Category Archives: Arts & Culture

Guest post: A touching surprise at The Mansion House

My good friend Sister Cathy Cahill, OSF, a Florida-based retreat leader and spiritual director, is a frequent visitor to Ireland. My only regret is that she and I haven’t been in the country at the same time. This is her third guest post for the blog. MH

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Although I’ve been in Dublin many times since my first visit in 1986, I’ve just made my first time to The Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin. For two days the mansion, built in 1710, was open to the public with an exhibit commemorating the 1916 Easter Uprising as well as the first sitting of Dáil Éireann in 1919. The latter took place in the mansion’s Round Room.

The history and importance of the building is enough to hold the interest of anyone interested in Irish history. Meeting Lord Mayor Nial Ring was an honor. But what really touched my heart was a plaque in the Entrance Hall. It reads:

Once again I was moved by the story of the Choctaws giving generously from their meager resources to assist the Irish people during the Great Famine in 1847. I was reminded of the Choctaw Nation sculpture I saw in County Cork shortly after its 2017 dedication. The striking sculpture of feathers pays tribute to the humanity of the Choctaw people who reached out beyond their own needs to respond in compassion to the suffering of others.

Shortly after the Mansion House plaque was installed, a group of Hiberians and other Irish joined in a march retracing of the Trail of Tears, the name of the forced migration of the Choctaw people from the Deep South to Oklahoma. It was a show of empathy and solidarity. The Choctaw tribe made Ireland’s then President Mary Robinson an honorary chief. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited the Choctaws last year, offering scholarships for study in Ireland.

Dev in 1919.

This year also marks the centenary of Éamon de Valera’s visit to the Chippewa reservation in Wisconsin. The American-born president of Ireland’s fledgling revolutionary government was made an honorary tribal leader. “Dev” accepted a ceremonial head dress and posed in his suit for a famous photo.

“We, like you, are a people who have suffered and I feel for you with a sympathy that comes only from one who can understand as we Irishmen can,” de Valera told the Native Americans.

Goodness and generosity are human traits that give me hope. I was delighted to see them commemorated in such a grand place as The Mansion House.

Photo essay: Art of Chicago/Galway sister city relationship

Chicago and Galway agreed their Sister Cities International relationship in 1997. Ten years later, the Grainne (“Grace,” in Gaelic) sculpture (top photo) by artist Maurice Harron was dedicated at Heritage Green Park across the street from Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago (bottom photo). Seven mosaic stone carvings representing Celtic culture that surround the statue were designed and crafted by Dennis Goggin and Reamonn Flaherty. The images, in descending order, are the Claddagh Ring; Irish Harp; Galway Hooker, Triskele (triple spiral); Celtic Knot; Tree of Life; and Celtic Sun. See photos of Old St. Patrick’s from this March 2019 visit. MH

Guest post: ‘Milkman’ is dark, grim & terrifically funny

I always welcome guest posts, especially from my wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, who maintains her own excellent, if intermittent, blog. Angie’s last post here was a review of Sally Rooney’ Conversation with Friends.

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Anna Burns is the latest in a long line of acerbic Irish writers who are able to cast jaundiced eyes on the hypocrisies and shortcomings of their own community because they know it so intimately from the inside out.

Belfast-born Burns, whose Milkman won last year’s Man Booker Prize for literature, said she based the novel on life experiences.

“I grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could,” she said.

Milkman is a winding, stream-of-conscious narrative set in Northern Ireland’s Troubles of the 1970s or 1980s. We are plunged straight in: The narrator has a gun held to her chest, and the wielder of the gun is Somebody McSomebody, because the hit squads killed the milkman. But, she hastens to inform us, the so-called relationship between her and the milkman never existed. It was wanted by him and gossiped into existence by the community, but never real. That surreal set-up is gradually unspooled, logically and relentlessly, over the novel’s 350 pages.

Violence, paranoia and depression hover over the community like a fog. As we come to know the narrator, we learn she is an 18-year-old woman who variously carries the roles of middle daughter, maybe girlfriend, middle sister, oldest friend. She likes to read old books — Ivanhoe, Vanity Fair — as a means of escape, and sometimes she even reads while she walks.

The reading-while-walking is an act of defiance within the confines of a suffocating community, but it’s not a true escape from the ever-present political and religious divisions. Plus, it will get you branded as one of the beyond-the-pales, as Burns puts it. Here’s a passage where the narrator gets a scolding from a friend.

‘You brought it on yourself, longest friend. I informed you and informed you. I mean for the longest time ever since primary school I’ve been warning you to kill out that habit you insist on and that now I suspect you’re addicted to – that reading in public as you’re walking about.’ ‘But -’ I said. ‘Not natural,’ she said. But -’ I said. ‘Unnerving behavior,’ she said. But -’ I said. But -’ I said. ‘I thought you meant in case of traffic, in case I walked into traffic.’ ‘Not traffic,’ she said. ‘More stigmatic than traffic. But too late. The community has pronounced its diagnosis on you now.’

It’s a long Irish tradition to be dark and grim while being terrifically funny. Milkman delivers.

For more on Anna Burns’ Milkman:

Ron Charles of the Washington Post reviews the novel for an American audience: “Lovers of modernist fiction by William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce — I know you’re out there, waiting for a book to slake your thirst for something strange and complex — Milkman is for you.”

The New York Times profiles Anna Burns, outlining her struggles as a writer (both financial problems and health issues) and her thoughts on Northern Ireland.  

Claire Armitstead at The Guardian says of the novel’s Man Booker Prize win: “Milkman may not be the best novel in contention this year, but it is certainly a plucky and challenging one – also one that speaks directly to the #MeToo era and to political anxieties over hard borders in Ireland and around the more recently troubled world.”

Catching up with modern Ireland: March

The March 29 deadline for Brexit has come and gone. Now, facing an April 12 red line, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union and the impact on both sides of the Irish border seems as shapeless as the “mists and squalls of Ireland” at the start of the Great War. Several Brexit selections begin this month’s roundup, followed by other news and features.

  • Anti-Brexit campaigners protested at six different points of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland on [March 30], fearing a return of customs checks could risk peace, jobs and their way of life, Reuters reported.
  • “It’s a further measure of the Brexiteers’ naïveté that they don’t realize that by forcing Northern Ireland to choose between the United Kingdom and Europe, they may have inadvertently hastened the eventual reunification of Ireland.” Patrick Radden Keefe in The New York Times.
  • “Their own culpable ignorance of Northern Ireland will not stop the Brexit zealots from blaming the Irish for the mess. In their eyes, Brexit would always have been a triumph were it not for the crazy complications of John Bull’s Other Island. Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times, published in The Washington Post.”

The Irish border has nearly 300 crossings. Credit: PA Graphics

Other stories:

  • Everything you need to know about Ireland’s economy” (and aren’t afraid to ask) from the World Economic Forum.
  • Conor McGregor, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s biggest star and one of the world’s highest-paid athletes, is under investigation in Ireland after a woman accused him of sexual assault, several media outlets reported. He was arrested in January but has not been charged. McGregor also announced his U.F.C. retirement, though a spokeswoman said it was unrelated to the investigation.
  • John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” militant convicted in 2002 of supporting the terrorist organization, is due to be freed in May … and he’s moving to Ireland. Fox News and other outlets have recently recycled the  2017 Foreign Policy story that Lindh obtained Irish citizenship in 2013 through family’s ancestry.
  • Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum on April 11 will celebrate the return of over 50 pieces of art that traveled throughout Ireland in the Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger exhibition. The touring collection drew more than 100,000 people since last year.

“An Irish Peasant and her Child,” Alfred Downing Fripp, Watercolor on paper, 1846, from Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum.

Photo essay: Visiting Old St. Patrick’s Church, Chicago

Old St. Patrick’s parish in Chicago was founded by Irish immigrants on Easter Sunday, 1846, at the onset of the Great Famine. The current church building was dedicated on Christmas morning, 1856. The church’s website timeline provides more history. The church also is detailed in the 1997 book, At the Crossroads: Old Saint Patrick’s and the Chicago Irish, by Ellen Skerret.

Images below from March 15, 2019. See the more than 20 St. Patrick’s churches that I have visited in America and Europe.

Catching up with modern Ireland: February

A short roundup for a short month. … Just over two week until St. Patrick’s Day, and less than a month until the scheduled Brexit. As I publish, however, there is growing talk of postponing the split until June. We’ll see.

  • The British are about to kick us in the teeth again,” Irish border resident Patrick O’Reilly tells The New York Times.

“The Brexit Apocalypse Bill, a belching omnibus of a vehicle, reversed into Dáil Éireann at teatime on Tuesday, polluting the chamber with rancid fumes which nobody requested and nobody wanted,” Miriam Lord writes in The Irish Times.

“If we’re heading for a hard Brexit, then we’re heading for a united Ireland,” Patrick Kielty opinions in The Guardian.

  • Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum has until June 2020 to become self-sustaining, Quinnipiac University President Judy Olian announced. The Hamden, Conn., school also withdrew its financial support and participation in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade after 30 years.

This is more than just an institutional belt-tightening story; it’s another example of the “fading of the green.” As Charles F. McElwee III wrote last year in The American Conservative: “The Irish Catholic experience peaked during the Second Vatican Council, but has slowly faded with the death of older relatives, the changed cultural makeup of urban neighborhoods, the dissolution of cash-strapped and scandal-ridden parishes, and an overall indifference towards tradition in this modern era.”

Don’t be fooled by the upcoming St. Patrick’s celebrations.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University. Photo by Robert Benson.

    • Irish workers were described as the most productive in the world, adding an average of $99.50 (€87) to the value of the economy every hour they work, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The Republic’s rate was higher than its biggest trading partners, the United States ($72) and the United Kingdom ($61.10), and nearly twice the OECD average of $54.80. … The Irish Central Statistics Office, however, cautioned that Irish workers in the domestic sector, which excludes multinationals, added an average $54.20, just below the OECD average.
    • Irish novelist John Banville defended Irish actor Liam Neeson’s comments about wanting to revenge kill any “black bastard” 40 years ago after his friend was raped. Neeson apologized on Good Morning America. “I am not a racist,” he said.
    • The head of an 800-year-old mummy known as “The Crusader” was stolen from its crypt below St. Michan’s Church in Dublin.
    • The 17.3 C. (65 F.) 23 February temperature in Roscommon was shy of the record 18.1 C., set 23 February, 1891, in Dublin. Met Éireann forecaster Siobhán Ryan told the Times the high temperature was not attributable to global warming, but more likely the result of natural variability in the weather.
    • The first teaser for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was screened during the Academy Awards. The movie tells the story of Irish hoodlum Frank Sheeran, who claimed to have killed American union boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. The release date is unclear.
    • Finally, the end of February is the anniversary of the 1888 opening of Kerry’s unique Lartigue monorail, a favorite historical curiosity.

The Lartigue monorail opened Leap Year Day, 1888, and closed in 1924.

AT TOP: St. Patrick and St. Briget at  Saint Muredach’s Catholic Cathedral,facing the River Moy in Ballina, Mayo. February 2018.

Henry Clive’s ‘face’ of Ireland in 1921

The image above was created by graphic artist Henry Clive. It appeared on the program cover of a June 1921 Pittsburgh benefit event for the American Committee for the Relief of Ireland.

Clive was born Henry Clive O’Hara in 1881, in Australia, to an Irish father and an English mother, according to the Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists. He began his career in theater, then gradually transitioned to full-time work as an illustrator. In 1925–four years after this image appeared on the Pittsburgh program cover–Clive joined The American Weekly,  a Sunday magazine supplement of the Hearst newspaper syndicate. He died in 1960.

Many of Clive’s illustrations are available in online galleries, and its easy to see the stylistic similarities to the image above. The event program, part of the John B. Collins Papers at the University of Pittsburgh, does not contain details about his commission for this work.

Did the American Committee for the Relief of Ireland commission the work for other publications? Is the young woman the “Dark Rosaleen” of James Clarence Mangan’s 19th century nationalist poem? Was Clive influenced by the women featured in the 1913 first color photographs from Ireland, produced by Madeleine Mignon-Alba and Marguerite Mespoulet?

Does anyone know more about this image?

On new Oscar Wilde biography and old newspapers

Dublin-born writer Oscar Wilde in 1882 made a yearlong, coast-to-coast lecture tour of America. It’s the focus of a new book, Making Oscar Wilde, by Michèle Mendelssohn. In the Jan. 25 issue of America magazine, reviewer Jeffrey Myers says the author:

developed a new approach to biographical research. Vast online archives and databases provided a digital treasure trove of local newspapers in the obscure towns where Wilde had lectured that was unavailable to previous life-writers. Her innovative approach and exploration of unsuspected territory has yielded rich results, illuminating new aspects of Wilde’s life and afterlife.

Wilde, in 1882, the year of his U.S. tour.

Digitized database and online newspaper archives are fairly recent conveniences, to be sure. But the material was always there for earlier biographers; it just required more time, travel, and tribulation to dig from bound, clipped, or microfilmed editions of the old papers.

As a journalist, I once did this sort of thing all the time in what where called “morgues,” usually a musty back corner of the newsroom. It’s important to know the past, the back story, whether writing about today’s news developments or yesterday’s events.

The work can be tedious. In his Jan. 28 essay for The New Yorker, L.B.J. biographer Robert A. Caro recalls the advice he received from one of his early newspaper editors about doing investigative research; in Caro’s case, a cache of government records. “Turn every page,” the editor said. “Never assume anything. Turn every goddamn page.”

Digital searching quickly and seductively whisks you to what the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software finds. But it may bypass misspellings; pages that are smudged and damaged; or relevant stories that don’t contain your search term(s).

Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland co-founder Felix Larkin addressed other concerns in our November 2018 interview:

Obviously, being able to search a digital newspaper archive makes the task easier, but there is a danger that it makes researchers lazy in two respects: first, they may be inclined to disregard newspapers and periodicals that have not yet been digitized and so fail to take account of important strands of opinion; and secondly, they may be content simply to find what it is that they are looking for and so miss other items – shall we call them the “unknown unknowns” (quoting Donald Rumsfeld) – that may be equally or more important.

I’ve been scrolling through microfilm of 1919 Chicago newspapers for a project I’ll unveil later this year. Seeing the surrounding headlines puts the Irish stories in wider context. And there are delightful distractions, such as following the game-by-game performance of Chicago baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson in the months before that year’s controversial World Series.

I have benefited from digital access to old newspapers since 2008, when I found the 1941 account of my Kerry-born grandfather’s death in Pittsburgh. It prompted me to write his biography. I am currently reading digitized 1919 editions of The Irish Press, Philadelphia; Kentucky Irish American, Louisville; and similar ethnic papers to explore U.S. reporting of Ireland’s revolutionary period.

But I still love viewing original records inside archives and libraries. The undigitized material forces me to turn every goddamn page; every … faded … page.

Irish-American files in the Thomas J. Shahan Papers at The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Catching up with modern Ireland: January

The unresolved Brexit deal remains the top story on the island of Ireland and leads the monthly roundup below. … More posts coming soon in my exploration of how mainstream American newspapers and the ethnic Irish-American press reported the historic events of 1919.  Visit the project landing page. … Thanks for supporting the blog, which in January set a record high for average daily visits and total monthly traffic. MH

  • “There has been increasing speculation that the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on 29 March could eventually lead to the unification of the Republic and Northern Ireland,” TheJournal.ie said in reporting a national poll showing a narrow plurality of Irish people favor holding a referendum on the issue.
  • A car bomb in Derry , Northern Ireland, was attributed to an attack by the New IRA, said to be “just one of a number of dissident republican groupings,” according to The Irish Times. Four people have been arrested.
  • Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that Ireland has “closed down” tax loopholes and is bringing in more corporation tax as a result, TheJournal.ie reported.
  • Salesforce announced the expansion of 1,500 staff over the next five years; and Facebook said it would add 1,000 jobs this year, the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland announced.
  • “My job in this country as I see it is to tell Ireland’s story – and to listen to America’s story – and to connect the two stories,” Irish Ambassador to the United States Dan Muhall said in a USA Today profile.
  • Israel warned Ireland that a boycott of imported West Bank settlement products would have “severe ramifications” on mutual relations if the proposed Dáil legislation is adopted. The administration has opposed the legislation and warned that it contravenes E.U. law and puts U.S. investment in Ireland at risk.
  • The New York Times reported “Irish women are now discovering the mere passage of a law [last May, repealing national abortion restrictions] cannot wipe away deeply held beliefs” and that pro-life activists are using “United States-style tactics like fake abortion clinics and protests outside legitimate ones” to thwart the now-legal procedure.
  • An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland, published a first-ever list of the country’s Top 10 Most-at-Risk Buildings. (The buildings-at-risk project is not new.) “These are all buildings of national importance, buildings that lie vacant and are in such a state of disrepair that they may be dangerous or have no identifiable new use,” the agency says.

Atkins Hall, Cork, is an historic building at risk. PHOTO: Alison Killilea (flickr.com)

Catching up with modern Ireland: December

The most important story of (December) 2018 will likely be the most important story of (January) 2019: Brexit, and the impact on the Irish border. British Prime Minister Theresa May scratched the scheduled 11 December vote on her Brexit package when it became clear parliament would not accept the deal approved weeks earlier by the European Union. Now the vote is set for the week of 14 January, date to be determined.

  • In mid-December, the Irish government published a “sobering” contingency plan in case of a no-deal exit by Britain from the European Union, a move that officials say would hurt Ireland more than any other country in the bloc, The New York Times reported. A second story in the Times described how Brexit could disrupt trade and reinvigorate the conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
  • “Ireland can lay credible claim to offer a haven from the populist plague that has infected so many other countries.”Chris Johns in The Irish Times.
  • Hopes for a new class of visa for Irish citizens were dashed in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican. Outgoing U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, had pushed the measure through the lower chamber in the waning days of the session, The Irish Times reported.
  • Tourism Ireland declared 2018 “the best year ever for overseas tourism to the island of Ireland,” with some 11.2 million visitors. Dublin Airport reported that it welcomed more than 30 million passengers for the first time in its 78-year history. I was happy to contribute to those numbers with visits in February and November, the first time I’ve traveled to Ireland more than once within one year.
  • Over 3,500 people were refused entry to Ireland at passport control in the last year, TheJournal.ie reported, including nearly 200 Americans. (Happily, as noted above, I wasn’t among them.)
  • The Irish Times‘ U.S. correspondent Suzanne Lynch profiled Scituate, Massachusetts, as “the most Irish town in America,” based on 2010 U.S. Census data. The Daily Mail reported the same story in 2011, as have other media. Lynch quoted Niall O’Dowd, editor of IrishCentral.com, who warned that Ireland is in danger of losing its diaspora in the coming decades. “You have to work at a diaspora. Diasporas can die.”
  • Irish President Michael D. Higgins signed the bill legalizing abortion in Ireland, as approved by referendum earlier in year. The procedures are expected to become available in January.
  • The bestselling books in Ireland for 2018, according to The Irish Times.
  • 2018 deaths of Irish celebrities and other notables, per Legacy.com.

Ring of Kerry. Tourism Ireland image.