Category Archives: Arts & Culture

Synge’s ‘Playboy’ arrived in Ireland long before Hef’s mag

The New York Times proclaims: “Hugh Hefner, the Original Playboy, Is Dead at 91.” Vanity Fair describes the dearly departed (27 September 2017) magazine publisher as “the indefatigable (albeit Viagra-enhanced) Playboy of the western world.”

We can only wonder what the late Irish playwright John Millington Synge would have thought. His play, “The Playboy of the Western World,” debuted in January 1907 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin,  well before the December 1953 appearance of “Hef’s” Chicago-based skin mag. As The Washington Post reports:

Hefner had planned to call his magazine Stag Party, but when the publishers of another men’s magazine named Stag threatened to sue, a colleague came up with an inspired afterthought: Playboy.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the term for a “wealthy bon vivant” dates to 1829.

Synge died in 1909, two years after his play offended Irish moral sensibilities and sparked riots. In a 2011 theater review, The Guardian noted:

Synge had clad his maidens in shifts, presumably to mollify strict moralists among his Abbey audience. But perhaps he half-suspected a truth which Hugh Hefner would later turn into a different Playboy business: that a scantily clad woman can be even more inflammatory to the jaded imagination of male puritans than one who is wholly naked.

Playboy magazine was banned in Ireland until 1995. Twenty years later, Ireland became the first nation in the world to legalize same sex marriage by popular referendum.

Synge

Yeats, Kennedy, ‘Vietnam’ and ‘The Second Coming’

William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem “The Second Coming” is referenced in Episode 6 of “The Vietnam War,” the 18-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

The series narrator mentions that Robert F. Kennedy cited the poem in a 1968 op-ed piece about the overseas war and domestic woes. But the voice-over transposes the poem’s third and fourth lines as viewers see Kennedy’s image, intoning “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” then “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” rather than the other way.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” was the headline of Kennedy’s 10 February op-ed in The New York Times. The then-U.S. Senator from New York quoted the same two lines as above, but in the correct order.

Kennedy also quoted the lines in a 4 January 1968 speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Watch a short clip of the speech featuring this segment starting at 1:35.

Kennedy was not the first person to cite the poem in relation to the war. In a December 1967 New York Times wire service piece published in numerous U.S. newspapers, journalist James Reston reported “The Second Coming” was one of the favorite poems of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a hold-over from the administration of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Like the Kennedy brothers, McNamara was the American-born grandson of Irish immigrants.

Yeats’s poem began getting fresh attention in 1965, the centenary of his birth. It surfaced later in 1968 in Joan Didion’s collection of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which takes its title from the final line of the poem.

“ ‘The Second Coming’ ” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English,” Nick Tabor wrote in a 2015 piece for The Paris Review. He suggested “dozens if not hundreds” of writers and other artists have cribbed Yeats’s lines “in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration.”

It’s worth remembering that Yeats wrote the poem at the end of Word War I and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. The violence and unrest of the 1960s was hardly new to the world.

Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968. The Vietnam War dragged on until 1975.

Here’s my earlier post about Irish connections in the Vietnam documentary.

Halfway to holiday, visiting St. Patrick’s in Harrisburg

I’m writing this post 17 September, which many pubs and other marketers with even the most tenuous connections to Ireland now promote as “Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day.” By coincidence, I was in Harrisburg, Pa., for some Irish research at the Pennsylvania State Archives (though not their Molly Maguires collection) and visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral on State Street, two blocks from the hilltop capitol.

The parish and earlier iterations of the church date to the early 19th century, when the construction of a vast system of canals, railroads, and turnpikes along the Susquehanna River brought many Irish immigrants to the area, according to the cathedral’s official history. Construction of the present building began in 1904 and was completed three years later.

St. Patrick. (Note the gloves.)

The church was officially dedicated 14 May 1907, though liturgies began earlier in the year. The Ancient Orders of Hibernians, Division 5 in Harrisburg, gathered at the new cathedral for a 7 a.m. St. Patrick’s Day Mass, a Sunday that year, either inspiring or requiring extra piety.

The fraternal group paid the $1,800 for the transept window of St. Patrick, holding a shamrock to explain the Trinity to the royal court at Tara. The men surely admired the beautiful stained glass from Munich, Germany.

“The Apostle of Ireland is a splendid figure … arrayed in full pontificals, even to the gloves,” is how the Harrisburg Telegraph described the window in a story detailing the church’s architecture and amenities.

But even the grand new worship space had to compete with the holiday’s contemporary commercialism.

“It is doubtful if St. Patrick ever in his life saw such a profusion of tributes to himself as are now displayed,” The (Harrisburg) Courier reported. “[H]is memory has not only been kept green, but his fame has increased. It may be whispered that there are certain tokens which he might not appreciate.”

The paper detailed an array of tchotchkes such as high hats and pipes, “green pigs of every variety,” “clovers growing in pots” and boxes decorated with harps and green flags. The items sold for a few pennies to 20 cents.

About 100 clerics attended the official dedication in May, including Archbishop P.J. Ryan of Philadelphia. He donated the exterior statue of St. Patrick that is mounted over the entrance of the church.

Two days after the dedication, Irish nationalists in Dublin denounced the limited self-government for Ireland bill offered by Irish Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell. The Sinn Fein Society called the measure “an insult to Ireland” and urged nationalists in the London parliament to “devise measures for the material betterment of Ireland and securing international recognition and support of Ireland’s political rights.”

Timothy Healy and William O’Brien were at the forefront of this latest split with Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond. The Catholic Church hierarchy also rejected Birrell’s bill. Read more about this period of Irish history.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Harrisburg is the 20th St. Patrick’s church that I’ve visited in four countries. See the list.

Guest post: ‘Conversations with Friends’ is great company

I’m always happy to welcome guest posts, especially from my wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, who has her own excellent, if intermittent, blog. Angie’s last post here was on the Irish connection in “Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them.” MH

***

In the novel Conversation with Friends, County Mayo-born author Sally Rooney portrays a slice of contemporary Dublin life among college students navigating 21st century art and commerce. These students are seekers, trying to find a way in the world that’s honest and authentic, while still covering their bills and financing their own bohemian lifestyles. It’s not such a stretch to think of it as a contemporary version of earlier novels like Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, but thankfully with a less fatal end. Life is better today, but young people still face fateful questions of identity, love and getting by financially.

The novel is told from the point of view of Frances, a spoken word artist, who performs around Dublin with her best friend and former lover Bobbi. Bobbi is outspoken, outgoing and charming, while Frances is observant, reserved and cool. One night after a performance, the two young women are approached by a freelance photographer, Melissa, who eventually proposes writing a profile of the duo. While spending time with Melissa, they meet her actor husband Nick.

There’s a spark and a connection between Frances and Nick, that starts with emails and theater dates. “It was easy to write to Nick, but also competitive and thrilling, like a game of table tennis. We were always being flippant with each other. When he found out my parents live in Mayo, he wrote: ‘we used to have a holiday home in Achill (like every other wealthy South Dublin family I’m sure.)’ I replied: ‘I’m glad my ancestral homeland could help nourish your class identity. P.S. It should be illegal to have holiday home anywhere.’ ”

The flirtation leads an old-fashioned affair that propels the novel and naturally re-orders all of the relationships of the characters. Meanwhile, the different professional ambitions and financial requirements of each character come into play, illustrating that while these four may be equals in love, they are hardly economic equals. Frances’ challenges here are greater than the others; she tries to keep her working-class background in its own world and while meeting the financial requirements of a artistic lifestyle.

As its title suggests, Conversation with Friends is a wordy novel, driven by references to art, philosophy and academia. If that sounds pretentious, then this probably won’t be your cup of tea. But the novel is also driven by timeless human emotion, and some of the most touching passages are Frances’ desires to know and be known by Nick as she ponders the age-old question of whether she’s a worthwhile human being, “someone worthy of praise, worthy of love.” And it also has pointed things to say about the world economy and the arbitrary way it deals out wealth.

First-time author Sally Rooney, 27, has a great touch for both the human heart, social commentary and fast-paced dialogue. A former debating champion at Trinity College, Rooney has gotten buzzy write-ups for the novel from both The Guardian and The New Yorker. That’s not surprising to me; I found the novel enormously appealing and finished it in essentially one sitting. While informed by its Dublin setting, Conversations with Friends feels like a novel that perfectly captures international youthfulness in 2017 whether it’s Dublin or Dallas, Portland or Paris. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for whatever Sally Rooney writes next.

@DanMulhall begins tenure as Ireland’s ambassador to USA

UPDATE:

They met … Still no U.S. Ambassador to Ireland.

ORIGINAL POST:

Waterford-born diplomat Daniel Mulhall has begun his tenure as Ireland’s 18th Ambassador to the United States. He was scheduled to meet President Donald Trump 8 September at the White House.

They may talk about Twitter, in addition to more touchy topics.

Mulhall tweets Irish poetry and other messages to highlight Ireland’s achievements via @DanMulhall. His 13.2K followers are shy of @realDonaldTrump‘s nearly 38 million, but his tweets are far more literary.

He is also planning to write regular blog posts to explain his role as ambassador, and deal with issues related to today’s Ireland and its links with the U.S., including culture, literature, and history.

“When the world changes, diplomacy has to change,” Mulhall said during a private reception I attended.

His priorities as ambassador, he said, include working with Trump and Congress on issues of importance to Ireland, including immigration; economic promotion; and engaging the 35-million-strong Irish-American community, “a huge asset for Ireland.”

Mulhall specialized in modern Irish history at University College Cork. He is the author of A New Day Dawning: A Portrait of Ireland in 1900, and co-editor of The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment.

See his full biography and personal message on the embassy website.

Dan Mulhall

Fintan O’Toole’s ‘State of Us’ series

Fintan O’Toole, a columnist at The Irish Times for nearly 30 years, has just finished a four-part series of reflections about the state of modern Ireland. His thoughts are contextualized by last year’s Easter Rising centenary and the massive political, social, economic and religious changes on the island, north and south, especially over the past decade.

The series is called the “State of Us,” and it’s well worth the read.

Part 1: Ireland’s story doesn’t make sense any more

Part 2: Irish identity is no longer fit for purpose

Part 3: Irish nationalism needs a revolution

Part 4: The ties that bind

Dubs dispute ESPN’s description of their fair city

Dublin media are howling over descriptions of the Irish capital in an ESPN The Magazine profile of native son Conor McGregor, who is scheduled to box Floyd Mayweather Jr. on 26 August, near Las Vegas.

“In the piece, McGregor’s childhood upbringing in the ‘projects’ of Crumlin and Drimnagh suggests he was brought up in the Gaza Strip or 1920s Chicago, not a neighbourhood in which this writer lived for six happy and peaceful years, oblivious to the grenades whizzing by, or the fact that I should have been taking an armed escort whenever I had to cross the Liffey,” Jennifer O’Connell complained in The Irish Times.

RTE radio presenter Rick O’Shea took to Twitter: “I grew up in both the ‘projects’ *ahem* of Crumlin and Drimnagh. This is lazy stereotyping bullshit of the highest order.”

I sure don’t claim to know every corner of Dublin from my half dozen visits over 17 years, but the story by Wright Thompson sure does seem over the top:

Dublin is best understood by exploring its many divisions, its unending physical and mental boundaries. The city, and its current champion, McGregor, are defined by those limits. It’s a clannish, parochial place. Crossing the wrong street has traditionally been reason enough for an ass-whipping.

Other divisions in the city revolve around class, and while Conor’s success allows him safe passage across gangland boundaries, it can’t overcome his Dublin 12 roots. The Irish national daily papers have long served as the mouthpiece of the upwardly mobile and educated. McGregor rarely makes their pages. On the first morning of the prefight media tour, The Irish Times and the Independent ran a combined 128 words about it: one small story about Mayweather’s tax problems.

Ah, ha! Could that be the problem: Thompson’s jab at the Dublin media?

As The Guardian noted: “This is not the first time that U.S. media’s depiction of the supposed dangers of life in Europe have attracted ridicule.”

“Whatever the neighborhood, Conor McGregor’s charisma transcends Dublin’s tribalism,” is the published cutline below this Finbarr O’Reilly photo in the ESPN story.

Watch “Ireland’s Wild Coast” before 31 August

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is airing the 2-hour nature documentary “Ireland’s Wild Coast” on its U.S. stations. The full film is available online through 31 August.

Emmy Award-winning wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson narrates his odyssey along Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coast and nearby inland forests. Over the course of a year, he traveled from the Skellig and Blasket islands in southwest Kerry, up the coastline to Donegal’s Malin Head, the island’s most northern point, then finished at the Sea of Moyle on the Antrim coast.

The film explores marine, avian, mammalian and other creatures. Stafford-Johnson provides poetic, personal insights into the wild animals and wild places he discovered along the way.

Here’s my 2014 post about the Stafford-Johnson-narrated, John Murray-directed “On A River In Ireland” (also known as “The Secret Life of the Shannon”). The video link is still good.

Wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson.

On tea … Joshua Tree … Northern Assembly … and eternity

These stories are related only through their connections to Ireland:

  • While global coffee culture has jabbed at classic black tea’s popularity over the past decade as scores of java joints opened in Dublin, “demure and comforting tea has slugged back in the Irish capital,” The Washington Post reports.
  • U2 celebrated the 30th anniversary release of The Joshua Tree with concerts at Croke Park in Dublin. In The Irish Independent, Ed Power notes that Ireland has “changed utterly” over those three decades.

Divorce was still illegal in 1987, contraceptives difficult to come by. Few under the age of 30 were genuinely religious — nonetheless all felt compelled to attend Mass. Emigration, meanwhile, was a fact of life and nobody had any money. Life is never quite grim if you are young and carefree. Nonetheless, this was a grey country to which U2 had introduced a spark of color.

  • Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is on a three-day visit to Washington, D. C., and New York, to brief political and business leaders about Brexit and the collapsed Northern Ireland Assembly, the BBC reports.
  • Finally, on a bicycle ride through a local cemetery, I noticed the gravestone at left. Irish to the last … and forever:

Happy Blogiversary: Five years, 500 posts

This is my 500th post since I launched the blog on 22 July 2012, with the goal of publishing “research and writing about Irish and Irish-American history and contemporary issues.”

This post also coincides with the publication of my latest story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s about Ireland’s Great Famine, based on several letters written to a Catholic priest in 1847.

The Published Stories section of the blog contains all of my Irish-related work for outside newspapers, magazines and websites since 2000. Best of the Blog contains my annual round up of each year’s most significant stories, and other favorites exclusive to the site. See the list of St. Patrick’s churches I’ve visited, and check out other Irish interest places to visit.

Angie Drobnic Holan, my wife, has lovingly contributed to this effort as webmaster and editor. She has been unfailingly supportive, including the many evenings when she implored, “It’s time to turn off the computer and come to bed.”

I also want to thank my readers, especially those who subscribe to the blog via email. I appreciate the “Likes,” shares and re-tweets on social media. Sure, this blog doesn’t get the traffic of commercial sites, but l am grateful to everyone who stops by for a look, especially readers in Ireland.

Himself, at Carrigafoyle Castle, North Kerry, 2012.

In pursing my Irish history interests, I’ve been fortunate to visit numerous archives and libraries, where I obtained much valuable assistance. Among some of the places I’ve been able to visit:

My research also has benefited from the always-expanding menu of online resources. My laptop has become a time machine. It has whisked me back to 19th century Ireland and America through digitized documents and letters, newspaper archives, maps, photographs and vintage video.

Thanks again for reading the blog and supporting my work. Please keep coming back.