By Peter McDermott
When Sergeant Raymond McGowan blew the whistle to start the 250th New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade he had a list of people on his mind. Top of it were two Irish immigrants who he knows would have been very proud of him.
“It would have been nice if my parents had been there to see it,” he said afterwards about the County Sligo-born James McGowan and the former Elizabeth Heaphy, who was from County Kerry.
“I think that they were there in spirit,” he said of the couple, who both died in the late 1990s.
McGowan also remembered on last Thursday the parents of his wife Mary, who is from Cloone, Co. Leitrim.
Next was his late friend Jimmy Fox, his first partner when he was a rookie cop almost 30 years ago. Fox, who was the son of parents from Leitrim and Westmeath, served for 40 years in the New York Police Department before his retirement 10 years ago. “The whistle I blew belonged to Jimmy,” he said of his former colleague who died recently after battling cancer.
The NYPD sergeant had a moment, too, for Detective Garda Gerry McCabe, who was killed by the IRA in 1996. He told the Kerryman newspaper last week that being in the store that was run by McCabe’s parents formed some of his happiest memories from his childhood visits to the county. “He was a dear friend to all of my family in Ballylongford,” he said of the murdered cop.
The large number of friends and relatives who made the trip from Ballylongford and its environs to see the New York parade this year was testament to the strong bonds that have been maintained over the decades.
When the young Elizabeth Heaphy departed the town, she was entrusted with plans for its community hall. “She gave those plans to the Kerry Association in New York City and the community in exile helped build the facility,” he said.
Kevin McGowan, who served as a detective with the Waterfront Commission’s police division for 28 years, said that his younger brother, a former president of the NYPD Emerald Society and a member of AOH Division 4, has kept up that commitment with his involvement with various Irish organizations.
“It’s a great honor for him in the 250th year of the parade and in his 30th year as a police officer,” said McGowan, whose wife Mercedes is from Tralee, Co. Kerry. “It’s was a great day, a beautiful day.”
The brothers’ immigrant father worked as a longshoreman before becoming a transit worker. When James McGowan retired, he was chairman of TWU Local 100.
Raymond McGowan went to high school at the Irish Christian Brothers-run Power Memorial and later graduated magna cum laude from Manhattan College. The highlights of his police career include being involved in the case that led to the imprisonment of mobsters who’d previously been acquitted of the murder Detective Anthony Venditti in Queens in the 1980s. He was a detective, too, in the case that put John Gotti’s son-in-law behind bars.
But for McGowan — whose daughter Clodagh works with NY1 and son Seamus will begin at John Jay College in the fall — blowing the whistle on March 17, 2011, will be a pretty memorable day to look back on following his planned retirement next January.
“The crowds were larger than I’d seen in many years,” said Sergeant McGowan, who walked up the avenue with the board of officers of the Emerald Society. “I thought there was a great atmosphere.”
By Peter McDermott
The Dublin-born Harvard scholar who once called Hillary Clinton a “monster” has become an ally of the secretary of state in the camp arguing for U.S. intervention in the Libyan crisis.
Samantha Power apologized and resigned three years ago from then Senator Obama’s campaign when comments she made about his Democratic primary opponent were published in the Scotsman newspaper. She was at the time on a tour in Ireland and Britain promoting her biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who was murdered in a suicide attack in Baghdad in August 2003.
The Power furor was soon forgotten, and there was little media comment when following the General Election she was appointed to the National Security Council staff as special assistant to the president. She also runs the Office of Human Rights and Multilateral Affairs at the NSC.
Now, the Irishwoman has come to prominence again as part of a trio of officials – the third being Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice – that has won out over more cautious, and ideologically more conservative, male colleagues like Robert Gates and Homeland Security Advisor John O. Brennan, who is himself the son of Irish immigrants.
The Guardian editorialized on Monday: “The hand-wringing in the White House stopped when she [Clinton] changed sides in the debate, abandoning Robert Gates, the defense secretary, and joining Samantha Power, a senior aide at the national security council, and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Ms Rice was an African specialist and adviser to Bill Clinton when the U.S. failed to intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda.”
Power first became nationally known for her book ‘The Problem from Hell': America and the Age of Genocide, which describes the Rwandan tragedy and four other instances in which the U.S. and the Western powers were unwilling to intervene to prevent the mass slaughter of civilians. (The first part of the title was from a quote by a previous Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who died on Friday.)
The author explained to the Echo in 2003 that her publishers had suggested a polemical essay on the subject, but she believed that a more substantial work would have much greater impact in policy circles. The book won the Pulitizer Prize for General Non-Fiction that year.
Just last week, a commentator in the journal Foreign Policy, Jamie M. Fly, cited the book as “one of the most eloquent rebuttals to these recurring claims for nonintervention” in cases where states attacked their own citizens.
Power, who was born in 1970, left Ireland when she was 9 following the breakup of her parents’ marriage. She and her brother made regular summer trips back to stay with their father in Dublin and, when he died, with their grandfather in County Wicklow. Her mother and stepfather, who is an Irish-born medical doctor, live in Yonkers, N.Y.
The scholar married Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, who is also now an official in the Obama Administration, in a ceremony in County Kerry on July 4, 2008. Power gave birth to their first child, Declan, the following year.
By Peter McDermott
Jill Callan has been seeing her business from different angles in recent times. A designer of children’s clothes for 17 years in Manhattan, she opened her own store, Petunia, in Sunnyside, Queens, on Sept. 15 last.
“The merchandising and buying were on the flip side for me,” she said.
And since the birth of her daughter 18 months ago, she’s been a consumer, too.
“That gives you a whole new perspective,” said the storeowner, whose barman husband Brian Callan is a native of County Meath.
With the rolling layoffs from the big firms, Callan could see the writing on the wall. So she decided on a backup plan that was based on a long-held dream. “I always wanted to work for myself,” she said.
However, she hasn’t had the time to do much designing herself. She relies instead on a network of contacts, 10 to 15 designers whose work she has come to know and admire over the years. They are based throughout the United States, from the South up to Vermont and across to her native Midwest and beyond.
“I wanted a place where the talented independent had a forum for their work,” she said of the store that is on the tree-lined shopping block between 46th and 47th Streets on Skillman Avenue.
There is an emphasis on work that appeals to her, which she defines as “one of a kind, not the usual.”
Callan, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., near the border with Canada, has to say “no” sometimes. “For example a lot of people knit, but you can’t have a store full of sweaters,” she said. “You have to pick and choose.”
Petunia has some high-end imports from Spain, France and Australia that can be found in only a few stores in New York. Its owner’s ultimate goal is to have stock that is entirely the work of American designers and is unique to her boutique in the five boroughs.
The Central Michigan University graduate believes that the changes brought by computerization haven’t all been good.
“It’s taken a lot of artistry out of it,” said Petunia’s owner, who is of Finnish, Polish and Italian heritage. “There’s less focus on the actual artist’s work, which I definitely want to get back to.”
In any case, there is a ready market for quality clothes in neighborhood streets that were heavily Irish from the 1980s onward and have in more recent years attracted young families from a variety of backgrounds. (A Yahoo group called “Sunny Moms” has more than 500 members, Callan reported.)
The average price in the store is $25, she said, and there is a “gently worn” section, which starts at $1.50 and goes up to rather more expensive selections.
Petunia’s stock caters for newborn infants through 8-year-olds. “But that depends on the size of the kid,” Callan said, with a laugh. Its website says that it “aims to appeal to everyone from the neighborhood’s littlest hipsters to tried and true Sunnyside grandmas who are looking for a cute one of a kind gift.”
Meanwhile, the Callans’ daughter Olivia – middle name Niamh – is getting to the stage where she’s picking out her own clothes. Her style tends towards “comfortable,” her mother said. “Something that fits over her head.”
For more information go to www.petuniababies.com.
By Peter McDermott
It was mainly humans, lots of them, that turned out for the opening of the Mascot Studio’s 12th Annual Dog Show recently. So many indeed that they spilled out from the small store onto the East 9th Street sidewalk.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how it’s come together,” said owner Peter McCaffrey about this year’s exhibition of canine-themed art.
There are offerings from nationally known artists Rodney Greenblat and Mark Ulriksen, who submitted a print of a dog-themed cartoon of his from the cover of the New Yorker.
There’s also a print of the winning poster for the Westminster Dog Show. That’s available on the Westminster’s website, so perhaps a more interesting item from the point of view of the collector is the runner-up’s submission, which isn’t. “She’s a bone fide dog portrait artist,” McCaffrey said of the 2nd-placed poster maker.
“There’s a core group of people who’ve been showing the whole 12 years,” said the Dublin-born, Long Island-raised artist and storeowner.
They in turn recommended others; a third group of artists has stumbled upon the Annual Dog Show and yet another group has heard about it as it’s gotten more famous.
Mascot Studio, the main business of which is custom framing, has a lot of art concerned with man’s best friend year round; in the springtime, however, said McCaffrey, “it’s even more doggie than normal.”
The Annual Dog Show will continue through the end of March. For more information go to www.mascotstudio.com
By John McCarthy
The recent election in Ireland marks the first time that Fine Gael won the largest number of Dáil seats. During all the six times the party had previously been in power, it was as the senior member of coalition governments. Each time Fianna Fáil, in opposition, had remained the largest party. That explains why those coalition governments all had only a single term.
Before predicting the survival of the new Fine Gael-led coalition, it might be appropriate to look at party’s history and actual experience in government.
The party, whose name means “The Family of the Gaels”, came into being in 1933 following the failure of the Cumann na nGaedheal Party in two successive national elections. It was an amalgamation of Cumann na nGaedheal (the governing party in the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1932), the Centre Party (primarily the old parliamentary nationalist party), and the National Guard.
The last named group, originally named the Army Comrades Association, consisted of former army officers who were apprehensive of retaliatory action by the Fianna Fáil government that, at least in its early stages, seemed especially tolerant of the IRA. The same anxiety prompted the members to act as a protective force for meetings of Cumann na nGaedheal during which they wore identifying “Blueshirts”, for which practice they were nicknamed.
The first leader of the party was General Eoin O’Duffy , deputy chief of staff in the IRA in the War of Independence, Chief of Staff in the Free State Army in the Civil War, and Commissioner of the newly formed Garda Siochana in the Free State. When dismissed by de Valera from that post 1933, he became leader of the Army Comrades Association.
O’Duffy’s extremist political style and the deplorable performance by Fine Gael in early 1934 local government elections resulted in his replacement as leader of Fine Gael by William T. Cosgrave, who had presided over the Irish Free State for the first decade of the nation’s independence.
For the next decade, Cosgrave led an opposition that saw its ranks diminishing as de Valera consolidated his position among the small farmer, the worker, and increasingly the propertied, especially newer entrepreneurs taking advantage of strong protectionist policies.
He was succeeded as party leader in 1943 by Richard Mulcahy, the Chief of Staff of the IRA during the War of Independence, and Minister for Defense in the Free State Government during the Civil War.
A February 1948 election resulted in a curious coalition government of anti-Fianna Fáil groups including Fine Gael, the Labour Party, a more conservative National Labour Party, a small farmers’ party, Clann na Talmhan, and a new radical party, Clann na Poblachta, led by the former IRA Chief of Staff, Sean MacBride. This coalition advanced a socially radical and nationalist program by constitutional means.
Embittered memories from the Civil War made Mulcahy unacceptable as Taoiseach to Clann naPoblachta. The position was taken by John A. Costello, a barrister who had been attorney general in the Cumann na nGaedheal government.
The government included such Cumann na nGaedheal stalwarts as Patrick J.McGilligan as Minister for Finance, Seán MacEoin as Minister for Justice, and Mulcahy as Minister for Education. Sean MacBride became Minister for Foreign Affairs.
The short-lived government of three years was memorable for two issues. In late 1948, Costello announced his intention to introduce legislation to withdraw from the British Commonwealth.
At the time, Irish diplomatic credentials had to be endorsed by the king as head of the Commonwealth. That last link was removed when Ireland was declared a republic on Easter Monday, 1949.
The other memorable issue was the Mother and Child controversy. Legislation was proposed by Dr. Noel Browne, minister for health, to provide non-means tested obstetrical and pediatric care. The Catholic hierarchy objected from concern over state intrusion on familial matters involving specific moral issues.
The medical profession also opposed the measure from fear of a reduction in their income for such services. The entire cabinet, including MacBride, washed their hands of Browne and his proposal. Costello was uninhibited in indicating his willingness to abide by the direction of the hierarchy.
Secession from support of the coalition government by three independents caused the government’s fall. De Valera returned to power in the June 1951 election, even though his party had gained only one seat, while Fine Gael gained nine.
Further gains by Fine Gael and a reunited Labour Party brought the coalition back into power in 1954. Costello was again taoiseach. Liam Cosgrave, the son of the former party leader, became foreign minister and directed Ireland’s entrance into the United Nations and its subsequent activist role in that body.
The 1950s were a period of economic stagnation for Ireland, regardless of who was in power. However, the coalition governments did have some innovative programs such as the Industrial Development Authority. But more characteristic of the era was the government retrenchment and fiscal rigidity.
The second coalition employed internment in response to the IRA armed campaign that began in 1956. Although the government was successful in curbing that campaign, Sinn Féin won five seats and Fianna Fáil gained an absolute majority in a 1957 election.
The leader of Fine Gael from 1959 to 1965 was John Dillon. He was the son of the Home Rule Party figure, John Dillon, and grandson of the Young Irelander, John Blake Dillon, and had served as minister for agriculture. He had left the party during World War II because of criticism of his advocacy of neutral Ireland’s joining the Allies.
Liam Cosgrave succeeded as party leader in 1965 and led a coalition government with Labour that was elected in 1973. That government included such luminaries as the relatively young Garret FitzGerald, son of a Cumann na nGaedheal minister, Desmond FitzGerald, as minister for foreign affairs; Richard Ryan as minister for finance, and Conor Cruise O’Brien (Labour) as minister for posts and telegraphs.
While Cosgrave was socially and economically conservative, his government included a Young Turk element in Fine Gael espousing a program of social justice. The government was mainly taken up with an economic downturn and an intensified Northern Ireland crisis.
An interesting by-election at this time was the return in November 1975 of a young teacher from County Mayo named Enda Kenny, who took the seat held by his deceased father.
One of the most memorable achievements of this government was its negotiating the short-lived Sunningdale Agreement in 1973, the first effort at power sharing in Northern Ireland. This, along with the subsequent Hillsborough Agreement, negotiated by another Fine Gael-Labour coalition government in 1985, emphasized the necessity for cross community consent for any political settlement for Northern Ireland.
In addition to the Sunningdale negotiations, foreign minister Garrett FitzGerald was a central figure in the new role Ireland came to play in the European Common Market, which she had joined the year before the formation of the coalition government.
Economic problems and utopian promises by Fianna Fáil – an Irish version of supply side economics – defeated the coalition in the 1977 election. Cosgrave’s place as Fine Gael leader was taken by Garret FitzGerald.
Coming to power briefly during the hunger strikes in 1981, a FitzGerald led coalition with Labour was forced out by an independent’s objection to taxation on children’s shoes. Only a few months later, they were returned to power following a similar dissent by other independents from a measure advanced by Fianna Fáil taoiseach, Charles Haughey.
That second FitzGerald-led coalition lasted until a February 1987 election, when economic doldrums, including high emigration for the first time since the 1950s, and severe fiscal imbalance due to the pressure of their over generous Labour coalition partner, brought Fianna Fáil back to power.
The last time Fine Gael led a coalition government was in 1994 to 1997. For the only time in Irish history, a government was formed that was not the result of an election. Labour withdrawal from a coalition with Fianna Fáil, formed after the 1992 election, resulted in a lack of a majority for the government.
Labour then joined a new coalition with Fine Gael and the Democratic Left, a breakaway from the Workers Party, previously known as Official Sinn Féin.
The taoiseach in what would be nicknamed the Rainbow Coalition was John Bruton. Previously a minister for finance, Bruton had taken over the leadership of Fine Gael in 1990 from Alan Dukes, the successor to FitzGerald. Dukes lost some favor in the party with his “Tallaght Strategy” of cooperating with the economic program of Charles Haughey, who was implementing the essential cutbacks on programs he had early advocated.
As taoiseach, Bruton had to give leeway to his lef twing partners, as free third level education began and a constitutional amendment permitting divorce was narrowly passed. The coalition greatly reduced corporate taxes, balanced the budget, and jump started a strong economic recovery.
However, the coalition lost the 1997 election because Labour’s presence in the Dáil was almost halved, even though Fine Gael numbers had increased by nine, the same as Fianna Fáil.
The new Fine Gael-Labour coalition differs from all the earlier ones in that each partner has more votes than Fianna Fáil, who, even though having only twenty seats, will be the leading opposition party.
Even in the unlikely eventuality of its combining with such other opposition groups like Sinn Féin (14 seats) and some of the 19 other diversely-minded deputies, Fianna Fáil offers no danger to the coalition.
The greatest danger would come from division within the coalition itself, especially as differences in principle might eventually prove stronger than the attractions of office.
By Peter McDermott
Enda Kenny was elected taoiseach last week with the backing of 117 TDs and just 27 opposing. That vote recalled another whopping Dáil margin in the fall of 2008 – 124 to 18, on the decision to guarantee the banks’ losses.
All of the 18 were Labour TDs, whose leader Eamon Gilmore said that the guarantee amounted to the biggest welfare check in history. During the recent campaign, the Labour Party ran an ad depicting Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Green and Sinn Féin TDs as sheep who’d been herded into a bad decision.
Then come the day of the election count, the newscasters and analysts talked about a “watershed” election after which nothing would be the same. They even mentioned “realignment,” but not the one that’s been hoped for by the left for generations. There simply wasn’t the great breakthrough for Labour that some of its adherents had hoped for and thought it deserved.
The election was indeed “historic,” given the collapse of the Fianna Fáil vote to 17.4 percent from 41.6 in 2007. The big question for the commentariat was whether that party, which had governed Ireland aside from occasional breaks since 1932, could ever again be reconstructed as a major force. The consensus seemed to be a negative one from Fianna Fail’s perspective: its best hope was to remarket itself as a “niche” party.
Labour itself was once a niche party in a conservative country, drawing support mainly from left-leaning workers in Dublin and farm laborers in Leinster. It has routinely fallen well short of its desire to become much more than that, but has also defied the worst prognoses of others.
On Feb. 25, 2011, the party did better than its rivals in one particular category – the increase in share of the first-preference vote since the last general election. It had a swing of 9.3 percentage points to 19.4 percent (winning 37 seats), whereas Fine Gael’s was 8.8 percent to 36.1. Then came the inevitable deal between the two.
Charlie Haughey, that great expert on ethical matters, once commented that when Labour wrestled with its conscience Labour always won. That is: rather than resisting the lures of office and staying in opposition to build its forces, it would always accept ministries in a Fine Gael-led government. However, when Haughey was safely gone, it did share power with Fianna Fáil. That was after the 1992 election – the last time it got close to the 20 percent mark.
Labour shifted gears in 1994 and changed the government without the benefit of an election by cobbling together an alliance with Fine Gael and Democratic Left (of which Gilmore and his immediate predecessor as Labour leader, the new communications minister Pat Rabbitte, were members).
This time, there were calls by one union leader for Labour to keep “its nerve” and lead in opposition a left bloc, which would include those independents close to it, Sinn Fein and the five-seat United Left Alliance.
But the last thing most other union leaders – and most voters — wanted was Fine Gael governing with the help of right-wing independents. Instead, what they did get, a “national government” of sorts, has already lifted spirits in a demoralized nation.
The anti-coalition argument within Labour was always rigorously logical, but it ran up against one important impulse: senior politicians want to serve at cabinet and sub-cabinet levels. (Note how the crooked Haughey portrayed the desire of clean politicians to get things done as somehow morally suspect.) And Labour’s elected representatives get less opportunity than many of their socialist counterparts in Europe. For instance, the new government’s deputy head, who turns 56 next month, had no cabinet experience before last week. Now Eamon Gilmore joins that illustrious band of former student radicals who’ve become foreign ministers.
Some critical voices were raised at his party’s special conference last Sunday, but the deal went through with ease. Changes in demographics and the world economy over the past few decades left social democracy everywhere scrambling for coherence and in Ireland forced Labour to worry more about survival and less about the appropriateness of coalition with parties to its right.
The tendency of center-left parties has been to travel light ideologically lest too many specific policies provide easy targets for the right, while still emphasizing social protection and egalitarianism. (British Labour politician Gerald Kaufman famously referred to his party’s left-wing manifesto in the 1983 election as the “longest suicide note in history.”)
Yet, it’s obvious enough that an urbanized, secularized Ireland has moved left. That can even be seen in the composition of Labour’s top leadership. Gilmore and Rabbitte started their electoral careers with the Workers Party. Joan Burton, who grew up in a working-class Dublin neighborhood, cut her political teeth as a Labour left-winger, and the new “super junior minister” from Longford-Westmeath Willie Penrose, who will sit in on cabinet meetings, also began his career on the party’s anti-coalition wing. Of the new Labour ministers only Ruairi Quinn and Brendan Howlin came from the party’s old guard. Even the allocation of junior ministries has favored those with Labour left and Democratic Left backgrounds.
And what of the other elements in a potential left bloc? Sinn Féin, now with 14 seats, is still very much in the process of defining itself in the South. It made significant gains, jumping from 6.9 to 9.9 percent of the first-preference vote, but failed to increase its support in Dublin since the last local elections. It has situated itself on the left of Labour on the economy, though the latter is still perceived as by far the most socially liberal of Ireland’s parties.
Some of Sinn Féin’s leaders might now wonder if moving to a populist centrist position would be the best course for their party. There, it could more effectively compete with Fianna Fáil as it tries to win back votes that went to Fine Gael and independents on Feb. 25. However, while vote maximization might aid its all-Ireland perspective, many among the rank and file in the Republic would likely resist such a shift.
Then there is the United Left Alliance, which is essentially a coalition of two rival Trotskyist parties. It would be a highly unstable element in any left bloc that’s seeking to position itself as a government in waiting. The ULA, for instance, would refuse any discussion of participation in a coalition that involved Fianna Fáil, even as a very junior partner.
One suspects that while Sinn Féin will make common cause with independents of varying hues, especially those who might otherwise be close to Labour, they will very soon get tired of the ULA.
The opposition left promise battles on property taxes. Yet, supporters of the government could argue such taxes are progressive, unlike sales taxes, which Fine Gael favors. Another “stealth” tax are water charges – which Labour has flip flopped on. Policies in that area, including the installation of meters, would bring Ireland in line with other European countries.
The more general criticism that this new government represents more of the same in terms of austerity will have greater resonance. So, Labour’s leaders will hope that, for once, the voters find the argument that things would be a lot worse if they weren’t in government a compelling one.
Junior partners in government can get punished badly by their erstwhile voters. Labour knows that well from its own past and as do politicians associated with Fianna Fáil’s most recent collaborators, the Progressive Democrats and the Greens.
A lot depends on the government’s ability to project itself as a reforming and competent administration, in contrast to the last one – a “national government” that’s doing all it can in a crisis not of its making. Meanwhile, Labour members will want their party to develop its own voice in government, notwithstanding the principle of collective responsibility, one that is fighting for the interests of its voters.
Their party has one psychological advantage that it didn’t have before: it’s the largest in the Dublin area, where it has two seats in almost in every constituency. Those newly minted members of the Dáil will be aware that realigning Irish politics depends on their solidifying and even extending their base in the capital. And while they know that both the far left and Sinn Féin are fully expecting to make gains at their expense, they will be as concerned about any revival of a party that was all but wiped out. Finishing off Fianna Fáil in Dublin for good might be all the motivation that Labour needs.
By Peter McDermott
Artist John Spinks has called his work showing at the Brooklyn Public Library a “conversation with a dead man.”
“Letters from Wallsend” are full of news about soccer, the weather and the family back in the Northeast of England.
When the day came for the artist to ask his parent if he could read those letters that he’d sent him back from New York, he was very disappointed to hear that they’d been consigned to the fire.
“He was of a generation,” he said of Cecil Spinks who died in Newcastle in 1992.
“I was going through a divorce and so on,” the artist added, explaining his widowed father didn’t want discussion of such things lying around.
However, the older man’s letters to America are routinely incorporated into his Irish-born son’s art.
“It’s my revenge,” Spinks said.
In contrast to his father, he said, his mother, a nurse by profession, only ever wrote the same letter: “Say your prayers and keep off the drink.”
Lucy Sheedy met her future husband when she was nursing his mother. Her first successful pregnancy, after two miscarriages, led to the 1946 birth of the future artist. She was in her native Ennis, Co. Clare, at the time. “It was just for the confinement,” said John Spinks, who will become a grandfather later this year. The family moved on, first to Surrey and then to his father’s native Northeast. “But there was six weeks every year back in Clare,” he said. “And I did Irish dancing in Newcastle. Everybody we knew seemed to be Irish.”
Meanwhile his father inculcated in him a passion for Newcastle United, which won the FA Cup in 1951, 1952 and 1955, and although the club has done little to justify hero-worship in the intervening decades, he still sees almost every game on TV.
The elder Spinks, who joined the army in his mid-teens in the 1920s and was mobilized again at the beginning of World War II, worked in positions in stores that were beneath his intellectual abilities, according to his son.
“He was a voracious reader,” John Spinks said. “Particularly books about nature. He was a countryman in his sensibility.”
These days by way of tribute, he places his father’s handwritten lines alongside printed text from some of the masters of English literature. “I like to put him in with heavy hitters like Dafoe and Beckett,” he said.
The exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library – which features also the work of some of the borough’s leading photographers and a book-cover artist and writer – also gave Spinks the opportunity to cooperate with some long-time friends in his old neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“For 17 years, I had a studio in Dumbo. This was long before gentrification,” he said. “There’s a pizza place down there near Gleason’s Gym run by the Leonardi brothers – old-school Brooklyn Italians. I loved those guys and it was reciprocal.”
“And when the neighborhood changed, they were still there keepin’ it real,” he said.
Spinks moved south to a new studio in Clinton Hill, where he now lives with his wife Andrea, but he kept in touch with the Leonardis.
“Every Christmas, I’d take them a ‘pizza’ that I’d made. These were tondos — 12-inch round paintings/collages with a composition roughly built around ‘slices’ of imagery. I’d deliver them in a pizza box. It became a ritual.
“Anyway, last time I made one using envelopes my dad had sent me over the years showing various addresses I’d lived in the city. I combined this with slices of map showing their Front Street location,” Spinks said.
He thought it a good idea to include that most recent “pizza” for the library exhibit with the note underneath saying “From the collection of the Leonardi family.”
“The lads were delighted to lend the work back to me until April,” he said.
Another social contact led to his current commission. One Saturday, while watching a Premier League game in Mr. Dennehy’s bar on Manhattan’s Carmine Street, he struck up a conversation with the staunch Everton supporter sitting beside him. James Reynolds, an Irish American, told him about his letters from his granduncle in Donegal, Henry McCandless.
“I told him I’d definitely have a look at them,” he recalled.
Spinks liked what Reynolds showed him. “There are a lot of good one-liners,” he said. “I knew my father very well, so it’s exciting watching another personality, someone I didn’t know, take shape from these letters.
“I’m having a ball with it,” Spinks said.
“Letters from Wallsend” is on view through April 9 at Brooklyn Public Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza. John Spinks’s web site is www.newpainters.com.
By Peter McDermott
Back in the latter half of the 1980s when novelist Kevin Holohan had his first real job, he discovered he had something in common with his boss. The latter, who was the manager-owner of an English-language school in Spain’s La Mancha region and a married father of two young sons, would trade stories with his young employee about their respective school days.
They recalled the misery, the grimness of it all, the brutality, the drudgery and, Holohan said, “the general joylessness with which they ground you through the whole process.”
“They” referred to the Irish Christian Brothers. Both men had spent their formative years in Dublin at schools run and staffed by the religious order.
The most positive aspect of the experience, Holohan believes now, was the camaraderie it induced in the students.
“As Mel Brooks says, your best defense against these people is to make fun of them,” he said. And that survival technique is the starting point for “The Brothers’ Lot,” his debut novel published this month.
“I tried to write outrage. It was too harsh,” said Holohan, who lives with his wife and young son in Brooklyn.
The book he did eventually write is “mordantly funny” according to a review in Publishers’ Weekly. In advance praise, novelist Tim McLaughlin agreed with the adjective, though substituted the adverb “screamingly,” while another, Preston L. Allen, used “wickedly.”
It’s no surprise, then, that fellow University College Dublin graduate Joseph O’Connor suggested Holohan’s fictional world shows the influences of both Flann O’Brien and Monty Python. “The Brothers’ Lot” author agreed and added the name of writer Mervyn Peake.
Holohan said that his “allegorical satire,” which is set in Dublin during some unspecified post-World War II decade, is only “very slightly based” on his own experience. However, it’s clear that a significant percentage of adult Irish males would recognize the Brothers of Godly Coercion School for Young Boys of Meager Means.
He knew from comparing notes with his boss in Spain, who went to a school on the south side of Dublin, and his only siblings, brothers 14 and 10 years his senior, who preceded him to O’Connell Schools in the North Inner City, that the Christian Brothers’ repression had only eased slightly over the decades.
“A lot of things were fairly static; they hadn’t changed,” he said. “The similarities were really striking. Corporal punishment, sarcasm and belittlement were the norm.
“Even in the 1970s and ’80s there was this weird feeling that there was an apparatus underneath the surface, and that if you really screwed up you could get into that machinery and you could conceivably end up somewhere like Letterfrack,” said Holohan, referring to one of the most notorious of the Christian Brothers-run industrial schools. “It was always dangled there as a possibility.
“It should be possible to educate kids without them having a pit of dread in their stomachs. I remember feeling that. Not every day: there were some days you didn’t care,” Holohan said.
By mid-century, the Christian Brothers had reached the apex of their prestige. They were credited with having educated the revolutionary generation — including future heads of government like W.T. Cosgrave and Sean Lemass, and a head of state, President Sean T. O’Kelly — as well as most of the country’s administrators.
The newly independent state in 1922 had given the order every encouragement in continuing its role of educating boys from the lower middle-classes and the more prosperous sections of the working class. It was left to the more exclusive schools run by priestly orders such as the Jesuits and the Holy Ghost Fathers to train people for the professions.
The Christian Brothers stuck rigidly to their task and seemed unable to adapt to changing times. “The attitude was: the smart ones will go into the civil service or the ESB and the others will get a trade or become messenger boys,” Holohan said. There seemed little real encouragement for boys to aspire to a college education. By the same token, he added, the brothers resented the extension of free education to high schools because it meant bringing in “the gurriers from the flats in the surrounding streets.”
The novelist said: “They believed that throwing Latin and physics at these kids was a complete waste of time, but they did it anyway.”
But then the brothers sometimes gave the impression that educating anybody was almost too much work. His parents heard at a PTA meeting that their middle son’s class was “worthless and unteachable.” Holohan’s father, a civil servant, said: “If that’s what you’re saying about an entire group of young men, then you need to question the teaching that’s going on here.”
In the post-1960s era, parents were increasingly more likely to demand accountability, but in crucial respects they were from similar backgrounds and shared the worldview of the Christian Brothers. Holohan’s late father was a native of County Laois, while his mother is from County Tipperary.
“They were transplants who were never fully comfortable in Dublin,” he said. “I think that was fairly common at the time.”
For young city people, it seemed that all authority figures were from the country. “It was if a garrison of cops, priests and teachers had been sent to re-Gaelicize the Pale,” Holohan said. “It was if we weren’t Irish enough or not Irish in the right way.
“It was a Catholic nationalism that was starting to implode, but its effects were still quite corrosive,” he said.
For the novelist, the Christian Brothers were themselves victims of the system. They’d been plucked from their home environments at age 14 in most cases and could not return for seven years, though their parents could visit them.
“But there were teachers who lived in the real world who had children themselves who should have known better than to subscribe to this,” he said.
“In a twisted way it was character building,” said the novelist whose closest friendships date from his school days, “but that character might have been built in less stressful ways.
“I came out of it literate and numerate,” Holohan said. “It should have been achieved with less trauma and pain.”
“The Brothers’ Lot” ($15.95) is published in paperback by Akashic Books.
PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT
By Ray O’Hanlon
Many supporters of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade felt inclined to boo the city’s decision to reduce the length of the March 17 parade of parades, this despite the fact that this year’s is the landmark 250th such gathering in honor of St. Patrick.
But the biggest boo this year could well end up being directed at the New York City Department of Education, which has mandated citywide high school level parent teacher meetings beginning at 6 p.m. on the evening of the 17th.
This means that the many city teachers of Irish heritage, and there are indeed many, will have scant opportunity to celebrate the big day given that it’s not an official holiday to begin with.
“We will be working then working,” said one teacher who preferred not to be identified.
Unlike many public school kids who take a “sick” day to attend the Manhattan parade, teachers turn up for work on a day that is arguably the biggest unofficial holiday in the city, and indeed nation.
Now it will be classes followed by the meetings which are listed by the DOE to continue until 8.30 p.m. and could well last longer
“This was unnecessary,” said the unhappy teacher. “It would not have happened to any other ethnic or racial group,” he said before confirming that he would play by the rules and show up at his school.
The teacher said he was still hopeful that schools chancellor Cathie Black, who is Chicago-born of Irish heritage, might move the meetings to another night.
Books / By Peter McDermott
If there were to be a designated literary crossroads of America, then the junction at Fulton Street and South Portland Avenue in Brooklyn would be a leading contender. Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting opened Greenlight Bookstore there in the heart of a borough known both for its literary roots and also for its living authors.
Several reside in historic Fort Greene, which nowadays is a vibrant, racially integrated neighborhood. Among them is the Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri and Jennifer Egan, whose critically acclaimed “A Visit of from the Goon Squad” was launched at Greenlight last summer.
Now it’s the turn of Dubliner Kevin Holohan, a neighborhood customer, whose debut novel “The Brothers’ Lot” will be launched at the store on Thursday evening of next week.
“Greenlight is a welcoming, vital and vibrant part of Fort Greene,” Holohan said. “Its thoughtful and eclectic book selections make it possible to still stumble across something fascinating and unexpected.”
Browsing is one of the joys of the bookstore that the online experience can’t replicate and just one reason why Greenlight’s founders are optimistic about the future of the independents in the era of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
There are, of course, skeptics, including one writer, a fan, in the Village Voice who said the “idea of opening a bookstore is akin to opening a typewriter shop at the beginning of the dot-com era.”
The difference is that the people of Fort Greene didn’t ask for a typewriter shop, but they did say in surveys that they needed a bookstore.
Bagnulo, who lives in the neighborhood with her husband Michael, rose to the challenge. She and Fitting announced their business plan in the fall of 2008. Then the crash hit, putting paid to their chances of getting a bank loan. So they reached out to people in the community. They raised $70,000 in small loans and added that to their personal savings, a grant from the Brooklyn library system and a $346,000 loan from the World Trade Center Small Business Recovery Fund.
“For every $100 you spend at an independently owned business, $68 will stay in the community,” says the Greenlight Bookstore website. “Did you know that when you spend the same amount at a national chain, only $43 stays in the community?”
Bagnulo isn’t looking for just any sort of loyalty. “We don’t want people to come because they feel that they should,” she said. “We want to give them a very good experience.”
The California native combined the best practices of the previous bookstores she’d worked in. “The same with Rebecca,” she said of her partner who had a career as a sales representative with Random House.
“We wanted to create a beautiful space where people could feel a sense of community and connection,” she said.
That space is 2,000 square feet, a manageable “human scale,” said Bagnulo, not a warehouse-like outlet favored by the chains, but not too small either.
“The old model of clutter had its charm,” she said, “But in a new store everything has to be accessible and in the right place.
“We were committed to the idea that you have to run a bookstore as a business. It’s not a hobby,” she added.
They employ staff members who regard themselves as professional booksellers, people who love reading and talking about books, not the equivalent of “the snarky record store clerk.”
The independents know they can’t compete with Barnes & Noble or Amazon’s special offers, but they can offer other things, such as frequent events. Greenlight Books has several each week, which help customers, the co-owner believes, “rediscover the value of community.”
With the Borders chain going into bankruptcy, Bagnulo has been asked a lot in recent weeks about bookstore viability. She believes, though, news of the independents’ demise has been exaggerated by media. Indeed, of her favorite bookstores in her 17 years in New York, only one, Coliseum Books, has closed, and it had a particular challenge establishing itself at its last Midtown location.
Bagnulo argued that rather than being their undoing new technologies help the independents. “We’re working 24 hours a day,” Bagnulo said, referring to the website (the doors at 686 Fulton St. are open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily).
And despite the radical shift towards digital, certain things won’t change. “A book is a beautiful gift for kids. Parents want to give this beautiful object. Images on the screen just aren’t the same,” Bagnulo said.
Children, for their part, seem to love being in the children’s section of a well-organized bookstore. And places like Greenlight have a calming and generally positive effect on adults, too. That’s their biggest advantage.
“People feel they want to be part of the store,” Bagnulo said. “That it’s their store.”
The launch of Kevin Holohan’s “The Brothers’ Lot” takes place on March 10, at 7:30 p.m. at Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St., Brooklyn. For more information go to www.greenlightbookstore.com. [PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT]