Top Stories – Irish America Irish America Magazine Thu, 18 Jul 2019 14:56:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 82361074 Irish Power, U.S. Politics U.S. Rep. Richie Neal Talks to Niall O’Dowd Wed, 01 May 2019 07:59:21 +0000 Read more..]]> Richie Neal’s extraordinary journey from a working-class neighborhood in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Washington, D.C., and one of the most powerful jobs in American politics as the chairman of the Ways & Means Committee.


On November 7, 1960, Mary Garvey Neal, who had roots in Ventry, County Kerry, took her son to the Springfield, Massachusetts, town hall. It was very late and Richie Neal, then 10 years old, would never forget that evening.

He was there to witness one of the last campaign stops of Senator Jack Kennedy during the final frenetic days of the race against Richard Nixon for the presidency.

Inspired by the passion and fire he witnessed, Richie Neal decided there and then that he wanted to be a politician. It’s incredible to think, as he now sits atop the House Ways and Means Committee in one of the most powerful jobs in American politics, that the influence of Jack Kennedy still lives on.

Neal himself has a wonderful American story. He lost his mother to a heart attack in 1962 when he was just a young boy, and his father, a school custodian, died not long after. He and his sister were orphaned, raised by an aunt and grandmother. He remembers how they gave all the love they had, put him on the right track in life, and practiced good Catholic values.

Ulster University’s Magee Campus in Derry. Congressman Neal was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws for his outstanding contribution to peace and conflict resolution across the island of Ireland and for profiling Irish concerns throughout his congressional career. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

He was following his dream, too. He became councilman in Springfield, then mayor, and then at age 38, took the House seat of Ed Boland, his political mentor, in 1988.

He has held it easily since, often with no opposition, a reflection of his popularity back home.

His path to the leadership of Ways and Means was elongated, but thanks to a combination of retirement and defeat of those ahead of him, he arrived in January 2019 at the head of the most important committee in Congress.

Three future presidents – James Polk, Millard Fillmore, and William McKinley – served as Ways and Means chairmen, while the very first occupant was Thomas Fitzsimons, a native of Ireland who also represented Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. His portrait, overlooking the committee room, was proudly pointed out by Neal.

Our interview took place in that same august setting of the Ways and Means Committee meeting room, passing through extremely tight security on the way.

As always, Neal was modest and relaxed. He is a worker bee letting others take the limelight – with the exception of one issue: his beloved Ireland and his justifiable pride in the American dimension to the Irish peace process. As head of the Friends of Ireland committee, he is an indispensable friend of Ireland and Irish America.

Of course, there is the little matter of the president’s tax returns, which it falls to Neal to seek. There is no grandstanding or cable news appearances or screaming demands for them, just a heads-down, get-the-facts manner. That is Neal’s way, and it has landed him at the top in American politics, wielding enormous power.

We began by discussing his amazing journey.


When did politics first beckon?

When I saw Jack Kennedy the day before the election in 1960. He finished in three communities, Waterbury, Connecticut; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Boston, and if you’ve ever seen the film footage of him finishing in Springfield and Boston, as you might expect, he got a hero’s welcome. But seeing him that day – my mother was smart enough to keep us home from school – on the steps of Springfield City Hall, I remember that sense of inspiration and aspiration that I felt, the hope and ambition to do something.

Also, my family would have known Congressman Eddie Boland. My mother in particular always knew someone who was running for the register of deeds or the city council because that was the way up. And it was a great time of ascendancy in politics. There was a succession of mayors, six or seven in a row, whose parents or grandparents were Irish-born. The Democratic party in particular was the beneficiary [of the Irish]; they brought the right infusion of energy. And there was a great alliance between unions and the Democratic party.

From city councilman to one of the most powerful men in America: where did it all go right?

Part of it was ambition. I was thirty-eight when I first got elected to congress. I think I worked at least as hard, if not harder than everybody else. I had a good constituency that I inherited from Eddie Boland. He retired in 1988 and I took his seat.

I think I certainly was patient enough. I kind of made my way up, seat after seat, every two years. And I was lucky that I got a committee early on because the infrastructure in Massachusetts was pretty good. I came through a system where personal loyalty was a very important consideration. You had Joe Moakley [South Boston politician who was chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Rules], Tip O’Neill was just leaving, Eddie Boland had just left and I took his seat and got on a committee very early in my career.

Congressman Neal on a visit to Stormont with Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and former congressman Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.) in 2008.

You came from a very humble background, a very tough one, because your mother and father both died when you were young. So how did you cope with that?

I was lucky to have an aunt and a grandmother. They were both great. And I also think it’s interesting that they were very Catholic. So we were never adopted. No social worker ever came to check on us. And the grandmother, she was one of fourteen, so I think her attitude was, “What’s another mouth at the table?” My aunt was devout. Remember those days they used to cover their heads when they went to Mass? We said the rosary at night.

There is much controversy right now as it relates to some of what happened in the Church, but for my aunt, grandmother, and my mother, the Church to them in those days was everything. It was an anchor.

Did you know you were poor?

Not really. It wasn’t exactly as though the neighborhood had a lot. My aunt had a pension, Mass Mutual. We had a little bit of life insurance that my father left, about $10,000. That was it. And we had the genius of Roosevelt’s social security survivor’s benefit. It was about $119 a month for each one of us. It wasn’t a lot, but we lived as a family.

How far back do your Irish roots go?

My paternal grandmother was born in County Down. On my mother’s side, her grandparents were born in West Kerry – Ventry. Irish was the first language for the West Kerry people. Springfield was the next parish over. You went where the others went before you, and they came here. In Holyoke, which is close by, they all came from Mayo. We were all from Kerry. And I think that they were very, very, proud of it. And it wasn’t as though they were going to Irish rallies or anything like that. But they knew of their traditions, they knew who they were and that they came from a pretty ancient culture that was comprised of great achievers. If you asked those people whereabouts they were from, they never said Ireland; they said they were from Kerry.

You first got involved in the North when you were a councilman.

The first time I got involved was in 1981 when Bobby Sands died [on hunger strike]. That’s when I took up a position because people in my community were pretty outraged. You know, those guys were dying on hunger strike, and Margaret Thatcher’s response was that they were criminals.

My first or second speech on the House floor after I got elected was on the use of rubber bullets [in Northern Ireland].

The first time I went to Ireland was around 1983; I went to visit relatives in County Down. In those days it was a militarized state. There were 30,000 British soldiers in an area the size of the state of Connecticut. You couldn’t go from street to street without being monitored. Helicopters circled no matter where you went. I was on a bus with Speaker of the House Tom Foley, and they boarded the bus. They had the big armaments and they had night vision – it was dark when we got on the bus – and they searched it.

When you look back at how the North and the Republic were colonized, and you look at the history, [you’ll see] that until the Rising, it was truly an argument about subjugation.

Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams on a recent visit to Congressman Neal’s office.

You’ve been very involved in the Friends of Ireland Committee over the years.

Yes. I’m proud of the American role in the Good Friday Agreement. This is our agreement, too. We’re the backstop.

The British Embassy used to come up to the hill to meet with those of us in the [Congressional] Friends of Ireland. These were not pleasant meetings. But when the Good Friday Agreement came about, Tony Blair applauded us right here at the British Embassy. I remembered his quote all these years later. He said, “We’ve been great friends, America and the United Kingdom. We generally agreed on just about everything, but there was one issue we disagreed on: Ireland.” He said, “There was a time when I thought that the Friends of Ireland were a hindrance, but you helped us get through this.”

People forget that the Friends of Ireland was born of the purpose to try to compete with the money that was being used for gun-running. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who founded it in 1981, said that the idea was just to kind of offer a competing vision. So now you can go and say that the Friends of Ireland position is “No Border.” You can have the Speaker of the House say, “I agree!” I think people have forgotten that.

The Good Friday Agreement was everything, because it was Belfast / Dublin, and institutions would be created that would be All-Ireland institutions.

I saw [the importance of] that after we just left Derry, where that young woman [Lyra McKee] was murdered recently. The idea that an Irish prime minister would go to the funerals…

1916 Garden of Remembrance at Forest Park in the city of Springfield, M.A.

And leaders of the D.U.P.

And sit next to each other. You know, there was a time when the Irish prime ministers didn’t go. The British prime minister didn’t go. And I think that the Good Friday Agreement and the elimination of the border was so important.

Did you visit the border on your recent trip?

Yes. On the trip over, I mentioned to Nancy Pelosi my concern that they would try to talk us into avoiding the border. And she said, “We are going to the border.” And she went, and stood there. She walked across it. And nobody was confused when she was done talking about American foreign policy in relation to Brexit, saying that Congress would block any new trade deal with the U.K. if Britain’s exit from the E.U. threatened the peace in Northern Ireland.

We were advised that if the North goes [leaves the U.K.], then Scotland will go. And our response was, “It’s self-determination.” The Good Friday Agreement says that there could be a referendum question [on a united Ireland], and the greater number will prevail.

At the right moment. In the local elections last week, Unionist parties went from 246 to 202.

You see what’s happening. But this has not been going on for two years. This has been going on for thirty-five to forty years. It’s demographic. Of the six counties, there [are] four now that have a nationalist majority.

The people who have been against Brexit [have] successful agrarian interests in the North. And the reason they are against it is because they like selling their products in the Republic of Ireland. In the heyday of Ulster, or the North, part of the argument that the unionists used was that they had a higher standard of living in the North than the people in the Republic – not true any more. And you look at the resiliency of the Irish economy, from where they were [to] where they are now. How it bounced back. I think that without that border, people in the North look at it and they say, “You know what, if there is a true departure now from the European Union, it’s not bad for us to be Irish citizens.”

Do you think you’ll see a united Ireland?

Yes. Vigorously so. Oh, yes. And I think part of it is that you’re going to be reminded who has been against Brexit.

Are you optimistic about peace talks?

Yes. I think it is going to be born of necessity. If you are on the unionist side, it’s time to make the best deal you can. If you are on the nationalist side, you have to not do to the unionists what was done to you.

Do you still think they need an American envoy?

An honest broker is needed. I think that one of the problems we have had is that we thought there was going to be a successor to George Mitchell. It’s not going to happen. There’s only one Mitchell. Not only that: you look at how strong Blair was at the time. He really put something into it. And Bill Clinton really put something into it. Sometimes you need the strong men and the strong women to make the deal. The Irish government, during those years, was in favor of propping up SDLP. And the British government was in favor of propping up the D.U.P. And when the deal became inevitable, the toughest people made the deal [the nationalists and the loyalists].

Congressman Neal and former president Bill Clinton.

How did you get on with Brexiteer Rees-Mogg?

I am surprised to hear that sort of talk in this day and age.  The world has moved on, by decades. He clings to the notion of “empire.” There are those who make this argument for a return to a different time, I mean, if you remember when Roosevelt and Churchill were a great collaboration, World War II, and how America was destined to make the difference. Roosevelt pointed out that this was about advancing democracy, supporting our allies, but not a return to empire. He pointed out that we’re not going back to that.

There’s a group in London, England, who ran in a local election on a no-Brexit platform and won 704 seats. It’s the same in Britain, if the Labor party leader would only realize it, but he won’t take the chance.

When we met Jeremy Corbyn, he seemed to agree with everything we said about Ireland and the border. But whether or not he’s strong enough to do something about it, we’ll have to see.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meeting with Congressman Neal in Washington, D.C., in March 2019.

Let me ask you about the current day. What surprised you about the job, now that you have it?

Trying to manage a lot of the personalities is not easy. I always felt very comfortable on the policy stuff; I was smart enough to pay attention over the years. And I like reading long pieces about it, and hearing what everybody has to say, but boy, managing the strong personalities. I think that our job is to educate the public, not to entertain them. I think entertainment has seeped into politics; there’s this kind of, “I got to get out there,” before thinking through what you want to say, and I just resist that.

You’re in the ring with Trump, how are you doing?

The reality is, he won. And I think that we can have plenty of sharp disagreements, but I’m hopeful that even in this incendiary atmosphere, we can find some common ground on a handful of issues. We need to find an agreement on infrastructure, and we’ve got a big issue coming up with the multipayer pension plans in the Midwest.

There’s not too many other Democrats talking like that. It seems to be lines in the sand.

Yes. But I also have a different responsibility as chairman of this committee. We have to deal with taxes, trade, tariffs, Social Security, Medicare, management of the public debt, pensions, and welfare. I don’t have the luxury of not trying to fix these pension plans. They’ve got to get fixed.

You have great expertise in financial matters.

I paid a lot of attention to it over the years. I understand why the Fed should be independent, and not have the president’s acolytes being appointed.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Ambassador Dan Mulhall, and other Irish government representatives meet with Congressman Neal in his Washington, D.C., office in March. (Photo: Marty Katz.)

So what do you think of Trump as an individual?

I don’t know him well enough, but I think that in the age of theater, he’s an actor. I think that he probably enjoys this. I also think that this didn’t just happen – that we’ve been coursing through this for years. I think more entertainment has seeped into the political arena. It’s all instant opinion. There’s no deep breath, there’s no stepping back. There’s a lot of talking, and a lot less listening. And I think that the country has a lot of serious challenges in front of it. And I would like to think that some of this could calm for a period of time to get some of these big things done. Before you know it, by the time you get to the fall, we’re a year out from another presidential election. We’re exhausted from the last one, because it’s gone on.

Who do you like on the Democratic side?

I’m going to wait and see. I’ve got friends all over, with the job I’ve got. I think that we need to nominate the most electable Democrat. So that’s the bottom line.

The problem we have today is that we’ve now seen two elections where we’ve won the popular vote and lost the presidency. It is scary, and I think that part of this is that we need a mainstream Democrat.

So in terms of the tax returns, will you get them?

I don’t think that they’re going to be voluntarily turned over.

How far will all this go? Will it eventually go to the Supreme Court?

It could.

But even the Supreme Court surely can’t rule in his favor.

Well, I think that the law is very clear on this. It says, “Shall furnish, upon request,” and there is no sense, on my part, of malevolence here. There are eight successive presidents over forty years that have voluntarily released their forms. All the way back to Richard Nixon, they asked that their forms be reviewed. I don’t understand why, after the president said during the course of the campaign that he was going to voluntarily give up the forms, and then he said he was under audit. Now the IRS commissioner says, “It doesn’t make a difference; you can release the forms anyway.” But we’ve been very careful in preparing a court case. That’s why you don’t see me doing the bombast, and you don’t see me running to the cable shows. The House counsel has said to me, “You’ve got to be careful how you do this. You can’t do the shows, because you’re the petitioner in the court case, so you’re likely to be a witness.”

I was watching FOX News last night. The guy said you should be allowed to view them, but not take them away.

Well, that’s what actually happened with Richard Nixon and Joint Tax. You would have professionals review these. It’s not like you would have, you know, just the Ways and Means members, so I think that the answer, should we be successful, is the Joint Tax Committee, which is made up of attorneys, tax attorneys, accountants, and economists­. I think that that would be a good sounding board.

What do you think he is hiding?

I don’t know what he’s hiding. I think that the idea that he wouldn’t submit to the same sort of test that the others have had is the challenge. The challenge is that I don’t even start with a malicious intent. My attitude is: let’s just take a look at the forms; we’re interested in seeing how the IRS conducts an audit. That’s the legal basis of the request. I think that that’s fair.

Congressman Neal at the border in Northern Ireland in April 2019. (Photo: William Tranghese)

Do you think Trump will make it through his presidency without impeachment?

I think Speaker Pelosi would rather have an election than an impeachment. I think she’s right. You also have a presidential election now that’s, what, sixteen to seventeen months away? I was here during the Clinton impeachment and opinions shifted pretty vigorously on that. People forget, when Clinton left, two-thirds of the American people approved of the job that he had done. I was pretty impressed, because I was a big supporter. Be careful what you wish for. The other thing: be careful, only because you had in the Clinton case – you had the prosecutor, you had the press, you had the Republicans, and you had Clinton, and the people said,

“Of the four, we’ll take Clinton.” I mean, you’re known by your opponents sometimes. And the people that were involved in that at the time, they totally miscalculated, and I think [that’s why] Speaker Pelosi would rather have an election than an impeachment.

Hypothetical: President Warren calls on the phone and says, “I want you as ambassador to Ireland.”

As opposed to the Ways and Means chairmanship? I’ll stick with the Ways and Means chairmanship. Speaker Pelosi said to me when we were over there, “Did you ever think of running for one of those national offices?” Then she caught herself and she said, “Being chair of the Ways and Means Committee is better, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yes, it is.”  ♦ Niall O’Dowd

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“Wild Bill” Donovan: Irish-American War Hero and Superspy Wed, 01 May 2019 07:37:35 +0000 Read more..]]> “Wild Bill“ Donovan had many fascinating friends, including Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond – the fictional, globe-trotting superspy. Donovan’s real-life feats, however, surpassed even Bond’s wildest exploits. Perhaps no other Irish American served his country more daringly, yet Donovan’s largely clandestine service to America is still greatly under-appreciated.

Born in 1883 into poverty, the son of a County Cork-born railroad superintendent in Buffalo, New York, William Joseph Donovan combined rakish good looks with a first-rate intelligence. Rare amongst Irish-Americans of his generation, Donovan inherited his father’s allegiance to the Republican party. Excelling in his local Catholic school, Donovan first went to a local Catholic college before transferring to Columbia University, where he starred as the football team’s quarterback. Admitted to its law school in 1905, Donovan was a classmate of his future boss, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the two were not friendly.

Returning to Buffalo, Donovan forsook the Irish-American First Ward, spending his time in posh Protestant circles and joining a prestigious Buffalo law firm. Soon admitted as the first-ever Catholic into the Saturn Club, Buffalo’s most prestigious club, Donovan courted and married Ruth Rumsey, the attractive Protestant daughter of Buffalo’s richest man.

Donovan, though, was too restless just to practice law. Eager for military service, he and his Saturn Club friends formed a National Guard cavalry troop, known as the Silk Stocking Boys, which was soon dispatched to Mexico, chasing Pancho Villa in vain across the hot and dusty Mexican landscape.

When America entered the Great War in 1917, Donovan was commissioned as a major in “the Fighting 69th,” a regiment of poor Irish toughs who, despite their heroism in the Civil War, were notorious for their fist-fighting and hard drinking. Donovan weeded out the troublemakers, putting his imprint on the unit by hand-picking 2,000 smart, athletic, and agile men. Becoming infamous for his demanding physical training of the recruits, in which he also took part, Donovan once asked his exhausted men what the hell was wrong with them. One of them replied, “We are not as wild as you are, Major Donovan,” and the name stuck.

Donovan befriended the 69th’s famous Canadian-born chaplain Father Duffy, whose statue still graces New York’s Times Square. Duffy admired Donovan’s fearlessness in battle. Donovan wore his medals in battle to encourage his men, even though they made him a target for snipers. On July 27, 1918, Donovan proved his valor while leading his men across the Ourcq River. Hemmed in by machine guns on three sides, Donovan refused to cower, even though the 69th lost 600 of 1,000 men, including three-quarters of the officers. For his bravery, Donovan won the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award. Soon, Donovan again displayed his courage, fighting in the thick of battle on October 14 and famously shouting, “They can’t hit me and they won’t hit you!” Wounded the next morning, Donovan refused to be evacuated and continued commanding his men, even after American tanks retreated from the withering German fire. Awarded the Medal of Honor, Donovan’s letters about the engagement, published by newspapers, made him a national hero.

Upon being awarded the Medal of Honor, Donovan became the most decorated soldier in U.S. history, winning, amongst other orders, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and several foreign awards. The Fighting 69th, or what was left of it, returned to a hero’s welcome and a ticker-tape parade up Fifth Avenue. Using his newly found fame, Donovan, along with Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., started the American Legion, which quickly evolved from a group of war veterans into the most influential American veteran group, with over a million members and local posts across the country. Donovan became a hero with a national following.

Major General William J. Donovan, director of the O.S.S., and Colonel William Harding Jackson in April 1945.

Returning to Buffalo to practice law, Donovan soon grew bored of private practice and won appointment as a U.S. attorney in Buffalo. Prohibition laws then existed, but his Saturn Club openly flouted them; nevertheless, Donovan declared the “law is the law,” and ordered a raid on the club by sledgehammer-wielding federal agents. Damned by the influential club members, Donovan was effectively driven from Buffalo, much to the consternation of his wife’s WASP family.

Moving first to Washington, D.C., in 1924, he became assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, but his career was blocked by anti-Catholic discrimination. Donovan then came to New York in 1929 to start his own lucrative Wall Street law firm, which made him a millionaire. Ever restless, he ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 1932, surprisingly proving to be a poor stump speaker who drew resentment from many Irish voters for looking and acting like the rich Republican he was. Spending lavishly, Donovan was always on the move, shuttling between his Washington mansion, his duplex on New York’s Beekman Place, his summer home on Cape Cod, and his Virginia country home.

His wanderlust increasingly took him to Europe and Asia, where he wrote reports for clients on the investment climate. In 1939, he met Spain’s Generalissimo Franco on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, where he observed Nazi Germany’s frightening use of its weapons and warplanes. He also visited Italy’s Mussolini, who was impressed by Donovan’s war heroics. Ostensibly traveling for business, Donovan in fact gathered intelligence for a secretive private organization known as the Room, a group of international businessmen and lawyers who traded tips on the increasingly ominous European situation.

Amazingly, before World War II, the U.S. government had no foreign spy agency, leaving it unprepared for the upcoming world war. In 1939, with Britain facing war, its foreign intelligence service MI6 began looking for American allies and spotted one in Donovan who, despite his Irish background, was an anglophile. In July 1940, Donovan flew to London to meet Colonel Stewart Menzies, the chief of MI6, and Winston Churchill, whom Donovan greatly impressed.

Returning to Washington as the Battle of Britain raged, the pro-British Donovan told Roosevelt that Britain could survive only with America’s help. In January 1940, Donovan sat in a radio studio plugging The Fighting 69th, a new Hollywood movie. The film, starring James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, and George Brent as Donovan, put him back in the spotlight just when President Roosevelt needed someone with Donovan’s European experience.

Roosevelt liked Donovan and trusted his intelligence, even though Donovan was a Republican. In July 1941, FDR established the Office of the Coordination of Information (C.O.I.), naming Donovan its director. After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt again turned to Donovan, adopting Donovan’s blueprint for a secret American intelligence service based on the British model and appointing him to run the agency, called the O.S.S.: the Office of Strategic Services. Quickly, Donovan created a massive spy network fighting a worldwide, clandestine war. Occupying the rank of two-star general, Donovan slept little, continually flying abroad on secret missions. Ever the soldier, Donovan even defied orders, landing at Normandy on D-Day while barely avoiding capture by German soldiers. Donovan’s O.S.S. nevertheless played a huge behind-the-scenes role in winning the war for the Allies.

At the end of the war, America was in transition. Donovan and the American Legion pushed the GI Bill, the most far-reaching education program in American history, through Congress, allowing millions of veterans a college education. America also knew it needed a foreign intelligence agency and Donovan hoped to be named by FDR’s successor Harry Truman to head the newly created Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA. However, Truman, a loyal Democrat, did not share FDR’s high opinion of Donovan, instead naming one of Donovan’s spies, Allen Dulles, to run the CIA. Deeply disappointed, Donovan went to Nuremberg, where he played an important role in providing evidence in the prosecution of former Nazis.

For the remainder of his life, Donovan longed to run the CIA, but President Eisenhower also denied him the job, instead naming him ambassador to Thailand, where Donovan first began to show signs of the dementia that quickly grew worse. Hospitalized in 1957, Donovan suffered hallucinations, imagining the Red Army coming over the 59th Street Bridge, while often wandering onto the street in his pajamas. In his last days, Donovan received a hospital visit from Eisenhower, who called Donovan “the last hero.” When Donovan died on February 8, 1959, the CIA cabled its station chiefs around the world: “The man more responsible than any other for the existence of the Central Intelligence Agency has passed away.” Today, Donovan’s statue stands in the lobby of the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a tribute to the Irish-American war hero who single-handedly created America’s foreign intelligence capability. ♦

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Irish War Brides: A Little Irish Romance Wed, 01 May 2019 07:36:38 +0000 Read more..]]> A group of workers on the docks serenaded the passengers with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and “Come Back to Erin.” The sirens of other ships in the harbor wailed while the 314 Irish brides waved, held up their 140 babies, and sang “Auld Lang Syne” through floods of tears as the Henry Gibbins, a 12,000-ton U.S. Army transport vessel, sailed away from the Herdman Channel, Belfast, on March 7, 1946.

This was the first of three shiploads of brides from Northern Ireland and Éire to embark for the United States. Many had married GIs as early as 1942. The majority of the women were in their early 20s. The youngest bride was 17, the oldest 45, with three grown daughters in tow. At night, mothers slept in upper berths and babies beneath in the lower, where a screen was constructed to prevent them “falling out on their noses.” Days were spent listening to Red Cross personnel lecturing from A Short Guide to the U.S. on “The GI Bill of Rights,” “Becoming a Citizen,” and “Currency Differences.”

Although $75,000 had been spent on reconversion, the Gibbins, which carried 2,900 troops at a time during the war, was no luxury liner. However, The Northern Whig, a newspaper from that time, made much of the lavish menu aboard ship, which included “as many old-fashioned shell eggs as they liked.” No more coupons, points, and rationing for the brides. There was more meat, eggs, chicken, and fresh fruit than they’d seen in years. Unfortunately most of the women would be too seasick to enjoy the feast.

Seasickness was aggravated by their intense excitement at rejoining their husbands, regrets about leaving their families and homeland, and apprehension as to whether or not they would get a hearty welcome from in-laws in America.

Marion (Callendar) Carlson, from Belfast, got a terrific welcome when she arrived in New York aboard the James Parker in May 1946. “We were met by American Red Cross people,” she remembers. “They had big placards, ‘Welcome Irish War Brides,’ and a GI military band played Irish tunes.”

Other brides who weren’t so lucky remember being met by hostile groups of American women shouting, “You stole our husbands,” and “You stole our boyfriends.” By March 1945, U.S. naval officer T.J. Keane had disclosed that 25 percent of the men under his command had married women from Northern Ireland. The greatest number hailed from areas where the largest numbers of American troops were stationed, Cookstown, Derry, Coleraine, Kilrea, Portrush, and Belfast.

U.S. Immigration tables for the period from December 28, 1945 through 1950 account for 1,466 Irish war brides and three war “grooms,” but in fact there were many more. Those figures don’t take account of the 30,000 Irish and English brides transported secretly while the war was still on.

Although authorities after the war predicted that 80 percent of marriages between GIs and foreign women would fail, the opposite has proved true.

Beryl Lynch and Charles Colvin, who married in 1944.

Esther (Canning) Munger, her husband, and their five children can chuckle when she tells about her Irish friends who “had a bet on when I came to this country that I would be back home in six months.”

Esther, from County Wexford, was only 17 when she married, having met her future husband at a birthday party in Lincoln, England. Her parents told her she “was too young, that he was not Catholic, and that America was too far away.”

Parental fears and misgivings at the time were understandable. As one war bride put it, “Going to America was like going to the moon!” In all likelihood, parents might never see their daughter again, or be able to help her if the marriage failed.

One woman from Coalisland, County Tyrone, who had met her GI while working as a waitress in a hotel in England, sailed secretly aboard the Mauritania in February 1945 during wartime, along with 500 other brides, 200 babies, and 1,500 wounded soldiers. She remembers how they “took a zigzag course on account of U-boats.”

“Because of the U-boat threat,” another war bride aboard recalled, “I wasn’t allowed to notify anyone that I was on my way. All our written material had been censored – even my Bible – and was put into sealed packages which we weren’t allowed to open until we got to the U.S. There were no pressmen on the dock; it was all hush-hush because the war was still on.”

Another bride who came over secretly with 13 other women during the war remembers that puzzled soldiers aboard who saw these unaccounted-for women in the officers’ dining room and lounge started rumors that “the girls onboard were there for the entertainment of the officers.” The next day, it was announced that they were war brides.

Most war brides still marvel at how easily attracted they were to those Yanks in their smart uniforms, smelling of Old Spice, generous to a fault.

Marion Carlson, who met her Yank at an American Red Cross event, feels that basically there wasn’t really all that much difference between Irish and American men, “except Americans seem[ed] to treat women nicer, sending flowers, candy, and the like.”

According to Lillian “Betty” (Kearney) Frantz of Belfast, who met her husband on a blind date while working in England during the war, American men were “better dressed,” but “failed to use a knife and fork properly when eating, failed to open doors or light a cigarette, but treated women like queens.”

Some Irish women served in the British A.T.S. (Auxiliary Territorial Service) during the war and met their American husbands on the job. “Both of us worked in the Headquarters Allied Armies, Italy,” says Phyllis (Boyack) Lancaster of Clonmel, County Tipperary. Although she often found GIs to be “loud and brassy,” she also thought them “more outgoing” than British men.

At her wedding in October 1945, Phyllis wore an often-borrowed wedding gown, on loan from a Canadian women’s group to members of the A.T.S. Many wartime gowns were fashioned out of parachute silk. Gauze bandages were transformed into wedding veils.

Jean (Campbell) Corda, of Lisburn, County Antrim, who met Pvt. Elmer Corda at the movies in her hometown, remembers “three of us girls married Americans in the same church by the same minister on March 27, 1943.” Not long after they settled in Oregon, rising waters from the Columbia River broke a railroad dike and flooded their town. For a while, their only shelter was a tent. Elmer told Jean he wouldn’t blame her if she packed up and went back to Ireland. Jean told him that World War II brought them together and she wasn’t about to let hell or high water chase her away.

“We had our struggles,” Jean admits. “We didn’t have a lot when we first came, but we managed. You go up the hill and get kicked back down, then you go back up again. My mother used to tell me that when one door closes, another always opens up.”

“I wouldn’t do it again!” says Sally Kastl of Belfast in her clearly Irish brogue. She hasn’t forgotten that she “cried for five years” from homesickness. However, her mother-in-law, an English war bride from World War I, provided some understanding.

Getting a job with Michigan Bell Telephone Company as an operator helped Lillian Frantz get through her homesickness. In 1953 she was promoted to management and retired after 28 years of service.

A page from our 1991 archives.

“The terrible heat in Oklahoma,” was the worst thing at first for Marion Carlson to get used to. She, too, found satisfaction in a career and a happy marriage.

Sally, now a proud grandmother, is still as fiery as ever. She lives with her husband Frank in San Francisco, where neighbors have dubbed her “the mayor of San Bruno Avenue,” because of all the letters she writes to the city council and her involvement in political affairs affecting her neighborhood.

As much as Sally misses her homeland and Irish family, leaving was a liberating experience for her. “I had red hair down to my hips; Mother didn’t believe in cutting hair. First thing I did was get it cut!”

A friend who traveled recently in Ireland told me he stayed at a bed-and-breakfast, where he asked the proprietor about the photo of a Yank he spied on the parlor wall. “It’s me,” he answered. He turned out to be one of an unknown number of GIs who chose to stay in Ireland with his Irish bride.

On December 28, 1945, Public Law 271, known as the War Brides Act, was passed by Congress. The act facilitated the entry of alien spouses of U.S. servicemen by granting them nonquota status. This act remained in effect for three years, until December 28, 1948.  ♦


Ellie Shukert is the author of War Brides of World War II, published by Penguin Books. This article was published in Irish America in April 1991. War bride Sally Kastl passed away in 2004.

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The Last Irish Saloon Wed, 01 May 2019 07:35:35 +0000 Read more..]]> An old-time bar in Brooklyn, Farrell’s has served as a community center since the 1930s, and is the last marker of what was once a thriving Irish neighborhood.


Farrell’s Bar, on the corner of 16th Street and 9th Avenue in Brooklyn, has been in the same location in Windsor Terrace since 1933. It was the very first bar to open in New York after Prohibition. The writer Pete Hamill once said: “Of all the bars of the neighborhood my father might stop into, Farrell’s was the one he kept returning to until the end of his life.”

It’s the last Irish saloon left in a neighborhood where gentrification has moved rapidly. Once within a five-block area there was one on almost every corner: Langton’s, McCauley’s, Val’s, McNulty’s, Kerrigan’s, O’Neill’s, Lanahan’s, Devaney’s, and Connie’s Corner.

The original “Farrell’s” sign was blown down during a blizzard in 2011. The owners had an exact replica made of it, and they hung the old sign on a wall in the back of the bar.

What kept most of them open for so long, all through World War II and into the ’50s and early ’60s, was simply a celebration of Irish working-class life in their back rooms, celebrating first holy communions and confirmations. They were places to ease the pain of mourning at a time when neighborhood wakes lasted as long as three days, and places to find out who was hiring.

The Irish of the Windsor Terrace that I grew up in during the ’40s and ’50s made their livings working the docks of nearby Red Hook. Men with names like Towey, Welsh, Walsh, and Maloney worked as trolley car operators on the McDonald Avenue line that ran out of the car barns on 19th Street and 9th Avenue. “Red Mike” Quill (the founder of the Transport Workers Union) represented them.

Others worked as sandhogs and ironworkers. Some worked as gravediggers at Greenwood Cemetery over on 20th Street and 9th Avenue. Many became cops or firefighters.

There were once nine movie houses a short distance from each other between Windsor Terrace and Park Slope. Many of the women of the neighborhood worked in them as ticket takers, others, like my mother from Williamstown, Galway, worked as domestics at private houses on Fuller Place near Holy Name Church.

Some worked in the factories that once lined nearby 18th Street like the walls of an ancient village. Or they worked in one of the two laundries in the neighborhood, the Cascade Laundry on Prospect Avenue near 9th, and further down Prospect, the Pilgrim Laundry. Somehow the women managed to juggle raising large Irish families containing as many as eight kids with the grueling work of a steamed-filled laundry room.

Over the years the writers Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin became a part of the lore of Farrell’s and the neighborhood. Many films and beer commercials were shot using it for interior and exterior shots, and they still are. Congressman Peter King was known to campaign here years ago, and still occasionally stops in for a beer.

Three of New York’s finest chroniclers, Jimmy Breslin, Pat Fenton, and Pete Hamill have a last round in Farrell’s saloon in the spring of 2016. Breslin died a year later on March 19, 2017. (Photo: Emily Eldridge)

Jimmy Houlihan spent many years working behind the stick at Farrell’s before Eddie Farrell sold the legendary saloon to him and two other bartenders, Danny Mills and Timmy Horan, in the late ’90s. Houlihan, who is now the sole owner of the bar, has continued to carry on the charitable traditions that Eddie was known for. He realized that something special, something rare had been passed along from the Farrell family to him, Danny, and Timmy, so he keeps the tradition of giving and caring for the neighborhood of Windsor Terrace going.

Each year he organizes numerous fundraisers to help the local Catholic church and school. And if you ask him, he’ll tell you that it doesn’t matter to him if you are new or old to the neighborhood – if you need help, Farrell’s will help you.

Farrell’s owner Jimmy Houlihan working behind the bar.

Once, after the pastor of nearby Holy Name Church mentioned to him that the paint was peeling off of the walls of the classrooms of Holy Name Parochial School, Houlihan volunteered to paint it. In a scene straight off of the pages of a Frank Capra script, he rounded up over 300 people, most of them patrons of his bar, and they all showed up with their own paint brushes and ladders. They painted the school for free over the course of a weekend – all 35 classrooms.

The story spread all the way to Washington, where U.S Rep. Charles Schumer entered it into the Congressional record. The writer Denis Hamill called it a Brooklyn version of an Amish barn-raising.

When I asked Pete Hamill, who recently moved back to Brooklyn, about going back to Farrell’s Bar, he paused, and then he said, “Pat, I would only see ghosts if I went back there.”

The last time he did go back to Farrell’s was in the spring of 2016. He was there to shoot part of a documentary that Jonathan Alter was producing about him and Jimmy Breslin, called Deadline Artists. I remember being in there that afternoon writing about it. As he sat toward the front of the bar, Jonathan Alter asked him what music he associated with Farrell’s when he looked back on his drinking days there.

The question seemed to float in the air for a while as he thought about it. “Early Rock ’n’ Roll,” he answered, as he stared toward the wide front window of the bar.

Once, when he was a younger man, home from the Navy, he could stare out that window onto 9th Avenue and it would be like he was looking at a picture of his old Holy Name Parochial School yearbook: all the faces he remembered through his life would be going by, like they always did.

And if he thought hard enough, memory would bring back an image of him as a young boy hurrying by the bar on some cold winter Sunday morning, carrying his altar boy surplice folded under his arm as he headed toward the first mass of the day at Holy Name Church on the hill.

Over the years these images of youth would play on and on in the wide front window, changing slowly with the decades passing, eventually ending. In their place now, new images appear: images of nannies pushing strollers and young “hipsters” jogging by, as the swirl of time continues its slow movement over 9th Avenue.

But inside Farrell’s Bar, time seems to stand still. The old hammered tin ceiling that so many generations of fathers and sons drank under is still there.

So are the long thick mirrors behind the bar that reflect the images of white-aproned bartenders carrying out the ritual of bringing large buckets of ice up from the basement, and dumping them over the coils of the taps. Like they always have.

Farrell’s serves only two beers on tap, Budweiser and Stella Artois in large quart containers for $8.00. In the ’40s and ’50s, they served only one beer, Rupert Knickerbocker.

They still use what looks like cut-down baseball bats to crush the ice and move it around the taps. Longtime bartender Michael O’Donnell, who knows much about the history of Farrell’s, told me that when Timmy Horan passed away recently, the ice bat he used for so many years was buried with him.

A talented, award-winning local filmmaker, Jay Cusato from Park Slope Films, has been working on a documentary about the bar. Asked why did Farrell’s stand the test of time, he said, “It’s basically the same bar as it was in the 1930s.” He is calling the documentary Why Farrell’s?

The making of Why Farrell’s? Filmmaker Jay Cusato is pictured left, next to crew member Jake King with camera.

Over the years, Farrell’s has become a place where the oral history of Windsor Terrace is stored. It’s a history of a neighborhood that was once teeming with Irish working-class families, a history that few of the “hipsters” moving into the neighborhood know about.When they drive across the Prospect Expressway, they have no idea that once there was another part of Windsor Terrace here, parts of it buried underneath the concrete of the highway now.

In the late ’40s, Robert Moses started construction on the Prospect Expressway, a massive highway project that ran through Windsor Terrace and displaced over 1,000 families, most of them Irish and Italian working-class.

That part of Windsor Terrace once stood like a small town on its own. Irish women of the neighborhood went off to work in the factories of 18th Street that are now all gone. There was the Lucky Penny variety store on the corner of 9th Avenue, and a few doors down there was a barber shop, and Frank’s Italian restaurant, all rowed up like a scene from an Edward Hopper painting. And across the street, on the corner of 19th Street there was Gus’s Diner.

Why Farrell’s? filmmaker Jay Cusato and writer Pat Fenton in front of the original Farrell’s sign.

Gladys Mastrion, who moved over to Staten Island some years ago, comes back often to Farrell’s. If you ask her about the Prospect Expressway and Robert Moses, she will tell you that her grandfather lived at 373 19th Street his whole life and that “in 1952, Moses took his house and gave him $2,000 for it.”

Memories of what once was in Windsor Terrace, history, and tradition are slowly fading with time. Not long ago I attended what will probably be the last Irish wake in the neighborhood. The wake, which took place in Farrell’s Bar, was held for Jacky Malone, a retired NYPD officer I grew up with.

For over 40 years you could usually find him standing at the same spot at the back of the bar next to the old phone booth. After living most of his life just a few doors down from Farrell’s, he moved upstate to be closer to his family.

Jacky Malone sits where he always sat: at the very end of the bar. Friends and family held a wake for Jacky when he passed away in 2017.

When he died in 2017, they posted information on Farrell’s cork bulletin board about a memorial service that would be held for him at nearby Holy Name Church. His sister Snooki brought his ashes down from Lake Luzerne in a polished wooden box. After a funeral mass and a police honor guard ceremony, the crowd formed into a procession, and they all walked down 9th Avenue to Farrell’s Bar. Snooki led the way, carrying Jacky’s ashes with her.

Inside Farrell’s, there was food spread out on tables, the juke box was playing, and you could hear the roar of a large crowd of Jacky’s friends and family as they called up memories of their times with him. His sister Snooki walked back to the spot where Jacky always drank and placed his ashes on the bar. Pints of beer and Jameson’s whiskey were ordered, and soon the afternoon took on the mood of a Joycean wake.

Like Pete Hamill, whenever I go back to Farrell’s now I see ghosts. When I stand where Jacky Malone once stood, and stare into the wide mirrors we both stared into when we were young, I can still hear him asking me, “You still writing all that crap for the newspapers?”

And I would smile and say, “Yeah, Jack, I’m still writing all that crap for the newspapers.” And he would turn and smile back at me, knowing he had just paid me the highest compliment that you could get in Farrell’s – no matter how long you were gone from the bar, you were still part of Farrell’s enough to be teased. Then he would say to the bartender, “Give Pat a beer.”  ♦

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Recollections of a Bronx Irish Catholic Wed, 01 May 2019 07:34:41 +0000 Read more..]]> In the 1950s, the Bronx was a melting pot of immigrants and first-generation families: Jewish, Italian, and Irish alike. Peter Quinn shares his story of what it was like to be a Bronx Irish Catholic, commonly referred to as a B.I.C.


“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, / Who never to himself hath said, / This is my own, my native land! / Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d, / As home his footsteps he hath turn’d…”

– Sir Walter Scott

Native land means different things to different people. To some it’s a nation with well-defined borders, like France or Sweden; to others, it transcends borders, à la Ireland or Korea. For many, I think, the term native land invokes something more intimate and parochial: a patch of earth that, no matter where life takes us, stays synonymous with home. For me, that place is the Bronx of the ’50s and ’60s, a lower-middle- / middle-middle-class agglomeration of apartment houses, single-family homes, and small businesses sprawled between the Long Island Sound to the east and the Hudson River to the west, a so-called bedroom borough whose north-south subway lines transported inhabitants to and from jobs in Manhattan.

Reeking of exhaust and incinerators, the Bronx was chockablock with pizzerias, German and Jewish delis, and Irish bars; blessed with spacious parks, a world-class zoo and botanical garden; and possessed of the Ruthian diamond – the crown jewel of major league baseball – Yankee Stadium.

The skyline looming to the south was the imperial city – a dream-big place, proximate yet far away. Ours was the workaday, no-illusion city, its concrete precincts filled with cops, firemen, pipefitters, clerks, mechanics, motormen, taxi drivers, teachers, housewives, shop owners, wire lathers, civil servants, and union members, the everyday people who kept the place running.

Nuns teaching school children to skip rope. (Photo: Superstock Images)

Solid, stolid, often the butt of jokes (“The Bronx, no thonx,” wrote Ogden Nash), the borough was a small-scale Yugoslavia: ethnic enclaves interspersed with areas in which, though physically mingled, groups lived psychically and culturally apart.

Jews, by far the most numerous population, branched out from the Art Deco stem of the Grand Concourse. Highbridge, Kingsbridge, and Woodlawn were heavily Irish. Fordham, presided over by the Jesuit Gothic of the eponymous university, was bordered to the west by the well-heeled Irish parish of St. Nicholas of Tolentine and to the southeast by Belmont, a tight-knit Italian village of modest apartment buildings and meticulously tended one- and two-family homes.

The once-Irish / Jewish South Bronx filled with newly arrived Puerto Ricans and African Americans. The East Bronx was a trifecta of Jews, Irish, and Italians. Riverdale, in the borough’s northwest corner, felt like an appendage of suburban Westchester County. Fieldston, adjacent to it, was a privately owned enclave of privilege and palatial homes.

Home to almost a million-and-a-half people, the borough had only one real hotel, the Concourse Plaza. It was often referred to as “the Bronx’s Waldorf Astoria” – a description more aspirational than exact, which is not to say it wasn’t a fine place to spend the night. Around the corner from where my wife was raised and a Mickey Mantle home run away from Yankee Stadium, the Concourse Plaza is at the center of the 1956 movie The Catered Affair, a tale of working-class Irish-Catholic parents in conflict over their daughter’s wedding reception.

In an improbable feat of casting, the taxi-driving, Irish-Catholic dad is played by Ernest Borgnine, the daughter by Debbie Reynolds, and the mother by Bette Davis, whose attempt at a Bronx accent is somewhere between a misfire and weird. (Barry Fitzgerald, her brother, has a rich Irish brogue, a discrepancy left unexplained.) The movie was based on a television play by Bronx native Paddy Chayefsky, who the previous year had won the Academy Award for best screenplay for Marty, another Bronx tale with Ernest Borgnine in his Academy Award-winning role as an Italian-American butcher.

I recall Marty receiving accolades from relatives and neighbors. Scenes shot in the Bronx and mentions of places like Fordham Road and Arthur Avenue sprinkled Hollywood stardust over the borough’s prosaic precincts. As opposed to Marty, which had a ring of authenticity, The Catered Affair was a blatant attempt to piggyback on the success of its predecessor, with Irish characters substituted for Italian. The screenplay was written by Gore Vidal who, if pressed, could probably have located the Bronx somewhere between Montreal and the Upper East Side. The movie earned mostly Bronx cheers.

We Bronx Irish defined ourselves as much by parishes as neighborhoods. I was from St. Raymond’s, in Parkchester, in the East Bronx. Founded in 1842, it was the first Catholic church in Westchester County. (The Bronx became a separate county in 1914. The five boroughs of New York City are coterminous with state counties.) In the burial yard in front of the church were three towering Celtic crosses, monuments to the half-century reign of a triad of Irish monsignori. Despite all belonging to the genus of B.I.C. (Bronx Irish Catholic), we at St. Raymond Elementary School considered ourselves distinctly different from our counterparts in the neighboring parish of St. Helena’s.

A planned community of 12,000 apartments spread across 171 buildings between seven and 13 stories, Parkchester was created by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which also financed construction of Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. Parks and open spaces were strategically placed. The main means of transportation were subways and the extensive system of city-owned bus lines. But in anticipation of a rapid increase in car ownership, there were multistoried garages and copious parking spaces.

Parkchester’s residents were overwhelmingly Jewish and Catholic – Irish in the main. The few Protestants who lived there were regarded with curiosity. Up until the 1960s, Metropolitan Life excluded African Americans from both Stuyvesant Town and Parkchester. This was of a piece with the intransigent residential segregation that prevailed (and still prevails) across large swathes of the city. Desperate to increase the supply of middle-class housing – at least for whites – New York’s progressive mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, reluctantly went along. (Ironically, the oval at Parkchester’s center once contained the ballfield on which the Negro League’s Lincoln Giants played their home games.)

Parkchester was built on the site of the old Catholic Protectory, which was founded in 1863 by Archbishop John Hughes, the Ulster-born hierarch who established Fordham University, initiated the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and made the New York Irish into a political as well as religious constituency. The Protectory housed orphans and abandoned children, mostly Irish, whom the Children’s Aid Society had begun shipping west on “Orphan Trains” to be settled among God-fearing, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

First commencement at Keating Hall, Fordham University, June 10, 1936.

Bordering Parkchester, Morris Park to the west and Castle Hill to the east were heavily Italian. A step behind in terms of assimilation and economic advancement, Italians generally preferred houses with small gardens rather than apartments. Parochial schools brought us together. Friendships blossomed and so did fights. I remember the schoolyard of St. Raymond’s as an asphalt Serengeti where the weak were bullied and Irish toughs battled Italian toughs. (Pugilistically inept, I did my best to be inconspicuous.)

Sometimes the rivalries were humorous. One Italian carting company emblazoned on its garbage trucks “We Cater Irish Weddings.”

When I heard talk of “intermarriage,” it referred to Irish-Italian nuptials. It wasn’t until later that miscegenation escalated into ethnic meltdown and bred a new strain of Hiberno-Mediterranean offspring notable for their good looks.

Over the years, I’ve heard from Jewish Bronxites about suffering verbal harassment (epithets like “kikes,” “sheenies,” “Christ-killers”) and physical abuse from, as one friend put it, “Irish pogromists.” Without doubting their accounts, that wasn’t my experience.

Through all my years of parochial school, I never heard anti-Semitic professions by teachers or clergy. We were told it was our sins that nailed Jesus to the cross. If either of my parents suspected we were cursing or bullying Jews, retribution would have been swift and severe. Yet I had no Jewish friends. We lived separately together. Still, one thing shared by gentiles and Jews was a familiarity with Yiddish. To be a Bronxite was to schlep and kibitz, and to understand the difference between a schmuck and a mensch.

I had no acquaintance with Jewish girls, except one. We rode the 20 BX bus together, she to Walton Girls High School in Kingsbridge, me to the all-male Manhattan Prep in Riverdale. I sat in the back with my school buddies, she in front with her classmates. The first time I saw her, I was smitten by her thin and graceful figure, clothes loose and flowing (our style then was tight), thick black curls (the fashion was long and straight) – an early-blossoming flower child. It was part of growing up in the Bronx to figure out, as quickly as possible, a person’s tribe. I identified her Jewishness in the same way, if she bothered to notice, she perceived my goyishness.

Irish dance hall, the Bronx 1954 by George S. Zimbel. (Courtesy International Center of Photography)

We never spoke. And then, one September, she was gone, off to college, I presumed. I spent months bereft. Recently, for the first time in 50 years, I rode a bus along the old route, and it all flooded back, my lonely-hearts Bronx tale, unbridgeable worlds in the same borough, on the same bus.

My first ancestors arrived in New York when Margaret and Michael Manning fled the Great Famine. Margaret Manning, their daughter and my paternal grandmother, was born in 1863, in the village of Fordham – at that time part of Westchester County – and baptized in the university church. (It was then called St. John’s College.) My grandfather Patrick Quinn, a union organizer, was born in Tipperary in 1859. His family emigrated to New York in 1870. He married Margaret Manning, a seamstress, in St. Brigid’s Church on the Lower East Side in 1899. They moved to the Bronx in 1914, where they bought a small house in the West Farms neighborhood which, despite its name, was absent all things agricultural.

Contrary to the notion of Irish obsession with ancestry, my family showed little interest in the past. My mother had an active disinterest, routinely tossing out documents and obfuscating or bowdlerizing the fate of relatives who fell victim to impoverishment or their own misbehaviors (or both). The primary focus of my parents and grandparents wasn’t on the Irish past but the American future, and their children’s role in it.

My father recalled that as a boy on the Lower East Side he shared a room with his older brother in which they rarely stayed. My grandparents hosted relative after relative as they arrived from Ireland, until none were left to bring over. If my grandfather heard anyone sentimentalizing about the old country his instant riposte was, “If you miss it so much, why don’t you go back?” Romantic Ireland didn’t ring very convincingly in crowded tenement rooms.

Catherine Riordan of Blarney, County Cork, landed at Castle Garden in 1888. (It would be four years before Ellis Island opened and processed its first immigrant, Annie Moore, also of County Cork.) Though Catherine claimed to be 18, it’s more likely she was 15 or 16 and lied about her age so she could join her older sister as a domestic and begin sending remittances home to finance her siblings’ journeys. She stayed in maid’s work until she met James Murphy, a native-Irish speaker from near Macroom, who worked as a mechanic at Yorkville’s Rupert Brewery. My mother, Viola Murphy, the last of their six children, was born on the top floor of a four-story walkup on 149th Street in the Bronx.

Coming of age in the 1920s, my parents belonged to the first truly modern generation. Electricity rolled back night and blazed the Great White Way. New appliances alleviated the burden of ancient drudgeries. Movies and radio revolutionized entertainment. Cars and airplanes shrank old barriers of distance. Credit and the installment plan made commonplace what were once luxuries. People’s expectations rose exponentially. The population of the Bronx tripled to 1.2 million in 1930 from 400,000 in 1910. Progress and prosperity were presumed, with America in the vanguard, and Jazz Age New York ahead of all.

While none of my grandparents went beyond primary school, my parents graduated from college. My father received a B.S. in civil engineering from Manhattan College (despite its name, it’s in the Bronx) and worked on the construction of the IND subway while attending Fordham Law School at night. My mother was a classics major at Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale. They met in 1928 at a parish St. Patrick’s Day dance in the Bronx. They loved nightclubs, the theater – musicals, the Marx Brothers, Shakespeare – and reveled in the speakeasy hubbub in which my mother’s bartender brother was much admired for his skill as a mixologist.

The presumption that they had escaped their ancestors’ world – a chronicle of unhappy endings that culminated in starvation and migration – was rocked by the Crash of ’29 and the Great Depression. My mother lost her small savings as a teacher when the Edgewater Savings Bank folded. Her immigrant father lost his life savings, the accumulation of 40 years working in a brewery. Pensionless, he worked until he died. My two aunts, one a teacher, the other a secretary, stayed unwed and at home to support my grandmother.

Author Peter Quinn (right) with his twin brother Tom and his father, New York Congressman and New York Supreme Court judge Peter A. Quinn.

Though he had an engineering and law degree, my father struggled to find a full-time job. He volunteered with the local Democratic Club. Edward J. Flynn, the formidable Fordham-educated leader (a.k.a. “The Boss”) of the Bronx Democratic organization and a confidante of Governor Franklin Roosevelt, took a liking to him. Flynn sent my father to the 1932 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as part of a contingent that worked behind the scenes to keep the New York delegation in line for FDR. My father campaigned hard for FDR, speaking around the city from the back of a flatbed truck. In 1936, he was elected to the State Assembly. A week after the election, eight years after they met, my parents were married.

My father spent the rest of his life in Bronx politics, serving in the assembly until 1944, then a term in the U.S. Congress (he was one of the two congressmen from New York who rode FDR’s funeral train to Hyde Park), and the rest of his career as a judge of the municipal court, chief judge of the city court, and a justice of the State Supreme court. He was at home in the Bronx, in the parish in which he grew up.

His obituary in the New York Times states that his “associates described him as a witty and brilliant man who loved to sing Irish songs and tell Irish stories.” My father and mother were both fine singers and dancers. The songs were mainly from Broadway shows or The Great American Songbook, the dances foxtrots and waltzes, not reels and jigs. The “Irish songs” weren’t folk tunes but Irish-American favorites like “Harrigan,” “Galway Bay,” and their all-time favorite, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” (lyrics by Jewish songwriter E.Y. Harberg). The stories my father excelled at telling – stories salted with theatrical mastery of dialects – rarely involved Ireland (when they did, they were ghost stories) and rose instead from his life amid the mishegas of Bronx politics.

I took for granted that the Irish-American world my family existed in for over a century would remain as it was. The election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960 felt like a capstone. Shortly before the election, Kennedy spoke at the Concourse Plaza. My father, running in his last election for the State Supreme Court, also spoke. Afterwards, Kennedy traveled up the Grand Concourse on the back of a convertible, a quaintly distant, pre-Dallas image. My friends and I stood in front of the Loew’s Paradise, a movie palace that has since then been stripped and defaced, and helped swell the panethnic delirium that arose when Kennedy mounted a platform in front of the long-vanished Sachs Furniture and Krum’s Candy stores.

Children at a picnic table in Van Cortlandt Park playing games, October 1, 1939. (Courtesy of Parks Photo Archive)

Permanence of any kind is the grandest of illusions. What was different about the Bronx was the velocity with which the illusion crumbled. The origins of the Bronx as one of the city’s five boroughs (the only one on the U.S. mainland) were obscure even to Bronxites. I heard passing mention among my elders of “annexation” and “consolidation,” but the hard-edged, unremitting brick-on-brick streetscapes disguised its overnight transformation from pastoral to metropolitan and made it seem pretty much the same since the Dutch had forcibly evicted the peaceable, innocent Lenapes.

The centrifugal swirl that memory insists descended suddenly, like a fast-moving storm, had been building for some time. The pharaonic schemes of Robert Moses carried traffic around and across the Bronx to Long Island and New Jersey. The fund-starved, once-efficient public transit system creaked and sputtered. FHA mortgages spurred the upwardly mobile, suburban aspirations of would-be homeowners and at the same time maintained and abetted the enduring injustice of residential apartheid that condemned minorities to a decaying, substandard housing stock.

Economic change drove social change, and reinforced it. Vatican II altered our unalterable church. Priests and nuns molted back into civilians. Parishioners moved away. Once-thriving parishes became enfeebled. Rock’n’roll and the sexual revolution made the generation gap seem more like a chasm. Crime, and fear of it, escalated. The Concourse Plaza became a welfare hotel. The celluloid Bronx of Marty and The Catered Affair, the home of good-hearted working-class stiffs, descended into Fort Apache, The Bronx – a crime-ridden wasteland ruled by drug addicts and crooked cops. Formerly a synonym for low-rent blah, the borough was now “the burning Bronx,” a global synecdoche for urban ruin.

The future fled the Bronx. Friends moved away or never returned from college. Soon enough, I followed, serving as a VISTA volunteer in Kansas City. Beckoned by the beautiful and new – everything the Bronx wasn’t – I felt the lure of California. It was then, for the first time, I thought about what I was leaving behind: the saga of the Atlantic passover from poverty and subservience to steerage and immigrant tenements; those who made it, those who didn’t, those whose names I knew, those I didn’t. I turned my footsteps home and returned to New York.

Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., prepares to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the students from the Flynn School for Irish Dance at his annual Bronx Irish heritage celebration. The event took place on March 14, 2012, at the Rambling House in Woodlawn, and drew a crowd of more than 150 from all corners of the Bronx.

I attended Bronx Catholic institutions from kindergarten to the last stages of a PhD. Though they were all founded or largely staffed by Irish and Irish Americans, my first encounter with Irish history was in a college course on Victorian Britain. The past was a blur. It was as if we emerged from the shadows and fully entered history when we came to the Bronx.

My threadbare connection to Michael Manning, my great-grandfather, was my father’s memory of him as a blind old man, quiet and gentle, who never talked about what led him to emigrate other than to say that he would never think about going back “until they hanged the last landlord.” Except that he was born in pre-famine Ireland and emigrated before the Civil War, all I knew of him was a line in the census – “occupation: laborer” – and the place of his death on January 10, 1910: 296 East 7th Street, a long-ago demolished tenement. I later learned the name Manning was an errant transcription of Mangan that, for whatever reason, stuck. The rest was silence.

When I returned to New York, any research I did was lackadaisical and accidental. So was my career. I worked as a Wall Street messenger, a court officer in Bronx Landlord & Tenant Court, an archivist at the New York Botanical Gardens (natives always refer to it as the Bronx Botanical Gardens), et al., until I found my way to a graduate program at Fordham. I was a graduate assistant to the late Maurice O’Connell, a scholar of Irish history and descendant of Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator – a towering figure in that history.

I traveled to Ireland and studied there. Though I felt an intimate connection to the land and people, I confronted the fact it wasn’t home and I didn’t belong. On one occasion, I took my mother to her father’s village. Not a trace of the family remained. The journey my ancestors made was final and irreversible. Caught on the hyphen between this small island to the east and the vast continent to the west, I recognized that my native land was the interspace on America’s Atlantic ledge.

Why the past means so much to some and not much – or nothing at all – to others is hard to figure. At bottom, I think, it involves history as therapy, as a key to understanding self as well as society, as a restless desire to uncover what we don’t know about ourselves, however partial or fractured that must be. Perhaps that hope was best captured by New York novelist and memoirist Kathleen Hill when she wrote, “our journey toward understanding the selves we had considered lost forever or, worse, have never even missed, may be restored if we are patiently attentive to our inner promptings.”

John F. Kennedy, front row center, at Riverdale Country School circa 1927. (Credit Riverdale Country School.) The Kennedys lived in the
upscale Riverdale section of the Bronx in the late 1920s.

In the early-morning hours and in the time I could game or grift from my corporate day job, I began trying to reconstruct what I could of my ancestors’ immigrant world. It gradually dawned on me that the history I sought belonged to lives too unimportant to record, people who suffered history rather than recorded it: servants, laborers, anonymous poor, ordinary moments that weren’t written anywhere, the intricate tangle of existences shrunk to generalities, statistics, accidental mention, a census line.

Despairing of history, I decided to venture into the terra incognita of fiction and attempt a novel set during the Civil War Draft Riots, an epic explosion – part race riot, part insurrection – that tore New York City apart and exposed the perennial, often feral struggle among those at the bottom of American society.

I copied paragraphs from novels I admired, scribbled the beginnings of the story I wanted to tell. I researched, wrote, despaired, rewrote, deserted, returned, persisted across an entire decade. I discovered in fiction truths I didn’t in history. I grappled with the power of the past to bolt in place the exoskeleton that supported and shaped – sometimes misshaped – expectations and relationships far into the future. I came to grasp the human need to forget as well as to remember. I learned that what goes unspoken, unacknowledged, has the greatest sway of all. Everything around me, parish, school, politics, religion, the Bronx I grew up in and carry with me, sprang from and contained what came before. The past never goes away, I realized; it only goes ignored or denied.

My characters became my companions, comrades-in-arms, soulmates, a company of aspiring, compromised, lustful, decent, cowardly, ruthless, compassionate, befuddled human beings – Irish, African Americans, old-stock New Yorkers – that I gathered under a phrase from a prayer I said since childhood: “banished children of Eve.” Some were imaginary, some reconstructed from random facts and fragments inherited from my family, some, like Stephen Foster and John Hughes, real.

I listened as they mumbled, murmured, shouted, revealed themselves. They prompted me, guided me, led me through the vale of tears and weeping, laughter and rejoicing, that each generation travels in its own way. They gave me back the past and reminded me of what I thought I didn’t know. They taught me that the borders of our native land are the borders of our hearts.  ♦


Previously published in the December 14, 2018 issue of Commonweal.

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Window on the Past: Manifest Destiny Wed, 01 May 2019 07:32:44 +0000 Read more..]]> Two words from one Irishman who trumpeted the world’s superpower.


“Manifest destiny…” These words, placed together, command one’s attention. They sound important, almost biblical. But they didn’t come from an Old Testament patriarch or New Testament prophet. Rather, they came from the pithy pen of a 19th-century Irishman named John O’Sullivan.

His ancestors were from County Kerry and included men who abandoned plans for the priesthood in order to become soldiers of fortune. His father was a naturalized American citizen who was serving as U.S. consul to the Barbary States when O’Sullivan was born on a British warship in the Bay of Gibraltar (between Spain and Morocco) in November 1813. According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (vol. 12), his family had been living at a nearby military post, but after the outbreak of plague, a British admiral invited them onto his ship.

O’Sullivan received his early education at a military school in Lorize, France, and then at the Westminster School in London, before matriculating at New York’s Columbia College. Upon graduation, he worked as a tutor for a few years. He also practiced law for some time, though it does not appear he was particularly interested or successful in the profession.

The most notable period of his life began in 1837, when he launched a magazine called the Democratic Review. This publication was bankrolled by funds his mother received from the U.S. government as restitution for having been wrongly arrested on suspicion of piracy more than a decade earlier, as relayed by Julius W. Pratt in his article “John L. O’Sullivan and Manifest Destiny,” which appeared in a 1933 edition of New York History.

Though O’Sullivan was foremost a political writer, he also clearly had literary interests. In his leading role at the Democratic Review, he published the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The two became good friends and O’Sullivan even served as godfather to Hawthorne’s eldest child.

O’Sullivan – who was described by a contemporary as “always full of grand and world-embracing schemes” – had a wild optimism that sometimes irritated people, including Edgar Allan Poe and Henry David Thoreau. However, his magazine became influential enough to attract contributions from some of the nation’s leading writers, whether or not they enjoyed his sanguine style.

O’Sullivan as depicted in a 1874 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

The Democratic Review was also the venue that first mentioned “manifest destiny,” which came in the middle of 1845, a year that saw the U.S. embroiled in disputes about whether or not it should annex Oregon and Texas.

This first mention of “manifest destiny” attracted scant notice, likely because it was obscured within a long essay, which typically is not the type of format that attracts a massive readership.

However, the second mention of the phrase appeared in a December 27, 1845 newspaper editorial, a format that often received massive readership. Sure enough, this time the phrase took flight and soon saw frequent use in arguments about the expansion of U.S. territory.

Though not everyone agreed with the concept of “manifest destiny,” O’Sullivan’s words gave voice to a widespread sentiment that the U.S. was a divinely guided nation, which had not only a right, but also a mission, to spread its greatness across the continent.

In O’Sullivan’s view, the U.S. had a “manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

In 1846, he sold the Democratic Review for $5,000 (about $165,000 in today’s money). That same year, he married Susan Kearny Rodgers. The couple chose Cuba for their honeymoon, according to Robert Sampson’s book John L. O’Sullivan and His Times. Aside from being a romantic location, Cuba was a place where O’Sullivan was convinced the U.S. should manifest its destiny.

In April 1851, O’Sullivan was arrested in New York and charged with violating U.S. neutrality by preparing an unsanctioned attack on Cuba. He had hoped to liberate the territory from Spanish rule, so as to facilitate its annexation by the U.S. O’Sullivan’s strange case made it to trial, but the jury deadlocked and he was never convicted. Unfazed by this close call, but unwelcome back in Cuba, he became involved in political intrigues in Europe.

Despite his rather freewheeling background, O’Sullivan managed to secure a post as U.S. Minister to Portugal during the administration of President Franklin Pierce (1853-1857). But the end of the Pierce presidency spelled the end of O’Sullivan’s tenure. It also seems to have been the last time he had a consistent occupation.

In the 1860s, O’Sullivan’s political pamphlets – which supported the Confederacy and argued that the U.S. federal government was encroaching too much on states’ rights – made him unwelcome in much of America. Rather than relocate to the South, he self-exiled to Europe, and waited for sentiments to cool down in the U.S. It is unknown exactly how many years he spent abroad, but one of his surviving letters indicates that he was back in the U.S. by August 1879.

According to Pratt, the last three decades of O’Sullivan’s life are veiled in “almost complete obscurity.” What we do know is that, during this period, the U.S. continued to add to its grandeur, and O’Sullivan sunk into poverty.

On March 24, 1895 – almost exactly 50 years after having coined his famous phrase – he died at age 81 in a hotel at 15 East 11th Street in Manhattan. He was buried in the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island. There was no record of a will. He had basically nothing to leave behind anyway, at least not in the material sense. He did, however, bequeath a phrase that never ceased to echo, or to stir emotions in opposite directions.

Indeed, many have found the “manifest destiny” words troubling, if not downright foul – a glorious-sounding phrase used to justify an already-powerful, nation-grabbing new land, at whatever cost to the native inhabitants. But regardless of one’s historical or political viewpoints, it’s hard to deny the impact of these words.

Many writers have penned thousands of articles and dozens of full-length books; their countless words, eloquent though they may be, almost invariably fade from memory in short order. O’Sullivan put together two words that resonated enough to galvanize a nation as grand as the modern world has seen.  ♦

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Hall of Fame: NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill Fri, 01 Mar 2019 09:00:10 +0000 Read more..]]> “Jimmy’s not just a cop’s cop. He’s a New Yorker’s New Yorker.” When it comes to James O’Neill, New York City’s 43rd and current police commissioner, those words by Chirlane McCray, the wife of N.Y.C. Mayor Bill de Blasio, could not be more spot-on.

A more fitting NYPD commissioner couldn’t be found in Central Casting. He is a steadfast New Yorker who started his career guarding the treacherous 1980s subways and has since held almost every rank in the department. His first day as commissioner saw a bomb exploding in Manhattan. He likes hockey, motorcycles, and war biographies. He loves his mom, his sons, and Irish soda bread.

“I’m proud of my Irish heritage,” he says when he meets with the Irish America team at his office in One Police Plaza, “and I’m proud of being American, also. It’s all helped me be who I am.” He jokes that his sons, who are only half Irish, completely identify as being 100 percent.

His sons, now grown, are Danny and Christopher. Danny is 29, works for an insurance company, and is engaged to be married. Christopher is 25 and works at the NYPD doing video production in the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information.


<em>James O'Neill at the Hispanic Day Parade.</em>

James O’Neill at the Hispanic Day Parade.


O’Neill grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, on a block with about 50 kids on it, and he knew them all. “I didn’t know the people around the corner on 31st Street,” he said. “That was a different world. But I knew everybody on 32nd.”

Seven of those 50 kids were O’Neills. “Every summer day,” he said, “my mom would throw us out at eight o’clock in the morning, feed us at lunchtime, throw us back out, and we’d come back in for dinner.”

Their father, Joseph O’Neill, would work around the house on the weekends listening to the Clancy Brothers and other Irish music on Fordham radio station’s popular Irish program, Ceol na nGael.

His dad used to say their ancestors were “The Royal O’Neills,” while his mom would give him a jab in the ribs, teasing, “Oh, yeah. Sure we were – the kings and queens!”

O’Neill’s maternal grandparents, Joe and Mary Kelly, came to the United States from County Longford. He spent a lot of time with his grandmother. Every Friday night, Helen O’Neill would put James and his brother on the bus at Beverly and Nostrand Avenue, and their grandmother would pick them up in her neighborhood, about 30 minutes away.

His grandfather Joe was a hardworking, funny man who worked numerous jobs, including as a taxi driver and in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He passed away when O’Neill was seven years old, but not before leaving a memorable impression. As O’Neill put it, “He did this, did that, probably drank too much, had a little too much fun – but he treated us like gold.”

His paternal grandparents came from County Monaghan. They lived on the same block as the O’Neills in Brooklyn. “My dad’s father didn’t show it quite as much,” O’Neill said, “but he was always looking after us.” He was a tall, stern man who worked for the telephone company. He came over to the United States after living up against the border in Monaghan through the Irish Civil War. “We were afraid of him,” he remembers.

Although he did not come from a cop family, O’Neill wanted to join the NYPD from an early age. The only police officer in his family was his uncle by marriage, Bill Reid, a happy man with great stories. “If anybody was my inspiration, it was him,” said O’Neill. “It just seemed like he loved life and really had a purpose.”


<em>James O'Neill shows his cufflinks to Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York.</em>

James O’Neill shows his cufflinks to Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York.


O’Neill joined the Transit Police in January of 1983. He was 25 at the time and had been working at an insurance company as a surety bond underwriter. “It was a good job working with good people, but this was in my heart and if I didn’t do it, I would regret it later in life,” he said.

He attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he got a bachelor’s degree in government, and later a master’s degree in public administration.

Back in the 1980s, New York City was a different place. It was the era in which Gerald Ford infamously told the city to drop dead, if not in so many words. The subway was described as “the most dangerous place on Earth.” As Paul Theroux wrote in The New York Times in 1982, “It has been vandalized from end to end. It smells so hideous you want to put a clothespin on your nose, and it is so noisy the sound actually hurts. Is it dangerous? Ask anyone, and, without thinking, he will tell you there must be about two murders a day on the subway.”

It was an act of bravery to even venture down into the place, and James O’Neill was patrolling the night shift. As a Transit Police officer for 12 years, he would ride the subway by himself back and forth from 168th Street and Broadway at the tip of Manhattan, down to J Street in Brooklyn, from eight at night until four in the morning.

“Were there times that it felt a little dicey? Sure,” he said. “Was I afraid? I’m not sure.”

In 1995, when O’Neill was a lieutenant, the Transit and Housing Authority Police Departments merged with the NYPD. Once there, he continued moving up the ranks. “Every rank that I held, I wanted to do my best,” he said at his swearing-in ceremony as commissioner, choking up a bit, “and if that brought me further recognition, fine. But I didn’t do it to move up the ranks. I did it because that’s the way I’ve been taught by my mother to live my life.”

After the ceremony, his mother told reporters that she raised him “to be a sound and moral man, and to always do the right thing – and he has.”

O’Neill is unique in that he rose through the department to eventually become commissioner. A chief of department, the most senior uniformed position, had not been promoted to commissioner in over four decades, according to Thomas Reppetto, the author of NYPD: A City and Its Police.

He has held every rank in the NYPD except for detective (although he has been both a lieutenant and a chief in the detective bureau) and a two-star chief (because he jumped from one star to three stars).


<em>An impromptu press conference on a New York City sidewalk in 2015, when O'Neill was chief of department.</em>

An impromptu press conference on a New York City sidewalk in 2015, when O’Neill was chief of department.


Though his effective communication skills dealing with all types of people can be traced back to his time patrolling the subway trains and platforms, he considers his experience being a commanding officer to be the most helpful to him as commissioner. He commanded three precincts over six years: Central Park, the 25th Precinct in East Harlem, and the 44th in the Bronx, right around Yankee Stadium. “It’s almost like running a mini city,” he says. “It gives you the all-around experience; it gives you exposure to everything.”

O’Neill was commanding officer in East Harlem when the 9/11 attacks occurred. The police commissioner at the time, Bernard Kerik, had hosted a dinner the night before for all the commanding officers at the Museum of Natural History, so most of them were not in by eight o’clock in the morning. O’Neill got to his office in the 25th precinct shortly after the second tower fell.

Every precinct sent a sergeant and eight officers down to the World Trade Center that morning. “Thank God nobody from our precinct died,” said O’Neill, “but we had a couple people who were seriously injured. We didn’t know where they were all day.” He somberly named four men whom he knew who passed away that day: John D’Allara, Mike Curtin, John Coughlin, and Joe Vigiano.

“It was hard,” he said. “Still is.”

There are three things the commissioner is looking at when it comes to antiterrorism: the NYPD’s ability to investigate, their ability to prevent, and their ability to respond.

There is a Joint Terrorism Task Force comprised of 300 investigators from 56 agencies – 113 of them are New York City cops. Any threat that emerges from the stream is fully investigated, if not by the JTTF then by the NYPD’s Intelligence Bureau.

There are also NYPD detectives assigned to 14 different locations around the world, embedded with either the local, state, or federal police wherever they are stationed, sending intel back to the department in real time.

“We tabletop all the time, we run drills, and we make sure that we continue to talk to each other to ensure that nobody is keeping information to themselves,” he said.


<em>O'Neill takes a photo with a celebrant of the West Indian Day Parade.</em>

O’Neill takes a photo with a celebrant of the West Indian Day Parade.


The bombing in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan that injured 31 people occurred on September 17, 2016. O’Neill was legally, yet unofficially, sworn in as commissioner on September 16, the night before the attack, and officially sworn in at a ceremony the following Monday, September 19.

He was in the process of moving his things up to the commissioner’s office and had just left when he got the call. “At first I was thinking ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’” he recalls. “But then I knew just based on my experience that we would catch the guy who did it, and we did.”

They identified the suspect within 30 hours, and within 50 hours he was arrested.

O’Neill found out in the middle of his swearing-in ceremony that they had caught the perpetrator. A lieutenant walked over and handed him a note with the news, which he then discreetly showed to the new chief of department also about to be sworn in, Carlos Gomez, whose eyebrows shot up.

There was a scheduled press conference about the bombing directly following the ceremony. He recalls, “I actually asked John Miller right before the ceremony started, ‘Hey, can you do me a favor? Can you catch this guy before the end of the ceremony?’ And sure enough they did.”

The police commissioner does not wear a uniform, as it is a civilian position. Having donned the uniform every day for most of his 33-year career, O’Neill was very proud of it and sad to give it up. “If there is anything that was difficult about going from chief of department to police commissioner,” he said, “it was giving up the uniform.”

At the press conference announcing his appointment, he joked, “I’m really going to have to up my game when it comes to suits.”

Unlike previous commissioners, who had spent time in the private sector among New York’s social elite and came into the commissioner job wearing custom suits with ties from Hermès or Charvet, O’Neill is more sartorially modest. “His shirts and ties are more Marshalls or Century 21 than Armani or Canali,” ribbed John Miller, the Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism.

(He wore an Irish emerald green tie for our interview, which is good enough for me.)

After growing up in that little community within the capital of the world, O’Neill understood that the key to effective, cohesive policing is personal relationships and mutual trust between police officers and residents. It is about having that neighborhood cop who is looking out for the members of the community.


<em>O'Neill talks to </em>Irish America.

O’Neill talks to Irish America.


O’Neill first developed Neighborhood Policing, a comprehensive crime-fighting strategy based on improved communication and collaboration with the community members, as chief of patrol starting in June 2014, and as chief of department, he expanded it. It is structured to provide sector officers with off-radio time to engage with neighborhood residents, identify local problems, and work toward solutions.

Before Neighborhood Policing, the sectors were arbitrarily divided within the precincts. As part of Neighborhood Policing, the sectors have been redrawn to represent the natural neighborhoods.

Much of Neighborhood Policing depends on being able to make decisions at the rank of police officer, which is something that did not typically happen before. Now, when something is going on in a sector, if the officers don’t take care of it, it will still be there when they come back in the morning, so they have to come up with a creative solution in conjunction with the community. The officers take pride in this new responsibility. “It’s all about taking ownership, working together, and creating some unity here,” says O’Neill.

The final sector rollout was in October, making the strategy now operational in every residential neighborhood in the city. It is the largest, best funded, and best-staffed community policing initiative ever undertaken in the United States, and has fundamentally changed policing in New York City.

O’Neill knew from his vast experience as a police officer that the idea had potential, but he did not know how successful it was going to be in action. As it turns out, pretty successful: 2017 saw fewer than 300 homicides, the lowest number since the 1950s, and 2018 followed suit. (For comparison, there were 2245 homicides in 1990.) This past October, for the first time in more than 25 years, New York City went an entire three-day weekend period without a single shooting incident.

O’Neill attends a great deal of community meetings, so when he says, “Everywhere I go, I’m getting good feedback,” he means it.

Even with those impressive numbers and glowing feedback, O’Neill has still contracted with the RAND Corporation to produce an independent study to make sure that the program is building trust. “We know it’s keeping crime down,” he says, “but we have to make sure that this is what communities around New York City want.”


<em>O'Neill talks to officers during National Night Out Against Crime.</em>

O’Neill talks to officers during National Night Out Against Crime.


O’Neill says that the biggest challenge he faces right now is restoring the public’s trust in the NYPD. 2014 was a difficult time for law enforcement. Both of the grand jury decisions for the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death-in-police-custody of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, came in November and December of 2014, respectively.

There were protests every day. “The NYPD is used to handling protests,” said O’Neill, “but this time they were protesting us, and that culminated in the assassination of two of our police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, on December 20, 2014.”

“No matter what happens,” he said, “we have to make sure that we keep police officers motivated, and we continue to restore the trust that you need in order to effectively police anywhere, especially New York City.”

As a step toward building that trust in the NYPD, O’Neill announced in early February that he would support legislation to make more of the department’s disciplinary records public in the interest of transparency. “There are a lot of things we do well, but there are also a couple things we don’t do that well, and one of them is the transparency of our disciplinary system,” he said.

In an op-ed for the New York Daily News, O’Neill called for the reform of section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law, which currently prohibits the disclosure of public employees’ personnel records, including the disciplinary records of cops. “For Neighborhood Policing to maximize its potential,” he wrote, “there must be mutual trust between the police and the public. And nothing builds trust like transparency and accountability.”

O’Neill owns three motorcycles, a Kawasaki Concours, a BMW Adventure, and a sport bike. “The BMW has hard steel cases in the back, so it’s pretty cool,” he says. He and a group made up of mostly active or retired cops ride all around the country. They have taken trips to Tennessee, Montana, Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, and many trips to Maine.

Sometimes it’s six or seven guys, sometimes it’s as many as 19, like on their trip to Tennessee last year. His brothers, John and Hugh, tag along once in a while. “It’s a lot of fun,” says O’Neill. “They get a kick out of it, hanging out with my ‘cop friends,’ as they say.”

Without a doubt, New York City is in good hands with O’Neill, the sartorially modest New Yorker’s New Yorker who is continuing a long history of the Irish in the police department. When asked about this history, he pointed to a list up on the wall of all the NYPD commissioners and quipped, “You pick out the names that aren’t Irish!” ♦Maggie Holland


Click below to see Commissioner O’Neill’s remarks upon being inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame.

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Hall of Fame: Lawyer, Public Servant, and Peacemaker John C. Dearie Fri, 01 Mar 2019 08:59:45 +0000 Read more..]]> John Dearie may not remember the specific year, but he remembers a very small, very important detail about one New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade in the late 1980s. “I remember seeing all of these people march ing by, county after county. It had to be tens of thousands of men and women marching by. And they were all wearing this ribbon.”

Dearie – a longtime New York state lawmaker and 2019 inductee into the Irish America Hall of Fame – is referring to a ribbon that was specially designed so that Irish-American groups could express their support for the appointment of a special envoy to Northern Ireland. Whatever differences of opinion all of these Irish groups may have had at the time – and there were surely plenty – they all wanted then-president Ronald Reagan to know that the U.S. should play a bigger role in efforts to bring an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.


<em>John C. Dearie introduces candidate William J. Clinton to one of the Irish-American Presidential Forum attendees. New York City, April 1992.</em>

John C. Dearie introduces candidate William J. Clinton to one of the Irish-American Presidential Forum attendees. New York City, April 1992.



At the time, this seemed a very ambitious – even unlikely – hope.

The situation in the North was terrible, with hundreds dying in political violence every year. Meanwhile, the U.S., especially during the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher years – often cited its “special relationship” with Great Britain, when defending its hands-off approach to the North.

And yet, within a decade, not only would a special envoy be named (the one-time U.S. Senator from Maine, George Mitchell), but the historic Good Friday Peace agreement would be signed.

John Dearie – a Bronx native, with roots in Cork and Kerry – played a key role in making it all happen.

“When America got involved,” Dearie recently told Irish America, “when a fella from Arkansas appointed a fella from Maine, we were able to bring about significant developments.”

Dearie was referring to President Bill Clinton, elected in 1992, after promising the Irish-American community that America would play a bigger role in the peace process. That included not only appointing Mitchell, but also agreeing to issue a visa to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, so that he could travel to America and lobby for a prominent nationalist role in the negotiating process.


<em>John C. Dearie.</em>

John C. Dearie.


Adams has been a mainstream figure for decades now, so it’s hard to remember when he was a pariah in the eyes of many British officials, and even some influential Irish Americans.

But when Adams himself looked back on these events, he could not leave out the important role John Dearie played.

“In April 1992, a well-known Irish American, John Dearie, organized a forum on Irish issues in Manhattan’s Sheraton Hotel for Democratic presidential hopefuls Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton,” Adams recalled in his book A Farther Shore: Ireland’s Long Road to Peace.

Adams added: “Asked by one of the panelists if he would appoint a peace envoy for the north, Clinton said he would. When Martin Galvin of NORAID (an American support group for the republican cause) asked the presidential candidate if he would authorize a visa for me and other Sinn Féiners to visit the U.S, Clinton replied, ‘I would support a visa for Gerry Adams.’ Clinton went further and endorsed the MacBride Principles. His response received loud applause.”

Many credit these Irish-American presidential forums with putting Northern Ireland on the U.S. political agenda. And since, in Dearie’s opinion, it has dropped off the radar in recent years – despite the serious threat Brexit represents to the situation in the North – he says the 2020 election is the right time to bring such forums back.


<em>Albany introduces Dearie’s bill, the MacBride Principles, signed into law later that year by Gov. Mario Cuomo (first in the nation). Clockwise from left: Gov. Cuomo, John Dearie, Paul O’Dwyer, and Sean MacBride. 1986.</em>

Albany introduces Dearie’s bill, the MacBride Principles, signed into law later that year by Gov. Mario Cuomo (first in the nation). Clockwise from left: Gov. Cuomo, John Dearie, Paul O’Dwyer, and Sean MacBride. 1986.



Dearie says he is particularly proud to be named into the Irish America Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Adrian Flannelly, with whom he discussed so many important Irish issues of the day on radio.

“There are few things in my adult life that are more significant than this,” Dearie said. “It’s something I treasure.”

Both of his parents have passed, but Dearie knows they would be particularly proud of this honor.

“My dad was one of the most humble people that I can recall…but they both would be very proud. We were not people anticipating recognition for anything. We were Bronx folk and just happy to do the right things.”

John Dearie’s road to international peace negotiator began on the streets of St. Raymond’s parish in the heavily Irish Parkchester section of the Bronx.

His father was a union plumber, while his mother worked for an advertising company.


<em>John Dearie drives around Dave DeBusschere for a Notre Dame basket. January 10, 1960. (Detroit Free Press).</em>

John Dearie drives around Dave DeBusschere for a Notre Dame basket. January 10, 1960. (Detroit Free Press).


“We actually had a piano in our two-bedroom apartment. And groups of friends of my family would come to the apartment and, literally for hours, we had a couple of women who were remarkable piano players. And we would just sing Irish songs.”

Dearie attended what was then Manhattan Prep High School, run by the Irish Christian Brothers on the campus of Manhattan College.

At a time when Irish Americans from urban Catholic schools were some of the top basketball players in the country, Dearie was an all-city player.

He wound up with dozens of athletic scholarship offers – but one stood out more than others.

“When the coach at Notre Dame came to our apartment and offered me a (basketball) scholarship… Once I heard Notre Dame, that ended everything for me. It wasn’t a hard choice.”

Dearie played against a number of future NBA Hall of Famers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, averaging 10 points and eight rebounds a game.

After Notre Dame, Dearie attended business and law school, also working at the United Nations, giving him his first real taste of the political process and the international scene.


<em>Kitty and John Dearie (center), with (from left) son Michael, his wife Clarissa, their daughter Isabella, Dearie's other son John Patrick and his wife Liv.</em>

Kitty and John Dearie (center), with (from left) son Michael, his wife Clarissa, their daughter Isabella, Dearie’s daughter-in-law Liv with her husband, Dearie’s other son John Patrick.



But when a New York State Assembly seat in Dearie’s old neighborhood opened up, he decided to enter politics. At the time, the burning issue of the day was U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Fellow Irish-American assemblyman Sean Walsh, who represented Fordham, turned Dearie onto issues related to the Irish on both sides of the Atlantic.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, there were a tremendous number of Democrats and Republicans, in the state senate and in the legislature, who were Irish-American,” Dearie recalls, recounting the numerous issues the American Irish Legislators Society took on.

There was the controversy over Joe Doherty, an I.R.A. volunteer who escaped from a Northern Ireland prison and fought extradition for years in the U.S.

Then there was the implementation of the MacBride Principles, which ensured that U.S. companies doing business in Northern Ireland did so without contributing to discrimination.

Dearie grew upset with powerful politicians nodding to the Irish-American community by merely wearing a green tie on St. Patrick’s Day. He believed it was up to Irish Americans to put pressure on elected officials to address issues that actually mattered.

Recalling his own first visit to Belfast in the early 1980s, Dearie said: “There was still a military presence on the commercial streets as I recall. There was a lot of tension…you could feel. I felt there was an uneasiness and tension that was very measurable.”


<em>John Dearie pictured with his sister, Eileen (fourth from right), her seven children and their spouses, and 20 grandchildren.</em>

John Dearie pictured with his sister, Eileen (fourth from right), her seven children and their spouses, and 20 grandchildren.



Now, after two decades of tenuous peace that Dearie helped bring about, fear is again palpable on the streets of Belfast.

“It’s worrisome,” Dearie says bluntly.

As The New York Times noted recently: “In the tortured history between the two island nations, Brexit is just the latest in a long line of perceived slights the Irish have suffered at the hands of the British. And now, with the possible exception of Britain, no country stands to lose more from Brexit, and particularly from a damaging ‘no-deal’ departure, than Ireland.”

At the center of this controversy is the question of what kind of border Brexit may require between the Republic of Ireland and the North.

“Not only (could Brexit) be economically destructive, if it results in the return of a strong international border, it could undermine the hard-won 1998 peace deal with Northern Ireland, known as the Good Friday Agreement,” the Times added.

Dearie believes greater Irish-American involvement could help avert the worst-case Brexit scenario. Which is why Dearie says other veterans of Irish-American affairs, such as congressmen Richie Neal and Eliot Engel, as well as former congressman Joe Crowley, are looking to bring back Irish-American presidential forums for the 2020 election.

More broadly, Dearie – who added that he is expecting to visit Ireland in April – believes it is important for a new generation of Irish Americans to reconnect with their culture.

“We need to get young people involved in AOH chapters, we have to find groups with younger Irish Americans… How do we reach a Friendly Sons (type) organization that has contact with (Irish Americans) and try to deliver the message about the importance of things like Brexit, the MacBride Principles, Irish visas. How do we get that message home?”

He added: “There’s a whole generation that has not heard the message: America has a vital role to play.” ♦


Click below to see John Dearie’s remarks upon being inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame at the Pierre Hotel on March 14, 2019.

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Hall of Fame: Broadcaster Adrian Flannelly Fri, 01 Mar 2019 08:58:18 +0000 Read more..]]> He’s been praised by the New York Daily News as the “Dean of Irish Radio in the United States,” by New York Newsday as “a promoter of incredible charm and energy,” by The Irish Times as “an entertainer, lobbyist, and an entrepreneur,” and by The New York Times as “an avuncular host.”

He is Adrian Flannelly, host of his own radio show, which is broadcast internationally each week and has been on the air continually for the last 50 years, bringing listeners a mix of music, international and national news, culture, economic developments, commentary, interviews with musicians, writers, politicians, and statesmen including presidents of the United States and Ireland.

<em>Paul O’Dwyer, Bruce Morrison, Niall O’Dowd, and Adrian Flannelly take part in an on-air discussion of the Morrison Visas.</em>

Paul O’Dwyer, Bruce Morrison, Niall O’Dowd, and Adrian Flannelly take part in an on-air discussion of the Morrison Visas.

Adrian was best described by Loretta Brennan Glucksman, Chairman of Glucksman Ireland House NYU and Grand Marshal of the 2018 New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, when she said, “Adrian Flannelly is our historian, our bard, our mediator, our influencer – our true and loyal friend. He is the voice of Irish America.”

Born in Attymass, County Mayo, to Pádraic and Linda Flannelly (née O’Dwyer), who were both schoolteachers, Adrian Flannelly immigrated to the United States in 1959, when he was 17 years old. Luckily, he happened to already have family members in the States, and some notable ones at that.

William O’Dwyer, Flannelly’s uncle, had been the 100th mayor of New York City, the city’s first Catholic mayor, and had subsequently been the United States ambassador to Mexico, appointed by President Truman. Paul O’Dwyer, William’s brother, was a renowned civil rights activist and former New York City Council president. Paul sponsored Flannelly to come to the United States and helped him get a job as a piano player in Mickey Carton’s Irish band.

<em>Flannelly with New York City’s Mayor Ed Koch.</em>

Adrian with New York City’s former mayor Ed Koch.

Adrian recalls, “The band performed regularly at weddings and party celebrations and to packed houses like the Jaeger House and the Trocadero in Yorkville during the week and at Gaelic Park on Sundays. I took up the piano accordion, which became my main instrument. Our band was like the United Nations of musicians, comprised of Irish, Italian, and Jewish musicians, all playing Irish music and the pop tunes of the day. Through friends in the band I became acquainted with multi-ethnic radio, and I discovered there was no radio program dedicated to the Irish.”

Adrian launched his first radio show in 1969, a decade after emigrating from Ireland. As time passed, he stayed with the music scene but dove deeper into politics and social issues facing the Irish in America and back home.

<em>Adrian Flannelly and his wife, Aine Sheridan, were recipients of the 2012 Holyoke St. Patrick's Parade Committee's Ambassador Award.</em>

Adrian and his wife, Aine Sheridan, were recipients of the 2012 Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade Committee’s Ambassador Award.

“I began to see the radio show as a conduit for change and a way to shed light on issues concerning the Irish-American community – especially when it came to U.S. immigration reform and the visa lotteries,” Adrian says. He became a major force on behalf of applicants during the Donnelly and Morrison visa programs, even filling up a truck with thousands of applications from Irish immigrants and driving with his daughter, Linda, to Washington and personally delivering the applications for visas to the government lottery. He was also co-founder of Project Irish Outreach with Monsignor James J. Murray, Director of Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of New York.

His efforts resulted in legalizing thousands of undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. In response to his initiative, the Irish government appointed Flannelly in 2000 as the U.S. Representative on its task force on “Policy Towards Emigrants,” an initiative of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

<em>Adrian Flannelly soon after his arrival in New York.</em>

Adrian soon after his arrival in New York.

Locally, Flannelly had a particular knack for making friends with successive mayors of New York City, who always held out the welcome mat for him at City Hall. Mayor Koch was often heard singing the song “New York, New York” at Irish events, with Adrian accompanying him on the piano, and Koch never failed to credit Adrian with helping him with the Irish vote.

On Adrian’s annual St. Patrick’s Day show,  Mayor Giuliani officially declared March 17, 1997, as “Adrian Flannelly Day.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Flannelly his “good friend” as he appointed him Irish Cultural Liaison to City Hall. As such, Flannelly organized Bloomberg’s three trips to Ireland, including to Belfast in May of 2008 for the U.S.-Northern Ireland Investment Conference, where Bloomberg was a keynote speaker.

<em>Adrian and Aine's nephew, Daniel Gasiewski, sits in on an interview with Michael Bloomberg and John Dearie.</em>

Adrian and Aine’s nephew, Daniel Gasiewski, sits in on an interview with Michael Bloomberg and John Dearie.

Adrian also serves as the Irish Cultural Liaison for the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, adjacent to the World Trade Center and World Financial Center. The recreated famine cottage that sits on the half-acre site is a major attraction for millions of visitors to New York City since its opening in 2002. The cottage was transported from Adrian’s native parish of Attymass, County Mayo. Adrian’s voice is recorded on a guided tour of the memorial, in which he explains the history of the famine that ravaged Ireland from 1847 to 1852.

He attributes a great deal of his success to his wife, Aine Sheridan, who is not only his partner in life, but also his partner on the show and on Born in Edgeworthstown, County Longford, Aine is also the executive assistant to the chairman of Capital Management LLC at Mutual of America Life Insurance Company. She joined Flannelly Promotions Ltd. as executive vice president in 1991, where she expanded the show and initiated international broadcast links. Aine has been named one of the “Top 50 Power Women” by Irish America and one of the “Top 50 Most Influential Irish American Women” by the Irish Voice. Aine was also voted “Woman of the Year” by the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in New York, of which both she and her husband are on the board. Adrian’s other great supporters are his children, Linda, Paul, Eileen, and Kathleen, and his four grandchildren.

<em>Adrian, pictured in his studio with Congressman Brian Donnelly, counting Donnelly visa applications.</em>

Adrian, pictured in his studio with Congressman Brian Donnelly, counting Donnelly visa applications.

Adrian himself has no shortage of accolades. Honored as “Man of the Year” by seven organizations in seven distinct years, namely: the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish Business Organization of New York, the American Irish Musicians Society, the Emerald Society of the NYPD, the Irish Examiner USA, the New York City Board of Education, and Ambassador of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Holyoke, M.A. To cap it all off, Quinnipiac University awarded Adrian an honorary doctorate degree in Humane Letters in 2016.

Adrian’s return to music came under less-than-ideal circumstances, but resulted in something remarkable. In 1997, an eight-foot mirror fell on Adrian’s wrist and severed the tendons. In lieu of months of physical therapy, he prescribed himself a strict regimen of daily piano playing. Upon the completion of his rehab, he recorded an album, a compilation of Irish classics and American standards entitled Ireland and Beyond: Adrian Flannelly Plays His Own Piano Favorites, to benefit children’s hospitals in New York and Dublin, including Our Lady of Mercy Healthcare System and Our Lady’s Hospital. This treatment plan of his gave him discipline, of which he says, “I have none at all.”

(From left): Adrian’s cousin, Paul O’Dwyer; Adrian himself; and Mike Rafferty at Irish America’s Top 100 event.

Add modesty to the long list of commendations for Adrian Flannelly, because a radio show does not run consistently for 50 years and garner such acclaim without a substantial amount of discipline, although Adrian might call it plain stubbornness!

Niall O’Dowd, the publisher and cofounder of Irish America emphasized, “Adrian Flannelly is a trailblazer and a pioneer, the man who put Irish radio in America on the map. Not only that, he cares deeply about the community. He was a leader in the fight for immigration reform and for the peace process in Northern Ireland. A talented musician, he livened up every Irish party with his wit and humor. He was among the first to extend the hand of welcome when I came to New York, young and green. He is a true gentleman.” ♦ Maggie Holland Michael Scanlon


Click below to see Adrian Flannelly’s remarks upon his induction into the Hall of Fame, at the Pierre Hotel on March 14, 2019.

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Hall of Fame: Academy Award-Winning Director Terry George Fri, 01 Mar 2019 08:57:51 +0000 Read more..]]> There is a thread that links each of Terry George’s films, and it comes directly from his life. “I’m talking about ordinary people struggling against oppression,” he tells Irish America. “That’s always been my kind of guiding light.”

Whether it’s the true-to-life tale of the late Gerry Conlon (the Belfast man who spent 15 years in an English prison having been wrongly accused) in In the Name of the Father, or the two bereaved mothers in Some Mother’s Son, or Hotel Rwanda (2004), about the struggle of Tutsi refugees against the Hutu militia, or, more recently, the tragic lovers fleeing the Armenian genocide in The Promise, the thread linking each of these films is unmistakable.

No wonder, really. The 66-year-old Irish filmmaker learned about oppression the hard way, growing up in a city long divided by allegiance and history.

“My father and mother came from the staunchly nationalist Markets area and the Short Strand in Belfast, and they aspired to get out of the ghetto, eventually moving to a lower middle-class Protestant neighborhood,” he tells Irish America.

“That was in the 1960s, when the North was starting to desegregate to some degree. And then when the Troubles broke, they were forced out of it.”


<em>Terry directing Brendan Fraser in </em>Whole Lotta Sole<em> (2012).</em>

Terry directing Brendan Fraser in Whole Lotta Sole (2012).


Not everyone may be aware of how massive that exodus was: up to 60,000 people were burned out of their homes in Belfast alone in what was then the biggest displacement of citizens in Europe since World War II. It completely re-segregated the map of Belfast.

Like a lot of young people at the time, George was himself swept up in the conflagration. In 1971, he was arrested with a group of fellow teenagers in a security swoop. For three days he was interrogated and beaten, until he finally confessed that he was in the I.R.A. to make it stop.

He was then imprisoned without trial for eight weeks, and word got around quickly. After he was named as an I.R.A. member (a charge he denies), his family were forced out of their home by angry Protestant extremists – who threatened to burn it down.

“We ended up in Twinbrook, which at that point was a new housing development. It had become a sort of de facto refugee camp when Catholics from all over Belfast were burned out of their homes.”

In 1975, George was arrested again. He was reportedly driving with armed militants when British soldiers stopped and arrested them, although George insists that he did not have a weapon. Soon after, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

“In 1975, I was sentenced to six years and I did three,” he says. He was sent to the Maze, which at the time also held Gerry Adams and Patsy O’Hara, the third of 10 men to die in the 1981 hunger strikes.


<em>Ulster homecoming: Terry and his daughter Oorlagh pose with their joint Oscars for The Shore. The film won the 2012 Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film.</em>

Ulster homecoming: Terry and his daughter Oorlagh pose with their joint Oscars for The Shore. The film won the 2012 Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film.


“Out of that experience came a lot of the writing for my debut play, The Tunnel. A lot of the films that (fellow Irish filmmaker) Jim Sheridan and I worked on together all draw from that period. So the Troubles not just shaped my life, my family’s life, but certainly shaped my artistic life.”

Exodus was really the only option on the menu for that talented generation of Irish actors and filmmakers in the ’70s and ’80s in Belfast, he admits. Think of Kenneth Branagh, Liam Neeson and Terry himself – all of them had to leave their home to make their mark in their chosen industries.

In 1981 he moved with his wife Rita and infant daughter Oorlagh to New York City, and it changed his life. There he did “what everybody else does,” construction, bartending, driving taxis, loading trucks. Then he got a job at New York magazine as a fact checker, through the help of two Irish-American writers. “I got that through Michael Daly and Pete Hamill, who sort of put a word in for me, and, you know, both of whom were seminal in starting off my writing career.”

At the time, George wrote a freelance music column for the Irish Voice, and he was the first to interview the Pogues for Rolling Stone when they came over to the U.S. for their debut tour. “I remember that as a funny interview because the fact checkers at the magazine couldn’t understand a word lead singer Shane MacGowan was saying on the tape.”


<em>On the set of The Promise with the film's star, Christian Bale (center).</em>

On the set of The Promise with the film’s star, Christian Bale (center).


Coming to America was a liberation for George in terms of the career possibilities. “Even though we were undocumented, I felt more that I belonged in New York that I ever felt in Northern Ireland. I don’t know if it’s quite the same today, but back then you felt part of an Irish family. There was a community, and by that point a wave of Irish immigration was going on. So the possibilities were enormous compared to what they had just left behind.”

In 1985, George’s play The Tunnel, about his experiences in the Maze, opened at the Irish Arts Center, where Jim Sheridan was the artistic director. It caused a sensation and ran for six months.

After that he wrote about the hunger strikers, an event that had enraged nationalist opinion across the spectrum in a way rarely seen. George says he did not agree with the tactic, but his exploration resulted in the screenplay Some Mother’s Son. The film focuses on the mothers of two of the strikers (played by Fionnula Flanagan and Helen Mirren) who are caught up their sons’ struggle.

The script languished unproduced, but soon after Gabriel Byrne commissioned George to write In the Name of the Father, based on the true story of four people falsely convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings, which killed four off-duty British soldiers and a civilian. The film received seven Oscar nominations. It’s success then allowed George and Sheridan to produce Some Mother’s Son (1996) in Ireland, with a budget of $8 million.


<em>The Armenian National Committee of America named Terry Man of the Year in 2018. The cross (a typical Armenian cross) is the national symbol.</em>

The Armenian National Committee of America named Terry Man of the Year in 2018. The cross (a typical Armenian cross) is the national symbol.


George is keenly aware of the power of the medium to influence people. His film Hotel Rwanda (2004), about the Rwandan genocide in 1994, was nominated for multiple awards, including Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. He says Hotel Rwanda “helped change the Americans’ perspective on that whole situation.” And, “In The Name of The Father had an impact on Bill Clinton and others at a time when the peace process was just clicking off, so movies do have a way of changing the world. I strongly believe that.”

The success of George’s projects also left some others not so enamored. “The British government and some of the conservative newspapers just went apoplectic about Some Mother’s Son and In The Name of The Father in particular.”

His more recent film, The Promise (2016) on Ottoman government’s extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in WWI, also caused a furor. The Turkish government spent over $10 million trying to offset George’s message. “They actually made a phony revisionist movie called The Ottoman Lieutenant that was designed to whitewash the genocide and be released before The Promise. I mean, it looked like it had the same marketing and all. So yeah, I mean, they do not like being reminded of the Armenian genocide.”

To be a successful director and producer these days, you need to have multiple projects waiting to be green-lit, George says. “I also have a script in development that’s based on a book called Finding Gobi. It’s about a little dog in China and the adventure it goes on – a complete departure from my usual topics, but it’s a book that I really like.”

Finding Gobi introduces us to ultramarathon runner Dion Leonard, who is joined on his 155-mile race by a devoted stray dog who accompanies him through the Gobi Desert, where the spirited little pup matches his steps over the Tian Shan Mountains and across the massive sand dunes of the Gobi Desert (giving him his name in the process) and keeping pace with Leonard for the entire 77 miles, eventually burrowing into his heart.


With Fionnula Flanagan, who starred in Some Mother's Son, and Belfast's legendary musician, Van Morrison, in 2007.

With Fionnula Flanagan, who starred in Some Mother’s Son, and Belfast’s legendary musician, Van Morrison, in 2007.


“I have another book called A Disappearance in Damascus,” George adds. “It’s a wonderful book about a Canadian journalist who befriends an Iraqi woman in Damascus, then the woman disappears because of her associations with the journalist. It’s good to have multiple projects on the go. Nowadays you have to have all sorts of coals in the fire for one of them to hit, you know?”

While his work focuses on world conflicts, George’s heart is never far away from Northern Ireland. His film The Shore, about two boyhood friends who meet 25 years after they were torn apart by the Troubles, won the 2012 Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. It was filmed entirely at George’s family cottage near Ardglass, County Down.

The profound changes that have occurred north and south since he left have astonished him. Now is the time to reach out to unionism with persuasive arguments to make the case for reunification, he says. “They’re not being asked to join some Catholic priest-dominated state anymore. They’re being asked to join one of the most viable sections of the European Union.” It will be hard to get beyond the legacy of sectarianism and bitterness, “but if we can start down that road it will be to the benefit of all,” he says.

Linking each project since the start of his career is a concern for ordinary people making their way and pushing back against often overwhelming odds. That’s the thread he followed out of the Troubles toward his remarkable career. He shows no signs of stopping now. “I’m trying to do a TV series on the Peace process with Niall O’Dowd (publisher of Irish America and the Irish Voice) and Bill Clinton’s involvement and all of that.” ♦ Cahir O’Doherty


Click below to see Terry George’s remarks at the 2019 Hall of Fame awards luncheon.

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