Category Archives: Religion

Guest post: Frank Sinatra at Kate’s Bar, Derry

I’m always happy to publish a guest post from people visiting or just returned from Ireland. This piece is by Dick Davis, a retired San Francisco Bay area stockbroker and author of “Bus Journey Across Mexico” and other photo journals; and Victor A. Walsh, a retired California State Parks historian who has written about Ireland and Irish America for the San Francisco Irish Herald, Irish America, Eire-Ireland, and Journal of American Ethnic History. MH

Massive 17th-century siege walls surround the city of Derry (Londonderry to Loyalist Protestants) in Northern Ireland.  Waterloo Street, which parallels the old gray walls, rises steeply above the Bogside. In a 2002 visit, at a late hour, it’s empty; the buildings a silhouette of dark forms in the black night.

At the corner where Waterloo turns toward Diamond Square, we spot a brightly lit pub — a glow of life on the otherwise dreary street. The sign in front says, “Tonight Frank Sinatra”; below in smaller letters, “Jimmy Breslin.”

This is nuts, I think. I’m in Ireland, not New Jersey, and Frank’s dead.

We enter Kate’s Bar. It’s packed. Men are standing shoulder to shoulder drinking black pints of Guinness. Wisps of cigarette smoke and loud conversation fill the stale air. Some of the men are wearing white polo shirts with a football patch. Three ladies, near the front corner by the mike, more than fill a bench meant to seat four.

They remind me of buxom cafeteria workers from my high school days, only without aprons. All of them are blondes and their hair is curled and teased in the beehive style of the early ‘60s. It’s clear that they are here to listen to Frank.

We push through the throng of people, and find two tall stools against the back wall. A fellow next to me with tousled wavy black hair tells us that there are some empty tables in the next room. “Thanks,” says my friend Vic, “but we want to hear the music of Hoboken, Ireland.”  He nods somewhat quizzically and introduces himself as Declan.

Just as he begins to speak, someone yells, “Mop,” and Declan springs into action. A tray in front of a golden retriever sitting underneath the bar in front of us has been kicked over. As Declan quickly mops up the floor, he tells us that the dog belongs to a blind man, a regular seated at the bar. The tray is refilled, and the dog goes back to contentedly lapping up the Guinness.

At the far end of the bar stands an animated chap alternately talking and listening to his neighbor. When a point is made or something funny is said, he twirls his hand in a spiral motion and pokes his finger at the ceiling. I couldn’t tell if he was challenging God or keeping score.

Being newcomers, we begin to attract attention. “Where you from?” asks a thin fellow with a brown, droopy moustache. “California, near San Francisco,” I reply. “Oh, you’re a Yank,” he says in a friendly manner. He introduces himself as “Fergus,” with an emphasis on the “fer.”

We chat, and soon Declan returns. Like several other men at the pub, he is wearing a white polo shirt with a Celtic Football Club badge embroidered in green with a shamrock in the center. The patch is sewn on the right side of his shirt. On the left side, stitched in a circle with Irish flags are the words, “Celtic Supporters Club, McSheffrey and Deery.”

“Can I buy one of these shirts here?” I ask him. “They’re not for sale. They’re commemorative. They honor the memory of me friends, Eddie McSheffrey and Paddy Deery. We lost them to The Troubles here in ’87.”

“To your friends,” I saluted with my glass raised high and took a drink. Fifteen years, I thought, and The Troubles are still here, but friends are never forgotten.  

The stone walls that encircle Derry rose out of history. They stood in 1689 when Protestant defenders repelled a 105-day siege by the Catholic army of King James II.  They straddle the steep ground above ‘Free Derry’, the Catholic Bogside where British paratroopers in 1972 without provocation opened fire on unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers, killing 13 (a 14th person died later) and wounding 17 protesters in a massacre remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”

The murals and slogans painted on the walls and ramparts—“No Surrender”, “End The Torture”; “We Salute Those Who Gave Their Lives For Irish Freedom”—are a living testament to what divides the two cultures into segregated communities: one Protestant, British and Unionist; the other, Catholic, Irish and Republican.

As I think about this, someone whistles. The crowd claps, a cheer goes up, and a ruddy-faced version of Jimmy Breslin steps forward and screams into the mike, “It’s time for Frank!”

He’s dressed like a young Sinatra in a white-on-brown plaid sports jacket and fedora with the hat cocked and the brim turned down. He taps the mike; the crowd quiets as he fixes his gaze on the lady with the tallest beehive and sings, “I’ve got a crush on you…” She throws back her head; her face enveloped in a great smile. Her two friends nudge and jostle her.

As Sinatra croons “You do something to me…,” I look out at the blissful gathering, sparkling eyes, happy faces, people at the bar talking and laughing, small men dancing with large women, more joy and love than I’d ever seen in a church on Sunday.

Fergus comes over, taps me on the shoulder, and whispers, “To New Jersey,” referring to Sinatra’s home state.

Declan, who had disappeared when Frank began, returns with a white polo shirt. “Let me check the sizes. I couldn’t see in that cave-dark store room,” he explains. It’s extra-large, my size. As he hands it over to me, I could see a tear of joy in his eyes. “The club stocks the shirts, but we never sell our memories,” he says.

In June 2017, I returned to Derry with my granddaughter and grandson. We visited the Museum of Free Derry. The film clips on The Troubles were both personal and deeply moving, especially Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology on June 15, 2010, for what happened on Bloody Sunday. The Bogside was jubilant; the fallen finally remembered as victims, not perpetrators. In this sense Free Derry represents a future together as much as a past apart. .

Afterwards, we walk up Waterloo looking for Kate’s Bar. Uncertain, we ask around until I spot a pub called Castle Bar. For me, it’s still Kate’s.

When we enter, my commemorative polo shirt catches people’s attention. At the bar, I ask if anyone remembered Kate’s. “Yes,” an older fellow shouts while nudging his way forward. When he sees the polo shirt, he slowly bends his head, kisses the logo with the two names, and then praises me for bringing my grandkids, letting them know about The Troubles.

The mood is subdued; almost reverential. No one spoke. Words did not matter for the faces in that moment of silence simmered with the memory of tribal wrongs.

(Editor’s Note: Patrick Deery and Edward McSheffrey were among nearly 100 people killed in Northern Ireland in 1987. Nearly 3,600 violent deaths–nationalists, loyalists, British troops and innocent civilians– occurred during The Troubles, which lasted from 1968 to 1998.)

The worst of the Troubles ended nearly 20 years ago with Good Friday Agreement, but neighborhoods in Derry/Londonderry remain divided between Unionist/Loyalists, top, and Nationalists/Republicans, below. June 2017 photos by Dick Davis.

An Irish shrine in the heart of Baltimore

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at 918 Lemon St. in Baltimore.

I visited The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at the edge of downtown Baltimore.

The museum is dedicated to the tens of thousands of Irish who began immigrating to the city during the Great Famine and continued to the middle of the 20th century. Many worked at the nearby Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The museum is contained within two row houses typical of the West Baltimore neighborhood of the period. There is a nice introductory video narrated by Martin O’Malley, former Baltimore mayor (1999-2007) and Maryland governor (2007-2015) in the museum welcome center, which also contains artifacts from the nearby St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church (now a Baptist worship space) and B&O rail yards. The adjoining house is restored as a typical workers’s home of the period.

The Memorial Garden in the rear features the shrine mural by artist Wayne Nield. The image depicts three phases of the Irish experience: the famine of the 1840s (right), the treacherous voyage across the Atlantic (center) and the new life in America (left), where the predominantly rural immigrants remade themselves as city dwellers.

Museum Board Member Barry Larkin and Managing Director Luke McCusker were very friendly and informative during my visit. I hope to return soon.

The shrine mural by Wayne Nield.

The Manchester martyrs: From last letters to lasting legends

A few compelling “last letters” from prison before their 1867 execution helped turn three Irish rebels into the Manchester martyrs. Their story went viral 150 years ago this month, long before social media, and contributed to the rise of Irish nationalism through the late 19th and early 20th century.

Read my latest story for the Dublin-based Irish Story website.

 

Catholicism is still Ireland’s largest religion, but …

… the numbers of faithful keep on falling, according to 2016 Census data released 12 October. A few of the details:

  • Catholics were 78.3 percent of the population in April 2016, compared to 84.4 percent five years earlier.
  • The percentage of Catholics in Ireland peaked in 1961 at 94.9 percent.
  • Ireland’s 3,729,115 Catholics in 2016 was 132,220 fewer than 2011, while the nation’s total population grew by 173,613.
  • People born outside of Ireland were 12 percent of the country’s total Catholic population, the same as 2011. It was 7.2 percent in 2002.
  • The average age of Catholics was 38.2, slightly older than the general population 37.4.

These numbers require more exploration and context. Growing secularism and diversity are part of the reason. Church scandals are another. One place to start is this 2013 piece by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin:

A Post-Catholic Ireland?: Renewing the Irish church from within

The causes of the crisis lie within the church itself. Much of the heritage of Catholic-dominated Ireland still entraps us from being free witnesses to the Christian message within a secular society that is seeking meaning. It is not a time to be lamenting; it is a time to be rising to the challenge with courage and Christian enthusiasm.

U.S. Rep. Murphy’s downfall recalls that of C.S. Parnell

U.S. Congressman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) 5 October announced his resignation from office after details of his extramarital affair emerged from a divorce suit involving his mistress and her husband.

Sound a little familiar?

In 1890, Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stuart Parnell was brought down by the divorce proceedings of Capt. William O’Shea and his wife, Katherine. Parnell for years had been having an affair with the spouse of his House of Commons colleague. The revelation shattered his alliance with the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland and split his pro-Home Rule political movement.

Tim Murphy

In the contemporary case, the divorce filing revealed that Murphy urged his mistress to have an abortion when they believed she was pregnant. It turned out she was not with child, but Murphy’s public pro-life stance caused a firestorm of hypocrisy.

Parnell had three children with Kitty O’Shea before they were married in June 1891. He died four months later, age 45.

Eleven years earlier, Parnell addressed the U.S. Congress at the invitation of Speaker of the House Samuel Randall (D-Pa.). Parnell’s speech got a tepid reception, largely because he did not detail the Land War and Home Rule questions in Ireland.

Murphy received the 2011 Public Service Award from the American Ireland Fund for his support of its issues and causes. I haven’t found details of his ancestral heritage.

Last St. Patrick’s Day, Murphy was among eight Irish-American House members to co-sponsor legislation (H.R. 1596) to create a 23-member commission to study the creation of a National Museum of Irish American History in Washington, D.C. If the long-stalled project ever gets completed, I bet that Parnell’s visit will be part of the exhibition. I wouldn’t make the same wager on the soon-to-be former Congressman Murphy.

Debate begins on repealing Ireland’s abortion ban

Ireland will hold a national referendum by June 2018 on whether to repeal the constitutional amendment that bans most abortions. A referendum on removing blasphemy and “woman’s life within the home” language in the constitution is slated for next October. A third referendum on extending voting rights to Irish citizens living outside the Republic will take place in 2019.

“Any amendment to our Constitution requires careful consideration by the people,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in the government’s 26 September announcement. “They should be given ample time to consider the issues and to take part in well-informed public debate.”

Ironically, announcement of the abortion referendum comes about nine months before the vote, set to occur the same summer that Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.

Dáil Éireann, the national legislative assembly, still must fix the final dates and, more importantly, the language for the referendums. On the abortion issue, the outcome could turn on whether the language is considered too liberal, or still restrictive.

The debate kicked off 30 September, as about 30,000 people attended the annual “March for Choice” in Dublin. The New York Times reported:

The Eighth Amendment, passed in 1983, gives an unborn child a right to life equal to that of its mother. At the time, Ireland was seen as one of the most conservative Catholic nations in the world, but a series of church scandals and growing secularism have the country rethinking many of its government’s positions. The United Nations has called the amendment a violation of women’s rights.

In 2015, Ireland became the first nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular referendum, rather than through legislative or judicial orders. The Times suggested the marriage issue was less contentious than abortion, quoting one woman who said “it was something that no one was scared to speak out on, but this is a very personal thing that people are more hesitant to speak about,”

The Guardian said, “The religious right in the country, particularly lay Catholic groups, see the [abortion] referendum as their last chance to roll back 25 years of social liberal reform.”

March for Choice in Dublin, 30 September. Photograph by Dara Mac Dónaill, The Irish Times.

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.

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

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.

Northern Ireland ‘Journey’ nears critical bend in road

“The Journey,” a fictional “imagining” of the real-life partnership between unionist firebrand Dr. Ian Paisley and former IRA man Martin McGuinness, recently debuted in Washington, D.C., as part of its wider U.S. release.

The movie isn’t as awful as early reviews suggested last fall, though there is merit to that criticism. It’s worth seeing for those who follow Northern Ireland politics. The long, twisted history of the Troubles, and the actors’ thick accents, are probably too much for more casual viewers.

A line near the end of Colin Bateman’s screenplay caught my attention and could prove to be prescient in the coming weeks. It is spoken by McGuinness (Colm Meaney) to Paisely (Timothy Spall) as they are about to agree on the power-sharing deal that resulted in the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly:

This is our only opportunity to build something that will last, at least for our lifetime.

The real-life duo got the Assembly off the ground and developed such a close working relationship that they become known as  the chuckle brothers. Peace and progress flourished in Northern Ireland. But Paisley died in September 2014, and McGuinness died in March.

Now, the suspended Belfast Assembly is facing a 29 June deadline to reorganize, or the north could return to direct rule from Westminster. This matter is complicated by the Paisley-founded, pro-unionist DUP entering a Tory coalition to control the London Parliament, which will put Irish republicans on the defensive. This comes as the U.K. also begins to negotiate its exit from the European Union–Brexit–which threatens the return of a “hard border” between the north and the Republic.

At the same time, the annual Orange Order marching season, in which Protestants celebrate a 1690 military victory over Catholics, is getting underway and approaching its 12 July peak. The season always raises tensions between the two cultural and political communities in the north.

What could possibly go wrong?