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Forgotten hero

POSTED ON October 14th  - POSTED IN News & Views

Peter Duffy author photo by Ran Graff

“Double Agent” author Peter Duffy. PHOTO BY RAN GRAFF

Article published in the Oct. 8, 2014, issue of the Irish Echo [Click on images for larger view].

By Peter McDermott

When the “SS Washington” docked at Pier 59 in New York on Feb. 8, 1940, the representatives of the press were waiting, as was the custom, to interview the rich and famous. The main attraction on that day was the Irish writer Liam O’Flaherty, who was best known for “The Informer.”

O’Flaherty’s celebrity, though, was derived not so much from his novel, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1925, as the multiple-Oscar-winning adaptation directed in 1935 by his distant cousin John Ford.

Unbelievably, another paying passenger was a real-life informer, indeed one of the most successful and important in American history. And there also were quite possibly Nazi agents on the liner’s kitchen and wait staff.

On his trip home to Mülheim to visit his mother, Wilhelm “William” Gottlieb Sebold was strong-armed into agreeing to spy for Germany when he returned to the U.S. Soon afterwards, he told officials at the American consulate in Cologne what had happened and offered his services to his adopted country.

Back in New York, he was formally recruited as the first counterspy in the FBI’s history (the term “double agent” wasn’t widely in use at that time).

Author Peter Duffy’s “Double Agent,” which has won praise from both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, tells the story of a case that led to 33 convictions in New York, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and within hours of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States. A 34th arrest warrant had been issued for a mysterious Irishman named Sean Connolly who disappeared into history, never to be seen again.

Duffy came across the largely forgotten case when researching an article for the New Republic about Fr. Charles Coughlin, the 1930s radio priest.

He was intrigued by the fact that the most successful FBI counterespionage operation in its history depended upon one man, Sebold, who had taken all of the risk upon his shoulders.

“The reporting at the time was fuzzy,” Duffy added about his reasons for pursuing the story. “And nobody knew what had happened to him [Sebold].”

The new book, his third, is a return to the era of his first: “The Bielski Brothers,” an account of one Jewish family’s resistance to the Nazis in Belarus.

His second book is set in Roscommon, the ancestral county of one of his grandparents (two others were Italian American, while the fourth’s roots were in Tipperary).

“The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland” is a reexamination of a well-known 1847 murder. Like his latest, it concludes with a trial and convictions.

It also involved the author immersing himself in the documents and publications from a world that’s gone. Indeed, the German Upper East Side or Yorkville, the capital of the community in America, is as much of the past as Famine-era Roscommon, even if it might be easier to reconstruct in the mind.

Duffy made maps with the help, for instance, of advertisements in German-language newspapers of the time.

The neighborhood’s heart was Manhattan’s 86th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Only one or two buildings remained unchanged from that time, while the 2nd Avenue elevated was taken down in 1940 and the 3rd Avenue elevated in the 1950s.

Analyses of the 1930 Census reveal that there were 350,000 non-Jewish German- and Austrian-born immigrants in New York City; the equivalent today is the combined number of immigrants from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many of the Germans had left at the time of the near chaos and instability of the Weimer Republic and some of them believed that Hitler’s Nazi government had restored a sense of pride.

“They felt that Germany was again a player in the world,” Duffy said.

A small, if significant minority showed its support for the Nazis by organizing and parading under the banner of the German American Bund. It claimed 17,000 New York (almost all foreign-born) members at its height in 1936 and 1937.


Spies everywhere

“I read the daily newspapers pretty closely,” Duffy said. “That was a fascinating experience.”

For one thing, he was surprised at the extent to which the German spy was a “stock figure in American popular culture in the 1930s, [and] part of the folklore of New York.”

Hollywood also played a big role, with efforts like “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” starring Edward G. Robinson in 1939. That was inspired by the recent case of Guenther Rumrich, a dishwasher who had been recruited to spy by the Nazis. FBI Special Agent Leon Turrou – who had botched the investigation into Rumrich following his 1938 arrest in Manhattan – wrote the book that provided the source material for the Robinson movie. Turrou, Hollywood and the press seem agreed that German spies were everywhere.

The 1914-18 war was still fresh in the mind, too. The authorities remembered the campaign of sabotage directed by German officials against targets in America and the, sometimes fatal, public vigilantism in reaction.

Overt Nazi sympathizers could provide good copy, too. The talented top organizer of the Bund, Fritz Kuhn, was brought down by his embezzlement of the membership dues, which he used to fund his complicated love life. The papers variously referred to him as the “flirtatious Fuhrer,” the “Teutonic two-timer” and the “hotsy-totsy Nazi.”


Nikolaus Ritter, a Luftwaffe officer assigned to the Abwehr, who on a trip to the

U.S. in 1937, recruited the first members of the “Duquesne Spy Ring.”


Sebold was dropped into this community that contained, on one end of the spectrum, a spy ring operating out of the Casino Tavern on East 85th Street and, on the other, socialists who had been interned by the Nazis in concentration camps.

The counterspy was highly-strung and prone to mysterious ailments. The FBI wondered if he really had what it took for such a dangerous mission. One handler wrote: “Sebold has an honesty complex. In fact, he is so honest that I am afraid some day he will give himself away because of his inability to act his part.”

But his main handler, Jim Ellsworth, a devout Mormon from Utah who became a close friend of Sebold’s and his wife, had confidence in him.

It was justified, for he grew into his role and indeed flourished in it. And aside from raised eyebrows about a brief stint upstate working with a Yiddish-speaking socialist camp (which the defendants’ lawyers made hay of during the trial, by suggesting he was a communist), he was accepted by the Nazis. It helped that he was a regular guy who had served in the trenches in the 1914-18 war.

“He was guileless and headstrong,” Duffy said. He pointed to his trip back home in 1939 as the act of someone who was determined, but also naïve.

“The Germans called him Tramp,” Duffy said. “He had a wandering gene.” Indeed, it was the lack of harassment, going from town to town in his early years in America, that contrasted starkly for him with Germany.

Ellsworth wrote later in life: “He told me that he found everything in this country wonderful. He could go from city to city without registering with the police as he had to in Germany. He could follow any occupation he pleased.”

Sebold, with the Feds’ help, set up a radio station in a cottage on the north shore of Long Island to transmit to and receive messages from Hamburg. Intelligence agents were most concerned about gathering engineering secrets that would be crucial in the coming air war.

The political backdrop was the reluctance of broad swathes of American opinion, from sections of the left and of the right, opposed to involvement in another European war.

Some public figures were overtly sympathetic to the Nazis, such as aviator Charles Lindberg, who was a national hero, and the anti-Semitic Coughlin.

Duffy’s essay for the New Republic took issue with the linking of modern-day media figures like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, whom he sees as rather benign, with the Canadian-born cleric, who he believes is “one of the top-10 worst Americans in history.”


Irish pushback

The church’s liberal press, notably Commonweal magazine and the Jesuits’ America, had been expressing their concerns about the anti-Semitic priest, but eventually the continuing rise of the militant Coughlinite-inspired Christian Front, which had a strong Irish-American following in the big Eastern cities, would come to worry the mainstream Catholic leadership.

Some Christian Front members in New York became involved with a paramilitary conspiracy, which it hoped would inspire a fascist-type revolution. An Irish-American Front leader, Joe McWilliams ran for Congress in New York in 1940. “[Journalist] Walter Winchell called him Joe McNazi,” Duffy said.

Some prominent Irish leaders pushed back against the Christian Front. “[The Transport Workers’ Union’s] Mike Quill was very courageous against Coughlinism,” Duffy said.

But the fascist threat was fading as the FBI’s 16-month operation was closing in on the New York-area Nazis.

In last weeks of the investigation, the FBI set up three rooms in the Newsweek building at Times Square, where Sebold chatted with the Nazi agents.

The subsequent court case was the first time that Americans became aware of the concept of secret filming, which later became famous with the TV show “Candid Camera.”

Publicly, the 33 when arrested were referred to as members of the “Duquesne Spy Ring,” though there were four separate rings and a few freelancers involved. The Boer War and World War I veteran Fritz Duquesne, who gave his name to the group, was among those that Sebold interviewed on camera.

The court heard from the colorful and eccentric South African, but also from the case’s femme fatale, Lilly Stein, who was born in Vienna to Jewish parents, and fellow Nazi spies such as Erwin W. Siegler, the chief butcher on the “SS Manhattan” and later the “SS America.”

“The Irishman Connolly told Sebold [in the Times Square office] that he wanted to strike back at the English, who had hanged his father,” Duffy said.

When the FBI came to arrest Connolly, however, he had fled.

“He was the one who sensed that something wasn’t right. He’s laughing somewhere,” Duffy said. “Or his descendants are.”

sebolds post war

Bill and Helen Sebold after the war.


Meanwhile, the other 33 were sent off to prison and the FBI was congratulating itself on a job well done.

The agency had no counterespionage plan in place when visiting Nazi official Nikolaus Ritter set up the Duquesne ring in the late 1930s. Director J. Edgar Hoover, however, used all of his political skill to transform the failures into more powers for his agency.

“When a public is full of fear and there’s a public sense that foreign intrigue is running amok in the country then an agency like the FBI will do all it can to grab all the power it can to meet that fear,” Duffy said.

It wasn’t assumed, as it was during World War I, that every German was a potential spy, but many immigrants were taken into custody and “any German with a shortwave radio was going to be spoken to at some point,” Duffy said. “There were raids in Yorkville and in Ridgewood in Queens.

“The FBI learnt how to become a counterespionage agency on the Germans,” he added.

President Roosevelt said he didn’t want to fund a secret police force that would spy on Americans but rather one that would allow “our own people to watch the secret police of certain other nations, which is a very excellent distinction to make.”

It wasn’t a distinction that Hoover would adhere to. For he used the very powers he was given during this period to monitor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and also to infiltrate and disrupt groups opposed to the Vietnam War.

“I don’t think any shade of public opinion would defend Hoover’s actions in the Sixties,” Duffy said.

Meanwhile, Sebold was still living, although in poor health and sometimes in near poverty.

Family members were amazed when they found out about his life as a counterspy. One niece recalled that he was a largely silent man who acknowledged people with a grunt, but that his “warm eyes” showed he was teasing.

Duffy, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, the New York Post journalist Laura Italiano, and their daughter, writes in his book: “The young relatives would’ve never imagined that their Uncle Bill was a man of formidable moral and physical courage who led one of the great spy missions of American history, a landmark figure deserving of a place among the nation’s most deserving war heroes.”

William G. Sebold died of a heart attack on Feb. 16, 1970 at Napa State Hospital in California.

“Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and how the FBI Outwitted a Nazi Spy Ring” is published in hardback by Scribner and is priced at $28. For more on the author, go to


O’Shea is hero as Irish snatch draw

POSTED ON October 14th  - POSTED IN News & Views

John O'Shea celebrates scoring 14/10/2014

John O’Shea celebrates equalizing for Ireland against Germany.


By Irish Echo Staff

The Republic of Ireland pulled out a remarkable 1-1 draw against Germany Tuesday night to take away a point from their European Championship Group D qualifying game in Gelsenkirchen.

Defender John O’Shea, playing in his 100th cap, got his foot to a 94th-minute cross from Jeff Hendrick. It turned out to be the last kick of the game.

World Cup champions Germany had dominated possession for the entire game, though producing few real chances until Toni Kroos scored from the edge of the box on 71 minutes. World Cup final hero Mario Götze almost made it 2-0 in the 80th minute, but goalkeeper David Forde deflected the effort over the bar. Five minutes later, Ireland’s Wes Hoolihan seemed certain to score from close range, but was denied by defender Erik Durn.

With Poland managing only a 2-2 draw at home to Scotland, Ireland maintain their position in 2nd position in Group D. Both the Poles and the Irish have seven points after three games played, but the former have a marginally better goal difference.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland have maintained their 100 percent record with a 2-0 away win over Greece. Kyle Lafferty and Jamie Ward scored for Michael O’Neill’s team, which leads the way in Group F.

“What a special night, and thankfully I was able to play a part in the end,” Republic hero O’Shea. “My shirt? I’m not one for framing things or hanging things up but I think this one could be heading for the mantelpiece at my parents’ house.”

“The manager [Martin O’Neill] put me forward with a couple of minutes to go and thankfully I was able to stick it away,” said the long-time Manchester United star now playing with Sunderland. “Big credit to the lads in front of me, the way we played especially the first half was very dogged. It was a big, big performance, with little bits of quality when we had to come out and play. Once they get that goal it’s a big blow for us, because we’re looking to catch them on the counter-attack towards the end of the game. We had to come out a bit more, but I think throughout the night James [McClean] and Aiden [McGeady] were making lots of problems for them.”

“It was a very special moment,” O’Shea said. “The group has a fantastic spirit and we didn’t want to come off the pitch with a 1-0 defeat and people saying we’d done OK.”



Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston rolls out red carpet for Golden Bridges

POSTED ON October 9th  - POSTED IN News, News & Views

Marty Walsh in Belfast (1024x682)



As the Golden Bridges conference gets underway in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh has extended a hearty céad míle fáilte to delegates arriving from northwest Ireland and Belfast to forge new  partnerships with leaders of Irish America.

In a statement welcoming the sixth annual conference to Boston, he said:

“I am thrilled to welcome the Golden Bridges conference to Boston, having just experienced the power of our city’s connection to Ireland as I never have before. My visit to Ireland in September was transformative on both a personal and a public level.

“As the son of Irish emigrants, it was meaningful for me to make Ireland my first international destination as Mayor of Boston. I came to a deeper understanding of my bond, and Boston’s relationship, with Ireland. And I gained a new appreciation for the strength we can draw from a transatlantic partnership as we move forward together in the global economy.

“Boston’s character owes much to the Northwest of Ireland. A rich tradition of cultural, political, and economic exchange between our two cities reaches down to the present day. Ulster has supplied Boston with leaders in business, in the arts, and in scholarship. And Boston’s thriving network of Irish organizations have hosted Ireland’s leaders, supported its economic development, and funded schools of all traditions. We share a deep bond.

“For a city like Boston, built by immigrants, an international relationship can have the strength of a family bond—because that’s what it really is. That’s why in Boston we are so deeply invested in our heritage. We never forget what immigration provided us, by way of our values, our resilience, and our love of family.

“In a time of great change, these relationships and these values have never been more important. That’s why our relationship to Ireland must be about more than nostalgic memories. It must be an active relationship, deeply understood and continuously renewed. Above all, this conference is an opportunity to strengthen this bond that means so much to all of our communities.”

Sisters speaking truth to power

POSTED ON October 2nd  - POSTED IN News & Views

Documentary Review / By Peter McDermott


 Filmmaker Mary Fishman with JoAnn Persch RSM, center, and Pat Murphy RSM.

[Click on photos for larger image.]


Margaret Brennan remembers back in the 1950s that her mother and father drove her down on her first day as a novice with the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters.

“They had both written me letters and they pinned them to my robe,” she recalled. “I thought if I opened them I know what I’d read, and if I read them maybe I couldn’t bring myself to stay.”

She gave them to a professed sister, who was a close friend, to keep them for her. When, every so often, the friend would ask if she wanted to read them, she’d decline. She eventually did open them, after about 25 years had passed.

Brennan, who became a theologian and general superior of her order, tells the story in the film “Band of Sisters” to illustrate how wrenching the separation from family could be for a young woman.

Irish-American filmmaker Mary Fishman displays considerable skill in telling the stories of a score or more women religious in an economical and informative 83 minutes.

It’s left to Brennan to introduce the overarching story of “Band of Sisters,” by recalling the elevation to the papacy of a man with a “great, big face.” He was already “up there in his 70s” and so she wondered what the future held. It turned out that Pope John XXIII would open the windows and let in the winds of change, with the Second Vatican Council.

Already, of course, women were being called to service as teachers, nurses and missionaries. But the journey over decades taken, for instance, by Pat Murphy, of the Sisters of Mercy, shows the expanded role of women religious. She went to Peru in the early 1960s to work 12,000 feet above sea level in the Andes. She remembers the powerful mix of the indigenous and the Spanish cultures and still marvels at the endurance and faith of the people in the face of suffering.



Sisters bound for Peru, on Jan. 13, 1961.


More recently, Murphy has taken on the role of a lobbyist for society’s most marginalized, and with her friend Sister JoAnn Persch is building ecumenical coalitions for social justice.

The pair get more screen time than anyone else as Fishman follows their work on behalf of undocumented immigrants and for prisoners from 2008 through 2012. Elected officials, it seems, don’t know quite how to cope with their mix of charm and steely determination. And when a loudmouthed uniformed official at Illinois’ Broadview Detention Center is not charmed, then Persch makes sure she gets in the last word, as a signal that she will not be bullied.

In the 1970s, a woman named Marjorie Tuite was one of the first to outline the need for a more political role for sisters if they were to achieve social justice in their areas of interest.

But then simply working for low-income people can be seen as political in today’s America. Still, Sr. Lillian Murphy, the CEO of Mercy Housing (which provides accommodation for 138,000 people at any given time), says that they are merely continuing the work of Dublin-born founder Sr. Catherine McAuley, who built affordable housing for women.

What some call the “option for the poor” is occasionally exercised in innovative ways, as with Sr. Madeline Gianforte’s holistic wellness center in Milwaukee.

Women and men religious are rather better known for their advocacy for Latin America’s oppressed. We learn that the horrific ordeal and deaths of Sisters Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan in El Salvador on Dec. 2, 1980, had a hugely galvanizing effect on American nuns.

Sr. Kathleen Desautels, of the Sisters of Providence, says she had to channel the anger she felt at Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick denouncing these four Catholic martyrs as “communists” who “shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

An increasingly important aspect of the story is the sisters’ embrace of the environmentalist cause. Fishman visits two organic farms owned and managed by nuns: Santuario Sisterfarm in Boerne, in the Hill Country of Texas, and Genesis Farm, Blairstown, N.J. Sr. Carol Coston — who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 2000, for her advocacy in a number of areas – is a founder of the Boerne operation. Her cofounder Sr. Elise Garcia says they’ve grounded themselves on the “universe story,” which begins with that explosion 13.7 billion years ago.

In contrast to the stultifying fundamentalism that rejects science, American nuns are embracing the new, breathtaking cosmological knowledge. Sr. Margaret Galiardi, a Dominican, says it means interpreting Christian faith “with a wider lens.”

A film clip of the late Passionist Order priest, Fr. Thomas Berry (who became a convinced environmentalist at age 8), summarizes the eco-theological position.

“Why do we have such a wonderful vision of God? Because we live in such a gorgeous world. We live in such a brilliant world. And so we wonder at the magnificence of whatever it was that brought the world into being,” Berry said. “We have a sense of adoration. We have that sense of gratitude. We have that sense of participation in such a beautiful world. We call that religion.

“If our outer world is diminished, our inner world is dried up,” he continued. “If our outer world is severely damaged, our sense of the divine will be severely damaged.”

Inevitably, the sisters’ battle against sexism in the church, and specifically their being excluded from the decision-making processes at the highest levels, is an important theme in “Band of Sisters.” Sr. Theresa Kane, we learn, is something of a folk hero among fellow nuns for raising the issue from the altar at a Mass during the first visit of Pope John Paul II to America.

The investigation of American women religious under Pope Benedict is also rigorously critiqued. Lillian Murphy says that they didn’t want it and didn’t feel it necessary, but had to pay for it and would not even be allowed to see the final report. She says that the process was “not respecting the dignity and history of women religious in this country.”

The decline in the number of young women joining religious life might account for the anxiety of traditionalists, but the sisters here are unfazed. Sr. Nancy Sylvester, of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, says that “huge numbers” that joined from the 1940s through the early 1960s were an anomaly in the history of religious life.

Brennan, as general superior over 10 years, interviewed 300 women who left the order. She felt that their vocation had evolved in a different direction and that this was in accordance with Vatican II, which said that everyone was called to holiness and that no way was higher or better.

There would always be a role for women religious, in these smaller numbers in the midst of the general population, Brennan argues, as a “reminder – not that we’re holier or better – [but] that there’s something else that we’re here for.”

For more information go to:

Music that’s Irish, live and free

POSTED ON October 2nd  - POSTED IN News & Views

Music Notes / By Colleen Taylor


The Screaming Orphans

Interested in free Irish music? If so, you’re in luck this autumn. Throughout September and October, Smithwick’s Ale sponsors a number of free Irish music performances throughout North America featuring some of Ireland and Irish-America’s best acts. New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia will be lively with the sounds of fiddles and guitars these next weeks—an authentic taste of Ireland at home in America.

I took part in the Smithwick Sessions Pub Rock Tour last week at Boston’s The Green Briar, where I caught a show by Erin’s Guild, an Irish-American band out of New England. Founding members Sean Fell and Geoff Roman bring something interesting to their interpretation of Irish music: a background in classical music training. Tralee man Fell received a bachelor’s degree in classical voice, which he displayed during his Frank Petterson-like rendition of “The Fields of Athenry.” Roman’s training in classical violin was not as easy to detect amidst his rapid fiddling, but he maintains it has been an influence for his playing and tune composition for Erin’s Guild. To give a unique spin on their interpretation of traditional Irish hits, Erin’s Guild works to blend their distinct backgrounds, all the while focusing on harmonies and the stories behind the ballads’ lyrics.

erin's guild

Erin’s Guild

The band are true to their American roots as well—something not only relevant in their geographical makeup with American members Roman and bodhrán player Susan Young, but in their set lists as well. Erin’s Guild melds their traditional Irish tracks with American classics like those of Johnny Cash. Their influences are various, as well as original: Sean and Geoff write their own songs and tunes for the band, like their ballad “Broken Man,” featured on their website This trio is still establishing their beginnings, but they have a strong notion of their roots: as an Irish-American New England band, they make the Irish tradition visible and lively throughout the Northeast.

Other acts involved in the Smithwick Sessions include big names like Mundy, The Mahones, Screaming Orphans, Black 47, along with a number of local bands. Screaming Orphans, the excellent Celtic Pop group from Donegal, will take the stage at Boston’s famous Irish pub the Burren on Oct. 2, and Black 47 will close off the Smithick’s Run with a show at Tommy Fox’s in New Jersey on Oct. 30. It’s an exciting and nostalgic year for Black 37, as they perform and promote the release of their latest—and last—album, “Rise Up,” which is available on their website In total, this two-month pub tour involves over 60 shows across the continent, and the best part is they’re all free of charge. Now there’s no excuse to catch the best of live Irish music.

Find out more about the Smithwick Sessions happening near you on their calendar of events at:

Irish Center is jewel in Maine crown

POSTED ON September 15th  - POSTED IN News, News & Views

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By Matthew Jude Barker

If you meander your way down historic State Street approaching Portland’s working waterfront, you will come across a beautiful old, redbrick church building, now the Maine Irish Heritage Center. On Monday nights you can hear the haunting wails of a practicing Irish bagpiper. It would be easy to think, for a moment, you were back in time, but the center is on the peninsula of Maine’s largest, busiest, and most modern city.

   The MIHC is housed in the former St. Dominic Catholic Church in Portland, the focal point of the Irish and Catholic community for almost 175 years. Opened in 2002, the non-profit center has made tremendous progress, especially in the last five years. It is home to a first-rate genealogical research library, as well as a library open to the public that contains over two-thousand items and which will soon be a part of Maine Interlibrary Loan. The center is also home to the John Ford Center; the Irish American Club of Maine, its founding member; the Governor Joseph E. Brennan Press Collection; A Company of Girls; the Claddagh Mhor Pipe Band; and the local Ancient Order of Hibernians. The MIHC is affiliated with the American Irish Repertory Ensemble; the Stillson School of Irish Dance; the Maine Police Emerald Society; and the Portland Hurling Club. All of these groups march together in a large St. Patrick’s Day parade on Commercial Street that grows with each passing year.

   Throughout the year the MIHC sponsors or hosts many varied events and programs, including Irish ceili (dance), Irish language, and tin whistle classes; St. Patrick’s Day parades and open houses; genealogy classes and the Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project; the Duchas Lecture Series; the Celtic Christmas Fair; Bloomsday (James Joyce) events; weddings and receptions; book launchings and talks; Labor Day breakfasts; the annual “Not-So-Silent” auction; St. Dominic’s Parish/School reunions; Civil War and other historical lectures; and the Claddagh Award Celebration. This last event is held annually to honor “an individual of Irish heritage from Maine who has generously served our community and made us all proud of our Irish roots.”  Past recipients have included Senator George J. Mitchell, a native of Waterville, Maine, and US Congressman and Maine Governor Joseph E. Brennan, a native of Portland.  As Board Chair Mary McAleney stated, “The success of these events allows the MIHC to fulfill its mission to protect, preserve and restore the historic landmark that was St. Dominic’s,” as well as “provide a center for Maine’s diverse communities to share their cultural experiences through education programs and community events.”

   The John Ford Center at the MIHC houses memorabilia related to the celebrated Hollywood director who was baptized as John Martin Feeney at St. Dominic’s in 1894 and who was an altar boy at the church. Ford lectures and film festivals are held periodically.

   The genealogical and historical research library houses a large obituary collection; yearbooks and directories; St. Dominic’s School registers; a Knights of Columbus collection; old photographs of local Irish families and school classes; family history files; transcription endeavors; old newspapers; artifacts; and manuscripts. Everything in the library has been generously donated over the years.  Volunteer genealogists at the center are available, for a fee, to consult on family history and DNA test results. They have access to an Irish DNA project that has over two-hundred participants, genealogy websites, and a genealogical database of 125, 000 Maine and New England Irish.

   The former St. Dominic Church, home of the MIHC, was built in the Greek Revival tradition and finished in 1892. It was designated in 1970 as part of the National Register of Historic Places in the State of Maine. It is on the location of the first Catholic church built in southern Maine, the original St. Dominic’s, where Mass was first celebrated in 1828.

   The story of the Irish in Maine is a rich and varied one that continues to be studied and written about. Irish emigrants have settled in the Pine Tree State since the early 1700s and sizable Irish communities were to be found throughout the state, including in Bangor, Boothbay, Benedicta, Brewer, Calais, Houlton, Brunswick, Bath, Eastport, Ellsworth, Newcastle, North Whitefield, Pembroke, Lewiston, Auburn, Westbrook, Biddeford, South Portland, and, of course, Portland. According to many accounts, there are 250, 000 people who claim Irish ancestry in Maine.

    Visitors from all over New England and North America annually visit the MIHC; many are natives and former residents. A lot seek some knowledge of their ancestry; others are attracted to the beautiful setting or come to attend the plethora of events that are held throughout the year. But all agree that the Maine Irish Heritage Center is one of the most attractive and premier Irish heritage centers in the country.

    The center is staffed almost entirely by volunteers. As Board member Patricia J. McBride said, “We simply could not offer all of the wonderful events, programs, and educational opportunities that we do without the help of our wonderful volunteers; they are the heart and soul of this place.” And as James Walsh, a co-founder, said, “MIHC’s success comes from the warm, welcoming atmosphere—it’s always, ‘Come in and let’s talk!’”


Phone:  207-780-0118




Matthew Jude Barker

Portland, Maine


Answering the WWI call of battle

POSTED ON September 12th  - POSTED IN News & Views

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

Published in the Irish Echo, Sept. 3, 2014

A granduncle of mine, a Reynolds from Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, volunteered to fight in the Great War. He subsequently spent much of his life institutionalized, in what might have been referred as a lunatic asylum. My great-grandmother from West Clare had two brothers who joined up. The Considine boys survived the trenches in better shape than did Reynolds, but one of them collapsed and died on a troop ship, a short time after he’d participated in an on-deck tug-of-war contest.

I was thinking of this recently when I read that Labour TD for Dublin South-West Eamonn Maloney called on the Irish postal service, An Post, to immediately withdraw their plans for a stamp commemorating John Redmond (1856-1918).

Redmond, a Member of Parliament for Wexford, was the leader of Irish nationalism from 1900, when the Parnellite faction (to which he himself belonged) and the two anti-Parnellite factions reunited, and he remained so up until at least 1916.  He believed that it was in Ireland’s interest to fight for Catholic Belgium being overrun by Germany, not least because it would help the cause of his own country’s self-government.

Deputy Maloney said it’s wrong to honor a “politician who promoted, recruited and shamed Irishmen into killing for Great Britain.”

But this seems to be a bit of headline-grabbing that ignores the complexity of the situation.

Prof. Joseph Lee has argued that Redmond was doing what any politician might have done at the time, especially one passionately committed to a united Ireland, which he was.

I cited in a column a few weeks ago Patrick Pearse’s words in December 1915: “The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.”

Other Irish opponents of British war aims, like Sir Roger Casement, were not unhappy with bloodshed as long it was done for the right cause, in the right uniform. Singling out poor Redmond, whose own brother and follow MP Willie died at age 51 in the trenches, is ahistorical nonsense.

Deputy Maloney said that while some called it the Great War, “there was nothing great for the 200,000 Irish recruits who fought in it. There was nothing great for the almost 50,000 young Irishmen who were slaughtered.”

The “Great,” of course, referred to the sheer scale of the war, involving as it did 10s of millions in the entire Western world and much territory beyond it.

My Roscommon kinsman, Stephen, joined the United States army in Chicago (and was later institutionalized there), while the brothers from Clare, Tom and Willie, signed up with the armed forces in self-governing Australia.

In the 1913-set film “The Shooting Party” (1985), a young woman suggests to a friend that he longs for war. He denies it, but adds: “I suppose there’s something in every man that answers the call of battle.”

Wherever or for whatever reasons their loved ones had joined up, hundreds of thousands of families in independent Ireland had a direct connection to the traumas of the Great War trenches. Uniquely in the Western world, though, this was not acknowledged officially in any way.

This reminds one a bit of primogeniture, widely adapted in Ireland after the Famine. The eldest son got the farm. He was king, and the others were pretenders. Likewise with regard to war: one experience was privileged and elevated above the others.

That was perhaps understandable when the wounds were raw following the 1916-23 period. But after a couple of decades, by which time even veterans who had fought for independence were joining the British and other armed forces during World War II, it really didn’t make much sense. (My grandfather was an anti-Treaty republican interned for over a year in 1922/23, before he was even eligible to vote, and served in the RAF police during World War II). Looking back, it seems to epitomize the state’s insularity and immaturity.  One might detect in it the self-perpetuating ideology of the political elite, the first-born as it were, which was disproportionately made up of leaders from the 1916-23 era.

The novelist Tom Phelan is someone who has been vocal on this issue in pieces in these pages and elsewhere and it’s the backdrop to his acclaimed novel “The Canal Bridge,” which was published in the U.S. for the first time this year.

I know from interviewing Phelan a few times that inclusion is a value that he puts above most others. He has bad personal memories working as a young curate in England in the late 1960s with a parish priest who didn’t make him feel at home.  He faults too the Irish bishop who didn’t once visit his brother, who was also a priest, during the two years of his terminal illness. He has clashed about the church’s treatment of younger clergy with New York’s Cardinal Dolan in the letters page of the Irish Echo.

The survivors of the 1914-18 war from his native Mountmellick, Co. Laois, found no honor at home or real sense of inclusion, he believes.  Among those he remembered from his 1940s and ’50 childhood – the inspirations for “The Canal Bridge” – was farm laborer Jack Staunton, who Phelan’s father said had rescued his commanding officer from no-man’s-land.

“I won’t say they were ostracized,” Phelan recalled. “But nothing was made of them.”

We can, perhaps, make something of them now, the men who set out from towns like Mountmellick, from the tenements of Dublin, from the hamlets of Protestant Ulster, from Chicago and from Australia – men who mostly felt that they were doing the right thing by their family and their community.

Sweet memories of Forest Hills in ’64

POSTED ON September 11th  - POSTED IN News, News & Views

Beatles 1964

The Beatles in 1964. [LIBRARY OF CONGRESS]

A remembrance by Frances Scanlon, published in the Irish Echo, Aug. 27, 2014

Aug. 29:  just another date in time; maybe, maybe not.

A quick glance at any “This Day in History” listing for Aug. 29, 1964 will invariably note the presence of the Beatles on tour in New York. Similarly, 1958 will be highlighted as the birth date of Michael Jackson alongside the death of Eamon de Valera in 1975, not to be up-staged by Shays’ Rebellion, an armed uprising of Massachusetts farmers, in 1786.

Time is a fungible good, no doubt about it.

It’s also a funny thing, that intersection of memory and history – sometimes a sweet, sometimes a sour spot.

Assuredly on the night of Aug. 29, 1964, what living soul could have ever predicted that the Beatles would ironically perform their last concert before paying fans in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park exactly two years later to the date?

I believe some things take seemingly so long for actualization to us mere mortals if for no other good reason than to remind us that forever is a very short time in the lead-up to eternity.

For example, as a teenager engulfed in the heart-stammering throes of Beatle-mania in 1964, the night of Aug. 29 was longed for more than the release of Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins” and Mickey Mantle’s tying Babe Ruth’s career strikeout record (1,330), both of which came to pass on that weekend, as well.

Listen:  do you want to know a secret?

On Saturday night, Aug. 29, 1964, dressed in the innocence of imagination, with a sweater of expectation, penny loafers of unparalleled excitation and madras walking shorts of purity’s length, I was fetched and ferried in a Gold Cadillac, courtesy of the parent of my classmate, Elizabeth Fox, to the West Side Tennis Club, in Forest Hills, Queens.

Elizabeth and myself were embarking on a life changing experience: we knew it, were ready for it, and what a magical mystery ride indeed!

Within the intimacy of Forest Hills Stadium and 15,998 other screaming fans, we witnessed the Beatles perform their standard live set of 12 songs, including “All My Loving,” “She Loves You”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, in other words, everything we wanted to hear but couldn’t and didn’t really care as “A Hard Day’s Night” echoed in the reverb.

The fact that the opening acts, in order of appearance were: the Bill Black Combo, the Exciters, the Righteous Brothers and Jackie DeShannon phased us not, a nod to the heady legal intoxication that adolescence wrought, fueled by the unstoppable passion of desire realized.

But not quite and not so fast.

Elizabeth and myself needed a memento, not a trifle like a ticket stub or some such.  A collectible beyond all others – something that only we two might share with the Beatles, as well.

On the august grounds surrounding that living jukebox that very night we encountered a grounds keeper who instantly – upon recognizing that we were still in the grip of Beatles frenzy and in direct reply to our plaintive cry  “Is there anything we can take home?” – cautioned us to await his return.

In a lifetime of satiated desires none seeming took longer nor perhaps still more satisfying to our youthful eyes than what beckoned:  that kindly gentleman’s return with two pieces of cake from the larger sheet cake that the Beatles had just then enjoyed in the Tudor-style members-only 1913 clubhouse.

What Elizabeth and myself neither then appreciated nor knew experientially was that within the prior 24 hour time-frame, the Beatles had encountered Bob Dylan and cannabis, simultaneously, for the very first time in a hotel room at the Delmonico, after their Friday night’s performance at Forest Hills Stadium.

If that inhalation lived up to reputation, then any lingering residue might have sweetened the Beatles’ taste buds for that wee decorative party favor.

Elizabeth and myself declined the generous offer to immediately partake of the sweet and instead implored that guardian of our desire to return with the wee pastry enclosed in silver foil where it remained – courtesy of the indulgence of our respective parents – for exactly one year hence in the upper berth of our family refrigerators.

Even though “A Hard Day’s Night,” the 1964 black-and-white comedy film directed by Richard Lester was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Screenplay Best Score (Adaptation), for myself and Elizabeth, nothing could ever imitate the cinéma vérité of that very sweet day’s night, not then, not now, not ever.



Cultural center to build in historic area

POSTED ON September 3rd  - POSTED IN News & Views

Published in the Aug. 20, 2014, issue of the Irish Echo


The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company’s HQ

in Rondout (click on image for larger view).


By Peter McDermott

“It’s on almost hallowed ground,” so said writer Ed McCann. “The laborers walked up the hill there to get their wages.”

He was referring to the well-advanced plans to build the Irish Cultural Center Hudson Valley at 32 Abeel St., in the historic Rondout section of Kingston, N.Y.

The Irish story in the Hudson Valley goes back a full two centuries and few places were as evocative of the experience as the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company’s headquarters.

Only the foundation exists today, but next door the ICCHV will build its 15,000 square-foot space, its website says, “to serve as a testament to the contributions and sacrifices made by the Irish and Irish-Americans in helping to build New York State as well as to the success they achieved and the obstacles they overcame; To provide a warm and welcoming meeting place for all who want to share in this great Irish-American experience.”

McCann was asked to get involved and he did because he was impressed with ICCHV president Robert Carey’s vision that it can be a “mini-university of all things Irish.”

Said McCann: “It’s not going to a hall, something stodgy, a boys’ drinking club.

“It’s going to be a living, dynamic center, not a museum. It will be a rehearsal space; it will have music, and cooking classes,” he said. “For me, as a writer, it’s exciting that they’re creating a physical space where writers and artists can showcase their work.

“I hope it will be flexible enough not to rule out anything, like broadcasting or web casting or filmmaking,” McCann added.

He said that he hoped that the center could aspire to having a writer-in-residence program that would attract nationally known authors like Alice McDermott and Colum McCann.

When he moved to the Mid-Hudson Valley as a college student, McCann, who is from Broad Channel in Queens, New York City, said, “I knew that I had come home.”

He was told then that the region stretched from the “Tappan Zee to Albany.”

Paul Tully of the ICCHV said that the area had no cultural center. “You have to go north to Albany or south to New York City,” he said.

“There are so many areas in the arts that we felt the needs weren’t being met,” Tully added.

The project that originated with the Sullivan County AOH has paid off the property it bought three years ago, as well another across the street that will serve as a car park.

The website adds: “This site is a critical location for the Irish in the Hudson Valley. It was once dubbed ‘Little Dublin’ because our ancestors tirelessly labored there while building the country’s canals as well as communities based on faith and family.”

As for tracing those ancestors, “There will be access to genealogical research and documents. And a collection of critical documents and items reflecting the lives of the Irish-Americans will be developed.”

It adds: “The 15,000-square foot facility will be a well-rounded place to celebrate all aspects of Irish culture.

“Literature, song, poetry, dance, language, drama and story-telling will be embraced, examined and taught and the region’s active AOH Pipe and Drum Band and Honor Guard will finally have a place to call home.”

The Irish Cultural Center Hudson Valley will host a welcoming reception on Saturday, Aug. 30, for Ireland’s ambassador to the United States. It will take place from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the SteelHouse Restaurant, 100 Rondout Landing, Kingston, N.Y. Anderson will also attend the Hooley on the Hudson in Kingston the same weekend.

Tully said: “We’re very happy that Ambassador Anderson is honoring us with her visit and that she’s showing her support for the Irish Cultural Center Hudson Valley.”

For more information contact Tully at






Irish gay group vows to continue campaign

POSTED ON September 3rd  - POSTED IN News & Views

By Ray O’Hanlon

The announcement that a gay marching group comprised of NBC employees will be allowed to march in the 2015 New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been welcomed by the Irish gay group Irish Queers.

But only to a degree.

The group, which has mounted a protest on Fifth Avenue during the parade for a number of years, has described the parade committee’s decision as a “small victory” but vowed to continue its fight to have an Irish gay group in the line of march.

Said Irish Queers in a statement: “Irish Queers – along with the scores of LGBT individuals, groups, and allies who have fought since 1991 for a parade that includes the whole Irish community – is learning about the change in the NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade at the same time as the rest of New York City and the Irish community. We welcome this cracking of the veneer of hate, but so far Irish LGBT groups are still not able to march in our community’s parades. The fight continues.

“This is a deal that was made behind closed doors between parade organizers and one of their last remaining sponsors, NBC. It allows NBC’s gay employees to march, but embarrassingly has not ended the exclusion of Irish LGBT groups. The parade organizers have said, astoundingly, that we ‘can apply’ in years to come.

“To the extent that parade organizers have changed their tune, it’s the result of Irish Queers’ many years of organizing, which led to last year’s refusal to march by Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Mayor de Blasio and others, the withdrawal of major corporate sponsors and escalating criticism of uniformed city workers marching in the Parade.

“We welcome this small victory, but our call remains the same – the parade must be open to Irish LGBT groups, not ‘in subsequent years’ but now. (We remember too well how parade organizers used fake waiting lists to bury our applications before.)

“The Irish community in Ireland and abroad is far more progressive than the parade committee, having abandoned the secretive power-mongering of the days when the Catholic Church held sway over politics. We still hope NYC will catch up. This has been a long, long journey and struggle. It is time for Irish LGBT people, marching under our own banner, to take our rightful place in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.”

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