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By Peter McDermott
Bridget Cagney’s mother read to her every night when she was a small child. “Then when I learnt to read books and newspapers, and you had to learn quickly in those days, it was the greatest joy of my childhood,” said the Queens resident about growing up in County Cork. “And reading still is a great joy.”
Cagney buys the New York Times about every second day and all three of the Irish weeklies published in New York. “And Jim gets the Post,” she said of her husband, who emigrated with her in 1967.
The Cagneys don’t own or use a computer, which puts them in a minority now in the over-65 age group. Last year, the Pew Research Center for Internet and American Life announced that for the first time a majority of seniors (53 percent) use email or the Internet. But the Cagneys are part of the majority that doesn’t get news from any online source. Figures from Pew in 2010 revealed that just 38 percent of what it terms the “Silent Generation” (age 65 through 74) ever go to the Internet for news, whereas only 16 percent of the “G.I. Generation” (75 and over) do so.
Paul Finnegan, the executive director of the New York Irish Center in Long Island City, an organization that encourages seniors to acquire computer skills, said those figures are borne out by his experience. In an informal survey he conducted of those who attended the center’s Wednesday seniors’ lunch two weeks ago, 40 people said they preferred newspapers as a source of news, while five indicated TV and/or radio was best for them and four chose the Internet. “That TV/radio figure is a surprise,” Finnegan said. He wasn’t surprised, though, at those who voted for online news, all four being enthusiastic stalwarts of the center’s Saturday morning computer class.
Center regular Julia Anastasio, who sometimes goes online, is one of those who favors print media. “I get the Daily News every day and the Irish Echo every week,” said the County Offaly native. “The Irish Independent [Ireland’s largest-circulation daily] opens up on my computer. I sometimes go to the computer class and I’m getting better. I know how to Google.”
Anastasio’s favorite website is that of the Offaly-based Midland Radio 3, where she can read death notices and local sports news, as well as listen to music.
Even more enthusiastic computer users the Echo interviewed regard online sources as supplemental and not as a replacement for print media.
“I’m computer fluent,” said Neil Hickey, a journalist for more than 50 years. He subscribes, though, to the print editions of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and several periodicals.
“There are huge advantages to the digital revolution,” said Hickey, an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former editor-at-large for the Columbia Journalism Review. “I couldn’t live without Google and e-mail. The whole world of information is at your fingertips.
“YouTube,” he added, “is a great joy and a phenomenal resource.”
But Hickey said: “I tell students that, for me, at least, reading news online is unsatisfying and insufficient to my needs.”
Three former teachers interviewed expressed contrasting positions about the Internet, but all, like Hickey, said that for them print news is primary. Patrick O’Sullivan, who spent his career teaching Spanish, was the most open of the three to the changes in the media landscape. “You could spend hours at the computer,” said the New Jersey resident, who has a second career as a realtor and follows the stock market as a hobby. “But I go online for what I can’t read in the New York Times and Barron’s.”
O’Sullivan buys the Times, he said, because the “writing is phenomenal.” He’s not so impressed with the news he sees online. “There’s no great beauty to it,” he said.
Joan Monsoury of Manhattan, who never uses a computer, is also a fan of the New York Times. “It’s a big part of my life,” she said. “And I listen to NPR and watch PBS. They’re all very satisfying.”
She doesn’t feel she’s missing out in any way and is “not motivated” to acquire a computer. “If anything happens, I hear about it several times a day,” Monsoury said.
Former English teacher Pat McGivern is someone who might be expected to take to the online experience more easily than others. She is a touch typist and worked with computers in the classroom before her retirement just over a decade ago. But, she doesn’t own one. Instead, she checks and responds to email at her local library on Long Island.
“Computers are a nuisance,” said McGivern, who still clips out newspaper articles to give to friends and family members.
One issue is her eyesight. Reading emails is a strain for her after a while. “I’ve been wearing glasses since 1943, since I was in the baby carriage,” she said. That is not a problem when it comes to print. Lack of time is, however, as she is studying the Irish language at Lehman College.
“I buy the New York Times for arts at the weekend, but it’s too much for me as a senior to read it all, and I subscribe to the Echo for music and arts and to know what’s going on,” McGivern said.
If the Times is too much, it is a case of not enough with other publications, which is indicative for her of the decline of print media. It led her recently to drop her subscription to Time magazine. “It’s too dull and watered down,” she said. She had similar complaints about Long Island’s Catholic paper, which recently changed to a magazine format. “It’s terrible,” McGivern said. “There’s nothing in it.
“We had very intellectual Catholic publications coming into the house in the 1950s. Now, they’re all very watered down. There’s not much in the way of theology,” she said.
McGivern also recalled fondly papers like the Journal American and the New York Herald Tribune, the demise of which in the 1960s was attributed in part to the rise of TV.
Maurice “Mickey” Carroll can speak to that issue. He was the Herald Tribune’s reporter in the basement of Dallas police headquarters when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot dead live on national television.
“There’s a lot of garbage passing around as news,” said Carroll, who began his newspaper career as a 14-year-old with the Rutherford (N.J.) Republican in the summer of 1945. “You’re getting blogs, opinion, amateurish stuff. It’s neatly printed. It looks the same.”
Referring to the economic viability of professional journalism, he said, “Fingers crossed, say a prayer, it will sort itself out.”
Carroll, who is the director of Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, worked for nine newspapers in all, including the Journal American and the New York Times. “You knew how to behave with facts. It was in your blood,” he said. “Even with new digital media, you hope that they will absorb the same standards.”
But the rise of cable news and the multiplicity of sources online means that people can cherry pick the evidence to suit their argument. “There was once an agreed set of facts,” Carroll said. The lack of one undermines the national conversation, he believes, and that has implications for older Americans.
“TV is a big trap for seniors, particularly male seniors,” McGivern said. “My friends in the Midwest are more liberal, but my friends in New York, some of them, listen to the guys who rant and rave.” She added that a member of her family believes that NPR is under the control of communists.
Some seniors interviewed felt that reading online was inherently superficial. Cagney said that when she was still in the workforce a decade ago many of her younger colleagues didn’t read beyond a story’s headline and a few paragraphs. “They weren’t getting the different sides of the story, it seemed to me,” she said.
Carroll said he “surfs the headlines” online. “Every now and then I look at Politico,” he said. But he believes that looking through a newspaper yields better results. “The serendipitous aspect,” he said. “That’s lost [online].
“I’ve got to have a newspaper in my hands. But that’s because I’m old,” Carroll said, with a laugh. His friend Francis X. Clines, a member of the New York Times’ editorial board, told him that he’s typically the only person in the elevator at work with the newspaper under his arm. “None of the kids have it,” he said.
For some seniors, it is more than a case of what they’re used to; it’s what they like.
“I love the feel of the paper,” said Cagney, who sets aside time, sometimes hours, to read at the end of the day. “I get a great sense of warmth when I look at headlines in Hudson News in Grand Central.
“I can’t imagine giving up the paper,” she said. “I deplore the day that we have to.”
Theatre / By Orla O’Sullivan
“These Halcyon Days” * By Deirdre Kinahan * Starring Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan * Directed by David Horan * at the Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St, NY, NY * Playing Wednesdays through Sundays to June 2 * Tickets available online at www.irishartscenter.org or by calling 866-811-4111.
When Stephen Brennan entered the foyer of the Irish Arts Center, he looked about 20 years younger than the man he had just played on stage—an indication of his acting powers and a hint of how quickly life can change.
Brennan and his co-star Anita Reeves find themselves in a nursing home in Deirdre Kinahan’s latest play, “These Halycon Days” which opened in its U.S. premiere on Sunday.
The play, from Tall Tales Theatre Company in association with Landmark Productions, is destined for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was a hit at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. Other recent successes for the Dublin playwright include “Bogboy,” a 2011 New York Times Critics’ Pick and “Moment,” which wowed Chicago audiences last year.
“Halycon” describes an idyllically happy time in the past, and for Kinahan’s two characters here retreating to their memories is their best hope of happiness. Patricia bucks herself with the belief that she will get out. Sean, a former actor, doesn’t entertain such thoughts.
Patricia, so credible as a no-nonsense retired school principal, by degrees shakes him out of his institutionalized state. Sean’s condition is ostensibly mental: dementia. But it is at least as much spiritual, as becomes evident when Patricia reignites in him the life he has tamped down.
She is in for liver cirrhosis (and, no, it’s not from drink! as she tells him) but her wits are sharp. When he, in his confusion, thinks he has missed his favorite lunch, Sunday’s roast chicken, she reassures him that he’s early, wryly adding “We’re up at six, there’s always plenty of time.”
From their first encounter, when she finds him alone in a wheelchair in the conservatory and almost beyond reach, Patricia challenges Sean. Part of the comedy comes from neither really listening, each being used to no one listening—until they become “synchronized” as Sean eventually tells how he was with his departed love.
You might say Patricia is afraid of dying, while Sean is afraid of living, from fear of feeling his loss. By connecting each somewhat liberates the other.
As Patricia frees Sean–from his wheelchair, the indoors, his silence—we see a minor miracle before our eyes. Sean’s entire demeanor changes from foggy and faltering to re-becoming his earlier self acting in “The King and I,” as he sails around the room with Patricia to “Shall We Dance?”
Kinahan doesn’t patronize the cute old people, though, or the audience. Patricia, a with-it iPod user, is irritated that she has to play music on the home’s ancient boombox. She doesn’t get the last piece missing from her jigsaw, and she ends her days calculating how quickly she must die so the home she shared with her sister won’t have to be sold to pay for this nursing home. There’s even something of a shocking sex scene derailed.
Throughout, it’s a treat to watch two of Ireland’s best-known theatre actors, particularly Brennan, whose role offers immense scope for transformation.
One tiny off element is the set. Its rubber plant and louvred wooden shutters blocking the sun suggest the American South, rather than the typical wicker-and-glass Irish conservatory.
Kinahan has said the play is about hope. It left me wanting to bawl, and emerging into sunshine to look with new eyes upon the crowds enjoying the spring day. Thomas Hardy’s poem “During Wind and Rain” echoed: tales of “blithely breakfasting all –men and maidens–yea” until, suddenly, “down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.”
By Peter McDermott
In most conversations he has with casual acquaintances or strangers, Paul Finnegan asks the same question: “Do you know someone who might benefit from going to the New York Irish Center?”
It’s part of his own personal outreach for the organization he heads up in Long Island City in Queens.
The center is alive with activity seven days a week with people from all age groups, but the demographic he has in mind in such conversations are those who are over 65.
Finnegan said the center is involved in one way or another with 200 to 250 seniors.
“Isolation is the biggest threat facing seniors. They’re very, very vulnerable to going off the grid,” he said. “Maybe your relationship wasn’t so good with your children, or they’ve moved away and you continue to live in the old neighborhood.”
In some cases, he added, being widowed can cut a person off from a wider circle of friends and acquaintances.
The New York Irish Center itself is not off the grid. The westbound 7 train, when it’s leaving the Vernon Avenue-Jackson Avenue stop at the center’s doorstep, is just three minutes from Grand Central. “That’s our biggest selling point,” said the Galway City native Finnegan. The center is also at the end of what some refer to as the “Queens Boulevard corridor” – precisely, the neighborhoods of Woodside, Sunnyside, Astoria and Jackson Heights – and very close to entrances to the Midtown Tunnel, the Queensboro Bridge and the Pulaski Bridge.
Mary Wicelinski was among those who traveled over the Pulaski Bridge from Greenpoint in Brooklyn for the weekly seniors’ lunch on a recent Wednesday.
“It’s a situation where you look forward to it,” she said.
“It’s not easy for me to get out. I have a walker,” added Wicelinski, who was born a Fitzgerald to Irish immigrant parents. “My son called me up. He said, ‘Where are you going?” I said, ‘Bridie is bringing me to the Irish Center.’ He loves to hear that I’m coming here.”
Sitting near her at that mid-morning hour — 11 a.m. — were Bridie Mitchell, Peggy Cooney and Carmel McCarthy, respectively from Counties Leitrim, Meath and Cavan. They’d come from Greenpoint, too, but not all by car.
“The bus from Greenpoint is no problem,” one said.
All three have been visiting the center since it opened on March 18, 2005. And like many of the other seniors they help with the serving and the washing-up.
“Eight years? It doesn’t seem possible,” Cooney said.
“Our shoes are worn down now,” McCarthy said.
The New York Irish Center was the brainchild of the Rev. Colm Campbell, who was sent by Irish church officials to act as a chaplain to young emigrants in the mid-1990s.
“We’re a community center, but we were originally built with the 1980s and 1990s immigrants in mind,” said executive director Finnegan.
The three-story structure at 10-40 Jackson Ave. was not literally built for the center, though. It was acquired by a group of sympathetic Irish businessmen with Campbell’s project in mind. At the time, the neighborhood was finally beginning to take off after being talked up for years in the media. Eight years on, the high-rise apartment buildings that line the waterfront are just one visible sign of a rapid gentrification.
“He’s a remarkable man,” Finnegan said of the founder who now lives in an assisted living facility in England, close to his sister. “He had a vision.”
That vision was amended somewhat as the priest who was ordained in 1958 found that it was own generation that pitched in to help with it. He then began to understand more about their needs.
At the same time, the Irish government was becoming increasingly concerned about an aging émigré population. “From the perspective of Dublin there’s a genuine appreciation of what immigrants have done, such as sending remittances home,” Finnegan said.
It had become clear, however, that quite a few of them were living in less than comfortable conditions. In England, many immigrant males had become used to a transitory lifestyle, which put them at a much higher risk of isolation later in life. The community in the U.S. also found that it wasn’t immune to some of the same problems.
Irish officials in New York such as the then Consul General Niall Burgess were supportive of Campbell’s efforts. Now, half of the funding for the center’s operational costs comes from the Irish government, the City of New York, and the American Ireland Fund. With austerity, Finnegan said, the emphasis in Dublin is on shoring up frontline services and less on capital programs.
The New York Irish Center’s board raises the other half of the necessary funding with events such as “Night of Comedy and Music” with comedian Colin Quinn and other entertainers on June 6. Board members typically want to give back to the post-war generation of immigrants, Finnegan said. One told him that he knew families in his community in rural Ireland who were greatly dependent upon “the parcel” that arrived from England or America.
The center seeks to help maintain networks of friendships, like those that had built up around jobs — men who worked together as bag handlers at JFK, for example, and women who worked in school cafeterias for the Board of Education – or in parishes or those associated with county associations and their umbrella group, the United Irish Counties.
“Others know each other from the dancehall days,” added Finnegan, a married father of two children.
“You hear about people on the grapevine,” he said. “Someone might ask: ‘Where’s Joe?’ Someone else will say: ‘He’s not well but he’ll be in next week.”
“It’s not just Irish,” said County Offaly native Julia Anastasio. “We have Italians, Spanish and a couple of black gentlemen are regulars on Wednesdays.”
“When people don’t show, you miss them. And, yes, some pass away,” she said. “Fr. Campbell always made sure there was a memorial Mass.”
At that moment, Anastasio, who herself is married to an Italian American, was readying herself to go to Mass at St. Mary’s Church across the street ahead of the lunch.
She spends much of her time caring for her husband and so nowadays goes to the center for the seniors’ lunch only.
Some other items on the center’s program of activities, though, are aimed at and appeal to seniors – notably the Saturday morning computer class. They tend to involve other age groups, too, as teachers, volunteers and participants.
“We mix the generations as much as possible and we do it pretty successfully,” Finnegan said.
And it’s good, too, he suggested, for 20-somethings who miss the company of grandparents back home.
Generally, many of the oldest regulars are less inclined to venture out for evening events like the movie or trivia quiz nights. “Seniors are routine orientated,” Finnegan said. “It’s like when you go to Starbucks in another city. You know what to expect. There’s no real shock value. Their expectations are met. They’re not looking for much excitement or intrusion in their lives.
“We’re welcoming to all, even those who’ve have substance abuse problems,” Finnegan said. “After getting over the feelings of defensiveness about life, they feel accepted.
“We find a place for them. It never got so bad that we were out of our depth,” he said. “We would like next to hire a social worker but it wouldn’t be someone upstairs that you made an appointment to see. It would be someone that everyone would know.”
The center’s only other full-time employee is Jane McCarter, the culture and heritage officer. It’s important for Finnegan that the volunteer-staff ratio be weighted considerably towards the former, something that helps it to be truly a community center.
“You don’t want the staff to be a self-perpetuating situation,” he said.
It’s important, too, that the seniors help keep the center ticking over.
“This is my little space on a Wednesday. My therapy,” Anastasio said, adding with a laugh: “And I’m still cleaning.”
This is the second of a series of three articles written about Irish-American seniors as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.
Irish graduates value social-work experience with Chicago seniors
By Peter McDermott
CHICAGO–A decade ago, Sheila McMackin took on a cultural exchange student who would add a new string to the bow of Wellspring Personal Care. The reverberations are still being felt 4,000 miles away.
“We hired him as a caregiver,” said McMackin, whose company provides homecare to older and disabled adults in the Chicago metropolitan area.
At the end of his summer stint, courtesy of a J-1 visa, the University College Cork student asked, “I wonder if I could come back here to do my field placement?”
“I said ‘yes,’ not thinking he would follow up on it,” McMackin recalled. “Well, sure enough, the following year I got a call and he said, ‘I’m ready now.’”
Ireland’s changing support for eldercare
The student wanted to start the following January as part of his master’s degree in social work. He did, and in the years since has been followed by 24 graduate students from Ireland who’ve done placements with Wellspring. Four out of five of them, McMackin estimated, found employment as social workers in their homeland after graduation.
Until now, the Wellspring director said, geriatric care has not been a feature of social work in Ireland: “The emphasis is on probation and child welfare. The bulk of government funding is still in those areas.”
However, she explained, “Field practice is a mandatory part of social work training, and Irish schools are very supportive of international placements. It’s typical. In any given semester they’ve got students going to Africa, to the Philippines, going all over the world.”
After contacting UCC’s social work staff and examining their handbook, McMackin said, “we crafted a placement that met what the students were expected to learn.”
Although funding in Ireland is not directed at social work for seniors, it was a government initiative that enabled McMackin to expand the Chicago program.
Previously, the Irish government had taken action to address the plight of marginalized, single-male immigrants in Britain, large numbers of whom found work in England in the years following World War II. Many became alienated or otherwise detached from their families. “There was a huge amount of unmet needs in England,” McMackin said.
After 40 years, though, it was apparent that Irish seniors faced some of the same problems in America. In McMackin’s telling, “The Irish Abroad Unit of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs said, ‘We want Irish immigrant centers to focus in on elderly issues.’”
Learning to help senior immigrants
Four years into the Wellspring placement program, McMackin met with Chicago Irish Immigrant Support and ultimately with officials from Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs.
“We expanded [the program] to include immigration issues, and working with senior Irish immigrants. But money was an issue. Students were coming on their own dime,” she said. “I had barely anything to offer them. Through the consulate here, we were able to get a stipend for the students to help some of the costs of their coming here.”
McMackin emphasized, “The Irish government has been wonderful to us. The DFA has been amazing. You walk into their offices with this great idea and they go, ‘Hmm. Okay.’ They’re incredibly supportive. So it’s humbled me, a lot.”
The program now also accepts students from Trinity College, Dublin, and the National University of Ireland, in Galway. “We have two students in the fall, and two in the spring, generally,” McMackin added.
She believes that the program helps prove the utility of social work outreach with older adults. “There are aspects to what we do that I think are very powerful. We are very proud of our work,” she said. “I think also that the universities really appreciate it.”
Brendan Young, who is doing a masters degree in social work at UCC, completed his placement in Chicago in December. “It was a fantastic experience,” he said.
Before starting his primary degree in social science, also at UCC, Young worked for a year as a youth advocate and outreach worker in his native Limerick City. He said his plan was always to study as many areas as possible. So for him, the Chicago placement, which involved classroom work as well as time with Wellspring and CIIS, was a valued opportunity.
“I was working with a different demographic in Chicago,” he said.
“The American social work system is very different [from] the Irish one in some ways,” said fellow UCC master’s student Rob O’Connor, who did his placement at the same time. “It was fascinating for me to be able to be exposed to that.”
“Chicago itself is an amazing city — so much diversity and friendliness,” O’Connor added. “It really made us feel at home.”
Learning from elders’ American stories
McMackin noted, “The students help to run the weekly senior groups, which are activity based – opportunities to talk, to learn. There are educational topics that they cover.”
Last year, the Chicago students heard older adults, now ages 75-85, who had left Ireland in their youth or middle years, in a reminiscence group at CIIS, the Irish support center.
For O’Connor, the Chicago reminiscence group provided a concrete example of how work with older adults can allow social workers to incorporate therapeutic skills in a group situation, while still focusing on a senior’s individual experience.
He emphasized, “Their history is so rich and diverse that it exposes you to a range of human relationships and dynamics that cannot be learned from any social work text. Their stories and spirit are very contagious.”
“The basic idea of this type of work is that people can retell the narrative of a past event and view it now with more experience and perhaps reevaluate it,” he said.
O’Connor stressed how important American training will be for Irish social workers returning home: “The fact that work with older adults feels like it is a developing area in Ireland is exciting, as there is room to develop creative therapeutic practices such as these.”
Different systems, but basic similarities
Because of economic austerity, though, new graduates will not have many opportunities available to them in Ireland and this will blunt the impact of American influences on eldercare in the short term. Said O’Connor: “I am actually looking at the U.K. at the moment and the possibility of working over there for a few years.”
McMackin would love it if more of her Irish students were able to return to Chicago to get more experience working fulltime in the community.
She said of U.S. rules, “Our immigration laws are so crazy.”
But America’s loss is Canada and Australia’s gain, as those countries are attracting Irish social work graduates. “They’re easier to get into and they have a need,” the Wellspring founder said.
Paul Dowling, who did his placement in 2008, is the one student who made it back to Chicago, where he is now the director of social services at CIIS.
“Geography plays a big role. At home, families tend to have somebody close by,” such as a parent or grandparent, he said. “It’s more of a family concern.”
The social safety net is more elaborate, too, in Ireland and user friendly.
“Seniors do have it more difficult in lots of ways in America,” said Dowling, who is from Gorey, Co. Wexford.
He is struck by how many forms older adults must fill out, which is often not an easy chore, he said, for people who are advanced in years.
In Ireland, seniors are entitled to travel free on public transport, including intercity trains, while other services and programs are at reduced rates — although budget cuts due to the austerity policy have been chipping away at some of them. Generally, one has to apply and qualify just once.
“In the U.S., you have to apply for things again every year, or every second year,” Dowling said.
For professionals, the Irish state is still the major employer of social workers and the placement students in Chicago found the concept of a private social-work company an alien one at first. It caused some “ethical quandaries” for County Kilkenny native O’Connor, who believes that the market is often at the root of social ills.
However, he said, working with Wellspring and having case discussions with McMackin, and exploring the National Association of Social Workers code of ethics, “really helped me to understand the ethics that underpin social work in America and how these are the same as in the Irish system.”
More generally, O’Connor liked that mental-health training for social workers was an “overarching focus” of course work in America.
Strong shoulders and deep commitment
For her part, McMackin wasn’t prepared for some cultural differences in the exchange program’s early years.
“I think Irish Americans, not all certainly — but we have this image, a vision, of what it means to be Irish,” she said. “We think there’s going to be this instantaneous bond with the people of Ireland, which is the farthest thing from the truth. I’ve learnt to understand that we’re different, that the cultures are different. There was a lot that I needed to learn.”
She observed, “Americans are louder, probably more assertive. I think while the Irish are very personable and sociable, they tend to be a little more — probably appropriately so — introspective. It takes a lot longer to actually know someone from Ireland.”
Whatever their national background, a social worker must have certain qualities, McMackin believes.
“You need to have empathy. You have to have a strong sensibility,” the Wellspring founder said. “It can be hard dealing with people, with issues and the bad things that happen.”
Furthermore, McMackin asserted, “You have to have a pretty strong set of shoulders. And I think you have to have a deep commitment to wanting to help humankind.”
This, with the sidebar below, is the first of a series of three articles written about Irish-American seniors as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.
Reweaving lost threads of past
During Rob O’Connor’s placement experience at Wellspring, he helped organize a “reminiscence” group at Chicago Irish Immigrant Support.
“I always liked the description of a reminiscence group as reweaving the lost threads of the past,” said the University College Cork graduate student.
“Reminiscence groups use many different forms of sensory stimulation as different senses often stimulate different memories. As such, one of the activities that we designed focused on traditional Irish music and asking the older adults what songs reminded them of their past.
“However, we did not realize that Irish music would act as a cultural catalyst to open the doors to a larger conversation and was such a big part of the older adults’ lives when they first came to America and remains so,” he said.
“A personal story that has stayed with me is actually a happy one told by a woman I’ll call ‘Delia.’ It was how she met her husband,” O’Connor remembered. “Delia recounted the narrative of how she was a nurse and came to America from the West of Ireland to work in a hospital in Chicago. She spoke finding a sponsor in America and of the great excitement she felt. When she was established in Chicago, she and a group of nurses went to the dancehalls every weekend to hear the Irish showbands play after a long week’s work.”
He continued: “Delia painted a picture of dancing, laughter, colors and craic [Irish word for fun and banter]. It was very vivid and she had the attention of the whole table as they nodded along remembering their own experiences.
“She finished the story by saying: ‘Over 50 years later and we’re still dancing.’ Everyone laughed and I’ll never forget the smile on her face as she looked around the room and tried to catch her husband’s eye who was apparently sitting at another table. I’d never known they were a couple,” O’Connor said.
– Peter McDermott
By Orla O’Sullivan
“Who’s Your Daddy?” * By and starring Johnny O’Callaghan * Directed by Tom Ormeny at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St. NYC * Playing Wednesday through Sundays through May 12 (with a possibility of an extension) * Tickets through 212-727-2737 or www.irishrep.org.
The story of a gay man trying to adopt a child might seem to be of narrow interest. However, anyone seeing this first play by Dubliner Johnny O’Callaghan can see why his solo show won accolades at its debut in Los Angeles in 2011 and at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival.
Anyone who has an Irish mammy, a quirky family, an interest in language, children, global development, or simply a badly judged love affair in their past can relate to the hilarious, moving and tension-filled tale O’Callaghan tells in “Who’s Your Daddy?” The show stands out from most others this reviewer has seen in years.
Within moments of O’Callaghan’s first utterance that he’s “haunted” by his parents “and they’re not even dead!” you’re laughing and confident of great things to come. Impressions of his chain-smoking, politically incorrect mother whose favorite color is “n**** brown” quickly give way to the main story—a trip to Uganda that O’Callaghan fell into at a low point in his life.
The unemployed actor’s chance encounter with an acquaintance bound for Africa leads to him leaving California before he knows it. “Maybe I should have Googled Uganda!” O’Callaghan told himself the night he arrived after passing militia mimed throat-slitting of the “Mzungu!” or “white man”.
Unexpectedly, Uganda’s life-and-death realities shook O’Callaghan from the suicidal fantasies he had in L.A.
The neglected yet exuberant children in the orphanage spoke to him. Scabby, ashen, and malnourished, they shared a mud floor with snakes and rats. One toddler climbed into O’Callaghan’s lap, fascinated by the red hairs on his arms. O’Callaghan heard a voice: “This is your son.” The boy, Benson, has a birthmark — like the map of Ireland, O’Callaghan thought — in the white of one eye.
O’Callaghan had long dreamt that he was pregnant, waking as he searched for his child’s birthmark.
Still, he tried to shake the crazy notion of adopting Benson. Then, one night, he said, “I dream of Benson graduating Harvard medical school and wake knowing I’m going to adopt him”.
O’Callaghan left for L.A., as planned, having hired a Ugandan lawyer to process the adoption.
But that’s only the start of the story. One obstacle after another stood in his way: from his single, gay (actually, bi-sexual) status; to Benson’s HIV status; to African bureaucrats on the take. Will he, won’t he? It’s gripping drama.
There’s lot of light relief, too. The stern judge, who finally decides his case, became suddenly starstruck when he learnt O’Callaghan was an actor. “What might I have seen you in?” he booms. O’Callaghan (pathetically): “Stargate Atlantis.”
There’s the family intervention by phone. Different members try to dissuade him, from his sister declaring him a “pedophile” to his father attesting that, “being a parent is bloody awful.”
In a dejected moment, O’Callaghan internalizes his family’s negative voices, reproaching himself with a rhetorical question: “Who do you think you are, Angelina Jolie?” Later, there’s a nice in-joke with the audience when O’Callaghan assures the earnest Californian social worker that, yes, his family will have a baby shower for him.
Tom Ormeny adds nice directorial touches, such as having O’Callaghan hang, apelike, from an overhead pipe at one point when he is in the orphanage near the jungle.
A beautiful set by Charlie Corcoran vividly evokes Africa even before the show starts. The silhouette of an Acacia tree, a species so associated with Africa, dominates a horizon painted on the back wall. It lies beyond a honeycomb wall that conveys a dusty dryness. Switches in lighting (Michael O’Connor) shift the emphasis from background to foreground, as O’Callaghan relocates from Africa to the U.S.
So much to praise, so little space…
By Orla O’Sullivan
Freud said the Irish were “one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.”
Nonetheless, Irish-American Alison Fraser is drawn to analysis. In the upcoming play “Love Therapy” the Tony-nominated actress plays an Irish woman whose path collides with a young therapist, while in real life she has written a thesis analyzing what she describes as casual racism towards the Irish.
Why, over the centuries, have Freud and others of his ilk, felt free to dispense, “socially acceptable anti-Irish rhetoric.” Fraser asks in her 2010 BA in English Literature thesis from Fordham University, “No Irish Need Apply.”
Fraser’s questionable argument is that “[T]he blame starts with… Gerald of Wales… a pro-Norman churchman… in the late 12th century.”
Maybe it’s simply that the victors write history and the Irish were in the shadow of the colonizers, whether next door to Britain or on arrival to the WASP-dominated U.S.
Fraser’s wide-ranging discussion comes into its own when she focuses a relative prominent in New York theater circles of the 19th century, partly because he did his best to “pass” as British.
Lawrence Barrett, born in Patterson, N.J., in 1838, changed his name from Brannigan, which itself was modified from Branagan, the Irish name of the Natick, Mass., branch of the family from which Fraser hails.
Barrett was manager of the most famous actor of the day, Edwin Booth, and photos of the two of them can be seen in Booth’s former home, now the Players Club in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park. Edwin’s even more famous brother President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth is also photographed.
Try though he might to distance himself from his roots, Barrett still found himself tarnished by his “Celtic temperament” in the press. (He was also, one could say, literally erased from history. When a once prominent painting of him was sold by the Players Club in recent times it was not replaced by a copy – unlike other original portraits sold, Fraser notes.)
Another tidbit is that an old theater superstition—not to utter “Macbeth” within the theater—came from the Irish. Fraser tells how ethnic tensions came to a head in The Astor Place Riot of 1849, when 10,000 Irish men rioted at a performance of “Macbeth” by an English actor, killing 31 people.
Fraser’s direct experience of the Macbeth curse came while she was performing in “Gypsy” on Broadway. Many inexplicable ills befell the production after author-director Arthur Laurents uttered “Macbeth,” Fraser said, and Patti Lupone, who was hit by falling lights, had to prevail on him to do as superstition dictates to lift the curse. (FYI, that’s run outside the theatre, spin three times, spit, swear, and ask permission to be let back in.)
Her latest play, “Love Therapy,” opens on April 29th at the DR2 Theatre, 101 East 15th St., NYC.
By Frieda Klotz
Overcrowded workhouses, soup kitchens that closed when they were needed most, a neglectful British administration and a population decimated by illness and starvation.
More than 150 years after the Irish famine, the Great Hunger of 1845-52 remains one of the most far reaching and tragic events in Ireland’s history. The Famine drastically shrank the country’s population, initiated a trend in emigration that remains in place today, and had lasting cultural and social effects.
It raises questions that are still unanswered, and last weekend, historians, students, and members of the public gathered at Fordham University to discuss them.
The impassioned dialogue that ensued showed how controversial the tragedy remains.
The aim of the two-day Irish Famine Tribunal, at Fordham University Law School, was to explore issues of culpability. On Saturday, two opposing teams of law students, from Dublin City University and Fordham Law School, argued over Britain’s role. Did the famine constitute genocide, in modern terms? Were British actions tantamount to crimes against humanity?
Three eminent legal experts adjudicated the presentations, John G. Ingram, acting justice of Kings County Supreme Court, William Schabas, professor of International Law at Middlesex University, and Adrian Hardiman, a judge of the Irish Supreme Court.
On Sunday, three historians, Tim Pat Coogan, John Kelly and Ruan O’Donnell, discussed their research on the subject.
Over the course of the two-day event, those present shared a wealth of data and knowledge, and the conversation that ensued was lively. History and historians were as much under scrutiny as anyone else.
“Quite simply, we plan to explore, through the adversarial process, culpability for the Irish Famine,” said moderator James Cullen in his introduction.
“Today’s contest will not be burdened by preconditions, political views or academic censorship.”
Tim Pat Coogan, who published a book on the famine last year called “The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Tragedy,” suggested that subsequent descriptions have filtered out the trauma that it caused.
An ideological hesitance exists around talking about the famine, he argued, and revisionist historians have moved away from questions of blame, a process he described as a “sanitation of Irish history.”
By presenting it in economic terms, revisionists forget that they are talking about death – “death in its most hideous manifestations, its cruelest form.”
Coogan painted a persuasive picture of just how impoverished Irish people were at that time. Many lived in miserable conditions, inhabiting mud huts that had one door and smoke emerging from a hole in the roof. A large proportion of the population relied almost wholly on the potato for sustenance.
Several of the politicians sitting in the British cabinet were Irish landlords, he said.
“There is no doubt that people knew that Ireland was a disaster waiting to happen.”
The famine decreased the number of people living on the land, and fitted with a desire among British politicians to bring down the number of small- holdings in Ireland, Coogan explained. Emigration also played a part in Britain’s policies for reducing congestion. He said the psychological effects of colonialism are still apparent in Irish people today.
Whether the UN’s definition of genocide could retrospectively apply to Britain gave rise to a specific legal debate. The UN describes genocide as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
For Coogan, the answer was certain: “What happened, I would submit, is accurately and pithily described in one word, genocide.”
John Kelly, an independent scholar and author of “The Graves Are Walking,” emphatically disagreed: while Britain’s actions were terrible and neglectful they
did not embody genocide. Judged by the UN standard, “the case against Britain becomes less compelling judged by UN standards,” he said.
One thing that was clear from the tribunal was how emotive and wide-ranging the Irish Famine’s history is. Several speakers noted the difficulty that seems to exist for Irish people about addressing the country’s past. Many felt that silence had reigned too long over this issue.
Mary Pat Kelly, a writer whose family came to Chicago during the famine, explored the subject through fiction in her book “Galway Bay.” She is now writing a screenplay for a mini-series based on her book with Naomi Sheridan.
The Famine holds a key place in the history of the Irish-American diaspora, and Kelly thought a dimension not addressed at the tribunal was the dogged strength of
the Irish who survived and came to the U.S. It is important not to end the story with emigration and death, she said, but also to celebrate those who possessed “the will and intelligence and determination to survive, and to basically build this country.”
Like many of those who attended the tribunal, Kelly felt that the event had sparked a vital conversation.
“I do think there is validity in looking at the past through a different lens,” she said.
“I think the most important thing is that it’s being talked about.”
A verdict arising from the tribunal will be delivered later in the year.
Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott
In an article last week, the New York Times referred to a team named “Sunderland United.” That to a soccer fan grates as much as the “Yankee White Sox” would to a devotee of baseball. Maybe the writer thought he was as likely to be right as wrong. In fact, there are only three Uniteds in the 20-club Premier League: West Ham, Newcastle and leaders Manchester – though the last of those requires “United” for identification, as there is also a Manchester City, now in 2nd place. The Times did make the correction online by saying that Sunderland had been “imprecisely” named, which was itself imprecise; “inaccurately” would’ve been accurate.
In any case, the London correspondent was reporting on the controversy that blew up after the firing of manager Martin O’Neill and the hiring of Paolo Di Canio, who has alleged fascist views. The Irish Times’ long-time Rome correspondent Paddy Agnew wrote this past weekend: “His track record as a Mussolini enthusiast is long established.”
BBC Online kindly put this in some historical context for soccer fans, many of whom likely weren’t listening at school when it was covered or haven’t gotten to it yet.
“Mussolini’s hard-line authoritarian rule – exemplified by his armed Blackshirts forces – stamped down on left-wing politics and democratic values,” said the Beeb, “as well as forwarding nationalistic policies which promoted Italian sovereignty and tradition.”
That’s pretty basic stuff. Well, you’d think. But in America, this is what we get from folks like Glenn Beck: liberals are bad, fascists and Nazis are bad – liberals are Nazis and fascists. Only recently, Ben Shapiro of Breitbart News labeled the Nazis a “left-wing” movement in a radio interview with Sean Hannity, which, unlike “Sunderland United,” was not an honest mistake.One might as well say Nazism was a Catholic movement. Like the church it was officially critical of both communism and capitalism, but like the church it actually didn’t do anything to seriously undermine the latter. The Nazi movement used “socialist” to try to broaden its appeal, just as the church issued “social” encyclicals. Hitler and Goebbels both were raised Catholics. And so on.
Or, you could say that the Nazis were a pagan movement because… well, actually, come to think it: yes, lots of Nazi leaders were enthusiastic, born-again pagans, rather more than were practicing Catholics. They were obsessed with “Nordic folkways” just like your neo-pagans are today. That hardly makes the two synonymous.
Last week, the Feds came calling for New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, who happens to be a neo-pagan of some sort, in addition to being a Republican. (Not that he’d listen to me – Republicans or pagans don’t usually – but I’d go the insanity route here and wear to court a set of those Viking horns my Dublin-supporting brother-in-law puts on his kids’ heads for games at Croke Park.)
Maybe it was a premonition of some sort, but last summer at a rally supporting 32-ounce sodas, Halloran appeared to reference a famous statement by anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller. “When the mayor went after salt, nobody said anything,” he said. “When the mayor went after MSG, everyone was quiet. When the mayor required us to post the information about the calorie counts in everything, no one said a word. When we banned smoking inside restaurants, everyone said, ‘Hey, it’s fine.’ Well, today, it’s your soda.”
What Niemöller actually said, according to a version posted on the website of the foundation in his name, was: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Niemöller eventually spent eight years in concentration camps, but he was one of those many Protestant churchmen who initially welcomed the Nazis as a bulwark against the liberalizing and atheistic tendencies of the Weimer Republic. On his rise to power, Hitler wrested votes from the established nationalist and conservative parties, which were disproportionately rural, middle-class and Protestant in their bases of support. However, in the Nazis’ increasingly good showing in German elections in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the two demographics that proved most obviously resistant to their charms were workers organized into unions, who loyally voted for the left-wing parties, and Catholics, who continued to back the Center Party.
We don’t the have the laws against Holocaust denial they have in some European countries, but it’s certainly considered beyond the pale of decency to deny or minimize the enormity of that crime. Shouldn’t the basic facts of the lead up to that chapter in world history be sacrosanct – while allowing for differences in emphasis and interpretation, which is the stuff of historical writing and debate? Have our culture and media become so debased that someone like Shapiro can treat the 1920s and 1930s as a blank slate for purely propagandistic ends?
Perhaps, more generally, we can’t do much about the trivialization of 20th century history, but it gets to a point when it just becomes ridiculous, as with the above-mentioned Big Gulp controversy. Either implicitly (again, see above) or explicitly, Mayor Bloomberg, who was born to a Jewish family during World War II, got called a Nazi by people angry that they had to buy two 16-ounce sodas instead of a 32-ounce. Go figure.
Published in the Irish Echo on March 20, 2013
By Orla O’Sullivan
Had her parents not sent her to Paris as a reward for her decision to become a nun, deferred for a year, Ireland would not have had in Mary Robinson as its first female president, nor the United Nations a formidable High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“Paris,” Mrs. Robinson, with a laugh, “of course, that changed everything,” she said as she spoke in New York’s Cooper Union about the path her life took after she abandoned plans to join the clergy.
The historic New York venue was Robinson’s fourth and final stop in a U.S. tour to promote her memoir, “Everybody Matters; My Life Giving Voice.”
Mrs. Robinson received a standing ovation from the crowd of about 300 people who came out in a downpour.
Still, there were substantially fewer present in New York than the “huge audiences” she had received in Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis in the past fortnight, according to her husband, Nick Robinson.
Mrs. Robinson, now 68, spoke for about an hour, barely glancing at notes. Without reading from her memoir, she fluidly traced the line from lawyer to senator to Irish president, and on to the world stage – shining a spotlight on everything from famine to genocide and, most recently, what she terms “climate justice.”
Robinson’s discussion encompassed everything from the deadly serious, such as the “travesty” in Syria, to humorous reminiscences. Among the latter was that she and some of her brothers rented an apartment, as students, in the house where Oscar Wilde was born.
“It was renamed during our time as ‘Wilde House’ but that had more to do with my brothers,” said the woman who admitted to being the type who “sat at the front of class.”
Today, Robinson heads the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice. The foundation, which focuses on how the world’s poorest are hit hardest by environmental degradation, was established in 2011.
Mrs. Robinson also remains active in world politics, as a member of the Elders, an independent group formed by Nelson Mandela.
A recipient of multiple awards, including one from President Obama, Mrs. Robinson spoke from the spot where Abraham Lincoln made a speech that helped paved his path to the presidency: the Great Hall of Cooper Union.
Jamshed Bharucha, president of the free university in Manhattan, noted, in introducing her, that other agents of change hosted over the centuries in Cooper Union included Michael Collins and Fenian rebels before him.
The changes for which Mrs. Robinson advocated from an early age put her outside mainstream Irish society. She jokingly referred to the “modest proposals” she put before the Irish Law Society, as the first female undergraduate to address it: access to contraception, and the decriminalization of homosexuality and suicide.
A few years later, a senator at age 25 and the wife of Nick, with whom she studied law in Trinity College, Mrs. Robinson found herself “denounced from pulpits” and “feeling wobbly walking down Grafton St… I was used to being well regarded.”
She was the recipient of so much hate mail, Mr. Robinson burnt it, “something,” she said, “we both very much now regret because it was a great record of social history.”
The odds from bookmakers were “a hundred to one against” her when she reluctantly accepted the Labor Party’s invitation to run as its presidential candidate – drawn, she said, by the possibilities to influence constitutional law, thereby making more of a previously merely ceremonial role.
She famously thanked “mná na hÉireann” (women of Ireland) for their support In her 1990 acceptance speech. “So many wives didn’t tell their husbands or daughters their fathers that they’d voted for me,” she said.
One such woman came to shake Mrs. Robinson’s hand, years ago in Boise. “You were my number one,” she said, “when I told my father he nearly killed me!”
Another term Mrs. Robinson brought to common use was “the diaspora.” Standing before some of that diaspora just ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, she said, “Now, it’s got to the stage of having Irish people come home for a ‘Gathering.’”
Asked afterwards if she thought The Gathering 2013, an initiative to attract visitors to Ireland this year had cheapened her intended emphasis on Ireland’s often forgotten emigrants, Mrs. Robinson said no.
“I know there’s a lot of criticism of The Gathering, but I think it’s an Irish thing to look to friends and neighbors to help when times are bad.”
Among the diaspora represented in Cooper Union was Anne Heavey, a retired nurse from Athlone, who, despite ill health, braved the elements to see Ireland’s former president.
“You’d be proud of Mary,” she said.
By Peter McDermott
Some have it that the Irish built New York. In the case of Jim Rodgers’s family it could be said to be literally true.
His great-great-grandfather Cornelius Gallagher established a business empire that, among other achievements, provided most of the sand that was used in the construction of Manhattan north of 14th street and it made him extraordinarily wealthy
“He was a billionaire in modern terms,” Rodgers estimated of an ancestor who was 85 when he died in 1932.
“The charm of his character was his thorough naturalness, [and] perhaps it was this that carried him so triumphantly through his career,” said an obituary published by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. “In all, he was a lovable character and an affectionate friend.”
If this Famine-era immigrant born to a Donegal family wasn’t exactly “old money,” he was based in a part of Long Island that suggested he was. The patriarch had an address at East 38th Street in Manhattan, but summered at Port Washington on the North Shore with his wife Annie, his children and their families.
“This was a time when only a very few old WASP families went out to the Hamptons,” said Rodgers, the married father of two teenage children.
Instead, the action was on the North Shore. The newly affluent and famous, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived on Great Neck, which the novelist fictionalized as “West Egg” in “The Great Gatsby.” But he did go to parties across the bay on the Sands Point peninsula, or old-moneyed “East Egg” in the novel, which is where the love of Gatsby’s life, Daisy Buchanan, grew up and where the real-life Gallaghers were based.
“This was someone whom I was interested in since I was 15,” he said of the “Gatsby” author. When he read biographies as an adult, he saw a possible connection to his family.
“I like to think that Fitzgerald went to the Gallaghers’,” he said, referring primarily to the home of his great-grandfather Peter and his wife Mimi.
“They were a colorful family that partied for 100 years, because there was always money,” Rodgers said of the Gallagher clan. “They knew how to make money and they knew how to spend it.
“They were a family of raconteurs,” he added. By the time he came along the stories remained, but the money, for the most part, had been spent.
Rodgers is a downtown Manhattan lawyer who has completed two as yet unpublished novels. A popular reader at both the Irish American Writers & Artists salon and its spinoff Artists Without Walls, he writes about his world and what he knows. And while he’s fascinated by and feels close to the Gallaghers, he hasn’t been tempted to fictionalize their sprawling multi-generational story. For one thing, it might be a little too melodramatic for his literary style.
In or around 1926, his great-grandfather Peter C. Gallagher Sr. died in circumstances that were never made public. There were two main conflicting stories or theories. One was that he fell or was pushed in front of a subway train. The other, passed on to Rodgers by his mother, rings truer for him. In that version, Peter fell and hit his head off of the side of a yacht during a fight with one of his three brothers. One point of tension was Mimi, Peter’s wife, whom the brother had once loved, too.
The widowed Mimi (formerly Alice Mae Murray), who was born into an allied clan involved in the business, became the matriarch after Cornelius and Annie passed away. She made sure that her two sons – Rodgers’s grandfather Peter C. Gallagher Jr. and John Murray Gallagher — would assume key roles in the running of the business.
A generation later, after Peter’s death in the late 1950s, the neighbors on the North Shore said: “Enough!”
Rodgers said: “They [the Gallaghers] had stripped the dunes at Port Washington.” Articles in the local press ran with headlines like “The rape of the sand dunes.”
Emphasis on fun
His mother’s brothers and her cousins sold Gallagher Brothers Sand & Gravel in 1960 and went into the shipyard business. That went bankrupt in the 1990s, but some family members made a “tidy sum” by selling the lease of the dry dock and shipyard to IKEA for its store at Red Hook in Brooklyn.
Rodgers’s mother, the former Helen “Chickie” Gallagher, grew up in the 1930s and ’40s, spending one part of the year in Palm Beach, Fla., and the other in New York. She went to elite Catholic schools in both places.
The Gallaghers belonged to a group of wealthy Irish Catholic families on the Upper East Side that had intermarried and were otherwise interconnected over the generations.
The emphasis was always on fun. “My mother’s was the last generation to enjoy that lifestyle,” Rodgers said. During Chickie Gallagher’s high school and college days, parties often meant 20 or more friends staying overnight.
“I thought she’d exaggerated some of it, but a friend of hers confirmed to me it was all true,” he added.
The Gallaghers had servants, of course, including a chauffeur named Eddie Dillon, whose body, when his time came, was entombed in the Gallagher plot. Rodgers later learned that the family retainer he knew as a child had changed his name from Halpern to avoid discrimination as a driver.
“The family claimed he was the only Jew buried in Calvary,” he said.
Chickie met her future husband, James H. Rodgers Jr., in Westhampton, where the family had been spending its summers since the late 1940s. He was from a Catholic family in New Jersey of English, Scottish and Irish heritage. “His father had a company, but they weren’t wealthy like the Gallaghers,” said his son. The young couple married in 1955.
“My father really loved and respected the Gallaghers,” Jim Rodgers Jr. said.
Rodgers Sr. was sorry that his seven children didn’t know his parents-in-law – they both died in their 50s – but he was a keen observer who could relate what he’d seen and heard. And his wife, brothers-in-laws and sisters-in-laws were there, too, and so the storytelling and the laughter continued.
“Thanksgiving was always with the Gallagher family,” Rodgers said of a 1960s and ‘70s childhood. “Christmases were spent with my father’s side.”
Despite the family’s profile and wealth, Rodgers’s mother hadn’t known about the most public and controversial episode in the family’s business history. In 1920, Goodwin-Gallagher Sand and Gravel Corporation and allied companies were prosecuted by the Justice Department under the terms of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
A story in the New York Times on Dec. 20 of that year ran with a subhead: “Eleven Individuals and Four Corporations accused of plot to Control Sand Trade.” The charge was they had established their own “Board of Trade” and that it fixed prices. Rodgers said that it’s clear from press interviews that his great-grandfather Peter and his brothers John, Joseph and Frank didn’t understand quite what they were doing wrong. (Their father, Cornelius Gallagher, had recently retired.)
The Times reported: “The indictments charge that for three years the sand dealers named in the indictment have dug ‘Cow-bay’ sand on Long Island for use throughout a great part of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.”
“As a lawyer, I understand the legalities. But you can see that there’s a disconnect with them. They just didn’t get it,” Rodgers said. “But they paid the fine.
“I find it a source of pride, a weird source of pride, that a child of the Famine had such a monopoly,” he said.
A new company, Gallagher Brothers Sand and Gravel, was formed after the dismantling of the old one. Rodgers has no information about what Mimi Gallagher’s brothers-in-law did after she established control of the company, but he believes it’s likely they continued to make money.
Reviewing the arc of the family’s history, he said: “Goodwin-Gallagher or Gallagher Brothers supplied the bulk of the sand and gravel for most of what was built north of 14th Street, including the subways, the Queensboro Bridge, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.”
“I don’t know if we can confirm if Cornelius came over because of the Famine,” Rodgers said of the patriarch.
The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick obituary said his birth took place on July 4, 1845. The New York Times, in a news report announcing his death, suggested he was born the following year and added that he left Ireland as a child.
“He was essentially a New Yorker, having lived all his life in the old Twenty-first Ward, where as a boy, early education was received at a public school on East 25th Street,” the Friendly Sons’ obit reported.
“He saw his father lay out streets from 26th Street to 40th Street,” it continued.
It’s not clear, however, if “lay out” meant the father was a ditch digger or that he had a more supervisory role.
“It has been recorded that he [Cornelius] brought sand and gravel from Long Island by schooner, first in 1866,” the Friendly Sons obit said.
Gallagher bought out the competition that was hauling sand and gravel from the bluffs of Port Washington, and then merged with another sand king named Goodwin.
“From the hardy stock from which he sprang Mr. Gallagher inherited an iron constitution, capable of great physical endurance and a capacity for hard, continuous work,” the Friendly Sons added.
His wasn’t the only hard work being done. At one point, the business was shipping in 800 Italian immigrant workers from the Lower East Side. The Italians, in time, preferred to live nearby and a school was built. The workers’ side of the story also gets its due at Port Washington Public Library with the help of oral histories. Some of them record the same positive attitude towards Cornelius Gallagher that is evident in the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick obituary.
Rodgers said there were two surprises for him, his siblings and his cousins from the recently discovered Times news report and the Friendly Sons Gallagher obituary. The first was that the business empire went well beyond sand and gravel.
The obituary said: “He was vice-president of, and one of three who organized the National Conduit & Cable Company. To him much credit is due for the perfecting of lighting cables for traction and lighting purposes, as well as the completing and laying of the Broadway cable with its famous ‘Post-Office loop.’
“He installed underground cable systems for telegraph and telephone companies as well as for the fire and police departments when the pole system was removed from our streets and the underground plan substituted,” it said. “His fame spread to London, England, when he directed the first complete line from Beggars Bush to the Glasgow Bank of England. He was president of the Norristown, Bridgeport & Conshohocken Traction & Trolley Co., which in later years was known as the Philadelphia Traction System.”
The Times reported that National Conduit & Cable Company was sold to a Wall Street syndicate in 1917 for $8 million ($134 million in today’s money), of which Gallagher got a reported quarter.
The second surprise was the headline of the Times news report: “C. GALLAGHER DEAD; HONORED BY POPE. The subhead read: “Made Knight of St. Gregory by Pius XI in Recognition of his Activities as Layman.”
“We had no idea he was religious,” Rodgers said, referring to his generation of Gallagher cousins.
The Friendly Sons described him as a “devoted husband, a loving father and a distinguished Catholic gentleman.”
Seven months later, Cornelius’s great-granddaughter Chickie was born. When she was undergoing cancer surgery in 1989, Jim Rodgers and his father were told by doctors that they should leave and come back later. They anxiously paced the pathways of Carl Schurz Park near Gracie Mansion. Then, the older man spotted something out on the East River that immediately lifted his spirits. He declared it a good sign.
And indeed, Jim Rodgers Sr. lived another 15 years and his wife Chickie survives him. What the elder Rodgers saw was a tug boat pulling an old barge. As it got closer, the barge’s lettering, which had faded over the decades, became more visible. Finally he could read: “Gallagher Bros.”