October November 2009 Issue – Irish America https://irishamerica.com Irish America Magazine Mon, 15 Jul 2019 20:00:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.10 82361074 At Rainbow’s End: An Interview with Jim Norton https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/at-rainbows-end-an-interview-with-jim-norton/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/at-rainbows-end-an-interview-with-jim-norton/#comments Fri, 02 Oct 2009 12:00:19 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7940 Read more..]]> Tony-winning Irish actor Jim Norton has returned to Broadway in Finian’s Rainbow, a joyful big-budget revival of a golden-era classic that’s become that rare thing: an almost critic-proof Broadway musical. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to the veteran Irish actor and his A-list Broadway castmates about starring in the most hotly anticipated show of the season.

Irish poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde had a simple formula for artistic success: “Start at the top and then sit on it.” It’s advice that the director and cast of Finian’s Rainbow have every reason to take to heart, because their highly anticipated revival at the Saint James Theatre on 44th Street is almost certain to become a smash hit.

In a lucky break that almost never happens on Broadway, this production had the critics raving before it officially opened. Back in March the show was first presented in a stripped down production at Manhattan’s City Center as part of their Encores! series, an annual program of classic musical revivals that’s been running since 1994. From its very first performance Finian’s Rainbow was, as they say, a monster hit.

Cheyenne Jackson, the smoldering all-American star of the show, tells Irish America, “I’ve been involved in a dozen of these fit ’em up revivals and every time there’s been terrific buzz about the show transferring to Broadway. But Finian’s Rainbow is the first show I’ve been in that actually has. And I can tell you I am thrilled to be a part of it.”
For the show’s breakout star, Tony-winning Irish actor Jim Norton, it’s an opportunity to do something that he rarely can nowadays – work in a production that’s appropriate for his grandchildren to see.

“Because I’m always in shows like Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, my grandchildren have actually never seen me in a play,” Norton tells Irish America. “But this is something the whole family can see – including my own grandkids – because it’s appropriate for any age and it’s beautiful, voluptuous music.”

Resisting every temptation to play to Irish stereotype, Norton’s a marvel in the title role of Finian McLonergan, a lovable Irish rogue taking a shortcut to easy street. Onstage his unexpectedly subtle performance wisely lets the paternal bond between himself and his daughter Sharon (Kate Baldwin) become the emotional center of the show. The other actors have taken note, too.

“Jim’s performance, because it’s so truthful, has made all of us step up our game,” Baldwin tells Irish America. “Jim will only present you with what he knows will ring true. There’s no melancholy about Jim, his spirit has infused the cast and has made us all a little bit lighter about the material, so when it gets to the poignant parts you’re not mired in sappy stuff,” Baldwin adds.

If you haven’t seen it, it would be easy to assume that Finian’s Rainbow is a lethal dose of the sappy stuff from the 1940s. But ten minutes into this production you’ll realize that beneath its warmhearted exterior, Finian’s Rainbow is packing a social punch that’s as potent now as the day it was first produced over 60 years ago. (A celebrated 2004 revival of the show at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan won critical acclaim but didn’t make it to the Great White Way.)

The plot is famously convoluted: when Finian McLonergan emigrates from Ireland with his daughter Sharon and a stolen pot of leprechaun gold stowed away in his bag, we know that retribution is certain to follow. Sure enough, it arrives in the shape of Og, a lecherous young Irish leprechaun in green figure-hugging Spandex (Christopher Fitzgerald). Outraged by the theft, Og has followed father and daughter all the way from home, desperate to recover his stolen treasure before the loss of it turns him permanently human.

Alongside all the giddy theatrics, the show tackles an issue that’s all too real: what happens when a bigoted leader like Senator Billboard Rawkins takes control, enacting laws that are actually smokescreens for his racism. Unfortunately for him, he reveals his opinions to Sharon, who accidentally turns the old bigot into a black man when she curses him near a pot of magic gold. Onstage a bigoted white man is improved by making him black, a device that still resonates in these so-called post racial times.

“The show is a very strange and wonderful hybrid of plotlines,” Baldwin tells Irish America. “You have an economic storyline, you’ve got a racial storyline, you’ve got an immigrant storyline and you have all this leprechaun magic as well. So our director made sure that we had very distinct people in the cast, giving each plotline direction from moment to moment.”

Like her co-star Jackson, Baldwin has some Irish ancestry to draw from – and better yet, she’s actually spent time there. “I do have some Irish heritage and I went to Ireland in 1998 and had a really lovely time. To top that off I check in with Jim every day to ask him about my accent work and he’s so generous always, he lets me know if I go too far. He’s a great guide.”

The show’s English director, Warren Carlyle, an immigrant to these shores himself, finds he has a strong personal affinity for the two central characters. With eight West End hits to his credit, Carlyle still finds himself identifying with the journeys taken by Finian and Sharon, who upend their own lives, move to a new country, meet new people and start all over again.

The search for home and the rootlessness that takes over until you find it are the show’s central themes, and because of that there’s a tenderness in the way that Finian and his daughter are accepted by the people of Rainbow Valley that mirrors Carlyle’s own experience in New York. Both the material and the actors have gotten under his skin, he says.
The show’s poignant score (written by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg, two gifted Jewish composers, as a sort of valentine to the Irish) is unforgettably moving too, a legacy shared between two wandering tribes. Norton seems to know this in his bones and he handles it delicately, giving the whole production an injection of smarts that lifts it to another level.

“Now these songs are so famous to us,” Carlyle tells Irish America. “We know, or we think we know, ‘Glocca Morra’ and ‘Look to the Rainbow’ and ‘That Old Devil Moon.’ But it was fascinating to watch the audiences at the City Center performances because there’s something powerful about them realizing that [the songs] all come from the same show. It’s one of the greatest scores ever written and frankly, it’s one of the greatest casts I’ve ever worked with. These actors come from all of these different backgrounds and places and yet they somehow unite in the telling of this story. That’s a very American thing, isn’t it?”

In theory a syrupy old ballad like “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” should have audiences reaching for an airbag, but in practice – thanks to Norton and Baldwin’s performances and English director Warren Carlyle’s guidance – it hits you square in the chest, bringing both delight and tears in equal measure.

“There are so many shows about Ireland that we can find a little offensive because of the manner in which they’re presented,” Norton tells Irish America. “But I think that this one is handled so delicately. My character is just looking for what we’re all looking for – a bit of peace and happiness. That’s really all of my focus through the show.”
Norton admits that he was startled by the strength of the public’s reaction to the show during the Encores! performances. “It was unbelievable what happened. The last time we did this show it was all based on fear. We had less than ten days to rehearse it. Then we performed it at City Center and we were hit by this giant wave of affection. It was so exciting and great.”

Because this is a postwar Broadway musical it’s almost a given that all roads lead to the happiest of happy endings. In this magical section of the Deep South, an Irish family live with African American sharecroppers, they dance and sing with them, and good fellowship always wins out in the end.

For Norton the real danger of the show wasn’t the subject matter, it was finding the right tone to present his character in. “There’s always a danger that when you play a part like Finian, it can tilt toward the Darby O’Gill side of things. But I think we’re better than that, I think we’re brighter than that. What I try to do is to play the truth of the character because I find him deeply affecting. He’s a very gentle soul. His wife has died and he’s left with the responsibility of looking after his young daughter. Obviously he takes that responsibility very seriously, to find a better life. Back in 1947 it was a time when people did come to America from Ireland to do exactly that – looking for their pot of gold, for their dream to be realized. That guides me.”

For Cheyenne Jackson, the young man who has become the uncrowned king of Broadway since he first arrived on the scene in 2002, all that remains now is to get it right on the night. “This is my fifth or sixth Broadway show and you never know from the get-go what the outcome is going to be, but we all keep coming back to the word magic. As long as we don’t mess with it there’s going to be a nice niche for us on Broadway. A lot of people are going to discover and rediscover this show.”

Although Jackson is a square-jawed all-American poster boy, he also has Irish blood too, he says. “My dad is Irish. His father was too. He identifies heavily with that part of his heritage. Now I’m playing an Irish American and it’s not such a stretch in that sense.”

Finian’s Rainbow plays at the Saint James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street. For tickets call (212) 239-6262.

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The First Word: Look to the Rainbow https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/the-first-word-look-to-the-rainbow/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/the-first-word-look-to-the-rainbow/#comments Fri, 02 Oct 2009 11:59:21 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7943 Read more..]]> “I’ve an an elegant legacy / Waitin’ for ye, / ’Tis a rhyme for your lips / And a song for your heart, / To sing it whenever / The world falls apart!  Look, look / Look to the rainbow. / Follow it over the hill / And the stream. Look, look / Look to the rainbow. / Follow the fellow / Who follows a dream.”

  – “Look to the Rainbow” lyrics from Finian’s Rainbow

It seems appropriate that Ted Kennedy and Frank McCourt share the cover with Finian’s Rainbow, which is back for another run on Broadway. Its combination of immigrants’ quest for the American dream, political satire, beautiful lyrics, and social message is one that Ted and Frank would have identified with.

You are probably familiar with the songs – “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?,” “Look to the Rainbow” – but there is more to the show than meets the ear. The plot involves an Irishman and his daughter arriving in the mythical Southern state of Missitucky, followed in hot pursuit by a leprechaun whose crock of gold the father has “borrowed.”

The land where they bury the gold turns out to be worked by black sharecroppers, who are under threat of eviction for back taxes by the racist Senator Billboard Rawlins. At a crucial point in the plot, Finian’s daughter, Sharon, exclaims angrily at Sen. Rawlins, “I wish you were black, so you would know what it would feel like to be in their skin.” And, since she is unwittingly standing above the buried crock of gold, Sharon gets her wish, and the senator becomes black.

That was quite a message to take to the American public in 1947, when the show opened on Broadway. It was also the first time that white and black actors danced together on the Broadway stage.

Yip Harburg, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, wrote the book and lyrics, with music by Burton Lane. Harburg was reading James Stephens’ The Crock of Gold, “a beautiful book with all the lovely Irish names and leprechauns” which gave him the idea of using an Irish theme for the show. He said later, “I love Irish

literature – James Stephens, Sean O’Casey. I felt easy working with an Irish idea. ”

It’s nice to think of standing up for minorities as an “Irish idea.” Certainly, Frank McCourt and Ted Kennedy exemplified the idea that our own history of poverty and discrimination is best put to use when it causes us to have empathy for others.

The success of Frank’s unsparing memoir Angela’s Ashes began a huge debate in Ireland, which led to the recent Ryan Report that chronicles the abuse suffered by children in industrial schools (see our piece on Danny Ellis in this issue). Frank, who traveled to Haiti with the Irish relief organization Concern Worldwide, was also a key supporter of the Irish Repertory Theater (his wife Ellen heads the board) which showcased Finian’s Rainbow in 2006, the success of which probably served as the impetus for the current Broadway production.

The Kennedys, like no other American family – let us not forget Eunice who founded the Special Olympics and Jean who founded Very Special Arts – championed the cause of minorities and immigrants, the disabled, the poor and the neglected. I always thought that they must have had imprinted in their DNA some memories of the troubles that their Irish ancestors went through. And where their own suffering could have made them bitter, it made them more sensitive to the pain of others.

Of the many moving tributes to Ted Kennedy, Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times, struck a chord when he reminded us that Jack Kennedy had been listening to a recording from Finian’s Rainbow when he learned that his sister Kathleen had died in a plane crash in Europe. “Camelot became a metaphor for the Kennedys in the aftermath of Jack’s assassination,” Herbert wrote. “But I always found Finian’s Rainbow to be a more appropriate touchstone for the family, especially the song ‘Look to the Rainbow,’ with the moving lyric, ‘Follow the fellow who follows a dream.’ That was Ted’s message at Bobby’s funeral. The Kennedys counseled us for half a century to be optimistic and to strive harder, to find the resilience to overcome those inevitable moments of tragedy and desolation, and to move steadily toward our better selves, as individuals and as a nation.”

Frank and Ted, you shared your gold with all of us. And showed us that the most terrible storms can bring the most beautiful rainbows.

Mortas Cine.

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Remembering Frank McCourt https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/remembering-frank-mccourt/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/remembering-frank-mccourt/#respond Fri, 02 Oct 2009 11:58:57 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7987 Read more..]]> Why we loved him
Tom Cahill, Colum McCann, Peter Quinn and others pay tribute to Frank McCourt

I saw Frank a couple of weeks before he passed. It was at the Irish Repertory Theatre gala fundraiser in June. He had just finished his last round of chemo. He looked fine. I spoke to him for a couple of minutes but I didn’t say anything that I wanted to say.Frank was my hero and I was in denial. And I didn’t want him to think that I thought he was going to die. I really wanted to believe he was going to beat melanoma the way he had overcome that “miserable childhood.” So instead of telling him how much he meant to me,  I said something about Limerick – about driving through a couple of months ago and getting lost and ending up in a very poor area. It was early morning and the houses were
buttoned up (and some boarded up) against the rain on one side of the street – on the other there was a field with one miserable horse without the shelter of a tree.
“That would be Moycross,” Frank said with a thoughtful expression that said there are places that the Celtic Tiger never laid eyes on.

I felt like I had a special connection to Frank because I grew up 30 miles away and Limerick was my city too. But lots of others felt that connection also and now the others were lining up to say hello to him so I moved on.

I loved chatting with Frank. He understood what I was trying to say even when I was at my most inarticulate – a scar from growing up in a large family where we finished each other’s sentences with “I know, I know.”

Frank did know. Or at least I hope he knew how much I appreciated him. Here’s what I should have said: Dear Frank, Thanks for never turning me down when I asked you for a story and for showing up at our events and talking. Thanks for the quiet pat on the back that said “job well done” when I most needed it. Thanks for showing me that you can overcome anything. That impoverishment can soften a heart and that a sense of humor can overcome much. I will miss you. Miss calling your phone and hearing your voice say, “You have reached the McCourts. Leave your number and we will respond with alacrity.” You always did.
– Patricia Harty


Peter Quinn

Among the distinguishing characteristics of Irish Catholics – in America as much as Ireland – was our version of omertà: the code of silence. We never opened our mouths about the church outside the tribe. Most times we didn’t do it among ourselves.

The English might have rammed their language down our throats, sneered at our primitiveness and meager mental capabilities, decided that it was better to let us perish or depart for America than to end our starvation – but, we had the One True Faith. When it came to chastity, piety, and moral propriety, they were pigs and we were paragons.
Only we weren’t. But however corrupt, cynical, greedy, however imperfect our clergy, however distant and cruel our prelates, any criticism from within was collaboration with the enemy without – Protestants, atheists, nativists, Orangemen, King Billy, and the rest.

Frank McCourt, who died last month at seventy-eight, loathed the institutional church that he grew up in/under during the ultra-Catholic era of postcolonial Ireland, when Eamon de Valera and crew gave free reign to Eire’s ayatollahs. (In the end, it worked about as well in Ireland as it has in  Iran.) Living in squalor and poverty, Frank experienced first-hand the scorn and condescension of the pillars of the Irish-Catholic establishment: Church, State, and the Respectable Classes. (“Respectability and not alcohol,” I once heard the novelist Maureen Howard say, “is the true ‘curse of the Irish”).

In Frank’s eyes, an independent Ireland, guided by Holy Mother Church, not only internalized the contempt its colonial masters had once shown for Paddy, Bridget, and their spawn, but cultivated and perfected it. Long before fame arrived, Frank railed against the cruelty visited on the poor and the weak, and the authoritarian brutality of Catholic religious orders and institutions in carrying it out.

With the publication of Angela’s Ashes, Frank demolished the old taboo. He hung out the dirty linen for the whole world to see. For this, he was accused by some of wild exaggerations and outright lies. Now he has been given official confirmation in the horror stories chronicled by the Irish government’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. The commission itself, I believe, was in part a consequence of Frank’s revolutionary act of truth-telling.

But here’s where it gets complicated. Frank wasn’t contemptuous of believers in general or Catholics in particular. On a trip we took together to Ireland in 1998, he went to Mass with me on the Sunday morning we landed. He respected the fact that I had reached my own separate peace with the Catholic Church and returned to the sacraments. “It’s a good thing,” he told me, “you’re raising your kids in the Catholic faith. At least they’ll have a map to follow or throw away. In either case, they’ll know where they are.”

A fierce anticleric (and it got fiercer the higher you went on the ecclesiastical ladder), Frank admired priests and nuns who served among the weakest and the poor. I remember his special outrage at the murder of Sr. Ita Ford and the other American missionary women in El Salvador, in 1980.

Frank took the church at its word. He didn’t write off as incidental the Beatitudes or the command to serve the “least of our brethren,” the marginalized, the despised, the victimized, the stigmatized. When the church didn’t live up to its rhetoric, when it turned arrogant and pompous, when it grew fat and rich, when it spent most of its time nitpicking and excommunicating, when its clergy became the acolytes of power and privilege, Frank’s indignation turned savage.

But a part of Frank was always Catholic. He told me that the day he wrote the final pages of Angela’s Ashes was October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Frank always felt a special bond with Francis, a believer who lived the gospel as well as preached it. “But, you know,” Frank said, “it was a great season altogether for finishing things. October 8 is the feast of St. Bridget [the Swedish queen named after the Irish saint], and a week later, October 15, the feast of Teresa of Avila. A trifecta of a time!”

The last social affair I saw him at, Frank informed me that “today is the feast of St. Athanasius, bishop, confessor, and doctor.” How did he know such things? I don’t know. But I do know he had his own map and followed it as best he could. I have every confidence it guided him home.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, And let perpetual light shine upon him.
© Commonweal Foundation, reprinted with permission. For subscriptions: www.commonwealmagazine.com


Colum McCann

It is difficult to tell a story about Frank McCourt since the probability is that there’s always someone else around who has a better story to tell – not least Frank himself who could, of course, shape a word better than anyone, and is in all likelihood, right now, making the audience laugh and cry in the vast upstairs.

But come song, anyway. Open the windows and whistle him alive a little. Speak, old ghosts. Tell us a story. Say something that has not been said before. Find the man in a sentence that opens other sentences. Search for what belongs. Say that it is our wonder that he was here at all. Say it is our gain that we have his stories. Say that he lit us up from within. Say the best teachers teach us more than they ever know. Say that he taught an intent for words. Say it is a wonder that he had the time to tell us that life has its beauties. Say the dead go with the living and that life rises again from what is gone. Say he wrote in praise of belonging. Say the days have grown quiet behind him and yet the days lean back into laughter.

I grew up in Ireland in the mid-1960’s and 1970’s, in the outskirts of Dublin, in a suburban four-bedroom house. My father, a journalist, left home in the early mornings and came back in the late afternoons, poured himself a glass of wine and walked out into his rose garden. My mother, in her spare time, delivered Meals on Wheels in a small yellow Mini Cooper with two black racing stripes. In the evening she sang while she cooked: The boys are all mad about Nelly, she’s the daughter of Officer Kelly. It was a good house, quiet and comfortably middle-class. The milk bottles clinked outside the door every morning. The heavy curtains stilled the draught. We had two fireplaces but we didn’t really use them: the white radiators ticked instead. I attended a Christian Brothers School and apart from a few belts from a leather strap, I escaped the more insidious aspects of the Catholic Church.

For all intents and purposes it was a happy childhood, hardly a good thing for a novelist to acquire, but there it was: nothing much different from what it must have been, I presume, for kids in Sydney, Kent, Ohio, or Stockholm.

Yet I always knew there was another sort of history that lurked not far beyond my own. Both my parents had grown up poor: my mother on a small dairy farm in Derry, my father the son of a coal-merchant in Dublin. They had known a different country to the one they opened up to me. Still, they seldom told stories about that particular past. It’s quite possible that they were too busy with the day-to-day of their lives, the paying of the mortgage, the rage of the ordinary. Or perhaps I didn’t ask the right questions. But there was also a quiet sense of reticence, and it wasn’t just in my home, but all around me, in the classroom, in the churches, in the media. In retrospect it was probably a national reticence, a little chain of unspoken memory dragging behind us. Like many Irish people who grew up in the early part of the 20th century, my parents’ generation just didn’t want to talk about the hard times. It could have stemmed from a fear that it all might happen again: More bread or I’ll appear.

It wasn’t so much that my parents were willfully silent – I think now that they were probably just lavishing upon us the possibility of the present. We moved on, riding the current, we didn’t look back – the past was another country.

Many years later I moved to the United States, then settled in New York, where I stayed, and became a writer. I came home often – I still to this day call Dublin “home” – and one winter afternoon I carried a present for my parents in my suitcase, a signed copy of Angela’s Ashes. To Sean and Sally, Best Wishes, Frank McCourt. They had already read the book of course (all of Ireland had read, picked through it, canonized it, gutted it, filleted it, sang it). My father was literary editor of the Evening Press, and his son coming home with a personalized copy of Frank McCourt’s memoir filled him with pride. While in New York, I was privileged to have spent time with Frank. I had shared stories with him. We had toured Germany together. We met at parties and charity events in the city. We had become friends. He and his wife Ellen had even written a letter recommending us for our co-op apartment board.

The signed copy of Angela’s Ashes went on the mahogany table in the living room. A vase of fresh garden roses sat beside it.

Later that same evening I sat outside in my father’s writing shed, at the side of the house, and asked him what he had thought of the controversy surrounding the book. There’d been a hullabaloo in Limerick and some snide British reviews (mostly from Irish critics). My father sat back in his chair and closed his eyes a moment. “Limerick had nothing on Foxrock,” he said, with just a touch of irony: Foxrock was the richest suburb of Ireland, but my father had grown up in a dilapidated two-room cottage. He allowed himself a silence and then he began to tell me more. I had heard many of the stories before, but never in such detail. Stories of my grandfather, and the coal business, and the horses at Leopardstown, and the greyhounds at Dalymount, and the broken windows in the house in Cornelscourt, and the thrown fists in the yard at Saint Brigid’s, and the empty bottles in the pub down at Cabinteely, and the emptier cupboards at home, and the chairs broken to feed the fire, and the rainy nights with Big Jack Doyle who came over to drink, and the gambling losses on the races at the Curragh, and the time the Black and Tans came with an arrest warrant for my grandfather, and the shouts, and the songs, and the silences, and the thousand everyday torments.

The beauty was in the details, and now the details lay in between what Frank  McCourt’s book had brought us.

And so it was that Angela’s Ashes led me into the labyrinth of my own history. I picked it up again from the living room table. It was a third reading, but it still felt new and necessary. I could imagine my own father, the dew still on him, hauling himself along the laneways of Dublin, in shorts and torn shoes, the rain tamping him down, and the desire for his own success sharp in his mouth like salt.

Literature enables the ongoing life of memory.  A story gives life to other stories. The world turns on the provision of details. Its domino effect connects us. John Berger once said: “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.”

On the plain surface, there was not a whole lot to Frank McCourt’s story. He was born in Brooklyn, was brought back to Ireland, where he had what he called his miserable Irish childhood. He returned to New York at the age of 19. Worked odd jobs. Became a celebrated teacher. He wanted to write more than anything else.  Through his 30’s, he propped himself up with teaching and the idea that he might, one day, produce a book. By the time he was in his 40’s, he was hard-pushed to carve out time from the teaching life and was scared that, as a writer, he might be a fraud. By the time he was in his 50’s he wasn’t sure he had it anymore. He would sit in the Lion’s Head pub with other writers and he would fume at himself that he hadn’t taken the plunge. He loved literature, knew exactly what it meant, was worried that it had passed him by.

Then he met Ellen Frey, a public relations agent, and he fell in love with her, married her, his third and final marriage. Ellen knew that if he was to truly love her, he had to write. She also knew that for her to truly love him she must allow him to write.

So, he retired from teaching and, in October 1994, at the age of 63, he sat down to create. And like every writer he struggled. But somewhere in the mess of words and the tangle of language and the ruin of pages, his old voice popped up, a childhood voice that rose up from the laneways of Limerick. One can only imagine the process, sitting at his desk on East 18th Street, a board across his lap, writing longhand. The books strewn around the room. The throw of a word to catch another word. The discovery of the voice that lay inside. Hours of escape. The sliding of one paragraph down to the bottom of a page. The head-throw of laughter when he got something right. The fear that nobody at all would read it, that he was trampling on the memory of the dead. But the thing about the voice was that it was entirely honest and the honesty kept him going. It was his story and he was true to the texture of the time. He never felt he was a victim. To be a victim would have been a failure of intelligence. He had to achieve a native state. That native state included joy and terror and hunger. Frank McCourt became a scholar of what it meant to reconstitute dust.

On the day the book was finished he waited for Ellen to come home, so he could type the last lines in her presence: “Isn’t it a great country altogether?”  And then: “‘Tis.” They popped a bottle of champagne together. He wasn’t quite sure what he had. But at least he had finished something. Then, much to his amazement, the agent Molly Friedrich came calling, and then Nan Graham, the publisher, and soon the book was sending off sparks. The reviews came in. The New York Times ran a profile.  Millions of copies were sold. The awards flowed in, including the Pulitzer Prize. But, more importantly, people connected with the book. They understood. It was a moment of global intimacy.

Who would have known that the story of a young boy in Limerick and his Irish childhood would turn our hearts backwards so precisely? Who could have told that that story could have value? Who would have said that the greatest democracy of all was the ability to tell a story from a town that had largely been ignored and a life that could have been forgotten? The details were not only valuable in themselves, but as a form of memory.
Frank McCourt – much to his own surprise – was an alternative historian, and the history he had created was one of  the previously anonymous, one where he created an inability to forget.

The freshest accomplishment of good writing is to make use of what others haven’t quite seen or fathomed yet. This is what Frank McCourt knew by instinct. He wrote Angela’s Ashes never expecting what would happen, but at heart he was writing the story that others found embarrassing, or avuncular, or just plain irretrievable. He was tilting the comfortable balance of Irish story-telling, venturing into the dusty corners where many of our writers hadn’t gone before. He was bearing witness.

When Angela’s Ashes hit the shelves in the late 1990’s, Ireland was a country at the threshold of the thoroughly modern. We were pleased with ourselves, comfortably European, enjoying the sound of our own chatter. Traffic jams on the flyovers.  Wild salmon on the plates. The ticker tape parade of mortgage rates. The country was on the cusp of becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Frank’s book arrived like that long-lost relative who knocks on the door during a dinner party, his tie slightly askew and his hands shoved deep in the dark of his pockets. There was a sort of chain lightning to the book. He had another story to tell, and it was a bulwark against forgetting.
Angela’s Ashes was both new and old and wise and innocent, all at the same time. In many ways his story reached all the way back to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as a guide to the notion that whoever we are is whoever we once were.

His next book, ’Tis, continued the story. It made the bridge. He followed it with Teacherman, one of the most magnificently well-shaped memories of the teaching life and what it entails.

The best stories are those that don’t necessarily want to get told, and then – when they are told – we know that we will never quite hear things the same way again.
There adheres in all of Frank McCourt’s work a sense of astonished being. Nothing is written in abstraction. He was there at the moment when the thorn entered the skin. He waited for the good bread to come out of the oven. The language had energy and momentum. He could break your heart with a gentle word and then take your head off with the next. He reached into our bodies, touched the funny bone, but didn’t let us get away with simple laughter. There was anger there, too, and pride. And his greatness was a lack of fear.

And yet to Frank his own story was the only place he could go. It was entirely natural. There was nothing high-falutin’ about it at all. He was simply just telling himself that his own experience was valuable – not just the life of his mother, his father, his brothers, but the life of the bowsies, the drunks,  the gurriers, the merchantmen, the down-and-outs, the toffees, the tinsmiths, the auld ones, the chisellers. He sought out their remembered texture. He brought the old streets alive, the raindrops on the roof. He wrote as if his life depended on it – and indeed it did.

Now that he is gone, we cannot just make a safe icon out of him. There’s a danger in putting manners on what Frank McCourt did, simply because he was successful. Success breeds an appearance of safety, but what Frank was doing was not safe. It should never be forgotten that he took a risk and that he succeeded at a time when other writers would have laid down their pens. He fought to create. It was all about stamina, desire, perseverance. He caught hold of the old Mark Twain truism that age is an issue of mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

You could see him at a thousand charity gigs, always his head tilted back with laughter. He liked to break open a bottle of Bushmills and he didn’t mind seeing the bottom of it. He enjoyed a good Irish song, but he seemed more in tune with jazz. He sent an electricity through a room. He read well and widely. He pored through his Joyce and his Beckett and his Shaw, and he loved the words of the younger writers more than anything. He was generous to a fault. He joked about being a Mega-Mick or a Big-Ass Author, but he was never far from the understanding that literature had power. His name sold books. He wrote more blurbs than anyone else in publishing history. He realized the difficulty that went into creation. He could call upon, as the old joke goes, his 5,000 very most intimate friends. But with Frank it wasn’t actually a joke – he had at least that many. He never turned a request down. He and Ellen traveled widely, all over the world, gathering admirers as they went. There was always something boyish and playful about him. He worked hard, and ceaselessly, but he never forgot where he came from. He had regrets – he wished he had written earlier, that he had said certain things to Angela while she was alive, that he had written a novel – but these were never enough to stall him.

In his last couple of weeks, Frank was in a hospice on 2nd Avenue and 95th Street in New York. He had a room on the 16th floor, where the sunlight poured through the windows. There was a balcony outside where the sounds of the city seemed to hover in homage. All that brash beauty. The Second Avenue subway was being built below. The jackhammer jazz of the city, his city, his place.

His family and friends gathered close by. His body was disappearing on him. He could not hear anymore, the melanoma had ravaged him, his eyesight was going, and his speech was all but lost.  He had brought a book with him – an old orange-covered Picador edition of James Joyce’s critical essays. He couldn’t read it anymore, but it was there, and that was enough.

Unable to chat, he wrote instead on a small white board with a black Magic Marker. He struggled to sit up in bed, propped the board in his lap and painstakingly wrote a few phrases out. There was still a shine to his eyes, and his mind was sharp. It was a lovely thing to see, even in all that wreckage. It took him a long time to put anything down on the white board, but he was able to tell his wife, Ellen, and his daughter, Maggie, and his brothers, Malachy, Alphie, Mike, what they meant to him. It was a great victory – the words would hang on no matter what. When asked what he would confess to, Frank positioned the white board on his lap, and the marker in his hand, and he slowly wrote: “Pride, springing from virtue.” A ripple went around the room. The humor of it, the raw sense of being alive, the little twinkle still in the prose.

With every new visitor, his heart moved for them: you could almost see it jump in his shirt. I asked him, on the board, where and when he would go dancing now, and he took ten minutes to write it down, but he said: “Every Sabbath.” In the outer room, we passed around the board and we laughed. There it was, the old McCourt. It would have been enough to think of him dancing every Sabbath, but then he picked up the pen again and wrote, very slowly: “Sabbath upstairs with the J.C. and the Mary M and the 12 hot boys.” And then he wrote: “In the morning all will be forgiven.”

A nurse came. Her name was Angela. It was almost enough: Angela. She hadn’t yet read his books, but she promised that she would. Frank sat back in the bed and he smiled. She adjusted his pillows and let him be.

There was Angela, going out the door once more.  And Frank was watching her go.

Thomas Cahill

The first time I met Frank I knew nothing of Angela’s Ashes. It hadn’t been published yet; and though many writers will regale you with disquisitions on their unpublished writings, Frank was not one of these. Our inauspicious encounter occurred in 1995, soon after the publication of How the Irish Saved Civilization. During a reception at Glucksman Ireland House, Frank – at that time a man known principally as the unassuming brother of the more celebrated Malachy – ambled up to me and said without preamble: “I didn’t know about the nipples. I never heard that before.”

I knew what he was referring to. In How the Irish I recount a story that Saint Patrick himself tells us in his brief autobiography, The Confession. The teenage Patrick, called Patricius by his family in Roman Britain, had been kidnapped and brought to Ireland in chains. But after six years, he escaped his slave master and fled to a port on the east coast, where the captain denied him passage on the boat he was hoping would bring him to freedom:

This was Patricius’s moment of greatest danger:  recognized as a fugitive in a seaside settlement, he could not expect to remain at liberty many minutes more.  “Hearing this response, I left them to go to the hut where I was staying, and on the way I began to pray and before I had finished my prayer I heard one of the sailors shouting after me:  ‘Come quickly, they’re calling you!’  And right away I returned to them and they began to say to me:  ‘Come on board, we’ll take you on trust.’”  They even offered their nipples to be sucked, the ancient Irish version of “kiss and make up.”  Patricius, too much the Roman for such outré goings-on, held back — he says “for fear of God,” but better minds than Patricius’s have succumbed to a confusion of Roman custom and Christian faith.  The sailors shrugged: “You can make friends with us however you like.”  Patricius jumped on board, and they sailed at once.

Frank, a connoisseur of Irish saints, had never heard about the nipples, because Patrick’s pious biographers regularly leave them out. But there they are in Patrick’s honest tale. We talked briefly that night about telling the truth, however odd or embarrassing it may be, and that that is the only point of being a writer of any kind.

Soon thereafter I received from an editor friend at Scribner a bound galley of Angela’s Ashes. A bound galley is an early copy of a new book, traditionally sent to those who might provide blurbs of advance praise to help sell the book to the reading public. Oh no, I thought, not another galley. But I opened it and was captivated by its opening four, now justly famous, paragraphs. I sat down then and there and found I could not stop reading till I had reached the end. I, far less generous than Frank (who has since written enough blurbs to be cited by Guinness), then wrote one of the few blurbs I have ever offered anyone:

“Angela’s Ashes is a chronicle of grown-ups at the mercy of life and children at the mercy of grown-ups, and it is such a marriage of pathos and humor that you never know whether to weep or roar – and find yourself doing both at once. Through each fresh horror of the narrative, you will be made happy by some of the most truly marvelous writing you will ever encounter. . . .”

Except for the fact that blurbs must be brief, I would also have said that Angela’s Ashes is very nearly unique in the whole history of autobiography because it is the exquisitely told story of a very poor child and his family – and the poor seldom get the chance to leave their experiences for the instruction and edification of the rest of us. Ordinarily, because education is denied them, they never even get their hands on the levers of literary power, which is very much a middle-class operation.

But the most important thing I could have said is that Frank told the truth. In doing so, he unsettled many, angered not a few, and earned the lasting gratitude of all who read and care about books.  He did the one thing a writer must do. Because of this, the shelf that holds his writing will never grow dusty. And it is such shelves that, when all is said and done, constitute civilization.

Thomas Cahill is the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, Volume I in his Hinges of History series.

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An Irish Welcome for the Champ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/an-irish-welcome-for-the-champ/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/an-irish-welcome-for-the-champ/#respond Fri, 02 Oct 2009 15:58:33 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=26262 Read more..]]> Thousands turned out to welcome Muhammad Ali, 67, to Ennis, County Clare, the birthplace of his great-grandfather, on August 30. The purpose of his and his wife Lonnie’s visit was to inspire awareness and support for the recently established Alltech-Muhammad Ali Center Global Education and Charitable Fund, and also for the Muhammad Ali Center in the Alis’ hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

The former three-time world heavyweight boxing champion was named the first Honorary Freeman of Ennis, for his sporting achievements and his charitable work.

Ali’s ancestor Abe Grady emigrated from his home on the Turnpike Road in Ennis to America in the 1860s. Grady sailed from Cappa Harbour in Kilrush, County Clare, eventually settling in Kentucky, where he married a free-born African-American woman. Their son later married, and one of his daughters was Ali’s mother, Odessa Lee Grady. She married Cassius Clay, and they settled in Louisville, where their son was given his father’s name on his birth in 1942. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he converted to the Nation of Islam after winning the world title in 1964.

Muhammad Ali in Ennis with Mayor Frankie Neylon, Dr. Pearse Lyons, president of Alltech, and Ali’s wife Lonnie.

Muhammad Ali in Ennis with Mayor Frankie Neylon, Dr. Pearse Lyons, president of Alltech, and Ali’s wife Lonnie.

The trip brought back memories of Ali’s other trips to Ireland. In July 1972 he was victorious over Al “Blue” Lewis in a non-title bout at Dublin’s Croke Park, and he attended the Special Olympics in Ireland in 2003 – the first time it was held outside of the U.S.

Alltech Biotechnology organized Ali’s visit to Ireland, which included his attendance at a charity event in Dublin. A civic reception also took place in Waterpark House, Drumbiggle, in the afternoon before Ali embarked on a drive throughout the town to visit the birthplace of his great-grandfather. Greg Roberts, president and CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, said, “For Muhammad to visit the site where his ancestors lived and to receive the freedom of the town of Ennis is something that is deeply humbling to him as he has such a keen interest in his roots.” Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, did not address the crowd.

Ennis Town Council presented an exhibition of Ali memorabilia and worked with Sports Academy International to host an open-air event in the center of Ennis for the duration of the visit. Members of the public viewed the civic reception on a big screen and were presented with various forms of entertainment, including live music. Street entertainment throughout the town infused the streets with energy as this boxing star of yesteryear made a legendary and historic trip to Ireland to explore his roots. ♦

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The 2009 Wall Street 50 Awards https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/the-2009-wall-street-50-awards-dinner/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/the-2009-wall-street-50-awards-dinner/#respond Fri, 02 Oct 2009 11:58:26 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7945 Read more..]]> The annual Wall Street 50 event brought together national leaders from every sector of the financial world. Police commissioner Ray Kelly, Loretta Brennan Glucksman, Chairman of The American Ireland Fund, and many other luminaries from the Irish-American community gathered to celebrate the honorees.

Of the evening’s many highlights were the words, excerpted below, offered by Brian Moynihan, Bank of America’s President of Consumer & Small Business Banking, and golfing legend Padraig Harrington. Both encouraged the crowd to accept the challenges that lie ahead and realize that sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move forward.


Padraig Harrington delivers his speech at the Wall Street 50 awards dinner at the New York Yacht Club.


Brian Moynihan:
We, as an industry, need to drive the esolution – the “fix,” whether through new legislation, through helping our regulators supervise new products, or by our own internal actions. We need to learn from our mistakes, educate our teams, look to improve our risk management systems, and look to curtail the excesses that got us here. We also must help shape responsible regulation and do it without stifling innovation. One suggestion would be to more carefully regulate levels of leverage by all participants in the markets including companies and consumers.

By regulating leverage and thereby requiring more capital, we can ensure that liquidity remains bullet-proof in recessionary times. And we can keep the asset bubbles from forming. We also need to acknowledge – as a society and an industry – that we need to do some things that may cost us in the short run, but will be good for us all in the long.

Many of us are here because dark economic conditions in the past led our ancestors to brave a tough and unknown voyage to a new land, for a new opportunity. Imagine, at the age of 14, as my wife’s grandmother did, getting on a ship, knowing no one, to travel to a place where she knew no one, all in the name of opportunity – an opportunity which may be to face a long period of indentured work to pay off the voyage. Our relatives braved these challenges because they had to, they had little choice.

But even then, they seized the opportunity. And that is why we are here tonight. We, like them, now face a hard go to get this all right over the next years. It is going to be hard work and it’s going to be challenging. But when we look at the task ahead, we can take solace, it is clearly not as hard or challenging as our ancestors’ task was to leave Ireland and establish a new life. In addition, we have another benefit to help our efforts – their determination is in our blood. So I say let’s get on with the task at hand.

Padraig Harrington: Every day I know I just keep going forward, keep trying to get better. I think that would be my ultimate principle in golf or in life. Many people who were following my career see that I did take a few steps back this year to try and go forward . . . . I came off of winning three majors and I decided to change something [about my swing] that had been bugging me for a while, for a number of years, and my performances dipped because of it. …

But I know that this is part of the process. I know that I’m trying to get better and I will get better. That has always been my mindset. I came out of last year being third in the world feeling like I had peaked, but now I have the feeling that I can go anywhere and that I haven’t peaked and that in the future I am going to get better and better. That’s what’s important to me.

I do believe that now I’m in a position to move forward. I believe that just like FTI when they go in there and rebuild the company, I too have taken myself apart and put it back together, and now we can look forward to times when things are going to get better and improve.

Economic times are going through a bit of a low. My golf game has been going through a bit of a low. I believe I’m on my way out and up and I hope all you businessmen are on the way out and up, and I hope you go to new places.

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Remembering Ted Kennedy https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/remembering-ted-kennedy/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/remembering-ted-kennedy/#respond Fri, 02 Oct 2009 11:58:14 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7990 Read more..]]> To call you the greatest of all the Kennedys might strike some as lofty rhetoric. But it isn’t. You gave your life to your country, as surely as those patriots of old gave theirs for the United States and your beloved Ireland.

A great Irish chieftain has passed.

Sure, Jack became president and Bobby became a folk hero. But they never accomplished what you did throughout your life.

Protector of the poor, the downtrodden, the voiceless, the needy. Those in pain, those in suffering. The litany goes on. You were there for them – oftentimes you stood alone. That great booming voice, relentless, despite the odds.

Yes, you were flawed. Are we all not?

But underneath lay a relentless dignity, courage and decency that I never found in another politician living or dead. You will still stand taller in your grave than the critics who hounded you.

That was you, Teddy. I was so proud to call you friend.

One of my most cherished memories ever will be the call from you as I sat in a Dublin hotel in August 1994. The IRA ceasefire had just been announced. There were no cell phones then – an excited hotel employee came running into the restaurant. “Ted Kennedy is on the phone.”

Everybody there applauded. They knew what you had done – you brought peace to Ireland.

Without your critical backing for the visa for Gerry Adams from President Clinton in 1994 there would have been no IRA ceasefire. Without you President Clinton would never have had the political muscle to give Gerry Adams the visa that led to that ceasefire and to peace in Ireland.

You made Clinton appoint your sister Jean Ambassador to Ireland where she played a key role in the peace play. You were the voice for Ireland on Capitol Hill for a decade, like you were the voice for so many other causes.

When you decided Gerry Adams wanted to make peace you brought America with you. It was a huge risk but you took it. I learned then that with Ted Kennedy in your corner everything was possible – even ending a 30-year-old conflict that everyone said was unsolvable.

Right on the cusp of the Adams visa, British dirty tricks tried to set up a bogus IRA outfit in San Diego of all places. They called in a fake threat and the president wavered.
You called me around midnight and asked me to get Adams on the phone – to tell him straight that you, Ted Kennedy, would stand by him and vouch for him with the president that very night and the visa would go ahead. Clinton stopped wavering and granted it.

It was a huge leap of faith but not to you it wasn’t. You rarely calculated the odds but if it was right you did it – like bringing peace to Ireland.

What a politician you were. One of my fondest memories is the day you and the beautiful Vicki took me campaigning with you during a tough re-election battle against Mitt Romney in Massachusetts in 1994. It was a close race but that day I saw Ted Kennedy the master politician in action.

Everywhere you went you were like the character from Cheers, where everybody knew your name. No matter whether they were high up or low down, you grabbed them in that great bear hug, asked about their family, even knew the names of their kids.

All day along every street, across every district, I saw the same extraordinary outreach. I had never seen anything like it.

You were to the political world born but you created your own legacy as the greatest American to ever serve in the Senate.

And boy, could you make a speech! I had the misfortune to precede you on many occasions, when I was organizing the immigration reform rallies over the past few years.
We brought 3,000 people to Washington. You came to all our rallies and I often introduced you – and got out of the way as quick as I could. It was like bending before a powerful gale, once you took the podium.

Whether it was the “Boys of Wexford” song we always played for your entrance, or your deep emotional ties to Ireland, your staffers told me those immigrations rallies’ speeches were among the best speeches you ever made. I think it was because in your heart you identified so profoundly with the underdog, with the undocumented of whatever nationality trying to begin life in America like your great-grandparents from Wexford did right after the Irish famine.

You never forgot your roots, your deep identity with the downtrodden and your brothers’ dream that you could help raise people up.

Eighteen months ago I testified before your Senate committee on immigration. You turned it into a wonderful dissertation on the role of the Irish in America.

As the other senators sat and watched in some bemusement, we ranged over every Irish topic from immigration reform to Northern Ireland to your beloved County Wexford and the news from Ireland.

You put on quite a show and the other panelists beside me sat dumbfounded. They had come for a discussion on immigration and instead they got one man’s love of his heritage and his history.

How you loved that history. Your siblings told me you were the reincarnation of Honey Fitz, your mother’s father, a great big bluff Boston politician, who masked his political acuteness with a hail fellow well met outlook.

You didn’t need to hide your light – you were the brightest in the Senate on great issues such as minimum wage, civil rights, immigration and health reform and the great wars of our times. You opposed Iraq and Vietnam, you saw the dangers of Watergate before anyone else and the promise of Obama before most.
A lonely voice often – but so often a visionary one.

Your brothers were always with you. You took me around the Kennedy Library one rainy night in Dorchester in the 1990s. You showed me their historical artifacts, and their unbelievable impact not just on American life but on its psyche.

I wondered that night how difficult that must have been for you, to always walk in their footsteps, dwell in the shadow of two of the great Americans of the past century.
Yet you surpassed them. In his wonderful book Edward Kennedy, A Biography, New York Times writer Adam Clymer argued persuasively that you were not just the greatest senator of your time but of all time.

Clymer wrote: “A son of privilege, he has always identified with the poor and the oppressed. The deaths and tragedies around him would have led others to withdraw. He never quits but sails against the wind.”

Once more into the breach, Teddy.

Some years ago you invited me to a small dinner you were holding for Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey at your home in Virginia. As the night wore on and the conversation turned to Ireland you had tears in your eyes describing the harsh ocean passage across the Atlantic your forefathers took. It was like they had left yesterday and you understood the pain they must have felt all those years ago on the “bitter bowl of tears” the Atlantic Ocean represented.

That ability to empathize, to understand how others felt, to remember and reach out to the downtrodden, the underprivileged and those most in need as you went through life set you apart.

Now you are on the long journey home to join Bobby and Joe, and Jack and Eunice and the others. They will greet their kid brother with a smile and a hug, I’m sure, and an acknowledgment that you did not just well but very well.

In a famously competitive family, that will be praise indeed. I’d say they are right.

The Boys of Wexford are finally reunited.

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100th Anniversary of Celtic Cross at Grosse Île https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/100th-anniversary-of-celtic-cross-at-grosse-ile/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/100th-anniversary-of-celtic-cross-at-grosse-ile/#comments Fri, 02 Oct 2009 11:57:47 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7950 Read more..]]> “Children of the Gael died in the thousands on this island having fled from the laws of the foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. God’s loyal blessing upon them. Let this monument be a token to their name and honour from the Gaels of America. God Save Ireland.” – Inscription on Celtic Cross, Grosse Île, Canada

August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, is the annual feast day of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. On that day in 1909 an international crowd of almost 2,000 attended the unveiling of a forty foot Celtic Cross on Grosse Île, the quarantine station where more than 10,000 Irish men, women and children were cared for in the 1840s during the mass immigration to Canada caused by the artificial famine at home. More than 5,000 who were too sick to continue their perilous flight to a better life are buried here.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians held a weekend of commemoration to mark the centenary of the cross that began on August 14 with a dinner in Quebec attended by the presidents and vice-presidents of the AOH from Ireland, Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia and Australia. As the granddaughter of Jeremiah Gallagher, of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who designed the cross and saw to its erection, it was my honor to present the history of the idea of remembrance and its execution. Present were two grandsons of Jeremiah: J. Anthony Conway and Neil O’Gallagher.

On Saturday, the 15th, the AOH went en masse to Grosse Île, 30 miles from Quebec City, to fulfill the most earnest part of their three day pilgrimage – the rededication of the Celtic Cross.

The open field next to the western cemetery became the open-air church for a noontime Mass officiated by Father Pierre René Coté. It was fitting that a French-Canadian priest celebrate with the Irish, since 40 of his predecessors had served as chaplains here in 1847, and four among them had died of fever contracted when they attended to the sick.

In the afternoon the rededication of the cross at the summit of Telegraph Hill was marked by solemn words from Victor Boyle, president of the Montreal branch of the AOH, who organized the commemoration, and Declan Kelly, the Ambassador of Ireland to Canada.

At the end of the day a chunk of granite, long ago broken from the cross in a thunderstorm, was made ready for its journey to Vancouver where it will be incorporated into a monument there.

A second day of commemoration by the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society of Montreal was held on Grosse Île August 23, with a rededication of the Anglican chapel, recently restored by that society.

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William Kennedy Wins Eugene O’Neill Award https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/william-kennedy-wins-eugene-oneill-award/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/william-kennedy-wins-eugene-oneill-award/#respond Fri, 02 Oct 2009 11:56:03 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7953 Read more..]]> Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy will be presented with the inaugural 2009 Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish American Writers and Artists, Inc. (IAW&A) in Manhattan on October 16, Eugene O’Neill’s birthday.

As the first winner of the award, Kennedy is honored for his authorship of the Albany Cycle of novels centered around the Irish-American Phelan family (“Legs,” “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” and “Ironweed”) as well as his additional five novels, three non-fiction works, and two screenplays, not to mention stage plays, essays and children’s books.

Kennedy won a 1984 Pulitzer Prize for “Ironweed.”

The Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award will be given annually to an Irish-American writer or other artist whose body of work, like Eugene O’Neill’s, represents the pinnacle of creative achievement.

William Kennedy remarked, “I never made plans to be Irish, and I never thought of myself as an Irish-American writer. Just a writer was how I saw it. But after getting this award I’m now irrevocably confirmed as both.

“I’m abundantly grateful to the Irish American Writers and Artists for singling out my work, and the fact that Eugene O’Neill’s illustrious name goes with it is magical. He was one of my heroes when I began as a writer, and he still is today. His work shines with a perpetual light, as the Irish say in church. This is a wonderful honor.”

For more information, visit www.oneillaward.org.

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Frank McCourt on Frank McCourt https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/frank-mccourt-on-frank-mccourt/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/frank-mccourt-on-frank-mccourt/#respond Fri, 02 Oct 2009 11:55:21 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7984 Read more..]]> Editor’s Note:  Frank wrote this piece for Irish America’s 20th anniversary issue. It was reprinted in memorium of Frank McCourt and his invaluable contributions to Irish American literature.

Jim Sheridan came over to my table at the Lion’s Head bar and asked if I’d be interested in acting in a new play by a young man from Belfast, Terry George. Jim was artistic director at the Irish Arts Center and I knew him from my time performing A Couple of Blaguards there with my brother Malachy. The play, The Tunnel, was about a group of IRA prisoners trying to escape from a Long Kesh type of jail in the North.

I never thought of myself as an actor but my teaching career was winding down and this might be the start of another life. Of the eight men on stage I’d surely be spotted by the critics and lured to Broadway. Next stop: Hollywood and a role opposite Sharon Stone. My seven fellow-actors would dribble with envy but that’s the way of the world. Talent will out.

I played the part of Scowler, IRA veteran and oldest man in the group. I had good moments on stage with Nye Heron, director of the Center. When I worked with him I could never forget that he was a descendant of James Connolly, the one I admired most of the men executed in 1916.

So here I was, teacher by day, actor by night, and thinking more and more of the similarities and differences between the two.

I learned long before that acting doesn’t work in the classroom. You can try it for a while but then the kids catch on to you and, if acting is a mask, you’d better take it off. Now I was learning that acting doesn’t work on the stage either. I would watch Nye Heron or Ciaran O’Reilly at work and realize that less is more. Strong emotions can be expressed quietly and you don’t have to flap your arms.

Sometimes in teaching you have to raise your voice, go over the top. You’re driven to it, especially when you’re inexperienced. You have to get and keep the attention of thirty-odd New York teenagers and you’ll resort to anything. I sang and chanted and told them if they didn’t pay attention I’d do a nude soft shoe. “No, no,” they begged. “Anything but that.” Let us graduate with our image of you intact: handsome, charming, and intelligent.

You’re on your own in the classroom. There they are and there is no escape. Every day you are appraised, sized up, checked out. They’ll find your weaknesses. They’re like heat-seeking missiles. It is your one unit of energy up against thirty-five of theirs. They have tricks and strategies to divert you from the lesson, to challenge you while you’re teaching. You teach your lesson. The bell rings, no applause, and they can’t wait to get out of the room.

When they’ve left you wonder what you’ve done to them or for them. You only know what they’ve done to you or for you. In The Tunnel you’re on stage with seven men. Off stage is a narrow space behind the set where you dress and wait for your next scene. If you miss a cue or drop a line you are punched enthusiastically where the bruises will not show.

You don’t have to worry about the audience. The play is so popular the house is packed, so popular that Paul O’Dwyer, one of New York’s most revered politicians, could not get a seat one day, so popular that John Houseman came to see us and I’m sure he couldn’t take his eyes off me.

The theater audience will meet you more than half way. They’ve paid their admission and they want to be moved and entertained. You don’t have to stand there like a high school teacher and warn them about low grades or failure itself. Just get up there, act your part, remember this is a team effort, take your bow, relish the applause and notice how all eyes are on you, not on Nye or Jim or Ciaran or the rest.

You tell your high school students about your acting career and some come to see you out of curiosity. They love it. Man, there’s our teacher up there, all tough in his black knitted cap, our teacher the IRA gunman in jail for a thousand years, our teacher digging a tunnel with all those other tough Irishmen. “Gawd, Mr. McCourt, isn’t it great to be Irish.”

It was just starting, the world’s new type of love affair with the Irish. We were still a charming, hospitable people drinking our pint over there on that sweet little green island where leprechauns and Barry Fitzgeralds abounded. We were poor and priest-ridden, romantic, always reciting poetry and loved by tourists. Irish plays and films drew worn adjectives: charming and lyrical.

In Terry George’s play there was no charm and little lyricism. It was tough and hard and if we sang a song or two, well, you had to pass the time somehow. Still my students loved seeing the teacher up there being so Irish. Oh man, all those brogues. They wanted to know more about the IRA and Ireland and my father who was an IRA man.

But a new Ireland was emerging and it had different faces: Pierce Brosnan, U2, Liam Neeson, Seamus Heaney. To Americans the new Ireland was “sexy,” and how much higher can you go on the scale of praise?

It’s a long way from Stuyvesant High School on East 15th Street to the Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street, but in my five months on the stage the route became a tunnel.

Jim Sheridan and Terry George went on to become acclaimed writers and directors, and I left teaching and wrote a book.


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Irish Eye on Hollywood https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/irish-eye-on-hollywood-6/ https://irishamerica.com/2009/10/irish-eye-on-hollywood-6/#respond Fri, 02 Oct 2009 11:55:19 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7956 Read more..]]> In the next couple of years, acclaimed Dublin-born director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, In America) is planning to tell gritty Irish-American stories about gangsters in Boston and New York. This coming holiday season, however, Sheridan will be releasing Brothers, a dramatic film about a love triangle which will surely get some attention when it comes time to hand out Oscar nominations.

Brothers stars Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire. Portman plays a wife whose husband (Maguire) is presumed lost in Iraq. The soldier’s brother (Gyllenhaal) seeks to console the young widow, only to fall in love with the grieving woman. Then it turns out her husband is not dead after all and will soon be returning home.
Brothers is Sheridan’s first film since the 2005 biopic of rapper 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin’.

The screenplay for Brothers was written by David Benioff, whose previous work includes the film The 25th Hour, in which Ed Norton played an Irish-American drug dealer at odds with his immigrant dad.

After Brothers, Sheridan’s next two projects are Black Mass, which tells the sweeping story of South Boston gangster Whitey Bulger (due out in 2010) and Emerald City, about the Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen (which may not be released until 2011).

Brothers is due in theaters December 4.

Also in December, look for The Lovely Bones, based on the best-selling novel by Alice Sebold and starring wunderkind Northern Ireland actress Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, City of Ember), as well as Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon

The Lovely Bones tells the tragic story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon (played by Ronan), who is killed by a neighbor. The rest of the story is told as Susie, uncomfortably perched in the afterlife, watches how her family and friends cope with her loss.

The Lovely Bones is directed by Lord of the Rings impresario Peter Jackson.

Speaking of Mark Wahlberg, one of the most anticipated upcoming Irish-American films is The Fighter, starring Wahlberg as Irish boxer Mickey Ward. But nearly as compelling as Ward’s unlikely rise to fame is the life story of Richard Farrell, who helped write the screenplay for The Fighter.

From the Irish stronghold of Lowell, Massachusetts, Farrell recounts his struggles with his abusive father as well as drugs in his memoir What’s Left of Us. The movie rights of that memoir have been purchased by the same A-list stars behind The Fighter, including Wahlberg, director David O. Russell (Three Kings) as well as Batman himself, Christian Bale.

After helping to write a book called A Criminal and An Irishman: The Inside Story of the Boston Mob-IRA Connection, Farrell worked on the script for The Fighter, which is now shooting on the streets of his hometown, an experience he finds surreal.

“I was a junkie, dead on the street, and now here I am, talking to Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, and David O. Russell,” he recently said.

No word about when shooting will begin on the film of Farrell’s life.

Liam Neeson is staying busy.  His latest film, a thriller entitled Chloe, had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The film also stars Julianne Moore, who plays a doctor who hires an escort model to seduce her husband (Neeson).  The film is directed by celebrated indy auteur Atom Egoyan, best known for The Sweet

Hereafter as well as Felicia’s Journey, based on Irish writer William Trevor’s novel.

Chloe was the film Neeson was shooting when his wife, Natasha Richardson, died following a skiing accident.

After Chloe, Neeson will be playing Zeus in a remake of Clash of the Titans and is reportedly starring in a big-screen remake of the 80s TV show The A-Team.

Most recently, Neeson signed on to star in Unknown White Male, about a doctor (Neeson) who awakens from a coma to find he has been replaced in his life by another man. Unknown White Male is set to begin filming in January in Berlin.

Another movie tinged with tragedy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was also screened at the Toronto film fest. Directed by Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam, Imaginarium stars Heath Ledger. The movie was still shooting when the young star died.  Irish star Colin Farrell was among those who pitched in to help finish the film. Look for Imaginarium in U.S. theaters later this year.

Farrell may also do replacement duty in Gilliam’s next film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  Johnny Depp was originally slated to star but has backed out, and Farrell is reportedly ready to sign on.

The busy Julianne Moore will also star alongside Pierce Brosnan in The Hunter, written and directed by Stanley Tucci and produced by Irish DreamTime, Brosnan’s production company.  Set in New York’s exclusive enclave of Westchester County, Brosnan plays a privileged man whose life, suddenly, seems to be slipping away.

It’s worth mentioning that Tucci also stars in the aforementioned The Lovely Bones as the murderous neighbor.

Also on the film festival circuit in September, Conor McPherson’s new movie The Eclipse, starring Ciaran Hinds and Aidan Quinn, opened the 2009 Los Angeles Irish Film Festival.

The supernatural flick also opened the Tribeca Film Festival and is expected to be released in the U.S. later this year.

The Quinn family, as a whole, is raising its Hollywood profile behind the camera as well.  Acclaimed cinematographer Declan Quinn (Aidan’s brother, whose most recent movie was The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, starring Robin Wright) will soon be serving as cinematographer on a film called Good Ol’ Boy, to be directed by his other brother, Paul Quinn.

Talk about all in the family!

Declan Quinn is also serving as cinematographer on a documentary about Bob Marley, directed by Jonathan Demme, as well Jim Sheridan’s aforementioned project Black Mass.

Declan Quinn is not the only busy Irish-American cinematographer. Seamus Tierney recently earned raves for the film Adam (dubbed “lovingly photographed” by The New York Times) and will soon be working on Burning Palms (with fellow Irish Americans Shannon Doherty and Dylan McDermott), and The Forlorn, about the infamous Donner Party of Western U.S. settlers, which included Irish immigrants and resorted to cannibalism.

The Forlorn will be directed by T.J. Martin.

Irish actress Fiona Shaw is set to appear in a film by one of the world’s most beloved Irish writers. Shaw, Ben Barnes, Colin Firth and Ben Chapman are set to star in a new version of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. So far, the film is set to open in the U.K. in September, though no U.S. date has been confirmed.  Shaw will also be seen in director Terrence Malick’s (Thin Red Line, Badlands) long-awaited film Tree of Life, which also stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It is the famously slow-working Malick’s first film since 2005’s The New World, with Colin Farrell.

On the DVD front, look for the acclaimed indy horror flick I Sell the Dead. Written and directed by Dubliner Glenn McQuaid and starring Ron Perlman and Dominic Monaghan, the film played in art houses over the summer and earned impressive reviews. On the Hollywood DVD front, Irish actor Michael Fassbender was among the stars of Quentin Tarantino’s kill-Nazi’s film Inglourious Basterds.  (Centurion and Jonah Hex are two of Fassbender’s upcoming projects.)

British actor Steve Coogan (whose parents were Irish immigrants) has been in films such as Tropic Thunder and the Night at the Museum films.  But he became famous for
his work on the BBC, which has just released a 14-disc set of Coogan sketches, including his famous creations “Alan Partridge” and “Tony Ferrino.”

Finally, the new TV season will see the return of Irish-American small-screen veterans Ed O’Neill and Chris O’Donnell. O’Neill, most famous for Married With Children, will star in an ABC sitcom called Modern Family.O’Donnell (Scent of a Woman, Circle of Friends) will appear in NCIS: L.A. alongside LL Cool J.

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