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Musical recalls hard birth of modern U.S.

POSTED ON September 27th  - POSTED IN IE

By Orla O’Sullivan

Musicals can be irritating, their manufactured emotion unbearably phony. Larry Kirwan’s “Hard Times,” however, is not just the best of the genre I’ve seen, but truly affecting.

The rest of the audience was also demonstrably moved at one of the extra performances laid on during the show’s largely sold-out run through Sunday as part of the 1st Irish Theater Festival.

As the musical ended, it transformed from your typical theater experience to a “seisiún.” Switching from spectators to participants, the audience clapped to the beat of the last song. So in synch with the performers were they that when individual actors performed solos within that final number the crowd automatically self-modulated to a slower clap less likely to drown out the singer.

Will it sustain such involvement if-or more likely when-“Hard Times” moves to Broadway and not the intimate West 23rd Street venue, the Cell?

This is the story of the hard birth of the modern U.S., told mostly through the songs of Stephen Foster, whose famous compositions include “Hard Times Come Again No More.”

Kirwan provides others, such as “Five Points,” the rough area in lower Manhattan where the immigrant Irish and free blacks amongst others collided in July 1863.  Ethnic tensions surged in the Draft Riots as poorer men, such as newly arrived Irish, were drawn to help the Union side win the Civil War–which many resented as an effort to free southern slaves.

Kirwan takes some poetic license as he writes the characters in a bar on the notorious Bowery where the action unfolds. Their relationships parallel American society breaking free of old strictures. Pivotal characters are the bar owner, free slave Nelly Bly (Almeria Campbell); Irishman Owen Duignan (John Charles McLaughlin) who works for her; and composer Stephen Foster (Jed Peterson), who lived locally.

All elements are well done, from the powerful singing, dancing and acting to the simple set with its tattered version of an emergent U.S. flag, and choreography that visually created five points in a new, Irish set-dance combination for the “Five Points” number.


Monday spirals out of aides’ control

POSTED ON September 27th  - POSTED IN IE

Theatre / By Orla O’Sullivan

“Fly Me to the Moon” * Written by Marie Jones * Directed by Marie Jones * Starring Tara Lynne O’Neill and Katie Tumelty * 59E59 Theaters, 553 East 59th St., bet. Park and Madison Avenues, NYC * Tickets: (212) 279-4200 or * Playing through Sept. 30: Tues. – Thurs. at 7:15 p.m.; Fri., 8:15 p.m.; Sat., 2:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.; Sun. at 3:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.

“God, I thought my day was ruined because our Craig forgot his gym bag. Now, I could be arrested for theft, fraud and murder,” says a stunned Loretta (Tara Lynne O’Neill), one of the characters in Marie Jones’s new comedy, midway through a Monday gone badly wrong.

Many characters in “Fly Me to the Moon,” whether the two onstage or others present in their absence, could do with an escape.

Davy, the speechless stroke victim attended by Loretta and her fellow nurse’s aide, Frances (Katie Tumelty), got his. He has just died, unnoticed, on the toilet.

Others, including Loretta’s unemployed husband Brian, are still waiting for deliverance. He spends his days and scant resources phoning television stations in an attempt to get on game shows, such as “‘Pointless,’ where you win if you don’t know the answers.”

As to what to do with Davy when his demise comes to light, Loretta and Frances discuss proper protocol in cases of inconvenient death.

Before they settle on whom to notify, Frances casually observes that by dying on the day his social security is due, “he’s not even getting the good of his pension.”

And so the trouble starts. Frances is as calculating as Loretta is innocent. “Just hear me out,” she says, as she makes her first pitch for how they might cash in on the bad joke the universe played on Davy.

It’s a phrase repeated at several junctures of the play, each marking the characters sinking deeper into a morass.

How will they and the author ever extricate themselves? If there’s a knock on this hilarious play, it’s that as the characters situation spirals out of control, the play becomes more farcical. But, along the way, the audience certainly gets its escape with a good laugh. Loretta and Frances are perfectly opposed as a kind of working-class Belfast Laurel and Hardy. It’s fun to see the penny drop, again and again, on Loretta’s face—and interesting later, when a little role reversal ensues. Now into it, and wondering how to conceal a bruise on Davy’s face that might be seen as suspicious, she’s rummaging through make-up, asking was his complexion “fair” or “peach melba.”

As their consciences grow louder, the women hold a religious service for Davy, there in his flat. Preparing for this impromptu event unearths the greatest surprise yet.

The audience is left back to earth, as the play concludes with the characters uttering their final words from what appears may be the dock: “We promise to tell the truth… so help me God.” Or is it just a reminder that this is a yarn, spun like a spider’s web all the way to the moon?

“Fly Me to the Moon,” is making its New York debut as part of the annual 1st Irish Theater Festival. This follows a hit run in the UK for Belfast native Jones, whose body of work includes Tony-award winning “Stones in His Pockets.”


Wee Craic: funny weird and funny ha-ha

POSTED ON September 27th  - POSTED IN IE

By Orla O’Sullivan

The Wee Craic festival wasn’t short on craic, just a smaller showcase for short films out of Ireland than the main Craic fest, held around St. Patrick’s Day.

The last one was held at a real cinema—the Film Forum—whereas last Friday’s screening gathered 50 viewers or more into a downstairs room of the Lower East Side Bar, Arlene’s Grocery.

Once again, organizer Terence Mulligan produced a double-bill: movies followed by a free bar of whiskey and beer. The crowd reconvened in RBar on the Bowery, where the Mighty Stef played.

There was the same high quality, good dose of animation, and some overlap in the films shown at both Craic events.

However, the Wee Craic emphasized shorts from the past year, including: “The Hatch”; “Pet Hate”; “Bird Food”; “The Boy in the Bubble” and “Thin Ice”.

Some were back by popular demand, such as Oscar-nominated “Pentecost” and “Give Up Yer Aul Sins” — an animation set to an actual 1960s recording of a Dublin schoolgirl giving an unwittingly hilarious account of John the Baptist’s demise, which can be found on YouTube.

Another funny requested was “Granny O’Grimm,” an animated tale of a granny whose bedtime story is dark enough to ensure that the child hearing it may never sleep again.  (This is available online at

“The Hatch” is a modern-day tale, with some baffling mythic and science-fiction dimensions, set in a trawler off of Cork. The fishermen spear something ambiguous from the deep, which leads to tragedy and to the birth of a seemingly 30-pound baby. Despite its weirdness, and its sometimes clichéd dialogue (fisherman to his bookish son: “It’s no life for you”), it keeps the viewer engaged with strong acting and its cinematography; the latter won James Maher an award at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

Next up was “Useless Dog,” as simple as “The Hatch” is convoluted. What do you do if you have a sheepdog that the sheep chase? “Sure, you have to just live with it,” says the owner in Ken Wardrop’s award-winning film (which is also available on YouTube). And sure, isn’t said dog a delight to watch? The opening scene is Chaplinesque in the way it so perfectly pairs to music the dog’s wagging wiggle.


Truth, post-truth vie across media landscape

POSTED ON September 26th  - POSTED IN IE

Published in the Irish Echo, Sept. 12, 2012.

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

In the 1976 film “All the President’s Men,” the character Deep Throat rails against the media’s “inexactitude” and “shallowness.”

The world learned in 2005 that Mark Felt, the FBI’s number 2, was the man who’d spoken with Bob Woodward more than 30 years before in that Washington DC underground car park. The screenwriter William Goldman hadn’t known that the character was an official in an agency whose stature depended to some degree on the shallowness of an adoring media.

The Felt of 1972, though, was disappointed that the White House appointed outsider and “political hack” Patrick Gray rather than him as acting FBI director following J. Edgar Hoover’s death, the month before the Watergate break-in. He was appalled, too, at the attempts to derail any serious investigation into the administration’s criminal misdeeds. He made the media his instrument by being a source on deep background for Woodward and his Washington Post partner Carl Bernstein.

The articles by the then 28- and 29-year-old reporters and their colleagues at the Post and other major outlets helped lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation and to the jailing of several of his top aides and his attorney general.

Nixon had always believed that reporters were out to get him and thus was a natural at tapping into deep-rooted resentments about the media’s alleged “liberal bias.”  Part of the issue here is that liberals believe in hearing multiple perspectives, while conservatives don’t have much patience with that approach and are more likely to hold that certain truths are self-evident. In any case, the president’s aides would have preferred if Walter Cronkite of CBS were more like a newsreader on Soviet TV.

Nixon’s brilliant media consultant Roger Ailes discussed with top aide Bob Haldeman (in his pre-prison days) ways of getting a pro-Administration network up and running. Part of the idea was that it would send out packaged propaganda, free, to local affiliates. Ailes went on much later to build Fox News into the powerhouse that it is, much to the horror of Cronkite in his last years.

Inevitably, it was this Nixon-era inspired right-wing media that accused Felt upon his death in December 2008 of betrayal rather than heroism — even though he’d never handed over files, and merely guided and encouraged the Post’s Woodward.

So, in this post-Cronkite world, how come the right wing, which is supposed to be for traditional values and condemns “moral relativism,” stands accused of being “post-truth”?

Well, bias like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but propaganda is just that: propaganda. You might aim to be slick and to entertain millions, but once you decide you are backing one side you have an additional set of goals.

“It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent,” Joseph Goebbels said in the late 1920s, “Its task is to lead to success.”

The Democratic and Republican parties twist the truth and lie in their efforts to persuade. But when a TV network’s commentary arm does it, and so blatantly, it just makes the politicians far worse. Many politics watchers were left scratching their heads at the GOP convention last month. They couldn’t remember an address quite like the one made by the vice-presidential candidate. One Washington Post headline captured the mainstream media reaction: “Paul Ryan’s breathtakingly dishonest speech.”

There were about five main objections to it from commentators, Democrats and groups like Fact Let’s look at one of them. Here’s Ryan on President Obama: “He created a bipartisan debt commission. They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way and then did exactly nothing.”

A presenter of public radio’s “On the Media” and an Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield summarized in a Guardian piece the problem with that. “What a powerful anecdote – one that gets even more powerful when you know that Ryan was a commission member whose deciding vote against the report prevented it from being presented to Congress. Or that the president’s attempt at a ‘grand bargain’ with House Republicans exceeded the commission’s recommendations for spending cuts.”

For Garfield, the media that is able to pull up the man they now call Lyin’ Ryan on his departures from fact is a healthy one; he argues that it is less craven than it was in decades past.

It’s certainly true that the intellectually curious and the open-minded can keep informed. Take the insider accounts of what happens in the corridors of power that Woodward helped pioneer. They have their biases and there are disagreements over the interpretation of the information presented, but the sources are generally reliable.  Nobody has disputed Robert Draper’s “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” which has an account of a dinner on the night of the inauguration of the 44th president in January 2009; and it’s backed up by at least one other book.

The dinner was attended by a dozen male Republican politicians – seven House members, including Ryan and Newt Gingrich, and five senators, Jim DeMint and Jon Kyl among them. At the end of four hours, they’d pledged they would reject everything and anything that the new president proposed.

This sort of unrelenting obstructionism goes against how the American system is supposed to work. Yet, the hectoring, flag pin-wearing media help make it possible.


Sikhs maintain dignity in face of bullying

POSTED ON September 5th  - POSTED IN IE

Published in the Aug. 15-21, 2012, issue of the Irish Echo

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

A Sikh man named Harpreet Singh Toor told me some years ago about an unpleasant encounter he’d had months before in the Wall Street area.

He recalled: “This gentleman – and I will still call him a gentleman – had a suit and tie, and no briefcase, so probably he worked around there somewhere, and was on lunch break with his colleagues. As he passed me by, he said: ‘Terrorist.'”

Toor was at that time working at City Hall and had a suit and tie himself. But he also had a turban, which, of course, is what drew the epithet.

I see from my files (that’s sounds organized, but they’re incomplete, alas) that I included his comments in a Newsday article dated Nov. 15, 1998. So, the incident was more than three years before the calamitous attack by Islamic extremists that destroyed the World Trade Center and killed thousands. It gives you some idea what Sikhs have faced since.

A Sikh gas-station owner in Arizona was shot dead before the week of 9/11 was out. Another Sikh was pulled by authorities from the Boston-to-New York train, and had to face the taunts of a hostile crowd, with, unfortunately, at least one policeman joining in.

I was drawn to the edge of that maelstrom on Sept. 13 or 14, when Newsday asked if I’d go down to Richmond Hill, in Southeastern Queens, to find more about reports that a Sikh had been beaten up in a diner. He was, it turned out, a man in his 70s who was visiting from India – and thus, a particularly soft target who didn’t fit any known stereotype of a terrorist.

When I spoke to his family members in the street, turbaned men milled around us, sensing perhaps that this might be a sympathetic ear. Certainly, the sullen demeanor of the cops posted at the end of the street, a key artery into the Sikh neighborhood, offered little comfort.

Remember that an unknown number of dead lay beneath the rubble at Ground Zero. We were all traumatized to varying degrees, and yet one’s heart had to go out to these people who had pinned their hopes on America.

I wonder how many those mainly young men continued to remain faithful to the symbols of their faith, known as the “five Ks,” which include not cutting one’s hair,  and which they regard as the uniform of the “soldier-saint.” Most, if not all, likely experienced hateful abuse over the coming years.

One notices far fewer turbans these days, but it’s important to understand how much Sikhs value the uniform and how they see it as essential in their tradition to a disciplined and dignified bearing. In that 1998 piece, a bank executive told me he had stopped wearing the turban to avoid discrimination when working in Hong Kong almost 20 years before. But he expressed a desire to return to the symbols. “I want to. My heart is always there,” he said.

In contrast, Toor’s two sons, then 11 and 8, would say to him: “‘Why do I have to look different?” It was hard for them to understand the theology and the logic behind it.

What about the general public? Well, just as ignorance of the law is no defense in court, lack of knowledge should be no defense when it comes to bias and hatred.  Certain sections of our media haven’t help much (note the ridiculous “Ground Zero mosque” controversy fanned by the Sean Hannitys, Bill O’Reillys and their ilk). Little wonder there was a palpable sense of relief in those quarters that the killer who attacked the Sikh gurdwara near Milwaukee on Aug. 5 turned out to be a neo-Nazi nut-job.

But the man with the suit who spat “terrorist” at Toor pre-9/11 was hardly a neo-Nazi, nor are most people that make life hard for Sikhs or Muslims or whoever doesn’t take their fancy.

What is the mentality that makes assumptions about people based on appearance? Well, partly it’s downright stupidity. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. relied on the Northern Alliance — Muslim guys whose garb would invite funny looks and adverse comment on the New York subway system — to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and a pretty good job they did, too.

And, yet, obviously America can be wonderfully accepting. I remember a great 2011 story by the public-radio project Feet in Two Worlds ( that profiled girls and young women who left Turkey for the U.S. because they’re allowed here to cover their head in the school and college classroom.

What a pity the xenophobes have to sully the nation’s reputation for tolerance.




1940 NYC directories aid family research


By Peter McDermott

Author J.D. Salinger was famously reclusive for most of his adult life. Back in 1940, though, you could easily contact him at his Manhattan home.

“He was living with his parents, but the phone was listed in his name,” said Maira Liriano of the New York Public Library, which has put the city’s telephone directories for that year up online as an aide to family researchers.

“I think it’s pretty funny,” she said. “It would be great if we could figure that out.”

The relevant entry is like any other; it contains the name, address, telephone exchange code and number: “Salinger Jerome D 1133 Pk Av SAcrmnto 2-7544″ (the capital letters, which in this case meant “72,” and the first number denoted the exchange).

Literary ambition may explain his accessibility. The 21-year- old was doing writing classes at night at Columbia University and would soon begin submitting stories to the New Yorker. Most were rejected, but one whose hero was Holden Caulfield was accepted, although ultimately it was shelved until war’s end. (He had yet to develop the fictional Glass family, whose roots reflected his own mixed Jewish and Irish-Catholic heritage.)

Salinger’s active dating life may have been another reason for his being in the Manhattan directory. In 1941, the man who would write “Catcher in the Rye” began seeing Oona O’Neill, the teenage daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Before too long, to the horror of both writers, she’d married the 54-year-old film actor Charlie Chaplin.

If you could go back in a time machine, another cultural icon you might like to call is singer Billie Holiday (286W142 EDgecomb 4-4058), though not too early, as she was a night owl. And speaking of which, the man who would paint “Nighthawks” in 1942 is there (“Hopper Edw 3WashnSq SPring 7-0949″). It might have been hard to talk directly to Fiorella La Guardia, but he’s listed (“Mayor’s Office City Hall NY COrtland 7-1000”). The Manhattan directory also tells us that William Paley, who built CBS, lived in the most easterly reaches of Midtown before the U.N. set up shop there (“Paley WmS 29BeekmanPl PLaza 3-1442″). Meanwhile, Nathan Bader can be found in the Brooklyn directory (“Bader Nathan 1584 E9 DEwey 9-4418″). And who was he, exactly? Well, trace him to the census returns and you’ll see he had a 7-year-old daughter named Ruth. Today, she is better known as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The New York Public Library digitized the directories to coincide with the release this past spring of the 1940 Census returns, which were not indexed. “There was no way to plug in a name,” Liriano said. However, by pinpointing an address, a researcher can find the correct enumeration district (ED) to facilitate the search.

“We thought it would be a great service to have. We knew it would be very popular,” she said of the web site Direct Me NYC.

Since then, fierce competition between and a consortium associated with Family has led to the indexing of most of New York State. But the telephone directories remain an important backup, Liriano said. A search for one of Pittsburgh’s most famous sons showed precisely how. She was asked if the Eugene C. Kelly listed in the Manhattan directory might be the same Gene Kelly (middle name Curran) who was making a name for himself on Broadway?

“Unfortunately, it’s not our man,” she reported. The “Eugene C. Kelly” at 435 W 23rd St. was a 58-year-old unemployed native of Washington.  “Interestingly, when I searched the indexed 1940 Census in Ancestry I could not find this entry,” she said. “I found it using the ED converter in the website and browsing the ED.”

The problem, it turned out, was that had transcribed the name as “Engenia Kelly.”  Added Liriano: “I saw other transcription errors on that page. This is the value of having an alternative way to look for people in the census.”

So, chalk that one up to Direct Me NYC.

And here’s another: “Considine Robt B 1W85 TRafalgar 7-0029.” Is that Bob Considine, who was born in 1906 to a Washington DC family with County Clare roots? He became famous for his prodigious output in books (like “MacArthur the Magnificent” in 1942 and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” in 1943)  and in news media.

Yes, it is, confirmed Liriano. The census says that the Considine in the telephone directory is a 33-year-old newspaper columnist from the nation’s capital. However, she said, if she had bypassed the directory and relied on the index, her task would have been rather more difficult: his surname there is missing its “e.”

We can find, Edward J. Flynn, one of America’s most influential political operatives at his office in Midtown (“60E42 MUrryhil 2-1411”). He preferred to continue to work as a lawyer rather that take up a position in the Roosevelt Administration. Said historian and Irish Echo columnist Terry Golway: “In 1940, Flynn was firmly ensconced as FDR’s top political advisor. He became chair of the Democratic National Committee that year, succeeding James Farley, who split with FDR that year because he, Farley, thought he should be the party’s presidential nominee. Flynn’s major task was to persuade voters that it was okay for FDR to break the two-term tradition.”

The census shows that the 48-year-old Flynn was living at 2728 Spuyten Duyvil Parkway in the Bronx, with his wife Helen and their three young children. The household also had an Irish-born cook, a Norwegian maid and an English governess.

Immigrants and working-class people appear in the census, of course, but many could not afford a home telephone. In any case, poorer people tended to be more transient, regularly moving from apartment to apartment.

The Census of 1940 revealed that 2 million of New York City’s 7. 5 million people were born in another country. Of them, 182,000 were from Ireland. According to the Census also, 288,000 New Yorkers had an Irish-born father.

Another Democratic lawyer, County Mayo’s Paul O’Dwyer, was in the former category.  The Brooklyn directory shows that he had offices at 26 Court St. (TRiangle 5-3645). A few years later, his eldest sibling Bill succeeded Mayor La Guardia, and is still the last foreign-born occupant of the office; Paul O’Dwyer himself became president of the City Council in the 1970s.

The Manhattan directory has entries for the Irish Echo (“152E121 LEhigh 4-1560″), the American Irish Historical Society and the Irish Consulate – though none at its current location.  Some institutions have stayed in the same place. Katz’s Delicatessen, for instance, is still on the Lower East Side at the corner of Ludlow and Houston. In 1940, it could be reached by calling ALgonquin 4-2246. Seventy-two years on, you can contact Katz’s by dialing the same seven digits (after the 212 area code).

Every page in the directories is packed full of information about the life and culture of New York on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.  This stepping back in time is made possible, Liriano stressed, by the latest digital technologies. The people at NYPL Labs work hard to make that institution’s online content attractive and user friendly. But staff members believe that much credit also goes to two leading American computer scientists, both originally from New York, who’ve made their services free in the area of family research. Together, Stephen P. Morse and Joel Weintraub developed the free One-Step Webpages and the 1940 Census ED Finder.

“The genealogy world has been blessed with their brilliance and generosity,” Liriano said.

For the 1940 NYC telephone directories go to:



Contract terms ‘beyond realms of reason’


By Peter McDermott

In 2004, following an international survey of genealogical research facilities, David Ouimette of the Genealogical Society of Utah / Family History Library, Salt Lake City, reported “the most impressive guidance we saw was provided by the Genealogy Advisory Service at the National Library and the National Archives in Dublin.”

That was high praise indeed from one of the leading powerhouses in the world of genealogy. However, the service was suspended on May 31, after the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland withdrew, unhappy with the tightening terms and conditions imposed in a new contract. It had already gone along with cutbacks last year – and even suggested some of them — that reduced the service to three and a half hours per day at the National Archives in Bishop Street.

The APGI, which only allows fully accredited professionals to join, said that the genealogy service “played a central role in enhancing the research experience and was a significant component in heritage-related tourism.”

Said Irish genealogy blogger Claire Santry: “The tone of the [APGI] statement is polite and suitably respectful, as you’d expect. But behind the scenes there is huge resentment.”

A writer on a Scottish-based genealogy blog said that “various terms of the new contract to continue the service went beyond the realms of reason.”

Santry said: “Incidentally, I was in the Reading Room last Friday week at about 1.30 p.m. when genealogist Rosaleen Underwood should have been finishing for the day. I stuck my head around the genealogy service door and saw there were still three people queuing to speak to her. She was still there half an hour later when I left the building. That’s dedication. And I know that all the APGI genealogists put in a similar level of commitment to help visitors from around the world uncover their Irish heritage.”

The APGI believed that any new contract would require them to leave that queue of people to help with microfilm machines and photocopying. Two rivals in previous contract bids, Eneclann and Ancestry Network, joined forces to put in the sole bid to work for the National Archives and the National Library.

“We built it up over nine years,” said one APGI member, “And they [National Archives managers] never even asked our advice on how to run it better.”

In a related story, the prominent author and UCD historian Prof. Diarmaid Ferriter has resigned from the board of the National Library, citing the “little clarity” provided for the reasons of its amalgamation with the National Archives and the Irish Manuscripts Commission. He said that he was “refusing to tolerate an offensive and disingenuous doublespeak” from the government. It paid “lip service” to the importance of the library and other cultural institutions while “it seeks to emasculate these institutions,” he said.

Like the APGI, Ferriter was sensitive to the difficult economic situation, but argued that the government was working on the decade of centenary commemorations while it was “intent on doing untold damage to the very institutions which are the custodians of so much of that history.”








Family searchers often rely on expert help


By Peter McDermott

It was a wet Thursday morning in Dublin in late April. But Lynn Shayler and Jennifer Moran hadn’t come to Ireland for the weather, or for the view of the mountains that a 5th floor office on Bishop Street affords. They hadn’t expected to be sitting reading their great-grandmother’s will either, but two days earlier a professional genealogist at the National Archives said she could get it. Now they were back and her colleague Paul Gorry went over the document with them. It gave them some names and leads to follow up.

Gorry teased out other issues with them, such as: how could Patrick Joseph Hand, a gardener from Kildare, and Mary J. Murphy, a cook from Meath, end up in Roscommon, where they married in 1882? In any case, the couple went back east again and ran a confectioner’s store from 1890 to about 1921 on Lower George’s Street in the seaside town of Kingstown in County Dublin.

At the end of that 30-year period, Kingstown became Dún Laoghaire. Meanwhile, one of their children, Alfred Patrick Hand, had gone to New York with his wife and daughter. A son was born to the family there. But the Dublin man died in 1929 and his widow brought the two children back across the Atlantic, eventually settling in England.

The New York-born Alfred Xavier Hand was Shayler and Moran’s father. He died in 1968, at age 48, when they were teenagers. Their mother died in 1969. Now the sisters, who live in Nottingham and Stoke, wanted to find out more about them and their families.

“So many people died. I never met my grandparents, and my parents died young,” said Moran. “I’m trying to put together something not only for ourselves but for future generations, so that they know the roots from where they do come. “

“These people here have been absolutely brilliant,” she said of the free service provided by the National Archives.

“We would never have got that for a start,” Moran added, referring to the copy of their great-grandmother Mary Hand’s 1936 will.

However, they arrived at the end of an era; the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland had become, after a nine-year association with the National Archives, increasingly unhappy with the terms and conditions of their contract. The service was suspended on May 31 and will be resumed this month in association with two groups that have formed a consortium, Eneclann and Ancestry Network.

“Each year, the genealogy service guided hundreds of family historians, both overseas visitors and Irish residents, who wished to do their own research,” said the APGI in a statement, “providing them with a strategy for their particular case and giving them time-saving tips.”

Gorry’s time-saving tip for the visitors from the English Midlands that Thursday was to forget about tracing the family background of the former Mary J. Murphy. The name was too common. He did, however, help them identify which Bartholomew Hand in the records was their great-great-grandfather, and gave them some suggestions about how to follow the line further back through Griffith’s Valuation.

“We didn’t know about that website he mentioned,” Moran said, referring to, which is a portal for Griffith’s Valuation.

Shayler and Moran’s itinerary for their time in Ireland was highly organized.  And they approached their search the way the experts advise, doing everything they could at home online and offline before traveling. The sisters had been working for 18 months on their Irish roots, a cousin having already done much of the work on their mother’s, the English side, of their family.

They reached the conclusion that Mary Hand and her husband were hard workers, and that she was probably the driving force. Though the store had the name P.J. Hand, he was still listed in the 1901 census as a “landscape gardener,” while she was a “mistress confectioner.”  (They visited the location in 2012, now occupied by a shoe shop.)

They sent their sons Bartholomew and Alfred to school at Blackrock College, which turned out to be a good source of information for Alfred’s granddaughters.

“We found out a lot about our grandfather’s teeth. He had quite a lot of fillings,” Moran said. “We put it down to living in the confectionary shop.”

Their father’s mother was from Belfast. She migrated with her family as a child to Dublin, where they had a house-painting business.

She remarried after leaving America. Her daughter later married a man named Molloy and settled back in Ireland. It was through that connection that young Jennifer and Lynn Hand went to Dublin in the 1950s with their older siblings and parents. Their aunt got their father, who had been an aircraft engineer during the war, a position in a textiles company.

“I don’t think it worked out,” Moran said of that three-year stint in the land of his parents.

But his daughters’ trip of 2012 certainly did. “It’s been a good journey, hasn’t it?” Moran said to her sister.

“Everybody has been very helpful,” Shayler said. “And they have pointed us in different directions.”

“The stuff we’ve got here in the last few days is what we haven’t been able to get in England,” Moran  said. “It’s been absolutely fabulous.”




Scahill, Howleys’ tunebook is banjo resource


By Daniel Neely

For all the attention given the records of the 78 rpm era, few seem to really notice the number of banjos one hears.  While aficionados may recognize names like Mike Flanagan of the Flanagan Brothers, Neil Nolan of the Dan Sullivan Shamrock Band and perhaps even Michael Gaffney (who recorded with flute player John McKenna) as being the banjo leaders of the era, people like Boston’s Joe Fahey (who made a single side with his brother John on fiddle), Jimmy McDade (who played with Ed Reavy in the Four Provinces Orchestra), James Ryan (who played with Paddy Killoran) and, later, George Derrane, were also active, their names lamentably lost in most discussions of the instrument’s history.

The players in this early era were spirited and full of character, but their approach seems to have been largely intuitive; if ideas about a teaching method for “Irish” banjo did exist, they haven’t been passed down in any cohesive manner.  Sure, the banjo had a place in teaching – fiddle giant James Morrison used the banjo as a pedagogical tool in teaching his young violin students proper intonation (and probably wasn’t alone in doing that) – it wasn’t until Barney McKenna came along and revolutionized the instrument with the Dubliners in Ireland in the 1960s that the likes of Mick O’Connor, Mick Moloney, Kieran Hanrahan, John Carty, Gerry O’Connor, Cathal Hayden and many others began to think differently about how the instrument fit into the music.

Because of these players, the “Irish” tenor banjo has developed substantially and now, a new breed of virtuoso player has emerged that has taken the instrument to new places.  One of the players leading the way is Galway’s Enda Scahill.  A member of the Brock McGuire band, Scahill has won four All-Ireland titles, guested with the Chieftains, recorded with Ricky Skaggs, and toured with Frankie Gavin and Stockton’s Wing.  He has also recorded outstanding albums as a solo artist (“Pick It Up,” 2000), as a duo with Paul Brock (“Humdinger,” 2007) and in ensemble with the Brock McGuire Band (Green Grass Blue Grass, 2011).

If being an absolutely brilliant player wasn’t enough, Scahill is also a highly respected teacher.  Not only have several of his students won All-Ireland titles for themselves, but since 2008 Scahill has published two separate (and well-received) banjo tutorials that introduce and codify a sophisticated approach to the instrument’s technique that players of all levels have found enlightening.

It’s fitting, then, that Scahill’s most recent offering, the tunebook “40 Solos for the Irish Tenor Banjo,” is not only pedagogical in nature, but includes two of his students, both All-Ireland winners, the brothers Martin and David Howley.  (Ironically, credit for the Howley’s banjo skills go to another of Scahill’s students, Johnny Harty; Scahill reports he taught Martin the tenor guitar and David the mandolin, and considers them his “banjo grandchildren.”)  Together, the trio is the group WeBanjo3.  Formed in 2009, the group took much stronger shape this past September when the Music Network, an arm of the Arts Council of Ireland, gave them the “Young Musicwide Award,” which provides support and professional development assistance to emerging young artists.  In addition to this book, they have a CD due out later this year.

“40 Solos for the Irish Tenor Banjo” is not a diegesis on technique, rather, it’s an outstanding resource for banjo players wishing to better know and understand ornamentation and variation.   It is presented as two publications in one, and comes with two compact discs.  The first part, “20 Tunes Guaranteed to Help You Win Banjo Competitions,” encompasses the first half of the book and provides a nice selection of well-known tunes that stay well within traditional music’s boundaries – perfect for fleadh competition.

Flip the book over as if you’re going to open the back cover and you’ll find the second publication, “20 Tunes Guaranteed to Get you Disqualified from Banjo Competitions.”  Here, students will find a selection of original and old time- and bluegrass-influenced tunes, the sort that Scahill has been playing with his various groups, but also the kind Scahill has found (from experience) fleadh adjudicators typically do not reward.  (One of the tunes in this section is a Niall Vallely composition; Scahill reports that Vallely was delighted to have one of his own included as a “disqualifier!”)

All the notated tunes in “40 Solos for the Irish Tenor Banjo” are note-for-note transcriptions (in both TAB and standard notations) of the performances the Howleys and Scahill recorded on the two CDs.  Being able to see and hear the music is especially valuable because it makes it easy to follow the variations and ornamentations, and to better understand what they mean to the tune. The CDs are a brilliant part of the presentation.

With this tutor, WeBanjo3 has given us a resource young banjoists will undoubtedly turn to for years to come.  In addition, Scahill continues his yeoman’s work in elevating the banjo in traditional music.

$20k lands lunch date with Mr. Bates


Published in the May 30, 2012 issue of the Irish Echo

By Orla O’Sullivan

It was not the ringing of the servant’s bell in Downton Abbey that summoned forth Mr. Bates last week. Still wearing black, but unencumbered by a limp, he climbed onto the stage set up in Mutual Of America’s Manhattan headquarters to honor Origin Theatre Company on its 10th anniversary.

It wasn’t quite “Philadelphia, Here I Come” for Brendan Coyle, who plays the lame valet in the hit TV series “Downton Abbey”. However, it was while performing in Brian Friel’s play about an Irishman emigrating to the U.S. that Coyle first met Origin founder and Limerick native George Heslin.

That was 20 years ago in London. The two shared a dressing room and a close friendship since. “I love George,” Coyle said in an interview at the end, adding that he flew to New York especially for Origin’s spring benefit.

Coyle’s presence not only helped draw close to 200 people to the $200-a-head event, but contributed $20,000 from one fan determined to have lunch with the maddening yet alluring Mr. Bates.

Sandra Doshner, a retired lab technician from Ridge, L.I., said she was partly spurred into making the winning bid by some of the other thousands of Downton Abbey fans on Facebook, ranging as far afield as St. Petersburg. “For $20,000, some said he [Coyle] should be dessert!

“I know that’s naughty, but the lid’s off the box,” added Doshner, who conveyed her determination to have fun after a life of much duty and sacrifice.

That stoic side she shares with Mr. Bates, arguably the most frustrating character in the period drama because he repeatedly endures hardship rather than speaking in his defense. Coyle, an Olivier-winning actor for whom the part was specially written, says, “There’s a stocism to Mr. Bates we don’t readily relate to today, and a ferocious loyalty”.

Coyle said he draws on these qualities in his father, “a working man” from Omagh. He got his introduction to method acting in Dublin’s Focus Theater, co-founded by his aunt Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy.

Naturally, Coyle won’t be drawn when asked the question my sister, and others, ask: Did he kill his wife? Mr. Bates was found guilty and jailed at the end of the last season. Coyle blushes, but returns an inscrutable expression, when asked would he be crushed if Mr. Bates were cut from the series.

Oddly for an actor, he said, “I keep asking them to cut my lines. Less is more.” He adds, “Mr. Bates is a slow-burner and we’re going to see amazing things from him in series three”.

Although multi award-winning Downton Abbey is wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and reportedly out-tweeted both the royal wedding and the Superbowl, Coyle, said he doesn’t necessarily consider Downton the apex of his career.

“TV and theater and very different,” he said, adding, “I hope my next theater production will be in New York with Origin”. That could be this fall, he said.

Origin created the 1st Irish Theater festival here in 2008. Within three years, 34 million people had heard of it, Artistic Director Heslin told the gathering.

Praise was shared from many quarters, including Mayor Bloomberg’s office; patron Tim Kennon and actress Geraldine Hughes were honored; and the Irish Echo even got mentioned in a rap reviewing Origin’s 10-year existence.

“Broadway, here I come!” was Hughes’ prediction for Origin 10 years from now. Much as how Coyle and Heslin had their play transferred from a theater-restaurant to London’s West End? It was, Coyle said, “a game changer.”

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