October November 2010 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 Photo Historian of Ireland: Sean Sexton https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/the-photo-historian-of-ireland/ https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/the-photo-historian-of-ireland/#comments Fri, 01 Oct 2010 12:00:24 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7055 Read more..]]> Take an aerial view of a dreary road in Walthamstow, a soulless part of the East End of London, and you will easily spot which house Sean Sexton lives in. For there, nestled among the rows of uniform, somewhat neglected and overgrown urban back yards, you will see a garden poetically “planted” with artifacts and statues, paying homage to their owner’s passion for Greek and Roman mythological and historical figures.

It is in this incongruous setting that Sean Sexton, an erudite Irish man from County Clare, immerses himself in his work as a collector and dealer of early photos and cameras of world-class distinction.

The critically acclaimed Sexton collection of photos has been published in several books, including The Irish: A Photohistory with remarkable photos depicting Ireland’s history from 1840 to 1940, and exhibited in many countries with an upcoming exhibition titled, “The Eye of the Collector” at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, October 14-21.

Step inside his office, and you will be in a room packed with chests of drawers, bookshelves and tables all stacked with books about Picasso, Max Ernst, Richard Avedon, William Klein, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. On a side table is a Kodak camera dated 1902.

Opening a drawer crammed with old photos, Sean Sexton rifles through his eclectic collection, pulling photos out with interest and enthusiasm as though seeing them for the first time.

“Look at this one” – he points at an image of a naked man with enormous testicles. “He’s deformed by venereal disease. The strange thing is, there is almost an art to it.

“And look here, this is history for you,” he continues, showing a photo of Mussolini and Chamberlain. “That’s when they said, ‘We will have peace in our time,’” he muses ironically.

More photos emerge: a battalion of  young boys in an “anti tobacco campaign” in 1890, alongside other photos of French fashions from the 19th century, a slave in North Africa, and Laplanders standing outside an igloo. There is one of Anthony Eden as a young boy, along with images of an African witch doctor, a blind beggar, and mummified victims of Vesuvius from 2,000 years ago, taken in the 1880s or 90s.

“This is stuff I buy and sell to fund my Irish collection,” explains Sean, emphasizing, “I never have sold any of my Irish collection. I will never break it up.”

“Sean Sexton’s collection of Irish photos is the greatest in the world,” declares Michael Hoppen, an expert collector and a leading gallery owner in London.

“Sean is incredibly knowledgeable and he has a great eye. He spots amazing things,” informs Hoppen. “I was at a Christie’s sale in the early 90s,” describing their first meeting. “And I’d seen Sean in the sales rooms before; you’d see all these guys lurking around. Photo dealers are not ‘bib and tuckered.’ You know, you’d go to a Fine Arts or Old Masters show and people tend to look very prosperous; photo dealers are more like detectives, they hide in the shadows, perhaps because they have an understanding of what light can do.”

“I found a wonderful leather binder of some incredible photographs by a man named Sir Frank Brangwyn, a Royal Academician; he was one of the painters of Rockefeller Center in New York,” continues Hoppen. “I spotted these pictures and they were estimated at 300 to 400 pounds. I decided no one else would have spotted them, they were ‘sleepers.’ I tucked them back under the box, left my bid for 1,300 or 1,400 pounds – triple the estimate – and off I went to a meeting with Mark Getty because I’d started to work with Getty Images. I just assumed no one would be interested in this pile of ‘rubbish’ that I’d tucked under the box.

“Anyway, Sean Sexton comes along and puts up his hand and buys them for 1,500 pounds –  four months later he drops them into a Sotheby’s sale, properly catalogued, and makes a killing,” Hoppen laughs, “and they are now on offer by a dealer in America for about 375,000-400,000 dollars.”

Another time when Sexton’s “eye” triumphed was when he acquired a set of 19th-century photos of vegetables by Charles Jones, reputed to be  worth around 25,000 pounds. “I go to fairs,” recounts Sean. “A lot of it is ‘undiscovered’ 19th-century material which I get very excited about. With the Charles Jones photos I knew I’d hit something really big. I was late for the market in Bermondsey [London]. I took one look and thought ‘works of art.’

“There was a guy there who has a gallery in New York who said ‘These are only of vegetables – they couldn’t be any good,’ smiles Sean. “That guy should have known, especially being American, about modernism, because those photos were taken in 1900 when you had mainly mawkish, sentimental art, ‘chocolate boxy’ art photos.”

Sean explains, “It’s like if Lester Piggott or Vincent O’Brien were looking at a yearling with the view that it might win the Derby in two years’ time – they don’t consult books – they know you either have the ‘eye’ or you don’t.”

“Sean Sexton is a proper collector in the sense  that he doesn’t just buy from galleries,” says Hoppen. “He is somebody who is on the ground and really turns every stone. These are the real collectors who are prepared to dig deep.”

Asked where he thinks his aesthetic “eye” comes from, Sean replies,“Basically what influenced me as a child was the landscape in the west of Ireland, where I grew up on a farm in a very beautiful part of County Clare. The cliffs and water were behind me and in a distance on a clear day I could see Connemara and the mountains of Kerry.”

One of seven boys, Sean describes his humble beginnings. “We had no running water and my father ploughed the land with a horse and plough. We walked three and a half miles to school without shoes, but we had fifty acres of good land where all the food was grown and, more importantly, we had great parents.

“I was always an avid reader, and a big influence on me was my schoolteacher, Barney O’Higgins. He imbued me with a sense of Irish identity, I suppose, especially Irish history.

“After national school I went to secondary school in County Mayo. We were taught by priests. The priest who influenced me most was from County Kerry, a very tall, aesthetic looking man who was supposed to teach us Latin.

“He’d been educated in Rome. Of course, Latin is all tied up with Roman history and, given any excuse, he was showing us photos of sculptures  and paintings by Michelangelo and that’s where, I believe, my eye came from.”

“Sean obviously has a wonderful ability to tie everything together and he understands the relationships between things,” informs Hoppen. “So, you are not just looking at beautiful pictures, you are looking at the shoes in this particular village hall because they are all made by this cobbler and here is a picture of this cobbler himself and there’s the guy who brought the leather into town so Sean can tie all this together and it makes fascinating reading,” Hoppen continues.

“Part of what photography should do is to preserve and record history, and Sean has found a way, if you look at his Irish books and other things he has done, to preserve this material for generations to come.

“As far as the Irish collection is concerned,” Sean says, “you had the Irish professors who were employed at Oxford and Cambridge Universities who started ignoring and trivializing Ireland’s history, lest perhaps they might be seen as giving credence to the republican crowd in Ireland.”

“They were saying that during the famine,” – but here Sean stops to qualify. “We, the Irish people, and the Irish historians must get the terminology right, because there wasn’t a famine. The word ‘famine’ evokes the idea that the rains failed, or that the crop failed. There was no famine, there was a great starvation.

“The coffers were full in London, they could quite easily have alleviated the starvation. They [the British administration in charge of Ireland at the time] spent nine and a half million, I think, on the ‘famine’ – they spent sixty million on the Crimean War, but because of the eruptions and the fights for independence over hundreds of years, the powers that be in Britain made excuses to themselves, saying that it was God’s will or that the Irish deserved it.

“A lot of writers, such as Dickens and Carlisle, were not very kind either,” argues Sean. “It wasn’t ignorance on their part, it was racism.

“Also, [about the hunger], having said all that, there were a lot of people in England, the upper echelons of society such as the Quakers, like Coutts Bank, who helped the Irish,” concludes Sean.

“What Sean has done is amass this fantastic collection, and, not simply because it’s a large one, but because it’s one of the great, in-depth collections of a particular society,” insists Hoppen,“ it should end up in a museum and Sean Sexton should be the person to document it and arrange it for the museum.

“Sean’s very congenial, with a great sense of humor, he’s very generous and he’s maturing in a very unusual way – he has not lost his spark and he hasn’t lost his edge or inquisitiveness,” Hoppen recounts. “He’s very particular. I invited him to lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club to have a nice bottle of red wine and a good steak-and-kidney pudding,” says Hoppen fondly. “Sean opted for sandwiches, which he wanted cut in squares, because he hates them cut on the diagonal.

“And, of course, they came out of the kitchen cut diagonally and Sean said, ‘I can’t eat that. They are cut the wrong way.’ I love that, the fact he enjoys simple things and always pays attention to detail.”

Giving some insight into the mind of the collector, Hoppen says, “The ownership is not the fun [part] for a collector – the hunt is much more fun than the ownership. The head of Christie’s works the sharp end of the business, with his gavel he sells millions of pounds worth of fine art and photography, but at heart he’s just like Sean and me – he can’t really sleep unless he’s found a good picture that very day.

“With his Irish collection, Sean’s not collecting photographs to make money or to sell. Sean’s puzzle is to reassemble a photographic history of Ireland and Irish life and Irish ways.”

Sean has the final word. “A collection like this is evidence at the court of human history,” he says. “This is Ireland’s history coming from the photographer’s viewpoint. There are over 20,000 pieces of evidence observed by over 300 photographers.”

He quotes from a Latin inscription of 1589:

“Of what use are lens and light for those who lack in mind and sight?”

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The First Word: A Window From the Past https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/the-first-word-a-window-from-the-past/ https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/the-first-word-a-window-from-the-past/#respond Fri, 01 Oct 2010 11:59:39 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7081 Read more..]]> One of the more difficult tasks I’ve undertaken as your editor was making a selection from Sean Sexton’s vast collection of photographs to showcase in this issue.

Of his 20,000 Irish photographs, dating from the mid-1800s to the 1930s, Sean picked 125 for me to choose from. Over many transatlantic phone conversations as we worked out the details, I came to appreciate both Sean’s knowledge of world history and his commitment to protecting his collection. The photographs are proof of what happened in  Ireland. They “bear witness at the court of human experience [against the pen of revisionist historians]” he says.

And so it was that on Labor Day, while friends were taking in the final day of summer on the beach, I was in the office, downloading photographs and taking in scenes of evictions and revolution.

Did I mind spending my Labor Day indoors in the “dark room” of Ireland’s history?  No way.  It was a moving experience; a rare opportunity to delve into the past and put a face to the reports of what happened.

But since it was Labor Day, I did pause to consider the contribution that the Irish had made to the American labor movement. It was Peter McGuire who first proposed a national holiday for workers. Born to Irish immigrants on the Lower East Side, New York City, in 1852, Peter became the breadwinner for his family at 11 when his father was off fighting with the Union Army. For a while he made his living as an itinerant carpenter traveling around the country. Eventually he went on to become the co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, and propose a day honoring those who “from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

Mike Quill also came to mind. Quill fought in Ireland’s War of Independence  as a lad of 14. Making his way to New York in 1926 at age 21, he found employment working on the construction of the new IND subway line – 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. He went on to form the Transit Workers Union in 1934.

Of course, no mention of Labor Day is complete without a salute to Mother Jones, who left for America in her teens when the Great Famine swept through her village of Inchigeelagh, Co. Cork. Jones, who lost her husband and children to yellow fever in 1867, and most of her possessions in the great Chicago fire, turned to politics and went on to become a major figure in the labor movement. She is especially remembered for her work with miners and the plight of child laborers.

As I worked my way through Sean’s collection, expecting at any moment to come across a photograph of Mother Jones as a child, I thought about how all those leaders had been informed by the past. How what happened in Ireland, and their own  experiences of want and hardship, had given them empathy for others and a determination to bring about change.

Later, as I walked home still musing on  the past, wondering if I had made the right selections, gotten across the importance of Sean’s collection, and what design problems would be posed by his admonition

“No cropping. It’s the whole score or nothing. You wouldn’t edit Mozart,” I was brought back to the present by a man asking if I could spare some change.

As I rooted in my wallet for a couple of dollars, I listened to his story of a job lost – he hadn’t eaten in two days and was about to lose his apartment.

Where are our documentary photographers of today? I wondered. Are they off chasing Lindsay Lohan or some other celebrity?  Who will bear witness to what’s happening, put a face on poverty and help us see beyond the statistics and the reports?

In truth, isn’t it easier to get lost in all the modern distractions, in sound bites and “reality shows” than to face reality? To turn the channel when some “serious” news comes on? To look at a 150-year-old photograph of a homeless person than to meet one in the flesh?

And yet, I return to Sean’s photographs, and through them I can more clearly see the present. When I look at Sean’s images of evictions, I consider anew the word “foreclosure” and  what it means in human terms today.

The photographs  remind me,  as  a reader writes in this issue, “It’s a wonder we survived at all.”  And in a strange way, in this gallery of the past, I find hope. Because we did survive.  We did, and we will.

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Portraits of Irish Writers in Boston https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/portraits-of-irish-writers-in-boston/ https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/portraits-of-irish-writers-in-boston/#respond Fri, 01 Oct 2010 11:58:54 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7091 Read more..]]> Over the past several centuries, a number of Irish artists have produced compelling portraits of Irish writers in painting, sculpture and photography, and now for the first time, those collected works are on view in the United States.

Entitled “Literary Lives: Portraits from the Crawford Art Gallery and Abbey Theatre, Ireland,” the exhibition is comprised of 49 works and runs through December 5, 2010, at Boston College’s McMullen Museum.

Peter Murray, director of the Crawford Gallery, Cork, and co-curator, explains that the show has a dual purpose:

“The works of art in this exhibition celebrate literary achievements, but they also celebrate the talents of Irish visual artists. The painters, photographers, and sculptors who created these portraits give an insight both into the writer’s world and also into the way in which they were seen by those around them.”

Murray goes on to explain that in many  cases the subject and the artist knew each other and that “often the portraits are an expression of respect.

“Jonathan Swift is depicted by his friend Francis Bindon, while over two centuries later, the poet Micheal O’Siadhail is painted by his friend Michael O’Deal. Patrick Hennessy’s portrait of Elizabeth Bowen is clearly a celebration of the writer’s home and heritage, while Norah McGuinness’ image of Frank O’Connor is an intimate portrayal of one of Cork’s greatest writers.”

In addition to the visuals provided entirely by Irish artists, the exhibit also includes a range of books, manuscripts, letters and illustrations from Boston College’s John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections, which add to the experience. Prof. Marjorie Howe of BC’s Irish Studies program explains that the artifacts from the Burns Library “examine how different objects embody aspects of a literary life.”

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The McNulty Family Show Boat Sails Again https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/the-mcnulty-family-show-boat-sails-again/ https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/the-mcnulty-family-show-boat-sails-again/#comments Fri, 01 Oct 2010 11:58:37 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7109 Read more..]]> One of the most popular entertainment groups from the 1920s to the 1960s, Annie ‘Ma’ McNulty and her children Eileen and Peter have largely been forgotten, but that may change soon.

Known as “The Royal Family of Irish Entertainment,” the McNultys were the leading Irish-American music act from the 1930s through the early 1950s. They had a hit radio show; they made hundreds of recordings and sold many thousands; they performed everywhere from New York to Newfoundland in theaters and bars so packed they frequently had to turn people away. Their reign was long and their decline in popularity was gradual, with some members of the family still doing occasional shows as late as the 1980s.

Today, however, few of their songs are in circulation, none of their sheet music is available, and a Google search yields only a few relevant links and scant details.

But all that may soon change. Though contemporary culture may have forgotten about the McNulty family, there are those who certainly haven’t. Patricia Grogan, Eileen McNulty’s daughter, has been working with Brendan Dolan, Project Archivist for the Archives of Irish America at New York University’s Tamiment Library, to establish the McNulty Family Collection. The collection holds a wealth of information and resources, most of which was amassed by the McNultys themselves. I recently spoke with Pat and Brendan about the formation of the archive and the history it contains.

“The McNultys Were a Hit”
As I talk with her granddaughter, it becomes clear that Annie McNulty knew two things all along: that her family was destined for show business greatness and that they would build a legacy worth remembering. “She just loved performing,” Pat explains. “And she was a dynamo, an absolute force of nature.”
Born in Kilteevan, Co. Roscommon in 1887, Annie Burke was the youngest of nine sisters. At a very young age she began performing locally as a singer and an accordion player, and gave her first concert in 1907. That concert would be her last in Ireland: Annie immigrated to America in 1910 and settled in Massachusetts. There, she met and married John McNulty from Drumkeeran, Co. Leitrim. Their two children, Eileen and Peter, were born in 1915 and 1917, and a few years later Annie began training them for the stage. “She had them performing in amateur shows as soon as they could walk, really,” Pat laughs, telling me about the early days of her “Naneen’s” career. “And then in 1927 she wrote their famous number ‘Danny Boy the Greenhorn’ and they started performing as a family.”

Performing would become not only a desire, but a necessity. John McNulty passed away in 1928 and, as Pat recounts, “Naneen was widowed and her children were young. Immediately she began to work as the supervisor of the building they were living in and the three of them started performing for money.” Fortunately for Annie, the McNultys were a hit. “By 1930 they were on radio, and they had their ‘Irish Show Boat Revue.’”

The family moved to New York and were in shows all over the city several nights a week, appearing everywhere from the Leitrim Houses, to bars in Rockaway, to the opera house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – where they would perform their famous “Irish Show Boat Revue” an astounding 55 times. They were guests on the highest-rated radio and television programs of the 30s – The Rudy Vallee Show and Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle – singing their crowd-pleasing songs “Mother Malone,” “Likeable Loveable Leitrim Lad,” “Far Away in Australia,” and “At the Close of an Irish Day,” to name a few. They recorded with Decca, one of the biggest record labels, and collaborated with other Irish and Irish-American performers, but they also created a style and a sound that was very much their own. In Pat’s words, “they did a lot of vaudeville and a lot of traditional stuff – but always with a kick.”

Tours took them to Boston, Chicago, and Newfoundland, where they had a lasting influence on local musical traditions. Much of their music even traveled back to Ireland: many of their songs were commercially released and Annie became a local hero in Kilteevan. Pete wrote a weekly column for The Irish Advocate, the most prominent Irish American newspaper at the time, and he and Annie penned the lyrics to some of their biggest numbers. The McNulty Family was, as Brendan Dolan aptly puts it, “It.” Pat adds, “there wasn’t anyone like them. When they performed, people would get up and dance. They were absolutely electric.”

“The Irish Show Boat Kept Chugging Along”
War broke out and Pete went into the army in 1942. Though times were certainly difficult, Pete’s absence did not mean the end for the McNulty family. “While he was away, the ‘Irish Show Boat’ kept chugging along,” Pat says, with help from friends like Donnie “The Swank” McDonnell, who stepped in to perform with Annie and Eileen. Annie even took over Pete’s column in The Advocate. Pat also talks with pride about how Pete served and entertained the troops. “He wrote skits and performed for them in foxholes and bombed-out buildings. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and was a second lieutenant by the time the war ended.”
Sadly, though, after the war Pete’s health was broken indefinitely and things slowed a bit for the McNulty Family, for a variety of reasons. “It was the 1950s. Tastes were changing, the old neighborhoods were breaking up. But,” Pat adds, “they did keep going.” They performed their last show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1951 and recorded some more in 1950 and 1953. Their last performance as a family took place in Philadelphia in 1959. Then, in 1960, Pete died at the young age of 43, bringing the original McNulty act to a sad conclusion. Pat’s brother, Jim, did perform with his mother and grandmother a few times, but shows were never as frequent.

“What a great run they had,” Pat is quick to remind. “From the ’20s to the ’60s. It’s amazing. A great legacy.”

Listening to their music, it’s easy to see why the McNulty Family appealed to such a wide audience. Their songs are rousing and catchy. They tell stories of courtship, of patriotism, of day-to-day life, and – most of all – of a deep nostalgia for Ireland. They extend a hand to listeners, inviting them to come aboard the little “Irish Show Boat” and “cross the briny seas” to an island three thousand miles away: to do in song what a large portion of the immigrant community couldn’t do in reality.

Annie never returned to Ireland and Pete never got the chance to visit. Trips were planned on two occasions, in 1939 and 1959, but were disrupted both times: first due to the war and then due to Pete’s failing health. Eileen, however, did get to go. Following her husband’s death in 1968 and Annie’s passing in 1970, Eileen took Pat and Jim to Ireland, where she earned her TCRG in Irish step dancing. After returning to America she taught for the rest of her life and, Pat recalls, still performed on rare occasions until she passed away in 1989.

“Ma” the Archivist
Throughout the years, Annie McNulty had also been busy accumulating all the pieces that would eventually come together to form the McNulty Family Collection. In one of her weekly Advocate columns, Annie wrote, “…being of a sentimental nature, I have saved every scrap that has to do with the McNulty Family entertainers.” “And that,” Pat confirms, “is  true.”

In a sense, the current collection really began with Annie’s careful attention to all the objects, photographs, and pieces of paper that would form a record of her family’s career. No bit of information was too small, explains Brendan. “Pat’s grandmother kept everything. Every mention of the McNulty Family, even down to two lines, was saved.”

When I ask where everything was kept, Pat smiles and says, “her apartment. She lived in the Hotel Wilson at Columbus Circle…That apartment was so stuffed with things, the closets were bursting with costumes, she had sheet music; scrapbooks; clippings; record players; a baby grand piano; the accordions; her tap shoes [were] on top of the sewing machine that she used to make all their costumes. Somehow she kept it all.”

A brief tour of the collection confirms that Annie did, in fact, save everything. There’s a program and a ticket from her 1907 concert in Kilteevan. There are annotated scrapbooks, compiled by Annie herself and complete with photographs colored in by hand. In addition to the hundreds of photographs and clippings, three accordions, two top hats, 155 recordings, 40 posters, and more than 25 programs, there are also unpublished lyric books, contracts, copies of all the Irish Advocate columns, songs that were never commercially released, rare bits of video footage, and detailed scripts and musician’s directions for some of their numbers. The collection is massive.

After Annie’s death, Eileen stored all the items in her house. Then, when Eileen passed away, care of the collection fell to Jim and Pat.

“My brother and I always knew that these things were important,” says Pat. “We safeguarded them. Jim saved them from floods; I saved some of the stuff from a California wildfire. And then eventually we agreed that we had to get these preserved because they’re so important to Irish America and to Ireland.” The question was, how?

In 2007, after a trip to New York, Pat picked up a book published by The Archives of Irish America, Making the Irish American. “I read an article by Mick Moloney and saw a poster of my family…Then I looked at my husband and said ‘That’s it! Mick Moloney and the Archives of Irish America. What could be more perfect?’”

Pat got in touch with Dr. Moloney, who flew to California a week later, and the collaboration began. “Everything just seemed to come together.”

That same year was the hundredth anniversary of Annie’s 1907 concert so Pat and her niece Courtney traveled to Kilteevan for the celebration, which was part of the South Roscommon Singers Festival. At that festival, Moloney was honored with the annual Annie McNulty Award, which recognizes important contributions to traditional Irish music at home and abroad. “It couldn’t have been more perfect,” Pat remarks.

As he shared in a recent phone conversation, Mick Moloney agrees. “I’ve been a great admirer of the McNulty Family since 1973,” he begins. “Their music has such an exuberant, unique sound. The first time I heard them I knew right away that they were different from any other musicians because of the combination of traditional music and vaudeville…of tap and step dancing.”

He contacted Eileen in 1977 and went to Hoboken to meet and interview her. There, he caught his first glimpse of what would become The McNulty Family Collection. All of the things Annie McNulty had saved were stored in Eileen’s house at that time, and Dr. Moloney remembers being amazed by what he saw. After Eileen’s death, he wondered what had happened to all the recordings, photos, and memorabilia. He wanted to contact Pat but wasn’t sure where to look: she had moved since his last conversation with Eileen and, because her married name is Smith, the odds of picking the right one in the phone book were slim to say the least. He feared that “the collection would be gone, lost.”

But with a few serendipitous moments, things have clearly worked themselves out. As Dr. Moloney puts it, “I think Annie McNulty would be smiling.”
With the continued support of Dr. Moloney and Michael Stoller, the Director of Collections and Research Services at NYU’s Bobst Library, the McNulty Family Collection has made wonderful progress. Moloney and Harry Bradshaw are compiling a double CD of McNulty songs, and a book chronicling the history and impact of the family is in the works. On March 11th, there will be a concert featuring the McNultys’ most popular numbers at New York City’s Symphony Space. The concert, a collaboration between the Archives of Irish America and the Irish Arts Center, will feature a large cast of singers and performers. Of particular note, Moloney mentioned possible performances by Malachy McCourt, Vince Giordano, and Annie’s great-granddaughter, Courtney. “We’re celebrating 40 years of Irish music in New York,” he said.

The contents of the collection are also being copied and organized into as chronological an order as possible. To accomplish this task, Pat flew to New York from California in August and spent two weeks working with Brendan Dolan. From an archivist’s perspective, this has been a rare and valuable opportunity. As Brendan elaborates, “The ideal thing about having Pat here is that, if I was left to myself I’d be in a real bind because I know the McNultys, but I don’t know who this or that other guy is. But Pat just looks at them and says ‘Oh! that’s –.’Archivists don’t normally have that kind of luxury. Usually they get a collection after the family is deceased and the information is lost and the researcher has to reconstruct it. The value of having Pat here is that she can give so much information right now.

“And not just Pat,” he adds. They were also joined by Donnie McDonnell, who sang and danced with the McNultys, and was able to identify not only people in the pictures, but even some of the numbers they were performing. “He is literally the last surviving member of their performing show. He’s the last link. And he just looked at the cast photographs and went down the line, and now we know who everyone is.”

All of this seems to prove that Pat is right – everything is coming together, and at the perfect moment. The collection is taking shape while those who remember the McNulty Family can still contribute to its accuracy and have the chance to travel back, via the archive’s recordings, to the performances they attended.

But it’s also here just in time to make sure that the McNulty Family’s legacy is remembered and understood by younger generations, that all the things Annie McNulty kept with such foresight remain intact, in order and accessible to all.

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First Rose of Tralee of Indian Descent https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/first-rose-of-tralee-of-indian-descent/ https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/first-rose-of-tralee-of-indian-descent/#respond Fri, 01 Oct 2010 11:57:21 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7094 Read more..]]> From August 20th to the 24th, 100,000 visitors gathered in Tralee, Co. Kerry to watch 32 Roses vie in friendly competition in the 2010 Rose of Tralee Festival. The Roses came from as close as Dublin and Cork and as far as New Zealand and Dubai to participate in all the festivities of the festival’s 52nd year. After a weeklong tour around Ireland, the accomplished young women arrived in Tralee for the Rose Ball, the parade, and the two nights of televised interviews and performances that make up the heart of the competition.

The Rose of Tralee festival originated in 1959. It was inspired by the traditional naming of a Carnival Queen during the summer fair, and appreciation for the famous local song, “The Rose of Tralee.” The song was written in the 19th century by William Mulchinock, a wealthy merchant whose love for a woman named Mary, a maid at his family’s house, was forbidden due to their class differences. He emigrated, spending a few years in India as a war correspondent. But, unable to forget Mary, he returned to Tralee a few years later, only to find that she had died from tuberculosis. The song commemorates his love for her, “Mary, the Rose of Tralee,” and has come to be the song of the town and its annual festival.

In the early years, Roses had to be natives of Tralee, but the rules were later amended so that any girl of Irish birth or ancestry could compete. This makes the festival a particularly emotional and enlightening experience for many of the Roses, some of whom are second- or third-generation Irish and have never before been to Ireland.

During the two nights of live TV footage, the young women, their escorts, their families and their fans gathered in the Rose Dome. The events were hosted by Irish TV presenter and personality Dáithi O’Sé. Each Rose was interviewed by O’Sé and then had the option of doing a performance to display a talent. Some opted to sing or play an instrument, while others did more unique performances, such as a German rendition of “The Wild Rover” and a reel danced to Men At Work’s “Down Under.”

At the end of the last night, the London Rose, Clare Kambamettu, was named the 2010 Rose of Tralee. Kambamettu, who lives in London and is an assistant psychologist at a substance misuse service, was born in Leeds but grew up in Athy, Co. Kildare. Her mother is Irish and her father is Indian, which makes her the first Rose of Tralee of Indian descent. During her year as The Rose of Tralee, Kambamettu will represent the festival at various venues and plans to work with charities in Ireland and India.

Footage from the festival can be viewed on roseoftralee.ie/tv

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A Hero Remembered:Michael Lynch https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/a-hero-remembered-michael-lynch/ https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/a-hero-remembered-michael-lynch/#comments Fri, 01 Oct 2010 11:57:07 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7098 Read more..]]> The spirit of a New York hero lives on in his family.

Nine years ago, in the months following the September 11th attacks, the Lynch family from the Bronx, New York, made a commendable and remarkable choice. They had just lost Michael Francis Lynch: son, brother, uncle and fiancé; a firefighter who died during the rescue efforts in Tower 2. He was assigned to Engine 62, Ladder 32 in the Bronx but on September 11th he was on rotation to Engine 40, Ladder 35 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He arrived at the World Trade Center with twelve other firefighters, only one of whom survived. They were among the first to reach the scene, and television footage gave a last glimpse of Michael entering Building 4, near the south tower.

After months of hoping for a recovery of Michael’s body, the Lynches received news that it had been found in the wreckage of the second tower. In a vivid testament to Michael’s determination to protect others, his remains were interwoven with those of a woman he had been shielding. The family was in deep mourning. But, in the midst of their grief, they made the decision that they were going to help people. “We wanted to respond to evil by doing good for others,” said Michael’s father, Jack Lynch, in a recent conversation. “We thought that was the best way to honor our son and brother; it’s what he would have wanted.”

In 2002, they founded the Michael Lynch Memorial Foundation, which has become one of the most successful and enduring scholarship organizations. Each year, the foundation grants scholarships to young adults who are the children of firefighters or who lost a parent on 9/11 or in another national disaster. In only eight years, through the generosity of corporations and individual donors, the Lynch family has raised $1.6 million to provide its scholarship recipients with educational opportunities. The number of awardees increased each year, as has the amount that each student receives. This year, the foundation raised $250,000 for its twelve new recipients, and thanks to its annual dinner in March, raised $500,000 extra. As the foundation proudly stated in its press release, this allowed them to “increase the amount of the scholarship for all 42 current participants by 20%  –  to $24,000 per year for four years.” These generous grants allow awardees to pursue educational paths that might otherwise have been out of their reach. From nursing schools, to the Fashion Institute of Technology, to four-year universities and colleges, the scholarships support a wide range of ambitions. The goal of the foundation, as explained in the recent release, is “to provide the means to help change the world, one person at a time, by helping students of today become tomorrow’s stewards of peace and freedom.”

What’s even more striking about the Michael Lynch Memorial Foundation is that it’s largely family-run. Jack serves as the president; Michael’s sister-in-law, Lou Ann Eckert-Lynch, is in charge of the scholarship selection committee; other family members oversee the foundation’s events and financial and legal concerns. The foundation is officially recognized as a 501(c)(3) public charity, and an impressive 98% of donations go to the scholarship funds, with 2% going towards administrative fees. The family works strictly on a voluntary basis and, as Jack emphasized, they will “make sure it remains that way.” He added, “We plan to always take the higher road.”

More information on the foundation and its upcoming events can be found at www.mlynch.org.

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Those We Lost https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/those-we-lost-4/ https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/those-we-lost-4/#respond Fri, 01 Oct 2010 11:55:43 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7104 Read more..]]> Recent Passings in the Irish American Community

Harold Connolly

Harold Connolly, who won the gold medal in the hammer throw at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, died in Maryland on August 19. He was 79. His son Adam Connolly reported that he died of a heart attack.

After suffering from severe nerve paralysis as a child, Connolly underwent serious physical therapy and began a training regimen of strength conditioning, weight lifting and athletic activity at Brighton High School in Massachusetts, and Boston College.

A four-time Olympian, he set American, world and Olympic records in the hammer throw. After winning  his gold medal in Melbourne, Connolly began a romantic relationship with Czechoslovakian gold medalist in discus throwing, Olga Fikotová. They married in a public ceremony in Prague, but divorced in 1974.

After an illustrious career as a competitive athlete, Connolly coached throwing at Georgetown and Boston universities. He was the executive director of U.S. programs for the Special Olympics from 1988-1999.

A statue of Connolly by sculptor Pablo Eduardo has stood in Brighton since 2005. Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Pat Winslow Connolly, and six children from his two marriages.  – KR

Denis E. Dillon

Denis E. Dillon, the long-standing District Attorney of Nassau County, died early on the morning of August 15 at his home in Rockville Center after a long battle with lymphoma.

Dillon was first elected as Nassau County District Attorney in 1974 as a Democrat, but then switched to the Republican party in 1989 in support of its anti-abortion stance. He continued to serve as the D.A. until 2005, overseeing many notable cases. He was considered unique among his peers for holding firmly to his personal beliefs, sometimes even at the cost of his political aspirations.

Born in 1933 in the Bronx, Dillon also lived in Woodlawn, N.Y., Arlington, Va and Rockaway Beach, N.Y. He attended Fordham Law School and worked as a police officer in New York City while studying for his degree. Dillon was a devoted Roman Catholic and is remembered by family and friends as loving Irish music, culture, and limericks. He is survived by his wife Anne and their two daughters, Barbara and Anne Marie. – SL

Dorothy Hayden Cudahy
Dorothy Hayden Cudahy, a pioneering figure in New York’s Irish-American community, passed away on August 5. She was 88.In 1989 Hayden Cudahy was the first female Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. She was also the first woman and the first American-born person to be elected president of the County Kilkenny Association. In addition, she was a member of the A.O.H and a trustee of the Irish Institute. Hayden Cudahy was born in Manhattan on May 29, 1922. Her mother was Delia Brennan of Co. Sligo and her father was James Hayden, from Co. Kilkenny. Hayden was the host of the popular “Irish Memories” radio program, and Hayden Cudahy took his place after his death in 1943. She hosted the show until 1990, which earned her the unofficial title “The First Lady of Irish Radio.” A collection of her papers relating to the show is held by the Archives of Irish America.  She was married to John Cudahy, with whom she had a son, Sean. She is survived by her granddaughter and many nieces and nephews. – SLAlex Higgins
Rising from a working-class lifestyle in Belfast, Alex Higgins abandoned ambitions for jockey gold to pursue a sport little known on this side of the pond – snooker. The billiard game with 6 pockets and 22 balls originated among British soldiers in India in the 19th century. Its rules are complicated and its fan base fierce. Higgins joined the professional snooker world to earn two world-championship titles and the nickname ‘Hurricane’ thanks to his aggressive style.
Alexander Higgins, called Sandy as a boy, was born in Belfast on March 18, 1949. He began playing snooker at a local pub, the Jampot, when he was 11. Higgins won his first championship at age 22, his first attempt at the title, and quickly rose to an iconic status in the snooker circuit not only for his talent but also for his charismatic and somewhat crass behavior.  Known for his drinking and physical altercations with tournament directors and opponents, Higgins was a dark but lively figure in the sport.
His home life was tabloid heaven with stories of furious and violent girlfriends and two wives. He was the subject of a 2001 biography, Eye of the Hurricane, and of a 2004 one-man play, Hurricane, as well as the 1991 documentary I’m No Angel.
Higgins was found dead in his home in Belfast on July 24. He was 61 and had been battling throat cancer for 12 years. Higgins is survived by his daughter and son.  – TD

Mick Lally

Mick Lally, one of the most widely known actors in Ireland, died in hospital on August 31 after a brief illness. As an actor, Lally was most famous for his long run as Miley Byrne on the TV show Glenroe, and for his roles on the BBC’s Ballykissangel and Ballroom of Romance. More recently, he starred in Oliver Stone’s  Alexander and was the voice of Aidan the monk in the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells.

Off screen, Lally was a key figure in Irish theater. After a few years teaching history and Irish, Lally founded the famous Druid Theater Company with Garry Hines and Marie Mullen in 1975. His stage career really took off when he was cast in the 1981 premiere of Brian Friel’s Translations. He went on to be in over twenty productions at the Abbey Theater. Fluent in Irish, he was also in many Irish-language performances and films, and the TV series Ros na Rún. Everyone from his fellow Druid members to Taioseach Brian Cowen has expressed their sadness over Lally’s death and their great admiration for his work.

Lally was born in Tourmakeady, Co. Mayo and was the eldest of seven siblings. He is survived by his wife, Peggy, and their three children, Sailego, Darach, and Maghnus. – SL

William McCabe
When New York City-native Bill McCabe sought the position of street cleaner in 1940, the physical component of the application was known as the “Superman test.” Shocking the Sanitation Department and the media, McCabe received a 100, the only recorded instance of a perfect score. He died at age 90 on July 17 at his home in Bethpage, NY.

Born William Joseph McCabe on March 31, 1920 in the Bronx, he was the son of William and Nora McCabe. His father was a construction worker and trained him in lifting weights, according to McCabe’s son, Kevin. In 1940, McCabe joined 68,000 men applying for the street cleaner position, which paid $35 a week. The sanitation department, looking to fill only 2,000 available positions, tested applicants with an extremely rigorous physical test, far from the easier version used today.

McCabe’s test included lifting a 120-pound trashcan to a 4-foot-6-inch ledge and lifting a 60-pound barbell placed behind his head while on his back. He also broad-jumped over 8 feet, jumped a 3-foot hurdle, climbed an 8-foot fence and vaulted another four-feet-six-inches during a run, all of which he finished in 10.8 seconds. In a separate test, he ran 120 yards carrying two 50-pound dumbbells in 25 seconds. His unheard-of perfect score caught the attention of the media, with The New York Times dubbing him the “Perfect Man” in a June 13, 1940 headline.

McCabe only stayed with the job for about a year, moving on to become a police officer and then a firefighter. However, he continued to stay in shape for the rest of his life, playing semipro baseball, tennis and golf. He also played racquetball twice a week until he was 82. McCabe is survived by his wife of 64 years, Margaret; two sons; two daughters; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. – AO’N

Patricia Neal
Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal died August 8 at her home in Edgartown, Massachusetts. She had a dazzling career on stage and screen that showcased her lifelong passion for acting. Born Patsy Lou Neal in the coal mining town of Packard, Kentucky, Neal attended Northwestern University as a drama major and left for New York when she heard that the Theater Guild was looking for a tall girl to star in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. O’Neill was impressed with her acting and she had soon found success on Broadway. Before age 21, she scored a Tony, a Donaldson Award and a New York Drama Critics for her debut in Another Part of the Forest, and appeared on the cover of Life magazine. With a Warner Brothers contract, she was off to Hollywood to star opposite Ronald Reagan in John Loves Mary and to play the lead in The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand’s novel. Neal fell in love with Gary Cooper, who played opposite her, and their affair lasted for three years. Neither movie did well in box offices. Neal starred in several more movies before her contract with Warner Brothers was broken and she was back on Broadway to star in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour in 1952. Through Hellman, Neal met childrens’ author Roald Dahl, who she married in 1953. Their thirty-year marriage suffered several tragedies, including the brain damage of their four-month-old son Theo in a traffic accident and the death of their daughter Olivia at age 7.

Neal experienced a comeback at the end of the 1950s in more Broadway productions and performances on the big screen opposite John Wayne, including Hud, for which Neal won the best actress Oscar. But at age 39 and pregnant with her fifth child, Neal began experiencing strokes that would leave her in a temporary coma and take away her abilities to walk and speak, which she regained through Dahl’s harsh determination that she would recover. In 1983, Neal and Dahl were divorced when she uncovered an extensive affair he had maintained with one of her close friends. Dahl died in 1990.

Neal focused on fundraising for brain-damaged individuals in her later life. She is survived by her four children, a brother, a sister, ten grandchildren and step grandchildren and one great-grandchild. – KR

Jack O’Connell

Jack O’Connell, the CIA station chief in Amman, Jordan who became King Hussein’s diplomatic advisor and later his personal lawyer, died July 12 of congestive heart failure in Arlington County, Virginia. He was 88.

Jack O’Connell was born John William O’Connell on August 18, 1921 in Flandreau, South Dakota. He began his higher education at University of Notre Dame, where he played defensive end on a football scholarship until a car accident left him unable to play. He then transferred to Georgetown University where he graduated from the School of Foreign Service in 1946 after a serving in the army during World War II. O’Connell received his law degree in 1948 and immediately joined the CIA, which sent him to the University of the Punjab in Pakistan on a Fulbright scholarship. There he received a master’s degree in Islamic law in 1952. He also received a doctorate in international law from Georgetown in 1958.

O’Connell’s first encounter with King Hussein occurred in 1958 when he traveled to Jordan on his first foreign CIA assignment to stop a coup attempt on the king’s throne. His success in foiling the attempt led to a friendship that would last decades. As station chief of Jordan from 1963-1971, one of O’Connell’s top priorities was to help expand the powers of the Jordanian intelligence service throughout the 70s with CIA funding. Today, Jordan is still considered one of America’s most important allies in the Middle East due to its strong intelligence service.

Well-known in Jordan, the tough Midwesterner once tripped and broke his leg walking out of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry. When someone suggested that he see a doctor, O’Connell replied, “Irishmen don’t wear casts,” and simply used a cane until the broken leg healed.

O’Connell retired from the CIA by 1972 and moved back to the U.S., but his relationship with Hussein remained strong. He was Hussein’s personal lawyer and political advisor until the king’s death in 1999.
O’Connell is survived by two children from his first marriage, Kelly and Sean, who both live in Virginia. He is also survived by a grandson. O’Connell’s memoir is set to be published in 2011. – AO’N

Paul Ryan Rudd

Paul Ryan Rudd, a notable stage and television actor from the 1970s and 80s, died on August 12 at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut due to pancreatic cancer.

Rudd’s acting career began in his late twenties, following an amicable departure from the Roman Catholic seminary where he had been studying to join the priesthood. He started off working with regional theater companies and then made his Broadway debut in 1974.

His memorable performances included lead roles in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah! Wilderness, a revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, and a 1976 production of Romeo and Juliet. His television credits ranged from the role of an Irish chauffeur on Beacon Hill to playing John F. Kennedy in the NBC movie Johnnie We Hardly Knew Ye.

Rudd was born in Boston in 1933 and attended Fairfield University. He is survived by his wife, their three children, and his mother. – SL

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The Sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/the-sinking-of-the-ss-edmund-fitzgerald/ https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/the-sinking-of-the-ss-edmund-fitzgerald/#comments Fri, 01 Oct 2010 11:55:23 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7112 Read more..]]> On the 35th Anniversary of that sad day when 29 sailors lost their lives, new developments shed light on the sinking of the “Mighty Fitz.”

The legend lives on from  Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.

On November 10, 2010, crowds of people will gather at the Mariner’s Memorial Lighthouse, on the banks of the Detroit River in River Rouge, Michigan, as well as at the Mariner’s Church in Detroit. The somber crowds will be gathering to mark the 35th anniversary of the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in a terrible storm in 1975, killing all 29 men on board.

These days, with the thousands murdered in the attacks of 9/11, and thousands more lost in the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, the loss of life resulting from the Edmund Fitzgerald sinking, while tragic, seems relatively small.

However, there is one important reason why so many Americans still remember those noble seamen who lost their lives that sad day on Lake Superior. Just months after the “Mighty Fitz” sank, Canadian-born singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot penned the epic ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which became a massive hit on U.S. radio and across North America. The song – which tells of “that good ship and true” as a “bone to be chewed / when the Gales of November came early” – ended up spending over 20 weeks on the U.S. charts.

The song proved so evocative that Irish singer-songwriter Christy Moore used Lightfoot’s melody when he recorded the song “Back Home in Derry” – with lyrics by Bobby Sands – just three years after the international outcry over the hunger strikes that made Sands an international icon.

The Irish and the “Mighty Fitz”
The 35th anniversary of the Fitzgerald’s sinking is a good time to reflect on the broader Irish links to the tragic sinking.

The ship itself, after all, was named after a member of a prominent Irish-American shipping family. Among the crew members who perished were men with names such as Rafferty, O’Brien and McCarthy. The ship’s captain was a Toledo, Ohio native named Ernest McSorley.

Finally, though the ship sank over three decades ago, new developments continue to alter our understanding of how the ship sunk – and even how Gordon Lightfoot performs the ballad to this day. Earlier this year, as a matter of fact, the troubadour decided to change a key lyrical passage to reflect new information about the ship’s fatal voyage.

Why does the story and song of the Edmund Fitzgerald still resonate? Perhaps the best question to start with is this: Who, exactly, was Edmund Fitzgerald?

Six Fitzgerald Brothers
The story of the Fitzgerald shipping clan begins in the early 19th century, when William and Julianna Fitzgerald left Ireland. Edmund’s great-grandparents “were immigrants from Ireland and settled first in China Township, St. Clair County, in 1837, on a farm near Marine City, Michigan,” local historian Dick Wicklund wrote in a 2006 edition of The Lightship, the newsletter of the Lake Huron Lore  Marine Society.

Six of the Fitzgerald boys eventually became captains on the Great Lakes later in the 19th century, including the oldest, Edmond (spelled with an ‘o’) and the youngest, John, who relocated to Milwaukee. John’s own son William eventually took control of a family shipyard, which had been established in Milwaukee. Sadly, William Fitzgerald died when his youngest son, Edmund, (with a ‘u’) was just six years old.

A fellow Irish-American veteran of the sea, Captain Dennis Sullivan, sought to honor the memory of Edmund’s father by naming a ship after him, christening the W.E. Fitzgerald in 1906.  This was known as “Little Fitz” when, five decades later, in 1958, the “big” or “Mighty” Fitz” took to the waters: The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, named in honor of William’s son Edmund.  Edmund did not enter the family business, but was instead promoted to the office of president of the company that owned the ship — the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee. But even if Edmund Fitzgerald was not a man of the sea, his family’s link to the waters was well known.

Edmund’s daughter Elizabeth Cutler eventually wrote a family history entitled Six Fitzgerald Brothers: Lake Captains All.  The book was published in 1983. Three years later, her own father passed away, “still deeply saddened by the wreck of the ship named for him,” as local historian Dick Wicklund wrote.

That Awful Day
When it hit the waters in 1958, the “Mighty Fitz” was the largest freighter sailing the Great Lakes, at over 700 feet long and 75 feet wide, with a 7,500-horsepower engine.

By November 9, 1975, Ernest McSorley had been the ship’s captain for three years, with some four decades of shipping experience under his belt. At around 8:30 that morning, the ship was loaded with over 26,000 tons of iron ore, to be transported over Lake Superior.   That afternoon, not long after the Fitzgerald set sail, the National Weather Service issued a warning for gale-force winds.  Just after midnight on November 10, Captain McSorley and the Fitzgerald crew were facing waves ten feet high.

Still, the Fitzgerald ably battled the elements well into the afternoon of November 10. Another ship, the S.S. Arthur Anderson, captained by Jesse Cooper, eventually made radio contact with Captain McSorley.

It is believed that at around 7 p.m. the ship was pummeled by two massive waves, possibly as high as 35 feet. Winds, by this time, were said to be gusting close to 100 miles an hour. And yet, at 7:10 p.m., Captain McSorley said of the ship:  “We are holding our own.”

Captain Cooper still believed he could help guide the Fitzgerald safely to nearby Whitefish Bay — under 10 miles away — even after the ship’s radar signal disappeared behind a snow squall, which was not uncommon.

The Mighty Fitz, however, never returned to the radar screen.

When the sun rose on November 10, as families were beginning to be notified, and the awful reality began to sink in, Rev. Richard Ingalls rang the bell at Detroit’s Mariner’s Church 29 times – one time for each crew member aboard the vanished S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.

A Song for the Ages
Later in November, Newsweek magazine ran a report on the Fitzgerald tragedy entitled “Great Lakes: The Cruelest Month.” The article begins: “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’”

And so the seed of Lightfoot’s song was planted. The record was released in 1976 and was an immediate, if unlikely, hit. Unlike most pop songs – Rod Stewart’s syrupy ode to seduction “Tonight’s the Night” was number one at the time – Lightfoot’s song had complex lyrics and no chorus. It was also nearly seven minutes long. Nevertheless, this was the post-folk era of the singer-songwriter, of Don McLean (“American Pie”) and Harry Chapin and Jim Croce. Lightfoot rode that wave and created an epic which is as catchy as it is atmospheric.

The lyrics are both simple (“The ship was the pride of the American side / When they left fully loaded for Cleveland”) and existential (“Does anyone know where the love of God goes / When the waves turn the minutes to hours”). They also capture the unique experience of the sea culture of Michigan, Canada and the broader Great Lakes region.

Perhaps most interestingly, just this year, Lightfoot decided to change parts of the song’s lyrics. At one point, Lightfoot sings:

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck saying
Fellas, it’s too rough to feed you.
At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said
Fellas, it’s been good to know ya!

The third line of that section was based on the assumption that crew members failed to secure the hatchway. To some, this placed a mild amount of blame for the ship’s demise on the crew. Subsequent research, however, suggests the crew had done everything it could. So, when Lightfoot, now 71, performs the song in concert, he sings: “At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said / Fellas…”

Incidentally, “the old cook” refers to one of the several Irish Americans who went down with the ship: Robert Rafferty.

The Irish Version
Lightfoot’s “The Wreck” made the men on the ship immortal.  Every November 10, at the Mariner’s Church, the bell is rung 29 times. The ship was eventually discovered 500 feet underwater.  On the 20th anniversary of the sinking, in 1995, the ship’s own bell was brought to the surface and put on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

But if there were any doubts that Lightfoot’s song was a transcendent masterpiece, they were erased earlier, in 1984, less than a decade after the tragedy.
That’s when Irish balladeer Christy Moore set the song’s hypnotic melody to lyrics entitled “Back Home in Derry.” The lyrics were written by Bobby Sands, who had taken part in the infamous 1981 Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland. During that time, Sands was famously elected to parliament, before perishing, along with nine other strikers, in Long Kesh prison.

Just three years after Sands’ death, Moore set Sands’ words to Lightfoot’s music. Though based on events half a world away, there are striking lyrical similarities between “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Back Home in Derry.”

The Sands ballad, like Lightfoot’s, is about a perilous sea journey. “Back Home in Derry,” however, is set in 1803, as Irish prisoners are “Australia bound / if we didn’t all drown / And the marks of our fetters we carried.”

In the rusty iron chains we sighed for our wains  
As our good wives we left in sorrow.
As the mainsails unfurled our curses we hurled
On the English and thoughts of tomorrow.

Oh, I wish I was back home in Derry.
Oh, I wish I was back home in Derry.

In recent years, the Edmund Fitzgerald memorial has become a service not only for the 29 lost on November 10, 1975 but for all those who ever perished at sea. This seems fitting, just as Christy Moore adapting Lightfoot’s music brought out the song’s universality. This shows us that there are no international boundaries when it comes to great art. In the end, the precise reason why the Edmund Fitzgerald sank was never established. The ship “might have split up,” the song tells us.

It may have broke deep and took water.

All that remains are the faces and the names
Of the wives and the son and the daughters.

Of course, one more thing remains: the music.

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Civilization: Then and Now https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/civilization-then-and-now/ https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/civilization-then-and-now/#respond Fri, 01 Oct 2010 11:54:56 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7116 Read more..]]> Fifteen years ago in March 1995, historian and author Thomas Cahill published How The Irish Saved Civilization, the first of his seven-volume Hinges of History series. A national phenomenon, the book appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly two years and changed the public’s understanding of the Irish people’s role in preserving Western civilization during the fall of the Roman Empire. Kara Rota spoke to Cahill about his book’s legacy.

In How the Irish Saved Civilization, you make a comparison between Rome and the current Western world as “the empire.” Recently, there’s been much discussion of whether our empire is on the verge of falling. Do you think that comparison holds up, fifteen years after the book’s initial publication?
I don’t believe in enormous predictions. What we do know is that there are certain patterns that seem invariable, and one of them is that all empires fall sooner or later. Rome’s empire lasted twelve centuries, which is longer by far than any other historical empire known to us. The United States of America has only been around a couple hundred years. So is it about to slip into third place or something like that? I think it’s hard to know. But what I do believe is that sooner or later our time in the sun will have come and gone.

The external one has to do with the barbarians.The barbarians of the Roman Empire eventually, along with the injustices within the empire, brought down the empire. The barbarians were not really the wild marauding screwballs that we tend to think of them as. They were poor people who wanted in. They were immigrants. And we are doing a terrible job right now with immigration. We are trying to close down our doors, which I think is one of the worst things we can do.

If the Romans had looked at the problem rationally, they would’ve said, the best thing that we can do is try to figure out how we can integrate these people into the society. They didn’t do that. We can’t afford to do the same thing. We must answer the question, how can we integrate these people? All this nonsense that’s going on right now politically across the country, with people saying that we must build higher walls between Arizona and Mexico, is just silly. There’s no wall that we could make that would be high enough and strong enough to keep them all out. And of course no one should know that better than Irish Americans who almost all have some relationship to immigration – either directly or because of ancestors who came here at the turn of the 19th or 20th century – otherwise they wouldn’t be here. And that’s true of almost all Americans with some Irish identity. So we of all people should be in the forefront of protecting immigrants and welcoming them.

I love the section in How The Irish Saved Civilization on scribes adding their own footnotes and commentary as they copy manuscripts —
Part of it was that although they did know the alphabet and they could read and write, they weren’t sophisticated people. You and I might find it rather boring to copy texts in languages that we didn’t understand very well, like Greek, or, even if we did understand the language, the thoughts were so different from anything that would have been spoken by Irishmen in that period. The scribes were copying very difficult texts, and they entertained themselves by making little pictures in the margins and putting in little comments on the texts or on other scribes’ work. At times they put in these beautiful little poems and that’s how we have what we have left of early Irish poetry. It all started off as oral poetry, but it was written down by the monks and that’s why we still have it. Maybe while they were copying out some particularly ponderous section of Plato, they would put in a little four-line poem about finding a girl in the medieval forest.

It’s almost like there’s a conversation going on between the authors and the scribes. I’m tempted to link this idea of intertexuality to Web media,  open-source projects and the  blogosphere where media is an ongoing conversation. Is that a link that you see?
I do, and one of the great pioneers of this intertextuality was James Joyce; Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are reflections of that. In Ulysses he is in some ways in a dialogue with Homer. And Finnegans Wake is a dialogue with everything [laughs]; he tries to get everything in there one way or another. Whether it’s from an opera or prose from the past that [Joyce] particularly admires; all of that is thrown into Finnegans Wake. So this is long before the Internet, but in some ways he really embodies that.

There are some solid female characters in How the Irish – particularly Medb and Brigid, but I’m hesitant to idealize what women’s experiences were. Did they really have rights that were significantly different than women in other cultures at the time?
We can’t make them into modern feminists or anything like that; it is a very different culture. At the same time, I think all of Celtic culture was much more egalitarian – not democratic, but much more egalitarian, sexually, than the Greco-Roman world ever had been. There were many more important female figures in the Irish past than there were ever in ancient Rome. Medb is the perfect example of that, but she’s not the only one. The famous Celtic queen Boudica who fought the Romans and really fought them to a standstill – neither one of those figures, one of them literary, Medb, and the other one historical, no one could ever imagine a female figure among the Greeks or Romans with that kind of importance and centrality to the culture. So it was different and remained different for a long time. The medieval Irish retained a lot of that, which is why you can have – there’s no female figure on the continent that has as much importance as Brigid. They finally become a part of the larger European world, and then women become less important.

For me the whole point of the book is about literacy and the power that literacy gives people, and specifically that the Irish saw no value in censorship.
What the Irish understood – they did understand the value of literacy, that’s probably the main reason why it had become such a big deal to them so early. But what they also understood was the value of pleasure in reading. They became the great anthologists of the early Middle Ages because they were willing to look at anything. They were not censorious. They did not think that there were things that had to be left out. Certainly many of the church fathers felt and many non-Irish felt that censorship, school censorship and state censorship, was very important. And [the Irish] actually never bought that – of course, they did in the 20th century, unfortunately, but that’s after many terrible things had happened to them and their own essential culture had been so demolished and debased. They’d become the tools of an extremely regressive and life-denying form of Christianity.

I think the disinterest in censorship is linked to the idea of the tolerance of sin, and the acceptance of the cycle of sin and repentance that became the confession, which became the autobiography and then became fiction. I think there’s really a link between the kind of Christianity that Catholicism became to the Irish and the power of literacy there.

Yes. Well, literacy gave them the world and they embraced it.

And now a lot of Catholics are struggling with their relationship with the church.
I think they’re doing more than struggling with their relationship with the church at this point. I think a lot of them want to just close the door on it, and for very good reason. There’s very little hope there, unfortunately. I think that the last two popes have pretty much destroyed the church that Pope John XXIII tried to build in the early 1960s, and I don’t see any chance of its coming back. I think you end up with a very dry and puritanical form of Christianity.

Do you think that that opens the door for a different, more personal kind of Christianity to emerge?
I’d like to think so. I’m not sure that it will. I think it’s hanging by a thread in a way. In Ireland and in the United States, the scandal of – not so much just the pedophilia but the cover-up of the pedophilia, which went on for generations, and was completely supported by the bishops, has left everybody feeling that they’re unable to continue. It’s pretty much coming to an end and there’s nothing to replace it. You can go elsewhere, you can go to a different kind of church, you can interiorize or internalize, but you’re not going to find a countrywide or culture-wide influence anymore, it’s just not there. I don’t see any way of it being brought back.

What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on Volume Six of the Hinges of History series, which will be about the Renaissance and Reformation.

Thank you, Thomas.

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Brian Dennehy’s Journey into Eugene O’Neill https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/brian-dennehys-journey-into-eugene-oneill/ https://irishamerica.com/2010/10/brian-dennehys-journey-into-eugene-oneill/#comments Fri, 01 Oct 2010 11:53:12 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=7119 Read more..]]> Brian Dennehy, who is being honored with the 2010 Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, speaks with Aliah O’Neill.

If Brian Dennehy says the Irish can do no wrong, we should probably be inclined to believe him. At 72, the veteran actor of film, television and stage has not only become famous for his portrayals of the working-class Irish American, he has also starred in plays by some of the most revered Irish and Irish-American playwrights in history: Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, Sean O’Casey and Brian Friel.

Though Dennehy’s career has spanned over 60 films and more than 100 TV movies and stage plays, he is the first to admit that he has never been and never will attain the level of celebrity that many of his contemporaries have found. His reasoning behind this is straightforward (he is unsparingly honest): “I think a lot of it is the physicality… you look a certain way and you sound a certain way. I will probably never be asked to play the same parts as Kevin Kline or even Kevin Spacey…and that’s OK with me.”

Dennehy’s modesty seems to befit a career that appears fairly quiet until you get it down on paper. He’s received several accolades for his work, including Screen Actors’ Guild and Golden Globe Awards for his performance as Willy Loman in the 2001 televised version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Dennehy is still better known to the general public for his working-class roles than for his portrayal of America’s most famous tragic salesman.

Dennehy has become renowned for bringing new life to characters on the stage who have been portrayed multiple times before. One might expect an actor to religiously abstain from watching other performances of the same characters, but not Dennehy, who wryly comments, “Sure, I would steal from anybody… sometimes you try to steal from other actors but you can’t.” He refers specifically to Jason Robards, a friend and fellow stage actor who was also famous for his interpretations of O’Neill plays; both Dennehy and Robards (who died in 2000) have acted in The Iceman Cometh, A Touch of the Poet, Hughie and A Long Day’s Journey into Night.

“I remember when I saw Iceman I was so impressed with Jason Robards’ performance [as Hickey] that I thought there was only one way you could do it. And I tried to play him in that really dark, deeply cynical way that he did, and I realized after a few weeks of rehearsal that I really couldn’t do it that way… I realized I had to play him in a different way and the way it worked for me was to play him quite the opposite – he was the happiest guy in the world, he had found the secret.”

Nowadays, after four decades of theatrical experience, Dennehy has taken over the role of the inimitable force in O’Neill’s works. In 2003, he won a Best Actor Tony for his performance in Long Day’s Journey into Night, and overall has been nominated for six Emmys in O’Neill plays. This year, he is the recipient of the aptly-named Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, bestowed upon an actor, musician, writer, painter or other type of artist who has achieved the highest level of artistic integrity. The award is given annually by Irish American Writers & Artists, a non-profit organization dedicated to highlighting “the rich tradition of Irish Americans in all manner of artistic endeavor in the United States, from the 19th century to the present day.”

The award follows Dennehy’s most recent successful endeavor into Irish theater – a double bill of O’Neill’s Hughie and Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape earlier this year. The project began at the Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, R.I., where Dennehy and fellow Hughie actor Joe Grifasi paired the O’Neill play with the O’Casey one-act comedy A Pound on Demand.

Though Dennehy is a big fan of O’Casey, the audience didn’t quite see the connection between the darker Hughie and the farcical Pound. “The Pound on Demand and a couple others were written specifically for the Abbey [Players] to do on tour, usually in the more rural parts of Ireland, in the teens and 20s, because there was no radio or television in those days. They were kind of raucous Irish plays…very, very funny, but of course it’s slapstick. And we found that the audience was very confused by the juxtaposition of those two plays, so we didn’t repeat the experiment.”

Finally Dennehy came up with the idea to pair Hughie, written by O’Neill later in life, with another play characterized by an artist “looking back” – Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Hughie, set in a small hotel in midtown New York in 1928, is a 45-minute rambling near-monologue by Erie Smith, a lowly gambler who laments his lousy circumstances to the hotel clerk Charlie Hughes. Hughes is the successor to Hughie, whose death Erie blames for his bad turn of luck, revealing in the process that his self-absorption is a cover for an intense loneliness now that Hughie is gone.

In Krapp’s Last Tape, Dennehy plays an old man who inhabits a room surrounded by reel-to-reel recordings of his reflections on his life. Krapp never leaves this room, his desk or his tape player, giving the image of a bitter old man obsessed with his younger life, which he plays back to himself on an endless loop.
Superficially, both plays appear to be equally cynical and humorless, and indeed both have been performed this way. But Dennehy’s experience with performing O’Neill and now Beckett has revealed differences in their world views that have lent themselves to interpreting these plays in a fresh way. “I’d say that O’Neill turned out to be more bitter and cynical and dark and pessimistic than Beckett. Beckett himself as a writer and philosopher accepted the world and life and humanity as he found it, whereas I think that O’Neill had that earlier attitude that somehow it was all disappointing…life did not turn out to be the way I think he felt it should be.”

Indeed, O’Neill’s life was one of tragedy and darkness. Born in a hotel on Broadway and 43rd  Street (which is now a Starbucks in the heart of Times Square) in 1888, he was the son of James O’Neill, a famous actor who had grown up in extreme poverty in Ireland. Eugene’s strained relationship with his father and knowledge of the hardships he had endured may have been the reason that O’Neill himself never expressed interest in visiting Ireland, though Dennehy argues that O’Neill’s plays are infused with an “Irish sensibility”: “He was indelibly Irish, and yet he never went to Ireland. And one of the experiences which impacted the strongest on him in his youth was seeing the Abbey Theatre when they were on tour in New York. He was very young at that point, probably in his early twenties, and he thought the Abbey Theatre was superior to the Moscow Art Theatre, which also came to New York.”

Though O’Neill experienced great success in the early and middle years of his career, multiple health problems saw him fade into obscurity, even as he continued to write. He battled depression and alcoholism throughout his life, becoming estranged from his own children as he was from his parents and siblings. In the late 1930s, O’Neill barely completed A Touch of the Poet, the first in a cycle of a projected 11 plays following an American family over a 100 year period, before he lost the ability to use a pencil due to unbearable tremors in his hands. Having received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936, he died in 1953 with relatively little attention.

“O’Neill is a man who, the older he got the darker he got, the more painful his life seemed to be,” says Dennehy. “Probably within a year to three years of his death he was rediscovered because of José Quintero and Jason Robards and his work found a whole new international audience…Usually he hated the productions done of his work – he didn’t have much affection or respect for most actors or directors. It got to the point where later in his career when he was doing his best work, he would send written copies of his plays to the critics because he wanted them to understand what he had written rather than what was produced on the stage.”

Undoubtedly, Dennehy feels an affinity for O’Neill’s works and has found a continually expanding challenge in making O’Neill’s plays work for the audience.

While he has performed in many plays by Irish playwrights, Dennehy has singled out O’Neill as having particularly compelling qualities for him as an actor and as an Irish American. “I think if you’re an American and Irish American and Irish Catholic American, which I am, it’s pretty hard to avoid O’Neill. And once you begin to work with O’Neill, you realize how demanding and powerful he is. If you can do O’Neill successfully, if you can make the audience respond to his very difficult material, you can do anything. And you realize as I did early on, as I did before I was doing it, when I was watching it with Jason Robards or even Al Pacino [in Hughie], you realize what an important playwright he was. He was unsparing of himself and the audience and the actor and the director.”

“Once you’ve been exposed to that and you’ve worked on that and tried to make it succeed, it’s hard to move back to lesser material. You want to accept that challenge…you just want to explore the next trip, and I have forty years doing it. And it doesn’t always work… That’s something about O’Neill, it’s always out there hanging in front of you, and no matter how much effort you make, it’s always just beyond your grasp. But it’s good work to reach for it.”

Still, Dennehy’s career is admirably eclectic – in the past few years he’s lent his voice to the animated film Ratatouille, narrated a docudrama called Death or Canada about the escape of Irish Famine immigrants to Canadian ports, and even guest-starred on an episode of 30 Rock as a teamster, in a spoof of his working-class image. But these recent appearances in the movie and TV world now seem secondary to what has been a full and successful stage career.

In 1992, for instance, Dennehy played Hickey in The Iceman Cometh at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to extremely receptive audiences. “It was fun to play to those Irish audiences because they were smart enough to understand what O’Neill was getting at…The Iceman Cometh is very funny – it’s very dark but it’s very funny, particularly the first act as he recounts the weaknesses of each of these individuals, as they repeat these delusions to get through their lives. The Irish audiences roared with laughter because they recognized the humor in that.”

Almost 20 years later, this December he will be returning to Ireland to perform in a John B. Keane play called The Field in a tour of Dublin, Cork and Galway. Dennehy says he could not be more excited to return to Ireland, a place he called home for about ten years. His Irish roots extend to the West and Southwest of Ireland on both sides of his family – on his father’s side, his grandfather was born in Millstreet, County Cork, and his grandmother was born in Kilmacalogue in West Cork. He knows that they “were born back in the 1850s or 1860s, and were essentially farm workers, and my grandfather emigrated I’m guessing sometime around 1900 – 1904, 1905, he was very young. All of his brothers and sisters eventually came to America and they were all factory workers – they worked for a major factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut called Jenkin’s Valve, which is no longer there.”

On Dennehy’s mother’s side were the Mannions. His grandmother emigrated from Waterford and became a domestic in the United States, a few generations earlier than his father’s people. Most of his relatives settled in Bridgeport and Danbury.

Like O’Neill’s father James, who was born in Kilkenny during the worst year of the Great Famine, 1847, Dennehy’s paternal grandfather refused to return to Ireland in his later years. “My grandfather who was an immigrant under the worst conditions didn’t go back and never wanted to go back, refused to go back, he was so bitter about his experiences as a child. I think most Irish Americans have forgotten how difficult it was for those people. But I can still remember his scars about that. That’s something that we shouldn’t forget…how difficult it was in the 1880s and the 1890s and before.”

He might not admit it himself, but the scope of Dennehy’s career speaks to the way Irish Americans have built upon that past to create a variety of images of themselves. T.J. English, author and Irish American Writers & Artists co-founder, said upon announcing Dennehy’s Eugene O’Neill award, “For over thirty years, in movies, on television and on stage, he has come to embody an iconic image of a certain type of working-class American. The cop, the priest, the fireman, the soldier – Dennehy has brought nobility and passion to these roles and established himself as the dean of American actors.”

While this is true, Dennehy’s stage career has also been a testament to the intellectualism of Irish and Irish-American artists and their exports – so he says himself when anyone’s too quick to pigeonhole the Irish as only good guys in uniforms. “They’re pretty sophisticated, Irishmen…Brendan Behan was about as smart a human being there ever was, but it doesn’t mean you’d necessarily think it if you saw him at first glance in a bar. But that’s the thing about the Irish, they can fool you like that.”

Here’s to a future of Irish artists, writers and performers who are willing to keep surprising us.

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