Page Turner /By Peter McDermott
In the 1963-set novel “Ratlines,” Irish Minister of Justice Charles J. Haughey has a mission for Lieut. Albert Ryan of the Directorate of Intelligence. Three former Nazis who were given asylum in Ireland have turned up dead. On the last of the bodies there’s a note addressed to Col. Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favorite commando who now has an estate in County Kildare. It says: “We are coming for you.” President John F. Kennedy is about to make a visit to Ireland on a trip that also takes in Berlin, and Haughey wants it all out of the way before then. “Ryan, a World War II vet, has very mixed feelings about the investigation,” Neville said, “To say the least.”
“Ratlines” is the follow up to the much-praised Belfast Trilogy, comprising “The Ghosts of Belfast,” “Collusion” and “Stolen Souls.”
The Dubliner John Connolly, perhaps the best known of the Irish Noir novelists, has said: “‘The Ghosts of Belfast’ isn’t just an extraordinary debut novel, it’s an extraordinary novel.” Indeed, it won the 2009 L.A. Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category, as well as the Spinetingler Award for Best First Novel, and was a New York Times Notable Book in 2009.
Joseph Long, a graduate of NYU’s Master program in Irish and Irish-American studies, has been fan of Neville’s work from the beginning. He described “Ghosts” as “stunning, the proverbial page turner.”
He added: “This guy is a special talent. In his short career, he has taken chances and makes those of us who love Irish crime fiction relish in knowing he is force to reckon with.
“Stuart brings a voice from the North and augments Connolly’s writing from the South. They are the anchors that, I believe, will finally give Irish crime fiction the recognition that it deserves,” said Long, who helped organize the “Down These Green Streets” seminar at Glucksman Ireland House in the fall of 2011.
“With ‘Ratlines,’ Neville continues on his path of investigating aspects of Irish history under the veil of crime fiction. In turn, he makes his readers want more,” Long said. “Look at the amount of work that has been published in the last six months. Without doubt, Stuart’s success has influenced other writers as John has before him.”
Date of birth: Jan. 25, 1972
Place of birth: Armagh
Children: One daughter, Issy
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
I try to stick to a normal working day, but it isn’t always easy. Most of “Ratlines” was written in the study room of my local library after my daughter was born; it was the only place I could get the necessary peace and quiet.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A common mistake is to invest everything in the first novel you write without moving on. As soon as you’ve finished writing one novel, rewritten it several times, and made sure it’s as good as it can be, start writing another. Too many people keep flogging that one book without exploring other stories. In reality, many, if not most, published authors write several books before they come up with something that can sell. My debut was actually the third novel I’d written; the previous two will never see the light of day.
Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
“American Tabloid” by James Ellroy for its complexity, and its blend of historical fact and fiction. “Marathon Man” by William Goldman because it’s just about the perfect thriller. “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris because it’s the best serial killer novel ever written. That list could change on any given day.
What book are you currently reading?
My UK publisher just reissued all of Fleming’s James Bond novels, and they very kindly sent me a bunch of them. I’m reading “Live and Let Die” right now, and I’m enjoying it despite the horrendous racism and misogyny. It’s very much a book of its time.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
I wish I had the talent to write something as layered and huge in scope as “Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe. He weaves so many threads over so many pages, it’s dizzying.
Name a book you were pleasantly surprised by.
“JFK in Ireland” by Ryan Tubridy. I bought it initially for research purposes, but found it a very enjoyable and accessible glimpse into Ireland of the early 60s.
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
I’ve been very lucky to meet so many of the authors I admire, like James Ellroy and John Connolly. I’d like to meet William Goldman; I admire him both as a novelist and as a screenwriter.
What book changed your life?
“On Writing” by Stephen King gave me a lot of help when I was starting out as a writer, in terms of how to approach it as a craft. I can’t recommend that book enough to aspiring writers.
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
I’ve always been fond of the north coast of Antrim. It features a lot in “Game of Thrones.” The family of a childhood friend of mine had a cottage in the little fishing village of Cushendun that overlooked the bay, and we used to go there for weekends. You can see Scotland from the window on a clear day.
You’re Irish if . . .
You like cheese’n’onion crisps with your beer.
Theatre / By Orla O’Sullivan
“Airswimming” * Written by Charlotte Jones * Directed by John Keating * Starring Aedín Moloney and Rachel Pickup * The Fallen Angel Company at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC * Playing Wednesdays through Sundays, extended through Feb. 17 * Contact: 212-727-2737 or online at www.irishrep.org.
How is it possible not to be submerged by the most depressing life circumstances? asks “Airswimming,” which opened at the Irish Repertory Theatre on Sunday.
“Mummy said you must never say never,” chirps Persephone (Rachel Pickup) one of the play’s two characters, adding plaintively, “but you can imagine never in here. I’ll never dance again—the weight of it all kills me!”
“Here” is a mental asylum and Persephone and her cellmate, Dora (Aedín Moloney) find themselves there because they had children outside of wedlock in 1920s England.
This was the era of the Magdalene laundries, state-sanctioned, clergy-run workhouses for “fallen women,” previously fictionalized in an Irish context in the play “Eclipsed” and the 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters”.
“Airswimming” focuses on the coping mechanisms two completely opposite types of women use to rise up when dragged down to the emotional deep.
One is swimming. Since they never leave their cell—at least within the 75-minute confines of the play—this is all mime, or airswimming. And it is synchronized swimming, now that this odd couple has acclimated to each other after years of close confinement. The play was inspired by a true story.
Dora is a repressed, dry-witted, intelligent lesbian, probably lower middle class. Persephone is a flighty, upper-crust beautiful blonde with wit to match the stereotype. Her heroine later on is Doris Day; Dora’s is Joan of Arc, together with a whole succession of women who went into battle.
One wonders how Dora wound up conceiving, though incest is mentioned in the play. Persephone’s story parallels her namesake from Greek mythology, who was taken by Hades, God of the underworld. Her father had her locked away after she was impregnated by one of his friends, a man 30 years this ingénue’s senior.
The play opens with Persephone’s arrival to the asylum in 1924. She condescends to the inmate she finds, repeatedly distinguishing between herself and Dora and emphasizing that she is merely passing through. It ends in 1972, by which time she is inseparable from Dora.
The scenes move very well back and forward in time to show Persephone’s transformation from denial to resignation and assimilation.
Crucially, she and Dora indulge each other’s fantasies, the coping mechanisms that keep them almost sane.
In a beautiful scene, Persephone imagines herself at a ball, “I’m in a full-length shimmering gown, hair-up, a handheld, diamante cigarette holder… ” Dora, stumped, cannot go there. Persephone enters her world. “Oh, come on Dora! What regiment?”
Both actresses are very credible characters and the isolation of their world—or partially overlapping Venn-diagram worlds—is palpable.
Kortney Barber’s sound design adds the evocative touch of regularly played footsteps echoing on hard surfaces, footsteps that won’t stop at this cell, and instantly echo familiar prison or courthouse scenes.
What feels less solid is the broader context. How are the inmates so au fait with the outside world when no engagement is suggested?
Playwright Charlotte Jones seems not to have quite the ear for period-piece language that, say, fellow Briton Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame has. Speech patterns in “Airswimming,” her first play, feel at times too contemporary for the 1920s. Dora uses modern-sounding slang (for example, “carpet muncher”) well before the 1970s and Persephone talks quite early on of the Doris Day Pet Foundation, which wasn’t established until six years after the play is supposed to end.
Still, “Airswimming” is a quirky, moving, funny and provocative play. And it has lovely singing. Persephone’s convincing Doris Day impersonations that grate on Dora are both soothing and sinister, as the lyrics successively speak the unspeakable, from “Que Sera, Sera” on to “Once, I Had a Secret Love.”
Shilelagh Law: “Live at Connollys”
A 19-track disc that captures the excitement of a live Shilelagh Law show! Recorded at Connollys Klub 45, a venue with a long history of welcoming passionate Shilelagh Law fans, the album features all of the band’s greatest hits complete with special ingredients provided by the crowd – clinking glasses, thunders of cheering, and a lot of singing a long.
By Liz Noonan
“The Orchard” is the third solo album from the immensely talented New York City-based singer-songwriter from County Meath. It’s a collection of 13 powerful songs, and includes a guest performance by the Dublin-born Academy Award-winner Glen Hansard. There you have it, 10 of my favorite albums or 2012. Cheers to a new year and new musical discoveries!
In my very first article for the Irish Echo, published in the Jan. 4-10, 2012, issue, I shared with you my New Year’s resolution – to step it out, follow my ears to find the best music the city has to offer, and to spread the word to Irish Echo readers about all the music there is to be heard. A look back at 2012 reveals that it was a mighty year for Irish music.
As a rookie music columnist in my first year on the job, my fears about writer’s block quickly subsided. Each week that passed, the community proved that there is a deep, deep well of music to explore and share with fellow music lovers.
So before we dive into the Irish music of 2013, let’s take a look back at the best releases of 2012. Here are my top ten picks, in no particular order.
Finbar Furey: “Colours”
The latest release from the Irish musical legend is a mix of fresh renditions of classic Irish songs and powerful original songs. The album features a charming duet with Furey’s long-time friend Mary Black, “Walking with My Love,” a really lovely version of the classic song “Dan O’Hara,” and the most heartfelt rendition of Phil Coulter’s “The Old Man” that I’ve ever heard – all with a distinct rhythmic groove that runs through album weaving the songs together beautifully.
President Michael D. Higgins has led the tributes to the poet Dennis O’Driscoll who died suddenly on Christmas Eve at the age 58.
The career civil servant was rushed to hospital after being taken ill at his home in Naas, Co. Kildare. Higgins said O’Driscoll, a native of Thurles, Co. Tipperary, combined the delivery of poetry of the deepest insights and response to contemporary life with decades of committed public service to the state.
“In addition to his nine highly regarded volumes of poetry, Dennis O’Driscoll was the author of a number of works of valuable literary criticism, including his seminal ‘Stepping Stones’ based on his interviews with Seamus Heaney on his life and work,” the president said.
“Dennis O’Driscoll’s own work was recognized as of such quality that it merited inclusion in a number of the major poetry anthologies,” Higgins added.
Joe Woods, the director of Poetry Ireland, said he was an “absolute giant” as a poet and critic, adding that his book on the Nobel laureate Heaney was the “definitive biography.”
Belinda McKeon, the County Longford-born, New York-based novelist, described O’Driscoll as a “scholar, a gentleman, a character, a friend.”
O’Driscoll read at the November 2011 PoetryFest at the Irish Arts Center in New York, which was curated by McKeon as part of Imagine Ireland.
An Irish Times obituary commented: “For Dennis, poetry was to be found in the supermarket aisle and in the recycle bin. The middle-class blues of the new estate and the rituals of the office were among his preoccupations. He was a keen-eyed observer of life at its most fragile – its ‘last chill breath.'”
The piece quoted the American critic Adam Kirsch who once said that O’Driscoll was the “poet after Larkin who has made the most of his day job, both as a subject for verse and as part of his poetic identity.”
Traditional Music /
By Daniel Neely
In my very first column for the Irish Echo, I made allusion to John Whelan’s cameo (alongside Joanie Madden and Anna Colliton) on the TV show “Gossip Girl.” I was impressed, because it’s not often you see good trad music on bubblegum teenage dramas.
But network TV is not such a surprising a place to find Whelan, considering his musical presence has been known in all manner of high profile context over the years. (His music has been used for productions on HBO, the History Channel, NBC, FOX and PBS, in several major motion pictures; he several production credits to his name as well.) His new CD “Passage of Time,” an offering that includes 33 of his own instrumental compositions, collects some of the storied and often groundbreaking music upon which he built his reputation, and gives us an opportunity to reflect on the career of one of the world’s top box players.
The album’s liner notes (deftly written by my predecessor, the pre-eminent Celtic critic Earle Hitchner) are testament to Whelan’s musical renown. It’s not just that Whelan is a man of inarguable trad bonafides (which include, among other things, several All-Ireland titles, entry into Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Hall of Fame and the honor of being named the Echo’s “Traditionalist of the Year” in 2011), it’s that he projects his deep musical heritage into a musical vision that extends far beyond the boundaries of strict traditional music.
From his first album, made in 1974 when he was only 14, to his forward-looking work with Eileen Ivers in the 1980s, Whelan’s output was never less than stellar. In the 1990s, his solo efforts on the Narada label galvanized his role in developing the “Celtic” musical style. These albums captivated world audiences and thrust John into the international spotlight. Whelan’s return to his trad roots came in 2002 with his album “From The Heart.”
Over the years, Whelan developed a reputation as a gifted composer, crafting tunes and recordings that found great appeal not only in session circles, but also in mainstream culture. This album includes many of these tunes, including “Trip to Skye,” which features some lovely playing by Lisa Gutkin; “Desaunay / The Petticoat I Bought in Mullingar,” which for me is a strangely familiar pair of tunes that I must have picked up at sessions (I didn’t know they were John’s) and “January’s Journey,” a track with a hardcore, percussive Celtic feel.
A couple of the loveliest tracks I find are “Song For Hillary” (with Seamus Egan) and “Lost Souls” (which features the Sirius String Quartet). Both project an air of haunting romance, and have a very cinematic feel. The album includes a long list of top guest musicians, including Seamus Egan, Seamus Connolly, Felix & Brendan Dolan, Cillian Vallely, Jerry O’Sullivan and Winifred Horan (to name but a few). It reads like a who’s who of traditional music in America. The only thing this album lacks is a comprehensive booklet telling the story of each of Whelan’s compositions, but this is information that could easily be added to Whelan’s website.
Whelan sets the bar very high with this one. “Passage of Time” is a monument to his talent, hard work and creativity, and reflects the collected vision of one of America’s most accomplished traditional musicians.
“Passage of Time” is available through www.shamrockirishmusic.org. For more information about Whelan and his music, visit johnwhelanmusic.com.
Salon Diary / By Charles Hale
“Artists Without Walls,” a new initiative created by Charles R. Hale, co-founder of the Irish American Writers & Artists salon, was held at Lehman College in the Bronx last week.
Hale came up with the idea when thinking of his own Irish roots, “It’s important we honor our own culture and heritage but I believe the more we adopt a multicultural approach, including collaboration between various cultures, races, religions and ethnic groups, the greater the likelihood that creativity and innovation will occur and flourish.”
Ralph William Boone, a lecturer at Lehman College, who has appeared nationally in numerous musical theater productions such as “Man of La Mancha” and “Show Boat” began by referencing the evening’s theme “Artists Without Walls,” eloquently speaking of Paul Robeson, a heroic figure who was known for pushing though barriers regardless of the consequences.
Ralph William followed with a powerful rendition of a song that is closely associated with Robeson, “Ol’ Man River.”
Dancer Darrah Carr’s website opens with words that perfectly fit the concept of Artists Without Walls: “I source from two genres-traditional Irish step and contemporary modern dance-and provide a meeting place for the cultures of Ireland and America.”
And that was dynamically demonstrated Thursday as she and Christopher Armstrong, together and separately, performed Darrah’s vision of dance called “ModErin,” combining New York modern dance with Irish step dancing. John Redmond’s accordion accompanied Darrah and Christopher.
Novelist and historian, Peter Quinn, played it for laughs and the former speechwriter – he was the chief speechwriter for two New York governors, Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo -demonstrated that he hasn’t lost his touch, dazzling the audience with his knowledge of Bronx history and his rapier-like wit.
“Novelist and historian, Peter Quinn, played it for laughs and the former speechwriter – he was the chief speechwriter for two New York governors, Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo -demonstrated that he hasn’t lost his touch, dazzling the audience with his knowledge of Bronx history and his rapier-like wit.”
Three singers, Tara O’Grady, Niamh Hyland and Liam O’Connell, presented three vastly different styles of song.
Tara swings everything she swings, including Irish traditionals, and she did just that with her “Billie Holiday” take on Danny Boy; Niamh’s big vocal range and bluesy tones were a huge hit with the audience and hip hop artist, Liam, known as L 1 Crackeriffic, cranked it up a couple of notches. As one attendee said after listening to Liam, “This is the kind of rocking Lehman needed.”
Playwright and novelist, John Kearns, whose play “In the Wilderness” had a run in New York City last summer, brought three actors who performed a scene from the play, perfectly capturing a tightly written scene from John’s compelling work.
Malachy McCourt, no stranger to any Irish cultural event, closed out the evening. He touchingly told of his impoverished childhood, which was filled with misery.
But Malachy’s wit was very much in evidence, as well, as he kept the audience in stitches, segueing from one funny story to the next.
The evening ended with Malachy calling singers Hyland and O’Grady up to the microphone. Together they led the audience in a song many of us have often heard Malachy sing, “Will You Go Lassie Go.”
A great ending to a grand evening.
Each time I discover a talented Irish artist who is bringing their music to America it’s like unwrapping a Christmas present.
I admire the packaging, hope that there’s something good inside, tear open the CD track by track and revel in the wonderful feeling of hearing something for the first time.
This week, the discovery was the shiny new CD from the Dublin-born artist, Colm O’Brien.
Currently living in Boston, O’Brien sings from the depths of his soul with a memorable rasp in his voice and serious knack for bringing traditional songs to life and using his strong Celtic roots to inspire great songwriting.
The album, Back to Work?, is the second solo album from O’Brien, a man who has Irish music in his heart and in his blood.
In a recent conversation with O’Brien he spoke of his family’s deep musical heritage – a pipe playing father, a granny who was a championship fiddler, and a mother that sang like an angel. But although he had plenty of instruments at his fingertips as a child, there was one that hooked him.
“The draw of the guitar got me, he said. I always thought it was the perfect instrument because I could play any music that I liked, Irish music, rock and roll, blues”. When I asked him who taught him to play the guitar he said, “Self-taught, I just picked up chords wherever I went” and then he laughed as he told me about the hours he spent hanging out in Dublin guitar shops as a kid waiting for chord strumming shoppers to show him some tricks.
His days in Dublin set Colm O’Brien on a musical journey that would eventually take him to the United States as a member of the five piece rock band, Fatal Flower.
He would later join up with the ballad group Hiring Fair, and Celtic Rock band The Prodigals, but his longing to record his favorite traditional ballads alongside his own original songs led O’Brien to set out on his own and record his first solo album “It Is What It Is” back in 2004, and the highly anticipated, recently released, follow-up “Back to Work?”
Our conversation revealed that O’Brien is quite proud of his most recent project – he had very clear idea of what he wanted it to sound like, spent a lot of time preparing the material, and then got in and out of the studio with fantastic results in just six days.
For O’Brien, beyond his talent and passion, the special ingredient for success is his song choice.
“These are all songs that get me going”, he said. “The album is a reaction to what is going on economically and socially here and around the world. I needed to say something”.
And he says a lot in his songs, about the plight of the undocumented Irish, about greed, and economic hardships, all with the fervor and enthusiasm of the great Irish balladeers that have come before him. Colm O’Brien is back to work for sure, in a big, big way.
To learn more about Colm O’Brien visit colmobrien.com and stay tuned for news of a NYC gig in the New Year.
“He says a lot in his songs, about the plight
of the undocumented Irish, about greed, and economic hardships, all with the fervor and enthusiasm of the great Irish balladeers that have come before him. Colm O’Brien is back to work for sure, in a big, big way.”
* My picks for the best Celtic Sounds around town this week: Padraig Allen at The Pig & Whistle in New York City on 12/6, “An Irish Christmas” with Mick Moloney and friends at The Leonard Theatre at Fordham Prep in The Bronx on 12/9, and Eileen Ivers at The Berrie Center at Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ on 12/9.
Traditional Music /
By Daniel Neely
For the past several years, New York City’s Irish Arts Center has presented “An Irish Christmas,” Mick Moloney’s wildly satisfying multi-cultural musical celebration of the winter solstice.
Now a New York holiday season institution, Moloney will once again bring his musical cohort to the Arts Center on Manhattan’s West Side for another baker’s dozen “Irish Christmas” shows.
In so doing, he will treat audiences to a signature holiday tradition that uses song, folklore and performance to celebrate family, friendship and community in a concert series that offers something for everyone.
This year’s cast includes a familiar group of players drawn from music’s upper echelons, including fiddler Athena Tergis, button accordion master Billy McComiskey, fiddle player Liz Hanley, dancer Niall O’Leary, singers Grace Nono and Tamar Korn and the storyteller Macdara Vallely.
In addition, the great piano player Donna Long (who played with Cherish the Ladies, but who has distinguished herself musically in myriad other ways since them) will come up from Baltimore and join the gang for the first time as well.
As always, Moloney gives space in each performance to a special non-musical guest or two. Some of this year’s visitors will include authors Colum McCann and Malachy McCourt, noted academic Dr. James Murphy and David Mulkins of the Bowery Neighborhood Association.
Moloney never fully tips his hand in advance of these shows, though, so you never know who else will stop by. But you can be sure he has a few surprises in store.
The standard set with these shows is impressively high. Each performance is thoroughly entertaining, and I’ve watched how people leave absolutely glowing.
But because Moloney gathers the best around him, he’s able to find unexpected ways to draw in the audience.
The inclusion of Filipino singer Grace Nono and jazz singer Tamar Korn, for example, brings an impressive variety that lifts the show in its entirety.
In addition, Moloney brought Macdara Vallely in for the first time last year to lead a mummers play during show intermissions. People could not have been more delighted, nor more a part of it, as the plays happened in the lobby with people milling about – it was an absolute hit.
Those interested in holding onto a piece of the show’s magic should pick up “An Irish Christmas, A Musical Solstice Celebration,” the live concert CD that Irish Arts Center released last year.
Many (including my predecessor here at the Echo, as well as several of my colleagues in other local and national Irish media outlets) considered the album to be one of the best Irish Christmas albums out there – so it’s well worth having.
If I may play proud participant for a moment: I worked on the album, both as its production coordinator and as a performer with the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra.
It’s a great document and a testament to the hard work all the artists involved put into this show. I cannot recommend it more highly.
Staged with an intimacy more reminiscent of someone’s living room than of a midtown Manhattan theatre space, “An Irish Christmas” will run from Friday, December 7 through Saturday, December 22 at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan (553 West 51st Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues) and will take place at Fordham University on December 9.
Visit irishartscenter.org to buy tickets online, or call (866)811-4111 to book by phone.
Finally, congratulations to Kathleen Biggins for being inducted into the Museum of the City of New York’s “People’s Hall of Fame.”
Kathleen’s program, “A Thousand Welcomes,” is one of the nation’s most important Irish radio programs and it broadcasts Saturday mornings, 9 a.m.-12 p.m. from Fordham University’s radio station, WFUV 90.7.
Those living outside WFUV’s broadcast area can listen to Biggins live via WFUV’s online stream: www.wfuv.org/listen.
For 26 years, Biggins has used her show to serve the tri-state’s Irish community and all of us here in New York owe her a debt of gratitude. It’s fantastic to see her great work recognized.
Good on you, Kathleen!