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POSTED ON July 2nd  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

Marian Toal

Marian Toal will celebrate her 105th birthday on July 4.


By Peter McDermott

You can find Tyrone’s Marian Toal in the Census of Ireland, 1911.

And you can also find her at the United Hebrew home in New Rochelle, N.Y., where she is a resident.

“She’s very sharp,” said Belfast native Joe Kennedy, who volunteers there. “I’m surprised. She seems to be doing remarkably well.”

Surprised maybe because Toal will turn 105 on Saturday.

She has no age listed for the Census taken on “the night of SUNDAY, the 2nd of APRIL,” for she’d only been born on July 4, 1910.

Then she was Mary Ann Early. Whether the enumerator or her parents decided that was how her name was spelled, it’s not clear. Whatever the case, the future Marian Toal arrived in New York in October 1929, a couple of weeks before the Wall Street Crash.

“She shouldn’t be blamed,” quipped her son Terence Toal Jr. to the Echo on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

In 1935, the farmer’s daughter from Rock married Terry Toal, a native of Carrickmore, who was involved with the New York City medallion taxicab industry. The family continued to be closely connected with that business and the Yonkers bar and restaurant trade, too.

“Until quite recently, she was active in a lot of organizations in the community,” said Kennedy, a past grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City.

Toal, who was widowed in 1967, was still living independently in her own apartment at age 100 and residing part of the year in Boynton Beach, Fla. “She gets around,” her son said in 2010.

In more recent times, the centenarian had been confined mostly to a wheelchair, though Kennedy reported that she takes a walk around twice a day at United Hebrew with staff assistance.

“They look after the residents extremely well,” he said, adding that Toal’s son and her friends are regular visitors.

“To think that she came over to this country and did so well and survived is incredible,” Kennedy said about the grandmother to eight and great-grandmother to 12. “She is a fine example of the kind of woman Ireland produced and still does.”

O’Leary reveals secret of success

POSTED ON July 2nd  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

Niall O'Leary

Niall O’Leary, on right of picture, celebrated

five years of Irish Cultural Night last week.


By Sean Devlin

As the clock slowly wears towards 10:30 p.m., the musicians trickle in towards the stage in the back right corner of the front room. It’s Thursday evening, and tonight is Irish Cultural Night at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar on 29th Street and 2nd Avenue. The show takes place the same night at the same time every week, but the last Thursday in June is a special occasion. For Niall O’Leary, the show’s leader, is celebrating five years of Irish traditional music and dance at the venue.

Since 2010, O’Leary has striven to bring together the most talented and passionate traditional musicians each week in an open session that focuses on a shared love of Irish music. This session, however, has a unique element. It’s one of the only traditional sessions that places a specific emphasis on dance.

At the outset of the show, O’Leary pulls his dancing shoes out of his black backpack. “This is really the session with the difference. There’s a percussive element to the show, and that imbues the music with extra meaning.”

The founder of Niall O’Leary’s School of Irish Dance wanted to make his show stand out from the dozens that take place every week in New York City.

As he reflects on the past five years, he points to a nondescript box in front to the stage, littered with scuffmarks. “The box! That’s a huge part of this whole experience,” he says.   “When we started this show five years back, we decided to install the box so the sound of the shoes would be amplified with the rest of the instruments. It helps our show stand alone, and it’s gotten a great reception.”

Matthew Mancuso, a fiddle player from Brooklyn, echoes the sentiments O’Leary espouses about Irish Culture Night. When asked about his history in traditional music, he shares a unique story.   “I’ve been playing the fiddle for years. When other people were learning the other instruments, my dad made me stick with it when I was a kid. I’ve been here at Paddy Reilly’s for the past 15 years, and it’s honestly one of the best traditional shows I’ve ever played in.”

Button accordionist Christy McNamara, a musician from Dublin, agrees that evenings like Irish Culture Night are important to maintain a sense of Irish identity. “Things like this are important. I’ve been playing since I was a small child, and a big part of the reason I came here was to connect with the diaspora. My family came from a big musical background and even cut their own records. I like being able to reconnect with my roots at events such as this.”

The crowd seemed equally as enthusiastic about the evening as the musicians. Danny Larkin, 30, came to Paddy Reilly’s with a group of friends to celebrate his birthday. When asked about his plans for the evening, he mentioned that he made a specific point to attend Irish Culture Night. “My brother and I are seeing Irish music shows every night that we’re here in New York, and I heard this was one of the best,” says Larkin says.

“Since we’ve started, I’ve had some really great collaborators here, “ O’Leary says. “Some of the best traditional musicians in the world have played here; I’m fortunate to have been able to share the stage with them.”

When asked about the future of Irish Culture Night, O’Leary says. “The Irish music scene is really thriving. The groups of traditional musicians in New York are truly great. The more you’re exposed to this sort of music, the better it gets. It’s a bit like radiation — it gets in your system without you realizing.

“When people ask me how things are going here, I can only say, it’s never been better,” O’Leary says.

Crowther’s fame is well-earned at 18

POSTED ON July 1st  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

niamh crowther

Niamh Crowther is influenced by her parents’

1960s and ‘70s classic rock collection.


By Colleen Taylor

When Niamh Crowther’s friends come to her gigs, they all get ID’d. “It’s a bit strange,” the singer reflected with a laugh. Strange it may be, but Irish bouncers are doing their job well: at 18 years of age, Crowther is only just past legal adulthood. You wouldn’t know it based on her songs, lyrics, or artistic success thus far. In less than one year, and with only three single releases, Crowther has made her voice and name known across Ireland. This quick fame was well earned: the young singer-songwriter exudes pure natural talent, charm, and maturity. I met Niamh at Whelan’s in Dublin last week before the official launch of her new single, “Little By Little,” and I can say with complete confidence that this girl is on the way up.

Crowther seems surprised by her success, charmingly unaware of the fact she’s one of the special ones. “I don’t see anything too special about it, I just love it,” she said of her music career. She is all humility and told me over and over again how thankful she is to her fans, how lucky she feels to have had such positive response to her music. She remains particularly flabbergasted by the response to her latest track, “Little By Little.” The song already has over 55,000 streams on Spotify. What’s more, it reached the number 10 spot on iTunes’s Singer-Songwriter list the very same day it was released. Hotpress Magazine was absolutely right when they recently named her one to watch.

Her hometown is in County Meath, but she considers herself a Dub too. When she’s not dazzling fans across Ireland or writing songs, Crowther is at St. Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, where she’s studying to be a primary-school teacher. While music is undoubtedly her passion, and she’s thrilled that the dream of making it a career has come true, Crowther looks forward to a dual-professional future. She plans to bring her musical skills into the classroom one day. The 18-year-old recently did a dress rehearsal for her own future classroom environment when she sang “Under the Sea” for a junior infant class a couple months back. If she can balance music with teaching, Crowther definitely plans to keep a piano in her classroom.

I resist the inclination to compare Niamh’s voice to another singer because I think such an equation would undermine her unique vocal quality. Her voice is distinctive, a trademark. Still, her various musical influences lend themselves to her sophisticated, informed vocal styling. It was her parents’ classic rock collection of the ‘60s and ‘70s that started it off for Crowther. Her fate was sealed when her parents got her a guitar at age 7 and signed her up for piano lessons at age 8. The likes of Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles, and U2 remain some of her biggest influences today.

Recently, Crowther has been inspired by Villagers, Hozier, and Glen Hansard. She loves Irish indie music and listens to a good bit of trad as well. “I’m a very proud Irish person,” Niamh told me with a smile, “I love my country—the culture, the music, the language.” I predict Niamh’s career will take her to various spots across the globe in the coming years, but she is adamant that Ireland will always be her home. “I want to come back to my origins,” Crowther said after relating an anecdote of a recent Irish road trip and how struck she was by the beauty of the Waterford countryside. Although she’s not a traditional folk artist, her country and culture provide a crucial source for her creativity and define her artistic identity. Ireland will not only remain her home base, it will always be the singer’s main stage.

Niamh is two persons onstage. She is a down-to-earth, witty teenager – one who falls back on awkward humor — as well as a poised, emotionally adept performer. When the first piano chord sounds, or the first strum of a guitar chord strikes, Crowther goes into a trance. Her ability to move an audience, to make beauty out of the simple pairing of voice and piano—an arguably dying art—is the skill of someone well beyond her years. The same can be said of her songwriting. Each of her three recordings, “Bullets,” “Origins,” and “Little By Little,” display lyrical sophistication. The words are carefully, metaphorically crafted. “Origins” in particular, is peppered with smartly arranged analogies.

But Niamh still has growing to do. I don’t think she’s fully realized her vocal potential yet. The audience at Whelan’s got a glimpse of the profound heights her future music might reach when Crowther sang the Joni Mitchell song, “River.” Her voice really stood out on that song and broke from the more rehearsed patterns of her original works. It was a preview of great things to come from this artist.

I asked Crowther what her plans were next, if she had international aspirations for her music. She looked baffled. “I’ve never thought about [international] markets. I just write songs and sing them.” She takes every day as it comes, lets her songs come to her spontaneously, naturally. The humble singer may not realize it yet, but there’s no doubt in my mind. Her musical prowess will naturally lead her across the Atlantic.

Check out Niamh Crowther on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Her latest single, “Little By Little” is now available on iTunes. You can also catch up with the rest of young Ireland and memorize the lyrics to her other singles, “Origins” and “Bullets,” on Spotify. Finally, visit

For upcoming New York gigs this month, check out country rock-blues act The Danny Burns Band at City Winery on July 15.

‘Jimmy’s Hall’ cast put through its paces

POSTED ON June 30th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

Jimmys Hall

Barry Ward and Simone Kirby in a scene from “Jimmy’s Hall.”


By Frances Scanlon

If you go to “Jimmy’s Hall,” which opens in theatres on Friday, be prepared to shake a lot of leg, and to hear the glorious sounds of liver-than-live Irish music, with a jazz kick-back and bluesy spell. You are on your way to a place that you may think is decades ago, but it’s not:  it’s right here and now, where and who you are.  Dancers never leave the ballroom.

Of course, not everyone is happy with all that dancing in the film from British director Ken Loach, a flashback to early 1930s County Leitrim, which enjoyed Official Selection status at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and a North American premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Father Sheridan is certainly not.

At a recent Tribeca press conference, Jim Norton said that his Father Sheridan “is very rigid in his beliefs, but he is, I think, essentially a good man.  He’s doing the best he can from what he knows. He’s following the dictates of the Catholic Church at that time, which were very tough and obsessed with controlling the moral life of the people in the community.”

Diametrically opposed to every word the parish priest speaks, the Dublin-born Broadway star Norton longs for the day when Ireland can relinquish itself from a few remaining vestiges of that period, which he called “hangovers.”

One that isn’t still around, thankfully, is the belief that communist insurrection can being channeled by a devil’s music-playing gramophone brought back from the United States.

This might be outlandish except that the central character, Jimmy Gralton, was a real historical figure and a real communist, with a history of activism in New York and Leitrim.

The backdrop is post-Civil War Ireland and the election of the first Fianna Fáil government in February 1932. The jet-stream of hope, progress and political freedom galvanizes Jimmy and he decides to go home to his native county.

He even joins Fianna Fáil, in an apparent effort to get some investment into the area. Jimmy, though, becomes the embodiment of all that might be and all that is not, especially for the local youngsters who beseech him to re-open the village hall. ‘

Ask Barry Ward, who plays Jimmy, about the dancing, as I did during the press briefing at Tribeca, and he’ll laugh uproariously at both the delight and the challenge presented.  Ward described his dancing skills as “passable,” although after four weeks of extensive pre-production rehearsals in London, he is totally captivating and fleet of foot as Gralton, ably demonstrating the creative output of thrice-weekly dance classes and even a ballroom visit prior to the barely 30-plus days’ sequential shooting schedule in Leitrim.

Brought in for a 10-minute meet-and-greet chat with the director, Ward’s audition entailed improvisations about subject matters, scenarios and scenes that had nothing to do with the film.

Simone Kirby, who wows as Oonagh, Gralton’s love interest, was sent by her London agent to meet with the director for a five-minute chat, which was followed up a couple of weeks later with a request to do some improvisations.

She was intrigued by the possibility of a narrative set in the 1930s. “My grandmother’s times, so that interests me,” she said. “It’s lovely to do a costume thing.”

Kirby, originally from Ennis, Co. Clare, moved to Galway when she was 17 to do youth theatre. She then trained more formally in Dublin, before moving to London, where she is based, though her impressive resume includes work at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York.

She had not read the full script, which she found “really liberating, actually.”

Kirby explained: “I’m not playing for something that I know is going to happen to her in the future.  I can only play what I know now.  It makes total sense to me; just play what you know.  Even though we try and do that anyway as actors, it’s a bit of a gift to genuinely not know what’s round the corner.”

And finally, a spoiler alert might be appropriate for some future fans of “Jimmy’s Hall.” Stop reading now, if you’re likely to want to stay in the 1930s moment. But others can hop on the No. 4 train to the last stop, whence they can quickly find the majestic Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which is the final resting place of Jimmy Gralton.  He is at Plot Summit, Range 30, Grave 39, and has been since Dec. 29, 1945, and his bride, Bessie (nee Cronogue, Drumsna, County Leitrim), there since Oct. 6, 1975.  Although once you step into “Jimmy’s Hall,” you will be hard-pressed to suspend disbelief that he really has a final resting place.

Karen Butler will interview Barry Ward next week, while Michael Gray will be review “Jimmy’s Hall” later in the month.

‘It’s nice to be first’: Enright

POSTED ON June 19th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure, News & Views

Anne Enright (c) Hugh Chaloner

The multiple-awarding winning novelist Anne Enright was named in January to the new official position of laureate for Irish fiction. PHOTO: HUGH CHALONER

By Orla O’Sullivan

“You’re a different person every time you sit down to write,” said Anne Enright, Ireland’s first laureate for Irish fiction. “It’s always about, ‘What’s life asking me now?’”

The question behind her latest novel, “The Green Road,” is “Why are selfish people unhappy?” said the author known to many for “The Gathering,” her sixth novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

It is subtly posed in a story that starts and effectively ends in West Clare, when Rosaleen Madigan summons her far-flung adult children to announce that she is selling the family home. The four have little in common besides an understanding of how impossible their mother is. One chapter opens: “Rosaleen told [daughter] Constance she did not want a [Christmas] present this year. She said it in a faint voice, meaning she would be dead soon so what was the point?”

No, Rosaleen isn’t an archetypal Irish mother—the martyr sitting in the dark, Enright said, adding with a reference to Dublin’s largest maternity hospital, “There isn’t a mind-melding machine in Holles Street to become an Irish mammy.”

The questions that seem of least interest to Enright are those from journalists, on whom she passed several comments during our meeting in a Dublin cafe. Between the new book and the laureate role she has been doing many interviews and giving many speeches, she said, adding that she has learned to ad lib, instead of spending three days writing each speech.

Yes, it’s true that she began writing after a nervous breakdown in her late 20s, said Enright, now 52, “… but if I knew I was going to be talking to so many journalists I wouldn’t have mentioned it. I’m just really bored with it.”

So what is her most hated question? “It isn’t so much a hated question but I’m intrigued at how interested the media is in general with success and failure. Or if you base your fiction on real people.”

The laureate appointment was announced by Taoiseach Enda Kenny at an Arts Council ceremony in January. He said: “Anne Enright’s eloquent and powerful writing, fiercely individual voice and unyielding commitment to her craft combined to make her the pre-eminent choice.

The novelist herself has described the role as “half a job, half an honor.” She will serve for three years and receive an annual stipend of €50,000 from the Art Council.

“Enda Kenny said it’s an ambassadorial role,” Enright said, adding, however, that “Irish writers are not expected to be well behaved or to perform.”

Irish readers, meanwhile, she said, are both proud of Irish writers and have “a complicated relationship” with them. “They say, ‘I knew your sister,’ or ‘I wish you’d stop writing about this and write about that.’” (Her former local paper the Bray People, once ran a sweetly proprietorial headline that said merely “Anne shortlisted for Man Booker Prize.”)

Ireland’s literary ambassador is concerned about digital publishing, particularly diminishing concentration spans. “The number of people who’ve told me ‘Oh, I have your book on my nightstand.’ I know what that means, they’re on their iPhones.”

In accepting the laureate title, Enright said it was about future writers, “who will each play a briefly emblematic role in the history of Irish letters.” Just she and her family knew last Christmas that she would be Ireland’s first laureate for fiction, which made, she said, for “a very nice Christmas. It’s nice to be first.”

Enright is married to a theatre director, Martin Murphy, and has two children, one of whom was sitting the Junior Cert exams the week we met. She herself is the youngest of five and grew up in Terenure, in South Dublin, believing from early on that she would be a writer.

“I forgot you have to actually write a book,” Enright said, adding that she was not prepared for how hard it would be. She wrote her first, a collection of short stories called “The Portable Virgin,” on weekends while working weekdays as a television producer. She was then producing children’s television for RTE, where she had previously produced an experimental arts/comedy show called “Nighthawks.”

Motherhood made writing easier, Enright said, allowing her to go from being “hugely anxious” about writing to now finding it a “source of great pleasure.” Any tendency to be precious was offset by “bills to pay” and the fact that “Books aren’t the most important thing anymore; the most important thing is right there in front of you.

“As a writer you just make things up. I sort of know now that I can make it up.”

The creation of one of characters in “The Green Road” seems prescient in that he is a gay Irish man getting married—and the book came out in May, the month that Ireland made history by becoming the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by referendum.

Enright began creating him three years ago. Dan abandoned the priesthood for New York’s East Village–very convincingly rendered although Enright has never lived in New York.

She will be in the Village next spring to teach at New York University as part of her laureate brief. “I’m trying to sort out where we’re going to live and where the kids will go to school. You have to sign your lease and then apply for schools,” she said.

Improvising is surely second nature for someone who says she starts novels without a structure in mind. And the conversation detours into perhaps a preview of her course at NYU while Enright generously offers advice: “What’s your problem with structure? If you’ve a problem with structure you write and you revise. When Beethoven sat down to write his Fifth Symphony he didn’t have it all in his head. The only thing that matters is the sentence on the page.”


Irish, U.S. fests showcase talent

POSTED ON June 17th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure


Michigan’s the Moxie Strings will be on stage at the Great American Irish Festival in Frankfort, N.Y., in July.


By Colleen Taylor

Festival season is here and in full swing. Summer festivaling marks a way of life for many Irish musicians–and many Irish music fans to boot. As a music buff myself, festival season is one of my favorite times of year because it means the chance to check out up and coming talent.

Last year’s Body & Soul festival was full of impressive musical introductions. While there, I became fans of Jape and the September Girls, and warmed to the entire electro genre in general. This year’s lineup looks equally promising.  Body & Soul, which is set out in Ballinlough Castle in Westmeath, does a commendable job of giving equal stage time to international superstars and homegrown talent. So while Leftfield and Savages might draw the crowds this year, bands like Sleep Thieves and The Eskies will represent Ireland well.

Dublin’s the Eskies are a unique choice, and their music will be unlike anything else heard throughout the weekend. The band has labeled their style “sea soaked Gypsy folk,” but that description doesn’t quite cover it. This band blends modern electro-pop with the most interesting vaudeville-esque inspirations from the past. Their music is the stuff of saloons of the early 20th century. They blend jazz, Italian tarantella, noir, ballroom waltzes, their own Irish influences, and seemingly anything else that was lively and interesting in the music halls of old. Their music is a spicy melting pot. The Eskies are ones to check out if only for the way their music stands out from the crowd. Their single “Fever” is particularly lively, and the band has recently just announced the release of their first full album, “After the Sherry Went Round.” The Eskies are hot and getting hotter, and I encourage your giving them a listen. This is like nothing else you’ll hear on the radio—it’s the thrill of centuries-old parties brought back to life.


The Eskies, a Dublin band that are not like anything you’ll hear on the radio, are hot and getting hotter.

Another Dublin band, Sleep Thieves, will be treating the crowds at Body&Soul to their interesting new sounds. If The Eskies are straight out of the ‘20s, Sleep Thieves are the stuff of the ‘80s. They blend disco, electro pop, and a touch of new age influences to make their light, fresh sound. Just off the release of their album, “You Want the Night,” Sleep Thieves are not only impressing people in Ireland, they’re gaining fans in New York and L.A. as well. This hints toward an American break for the Irish band soon. Maybe the ‘80s aren’t dead after all.

The wild card at Body&Soul will be The Young Folk, a band who is just what their name says: a youthful, fresh take on folk music. The festival at Ballinlough is known for its electro music, but The Young Folk will bring tradition and heritage to the stage. And that’s just what I like about this band: their genuine commitment to the roots. No doubt they are breaking new ground and producing original material in their new approach to folk and Americana music, but all in all, they are standard Folk at the end of the day, just as their name proclaims. This band is the proof that something doesn’t have to be ground-breaking to be good music. In fact, The Young Folk are singing proof of the folk tradition’s immortality in Ireland. They will be performing material from their new album, “The Little Battle,” which will be available in the States on June 30 and which I’ll be reviewing in full in a couple weeks.

On this side of the Atlantic, Irish music fans are gearing up with anticipation for the Great American Irish Festival, which will take place at the end of July 24-26 in Frankfort, N.Y. The lineup boasts of some of Irish Music’s superstars, from the incomparable Eileen Ivers, to two of Canada’s best Irish bands, Searson and the Glengarry Boys, as well as Celtic rock legends, Hair of the Dog.

But there are some new names there of interest as well – for instance, 1916, a young Celtic punk rock band out of Rochester. While a lot of their music’s thematics have to do with boxing (which isn’t exactly my area of expertise), their cohesive sound is surprisingly worth commending. They produce an unforced mix of electric guitar, punk interpretations from the Pogues, Celtic influences, and their own New York flare. They will no doubt take the stage very loudly in Frankfort, showing the punk legacy of the Pogues still thrives.


The Young Folk will bring tradition and heritage to the stage at Ballinlough Castle.

Michigan’s the Moxie Strings call themselves “a new string initiative.” The young trio, formed in 2012, blends Irish instrumentation and Americana music with a touch of rock n’ roll through their signature electric cello. In short, this band is old music seen through fresh young eyes. Their instrumentation is unimposing, yet vibrant; they’ll have you hearing old, familiar tunes like you’ve never heard them before. The Moxie Strings are full of energy, youth and the future of Irish trad, which increasingly in this decade has been harmoniously coupled with Americana.

Summer is no doubt an exciting season for Ireland and Irish America’s new bands. Get yourself to the Great American Irish Festival to hear Moxie Strings for yourself, or if you happen to be in Ireland and in the mood for a trip to Westmeath, check out the Young Folk or the Eskies. I can promise they’ll be more to come on these bands in future.


Man who said no to ‘never’

POSTED ON June 17th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure


Ed Lucas with his son Christopher Lucas

Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott


Said the 14-year Yankees star and current Dodgers manager Don Mattingly: “For Ed Lucas to be able to do what he’s done on a daily basis for all of these years is amazing. I have an incredible amount of admiration for him, and am inspired by his story.”

Now, Ed Lucas tells that remarkable story himself, with assistance from his son Christopher, in “Seeing Home.” It begins in Jersey City in 1951 with a 12-year-old boy losing his sight when hit in the face by a baseball and then follows his journey through a decades-long, Emmy-winning career in broadcasting.

Today, Lucas has been inducted into three halls of fame, including — on the same day in 2009 with Paul O’Neill, Walter O’Malley, Jim Joyce, Vin Scully and Steven Garvey – the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame.

He was told over the years that a blind person would never amount to anything besides begging in the streets and that a person with a guide dog had never graduated from Seton Hall. There would be many more “nevers” in his life.

“So many times,” writes Ed Lucas in his memoir, “I’d blown right past all of the ‘nevers,’ I had completely erased the word from my vocabulary.”

book cover

Ed Lucas

Date of birth: Jan. 3, 1939

Place of birth: Jersey City, N.J.

Spouse: Allison

Children: Edward, 48 Christopher, 46

Residence: Union, N.J.


Published works:

“Seeing Home: The Ed Lucas Story”; weekly column (“As I See It”) in the Jersey Journal.


  What is your writing routine?

I am blessed to work with my son, Christopher, as my collaborator. We each bring a different viewpoint to the story at hand, which always sharpens and deepens the final result. Working together has also made our relationship stronger. I recommend it for every parent.


What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read, read, and then read some more. Don’t just stick to stuff that interests you. If you want to grow as a writer, explore other worlds through the written word. Here’s a great experiment; go to a bookstore and pick a magazine from the rack that deals with a topic that you’ve never really had any interest in. Buy it and read it from cover to cover. I guarantee that you will find at least one article that will give you some fresh insight and a little more perspective as a writer.


Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

“Wait Till Next Year” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. A great story about the everlasting bond between a parent and child, forged through an affinity for baseball. I love all of her books, but this one hits closest to home for me.

“’Tis” by Frank McCourt. The sense of wonder in McCourt’s storytelling always draws me right in, no matter how many times I experience it. Every writer should take lessons from his work.

“The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” by Stephen King. Not your typical Stephen King novel, this is my all-time favorite from his canon. Mr. King’s clever blend of suspense and baseball, through the tale of a little girl lost in the woods, and her reliance on memories of a Boston Red Sox star to help her survive the ordeal, makes it quite compelling.


What book are you currently reading?

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough. Another fine work from a master at his craft.


Is there a book you wish you had written?

The baseball rule book, so that I could add a passage allowing a 76-year-old blind man just one chance to pitch for the Yankees.


Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

“Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” by Charles Leerhsen. A new book that’s wonderfully researched and written. It dispels many of the myths that we all think we know about Ty Cobb.


If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

Saint Paul. His divinely inspired words helped to change and influence the whole world. Just to be in his presence and to feel the passion responsible for his writing, even for a few moments, would be a thrill.


What book changed your life?

The Holy Bible. It continues to shape my actions and change me for the better on a daily basis.


What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

My roots and family are on the west coast, so I’d have to say anywhere in Galway or Cork.


You’re Irish if…

You can face any adversity in life with a chuckle. The ability to laugh, even in our darkest moments, is one of God’s greatest gifts to those of us with Irish blood in our veins. I thank Him every day for it.

Dad wasn’t a Dev fan

POSTED ON June 16th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

de valera in 1951

Éamon de Valera on the campaign trail in 1951.

By Tom Phelan

I was 10 years old when Éamon de Valera came to Mountmellick on a Saturday evening to stump for the Fianna Fáil candidates running for office in the Laois/Offaly constituency. Our parish priest, Father Burbage, had been influential in arranging the great man’s visit. Supposedly Burbage had spent time in prison with de Valera after the Black and Tans discovered a revolver hidden in the priest’s house.

In 1951, Dev, as most people called him, was still somewhat of a mythical figure. Even those who did not agree with his politics were worshipful of the rebel who had evaded the firing squad in Dublin after the rising of 1916 and who had later escaped from an English prison.
Weeks in advance, Mountmellick’s streets were swept. Celebratory bunting crisscrossed the welcome route. Tricolors fluttering from telephone and electric poles were yeast to the excitement.

Dev’s visit was as anticipated in some quarters as the second coming of Brian Boru. Plans were made to attend no matter what the cost. People would spill out onto the highways and byways and cycle for miles; they would come in their ass-carts and horse-carts; they would arrive packed together in the backs of lorries; they would tumble out of overfull cars, limp and hobble to the Square to see and hear and cheer their hero.

I asked Dad if I could go to see Dev, but he wouldn’t allow it. I pleaded with him, said I would be the only boy in the National School who would not be there. But Dad was unbending. During the week before the big day I tried to change Dad’s mind so many times that he finally shouted, “If you mention Dev one more time I’ll give you a good clout!

There was a back-story to Dad’s adamancy.

When Dev became prime minister in 1932, he announced that he was stopping payments on a substantial debt owed to England. Dev might as well have shot his own country in the two feet, as well as in the head and the heart. A six-year economic war with London began. Exports to the Old Mother were stopped, and many Irish farmers were caught with their farms stocked with beef that now had no buyer. Dad had to sell off cattle for 35 shillings a head—about 1/20th of the normal market price. From then on, any time Dev’s name was spoken in Dad’s presence it was met with a snort of derision, followed by “Bastard!”

And so, on the evening Dev came to town, I was driving our pony while Dad guided the turnip seeder along the top of the newly opened drills in Jer Dunne’s field. The pony did not need any directing until we reached the end of each drill; then she had to be turned around and steered into the next furrow. Any horseman as good as Dad would have been embarrassed to be seen needing assistance handling a single draught animal, but there was a high hedge between the field and the Commons Road.

In the sky there was not the tiniest cloud, and the sun was still high above the Slieve Bloom even as eight o’clock rang out in the church tower a mile away. The sound of the walkers, the bikers, the donkey-and-carters, and the horse-and-carters on the road beside the field had stopped long ago. As the pony and Dad and I trudged in silence up and down in the clay, I fought to keep myself from asking one last time to be allowed to go to the town. I was afraid Dad would shout out the shaming words he used when he believed I wasn’t pulling my weight on the farm: “How do you think the food is put on the table, the clothes on your back, the boots on your feet? You must think everything falls out of the sky.” And finally the words that always cut me to the liver: “You’re nothing but lazy!”

As the tolls of the eight o’clock bell faded into the countryside, an amplified voice sounded out like the voice of a corncrake: it was here, it was there, it was an echo, it was everywhere. Then we heard an enormous roar that went on and on. I looked at Dad but he was absorbed in steering the seed barrow. A voice in the amplifier tried to be heard over the cheering. The voice stopped and waited for silence, then tried again. The cheering faded. Then Dev’s voice filled the world.

I was overcome by the absolute necessity to be in the place where everyone else was, to be able to say in school on Monday morning that I had been there, that I had seen the great hero. There were tears in my eyes as I begged, “Please, Dad, can I go?”
“Whoa!” Dad shouted at the pony and brought her to a stop.

For a moment my heart soared.

Then Dad spoke. “Look at me, Tom. Look at me! De Valera won’t sow our turnips. Now drive on.”

This is an extract from Tom Phelan’s memoir in progress. His latest novel is “Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told” (Arcade). For more information go to


Tom Phelan.




Yeats’s tower was retreat, inspiration

POSTED ON June 13th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure, News

ThoorBallylee_Cuirt2015 12ThoorBallylee_Cuirt2015 1ThoorBallylee_Cuirt2015 2ThoorBallylee_Cuirt2015 3Yeats1923W.B. Yeats in 1923.


By Peter McDermott

A generous check from an American lawyer has boosted the cause of W.B. Yeats’s County Galway home ahead of today’s 150th anniversary celebrations.

But supporters locally and in the U.S. believe this is just one step in making the former summer retreat, the tower at Ballylee, into what they call a “world-class Yeats cultural center.”

Joseph Hassett, a graduate of Harvard Law School and the author of “W.B. Yeats and the Muses,” gave €31,000 to the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society. The Buffalo, N.Y.-born, Washington-based Hassett first visited the Yeats Summer School in 1963 and subsequently obtained a PhD from University College Dublin.

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames, chairperson of the society, reported that his gift has been quickly followed by a successful fundraising auction and a second welcome check from another Yeats expert.

The senator recently gave an awestruck Dublin-based academic a tour of the property at Ballylee. “She told me ‘I can’t believe I’m on the winding stair,’ Healy Eames recalled.

The woman — who was referring to the tower feature that gave its name to Yeats’s 1929 collection of poetry — last week sent the society a check for €5,000.

The society leased the property from Fáilte Ireland, which had repaired 2009 flood damage. Prior to that, from 1965, Thoor Ballylee had housed a Yeats museum.

The new project has enlisted some high-profile supporters. One of them, Minister for State for Diaspora Affairs Jimmy Deenihan, believes that the building near Gort could serve both as an attraction for the general visitor and as a major center for Yeats studies.

“It has extraordinary untapped potential,” he told the Echo on Thursday.

“The bulk of the money will come from Ireland and that’s only right,” Deenihan said. “But people in the United States will want to have the opportunity to be associated with it.”

To that end, he said, Janet Moran-Hamill in New York and Chicago activist Billy Lawless, a Galway native, are organizing fundraisers in coming months.

Two years ago, Deenihan suggested that his then Fine Gael party colleague Healy Eames lead the local effort.

“Politicians don’t usually get involved in committees not in their own constituency,” said Healy Eames, who now sits as an independent in the Seanad. “But this is a labor of love.”

The Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society has put a price tag of €1 million on its dream of a cultural center, but the immediate aim is to have the doors open to the public from 11 a.m. through 6 p.m. each day, at least until September.

Meanwhile, said Senator Healy Eames, the society was due to celebrate the “big occasion” of the 150th today with a party at Thoor Ballylee.

A first home

“He had long been struck by the stark beauty of a medieval tower-house or castle keep buried in a little river-valley near Coole, and had written about it in ‘The Celtic Twilight,’” says R.F. Foster in his second volume of “W.B. Yeats: A Life.”

During the First World War, an opportunity came up to buy it from the Congested Districts Board. It wasn’t a seller’s market during the war, but nor was it a good time for Yeats to buy, because of his relatively straitened circumstances and also his worries about his father’s finances in New York.

Yeats, who had reached 50, had never bought a home before and confessed that Ballylee was the cause of many a sleepless night.

“Lady Gregory helped him with it, I believe,” said Andy McGowan of the Yeats Society of New York.

Long a regular at Gregory’s place at nearby Coole, the poet had no intention of ever staying at the tower alone.

“Ballylee is a good home for a child to grow up in – a place full of history & romance with plenty to do everyday,” he wrote.

He married Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917; he was 52, she 25. They had two children, Anne, born in 1919, and Michael, who arrived in 1921. The marriage was a successful one and endured until his death in 1939, but the tower had been abandoned 10 years earlier as he began to spend more time abroad.

Still, it has close associations with his family life through the 1920s and his time in public life. He was appointed to the new Senate in December 1922, and shortly afterwards was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he saw as honoring Ireland’s entry into the community of nations.

Yeats and his wife poured their energies and finances into the property they rechristened Thoor Ballylee.

Foster said that it was likely built in the 1500s but with roots back to the 1300s, which Yeats preferred to stress because of the obvious Norman connections.

By early 1922, a bedroom was ready, as was the 3rd-floor study for the poet, though the children and servants slept in the old cottages beside the tower.

Floods were always a threat, and furniture and curtains were removed in the wintertime. Says Foster: “The permanent damp seeping through limestone wall also forbade pictures, prints, or photographs of any kind.”

Oil-lamps and storm-lanterns were used, while river-water was heated in a large copper.

“It was all extremely simple, not to say uncomfortably austere,” the biographer adds.

Today, the property is of interest, said Minister of State Deenihan, because it is “associated with major works by the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century.”

“The Winding Stair” was preceded in 1928 by “The Tower,” which Deenihan said was mostly completed during his time at Ballylee.

That volume contains, for example, “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Among School Children” and “Meditations in a Time of Civil War,” which refers to a conflict that had threatened to engulf both Thoor Ballylee and Coole.

Healy Eames, whose PhD thesis on creative writing dealt with the impact a place has on literary work, said: “I can see how Thoor Ballylee was an inspiration.”

Once, at the end of a very tough political day, the senator drove the 30 minutes from her home at Oranmore, Co. Galway, to Ballylee. After a few minutes there, Healy Eames said, “my mood was transformed.”

Tax deductible donations can be made, through the Ireland Funds, at In New York, Janet Moran-Hamill can be contacted at 718-374-1611 or


Folk taps into shared heritage

POSTED ON June 12th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

Jack Harris

Wales’ Jack Harris cites Irish folk as an influence.

By Colleen Taylor

Summer is the season of folkies. As a self-professed folkie fetishist, I always enjoying revamping my music collection with new folk songs when the weather turns warm. This summer, I find myself looking to some of Irish folk’s favorite cousins across the Irish Sea in Scotland, England, and Wales. On this side of the pond, those musical cultures are sometimes overshadowed by the impressive, thriving presence of Irish folk music, but many English folk artists share a common interest in Irish folk music and enjoy collaborating with Ireland’s best musical innovators. One of the most extraordinary things about modern-day folk music is global collaboration and shared heritage. Ireland, England, and Scotland share a common musical proclivity when it comes to folk music, and they are happy to exchange and produce new interpretations of that common history. Lately, I’ve been listening to Bellowhead and Newton Faulkner and becoming gradually more enchanted by Jack Harris and Karine Polwart.

Bellowhead is a contemporary folk band based in England but its 11 members come from all over England, Ireland, and even the States. Unlike the typical folk solo artist, this band has an impressive presence onstage. With 11 members and many more instruments as ammunition, Bellowhead is able to make folk music loud and dramatic. In particular, the band is known for mixing some jazz flare into the traditional folk chords—they have trumpets, tambourines, and saxophones to match their concertinas and melodeons. The band has released five original studio albums, the latest of which is “Revival” (2014). Their third album, “Hedonism,” was the highest selling independently-released folk album of all time. Sadly, however, it looks like the Bellowhead legacy will be coming to a premature end. The band just announced two farewell tours, the first in November of this year, and the second in April and May of 2016. With lead singer Jon Boeden taking a break, the band collectively decided to call it a day and go out with a bang. Still, plenty of time remains to enjoy what Bellowhead has to offer.   Their song “London Town” is one of my favorites. They also recorded a stunning choir piece, “Pslam 143,” with Dublin’s Christ Church choir.


Bellowhead’s members come from all over.

Newton Faulkner has played a large part in keeping folk music contemporary and cool in England. Known for his percussionist style of guitar playing and his signature dreadlocks, this Surrey singer blends pop and folk into a fun acoustic fusion of acoustic. “Gone in the Morning,” for instance, is an energetic, playful song: you’ll hear how Faulkner is keeping folk music fresh for young ears. His first studio album, “Hand Built by Robots” was number 1 in 2007, and now he is working on his fifth studio album.

Welshman Jack Harris cites Irish folk as a main influence in his songwriting. His performances display him as a modern-day seanchaí, crafting songs and stories alike. His interests are primarily folk music, but he also incorporates blues, country, and even gospel, as well as has a talent for poetry. As a young teenager, he was the first international musician to win the songwriting competition at Texas’s Kerryville Folk Festival. He joined the likes of Steve Earle, a previous winner, in that honor. As of 2015, Harris has released three studio albums and his latest, “The Flame and the Pelican” reached number six in the EuroAmericana Charts. My favorite on this album, “Donegal,” found its romantic inspiration in the Irish countryside. It’s a gorgeous love song and proves Harris’s skill as a ballad writer.


Karine Polwart has won a number of BBC Radio awards.

Karine Polwart can be classified as Scotland’s Cara Dillon. She started out as a member of the Battlefield Band, but has had great success as a solo singer-songwriter. Polwart has won a number of BBC Radio Folk Awards and Scottish album awards. With six studio albums under her belt already, there’s certainly more great folk music to come from the singer. I’ve been listening regularly to her most recent release, “Threshold,” released in 2013. It’s soft, acoustic, and moving music. Her vocals are sweet and poignant—they are effective, despite their tranquility. Try listening to “Rivers Run” or “Daisy.” If Kate Rusby is the Queen of English Folkies, Polwart is certainly in the running for Scotland’s crown.


Newton Faulkner is keeping folk fresh for young ears.

The folk music scene across the Atlantic is arguably as rich and innovative as it was two centuries ago. Today, the best folk artists welcome global influences with big, open arms, but they never lost sight of the honored cultural heritage to which we all belong.

Colleen Taylor writes the “Music Notes” column in the Irish Echo.

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