Archive for the St. Patrick’s Day Category

Two Interesting Irish Stories from My Background

Posted in Irish, ME, My Family History, St. Patrick's Day with tags , , , , , on March 17, 2016 by travsd


My quest for a little Irish authenticity, mentioned in a couple of earlier posts, continues apace. My DNA test reported “11% Irish”, but among other things, I don’t know how they separate that out from, say, Cornish, Welsh or Breton, other Celtic blood which I most definitely possess. Yet they say, quite specifically, “Irish”, and they’re the experts. The thing is, I’ve had trouble finding many genuine Irishmen in my family tree. Oh, I trace many lines back to places like Cork, Donnegal, Tipperary, Kilkenny, or Limerick. But they almost always turn out to be either Scots-Irish or Anglo-Irish, with the line extending back to the colonizing nation after two or three or four generations. More guilt! That’s not what I’m hoping for! Usually the names tip me off. I was quite excited to find a Laughlin, though…but even that turned into McLaughlin, and finally MacLlachlen. That was like being taunted!

Burnchurch Castle, Seat of the Fitzgeralds

Burnchurch Castle, Seat of the Fitzgeralds

But….I do have Fitzgeralds. And this one proved interesting, because I didn’t know they were Fitzgeralds at first. The name in America (and towards the end, in Ireland) is Barron. I thought it was a mistake at first when the surname on this family line changed at a certain point, until I read the helpful comments of a researcher who revealed that this branch of the family changed their name because they were being hunted by the British. Read about that here. 



This is perhaps the best story of all, and it is among those I’ve discovered through this process that I make have to make a play or screenplay out of.  There is a certain person in the family tree, married name Margaret Devane (1703-1786). Tradition has her maiden name as Margaret de Conde, making her a member of the French Royal House of Bourbon. Even I smelled a rat here, though the prospect is exciting. One is accustomed to seeing a lot of nobility and royalty in the family tree WAY back…like the 14th century and earlier. But the 1700s? Unlikely. But it turns out that “Margaret de Conde” is probably the daughter of one Darby Sullivant, as Irish-sounding a feller as you’d ever care to meet. This suggest a delicious, very American backstory…of an Irish lass’s attempt to pass among the Southern planter aristocracy (this is in North Carolina). On the one hand, this knowledge deprives me of having some Medici in my background (although I probably have some somewhere along another line). On the other hand, this is a very American swindle story, the kind I truly relish. It’s very Adah Menken. Maybe I’ll just make this one of her adventures. Because that’s one of the main reasons to be a writer — to rewrite reality better. Some people call that “blarney”.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Lennon and McCartney: Which Wrote the Worst Irish Song?

Posted in Irish, Rock and Pop, St. Patrick's Day with tags , , , , , on March 17, 2016 by travsd

It might be argued that the period of around two years after their official breakup was the artistic nadir for former Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with both setting back the frontiers of sullen self-indulgence, spinning far, far away from every quality that had formerly endeared them to fans. By 1972, Lennon was deep into a period of political radicalism and enchantment with his avant-garde wife, short circuiting any remotely commercial instinct he ever possessed. McCartney, on the other hand, in a quest for legitimacy as a rock figure, had ironically (as he was periodically wont to do) thrown quality control out the window.  The LPs associated with this period were Wings’ debut record Wild Life (December, 1971), a skimpy collection of jams and half-written songs; and John and Yoko’s Sometime in New York City (June, 1972), a grab bag of underwritten, shallow anthems written in response to current events (and thus dated almost the instant they were released).

Interestingly, though they were diverging artistically, the former partners were still competing with each other. One of the more interesting aspects of this rivalry (given that so many aspects are so uninteresting) was they each wrote their own pro-IRA anthem at around the same time. Lennon’s was recorded first, but McCartney’s was released first, and as a single (Lennon’s was just a track on an LP). Each is drastically sub-par, excellent examples of why they were better together than apart, for each of them would most certainly have corrected the worst indulgences made by the other partner in these terrible songs.

Why did they write these songs at all? Well for a bit of context, this was a very “hot” period in the long-roiling unrest in Northern Ireland. “Bloody Sunday”, in which British soldiers shot and killed unarmed Irish civilians had just occurred (January, 1972). This was a horrible event — so horrible that even the normally unpolitical McCartney was motivated to respond. The instinct was laudable. And both Lennon and McCartney had some Irish in their background, which perhaps (they may have felt) gave them permission to speak out on it.

Yet, one can’t help thinking, the Irish themselves take a back seat to no other people on earth as poets or songwriters. One can’t help smelling something a little patronizing about these British millionaires, making their little “statements” and trying to get everybody to sing along. But…


Wings’ debut single “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was released on February 25, 1972. It seems to have been partially motivated by the fact that the band’s guitarist Henry McCullough was Irish. The record was considered too incendiary; it was completely banned from all British radio, although it became a #1 hit in Ireland. But it was heard almost nowhere else, and still hasn’t been. It’s not just because of the content, but because both the lyrics and tune are makework, completely uninspired. I confess to finding the tune to this one catchier than Lennon’s, but it is also marred by McCartney’s patent superficiality. The line that always makes me wince is “Great Britain, You Are Tremendous”, a Las Vegas level sentiment, more suitable for Steve Lawrence than a former Beatle.


Lennon’s song “The Luck of the Irish”, released June 12, but recorded the previous December, is to my mind, even worse than McCartney’s. This from the pen of the man who wrote “All You Need is Love”, “Give Peace a Chance” and “Revolution”. Though Lennon was doing interesting things vocally and in terms of musicianship and production during this period, he seemed nearly bankrupt as a songwriter. The tunes from Some Time In New York City are his absolute weakest. As he had copped from the blues for “John Sinclair”, for “The Luck of the Irish”, he dabbles in what I call “Irish Bullshit Music”, with a vaguely traditional sounding melody  and ornamental penny whistle as an atmospheric gesture. So this one evokes Ireland more than McCartney’s, but rather lamely. (It was McCartney who would eventually nail this traditional sound in “Mull of Kyntire”, although the theme for that one is Scottish).

The lyrics are perhaps even more embarrassing than McCartney’s. “If you had the luck of the Irish/ You’d be sorry and wish you was dead/ You should have the luck of the Irish/ and you’d wish you was English instead.” Now, when he wrote this, it may have originally been intended as characteristic Lennon humor. If he recorded the song in that vein, perhaps as a raucous drinking song, with many male voices, like Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, this song may well have come off. But instead he does it SUPER earnest. We can only conclude that he means this drivel. His sentiment is excellent; his method of expressing it, terrible. Even more hilariously, Yoko comes in on the second verse, bringing us her take on the English-Irish question, which I just know the public had been waiting for with baited breath:

Eh, wot? A little skunk cabbage to have with your corned beef. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!


Tonight on TCM: Ryan’s Daughter

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Irish, Movies, St. Patrick's Day with tags , , , , on March 17, 2015 by travsd


Tonight (tomorrow, really) at 1:45am (EST) on Turner Classic Movies, for St. Patrick’s Day, Ryan’s Daughter (1970).  It will be preceded by a featurette about the film which will start at 1:38am, if TCM’s schedule is to be believed. This is DVR territory for most of us.

Ryan’s Daughter was David Lean’s fourth “historical-romantic epic” in 14 years, following The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Dr. Zhivago (1965). It was also his penultimate dramatic film, the last being A Passage to India (1984). In between, he’d tried to get a film about the H.M.S. Bounty made; it was eventually shot by Roger Donaldson. 

Still, the 14 year gap following Ryan’s Daughter seems significant, as does the fact that Lean’s previous three epics are screened frequently (thus most movie buffs have seen them), but this one never is. The mystery becomes more curious when we note that the film won two Oscars and was nominated for two more. As we probe into it, we learn that though the film did respectably at the box office, critics were harsh towards it when it came out. Lean was so stung he didn’t start working on his Bounty project until seven years later.

Another mitigating factor may be the fact that the film launched just as The Troubles were starting in Northern Ireland. The film takes place in a village in Dingle in 1916, during a period when the Irish were agitating for Independence and Britain, though in the thick of fighting World War One, had occupying forces in Ireland to maintain law and order. As in all of Lean’s epic’s though, these large political and social forces are like natural disasters, too big to comprehend; the story focuses on the human toll on those being buffeted about. With The Troubles ongoing in 1970 when Ryan’s Daughter was released though  the moment probably needed a film that pushed the political question front and center rather than making it a backdrop. It also could have used some actual Irishmen in the principal roles (rather than English and Americans) and a more sympathetic treatment of Irish village life. Despite these problems (and critics of the time had still others which I’ll address) this is still a David Lean movie, and I feel that it’s one that absolutely stands up and rates a place next to his better known and respected works.

The story: “Ryan” (Leo McKern) is the village publican, the richest man in town, and as it happens, a spy for both sides of the Anglo-Irish conflict. His daughter Rosy (Sara Miles) is a dreamer, in love with the local schoolteacher (Robert Mitchum), a man who is twice her age. This is some of Mitchum’s best acting, startlingly good, against type, vulnerable, and in a fairly decent Irish accent no less. Mitchum’s character Shaughnessy is a sensitive provincial intellectual. He’s stirred up a lot of romantic notions in Rosy’s head about Byron and Beethoven and now she wants to marry him. Against his misgivings, he does so. She almost immediately regrets it; he doesn’t have the energy or the temperament to give her much excitement in the bedroom. And then into her lap falls the new English commander of the local base (Christopher Jones, from Wild in the Streets). The two have an affair, which becomes truly complicated when her father blows the whistle on a gun-smuggling operation headed up by a Dublin Republican named Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster, from Frenzy). The village blames Rosy and persecute her for it. She and Shaughnessy must flee the village, for their lives basically. Jones blows himself up with TNT. Other major characters in the film are the village idiot Michael (played by John  Mills, who won an Oscar. My research on him a few weeks ago is what led me to this film) and Trevor Howard as the local ass-kicking, no-nonsense priest.

See any Irish names amongst all those stars? Well, McKern maybe, but even he comes by way of Australia, and is known for doing a kind of cartoon, comical Irishman in an accent that is not his native one.

What are the bleeding selling points then, since you’ve heard all this criticism? One is that the film is gorgeous. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. It won the Oscar for Best Cinematography and that was well earned. Ireland never looked more beautiful and that’s one of the reasons I’m comfortable plugging the film today. At its most basic level, look at the beauty of Ireland.




The film was shot in widescreen (Super Panavision 70). This creates an admitted thematic disconnect. This is really a small. human story that could easily have been shot on a small budget with a tiny crew, and with very intimate set-ups. The theatrical equivalent of Lean’s approach would be using a cavernous Broadway house to stage a black-box show. Critics disparaged this aspect, and though I don’t disagree, I also don’t regret the way it was shot. Lean’s whole thing is to show humans dwarfed by huge forces. Not just history but nature itself are always mechanisms in his films. The canvas he painted on was an artistic choice, not a “mistake”, and I think it is a choice that can be defended.

Likewise the film’s three-hour length, another sticking point for critics of the time. I watched the film carefully with this in mind last night, and I honestly couldn’t spot a frame in the film that was dead weight, that didn’t belong there. By 1970 though critics may have been getting tired of MGM bloat, and the film comes complete with an overture, an intermission, an entr’acte, and exit music. These frills had been big in the late 50s and 60s, they were designed to make you feel as though you were at a theatrical event as opposed to watching television, cinema’s chief threat at the time. But by 1970, younger film makers were going in a different direction — lean and mean. Ryan’s Daughter must have seemed to critics of the time as one too many Lean “bores”. In 2015 we get to look at it on its own terms; shapewise it seems just right to me.

Another interesting factor. In this movie Lean tries some more symbolic, allegorical elements than you typically find in his work. The Christ-like “Holy Fool” played by Mills is an obvious one, but there are many others. There is the storm scene, which inevitably makes one think of Shakespeare in this context. And there is his stylized use of the villagers, who seem to function as a chorus, as one unit, almost in a Brechtian kind of way. This has its unfortunate aspects that Lean probably didn’t intend. Ryan’s Daughter began life as a screen adaptation of Madame Bovary by screenwriter Robert Bolt. It was Lean who urged the transplantation to another setting. Thus his choice of Ireland in 1916 can be seen as almost random — the main thing to him is the love story. (Look at the poster above! And look at his previous film, Dr. Zhivago). So he sees the ugly mob that the villagers turn into in a more abstract way…they are stand-ins for judgmental people all the world over. The problem is, Lean IS English and he has made this particular unwashed, hateful and ignorant mob a bunch of apparently jobless, shiftless Irish. He might argue that he has balanced this portrait with the priest, the teacher and Rosy, but my! Those three certainly are outnumbered.

And at the same time, the occupying English are kind of warm and fuzzy. The outgoing captain (Gerald Sim) is a coward who trembles at the thought at being sent into battle. And his replacement (Jones), is not only dashing but sensitive and shell-shocked. One wants to wrap him in a blanket and give him hot chocolate. (Unlike, say, the manipulative and hard criminal Irish rogue, O’Leary). Jones’ character perhaps unintentionally becomes a symbolic figure in the film as well. I say unintentionally because Lean cast the young actor sight unseen and was alarmed to learn that he delivered his lines in a weak voice. He consequently trimmed the character’s lines to a bare minimum and had Jones’s voice dubbed by an English actor. The Major thus becomes similar to the Fool in this story, a sort of mute for us (and Rosy) to project our ideas on. “The Romantic Major”, as opposed to Mitchum’s middle-aged frump whose hobby is pressing flowers in books.

Anyway, I like rich, problematic movies that make you think and grapple with them and try to figure them out. The Quiet Man TELLS you to love the Irish and kind of shoves it down your throat. This movie made me come to the defense of the Irish, made me think and grope my way towards staking out that position, and it made me do in an extremely well acted and written story, gorgeously shot in a landscape that I can’t get out of my head. Listen: I spent three hours in a village that has one street and a beach! If you blindfolded me and dumped me there right now, I would know my way around.

Today’s St. Patty’s Parade in Park Slope

Posted in BROOKLYN, Buskers, Clown, Folk (Ethnic), HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Irish, Music, St. Patrick's Day with tags , , on March 17, 2013 by travsd

How’s this for immediacy? We just saw the tail end of our little neighborhood parade mere seconds ago, miles and miles from the drunken hoardes of Manhattan. This one was sweet and family oriented. Our little musical drama is in two parts. First some pretty, sentimental bagpipe music, followed by a couple of clowns who strike fear into the heart of a child.

Talbot O’Farrell

Posted in British Music Hall, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Irish, Music, Singers, St. Patrick's Day with tags , , on March 17, 2013 by travsd

Erin Go Bragh! Sure and ’tis another St. Patty’s Day post!

Talbot O’Farrell (1878-1952) was an English music hall entertainer who wasn’t Irish at all. Yorkshire born, his real name was William Parrott and he initially had tried his luck with a Scottish character named Jock McIver. No soap, the public wanted his Irishman. By 1912, he was a top of the bill performer, known for his renditions of “Dear Little Irish Mother”, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Your Dear Old Dad Was Irish”. As you can deduce I think from these song titles, his was not to ridicule the Irish as other Anglos had done onstage before him. His thing was sentimentality, greenface or no. He was also in a handful of movies, although he was usually far from star billing. Because you know you want it, here he is singing “I’d Just Paint the Leaf of the Shamrock” (1920):

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


Harry Kennedy

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Coney Island, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Irish, St. Patrick's Day, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , on March 17, 2013 by travsd


Erin Go Bragh! Sure and ’tis another St. Patty’s Day post!

William Henry “Harry” Kennedy (1855-1894) was a songwriter and ventriloquist of Irish extraction and English birth. Born in Manchester, he’d taken up the art of throwing his voice when still a boy. For a time he went to sea as a merchant seaman, winding up in Montreal in 1871. Here he met and teamed up with a magician, launching his career as a professional. Three years later he was in New York, where is to perform for Tony Pastor, P.T. Barnum, Haverly’s Minstrels and others, his dummies usually stereotyped Irish and African American characters. By 1886 he was also operating his own saloon in Brooklyn; a Brooklyn Eagle story from that year relates a sordid and drunken altercation with one of his patrons from that year. In 1890 he opened Harry Kennedy’s Theatre near Cooper Union, but after one season he sold it and opened the Alhambra in Coney Island. He also wrote over 200 songs, including “When Peggy and I are Wed” and “Patsy Brannigan”. He wrote the book pictured above in 1891. He was not quite 40 when he died of Bright’s Theatre in 1894.

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


Hugh Murphy, The Irish Giant

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Giants, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Irish, St. Patrick's Day with tags , , , on March 17, 2013 by travsd


Erin Go Bragh! Sure and ’tis another St. Patty’s Day post!

Hugh Murphy the Irish Giant (later billed as the Baltimore Giant) was born in Waterford Ireland in 1842, and employed by P.T. Barnum in the 1860s. A little over 7 feet tall, he was advertised as being closer to 8.

To learn much more about a lot of other Irish giants, go here!

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


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