Category Archives: Arts & Culture

What you need to know about Knock’s vision visitors

The Virgin Mary recently appeared–believers say–in the sun and clouds above Knock, the County Mayo village where she first presented herself to the faithful in 1879. Unlike that 19th century debut, viewed by 15 witnesses on a rainy evening, the latest vision at Ireland’s national Marian shrine is documented in video and photographs, quickly and easily disseminated around the world.

According to Catholic Online:

The sun appeared as an elongated shape in the videos, not as a circle. Rays of light were also captured on camera. As clouds passed before the sun, filtering out the brightest light, people were able to look directly at the vision. They reported the vision moved, and spun, a classic miracle of the sun, often associated with apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

Among the handful of secular news outlets that covered Our Lady’s alleged appearance, the tone was more skeptical, even cheeky. “Clouded vision,” said the headline in the U.K.’s Daily Mail.

This wasn’t the first digital-age sighting of the Virgin at Knock. Scores of videos claiming to show Mary’s image are posted online, in addition to sympathetic histories and pilgrimage travelogues, including a trailer for the 2016 independent film Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village.

The pilgrimage business is good for the West of Ireland. Knock airport’s 9.1 percent first quarter growth–more than 134,000 total passengers–was the highest year-over-year gain among five airports in the Republic, The Irish Times reported. Monsignor James Horan, the late priest who built the airport in the 1980s on the “foggy, boggy site” near the shrine, must be smiling from about the same altitude as the latest Marian appearance.

The 1879 apparition at Knock was a crowded affair, with the Virgin Mary joined by Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist, the Lamb of God (representing Jesus Christ) and adoring angels appearing on the gabled wall of the local church. This didn’t get much immediate press attention. Word of the vision and miraculous cures spread quickly among believers, however, and published accounts began to appear by a year later. The Irish Examiner reported crowds of up to 20,000 were trekking to the village.

“A deeper and more touching outpouring of sincere faith and religious fervour it would be impossible even to conceive than what I witnessed at Knock,” an unnamed “pilgrim” wrote in a 25 September 1880 letter to the newspaper.

The same year, The Nation carried advertisements for “The Illustrated Record of the Apparitions at Knock,” a free booklet that included witness depositions, a list of miraculous cures and six images. A 1 3/4-inch diameter medal also was available for sixpence, plus postage.

Pope John Paul II visited Knock in 1979. He said:

Since I first learnt of the centenary of this Shrine, which is being celebrated this year, I have felt a strong desire to come here, the desire to make yet another pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Mother of Christ, the Mother of the Church, the Queen of Peace. Do not be surprised at this desire of mine. It has been my custom to make pilgrimages to the shrines of our Lady, starting with my earliest youth and in my own country.

John Curry was the last of the 1879 witnesses to die. In 1943, at the age of 68, he was buried without a headstone in a communal cemetery plot owned by the Little Sisters of the Poor on Long Island, New York. Recently, he was re-interred at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan.

“What you choose to believe is up to you,” Dan Barry wrote in a lovely piece for The New York Times. “This is merely the story of an Irish immigrant who died without means in Gotham obscurity, then rose to such post-life prominence that, amid considerable pageantry, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, will celebrate his requiem Mass and pray over his new earthly home.”

I visited Knock not long after the 2001 terror attacks in America, during a month-long journalism fellowship that took me to both sides of the Irish border. I arrived at the shrine on a rainy Monday afternoon, “the busloads of believers nowhere in sight,” I wrote in my Oct. 1 journal entry. As a believer, I said the requisite prayers, but there were no apparitions that evening. In fact, my “sincere faith and religious fervour” was exhausted from having hiked to the summit of Croagh Patrick the day before. No visions up there, either, but a fantastic view and fulfilling experience.

I slept well that night at the Belmont Hotel in Knock and awoke to a bright day. I bypassed a second visit to the shrine and pressed on to my next appointments. I am glad that I made the pilgrimage, however, and followed in the footsteps of John Curry and John Paul, and millions of other believers; past, present and future; with or without digital recording equipment; with or without seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Undated photo of the original church at Knock where the apparition appeared in 1879.

In praise of the Irish diaspora

I’ve been reading “The Princeton History of Modern Ireland,” edited by Richard Bourke and Ian McBride. It was one of the Irish history books under the Christmas tree five months ago.

The book offers 21 chapters by different historians that range from broad essays about major developments of Irish society and politics to more focused looks at specific factors that played an important role in shaping that trajectory, as Bourke writes in the Introduction.

Among the “standout entries,” Tom Deignan wrote in his August 2016 Commonweal review, are “explorations of the Irish language as well as the diaspora, topics that are often shoved to the margins but provide key insights into Ireland and its history.”

I especially liked Enda Delaney‘s “Diaspora” chapter, which concludes the book. These two passages caught my eye:

To write the Irish story without the diaspora is to render a partial account. It is worth remembering that in 1910 the Irish-born population of New York at 250,000 people was only exceeded by the populations of Dublin and Belfast. In other words, the third largest “Irish” city was across the Atlantic. (p. 493).

***

Irishness was never circumscribed by place of birth, as hundreds of studies of the diaspora clearly show, even if the venerable inhabitants of the “motherland” are sometimes less than keen to acknowledge this. (p. 502).

Immigrants at Ellis Island.

“Angela’s” Pulitzer: Catching up 20 years on

Margaret Cashill of Tampa, one of my former newsroom colleagues, suggested this blog post and sent along a few links. Thanks Margaret! MH

Columbia University President, George Rupp (left), presents Frank McCourt with the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

In April 1997, Frank McCourt’s memoir of his “miserable Irish upbringing” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography. Angela’s Ashes had published a year earlier.

Twenty years on from the Pulitzer, there is a wave of developments associated with the book:

  • Angela’s Ashes: The Musical is preparing to open this summer, with performances in Limerick, site of the book, as well as Dublin and Belfast. “There’s a recognition of the brand across the world. … But this is a show I want to stand on its own two feet in Ireland,” producer Pat Moylan told The Irish Times.
  • Leamy House on Hartstonge Street in Limerick, the author’s old school, has been purchased by a Limerick businessman. The building hosts multiple tenants, including the Frank McCourt Museum, which the new owner plans to keep in place, according to the Limerick Leader.
  • The Leader also reported that hundreds of people have contributed to a large montage portrait of the famous Limerick writer.

McCourt was born in New York. His parents returned to their native Ireland during the Great Depression. He was 67 when Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer.

In a September 1996 book review under the headline “Generous Memories of a Poor, Painful Childhood,” The New York Times wrote:

“Writing in prose that’s pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we’ve walked its streets and crawled its pubs. He introduces us to the schoolmasters who terrorized (and occasionally inspired) their pupils, the shopkeepers who extended credit to the poor and the priests who listened to the confessions of young boys preoccupied with sex and sin and shame.”

McCourt later wrote ‘Tis (1999) and Teacher Man (2005). He died in 2009.

Rooney & O’Reilly: Dead … and gone

I’ve been away from the blog for an Easter trip to Rome. During my absence, two Irish Americans made headlines for very different reasons:

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney dies

In my native Pittsburgh and across most of America, Dan Rooney was best known as chairman of the NFL Steelers, the son of the team’s late and much beloved founder. But he also was U.S. Ambassador to Ireland from July 2008 to December 2012, a co-founder of The Ireland Funds, and principal benefactor of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature at Trinity College Dublin.

He died April 13 at age 84. His grandfather emigrated from Newry, County Down to Montreal, Canada, then moved to Ohio and Pittsburgh, where the late ambassador was born.

“Deeply committed to Ireland and the Irish people, he was always conscious of his Irish roots,” Irish President Michael D. Higgins told The Irish Times.  Said former U.S. President Barack Obama:

Dan Rooney was a great friend of mine, but more importantly, he was a great friend to the people of Pittsburgh, a model citizen, and someone who represented the United States with dignity and grace on the world stage. I knew he’d do a wonderful job when I named him as our United States Ambassador to Ireland, but naturally, he surpassed my high expectations, and I know the people of Ireland thank fondly of him today.

Obama and Rooney, right, in 2014. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette image.

Bill O’Reilly ousted from Fox News

Conservative news anchor Bill O’Reilly and the Fox News Channel parted ways after 20 years in the wake of a New York Times exposé about the media company paying $13 million to settle sexual harassment allegations against the cable television ratings king.

O’Reilly describes the claims as “completely unfounded” and himself as the victim of “the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today.”

His great-grandfather emigrated from Clonoose, County Cavan, according to a 2016 episode of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” O’Reilly also was a 2014 inductee in Irish America magazine’s Hall of Fame.

The honor recognizes “the extraordinary achievements of Irish-American leaders, from their significant accomplishments and contributions to American society to the personal commitment to safeguarding their Irish heritage and the betterment of Ireland.” Among 45 honorees since 2011: liberal cable television anchor Chris Matthews; former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and President Donald Trump’s Ambassador to Ireland nominee Brian P. Burns.

But not Dan Rooney, though the magazine has written about him.

I’ve reached out to the New York-based publication by email and Twitter to ask if they plan to keep O’Reilly among their honorees. Maybe they could switch him with Rooney. If you agree, contact the magazine at: @irishamerica, or submit@irishamerica.com.

Remembering “The Forgotten Irish”

I’ve been reading “The Forgotten Irish: Irish Emigrant Experiences in America,” by Damian Shiels. I strongly recommend this book.

“Forgotten Irish” is a collection of 35 stories about Irish families during the American Civil War and the following decades. It is based largely on U.S. government widow and dependent pension records: personal letters and other documentation related to the survivors of men killed in America’s bloodiest conflict. As such, there is an ample whiff of desperation and heartbreak in these stories, like opening a heavily perfumed letter or standing downwind from a volley of cannon blasts.

Shiels’ new book follows his 2014 title, “The Irish in the American Civil War,” about the “gallantry, sacrifice, and bravery” of the Irish men on the American battle field.  Both books build on the excellent work of his similarly named website.

There, Shiels writes:

In 1860 there were 1.6 million Irish-born people living in the United States, with many hundreds of thousands more first generation Irish-Americans. In New York, one in four of the population were Irish-born. During the war, c. 180,000 Irish-born fought for the Union, 20,000 for the Confederacy. The majority of Irish who fought and suffered through the conflict had endured the Great Famine– the American Civil War represented the second great trauma of their lives. Although the Irish experience of the conflict receives significant attention in the United States, in Ireland it receives little. There are few books published on the topic in Ireland, and the 150th anniversary passed with relatively little recognition. This is symptomatic of a wider issue regarding how the history of the Irish diaspora is dealt with– little time is devoted to the story of Irish people once they leave these shores. Though we frequently discuss the Famine, we rarely follow its emigrant victims beyond the port to examine what further horrors lay in store for many.

The emphasis above is mine own, but it is a point that Shiels repeated in a 16 March presentation at the U.S. National Archives, where it was amplified by David T. Gleeson, professor of American History at Northumbria University and author of “The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America.”

With 200,000 Irish-born soldiers participating in the war, it’s easy to extrapolate the large number of Irish lives touched by the conflict: wives, children, parents, siblings, relations, friends, employers and business associates, both in the U.S. and back in Ireland. These stories are the focus of “Forgotten Irish,” not the famous military and political leaders.

The pension files and other records Shiels has mined provide many vivid details, but the stories are more sketches than full portraits. Savvy readers will bring other historical knowledge and a little imagination to each turn of the page. All but one of the 35 stories is less than 10 pages, and the use of an italic script for extended passages of the letters is a nice touch.

As I quoted “Historical Research” author Bill McDowell in an earlier post about my own work, such stories “humanize and enrich history by reminding us that the study of the past should include the study of the lives of ordinary people, their attitudes, beliefs, motives, experiences and actions.”  The National Archive’s Jackie Budell made a similar point in her introduction to the evening with Shiels and Gleeson (full video below). Every box of the 15 million records held by the Archives (plus similar institutions in the U.S. and Ireland) is filled with forgotten stories, she said. “We just need a few more story tellers.”

Watch the video. Read the book. Remember the forgotten.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, 2017

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I’ll be updating this post through the day with news of the Irish and Irish America on this special day.

Reading Devoy’s “Recollections” at the library, and online

Recollections Of An Irish Rebel, John Devoy’s “personal narrative” of his life as an Irish nationalist from the 1850s to the 1920s, was first published in 1929, a year after his death. “A few days before his death,” however, Devoy signed 100 copies of the book’s dedication page.

Irish University Press published a facsimile of the original in 1969. That’s the edition I sat down with recently at Catholic University of America’s Mullen Library. Here is the dedication page, followed below by one of my favorite quotes from Devoy:

“The strong individuality of the Irishman is his best quality, but it often turns out to be his most dangerous one. He is always inclined to ‘butt in,’ convinced that he could do things better than those entrusted with the task. Old members of the Clan-na- Gael were mostly free from this defect of a fine national quality. They were like soldiers, trained in habits of discipline and respect for authority, and they had confidence that the Executive would properly take care of the interests of the organization and the Cause. There were some exceptions, but these were mostly comparatively new members. But the Clan-na-Gael was only a very small part of the Irish population of the United States, and large numbers who belonged to no organization were keenly alive to the opportunity presented to Ireland by the war and were anxious to ‘do something.’ ”

Here is a digital version of Devoy’s Recollections.

Devoy’s grave at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

 

“Coolatully,” a play about rural Ireland, makes U.S. debut

“Coolatully,” a fictional village in rural Ireland and the title of a 2014 one-act play by Fiona Doyle, is making its U.S. debut in Washington, D.C. Solas Nua (new light), a contemporary Irish arts organization, is presenting the play at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint through 26 March.

The play is set in post-Celtic Tiger rural Ireland, where jobs are tough to find and the fictional town can no longer field a hurling team because too many players have left for Canada, New Zealand and Australia. (If there’s any mention of America, I missed it, reminding U.S. audiences that we aren’t the only option for emigrants.) Kilian, the hero of a long-past teen league championship match, is torn between staying or leaving.

More in this short Solas Nua video featuring members of the D.C. cast:

In a review of an earlier London production, The Guardian said the play “paints a plausible picture of the modern Celtic twilight … [and] tells us, very touchingly, what it is like to be young in rural Ireland today and pins down vividly the tendency to romanticize the past and future to make up for the disquieting present.”

Doyle has written nearly a dozen plays, according to her literary agency bio. She studied in Berlin and London, and lives in County Kerry.

 

 

Burns still waiting on Senate vote for Irish ambassadorship

“To think of it: my grandfather was a very poor immigrant in County Kerry in 1892 and a little over 120 years later I am being selected as a representative of 35 million or 40 million Americans of Irish heritage and this president to go to Ireland. It is astonishing; I have to pinch myself.”

U.S. Ambassador to Ireland nominee Brian Burns in The Irish Times.

“The extraordinary support provided by Brian Burns, members of the Burns family, and their associates and friends has helped make Boston College one of the world’s leading centers for the study and appreciation of Ireland and the Irish diaspora.”

Christian Dupont, head librarian at the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College (Brian Burns is a son of John J. Burns. This is a great collection, which I visited in 2013.)

“I read the Irish papers from time to time, and I see nothing but criticism for President Trump. That’s a huge error.”

Burns quoted in the Palm Beach (Fla.) Daily News

As of 20 February, a Senate vote to confirm Burns has not been scheduled.

Brian Burns at BC in 2012.

St. Valentine rests at Carmelite church in Dublin

Saint Valentine rests at the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Whitefriar Street, Dublin, near the National Archives of Ireland.

The third century saint’s mortal remains were gifted by Pope Gregory XVI to Irish Carmelite Fr. John Spratt in November 1836. Spratt built the Whitefriar Street church in 1825 and also enjoyed a good reputation in Rome for his stirring homilies.

Read more at the Whitefriar Street Church website; or watch this video from The Irish Independent: