Hugh Carey, the late governor of New York, will be discussed and honored at a conference from July 12-16 near his ancestral village in the west of Ireland.
A plaque will be unveiled at Milltown Heritage Park close
to Tuam, Co. Galway, as part of “The Irish-American Link: People, Places and Culture.”
Scholar and genealogist Anne Rodda will detail his family roots at a session earlier in the afternoon of July 15, while that morning the Irish Echo and Kean University’s Terry Golway will give a lecture entitled “From Ireland to Albany: Governor Hugh Carey’s Irish-American Journey.”
Carey isn’t the only American figure with Milltown roots who’ll
be mentioned at the event based
at the Ard Rí House Hotel in Tuam. Tim Collins of the National University of Ireland, Galway,
will speak on “Major Dick Dowling, Hero of Confederate Texas.” Dowling, who was born in Milltown and emigrated to America with
his family at age 8, was the South’s victorious commander at the
Second Battle of Sabine Pass in
1863 and a leading businessman
Tuam, native Col. Patrick Kelly,
who was killed leading the
North’s Irish Brigade in 1864,
will be the subject of a lecture
given by Brendan Higgins, a NUI, Galway, researcher and a member
of the Old Tuam Society, which is hosting the conference.
Prof. Christine Kinealy of Drew University in New Jersey, who initially suggested the Tuam conference, is amongst those traveling from America to speak.
In all, there will be 28 lectures over the three weekend days,
while the Thursday and the Monday will be given over to full-day heritage tours of West and East Galway. For more details and information about booking, go to www.irishamericanlink.com.
The writer and activist (and later Nobel Peace Prize winner) Emily Greene Balch commented in 1910 that the “newcomers, encountering Irish policemen, Irish politicians, Irish bureaucrats, Irish saloon keepers, Irish contractors, and Irish teachers could be excused for thinking that ‘Irish’ meant American.”
In “The Irish Way,” University of Illinois, Urbana, historian James R. Barrett shows that the Americanization process in multiethnic urban centers “assumed a peculiarly Hibernian cast” in the early decades of the 20th century.
The Irish in this story are of the second and third generations, those shaped “not in the countryside but in the streets of America’s largest cities.” Barrett’s is a street-level view, focusing, he says, on the influence of priests, educators, gangsters, ward heelers, union activists and vaudeville entertainers.
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
I wish I could say that I was disciplined and regular in my habits, but there are usually so many things going on that I simply write whenever I can get blocks of time. I write best in the mornings (aging brain cells) and then I do revising and editing later in the day. If there are ideal conditions, I’ve not found them. My favorite writing space is a little apartment in Chicago with no phone and no internet service. It is in the middle of the city — the subject for a lot of my work. I look out the window every once in a while or take a walk around the city. Otherwise, I sit and work. I love it.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Ask trusted friends and colleagues to read your work, but stick to your own instincts. Be prepared to work very hard and for motivation remember that writing can and should change the world.
Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
“Brooklyn: A Novel,” by Colm Toibín: a young immigrant makes her way in an Irish-American enclave and in the broader, diverse society of New York.
“Final Payments,” by Mary Gordon: her first novel, about an Irish American woman negotiating family, love, and the Church – no one said it was going to be easy.
“A Song for Mary,” by Dennis Smith: the fireman-writer’s memoir of growing up in Hell’s Kitchen and his mother’s crusade to hold the family together in the face of poverty. It reminded me of my own mom.
What book are you currently reading?
Usually two or three at a time – right now: “Malcolm X,” by Manning Marable and “Irish on the Inside,” by Tom Hayden. It is important to remember from whence we came.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
“Five Points: The Nineteenth Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum,” by Tyler Anbinder.
Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.
“In the Memory of the Forest: A Novel,” by Charles T. Powers: dark secrets lay buried in a small town as the Communist government of Poland begins to collapse. A kind of a mystery, but profound on the implications of remembering and forgetting our history.
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
John Steinbeck – he understood American society and culture.
What book changed your life?
“Black Boy” by Richard Wright. When I read it at age 16, it moved me to think about my own background; about race – the central problem in U.S. history; and about my city, Chicago.
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
For beauty, the Fijord at Leenane. For history, the courtyard of Kilmainham Jail, Dublin.
You’re Irish if . . .
You feel an obligation to stick up for the little guy … and you get in a lot of fights.
“The Irish Way” is published in hardcover by the Penguin Press. It is priced at $29.95.
This past weekend, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann held its Provincial meeting in St. Louis, Mo. A celebration of Comhaltas’s work promoting Irish music, song, dance and language, it attracted hundreds of people from all over North America and Ireland and as always helped energize interest and support in the organization and its mission.
Two of the weekend’s major conversational topics were the fleadh cheoil the Midwest region held April 13-15 and the one the Mid-Atlantic region will hold May 18-20. Fleadh Cheoil means “festival of music.” In a fleadh, players of all ages compete in a variety of solo and group competitions according to age. Musicians who place first or second in regional fleadh competition are then qualified to compete for an All-Ireland title at the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann, which this year takes place in Cavan from Aug. 17-19.
Sean Cleland, the director of the Irish Music School of Chicago, and one of the Midwest Fleadh’s co-chairmen, told me that his Fleadh was a “huge success”; Cleland’s co-chair John O’Grady reported in the Province’s general meeting that the number of students was “significantly more than last year.” With interest in playing Irish music surging and a high playing standard more widespread than ever, Mid-Atlantic Fleadh organizers are preparing for similarly substantial numbers.
The Mid-Atlantic Fleadh is a special event. Frankie McCormack, the Fleadh’s co-chair, sees the event as, “one of the few opportunities to get a collection of musicians, singers and dancers together in one place, and a good time for new and old to meet.”
Fleadh secretary Terry Rafferty loves how each year it brings kids and families together to keep the music going. Ultimately, it embodies the spirit of volunteerism – parents help out in event preparations, civic organizations donate rehearsal space and local businesses get involved in fundraising events that help send students to the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. All of this strengthens the bonds of community.
From a musician’s point of view, Fleadh preparation is a demanding process. Rose Flanagan of the Pearl River School (which includes Patty Furlong, Margie Mulvihill and Brendan Dolan), for example, starts preparing her students in January in small classes that offer a good amount of individualized study. The New York Sligo fiddle style she teaches emphasizes careful attention to bowing first and only later on adds ornamentation and variation. “I really drill the bowing into them,” Flanagan joked. It’s a long and sometimes arduous path.
Erin Loughran, Comhaltas’s North American Province Youth Officer who competed in many fleadhanna growing up, understands the excitement and anxiety associated with competition preparation. “It definitely made you practice more and gave you something to work towards,” but it also brought “a very, very high level of stress.” Ultimately, though, she returned to the experience each year because “it’s fun putting your tunes together and practicing with your friends – there’s definitely a social aspect to it.” Today, Loughran has dozens of her own students.
Like the Pearl River School, the Acosta School of Irish Music & Dance, the Woodlawn House of Irish Music and other schools around New York City, the students Loughran, Flanagan and others work to prepare develop confidence and skill in their playing over time.
In addition to a full range of competitions and Ceilithe with the Dartry Ceili Band, new to the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh this year is Tír na nÓg, a non-qualifying competition for children under 10 years of age, intended to introduce kids to the music and the competitions. In addition, the Rafferty family has donated a cup for the winner of Senior Trio Over 18 competition, in the memory of Mike Rafferty, who won the competition in Ireland with Mary McDonagh and Cathy McGinty in 1984.
As well as fleadh events, the weekend includes the Hall of Fame Banquet. This year’s inductees are Jerry O’Sullivan, Jesse Winch and the late Johnny “Accordion” Cronin.
Tom Johnston had never heard his niece, 22-year-old Deirdre Forrest, sing a single note until she asked him if they could perform together at a New Jersey open mic night a little over two years ago. Tom was pleasantly surprised to hear that his niece had a hidden talent – perfect pitch without any vocal training, and a knack for writing poetry that she would later put to music. Tom, an accountant/musician who hadn’t performed for an audience in 25 years, and Deirdre, a teacher who had kept quiet about her talent and her dream of performing, have been making music together and gaining recognition for it ever since that open mic night in 2009. When I asked Tom to describe the experience thus far, he exuded joy as he said “the past two years have been filled with one surreal moment after another,” and that’s why they call themselves Beannacht, the Irish word for blessing.
Tom and Deirdre’s blessings have come in the form of the 67 live shows they performed in 2011, the release of their first album, “Gra na Firinne” (Love of Truth), and being named the best new act at the New Jersey Acoustic Music Awards in Asbury Park last year. Add to the list their growing bond as niece and uncle, and their journey as two songwriters honing their craft and cranking out some sweet melodies and powerful lyrics, and you’ll see why the two have been feeling very blessed lately.
While Beannacht’s sound spans a few genres including rock, folk, and blues, Tom said that “Irish Music is the foundation.” Their album doesn’t feature any traditional songs, but you’ll pick up on the Irish influence as soon as you hear Tom’s bodrhan and tin whistle on a few of the tracks. When I asked Tom about the duo’s musical influences he gave credit to Cherish the Ladies and Clannad as well as Deirdre’s upbringing in the world of competitive Irish step dancing. Like most bands, Beannacht’s sound is always evolving, and as they continue to write songs and perform together Tom and Deirdre are growing even closer to the traditional sounds of their Irish heritage. Fans can expect a more prominent Irish sound on their next album, due out in the Fall.
The duo have accomplished more than most acts in their first two years of performing, from the revelation that niece and uncle had a shared musical bond, to the six award nominations they received for the 2012 New Jersey Acoustic Music Awards. Throughout the whirlwind of their quickly blossoming musical career one very special moment stands out for Tom. He had sent Beannacht’s album to relatives in Belfast, where his grandfather grew up and became a well known singer. His Irish relatives buzzed about the similarities between Tom’s voice and his grandfather’s. Tom had never met his grandfather, but to know that he had a place in the music of Beannacht “was a very special compliment” said Tom, a blessing indeed.
Folks in New Jersey will have two chances to check out Beannacht this week, on 5/2 at the Cambridge Inn in Spotswood and at Grover’s Mill Coffee House in West Windsor on 5/4.
New York City welcomes some Irish acts to town this week with Julie Feeney at The Irish Arts Center in NYC from 5/2 – 5/6, the Cranberries at Terminal 5 in NYC on 5/2 and 5/4, and Mary Courtney at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum in The Bronx on 5/4.
A truly brilliant artist will be in New York City for ten nights at the Irish Arts Center, beginning April 25. She’s the Galway born, award-winning composer, singer, and music producer, Julie Feeney.
I’ve spent all week with her latest album “Pages,” admiring the charming lyrics, captivated by her flawless voice, and completely amazed by the amount of talent that one person can have. Julie wrote all of the words and music, produced, sang, and conducted the orchestra for the entire album. I’d say she deserves a very warm welcome in the Big Apple.
Although Julie’s musical history consists of a stint with the Irish choral group, Anuna, the sound that she has created throughout her solo career is described as chamber-pop – a genre
that fuses pop and classical music, featuring lush instrumentation and elaborate melodies.
While her albums are award winning, the buzz is really about Julie’s stage presence and the magic of her live shows. After seeing her perform at Joe’s Pub last year, executive director of the Irish
Arts Center, Aidan Connolly, simply described her show as “a knock-out.”
And if you think that an unconventional, theatrical, costume-wearing artist accompanied by an ensemble of singers, strings, pianos and trumpets is out of place at the Irish Arts Center, then you’ve got the wrong idea about the center and the innovative opportunities Connolly and his crew are offering audiences.
When it comes to live music at the Irish Arts center Connolly says, “The world is our oyster, we are looking to provide audiences with special, intimate live music experiences … contemporary music is an important part of the picture.”
Although he admits that new endeavors come with their fair share of obstacles and hard work, he exudes excitement when he speaks about creating a musical residency for a contemporary artist and allowing New York City to be a “creative home” for an Irish musician. For Julie Feeney, the Irish Arts Center will be a great home. It’s an intimate environment cultivated by creative staff, loyal supporters, audiences that are passionate about all kinds of music coming out of Ireland, and an executive director dedicated to providing truly memorable musical experiences.
Julie Feeney’s Irish Arts Center residency is running from April 25 – May 6, with performances Wednesday-Sunday evenings at 8pm. Visit irishartscenter.org for details and tickets.
For other Irish sounds around town this weekend you’ll have to choose from Susan McKeown at the New York Irish Center in Queens on 4/28, or Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul at Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington, LI, on 4/28. You can also catch Brian Conway playing the music of Turlough O’Carolan at An Beal Bocht Café in the Bronx on 4/29.
Irish-American actor John Cusack says he leapt at the chance to play 19th century poet and author Edgar Allen Poe in “The Raven,” a moody mystery about a string of murders inspired by the works of the master of macabre himself.
Known for his likable every-man roles in films like “Sixteen Candles,” “Say Anything,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “Con Air,” “Pushing Tin,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “High Fidelity,” “America’s Sweethearts,” “Runaway Jury” and “2012,” the 45-year-old Evanston, Ill., native offers perhaps his most daring performance to date as Poe, the Boston-born literary icon Cusack described as the “godfather of goth.”
Among Poe’s works are the poems “The Raven,” “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee,” and short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Murders at the Rue Morgue,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Premature Burial” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” An alcoholic who experienced staggering personal losses throughout his short life, he died from unknown causes in 1849 at the age of 40.
Helmed by “V for Vendetta” director James McTiegue, “The Raven” is a fictionalized thriller in which Poe teams up with a Baltimore detective, played by Luke Evans, to pursue a serial killer. British actress Alice Eve plays Poe’s love interest Emily, while Irish film star Brendan Gleeson plays her father, Col. Hamilton.
“I just thought, as an actor, playing Poe and getting under the skin of this very complex genius … I think any actor would want to play him, and think it was a great challenge and opportunity,” Cusack told reporters at a recent Los Angeles press conference. “I was just up for it 100 percent.”
To prepare to play the famously troubled scribe, Cusack said he immersed himself in his real-life writing.
“I think the script was terrific and then James and I went through it with the writers and some people and tried to pull as much of Poe’s own dialogue as we could from his letters and novels, so we put that cadence and idiom into the structure of this genre story, which is basically kind of a Poe story where Poe becomes a character in one of his own stories.
So, you have Poe deconstructing Poe,” Cusack explained. “So, even though it is a fantasy, I was probably a little bit obsessive and drove James crazy. I was like, ‘Poe said this and Poe said that.’ I was always trying to use his own vernacular and his own words as much as I could in a fictional setting. So, we were trying to square that circle in a way.”
So, what did the actor learn about Poe through his experience of making “The Raven?”
“I think his feelings of abandonment and loneliness from losing his mother, then his stepmother and then his wife, I think he felt like he was sort of this orphan of the world,” Cusack observed. “And he was this genius and kind of a bastard. He was a rogue and he was all the things you think of him naturally like inward-looking and melancholy and soulful and all those things. But I think he was kind of this blasted soul. He was kind of a wanderer and I think everybody can relate to that.
He’s become a sort of a shadow archetype of the culture. He was like a pioneer into the underworld. I think he was a fascinating figure.”
The actor admitted shooting the film in Hungary and Serbia during the winter and largely at night took its toll on him and it was weeks after production wrapped before he was able to shake off the gloomy character.
“I just sort of felt like I became a vampire and I would sort of cling to Alice and I don’t know if I was disagreeable, but I might have been,” Cusack confessed. “It felt like a bender, but in a good way; kind of a cool bender. I know when I finished we were at the airport in London and James said, ‘You’ve got to go home, man!’ And I went back home and I did scare my family. They said, ‘What the [expletive] happened to you?’ I was pretty strung out … It’s the kind of thing where you have to go all in. I think whether you like the film or not, I think we all went all in … It seemed like the only way to go.”
“The Raven” opens nationwide
Friday. It is rated R.
“With traditional music it takes a generation,” Billy McComiskey recently told me. “You don’t realize what you’ve done until you look back on it.” While it’s been well more than a generation for the Augusta Irish/Celtic Week, the first program to celebrate traditional Irish music and heritage in the United States, and now marking its 30th anniversary, when we look back at its history we find one of this country’s – and this music’s – most enduring and important cultural and educational institutions.
It all started out fairly innocuously. In the late 1970s, the Irish repertoire was fast becoming part of the burgeoning American new-folk scene and Mick Moloney was one of a very small number of Irish musicians performing off traditional music’s beaten track, places largely dominated by old time and bluegrass music.
He made quite an impression with these audiences, particularly at the weekend festivals that were part of the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops that had been held on the campus of Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia since 1972.
There was a buzz about Moloney’s performances, so when the Augusta program was overhauled and renamed “Augusta Heritage Center” in 1981, the program’s director, Margo Blevin, contacted Moloney about organizing a one-off Irish music teaching week – something in the spirit of the infamous Willie Clancy Week in Miltown Malbay, County Clare. Moloney thought it was a great idea, so the following summer he came down with Billy McComiskey and Liz Carroll to an eager group of 45 students.
McComiskey remembers his class being a potpourri of instruments, everything from autoharps to flutes. Carroll took the fiddles while Moloney taught those with stringed instruments not played with a bow.
“The important thing about those first couple of years was that Mick was astute,” McComiskey told me.
“Right from the very beginning he presented the music as a bunch of different instruments cooperating – students and teachers alike.” This group established a spirit of camaraderie between instructor and learner, an important dynamic that over the years has become the hallmark of the Augusta week.
The success of the first year guaranteed a second, with Tim Britton (uilleann pipes) and Donny Golden (dance) invited to teach. Then year after year, as the student body grew, so did the number of instructors and course offerings – classes in dancing, storytelling and crafts as well as lectures on Irish history and culture complemented an already rich environment of singing and music.
“We watched the Irish-American scene grow before our eyes,” Moloney told me, nostalgically. “It became kind of like a graduate seminar for Irish and Irish American culture.”
While the week’s numbers have consistently increased, the intimacy remains. “It was our family,” Moloney told me. “We got to know each other there.” This, in part, due to the small, walkable campus, but also because of an environment lined with top players. “We had the very best, always,” Moloney mused.
“You came and met the best from this side of the Atlantic, but also the homeland.” This has included people like James Kelly, Kevin Burke, Johnny Cunningham, Seamus Connolly, Jerry O’Sullivan, the Mulcahy Family, John Skelton, Jack Coen, Robbie O’Connell, Jerry Holland, Zan McCleod, Albert Alfonso, Seamus Egan, Eileen Ivers and Joanie Madden (who was the artistic director for the last five years).
One of Augusta’s most enduring and best-loved characters was the truly legendary singer Frank Harte, who was a fixture there for 15 years.
“Frank held court, but also understood the need that students had to be heard and to be appreciated, because he had the same need,” the Augusta Heritage Center’s current director Joyce Rossbach told me.
Out of this environment came some of today’s best and brightest players. For example, uilleann piper master Benedict Kohler (who many feel makes the world’s finest chanters and reeds) was there. Beverly Buchanan of the group Liam’s Fancy started out there as well. In fact, a modern generation of top younger players – people like Cleek Schrey, Jim Egan, Sean McComiskey, Elliot Grasso, Matt Mulqueen, Brendan Callahan, Caitlin Finley and Patrick Armstrong – all passed through Elkins.
Augusta’s tradition of excellence and intimate dedicated study continues this year with a staff that includes Patrick Ourceau, Mick Conneely, Cillian Vallely, Ivan Goff, Brían Ó hAirt, Niall O’Leary, Donna Long, Marla Fibish, Dennis Cahill, and many more. Imitated but never duplicated, it is a special place that after 30 years has proven its mettle in the history of Irish America, and done so in a very fundamental way.
To learn more, visit: http://augustaheritagecenter.org/irishceltic.
In town with his one-man hit show “Being Shakespeare,” British actor Simon Callow took time out recently to recall his days at Queen’s University Belfast.
“I didn’t finish,” Callow told the Echo at the show’s opening-night party at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “After a year, I ran away to become an actor.
“I was studying English, but the idea was to do acting. I got scared when I saw how good people were, and I ran away.”
First, he did a stint in his student days as Micheál Mac Liammóir’s dresser, when the legendary actor was touring Ireland with his solo show “The Importance of Being Oscar.”
Callow, a prominent gay-rights advocate, later played that very role and went on to write a book about Oscar Wilde, one of several to his credit.
Although very well known in the UK for his theater and television roles, Callow is probably best known in the U.S. for his appearances in movies such as “Amadeus” (1984), “A Room With a View” (1985) and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994).
The Catholic-raised and -educated actor jokingly referred to finally treading the boards at BAM, America’s oldest performing arts center, as “a benediction.” (He is a long-time patron of the choir at his alma mater, the London Oratory School.)
Callow’s critically acclaimed show ended its brief BAM run at the weekend after a long national tour and West End run in the UK.
The one thing “Being Shakespeare” does not get into is the possibility of him not being Shakespeare, that is the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon. The controversy over Shakespeare’s authenticity was ignited afresh with the release of the movie “Anonymous” last year.
Asked if the show’s creators had factored in revisionist theories, Callow gave a dismissive wave of his hand and said flatly, “We didn’t.”
He added: “Weirdly enough, I believe William Shakespeare was William Shakespeare.
“Jonathan Bate who wrote the play wrote a book called ‘The Genius of Shakespeare’ and he is an expert on Shakespeare,” he said.
The play shows how Shakespeare’s writing reflects events that occurred during his lifetime (1564-1616).
“People say: ‘we know so little about Shakespeare’ and we thought, well, let’s look at what we do know,” the 62-year-old Callow said. (This includes fun trivia, such as that Shakespeare invented the word “puking” and was one of the early contributors to the lawyer-joke genre.)
The fact that Shakespeare’s wife and children were illiterate doesn’t say much, Callow said, since, “most women and girls at the time were illiterate [his one son died young].
“His father certainly wasn’t illiterate. He was the mayor of Stratford,” he said, “and there are lots of documents that he wrote.”
The members and friends of the Irish American Writers & Artists were witness to a stirring presentation by Guenevere Donohue at the recent Irish-American Writers & Artists’ Salon at the Thalia Cafe. As she read from her play, “Killer is My Name,” Guen’s audience sat spellbound as she weaved storytelling, keening – a form of vocal lament – and the Irish language into performance art of the highest order.
Honor Molloy followed, reading from her father’s memoir, “Alive, Alive O.” In the scene Honor chose to read, John Molloy, a well-known Dublin television actor, is on the road with Percy the guinea pig tucked under his gansey. “ON TOUR with Ireland’s Fit-Up People. Fit up a curtain, put on a show.” Honor, as only Honor can do Honor. (Gansey? I had to look that one up: … also known as guerney, or a seaman’s knitted sweater.)
During the intermission I had a chance to speak with Ed Farrell who read from his memoir, “A Mild Cognitive Impairment: An Unexpected Memoir.” Ed said, “This whole process, our time together here at the salon, including the intermission and lingering around after the event, is so important. I’m able to share my thoughts with other writers and they with me. We need to reinforce each other.” Well said and exactly what the salon is intended to be.
Patricia Goldstone, a first time reader at a salon, exposed the first few pages of a brand-new, yet to be named play. Jim Callahan and John Moss ably assisted Patricia and couldn’t have been better. Patricia said: “The highly sophisticated audience gave me incredibly positive feedback. When people tell me they want to hear more, that’s the best news I can get!” Perfect.
Malachy McCourt, whose idea it was to create the salon, an evening in which artists share their work in an informal and convivial setting, ended a grand evening with a heartfelt rendition of the Irish folk tune, “Carrickfergus.”
Salon Notes: Maura Mulligan reported her memoir “Call of the Lark” is forthcoming from Greenpoint Press next month. John Kearns announced that his play “In the Wilderness” at Upstairs Theatre, 45 Bleecker St., would begin a one-month run on May 31.
My aunt turned 18 the year RFK was murdered. She loved Bobby. She is the least political of my family, but she was a child of the Sixties, and so she also liked that guy who was executed by the Bolivian military the previous fall.
She had the poster, and one of Jimi Hendrix and various others, including some for productions of an avant garde theatre group in Dublin, which was more her cup of tea anyway.
My grandmother, a widow, didn’t like it much when her youngest later went off to train to be a nurse in England and she kept her room in their Dublin flat much the same for years afterwards.
Once, my granny took to her bed with the flu – actually what had been my aunt’s bed because it was out of the way of drafts. The doctor that made the house call was shocked to see a small, fully gray-haired, bespectacled woman in her 60s with a large poster of Ernesto “Che” Guevara on the wall behind her.
“You’re not a fan of that man, are you?” said the MD, who was known to be a person of firmly conservative views.
“Oh, yes! I am,” my granny replied.
All of this was brought back to mind by the hullabaloo over the plan to commemorate with a statue the Argentinean-born revolutionary, himself a medical doctor, in his ancestral Galway (of course, he had several other ancestral places).
It’s easy, perhaps, at the distance of several thousand miles and four or five decades to take a misty-eyed view of revolution. Having said that, some of the critiques have been somewhat over the top, with people laying everything they don’t like about Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and much more, at the door of Che Guevara.
It’s certainly true that Guevara came from the you-can’t-make-an-omelet-without-breaking-a-few-eggs school of revolution. Castro’s government executed several hundred people in its early years. Che oversaw 100 or more of the executions and some say there was little due process. His American biographer Jon Lee Anderson, on the other hand, said that he never heard anybody say that any of the dead was innocent of their alleged crimes.
The second more general criticism of Guevara was that he simplistically believed that the Cuban model of attaining power could be applied elsewhere. He gave up the trappings of power – it’s part of his great appeal – and in the process, critics say, became a pied piper that led thousands of naïve and idealistic young people, many of them from middle-class backgrounds like himself, to their doom – which was to be cut down by ruthless dictatorships in countries such as his own Argentina.
Outside of Latin America, though, and in Europe in particular, it was different. Che, in life a doctrinaire Marxist, was in death almost a generic symbol of defiance and a not very threatening one at that. His image became, as time went on, a bland statement on behalf of social justice and equality – but obviously a statement nonetheless.
My grandmother ran her own small business and was a political moderate, unlike my left-wing grandfather. However, once in a while she liked to stir things up and certainly, in the above-mentioned incident, she welcomed the opportunity to put a member of the professional classes in his place.
It’s that generic Che – the symbol of the fight against oppression and endemic poverty – that people in Galway would like to commemorate. They don’t mean to upset anyone whose family has suffered at the hands of a police state; but nor, I suspect, are they going to be told what they can or can’t do.