Category Archives: Arts & Culture

Ireland’s Carnegie libraries commemorated with new stamps

Scotland-born industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie amassed an early 20th century steel industry fortune estimated at $309 billion in today’s money, more than double the $136 billion of Bill Gates’ software wealth. More importantly, Carnegie was “the father of modern philanthropy,” including the funding of 2,509 public libraries in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

In Ireland, 80 Carnegie library branches were opened between 1897 and 1913, a decade before the island’s political partition and civil war. Carnegie died 11 August 1919, at age 83.

The centenary of his death has prompted fresh reflections of his life. In Ireland, An Post has issued new stamps (above) that commemorate four of the libraries in the Republic: Kilkenny town, County Kilkenny; Clondalkin, County Dublin; Enniskerry, County Wicklow; and Athea, County Limerick.

“A characteristic of the Carnegie libraries is that, apart from their contribution to scholarship and learning, they were invariably housed in beautiful buildings – architectural ornaments in the towns and cities in which they were located,” Felix M. Larkin, chairman of An Post’s Philatelic Advisory Committee, said during the 14 August unveiling.

Larkin, a founding member of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland (See my November 2018 Q & A with him.), more broadly noted:

Felix Larkin speaking at the launch of the Carnegie library stamps in Dublin, 14 August 2019. Photo by Pól Ó Duibhir.

“Libraries are the foundation of all scholarship, where books, newspapers, photographs, prints and drawings – and now digital material too – are lovingly preserved for posterity. And they are preserved not only for use by the elite scholar laboring away in a university, in an ivory tower (so to speak), but for everyone with the curiosity to want to learn more about history, literature and a host of other things – or indeed just to enjoy the pleasure of reading and be enriched by it. Libraries are fundamentally democratic centers of learning, open to everyone – and free.”

Read Larkin’s full remarks.

As a native of Pittsburgh, where Carnegie made his fortune, I have mixed views of the man. On one hand, he was a captain of the era’s brutal, labor-crushing industrialism, including the bloody Homestead strike of 1892. On the other hand, Carnegie funded libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions in the region that directly contributed to my ability “to learn more about history, literature and a host of other things.”

One of the most satisfying accomplishments of my writing life is to have my book about my Irish immigrant grandfather placed in both the open stacks and reference sections of the main Carnegie branch in Pittsburgh … a place where I did some of the research. It is also a beautiful building.

Visiting Ireland 2019: In the west

We left the Antrim coast and Northern Ireland and drove back into the Republic, with stops in Sligo, then Westport.

The poet’s grave at Drumcliffe, County Sligo.

Sligo town at dusk.

Low tide at Aughris Head, Co. Sligo,on the Wild Atlantic Way. The iconic Benbulben is the darker summit at right. 

A relief on the base of statue of St. Patrick in Westport. This image shows the saint banishing the snakes from Ireland and using the shamrock to teach the Holy Trinity.

Between Achill Island and Westport on the Great Western Greenway hike and bike trail.

Back to Ireland as blog reaches seventh anniversary

This month marks the blog’s seventh anniversary, which is a good opportunity to thank readers for their interest in my work. I am grateful to my email subscribers; people who have written to me about the content; and those who help share it on social media. I’m also grateful to the archivists, librarians, and historians who have guided me along the way.

Please explore the site, including this year’s centennial project on American reporting of Irish independence in 1919; and earlier work such as Nora’s Sorrow and Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited, which each deal with the Land War period of the 1880s.

Other highlights include my St. Patrick Churches feature; Links and Places to Visit pages; and monthly and annual roundups.

My wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, has lovingly contributed to this effort as editor and webmaster. She and I will be traveling in Ireland and Northern Ireland over the next two weeks, and we will post words and images about the island’s natural beauty and contemporary culture.

Further ahead, I’ve been asked to present my Irish-related research at the American Journalism Historians Association‘s annual conference in Dallas; and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland annual conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Details coming this fall.

For now, thanks again for supporting the blog, and watch for our posts from Ireland. MH

Angie and I at the Marian Year, 1954, shrine in Lahardan townland, County Kerry, in 2012. My grandfather was a born near this hillside holy well in 1894.

Catching up with modern Ireland: June

We’ve reached the halfway point of 2019. My monthly roundup follows below. I will be in Ireland from late July through early August, posting about my travels. The monthly round up will return at the end of August. MH

  • My piece on Éamon de Valera‘s 1919 visit to Louisville, Kentucky, where he was drawn by up-and-coming caricaturist Wyncie King, was published on The Filson Historical Society Blog. The accompanying watercolor image probably has not been seen in 100 years.
  • Edward F. Crawford, 81, a wealthy Ohio businessman, was sworn in as the new U.S. ambassador to Ireland, more than two years after the Trump administration came into office.
  • “So let’s not wrap the death of “rural Ireland” in a shroud of nostalgia. Piety has never done the real rural Ireland any good. Dying worlds attract romantics and since “rural Ireland” has been dying for 170 years, it has been romanticised up to its neck,” Fintan O’Toole writes in a column for The Irish Times, part of a five-story exploration of rural Ireland.
  • New “mortality differentials” from the Central Statistics Office show Irish women live longer than men; marrieds longer than singles; professionals longer than unskilled workers; and Protestants longer than Catholics.
  • Fodor’s is dropping online and print references to Belfast’s political murals after the BBC suggested it guides pandered to damaging, unhelpful and unfair stereotypes of unionists. The guides described Catholic murals as “wildly romantic” and “aspire to the heights of Sistine Chapel-lite” while Protestant murals “resemble war comics without the humor.” The guides also said, “In Northern Ireland they say the Protestants make the money and the Catholics make the art.”

“King Billy” mural in Belfast, from my 2016 visit.

  • The Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) has secured one year of operational funding while it continues to look for long-term support. Ulster University announced earlier this year it was closing the highly-respected source of information about the Troubles and politics in Northern Ireland, drawing the ire of journalists, historians, and others.
  • Ivan Cooper, a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and civil rights leader in Northern Ireland, died at age 75.
  • TheJournal.ie has introduced an “Ireland 2029” podcast. The first episode explored whether Ireland (and the rest of the world) is ready for a four-day work week.
  • “A previously confidential government study detailing 142 areas of life in Northern Ireland that will be impacted by Brexit has been published, revealing risks to everything from cooperation on congenital heart disease and cross-border child protection to rules preventing the looting of national treasures,” The Guardian reported.
  • Niall Gibbons, the chief executive of Tourism Ireland, has rejected claims by the DUP’s Ian Paisley that the marketing agency favors the Republic of Ireland over Northern Ireland. Read Gibbons’ statement to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster.
  • Arranmore Island, three miles off the coast of County Donegal, is trying to attract immigrants to boost its dwindling population of fewer than 500 people. The community council is promoting the island’s high-speed internet service and laid-back lifestyle will attract knowledge workers to the remote local.

Árainn Mhór Island

Catching up with modern Ireland: May

I’ve been away most of the month working on long-term projects. Thanks for supporting our archived content. Here’s the monthly roundup. MH

  • U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on June 6 at Shannon Airport. Trump wanted the meeting at his Doonbeg golf resort in County Clare, where he will layover on his return from the U.K. earlier in the week. Varadkar wanted the meeting at Dromoland Castle Hotel, a neutral site that has hosted similar sessions with American leaders. Shannon was the compromise, Vox reports, citing the Washington Post. With Trump, of course, anything could happen. He scratched an announced November visit to Ireland.
  • Killarney National Park’s keystone oak woodlands are threatened by invasive rhododendron, The Irish Times warned. Earlier this year, wildfires damaged nearly 200 acres of heath and forest in or near the County Kerry park.
  • “Ireland has voted overwhelmingly to ease restrictions on divorce, taking another step toward liberalizing a Constitution that was once dominated by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church,” The New York Times reported after the measure was overwhelmingly passed in a May 24 referendum.
  • Thousands marched in Belfast to support same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, including the partner of slain journalist Lyra McKee.
  • In European Union and local elections, the Green Party made gains at the expense of Varadkar’s Fine Gael. So far, right-wing Euroskeptics have not reached the Irish ballot box. … A recount of 750,000 votes is underway for the MEP seat representing Ireland South will begin June 4 and could take the rest of the month, TheJournal.ie says.
  • An RTÉ story has detailed high turnover rates in the Irish Defense Forces.
  • Fáilte Ireland’s new €150 million “Platforms for Growth” initiative will “transform the tourism landscape across the country” CEO Paul Kelly said in a release. The first “platform” will focus on developing Immersive Heritage and Cultural Attractions that include more hands-on experiences to bring local culture and heritage to life.

The entrance of Trump’s Doonbeg golf course in County Clare during my July 2016 visit.

Irish film celebrates archives & ordinary lives

I  got to watch “Keepers of the Flame,” a 2018 documentary about some of the more than 85,000 people who in the 1920s applied for state pensions based on their actions in the 1916 Easter Rising, and the subsequent Irish War of Independence, and Irish Civil War. Only 18,000 received any money.

The Irish Military Service Pensions Archive became public in 2017. Most of the massive collection of government forms, personal letters, and related materials is available online.

“We need those archives, not just in Ireland, but everywhere. And we need those archives in order to come to some sort of an approximation of who we are are,” Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter says in the film. He co-wrote the script with director Nuala O’Connor.

Read the Irish Independent‘s 2018 interview for more of Ferriter’s views about the project.

The Irish pension archive, like the similar American Civil War archives that Damian Shiels has expertly mined for Irish immigrant stories, is remarkable because it contains fragments of so many lives forgotten in most historical accounts. 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,” Bill McDowell wrote in “Historical Research: A Guide for Writers of Dissertations, Theses, Articles and Books.”

Among some of my own works in this effort:

I leave debates about the “archival sliver” versus “total archives” to others. If you love exploring archives, as I do, you must see this film. As someone said after the screening I attended: panning shots of shelves of boxes in temperature-controlled rooms never looked so good.

Below, the official trailer for “Keepers of the Flame.”

The Irish question, April 1919

Below are three opinions about “the Irish question” published in mainstream U.S. newspapers at the end of April 1919. Each includes a nod to America’s role in solving the problem. The first and third selections represent the views of contemporary Irish politicians; the third is from the review of an Irish-themed play in New York City. MH

Stephen L. Gwynn was an Irish Parliamentary Party MP for Galway city from 1909-1918, and a British Army officer during the war. His moderate Irish nationalism had fallen from favor by the time he wrote this April 28, 1919, piece for the Universal Services newspaper syndicate.

Gwynn

The only thing certain about the present situation in Ireland is that it will not last. The phalanx of Ulster Unionist members remains unbroken … [but] nobody seriously believes that the country can be ruled in permanence, as at the present, through a military occupation in force. Even setting aside all the protestations which have been made about the freedom of nationalities, government through a garrison of 70,000 or 80,000 troops is too costly a method. … At present, neither Ulster nor the rest of Ireland believes any threat or any promise issued by Great Britain. And who can blame them? … If America cannot help, I see nothing ahead by chaotic ferment … 1

New York-born journalist Heywood Broun in the 1930s would help found the American Newspaper Guild (later The Newspaper Guild). As drama critic at the New York Tribune, he filed this April 1919 review about the debut of the play “Dark Rosaleen,” (after the 19th century poem by James Clarence Mangan), which closed in July after 87 performances.

None of the possibilities of the Irish question is allowed to go by the boards. Whenever the playwrights have been in any doubt as to what to do next they have almost invariably decided to let somebody say something about Ireland fettered or Ireland free. Pessimistic summaries of Ireland’s present state and optimistic prophecies are received with equal enthusiasm. Personally, we can see no good reason why Ireland should not be free, but at the same time we never have been able to understand the emotional stimulus which audiences of Irish extraction or sympathies seem to derive from the sight of a number of comic characters in the play sitting about and weeping in their beer for the wrongs of poor old Erin. We never could figure out just how this was supposed to help along the cause of self-determination for the mush distressed country. However, there seems to be no doubt that material of this sort is sure fire in the theater, and do it proved last night.2

American journalist Harold E. Bechtold, managing editor of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, interviewed Seán Thomas O’Kelly, Irish envoy to the Paris peace conference. He later became the second president of Ireland.

O’Kelly

I asked him what would happen if the peace conference did not take up the Irish question or refused to recognize Ireland’s claim of independence. “In that case,” O’Kelly said, “Ireland will use every means that human ingenuity can devise to make the British government impossible in Ireland. I am also satisfied that the war will be carried out into the enemy camp and that England will have brought home to her own doors in most unwelcome form, vivid evidence of the Irish antipathy to English rule. Arms have been storied in every town and village in Ireland. … Irish people in the United States … all love Ireland, and if I know them correctly they will work with all their power to help Ireland gain her freedom.”3

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

***

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.

***

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.”