Category Archives: Arts & Culture

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.

Best of the Blog, 2018

Welcome to the sixth annual Best of the Blog. This has been a productive and successful year, thanks to two trips to Ireland and several new projects and features. Average daily site visits increased 52 percent over last year, and total traffic for the year by November surpassed the 2016 benchmark. Thank you, loyal readers and new visitors, for your interest and support. See more detailed acknowledgments at the bottom of the post. First, our yearly roundup:

Ireland Under Coercion, RevisitedThis project explored aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. The series followed Hurlbert’s six-month reporting trip to Ireland, from his views about the agrarian agitation and home rule politics of the period, to his descriptions of Irish landscapes and landmarks. * I retraced some of Hurlbert’s footsteps during my February and November trips to Ireland. * A condensed version of my research appeared under the headline “An American Journalist in Ireland Meets Michael Davitt & Arthur Balfour” on The Irish Story website. * The work was recognized in the American Journalism Historian Association’s “News & Notes” feature.

Map of Ireland showing Hurlbert’s 1888 travels.

Ireland’s Famine Children “Born at Sea”My research of the online Famine Irish Passenger Record Data File held by the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) resulted in a Winter 2017/18 story in NARA’s Prologue Magazine. * In September, I gave a presentation about the story at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore.

Pittsburgh Irish: I added a new section to the blog that collects my original work related to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my native city and state, a 19th and early 20th century hub for Irish immigrants. This year’s work included several pieces about World War I and its aftermath:

Another two-part piece, Troublesome Men: The Irish Nationalist Feud in Western Pennsylvania, 1894-1896,explored divisions among pro-independence Irishmen in Western Pennsylvania ahead of the 1895 Irish National Alliance convention in Chicago. Two members of the Pittsburgh delegation were ousted from the meeting. See PART 1 & PART 2.

Pittsburgh in the 1890s.

Other Popular Stories in 2018:

Catching Up With Modern Ireland: I introduced a monthly roundup of aggregated news, feature, and opinion content from Irish and Irish-American media. Coverage included the May repeal of Ireland’s constitutional abortion ban; the August visit of Pope Francis to Ireland; and the October re-election of Irish President Michael D. Higgins. … Brexit and the sidelined Northern Ireland Assembly remained in the news throughout 2018, the former a key issue for 2019. …  Former President Bill Clinton received the Freedom of Belfast honor for the Good Friday Agreement; Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan was floated as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, a post that remains unfilled; and Irish-American gangster James “Whitey” Bulger was murdered in federal prison. … Fáilte Ireland unveiled its “Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands” tourism brand to drive visitor growth across the Midlands region. … Solas Nua, the Washington, D.C.-based Irish arts group, staged “The Frederick Douglass Project” about Douglass’ 1845 lecture tour of Britain and Ireland; “Black ’47,” a fictional film treatment of the Great Famine debuted to generally good reviews; and the “Coming Home: Art & The Great Hunger” exhibit from Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., toured Ireland. …. I’ll post a December update before the new year.

 

AOH and other Irish Americans dedicated a new statue of St. Patrick in the garden outside Old St. Patrick’s Church in Pittsburgh, top, and the twin spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. I visited both churches in 2018. More in the St. Patrick’s Churches section of the blog.

Go raibh maith agat…

Many people assisted me in producing the blog this year, in America and in my travels to Ireland. My dear wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, is my biggest supporter. She edits some of the longer pieces and provides technical assistance. Most importantly, she encourages my work, including reminding me when “it’s time to turn off the computer.”

These people and institutions also helped in 2018: 

IN IRELAND: the Michael Davitt Musuem, Straide, Co. Mayo; National University of Ireland, Galway, ArchivesTrinity College Dublin, Archives; National Library of Ireland, Dublin; National Print Museum, Dublin; and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland, especially co-founder Felix Larkin, who helped with the Hurlbert project and welcomed me at NPHFI’s annual conference in Galway. Another round of applause for all the conference’s excellent presenters. … Also, thanks for the continued friendship and assistance of John Dorney at The Irish Story; Kay Caball at My Kerry Ancestors; and Mary Cogan at Listowel Connection. … Special thanks to my relations, Michael & Nancy Lynch of Navan, for their hospitality, and for the gift of a 40-page F.S.L. Lyons’ pamphlet, Parnell, dated from 1963.  

IN AMERICA: the National Archives & Records Administration, College Park, Md., and the editors at Prologue Magazine; Luke McCusker at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore; historian Daniel W. Crofts, who helped with the Hurlbert project; and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which published my story about Frederick Douglass. … Also, Amy Brunner and Christopher Lemery of the University of Pittsburgh Library System, on separate requests through the “Historic Pittsburgh” website. … In Washington, D.C., Georgetown University and Catholic University of America libraries, especially Shane MacDonald at CUA’s Research Center and University Archives; the arts group Solas Nua; and Dan Mulhall, Ambassador of Ireland to the U.S. and the Irish Embassy staff, who always warmly welcome Irish Network-DC. … The Arlington Public Library, Arlington, Va., provided several books from university library collections via its Interlibrary Loan service. … Apologies if I’ve missed any person or institution.

Finally, thanks again to all those who visited the blog, especially email subscribers (at right) and those who follow me on Twitter and retweet the content. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.

Best wishes for 2019.

Previous Years of “Best of the Blog”

The road leading to Killone Abbey in County Clare. The ruin was visited by American journalist William Henry Hurlbert in 1888, and by myself in November 2018.

Irish ambassador, film producer discuss “Black ’47”

“Black ’47,” a fictional big-screen treatment of the Great Famine, debuted in March at the Berlin Film Festival; opened in September in Ireland; and has shown since October on limited U.S. screens. The New York Times described the film as an “occasionally exhilarating action-revenge plot” set against the bleak historical period. John Dorney at The Irish Story wrote:

Essentially it is a kind of revenge western epic – imagine a cross between Clint Eastwood’s the “Outlaw Josey Wales” and Quentin Tarnatino’s “Django Unchained” – but set in Famine era Ireland.

Think of “Rambo” in mid-19th century Ireland, with single-shot pistols and rifles (which more than once fail to fire), rather than automatic weapons.

My wife and I attended a 2 December screening at the American Film Institute’s “European Union Film Showcase.” Irish Ambassador to the United States Dan Mulhall spoke about the Famine before the lights dimmed, and Jonathan Loughran, one of the film’s producers, participated in a Q & A session after the credits rolled.

The Famine is “fundamental to any understanding of Ireland’s story,” Mulhall said, and also is the “origin story” of more than 33 million Irish Americans.

With more than 1 million dead and 1 million emigrated, it was “a food crisis of unparalleled scale,” he said, the last mass hunger event in the Western world. Ireland’s population was 8.5 million at the time, a level not expected to recover until 2045, nearly 200 years later.

Loughran, originally from Dublin, said working on the film “re-woke feelings I forgot” in leaning about the Famine as a child. He said reactions to the film have been better than expected, especially among the Irish.

“It stoked some republican feelings in people,” Loughran said.

He praised Australian actor James Frecheville, who plays former Connaught Ranger Martin Feeney, for learning Irish, which is spoken by various characters the film, their words either interpreted by others in the scene, or shown in subtitles.

“Black ’47” is said to be the first feature film about the Famine, and Loughran thinks there is room for more treatments. “It could become its own genre, there are so many stories to be told.”

Here’s the official trailer:

A few of my previous posts about the Famine:

Catching up with modern Ireland: November

I made my second trip of the year to Ireland in November. As in February, the weather was delightfully mild and mostly dry. As in America, more and more people seemed transfixed by their smart phones. In the West of Ireland, I noticed more wind turbines sprouting from fields and hilltops to supply electrical power to keep those phones charged. At several churches, Mass attendance remained thin, especially at the massive Galway Cathedral. (Below and bottom of the post.)

Here’s the monthly roundup for November:

      • “Successive Irish Governments have abandoned rural Ireland. Their vision is of a prosperous elite, big cities and a trickle down of wealth. A trickle that runs dry before it reaches rural Ireland,” Sinn Féin  President Mary Lou McDonald said. … “Rural Ireland isn’t dying. … The situation is far from perfect, but in contrast to the grim days when rural Ireland raised its sons and daughters for the boat, these days a mix of foreign and indigenous industrial employers has penetrated deep into provincial Ireland with high-quality, interesting and engaging, jobs,” Donal O’Donovan wrote in the Irish Independent.
      • Medical devices now make up almost 10 percent of all Irish exports. The Republic is second only to Germany as the largest European exporter of such equipment, The Irish Times reported. Most of the firms are clustered around Galway.
      • “Lessons from Northern Ireland for Americans who see political opponents as the enemy,op-ed in The Hill.
      • Ireland is moving to reinstate birthright citizenship, bucking the trend in other Western countries to tighten restrictions on immigration, The New York Times reported.
      • Tourism Ireland announced it will increase 2019 spending by €10 million, to €45 million, and will launch its first new global advertising campaign in seven years to help attract more overseas visitors to the island of Ireland. The “Fill your Heart with Ireland” campaign will launch during December in the United States, Britain, France and Germany, then roll out more than 20 other markets in the new year. The promotional boost is driven in part by concerns about Brexit.
      • “Is Ireland Really A Startup Nation?”, column in Forbes.
      • The Irish Aviation Authority is investigating the 9 November spotting by several commercial airline pilots of an unidentified flying object over the Republic. Some have speculated the fast-moving lights were probably meteorites entering Earth at a low angle. 

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Killone photos

ENNIS ~ My “Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited” series explores aspects of the book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert.

The Charleston, S.C.-born, Harvard-educated, New York City newspaper editor traveled around Ireland during the first six months of 1888, a period of resurgent agrarian violence and nationalist political agitation. His book, published later that year, focused on these topics. Like most visitors to Ireland, however, Hurlbert also explored the country’s landscapes and landmarks, including the ruins of Killone Abbey in County Clare.

The American journalist leveraged his visit to the abbey ruins to criticize the violence in the land reform movement, as discussed in my original post about this section of Hurlbert’s diary. A year later, an Irish priest mocked the characterization in his Hurlbert unmasked rebuttal pamphlet.

See black and white images of the abbey, circa 1865, or more than 20 years before Hurlbert’s visit, at this link to the Robert French photography collection at the National Library of Ireland. Below, photos from my 11 November 2018 visit to the site, 130 years after Hurlbert.

Approach to Killone Abbey, November 2018.

The abbey opened in 1190 and abandoned in the 17th century.

Looking back toward the photo vantage above.

During his 1888 visit, American journalist William Henry Hurlbert commented about the “picturesque lake” and the “confusion, squalor and neglect” of the abbey graveyard.

I’m always drawn to the view from the surviving window frames of ancient ruins.

On returning to Ireland, a look back at previous trips

I’m traveling to Ireland for the Newspaper & Periodical History Forum of Ireland’s 2018 Conference, “The Press & the Vote,” at NUI Galway. Watch for my tweets (@markaholan) and posts over the coming week.

First, here are links to photo features from my last two trips.

February 2018

Douglas Hyde Center in Co. Roscommon.

July 2016

Belfast mural of nationalist hero Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike in 1981. (July 2016)

Catching up with modern Ireland: October

As of 30 October, traffic on this site surpassed our highest annual total, in 2016. Thanks very much for your readership and support, including several of you who emailed suggestions for this month’s roundup, which starts in arts and ends in crime:

  • Anna Burns became the first Northern Irish author to win the Man Booker prize, for Milkman, a novel about a young woman being sexually harassed by a powerful man during the Troubles. Authors John Banville, Anne Enright, and Roddy Doyle of the Irish Republic won the prize earlier.
  • On Broadway, Jez Butterworth’s “thrilling new play” The Ferryman “mines the folksy clichés of Irish archetypes — as garrulous, drink-loving, pugilistic souls — to find the crueler patterns of a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance,” according to this New York Times review.
  • “The extent to which many English people are ignorant about Ireland has become painfully clear. … I’ve noticed a tonal shift in the way I and other Irish people speak about the English. Our anger is more sincere. We are more ready to call them out on all those centuries of excess.” I Didn’t Hate the English — Until Now
  • An Bord Pleanála approved a 25-story residential tower in Cork city. If built, it would become the county’s tallest tower.
  • Ireland ranked 5th on the 2018 CAF World Giving Index, behind the U.S. and ahead of the U.K.
  • The Republic will impose tobacco-style health warning labels on alcohol as part of a sweeping package of restrictions intended to tackle one of the world’s worst rates of binge drinking.
  • “When confronted with a film that identified prime suspects in a massacre of unarmed British citizens [Loughinisland, County Down, in 1994], the authorities made no apparent effort to further question those suspects—and arrested the filmmakers instead.” Why Were a Filmmaker and a Journalist Arrested in Northern Ireland?
  • In a case that reminds me of the “agrarian outrages” of the late 19th century, north Kerry bachelor dairy farmer Michael Ferris, 63, of Rattoo, was found guilty of manslaughter for the 2017 death of John Anthony O’Mahony, an unmarried tillage farmer, 73, of Ardoughter, Ballyduff.  Ferris drove the pallet forks of his teleporter into the car occupied by O’Mahony, apparently enraged by the older man’s use of a crow banger, according to the Irish Examiner.
  • In America, the notorious James “Whitey” Bulger, 89, once head of Boston’s Irish mob, was killed in federal prison. Read my “Southie memories” piece from his 2013 trial.

James “Whitey” Bulger in 1959, early in his criminal career.

Photo feature: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC

This week I returned to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City for the first time since before the church’s massive exterior and interior restoration from 2012 to 2016. This year is the 160th anniversary of the laying of the church’s cornerstone on 15 August 1858.

Great Catholic Ceremony,” The New York Times headlined its front page coverage the next day. “Intense Assemblage of 100,000 Persons”  … “Magnificent Ceremony — Unlimited Enthusiasm“. The story suggested that the proposed “ecclesiastical structure … if completed … will have no parallel on this continent.”

The church opened 20 years later, and the twin spires were added in 1888, then the tallest structures in New York. Here are a few images of this stunningly beautiful and popular worship space.:

Himself, thinner, more humble-looking than most statues of the saint.

The main sanctuary.

Shamrock detail on front doors. 

The twin spires at night.

See the St. Patrick’s Churches section of the blog for more photos and links to other worship spaces dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint.