael Fassbender). Cunningham plays a priest in Hunger, which has been a smash hit on the cinema festival circuits – including Cannes, where it picked up a top award for first time movie makers – but does not yet have a U.S. release date.
In October, Cunningham is also slated to appear in Blood: The Last Vampire, set at a U.S. military compound in Japan, which has been taken over by vampires.

Believe it or not, Colin Farrell is currently shooting a film which also has a military as well as vampire angle. Farrell will star in Triage, which is shooting in Dublin.  The film also stars Paz Vega, and it is about a war photographer sent to Kurdistan, only to watch his best friend die. While attempting to cope with this loss, he befriends his girlfriend’s grandfather, who may have a dark war secret of his own in his past. Farrell is also serving as a producer on Triage.
What could possibly be the vampire angle to Triage? Well, among the film’s co-stars is horror veteran Christopher Lee, who played the most famous vampire of them all, Count Dracula, in a 1950s version of the bloodsucker story. A final Colin Farrell note: the much-anticipated New York Irish cop epic Pride and Glory, featuring Farrell and Edward Norton and directed by Gavin O’Connor, is slated for an October 24 release.

Another release to look out for which will surely get lots of promotion during the summer season of silly cinema is The Race to Witch Mountain, featuring sophisticated Northern Ireland stage and screen veteran Ciaran Hinds alongside former wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The film, about magical kids trying to escape from dastardly villains, is a revival of the 1970s Witch Mountain franchise, which included Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain. No exact release date for this Hinds-“Rock” collaboration has been set.

On to independent Irish film news, September 19 is an important date for Kilkenny-based director Tomm Moore.  On that date his animated feature The Secret of Kells – already granted an award by the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland – will be showcased at the Directors Guild of America Theatre in Los Angeles. Movie bigwigs will be on hand, giving Moore a shot at an American film deal. The Secret of Kells tells the story of the boy behind the famed Book of Kells. According to the film’s producers: “Twelve hundred years ago, an orphan named Brendan meets Brother Aidan, the keeper of an extraordinary, but unfinished book of illuminations. Aidan sets Brendan a great task, to complete the Book of Kells. With the threat of invading Vikings all around and with the help of Aisling, a mysterious young girl, Brendan faces his deepest fears to complete the task.”
Another independent film to look out for is The Greening of Southie.  Produced by Curt Ellis, the documentary explores efforts by environmentalists to create the first completely “green” building in the famous Irish enclave in Boston.  Aside from its educational aspect, part of the film’s appeal is its depiction of the efforts to win Irish-American laborers over to the environmental cause, which is spearheaded by a wealthy (and quite young) real estate heir.  The film has been shown on the Sundance channel and festival.  (Go to greeningofsouthie.com to order a DVD.)
Finally, Marian Quinn’s 32A is building buzz on the festival circuit. The coming-of-age drama was written and directed by Quinn and stars her famous brother Aidan, as well as acclaimed Irish actress Orla Brady.
Set in 1979 Dublin, 32A revolves around 13-year-old Maeve (played by newcomer Ailish McCarthy), who is having trouble entering womanhood.  All her friends seem at ease with boys, but not Maeve.  So it is all the more surprising when Maeve starts dating the local heartthrob.
Aidan Quinn, of course, has amassed a highly impressive body of Irish and American film work. Most recently, he completed shooting a film called A Shine of Rainbows in Ireland. Orla Brady, meanwhile, is probably best known to U.S. audiences for her work in the TV shows Shark and Nip / Tuck.
The Quinns are not the only members of the 32A cast with good connections. The film also features up-and-coming star Jared Harris (son of Richard Harris) as well as Kate O’Toole (Peter O’Toole’s daughter).
In Irish-American documentary news, Thomas Maier’s excellent book, The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, is being made into a two-hour Warner Brothers documentary.  The film will be shown in select theaters and then released on DVD. Screenings in New York will begin in November. The big news when it comes to television is that it appears The Sopranos are going Irish.

One of the more anticipated TV shows of the fall season is Life on Mars, which stars two Irish actors, Jason O’Mara and Colm Meaney.
O’Mara plays Sam Tyler, a modern-day detective transported back to 1972. Meaney plays a detective who actually worked in the early 1970s. Life on Mars is a remake of the acclaimed BBC detective series. Former Sopranos star Michael Imperioli has joined the Life on Mars cast.
Another Sopranos star is hoping an Irish-American character will be good show biz luck next year.  Edie Falco – Tony Soprano’s long-suffering wife –  is slated to star in Nurse Jackie, in which she plays Jackie O’Hurley, a brilliant nurse who  has personal problems. Set in a bustling New York City hospital, press reports about Nurse Jackie – which should air on Showtime next year – also play up the fact that Nurse O’Hurley struggles with her Catholicism. The series also stars Eve Best, Peter Facinelli and Paul Schulze.
Finally on the TV front, Rhode Island native Michaela McManus, best know for starring in One Tree Hill, has been added as a new assistant DA to the cast of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

If today’s TV and movies are not your thing and you want to go back to Hollywood’s golden age with an Irish-American star, 20th Century Fox has just released a boxed DVD set titled The Tyrone Power Matinee Idol Collection. A star through the 1930s and 1940s, Power was a great-grandson to the acclaimed Irish actor of the same name. Power’s films include The Luck of the Irish, in which he plays a newspaperman who becomes pals with a leprechaun (played by Cecil Kellaway). The film was made with a green tint to lend authenticity to scenes set in Ireland.
The Tyrone Power Matinee Idol Collection also includes early films such as Love Is News, Café Metropole and Second Honeymoon (all with Loretta Young) and later films such as Prince of Foxes and Nightmare Alley.
Sadly, Power died in 1958, following a heart attack, when he was just 44.

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The Battle Over Ulysses https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-battle-over-ulysses/ https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-battle-over-ulysses/#respond Wed, 01 Oct 2008 11:55:27 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8739 Read more..]]>  The court case that changed the way Americans read.

During a first-season episode of the excellent AMC TV series Mad Men, set in the New York advertising world of the 1960s, several secretaries are seen gathered around the office water cooler, whispering. Finally, one secretly passes along a well-thumbed copy of the erotic literary classic Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was only approved for legal publication in the early 1960s.
The fact that a mere novel could hold such cultural power seems almost quaint at this point in time.

However, such curious secretaries may never have had the chance to whisper about D.H. Lawrence’s famous novel if not for a landmark legal battle that took place 75 years ago.  The case involved one passionate Irishman, challenged the censorship of perhaps the greatest novel ever written, and changed the way Americans read.

A Time for Censorship

Censorship debates, of course, are still with us.  Debates over free or “inappropriate” speech seem to arise every other week, whether it’s controversial magazine covers or shock jocks who, in the minds of some, “go too far.”  Then too, lyrics in music performed by gangster rappers or heavy metal rockers always seem to offend somebody.

So it is easy to believe we did not have these rancorous debates in the good old days, when it seemed that all entertainment was wholesome, everything was black and white, the good guys always won, and jazz – which is now studied in universities and played only on publicly-supported radio stations – was the most provocative form of music.

But censorship was on everyone’s mind in 1933.

The most immediate and pressing issue, in the minds of Irish-Americans and many other Catholics across the U.S., were gangster movies, among them The Public Enemy in which James Cagney played Irish Chicago killer Tom Powers.

But even as cinematic gangsters were killing cops, corrupting women, and shipping illegal booze, a different kind of censorship battle was unfolding in a Manhattan courtroom.

At its center was, of all things, an 800-page novel with the strange title Ulysses, by a brooding Irishman named James Joyce.

All in all, it took nearly 15 years of arrests, court fights, and even book burnings before the battle over Ulysses was finally settled in the fall of 1933.

The Exiled Artist

Joyce had already left his homeland by the time he began writing Ulysses around 1914. His brilliant story collection Dubliners had already been published, followed by his autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Joyce then turned solely to his monumentally ambitious retelling of the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey. Joyce, however, would have that epic unfold on a single day, June 16, 1904, in the lives of a tortured young artist Stephen and a kindly, passionate Dublin Jew named Leopold Bloom.

Given Joyce’s ancient inspirations and complex wordplay, Ulysses seemed unlikely to ruffle many feathers. In fact, as the novel grew longer and longer, it seemed that few people would even bother to read it.

However, although Joyce’s previous books had not sold very well, he did have an avant-garde following. It was also clear that while he had an interest in mythology, linguistics, and politics, he did not shy away from sexual and scatological matters, the kind of naughty stuff for which obscenity laws were written.

In 1920, after editor Margaret Anderson published a section of Ulysses in The Little Review, U.S. Postal officials seized copies of the literary magazine. Among the episodes which alarmed the likes of The Society for the Suppression of Vice was one featuring Leopold Bloom sitting on a Dublin beach, fantasizing about a fair maiden.

In 1921, Margaret Anderson was hauled into court. Copies of The Little Review featuring Ulysses excerpts were either confiscated or, in some cases, actually burned. On the grounds that the material might corrupt children or women (even though it was the woman Margaret Anderson who saw the brilliance in Ulysses), Joyce’s material was deemed obscene. His masterpiece, more than likely, would never be published in the U.S. or Britain, which similarly deemed the book offensive.
A Second Court Battle

One bit of good news for Joyce was that the battle over Ulysses garnered the book plenty of attention. Sylvia Beach, who owned the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, told Joyce it would be an “honor” to publish Ulysses, which she did in 1922.

Soon afterwards, smuggled copies were making their way into the U.S. The book, however, was still deemed legally “obscene” as the 1920s drew to a close, much to the chagrin of Bennett Cerf, who had started a little publishing business called Random House.

Cerf told Joyce that Random House would publish the book in the U.S. – but only if the courts allowed him.

That’s when the plotting began. Cerf hired acclaimed obscenity lawyer Morris L. Ernst to provoke a legal challenge to the initial obscenity ruling.  In 1932, a copy of Ulysses was shipped to the U.S. and Joyce’s American allies made sure that customs agents seized it, setting the stage for an epic battle over an epic novel.

The case – The U.S. vs. One Book Called Ulysses – began in July of 1933.

Is It Pornographic?

Ernst was happy to see the case go to Judge John M. Woolsey, known as a sophisticated writer and thinker who loved books.  That was important because now it was not just racy excerpts on trial but the entire Ulysses novel – which features scenes in a brothel as well as Molly Bloom’s famous, uh, climactic scene.

As The New York Times reported during the trial: “The principal question [Judge Woolsey] had to solve … was whether or not Joyce’s purpose in writing the book had been pornographic.”
Woolsey took the time to read Ulysses start to finish before the trial, which began with arguments about some of the four-letter words Joyce chose to use.

Ernst argued that these words were offensive only because society chose to make them taboo – and that, furthermore, they were more honest than evasive phrases such as “sleep together.”  Similarly, the coarse thoughts of Joyce’s characters are rendered in realistic stream-of-consciousness, and thus marked a legitimate contribution to the literary art form, Ernst argued.

Nevertheless, the prosecution had one seemingly airtight argument: certain sections of Ulysses, when read on their own, were sexually explicit and inarguably obscene, and thus illegal. What would happen if a child were to get his hands on such material?

Ernst’s response: “Adult literature (should not) be reduced to mush for infants.” On December 6, Judge Woolsey delivered his opinion.

“His Locale Was Celtic”

“I hold that Ulysses is a sincere and honest book,” Woolsey wrote. “The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men, and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe, by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe.”

Woolsey even suggested that readers should keep in mind Joyce’s Irish setting. “In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.”

Woolsey agreed with Ernst that adult readers should be distinguished from children. “I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes Ulysses is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.”

Woolsey concluded: “If one does not wish to associate with such folks as Joyce describes, that is one’s own choice.”

The Big Winners

In the end, there were many winners in the epic battle to publish Ulysses in America. First, of course, was Joyce himself.  Literary scholars – and now a federal judge – had deemed his work a masterpiece.  His reputation as a genius – and one with a comic-smutty streak – spread far and wide. Not that Joyce needed the reassurance.  He once boasted: “If Ulysses isn’t fit to read, then life isn’t fit to live.”

Bennett Cerf, along with partner Donald S. Klopfer, also came out of the case well. Their publishing firm Random House printed Joyce’s book and went on to become one of the world’s dominant publishing houses.  Another big winner was the American reader, who could now alone decide what was bad and what was brilliant.

Perhaps the biggest winner in all of this, however, may well have been the lawyer who represented Ulysses, Morris Ernst.  Yes, he had the satisfaction of helping to change America’s cultural landscape, and brought a great work of literature to the masses.

But he also agreed to take payment for the case only if he won. What was his payment? Five percent of the royalties on the first 10,000 published copies of Ulysses, followed by two percent of all later printings.

Needless to say, Ulysses is still in print, 75 years after Ernst won the Ulysses obscenity case.

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Broadway’s Irish Colleen: Kelli O’Hara https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/broadways-irish-colleen-kelli-ohara/ https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/broadways-irish-colleen-kelli-ohara/#respond Wed, 01 Oct 2008 11:54:22 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8743 Read more..]]> We all know the wonderful score of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific. The romantic ballads such as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger Than Springtime,” the joyous numbers “Cock- Eyed Optimist” and “In Love with a Wonderful Guy,” the humorous songs “Nothing Like a Dame” and “Honey Bun,” and the insightful lyrics of “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” – these all play in our heads.

Many of us saw the movie, but none of that familiarity prepares you for the pure jolt of emotion that the performers in Lincoln Center Theater’s production of the musical South Pacific, as directed by Bartlett Sher, sends out to the audience. While being utterly true to the original intent of the show, Kelli O’Hara as Ensign Nellie Forbush, Paulo Szot as French planter Emile de Becque, Matthew Morrison as Marine Lt. Joseph Cable and a cast the New York Times calls “flawless” reveal levels and nuance that take your breath away.

“Even when crying, the audience is happy,” Julia Judge, Artistic Administrator of Lincoln Center Theater, said of the feedback she’s gotten from theatergoers. Ben Brantley in his New York Times review wrote, “I could feel the people around me leaning in toward the stage as if it were a source of warmth . . . it’s the fire of daily life with all its crosscurrents and ambiguities underscored and clarified by music.”

I saw South Pacific on Memorial Day weekend when Fleet Week filled New York with sailors and marines who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Lt. Joe Cable jumps out of the airplane that brought him from combat on one of the islands on which the marines fought so fiercely and lost so many, we’re with the characters at every turn. South Pacific seems to speak directly to us today. It’s our story as Americans that’s up there on the stage.

And here is Nellie Forbush (O’Hara) singing, “I heard the human race isfalling on its face, and hasn’t very far to go. But every whippoorwill is selling me a bill, and telling me it just ain’t so.” That’s the spirit that animates South Pacific. And O’Hara, who was nominat- ed for Tony awards for her roles in The Light in the Piazza and The Pajama Game, and this year for South Pacific, is an actress who can thrill us with her voice, astonish us with her dancing, amuse us with her clowning and still reveal a woman who comes to question all her unconscious beliefs.
I met up with O’Hara one evening in early August. She talked about her fami- ly history and heritage when I sat down with her in her dressing room prior to another sold-out Friday night performance.

“I’m proud to be Irish,” she said, though she grew up far from the usual Irish-American centers. “I was born and raised in Oklahoma. Both sides of my family came there during the time of the land run in 1889. [The land run started at high noon on April 22, 1889, with 50,000 people dashing for their piece of the two million acres opened for settlement.] My great-grandfather, Peter O’Hara, was born in Ireland, I believe in County Clare. His father, my great-great-grand- father, had actually come to America a generation before when times were very bad in Ireland. He worked in the Pennsylvania area and did well with horses and farming. My great-aunt, who is in her nineties, told me the story. She said that he went back to Ireland, either to get his family or to live there with his newfound wealth, but he was actually forced to leave. Something happened and he had to take his family and nothing else and escape at night. This would be at the end of the 19th century. Three of his sons, my great-grandfather Peter and his brothers James and Michael, split off from the rest of the family to go find land. They landed in western Oklahoma and participated in the land rush. We still farm the land that they found. My dad’s brother Robert lives on the original farm. My father and brother are both Patrick O’Haras. Our family has a long wonder- ful history of Irish lineage that I’ve enjoyed learning about, though I don’t know enough.

“It’s sad how the stories get lost. I want to write down my great-aunt’s memories. We do have one precious possession that’s been handed down. It’s an Irish cookbook that we use all the time. On the cover, written in Irish, is O’hEaghra : O’ Hara.”

A cookbook. That’s different. More often it’s Irish music.

By my time, we had only a song or two, and every once in a while an aunt would pull out an Irish blessing and read it. But the biggest thing for us is food.
Corned beef and cabbage—that’s our favorite holiday meal when all the O’ Haras gather around the table.

So it was a way for everyone to remain connected to Ireland.

Yes. My father named me Kelli because “Kelli O’Hara” just sounded so Irish. Even growing up in the middle of America, I felt grounded because I had such strong roots. We were living in the town where my grandfather had grown up. There were a lot of O’Haras from those three sons, James and Peter and Michael–many, many cousins.

Tell me about your hometown.

Elk City is in western Oklahoma near the Texas panhandle and both my parents grew up there. We’ve had our land since 1889. We just celebrated the centennial of our statehood in 2007, an event that Rodgers & Hammerstein celebrated in Oklahoma. Life is a strange bit of cir- cles, isn’t it? We didn’t have much for- mal theater. My dad was a farmer. He went back to school and he’s now an attorney. My mom is a teacher. There was singing in church and at weddings. We were Catholics in the Baptist Bible Belt. Our church, St. Matthew’s Catholic, was central to our lives. I grew up singing in church and I loved it. I went to Oklahoma City University where my teacher, Florence Birdwell, helped me think outside the box. When I graduated, I could have gone on to grad school or studied more music, but I eventually found myself packing two suitcases with no clue and moving to New York City ten years ago. I think it scared my parents a lot, but they put me on that plane. I just had a feeling that if I didn’t try I would never forgive myself. Somehow I wasn’t even afraid. But then, look at my great- great-grandfather and all the Irish who headed out into the unknown. When I read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, I thought, I know these people. I under-stand their humor, their endurance, their strength.

And now after your great successes in The Light in the Piazza and The Pajama Game, you have made Ensign Nellie Forbush come to life. Could you talk about that process?

I find everything through personal connections. I have pictures in my dressing room of my grandmother on my mom’s side, who was English. She was from right outside Little Rock, Arkansas. She was blond. She was feisty. She grew up in the time before civil rights, when chil- dren were “carefully taught,” as the song says. She was the person in my head when I started thinking about Nellie. When you go to acting school, everyone wants you to say what your big problems are so you can weep. But I’m not going to lie about the fact that I had a good childhood. I had two sets of grandpar- ents in my little tiny town and I walked barefoot down the street and everyone knew whose daughter I was. I’m proud of that and I’m using it. I suppose there are a lot of reasons to be jaded or sarcas- tic or bitter in life. But I hang on to the reasons why life is beautiful. It helps to have a history to think about, to remem- ber those who came before you, to help you be in this place. I feel very fortunate. I don’t feel held down, or that I need to create angst in order to be a good artist. I feel like my artistry comes from the things I do believe in. I’m very happy. The longer I play Nellie Forbush, this cock-eyed optimist person, the better I feel about that.

And Nellie was also a professional woman, a nurse, liberated for her time.But liberated doesn’t mean that you don’t fall in love and that you don’t lose control of all sense of anything. It’s something I’ve struggled with  before, to find that openness. But once you allow it to happen and you really believe in it, then, gosh, nothing feels better. Whenyou actually allow yourself to just be grateful. I feel that way especially since I married my husband, Greg Naughton, a year ago. He’s an actor and a singer and has a wonderful theatrical heritage from his father, James Naughton. And he’s Irish. My father-in-law’s mother had passed on before I came into the picture, but Greg said, “She would have loved you just because of your name.” We met through a mutual friend and just kind of immediately hit it off. I felt like I knew him somewhere before. Maybe somewhere back in Ireland, something aligned. He’s a great person. We’re happy. He’s been very encouraging to me and was instrumental in helping me with my new CD Wonder in the World that I did with Harry Connick, Jr.

Our kids will need a lot of sunscreen, though.

Are there other new things you are working on?

I’ve been working on a new musical, just in workshop, called Writing Arthur [composer-lyricist-librettist David Austin’s musical – about an agoraphobic bookshop clerk/novelist] which is set in Dublin but in a dream. It’s about an American man who is writing a story about this tiny village, kind of like Brigadoon. It’s modern-day, but in his story everything is magical in this little place. I play Alanna, which comes from the Irish, “my dear child.”

Have you ever traveled in Ireland?
It’s my biggest goal to visit there, espe- cially with Greg. I did spend a night in Ireland one time. It was the most surreal experience, because I’ve always wanted to see the countryside of Ireland. I was coming from London and it was winter and there was a storm here in New York City that kept the plane from crossing the Atlantic. We were diverted to Shannon Airport. It was kind of a scary moment – they took us to this hotel in the middle of nowhere. It was dark, late at night. It was about two years ago. I sat with sev- eral Irish couples and they told me about Ireland and how they grew up. They were about my own age. I had a pint and went to bed. And when I woke up, I looked out the window and I was in the middle of the Irish countryside. There were rock walls and sheep and rolling green hills. It seemed unreal because it was so what I’ve imagined. You know, when you go to a country and imagine what it will be but it’s not, it’s just like New York City? Well, this was as I’d imagined. Then they took us back on a bus and I flew away. It was almost like I’ d    been    magically    transported    to    an essential version of Ireland. Later I found out that I’d been looking out at the hills of County Clare where the O’Haras are from. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents, my brother Patrick, and my sister Anne Marie. I’m very proud of my family.

I’m sure they’re proud of you.
Well, they’ve been up here four times to see the show! I’m just so grateful to be involved with something that says some- thing about this world.

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The Legacy of the San Patricios https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-legacy-of-the-san-patricios/ https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/the-legacy-of-the-san-patricios/#comments Wed, 01 Oct 2008 11:53:15 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8747 Read more..]]> To the Mexicans they were heroes. To the Americans they were traitors. They were recent Irish immigrants fleeing poverty and famine in Ireland who, motivated by discrimination in their own ranks, a shared religion, and sympathy for the cause, fought on the side of Mexico in the U.S.-Mexican war of 1846-1848.

The war between the United States and Mexico had two causes: “Manifest Destiny,” the desire of the U.S. to expand its territories under the belief that Americans had a God-given right and duty to “civilize the whole continent,” and the Texas War of Independence.

In 1844, with the election of President James K. Polk, an avowed expansionist, the United States embarked on a course to acquire the lands west to the Pacific Ocean. Polk had authorized his envoy John Slidell to offer $5 million for Texas, $5 million for New Mexico and up to $25 million for California, but the offers were refused by Mexico. Slidell’s formal instructions were to negotiate, adjust boundaries and other causes of differences under fair and equitable principles. To the Mexicans this meant, “Accept our terms or face the consequences.”

Many Mexicans still refused to accept the annexation of Texas to the U.S. in 1836 under the Treaty of Velasco  which was signed by General Santa Anna.  Captured in the battle of San Jacinto, Santa Anna was a prisoner of the Texans at the time of the signing.

After many savage border fights, Texas decided to join the United States on July 4, 1845. Mexico was not happy with its breakaway province, which now claimed the border at the Rio Grande River. A major international issue and a tense standoff ensued.

On April 2, 1846, a clash occurred between Mexican and American troops on soil that was claimed by both.

President Polk, in his declaration of war, stated that, “American blood had been shed on American soil.”  In truth, the war had been planned even before the news of the Mexican attack on the American patrol had been received.

Despite early popularity, the war had its opponents. There was great opposition to the war by the Whig Party and some members of the U.S. Army. Ulysses S. Grant, later General Grant, wrote in his memoirs, “I was bitterly opposed to the Annexation of Texas measure, and to this day regard the war that resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.  It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
Former President John Quincy Adams described the war as a Southern expedition to find “bigger pens to cram with slaves,” and Whig congressman from Illinois Abraham Lincoln disputed the location of the skirmish as being American soil and submitted “Spot Resolutions” to Congress.

In order to fight the war, Congress authorized 50,000 troops and $10 million. The offer for volunteers was ten dollars a month with three months advance pay and 160 acres of farmland.  Volunteers, including thousands of Irish immigrants newly arrived from famine-stricken Ireland, swarmed the recruiting centers and quotas were filled within weeks.

The San Patricios

Mexico was not to be outdone in terms of recruitment. General Santa Anna encouraged American soldiers to fight on the Mexican side with offers of cash in dollars and 200-acre grants of land. They could retain their rank and pay grade and fight under the leadership of fellow American officers.

Estimates as high as 9,000 soldiers deserted from the American army during the Mexican war and many later vanished into the Mexican countryside.

The Irish deserters joined together and, under the leadership of Irish-born John Riley, formed the San Patricio Battalion.

The San Patricios created their own military banner with Saint Patrick on one side and a shamrock and the harp of Erin on the other. The reasons given for desertion were bad treatment and poor subsistence they received from non-Catholic members of the American Army. Being Catholics, they also resented the bad treatment given to Mexican civilians, priests and nuns after the war started.

The San Patricios fought in the five major battles against the Americans, which included Matamoros, May 3, 1846, Monterrey, Sept. 21, 1846, Buena Vista, Feb. 22, 1847, Cerro Gordo, April 17, 1847 and Churubusco, August 20, 1847. After the battle of Buena Vista, the San Patricios gained recognition as a Mexican fighting unit to be reckoned with. They gained the grudging respect of the American Army.

Churubusco was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Mexican War. The superior tactics and strategy of the American Army, which included Military Academy-trained officers, accurate and fast-loading artillery and the U.S. Army’s 1841 percussion rifle, helped make the assault on the fortress-convent of San Mateo at Churubusco a success. Equipment alone does not win battles; it was the blood and guts of the American soldiers and marines under the command of Major General Winfield Scott that contributed to this victory.

The Castle of Chapultepec, located southwest of Mexico City, was heavily fortified and was a military obstacle that had to be taken prior to entering the city. The castle had been the resort of Aztec princes and since 1833 had served as Mexico’s military academy. The phrase “From the Halls of Montezuma” in the U.S. Marine Corps hymn is based on the battle of Chapultepec. The castle was stormed by a mixed force of American soldiers and marines. About 50 young Mexican cadets refused to leave and — some of them younger than 13 — confronted a bayonet charge. An American correspondent described the youths as “fighting like demons” as some of them fell to their death over the castle wall to the rocks below. They were later immortalized by their countrymen as “Los Ninos Heroicos” — the heroic children.

The story of the San Patricios has been shrouded in legend so the numbers mentioned in this article may have some variation. It was reported that the victory by the Americans led to the capture of the San Patricios, which included Mexican Brevet Major John Riley.  It is estimated that as many as 260 San Patricios fought alongside the Mexicans in the battle of Churubusco; 72 were taken prisoners; the rest escaped or were killed in action. General Santa Anna commented, “a few hundred more men like them and we would have won the battle” and praised them for their proficiency and bravery.

Their capture by the Americans led to a verdict of “guilty of desertion” and punishments ranged from two hundred lashes, branding of “D” for desertion, or death by hanging.  The penalty of death was not unusual punishment, since most armies imposed a death penalty for desertion during a time of war. Of the fifty sentenced to death, “sixteen were hung by the neck until dead” and two days later, the remaining San Patricios faced the firing squad. The sentences of Mexican Brevet Major John Riley and eleven others were commuted by General Scott because they had deserted before the war with Mexico had been officially declared.

Mexico honored the San Patricios with medals, memorial plaques and annual ceremonies. The U.S. Army regarded them as deserters and traitors, who deserved the punishment they received.
The Irishmen, who had never formed much devotion to America due to the treatment they had received, were unfortunate in choosing the losing side.  This did not diminish their bravery, since heroism can surface in the heat of battle on either side of a conflict. The bond of friendship between the Irish and Mexicans still exists, and if you visit Mexico and run across some Mexicans with Irish surnames, they may be descendants of  San Patricio Battalion soldiers that escaped from the battle of Churubusco.

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Among Other Things: An Interview with Aoibheann Sweeney https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/among-other-things-an-interview-with-aoibheann-sweeney/ https://irishamerica.com/2008/10/among-other-things-an-interview-with-aoibheann-sweeney/#respond Wed, 01 Oct 2008 11:52:48 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=8753 Read more..]]> Aoibheann Sweeney’s debut novel, Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking, is quite simply the story of a girl’s journey from one island to another. Miranda Donnal is a young woman caught between her father’s world as he doggedly translates Ovid in the mythic fog of Crab Island, Maine, where she has grown up motherless, well-educated and utterly lonely, and the draw of New York City, where she is sent by her father after forgoing her college admissions test to work at the Institute for Classical Studies that he founded there decades ago.

The story that unfolds in Miranda’s voice is marked by the geographic and generational ambivalence of an emigration narrative, despite the fact that both Sweeney and her heroine were born in New England. “I grew up with an unspellable Gaelic name in Boston,” says Sweeney, “and I got a lot of credit for just being Irish because we were supposed to be the underdogs. I always thought my grandfather came straight from the old sod to here, but actually my great-grandfather came over in the 1880s and married into a very lace curtain Irish family in Queens. His wife, my great-grandmother, died when their children were young, so he sent them home to Ireland to be raised. But by then he was a pretty wealthy merchant, and they were hardly working the land. He was able to send for them to come back and be educated as teenagers in the United States, and eventually they all attended university.

“Around the time the book was being published, I discovered that the last house my great-grandfather lived in was only a neighborhood away from my own apartment, and that it was quite well-to-do and so on. I think some of the confusion, or secrecy, around the Irish side of my family history crept into the book. The main character is really trying to find her roots and identity.”
Sweeney’s novel is a loose retelling of The Tempest, which Sweeney describes as a “springboard” for her own story of a girl, like Shakespeare’s Miranda, stuck on an island from age three with her distant father after her mother’s disappearance and death in the surrounding waters. “I think I felt a real sympathy with her,” explains Sweeney, “because in a way she is the classic girl who grows up with a really strong education, but no skills in the real world.” Miranda Donnal’s childhood is deeply impacted by the presence of Mr. Blackwell, an unmarried, part-Native American fisherman who steps in as a surrogate second father to softly fill in the places where her own father falls short, teaching her to cook and fish and drive their dory, helping her make molasses cookies on her first day of kindergarten. As the unspoken but also unhidden intimate relationship between Miranda’s father and Mr. Blackwell unravels, Miranda is left even more alone.

“I get lots of different reactions about the father having a relationship with what I see as the Caliban figure of Mr. Blackwell. But that’s Shakespeare’s idea, that Prospero is necessarily having a complicated relationship with Caliban, his slave, and Ariel, his attendant fairy.” For Sweeney, this retelling was also about breathing new life into Miranda, a character somewhat overlooked in Shakespeare’s version.

“The relationships that stand out in the play are those between Prospero, Ariel and Caliban. Those relationships are really what Shakespeare is more interested in—Miranda has very few lines. But if you’re a girl trying to find a way into Shakespeare, that’s what stands out for you.

“I think Miranda’s situation is also a classic one to write about as a first novel. What would happen if you could have somebody who has just hatched out of the egg, just fresh—what do they see in the world? I think a lot of first novels are about just trying to see what’s there to a new mind.”

What’s there is a revolutionary take on the coming-of-age novel that draws on mythology as well as a rich history of American literature to create what a Washington Post review refers to as “post-gay fiction,” although Sweeney rejects the term. “No movement is ever as simple as the debunking of it sounds,” she says. She takes her inspiration from early- to mid-20th century closeted lesbian and bisexual writers who “never wrote explicitly about their sexuality, but all wrote about the complications of love and desire. Their work was not only admired by the literary community but by the broader American public. I feel like I come out of that tradition and I’m honored to be able to be continuing one in which I can be out as a gay person. But I don’t think that means we’re past it in any way.”

Like her predecessors (“writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, and Elizabeth Bishop”), Sweeney has succeeded in writing a novel that refuses to marginalize itself. “The gay rights movement seems to have not only brought lesbian writers out of the closet but out of engagement with a literary tradition they have every reason to take pride in. Understandably, lesbian authors today feel compelled to write about explicitly gay characters, but…contemporary lesbian literature tends toward the counter-cultural and has a narrow readership.” She says, “It was a relief to me that my book did not have to be pigeonholed.”

Once in New York, Sweeney’s central character begins to put together the pieces of her father’s life there, developing an understanding of who he was before her just as she is developing the person she will be, grown up, without him. She begins a sweet and nerve-wracking affair with Nate, a beautiful and well-bred graduate student fellow at the Institute, but finds herself seeking out momentary interactions with Ana, a Latina selling terrible coffee out of a street cart. Both relationships escalate to crescendo when Miranda joins Nate on a trip to his family home in Long Island for his sister’s wedding. Overwhelmed by their WASPishness and feeling out of place in a red dress Ana’s had made for her, Miranda decides to cut and run just before the wedding begins, leaving a sparse note for Nate and instantaneously throwing away her ticket to assimilation in a world where she’s never belonged. “I think, interestingly, that this happens to a lot of people who come to New York,” says Sweeney about her heroine’s ultimate decision in the novel. “So many people feel their life open up for them when they arrive here. That definitely happened to me in New York. I fell in love with the city and all the freedom that it represented. So many people my age—even then, in my early twenties—were locked into lives that they felt like they couldn’t get out of. And I felt so differently that I thought, the only thing I can do is write about this and let people know that there are other options, even if they are imaginary, just to remind people that they always have a choice, that there’s a million adventures for everybody to have.”

The novel ends on a gentle note, with a cathartic conversation between Miranda and her father, as if the understanding she’s wanted to reach with him has been there all along. “What I hope I got across was how much forgiveness there can be between generations,” says Sweeney. “It seems like kind of a dead end game to declare ‘gay’ or ‘not gay’ or the truth or not truth—because as is hopefully seen in Miranda’s life, it’s all very flexible anyway, and individual.”

She’s right. This is not a moralistic coming-of-age novel, nor is it particularly interested in whether its characters are ‘gay enough’ for gay fiction. “In a way, that forgiveness is really forgiveness of yourself for making choices that you can’t understand, and taking risks. I remember when I came back from New York I met a lot of people who hadn’t traveled at all, out of their own cities or out of their own country—out of their comfort zone. There was just kind of a lack of exploration, which to me was what adulthood was about—you didn’t have to be from any certain class to do things differently. I wanted to write something that reminded people they had more choices than just the one they were born with.”

As for a second novel?  “I’d like to write some fiction that has siblings in it because I grew up with siblings, part of a relatively big family, and it was a little lonely writing about a girl who lived alone with her father.”

For Aoibheann Sweeney, starting her own family has brought her closer to her Irish heritage. “My partner is Irish, from Dublin, so I go back there every Christmas now, because it’s where the other part of my family is. My daughter is actually in Dublin right now with that side of the family. Ireland is a big part of my life now, in a very different way than it was growing up.”

Aoibheann Sweeney is the Executive Director of the Center for the Humanities at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. She lives in Brooklyn, and has roots in Donegal.

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