But I had no idea about any of that when I immigrated to Louisiana from Belfast six years ago, or that during Hurricane Katrina it would be the strength of the canal walls which was more important than the fact my fellow countrymen had built them.
Tens of books, hundreds of articles and millions of words have been written about Hurricane Katrina. But my book, “Finn McCool’s Football Club: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead” (Pelican Press) looks at the deadly storm from a different angle and tells the story from a unique perspective: the effect it had on the Irish population of New Orleans.
The incredibly violent 2005 hurricane season set all kinds of records. Katrina was the third-most powerful storm ever to hit the U.S. F and five names were retired that year, the most ever. For the record they were Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan and Wilma.
There were 28 named hurricanes, so many that scientists ran out of letters and were forced to use the Greek alphabet.
Katrina did an unparalleled amount of damage to the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people, impacting Louisiana and Mississippi to the tune of an estimated $150 billion and leaving debris strewn over roughly 87,000 square miles in six different states, an area the size of Britain.
The book begins in 2004 when, aged 34, I arrive in the Deep South to start a new life with my North Carolinian wife. At first, it was a struggle to adapt to a place which is both geographically and culturally thousands of miles away from home, but things improve when I discover Finn McCool’s, a pub owned by three exiles from the North.
Stephen and Pauline Patterson had come to New Orleans in the early nineties and looked up a family friend called Stevie Collins who had immigrated there via Florida.
All three ended up working in O’Flaherty’s, an Irish bar and store in the French Quarter. Then, in early 2002, they bought their own bar on Banks Street in an area called Mid-City.
They gutted the structure, tearing down the walls, installing more windows, demolishing the low-hanging ceiling and stripping the frame back to the studs. Renaming it Finn McCool’s, they opened on Friday, July 26 2002. Once I discovered it, the Irish community in the Crescent City begin to play a big part in my life.
Compared to larger places like New York or Boston, the Irish ex-pat scene in the Big Easy is small but tight-knit. Everyone knows everyone else, and I soon became a regular at the bar to watch English and Scottish soccer games at the weekends. Six months after I started going there we formed a pub team.
A dozen of us were gathered there on the morning of Saturday, August 27 2005. Less than 48 hours later one of us was clinging to a roof battling for his life, some were swimming out of the flooded city, while another was forced to loot an ATM machine for cash to bribe a teenager driving a stolen school bus to take him to safety.
Even after escaping a latter day Atlantis many of the Irish immigrants had to live as internal refugees for months while New Orleans was pumped dry. My wife and I relocated to Houston for three months while our team was scattered around the country, with some members even ending up back in Ireland.
When many of the pub regulars finally got back they had lost their jobs, their homes, everything else they had ever owned. Some lost all three.
I weave my story with that of my teammates as we float back to Louisiana and try to rebuild after our lives had been literally washed away. I describe what it was like to live in New Orleans after the hurricane, how it was more like the Wild West in the 19th century than the 21st century in the richest, most-powerful country in the world.
Even simple day-to-day living was hard in the surreal post-Katrina apocalyptic landscape as we struggled to cope in a city devoid of hospitals, schools, traffic lights and trash collection.
But I hope that the book is much more than a depressing hurricane lament or a story about a soccer squad. I examine in depth what it is like to be Irish in America, and investigate the similarities and differences I find moving from Belfast, a place often divided by religion, to New Orleans, a city frequently split along racial lines.
I also look at why it is that the Irish in America feel the need to stick together, and wonder if our yearning to recreate what we left behind at home stops us integrating fully into American society.
The book is also about the importance of friendship. Members of the Irish community go to great lengths in order to help each other out, with those who came through the storm relatively unscathed opening their doors to the less fortunate.
For instance, Galway couple Sean and Carmel Kennedy took in Mike and Marian McInerney, originally from Limerick, and their four young boys after Mike’s home was flooded. Mike said at the time: “men never talk about feelings and ask each other how we are doing with things, but one night Sean and I sat down and put our cards on the table. I told him we couldn’t be living with him too long and he said that he understood that but we could stay as long as we wanted. I felt so much better after that talk, without getting too mushy about it.”
Similarly, Dave Ashton from Manchester, England and his pregnant girlfriend (whose mother had died in the evacuation) moved in with us after their home was flooded, and I show that although disaster may wreck property and buildings, for this resolute, eclectic bunch of ex-pat friends, adversity actually forged and strengthened relationships.
This coming August is the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The city is rebounding but there is still a lot of work to be done. A recent report said there were still more than 70,000 abandoned home in the city, and many areas are even now blighted with flooded and decaying structures.
Finn McCool’s took six feet of water but the three owners practically rebuilt it themselves and it reopened on St. Patrick’s Day, 2006. Since then it has gone from strength to strength and is busier now than before the storm.
By coming back so quickly to a devastated area the bar acted as an anchor to the people in the neighborhood, and the locals have continued to support a business which put down such an early marker that they would rebuild.
The pub soccer club has continued to grow as well and we now have two teams which play in different leagues. Both have won their divisions twice, and some of the originals like me still drag their creaking limbs out of bed every Sunday to play.
Thankfully, the book has received great reviews both here and in the UK and Ireland and already has more than 70 five-star customer reviews on online retailer Amazon.
I met with a Hollywood movie producer who is interested in buying the film rights, and a documentary crew came to Finn’s and produced a six-minute trailer to use to try to get funding to shoot a full-length documentary. The book is available at stores across the nation or from online booksellers. Check out my website, www.stephen-rea.com for more details.
The first St. Baldrick’s Day saw the three having their heads shaved at Jim Brady’s Tavern in the financial district.
Since the inaugural event a decade ago, and the soon after formation of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the organization has raised more than $57 million dollars for pediatric cancer research. Much of this money was collected by the more than 113,000 “shavees” at the more than 3,450 events that have taken place since 2000.
In commemoration of that first St. Baldrick’s head-shaving event, some of the original shavees will once again get bald for the cause at Jim Brady’s Tavern head-shaving event on Wednsday, St. Patrick’s Day, starting at 3 p.m.
“The battle against childhood cancer has been stepped in recent years as new treatments come on stream but fundraising is a constant necessity,” Tim Kenny, one of the St. Baldrick’s Day founders has stated.
“St. Baldrick’s raises funds for childhood cancer research by hosting worldwide head-shaving events where volunteers shave their heads to stand in solidarity with the kids who typically lose their hair during cancer treatment.
On the first St. Baldrick’s Day, the goal was to raise $17,000 by shaving 17 heads on March 17th.
Meanwhile, this Saturday, March 20, at J.P. Cunningham’s in Mahopac, “shavees” will be gathering for what is considered the big St. Baldrick’s event in Westchester County. Cunningham’s is at 156 East Lake Blvd, and the head shaving starts at 4 p.m.
The J.P. Cunningham’s event has raised over $45,000 in the past three years.
My whole life was in front of me then, never giving a thought to death or wakes. Then as I got older, no matter how far I traveled, these were the very things that always brought me back home to Windsor Terrace. To Smith’s.
No matter how much that Brooklyn neighborhood changed, Smith’s always seemed the same to me. Time froze in that building. In an odd way, it was the only reality left here now. You walked in, shrugged off your overcoat, and headed down the long narrow hallway that lead to the bottom floor room. It was always that same room.
You would sign the book under the small, brass lamp, walk up and pay your respects, and there was always this feeling that you were home again. Smith’s, we never called it M.J. Smith’s, served as a sort of final, celestial passageway out of Windsor Terrace. It was as much a part of our lives as Holy Name Church across the street where our baptismal certificates and report cards are still on record. To us, it was our birthright.
No matter how far away we moved, to Staten Island, to New Jersey, to Queens, to Long Island, an Irish wake at Smith’s was always waiting for us. Once born here there really was no leaving. Coming back to Smith’s in Windsor Terrace was just a part of the circle of our lives. It connected us forever. The writer, Pete Hamill, who was once an alter boy across the street in Holy Name Church, waked his mother, his father and a brother there.
Its history dates back to advertisements on the back of matchbook covers the funeral home used to place out in the lobby, “serving the community since 1875.” However, it moved to 9th Avenue in 1910. About four months ago, rumors started spreading quickly through the neighborhood that they were selling Smith’s, closing it down.
Recently, I went back there and found that the once prominent, hunter green awning with the name Smith’s on it had been stripped clean of its metal frame that extended out to the street. A huge building for sale sign hung over it now.
“Even dying ain’t the same in the old neighborhood,” said Denis Hamill, the New York Daily News columnist, who is as much a part of Windsor Terrace as Farrell’s Bar and Grill. “Smith’s was once the neighborhood’s last call. Now that marvelous three-cushion shot in the same zip code, Smith’s, Holy Name, Green-Wood Cemetery is over. A scratch.”
“Seems like everybody that grew up in the neighborhood went through Smith’s before their final resting place,” said Bill Kahaly, a long time resident. “I mean, when we heard that it was closing it was like a source of conversation in the neighborhood, and it still is,” he said as he stood in front of the rectory of Holy Name Church across the street from Smith’s.
A sign in the window of the funeral home says that they “have relocated to 255 9th Street,” the address of Joseph G. Duffy’s Funeral home. “I went to a couple of wakes in Duffy’s and it didn’t seem the same for some reason,” Kahaly said. “I know that we’re talking about the death, the passing of somebody, but it’s a tight neighborhood, and I guess most of us always thought that Smith’s would be our final resting place. And another thing, after the wake, you can’t walk to Farrell’s anymore for some beers.”
“We haven’t closed, we’ve moved,” said Gloria Bischoff as we sat in the office of Duffy’s on 9th Street in Park Slope. She has worked for M.J. Smiths and Duffy’s for over 20 years. At some time in the early 70’s, the two funeral homes operated as one. Along with her was Dan Sturges, another long time associate of Smith’s.
“The neighborhood has changed, “said Sturges, when asked why he thought Smith’s was no longer doing business in Windsor Terrace. “There are newer people coming in. There are still many old timers around, there’s no question about that, but it’s becoming a younger neighborhood. You have a lot of people whose children move away. The parents still live there, but there is no guarantee that they are going to come back when the time comes for the parent’s funeral. It used to be. Not anymore.”
“We still use the old M.J. Smith’s phone number, and they are still listed in the church bulletins,” Bischoff said. ” In the beginning we were getting calls like,’oh my God, we heard that Smith’s closed.’ And we tell them we just moved to 255 9th Street. We moved to bigger facilities with larger chapels.”
No matter the reasons or explanations of the closing, feelings are still running high about the end of a one hundred year old funeral home that once served Windsor Terrace.
“They took something out of the neighborhood that was tradition, and now it’s gone,” said Bill Callahan, the day bartender at Rhythm and Booze on 10th Avenue and Prospect. “A lot of people were hurt by the closing of Smith’s”
Up in Farrell’s Bar on 16th Street and 9th Avenue, there were similar feelings. “Ever since I can remember that place was there. It was a landmark. The first thing I did when I heard it was closing was to call my wife, and then my brother in law down in Florida, and everybody I knew from the neighborhood. It was that important,” said Al Cush whose father was waked there.
At my own mother’s wake in Smith’s, I remember being pulled away from the incredible grief of it all, a Galway woman in her 50’s being struck down crossing the street with her arms filled with groceries. Tragedy. A three-night wake followed, filled with crowds of people from the neighborhood that never stopped flowing in as I sat up in the front row, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, and black tie. I was 19.
On the third night, Howie, who drove the 9th Street Bus through our neighborhood, pulled me from the crowd and walked me to the men’s room. He lifted up the back porcelain top of the toilet tank, and took out a six-pack of Rheingold Beer. He opened two of them and we drank them, and more. And life went on.
There was always something of an “Our Town” mood to wakes at Smith’s Funeral Home. Families watched out for each other. Windsor Terrace was our Grover’s Corners, and Smith’s was part of it. There was always this sadness at wakes there, a profound silence as the living sat watch with the dead. But there was something more that I saw there when I was young, a sense always that life would continue, and the stars would continue “their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky” that Thornton Wilder wrote about.
Now it’s gone.
It’s 1984, and famine is claiming tens of thousands of lives across Ethiopia. Images of the death and suffering are broadcast around the world, and millions respond with help.
Bob Geldof will soon launch Live Aid. Millions of Ethiopians whose lives were at risk are saved as food and charity pours into the country.
The sight of people starving to death has a unique resonance in Ireland. A famine memory is awakened, and the Irish give more per person to the Ethiopian relief effort than any other nation on earth.
In a small village in County Carlow, a group of people comes together, convinced that they too can do something to help. But they don’t just want to help with food today. They feel something must be done for tomorrow, so that these horrific scenes are never repeated. These are can-do people, and they believe that equally can-do people in Africa hold the key to solving African poverty.
And so Self Help Africa is born in the heart of Ireland, and founded on a belief in African can-do.
Very soon, the group is joined by Irish farmers, who bring their own unique vision to the problem. Famine begins when farming fails, they argue. Ireland was once a desperately poor country, gripped by famine. Long before the foreign direct investment, before the arrival of Intel and Google, Ireland had farmed its way out of poverty.
With 75 percent of Africans living in rural areas, the Irish farmers are convinced that farms held the key to solving poverty and hunger right across the continent. Self Help Africa’s efforts, however small, will have to focus on the land.
Months later, as Ethiopia begins to emerge from crisis, a shipment arrives from Ireland. Self Help Africa has secured 2,000 tons of potato seed in County Donegal, and these are distributed among farmers.
But this is self-help, not welfare, so every farmer who receives this seed, the “foundation” stock, must promise to pass on harvested seed to his neighbors, who in turn pass it on to other neighbors.
The soil suits the potato, and gradually, the Donegal seed spreads out across Ethiopia. Twenty five years later, this Donegal potato is thriving in tens of thousands of farms across Ethiopia. Incredibly, the potato has become one of the country’s largest cash crops.
Seen through Irish eyes, there are two Africas.
In one, crops have failed again, and hunger is everywhere. Starving children stare at cameras, too weak to care what happens tomorrow. Food aid is shipped in from the United States to save millions of lives. People across the world ask if Africa will ever feed itself.
And then there’s the other Africa, where farms are flourishing. Rich harvests of corn, sorghum, millet, rice and, yes, potatoes spring from fertile, irrigated soil. Vegetables and fruit are plentiful. Farm families sell much of their produce, and use the profits to send their children to school, to improve their houses, to pay for healthcare.
Slowly, the first Africa is giving away to the second, and Ireland has played an important part in the transformation.
The work of tens of thousands of Irish missionary priests and nuns has gradually given way to the Irish aid agencies such as Self Help Africa, Concern, GOAL, Trocaire.
The Irish government, too, has played a unique role. Its pledge in 2008 to devote one-fifth of all Irish overseas aid to hunger reduction measures has led the way for the international community.
For Self Help Africa, the focus continues to be on rural areas, and on remaining true to that early vision of tapping into can-do Africa.
So in nine countries in sub Saharan Africa – from Eritrea to Zambia – the organization continues to distribute just one precious commodity for nothing: knowledge. This is advice on how to grow, what to grow and where to sell it is given to tens of thousands of farmers every day.
Everything else comes at a price. Farmers who receive seed must pass on twice that amount after the harvest to their neighbors. Farmers who receive a loan to buy irrigation pumps must pay it back, with interest.
Self Help Africa encourages farmers to grow new crops, to diversify, to trade their way out of poverty, and to develop “off-farm” income. It also supports and organizes farmers into co-ops and producer groups, giving them greater help while they grow, and greater negotiating power after harvest as they sell.
Because women perform up to 80 percent of farm work in the developing world, much of this effort is focused on them. But through a large network of credit programs, Self Help Africa also supports women to set up small businesses so they can earn an off-farm income.
Last year, Self Help Africa spent over $9.5 million on all its programs across Africa, which reached almost 1.5 million people.
True to the vision of the founders, the work looks to tomorrow. Twenty five years ago, a $1 million grant from Bob Geldof’s Live Aid Trust was used to encourage seed development and irrigation schemes amongst farmers in the famine-ravaged Adami Tulu area of Ethiopia’s Oromia Province.
A visit to Adami Tulu today reveals a 23,000-strong farmers organization that markets a massive food surplus from the area’s farms to Ethiopia and beyond.
The years of work in Africa have not all been easy. Large food surpluses around the world meant that support for African farmers slipped down everyone’s agenda. “Why help Africans to grow food when we can just ship it out to them?” the argument went.
As the world’s population increases, as its weather patterns change and growing conditions worsen, that argument no longer finds much support. Gradually, the focus is returning to the African farm.
COMING TO AMERICA
Self Help Africa’s newest country of operation is not in Africa. Last year, it established a base in the United States of America, seeking to bring its unique blend of can-do Africa and Irish farming savvy to a new audience.
Around 45 million people in the United States claim Irish heritage, mostly because a potato blight in Ireland in the 1840s sparked a tradition of emigration.
Over a century and a half later, the success of the Irish potato – among other crops – shows Irish America the way to a new and sustainable way of responding to world hunger.
And what was that about the president? Well, on January 21, 2009, the newly-inaugurated President Obama made his first speech to the nation. In it, he set out his vision for the presidency, for the United States, and for the world.
And in the middle of it all, the first African-American president told “the people of poor nations” that the United States would “work alongside you, to make your farms flourish…”
For Self Help Africa’s staff, the wheel had come full circle. Never before had the President’s inaugural words contained such a strong message for development, and never before had it focused so clearly on farms.
President Obama has probably never heard of the Donegal potato, nor even of Self Help Africa, but it seems like he gets the thinking behind it all. More information on Self Help Africa is at wwww.selfhelpafrica.org.
Will Galvin, who is based in Washington, D.C., is Director of Operations and Advocacy for Self Help Africa. He was honored recently at the Irish Echo’s 40 Under 40 awards.
For New York rock singer and author Chris Campion, that says it all. No further explanation is necessary.
But there were other key moments during the period a decade ago when he spent three periods in the hospital on First Avenue. There was the time on Houston Street he bumped into a friend who enquired whether he’d do vocals for him on a project. Campion said he would ask his band mates from Knockout Drops to see what their schedule was. “He said: Chris, you’re not in that band anymore.”
He’d been kicked out by the other members, his closest friends since their teenage years together in Huntington, L.I. “I hadn’t checked in with anyone in three months and was completely wayward and disconnected from everything,” he said.
The band, however, survived that crisis and is still performing, but with additional literary material. Campion, who described himself as “a bull in the china shop of life,” mined his rock ‘n roll life and his recovery for an off-Broadway play that had two hit runs and led to a book deal with Penguin. The book, in turn, is the basis for a new show, one in which he uses his considerable talents for mimicry and storytelling.
The singer’s tales are set against the backdrop of a suburban Irish-American childhood. However, his parents, who still live in Huntington, began their married life in their old neighborhood.
“Woodside was a big part of my life, because our entire extended family was there,” he said.
Campion’s father was educated courtesy of the G.I. Bill after he returned from the Korean War, and later he rapidly moved up the corporate sales ladder at IBM. By the 1970s, he had started his own company that bought, sold and leased mainframe computers.
“There were two [types of] parties going on all the time. You had my mom and dad’s parties in the house, which were love seats, martinis, Dean Martin wafting out of the big behemoth stereo in the living-room, guys in plaid pants smelling of Vitalis and Marlboro Reds, ” said Campion, the fifth of six children. “That was sophisticated until later, when they would get around the piano and sing.
Then there was his brothers’ party. “I’d dart out to the garage, which was off the house, and about midway the pot smoke would hit my nose,” he said.
The Allman Brothers would be playing. “There were pretty girls in Indian skirts twirling around; the keg hidden behind the lawnmower,” he recalled.
The legend next door
“We were always preparing for, in the middle of, or cleaning up from some big-blow out of a party,” Campion said.
Then, in 1975, Richie Blackmore, the lead singer of Deep Purple and later Rainbow, moved in next door and stayed 20 years.
In more recent times, a musician friend spotted the rock legend eating at a breakfast place in Montauk and introduced himself. He told him about their mutual acquaintances.
Campion said: “It had been a few years. The name didn’t register at first and then he looked up at him and went ‘Oh yes, the loud family.’
“You know when the lead guitar player of Deep Purple is calling your family loud it’s like: Yeah, you’ve got to be pretty loud,” he said, laughing.
Blackmore, though “intensely private” in Campion’s words, interacted with his neighbors over the years. Whenever he’d suffered a reverse in his love life, he could be seen talking to Campion’s mother on the deck.
“My mom was his counselor,” he recalled.
One summer Blackmore asked Campion to clean his pool while he went on tour with Rainbow. The wage was $20 a week, a lot for a teenager in the early 1980s.
“It was one of those things that mocked me, because I didn’t do it,” he remembered. “I slowly watched this pool morph into a fish tank, getting greener and greener.
Occasionally, he would do some work to stop it from looking too bad, but didn’t do any elaborate cleaning involving chemicals.
The day that Blackmore returned, his mother said: “You go and tell that man that you didn’t clean his pool. I don’t want you to collect a dime from him.” He arrived at the backyard in time to see the English rocker dive in and then swim the pool’s length.
“He got up and I looked at him and he was completely slimed,” Campion said. “So now we’re just staring at each other. I figure this is the moment of truth. Finally he said: ‘I owe you some money, don’t I?'”
Campion went through the motions of refusing payment, but Blackmore brought him into the house and wrote him a check. “Bang up job, mate” he said. “Smashing.”
Another childhood influence was the transistor radio and ear piece given to him by a Woodside relative who wanted him to be able to listen to Rangers and Knicks games after he was sent to bed. Before too long, however, it was tuned to Scott Muni on WNEW and he was turned on to progressive rock.
Campion and the other founder members of Knockout Drops went off to different colleges (he attended Villanova), but regrouped afterwards. For a while, the indie band was the next big thing. “We hit New York in ’93 and had a big groundswell,” he said.
For a long time, though, it was “one step forward two steps back.” He said: “We’d sell out crowds in bigger venues.” But the business side never seemed to work out as planned. And outside of the New York, Knockout Drops would always remain the support band.
In the meantime, Campion was “running roughshod over the world. I had a broken off-switch.”
He prefers not to blame his particular attraction to Jamison’s whiskey entirely on the ups and downs of the rock ‘n roll life. Genes played a role too. “You can’t swing a cat in my family without hitting an alcoholic,” he said.
“Cocaine was always a maintenance drug for me, but booze was the great love of my life,” he writes in “Escape from Bellevue.”
When he launched into “suicidal diatribes,” his fellow musicians had him committed to Bellevue. “You get a perverse sense of importance with three EMTs on each side of you,” he said.
His subsequent efforts to convince staff at the hospital that his being there was a big mistake provide a good deal of his literary comic material.
There were interventions by his friends — one of them hosted by his road manager, a even bigger drinker and drug-taker than Campion himself — and periods spent in rehab clinics.
“Getting sober was really hard,” he said. “I was raised in a tradition of Irish bars, and pubs and taverns. I was very wrapped up in the mythology of drinking.”
Part of that was the pantheon of literary and musical heroes: Jack Kerouac, Jim Morrison, Brendan Behan.
“The idea of getting sober was unfathomable,” he said.
“When I got on dry land and got sober. That’s really when life got good. It’s all been good since then,” he said. “I started seeing the world in color again, having gratitude for life, not thinking about the things I didn’t have.”
Campion also recovered his faith, which had been in crisis since his college days.
“A lot of the story is me finding my way back to it, and not really giving up on it,” he said.
He goes to church, but is not into dogma and prefers the label “spiritual.”
Campion recalled an old saying: “Religion is for people who fear hell. Spirituality is for people who’ve been there.”
Chris Campion is serializing “Escape from Bellevue” at Mug Lounge, 448 East 13th St. (at Ave. A) at 8 p.m. every Tuesday night through May 25. There is no cover charge.
Brendan Bracken has been the subject of a play, books and remains a man of extreme interest to historians and journalists.
Now, his extraordinary life is the subject of a made for television documentary that weaves together historical footage and dramatic reenactment.
And the man behind the documentary is also named Bracken.
Adrian Bracken, unlike Brendan, is a genuine Englishmen. The two are not related so far as Adrian Bracken knows, but the Englishman’s fascination with the Irishman is rooted in far more than just a family lineage that may have been identifiably close generations ago.
Brendan Bracken, says Adrian Bracken, is quite simply one of the most fascinating and mysterious figures of the twentieth century.
To those who take an interest in World War 11, and especially the role of Winston Churchill, Brendan Bracken is a known name if, for many years, far from being a known person.
Bracken rose from obscurity to become a press baron, the founder of the modern day Financial Times newspaper, a key figure in Churchill’s war cabinet, the architect of much of wartime Britain’s propaganda, a member of the House of Commons and later a peer in the House of Lords.
He was also rumored to be Churchill’s illegitimate son, a story that Bracken himself created and allowed hang heavy in the English air.
Bracken wasn’t born to all this. Indeed, given his start in life, he might have easily ended up in the Irish Free State’s nascent government, or indeed in the republican forces that opposed it.
Bracken was born in 1901 in Templemore, County Tipperary. He was the son of Joseph Kevin Bracken, known as J.K. and Hannah Agnes Ryan.
The elder Bracken was a successful builder, a Fenian and a founder member of the Gaelic Athletic Association. But he wasn’t around long enough to shape his son’s future. He died when Brendan was just three.
His mother then married Patrick Laffan, also a republican. The couple moved to Dublin along with Brendan, his three full siblings and two step sisters. He went to school in O’Connell’s Christian Brothers school in Dublin’s north inner city. Later, he was sent to the Jesuit-run Mungret College in Limerick.
Brendan ran away back to Dublin and so worried his mother by his behavior that she sent him to a relative in Australia in the hope that he would get a fresh start and new perspective on life.
Bracken returned in 1919 to an Ireland afire with rebellion and division. He went to Liverpool and by 1920 he had turned up at the gates of a top boarding school in northern England claiming to be an orphan from Australia whose parents had died in a bush fire.
Incredibly, the school, Sedbergh in Cumbria, took in the mysterious young man with the accent that didn’t quite sound Australian.
“Now, according to Adrian Bracken, “Brendan had the all important old school tie.”
The old school tie and the connections that it bestowed was a key that opened many doors. In the ensuing years, that was what the self- reinvented Brendan Bracken did with astonishing success.
He forsook his Irish background and for all the world became an Englishman with the gilded benefit of a public school education. He first hooked up with Churchill in 1923 when the latter was struggling to rebuild his career. Bracken went into publishing and by 1929 was a significant enough figure to secure election to parliament himself.
The career of the two men progressed in increasing lockstep during the 1930s. Bracken, like Churchill, was a vehement opponent of appeasement so when Churchill became prime minister in 1940, and so took the helm in Britain’s life and death struggle against Nazi Germany, it was no surprise that Bracken was at the elder man’s side.
Bracken would be wartime Britain’s Minister of Information, which, of course, implied an ability to bend the truth as much as disseminate it.
Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph, disliked Bracken and resented the story that Bracken was his illegitimate half-brother. “The fantasist whose fantasies had come true,” was how Randolph characterized Bracken.
Bracken was widely known as B.B. Eric Blair, who would take up the pen as George Orwell, worked for the BBC during the war and, like so many others, disliked Bracken even as he ultimately answered to B.B.
Later, in the classic “1984,” the same initials would stand for “Big Brother.” The prevailing view is that Brendan Bracken was the inspiration for what has become synonymous with governmental control of individual thought.
After the war, Bracken’s political career took a dip when Britain’s first Labor government came into power but he didn’t lose stride, becoming once again a publisher with enormous influence. Working from his headquarters, Bracken House, he merged the Financial News into the Financial Times, known today the world over for its pink pages. Bracken was also publisher of The Economist magazine.
Bracken’s later years brought him a peerage, but he never attended the House of Lords.
According to Adrian Bracken, after his self-imposed exile from Ireland, Brendan Bracken did return for his mother’s funeral. He arrived late, missed the funeral Mass, and stood a little distance from the grave, shedding tears, as final prayers were being offered.
Bracken himself died on August 8, 1958, aged 57. The man who had been Britain’s wartime propaganda voice, had, somewhat ironically, succumbed to oesophagal cancer. Though he had dated many women through the years he had never married and did not have any children. At least so far as is known.
Adrian Bracken’s documentary is entitled “Brendan Bracken: Churchill’s Supreme Fantasist.” a segment can be viewed on the web at www.marbellaproductions.com.
According to Bracken, recently in New York for the annual gathering in Manhattan of history documentary makers, the production has been taken up in recent days by the Irish national broadcaster, RTE, which is now listed as a co-producer of the documentary.
Bracken is anticipating that this initial deal will, it turn, result in interest from U.S. networks drawn to the story of a man who masterminded the story of his own life, and, along the way, would control what millions would believe and understand to be the truth behind countless other stories.
Dressed in full regalia, Thomas Capurso, business representative of IBEW Local 3 and bagpiper with the Sword of Light Bagpipe Band, and his son Stephen, head of the color guard for the band, will serenade students and staff when they enter the school and line the halls for a bagpipe parade.
Stephen Capurso is a graduate of the school and its speech teacher, Patricia Capurso, is the proud wife and mother of the piping Capursos.
Congressman Richard Neal, chairman of the Friends of Ireland In Congress, will take the wraps off the striking painting by acclaimed Irish artist, Robert Ballagh.
The portrait, which hasn’t before been seen in public, is reproduced on the opposite page.
Pat Finucane was gunned down in February 1989 by loyalist paramilitaries working in consort with state forces. Despite repeated calls by the Irish government and international human rights organizations, the British government has consistently faced down calls for an international inquiry into the shooting.
Geraldine Finucane, widow of Pat, will attend the Capitol Hill reception on 18 March to unveil the portrait.
“I’m delighted to be involved,” she told the Irish Echo.
“I’m impressed by the portrait not only for its beauty but also because it successfully conveys a serious message.
I have been going to Capitol Hill for many years now in my battle to find out the truth about the British government’s role in Pat’s murder and have always been met with a warm welcome and sympathetic ear. It’s great to see that support underlined at this event which manages to find beauty from a very troubled time.”
Artist Robert Ballagh, designer of the Riverdance set and highly-regarded globally for his work, says the portrait shows a youthful Pat Finucane against a canvass which has been “shattered.”
“I wanted to capture the importance of this man as a human rights lawyer while also conveying, without sensationalism, the violent nature of his death,” he said.
“For me and many people, Pat Finucane is a hero and with this portrait, we are helping to ensure that he won’t be forgotten.”
The painting, which has been commissioned by the Belfast Media Group and Belfast art collector Paul Cooper, will be put on view in New York later this month.
But with the bizarre murder of a Hamas leader in Dubai involving at least two dozen people suspected of being Israeli Mossad agents – half a dozen of whom were carrying false Irish passports – Ireland has been catapulted into the front line of international espionage and intrigue.
The Israeli ambassador to Dublin was called in after Dubai. He knew nothing of course.
A Garda inquiry is now underway, and Taoiseach Brian Cowen has warned that the Dubai affair has serious implications for the security of Irish citizens traveling abroad.
It’s all a far cry from the major concern of law enforcement since the Irish state was set up, that being mainly the activities of republican and loyalist paramilitary groups.
Ireland has no secret service, James Bond-style agents zooming around in fast cars fitted with machineguns, no CIA, FBI, MI5 or MI6.
What passes for a secret service fund in every government budget is simply used to pay informers.
There is a military intelligence arm, Army G-2 intelligence, or the Directorate of Intelligence. Along with the Garda Siochana’s Special Branch, it is the prime agency charged with intelligence issues.
The two haven’t always seen eye to eye, but the have stayed on the job down the years despite some glaring failures.
These included the Provisional IRA landing over a hundred tons of Libyan weapons in the 1980s, and the murderous 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings by loyalists, both with suspected British involvement.
But G-2 and the Special Branch have had successes too in combating terrorism and many lives have undoubtedly been saved by operations against island-grown paramilitaries.
Historically, the Special Branch has been to the forefront in fighting the intelligence war, but G-2 has played its part too. In one operation, it sent six agents undercover into Northern Ireland, some of them reporting on loyalists bringing in arms by fishing boat.
The Garda dampened down the IRA during World War 11, while G-2, under the legendary Colonel Dan Bryan, rounded up over a dozen Nazi agents sent to Ireland by the Abwehr, German military intelligence.
In the mid-1950s, G-2 formed links with the CIA, with frequent exchanges of information on suspected spies, terrorists, Communists or those seen as being radically left wing.
The relationship was so successful for the Irish side that G-2 ultimately discouraged the CIA from sending a permanent agent to Dublin from London, insisting it could get all the information it needed without American assistance.
The relationship between G-2 and the CIA continued, even if at times the concerns of both seemed ludicrous.
G-2 opened a file on that notorious revolutionary from Mullingar, the late singer Joe Dolan, after he had performed in Moscow in 1978.
The Garda, meanwhile, established a firm relationship with the FBI and most senior officers were trained at the FBI Academy in Quantico.
While the Irish were learning overseas, some from overseas were learning things in Ireland. Israel’s Mossad were observing what the Libyans were doing in Ireland, while G-2 agents with Irish UN forces kept an eye on what the Libyans, and Mossad too, were up to in Lebanon.
As the new century dawned, Irish intelligence efforts began to focus more on radical Islamic terrorism.
The Garda Middle Eastern desk, formerly known as the Red Squad, was plunged into the center of a major investigation involving the CIA and FBI after the discovery of a millennium plot to blow up Los Angeles airport.
The arrest of six men in Dublin produced invaluable information for the U.S. agencies and linked one of them to a man captured on the U.S.-Canadian border with a carload of explosives.
CIA and FBI agents attended briefings in Garda headquarters in the Phoenix Park as house searches pointed to Islamic groups being given logistical support in the Republic, including money, and, ironically in the light of recent events, fake passports.
The 9/11 attacks led to the identifying of around a group of 40 individuals in Ireland suspected of extreme Islamic views and who are now under constant surveillance.
They are suspected of having links with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Algerian GIA, both allied to al-Qaeda. There is a view that that Ireland is, or could be used, as a rest and recreation sanctuary by jihadists.
Garda and Army intelligence numbers have been boosted as a result, along with Irish Army Special Forces. And while Ireland has no jet fighters to defend against hijacked airliners, Dutch anti-aircraft guns and radars were bought with this in mind, though not all were impressed.
The answer by military officers when, at one point, they were asked by the government how do we defend the country was a simple one: “give us a squadron of F-16s.” The plea was ignored.
Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Jim Sreenan, meanwhile, asserted that Army intelligence and the Garda had to remain vigilant to the threat posed by Islamic extremists in Ireland who might seek to launch an attack on Britain using Ireland as a back door.
Despite all the concern over Islamic fundamentalists, relationships with Israel have remained tetchy because of actions by Israeli troops or Israeli-baked militia in South Lebanon against Irish troops, or, more recently, because of Israel’s war in Gaza, which is not popular with Irish public opinion
Despite this, the Israeli defense industry has done well from the Irish in recent years, winning lucrative contracts for helmets, surveillance equipment, ammunition, and robot spy planes.
Then came Dubai.
Hamas military commander Mahmoud Al Mabhouh was murdered in a Dubai hotel on January 20. Seven of the killers had false Irish passports, the rest having passports from other countries, including Britain.
The numbers of real Irish passports were used along with false names, addresses and photographs. Irish passport owners whose numbers were used had traveled abroad, but not in the Middle East.
One of the agents involved in the assassination, giving his name as Kevin Daveron, used an address at Elgin Road, Ballsbridge, an empty house owned by a brother of former taoiseach, Albert Reynolds.
The house is only 260 meters from the Israeli embassy.
Some have speculated that Dubai was payback for Israel over Irish passports given to Palestinians eighteen years ago when rich Arabs loaned Albert Reynolds’ pet food company over
And just days later, his was the welcoming hand for North leaders Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness as they arrived in the U.S. for St. Patrick’s week festivities.
“The vote by the Northern Ireland Assembly builds on the important agreement that was announced last month, and I congratulate the Northern Ireland political leadership on this significant achievement,” said Kelly.
“Building on this momentum, next week First Minister Robinson, Deputy First Minister McGuinness and Minister (Arlene) Foster will join me in the U.S. on a multi-city visit.
“They will meet with Secretary Clinton, the leaders of major U.S. Corporations and attend several large-scale events highlighting the investment opportunities in Northern Ireland. At the same time, over a dozen Northern Ireland companies will take part in a trade mission to the U.S. where they will meet with new potential trade partners,” said Kelly.
Also in the U.S. this week is the North’s social development minister and SDLP leader, Margaret Ritchie.
Ritchie is spending three days in New York and three in Washington, D.C. during which she will attend the White House St. Patrick’s Day reception.
“There is still much more work to be done. The SDLP fully supports the devolution of policing and justice. However, once again we will place on record our deep unhappiness at the distortion of the democratic process to gerrymander the position of justice minister,” said Ritchie, whose party is seeking a second ministry in the North Executive, though not necessarily the justice portfolio.