Ellis Island

Few national monuments and visitor sites chronicle the entire modern history of a country like New York’s Ellis Island does. Opened in 1990, the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and charts the history of immigration to America from pre-independence colonisation to the present day.

Entrance to main Ellis Island Building

Given that immigrants have played a pivotal role in making modern America, by highlighting the immigrants’ collective stories the Ellis Island experience gives a historical account of both the US the immigrants arrived to and the countries they migrated from. An astonishing 40% of Americans today have ancestors who passed through this New York harbour island, reinforcing Ellis Island’s importance in shaping the US and illustrating how much a united states of people the country actually is.

A gift to the USA from France and first unveiled in 1886, Lady Liberty greeted seafaring immigrants.

Operational from 1892 to 1954 Ellis Island was America’s largest immigration station and processed 12 million immigrants during that time. The peak immigration period at the island dated from its opening year up to 1921 when the open door immigration policy was restricted to a country-quota system.

Access to Ellis Island is currently via a ferry from Castle Clinton in Battery Park, Manhattan. Strict airport-like security is in place prior to embarking the ferry. The trip encompasses Liberty Island and a spectacular view of lower Manhattan.

View of Lower Manhattan from inside the main building

The original wooden Ellis Island building was destroyed by fire so the current one designed by Boring & Tilton dates from 1900. The ground floor was the Luggage Room for arriving immigrants whilst the actual processing of applications took place upstairs in the elegant Registry Room. It was here dreams and hopes were either realised or, in a small percentage of cases, denied.

The Registry Room

The Luggage Room contains a highly informative exhibition entitled Journeys: The Peopling of America 1550 – 1890. It was here I learned that Germans constituted the largest immigrant group in the US in 1890 whilst the Irish were a close second. 49 million Americans of German descent are currently the largest ancestral group in the US followed by African Americans and Irish at 41 million and 35 million respectively.

Illustration outlining the origin of immigrants in 1890. The largest immigrant group were the German-born.

The first immigrant to arrive at Ellis Island was Irish teenager Annie Moore on 1st January 1892. Famous names to pass through Ellis Island include actors Bob Hope and Cary Grant from the UK, Prague native and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, illusionist Harry Houdini from what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and film director Frank Capra from Italy.

The story of immigration wasn’t without setbacks.

The one word that encompasses what Ellis Island means is hope. Immigrants arrived with determination and courage hoping that a new, more optimistic and freer life of opportunity lay before them. The story of immigration and integration in the US isn’t without its setbacks but one wonders if the hope which immigrants arrived with is the genesis of the sense of optimism and confidence which is so much part of America nowadays. Ellis Island was my first excursion in New York and perhaps that sense of hope set the scene for what was a wonderful visit to the Big Apple.

© Hazel Joy 2017

 

Bye Bye Winter, Hello Biddy

Winter can be an unforgiving time in Ireland given the precarious nature of Atlantic weather systems. So it’s with great relief we welcome spring on 1st February. For our ancestors who lived in a more agrarian society this date was the start of a new farming season and celebrations were held in honour of the Celtic goddess Brighid who was said to have agricultural fertility and protection as her function1. Since the arrival of Christianity to Ireland in the 4th Century the first day of February is celebrated as St. Brigid’s Day (Lá Fhéile Bríde), named after the saint that had a similar role as her Celtic goddess equivalent.

The locality of Kilgobnet in Mid-Kerry continues the custom of welcoming the spring by engaging in “The Biddy”, a tradition where members of the community travel from house to house to entertain local residents. All music, song and dance is of the traditional Irish variety. In essence, it’s a travelling carnival and is said to have originated from the pagan festival of Imbolg2, one of the four ancient Gaelic festivals.

Kilgobnet Biddy Group. Masters of dancing in confined spaces.

Kilgobnet Biddy Group. Masters of dancing in confined spaces.

The Kilgobnet National School Biddy which features in this blog post functions as a fundraising activity for school running costs. At this point I must declare my bias as I’m the Chairperson of the school’s Board of Management. The school’s 5th and 6th classes have their own Biddy groups and they fundraise for charities.

The Biddy is led by a captain who decides on the route and houses to visit, and asks permission to enter each house. In some cases the group gets a specific invite to a house or public venue. The Captain carries the group’s sign and is followed by a person holding the Biddy doll, an effigy of St. Brigid. Once inside, the group entertains the residents and departs with a donation.

Captain Danny O'Sullivan leading the way.

Captain Danny O’Sullivan leading the way.

St. Brigid's effigy

St. Brigid’s effigy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Biddy costume comprises of white trousers and shirt with green and red trimmings. Participants attach a small St. Brigid’s cross over the heart position on their shirts. The costume’s pièce de résistance is the straw Biddy hat, the making of which is a craft in itself.

Biddy hat made from straw

Biddy hat made from straw

Weather is no impediment to this Biddy group although excess rain can damage musical instruments. Kilgobnet’s Biddy comprises of 20-30 people and the camaraderie is obvious. The enthusiasm in both participation and in receiving the Biddy is immense as is the stamina needed by its members to entertain for hours on end.

Such a unique endeavour doesn’t go unnoticed with the Kilgobnet group featuring in mainstream media, most notably on RTE’s main news bulletin3. Sean Hurley of Radio Kerry accompanied the group on the same night as I did for his Kerrywide show4.

St. Brigid’s Cross. Made from field rushes we learn how to craft these in school. It is tradition for houses to display one on St. Brigid’s Day

It’s astonishing to see a sizeable amount of artistic talent in an area with such a small population but this is the result of Kilgobnet’s holistic school ethos. Above all, activities such as the Biddy are part and parcel of our heritage and culture, and the preservation of this tradition is a testament to the strength and spirit of this small but big-hearted community. Long may this community and tradition continue.

© Hazel Joy 2017

  1. The Lore of Ireland: An encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance – Dáithí Ó hÓgáin,

      2.http://stoa.usp.br/briannaloch/files/2564/13832/The+Encyclopedia+of+Celtic+Mythology+and+Folklore.pdf

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhN52teEF3Y
  1. http://media.radiokerry.ie/mediamanager/embed/player/podcasts/55/item/52587

 

Saint Petersburg: Cultural Colossus

St. Petersburg is deservedly known as Russia’s cultural capital. It’s breadth and depth of cultural heritage is astonishing and in this post I’ll attempt to distil several hundred years of various art forms into a couple of paragraphs.

Aleksandr Borodin, Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich are the three prolific St. Petersburg natives in the classical music world, the latter two amongst the twentieth century’s greatest composers. St. Petersburg attracted a plethora of talent from other parts of the Russian Empire including Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky and Prokofiev. But it was a certain Pyotr Tchaikovsky who is now synonymous with the city having composed The Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets for the Mariinksy Theatre.

Original Mariinsky Theatre with Mariinksky II to the right of the picture

Original Mariinsky Theatre with Mariinksky II to the right of the picture

Renowned French choreographer Marius Petipa presided over the Mariinksy’s development into the world’s premier ballet troupe and collaborated with Tchaikovsky on The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Originally known as the Imperial Russian Ballet, it and its associated opera company were renamed the Mariinksy in 1860 and all three underwent two more name changes post-1917, most famously the Kirov in 1935, before returning to Mariinksy in 1992. Given Mariinksy’s prominence in ballet, it produced and attracted household names such Nijinksy, Nureyev, Baryshnikov and local prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. During my visit I had the immense pleasure of attending a ballet at Mariinksy II, a magnificent concert-hall opened in 2013 adjacent to the original theatre.

Auditorium of Mariinksy II which opened in 2013.

Auditorium of Mariinksy II which opened in 2013.

But it’s St. Petersburg’s role as a writer’s hub which has assured it a prominent place in world cultural history. Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita fame and Ayn Rand of Atlas Shrugged fame were born here as was Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky. Nikolai Gogol and Maxim Gorky lived in St. Petersburg as did poet Anna Akhmatova whose family suffered the full wrath of the soviet regime. The Akhmatova and Nabokov museums celebrate the lives and works of these respective authors. Aleksandr Pushkin, considered by many to be the Father of modern Russian literature, died from injuries sustained in a duel on the Vyborg side of the city. The Bronze Horseman statue near the Alexander Garden was re-named after his epic poem of the same title.

Statue of Peter the Great better known as the Bronze Horseman Statue

Statue of Peter the Great better known as the Bronze Horseman statue

Fyodor Dostoyevsky spent his final years in St. Petersburg and his home in the Vladimirskaya district is now a museum. His classic novel Crime and Punishment about the unhinged Raskolnikov is the definitive fictional take on the city, Arctic Noir so to speak.

Dostoyevsky Museum

Dostoyevsky Museum

Regretfully, my few days in St. Petersburg couldn’t do the city’s art collection justice. Firstly, the State Hermitage is one of the world’s largest museums and is home to over three million international works. The Hermitage is comprised of several buildings including the General Staff Building and the iconic Winter Palace. The Russian Museum houses an extensive collection of native artists. This list of two is far from definitive but to see all works in both museums one would need several years!

 

Winter Palace - Home of the Romanov royal family up to 1917 and now part of the State Hermitage museum

Winter Palace – Home of the Romanov royal family up to 1917 and now part of the State Hermitage museum

General Staff Building on Palace Square which is now part of the State Hermitage museum

General Staff Building on Palace Square which is now part of the State Hermitage museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A site which serves as a common denominator to the arts in St. Petersburg is Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, final resting place of notable city residents, amongst them Borodin, Mussorgsky, Petipa, Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky.

Alexander Nevsky Monastery where Tikhvin Cemetery is located

Alexander Nevsky Monastery where Tikhvin Cemetery is located

I’m only skimming the surface of St. Petersburg’s cultural heritage so apologies to the city for what I’ve omitted. But I hope I’ve conveyed St. Petersburg’s sense of artistic achievement and highly recommend a trip to this thoroughly engaging and visually impressive city.

© Hazel Joy 2016

Our woman in Havana: The Graham Greene Trail

Hey there Irish lady. You wanna dance?” I was making my way through the music-filled ground floor of the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana when I turned to find the American journalist, whom I met on the Malecón earlier, with a fake Cuban accent mocking my dislike of the Cuban jintero custom of haranguing independent female tourists, something travellers on guided tours don’t experience. Despite my American acquaintance’s joke, the dancing was thankfully by choice leaving me at peace to savour the moment and my mojito.

Cuba, the island that dared to do its own thing since 1959, is on everyone’s to-do list ever since the restoration of diplomatic relations with the US.

I had great expectations of Cuba’s revolutionary sights but found that the most appealing attractions were those of the decadent pre-revolutionary era, the Cuba of Graham Greene’s espionage satire novel Our Man in Havana. I found myself traipsing between Havana’s hotels, the setting for many of the book’s scenes, taking refuge inside their grand interiors from the unforgiving heat and persistent jinteros.

Our man in Havana books

Various editions of Graham Greene’s classic in my local library

First up was the Hotel Plaza, a two-tone yellow 19th Century building with a colonnaded ground floor, the front door of which opens onto Parque Central. Whilst the Plaza didn’t feature in Greene’s novel, Sloppy Joe’s bar at the rear of the hotel did and was where Agent Hawthorne persuaded vacuum cleaner salesman Jim Wormold, the novel’s protagonist, to reluctantly become M16’s man in Havana. In reality, Sloppy Joe’s was frequented by American tourists, a clientele which ceased when Castro came to power resulting in the bar’s closure. Thanks to a restoration project Sloppy Joe’s has returned to its former glory and it’s only a matter of time before it’s once again filled with American visitors.

The Prado (Paseo) is the main street which roughly divides Havana Vieja (Old Havana) from Centro Havana and it’s on this street where most of the city’s elegant hotels are situated. The Hotel Sevilla is the northernmost with its Moorish entrance on the Prado and its neoclassical entrance on Trocadero, and it was in this hotel – Room 501 – where Wormold received his instructions from Agent Hawthorne. In Greene’s book, the Prado is home to the Wonder Bar, the watering hole of his protagonist, but the bar no longer exists.

Prado (Paseo de Martí)

Prado (Paseo de Martí)

An establishment which hasn’t changed much from Greene’s novel is the Hotel Nacional. Situated overlooking the bay in the Vedado area this large art-deco national monument has a history as notorious as the poisoning shenanigans in Greene’s book are slapstick. Popular with mobsters in the 1940s and 50s, tunnels and trenches were dug in the back garden by revolutionaries and used as look-out and artillery points, with the artillery pointed directly at Florida. The tunnels and trenches house an exhibition on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Hotel Nacional from the Malecon

View of Hotel Nacional from the Malecón

 

Foyer of Hotel Nacional

Foyer of Hotel Nacional

But of all my Havana hotel escapades the Hotel Inglaterra on the Prado made the most impression, which in a strange coincidence was Graham Greene’s apparent favourite as well. Wormold’s M16 handler and – spoiler alert – love interest Beatrice stayed at the Inglaterra, a national monument and Havana’s oldest hotel. The interior is Spanish-style with the exterior looking neoclassical French. The hotel doubles as a meeting point with mahogany chairs and tables filled with casual drinkers. The building oozes character, evocative of a decadent past. Live music and dancing takes place in the colonnaded area at the front to both hotel patrons and to local commuters waiting at the nearby bus stop.

Hotel Inglaterra

Hotel Inglaterra

Hemingway-related sights attract scores of visitors in Cuba. But its Greene’s novel, published a couple of months before Fidel Castro came to power, that is the definitive fictional take on Havana. Such is the novel’s renown I was receiving texts and emails from friends and family during my visit asking how “Our woman in Havana” was doing. Greene, a writer who also worked for M16, captures the mood of uncertainty and Cold War farce, and giving a description of the city that, to this day, remains true.

© Hazel Joy 2016

TV Paradiso

This month sees the launch of Walter Presents, a new online on-demand service by Channel 4 in the UK specialising in international language television drama. Initially disappointed that Walter Presents has UK-only availability I’m pacified by Channel 4’s decision to broadcast a selection of the most popular series on their home channels in due course.

Those of you who overlook international drama, usually on the basis of an aversion to subtitles, are missing out for I believe some of the best television in the last 10 years has come from continental Europe. Here’s a summary of what has caught my eye and the channels I saw them on*.

Nordic Noir was possibly the first international genre to fill our screens. With the general population’s penchant for fictional crime the rise of the genre in books was parallel to its success on television. Step forward Wallander (BBC4), the detective based in the southern Swedish city of Ystad and created by Henning Mankell. Kurt Wallander has been brought to life on screen by three different actors, including Kenneth Branagh in a BBC English language version. Swedish writer Jan Arnald has had his crime books translated onto the screen under his pen name of Arne Dahl (TG4, BBC4) where a team of Stockholm-based elite investigators is headed up by detective Kerstin Holm. Completing the trio of Swedish crime dramas is Inspector Beck (BBC4) created from the pens of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in the 1960s and brought to the screen in recent years by actor Peter Haber.

The Bridge (BBC4) united the police departments of Malmo and Copenhagen when a dead body was found straddling the Swedish-Danish border on the Oresund Bridge. I was slow to warm to main character Detective Saga Norén but her lack of people skills is compensated by her crime-solving abilities. She drives a Porsche 911 so all is forgiven. The Bridge has a superb script and a standard of acting to match.

Heading to the sunnier climes of Sicily one will find Inspector Montalbano (BBC4). The world had its first introduction to the food-obsessed detective in Andrea Camilleri’s books and he’s re-created on screen by actor Luca Zingaretti with great success. Solving the crime comes second to cuisine, scenery and the humorous antics of his colleagues.

French crime drama has proved equally popular as Nordic Noir. Paris-based Spiral (BBC4) features Caroline Proust as the lead investigator under constant pressure for results from superiors, leading to unethical methods on occasion. Spiral gives us an insight into the French legal system along with police procedure. Although Witnesses (Channel 4) is only one series old it received widespread praise and high viewing figures. Set in a perma-grey northern coastal town the police drama features stunning cinematography and great acting by leads Marie Dompnier and Thierry Lhermitte.

One needs a break from crime drama so it was with great pleasure that I welcomed Deutschland 83 (RTE2), the most recent addition to my viewing. The series concerns a young East German soldier who is coerced into spying for the GDR by posing as a West German soldier with access to top security information. It’s well-written and captures the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia to perfection.

I’m unable to pick one favourite international language drama series because two programmes are vying for that accolade. The Returned (Channel 4, More 4) is a highly engaging paranormal drama where the inhabitants of a small Alpine French town return from the dead giving the living a lot to ponder. Their return coincides with strange happenings. Is it a sign of the apocalypse? Heavy on detail and characters The Returned needs to be carefully digested. Miss one minute at your peril.

Finally to Borgen (BBC4, TG4), the other programme which commands the top spot on my list. Borgen concerns the rise of Danish fictional politician Brigitte Nyborg to the position of Denmark’s first female Prime Minister and her struggles to stay in office. Actress Sidse Babett Knudsen is sublime as Brigitte as is Pilou Asbaek who plays her spin doctor Kasper Juul, one of the most complex characters ever to grace a television screen. Life imitated art when Helle Thorning-Schmidt became Denmark’s first female Prime Minister the year after Borgen’s first screening!

In a country like Ireland where inclement weather and a high cost of living can be barriers to socialising, television is heavily relied upon as entertainment. For an extra fee we can avail of UK television which is where I’ve seen most of the above programmes and well worth the price. Why aren’t Denmark’s The Killing and 1864 on my list? Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of The Killing and not enough of 1864 to comment.

International language drama offers me the dual benefit of cultural insight and escapism, in essence, armchair travel. Secondly, with the noted exception of Inspector Montalbano, I applaud the presence of strong female characters in the above shows, contrasting sharply with the denigration of women in other specific media forms. In Arne Dahl, The Bridge, Spiral, Witnesses and Borgen the female characters are the lead protagonists.

So where does my addiction for international drama come from? When I was young I remember ads for international language films on RTE2 but never got to see any as they clashed with the Nine O’Clock News and Today Tonight on RTE1, the television staples of our current affairs-obsessed household. But when one of my sisters arrived home from university one weekend with Cinema Paradiso on video I was immediately enchanted by the classic coming-of-age Italian film. My love affair with “subtitles” began there and I guess the international language television drama of recent years is, in a way, a “TV Paradiso” experience.

* Irish channels: RTE1, RTE2, TG4

UK Channels: BBC4, Channel 4, More 4

© Hazel Joy 2016

 

Gambling on WB Yeats

We had been advised to spend the first five minutes of the exam perusing the paper, marking off our choice of questions. I spent the first fifteen minutes of my Leaving Certificate English exam in a state of shock when I discovered that William Butler Yeats, my poet of choice, was nowhere to be found on the paper. Shock developed into panic as I searched frantically for the missing question. Beads of panic sweat joined the beads of thermoregulatory sweat on my forehead: the state examinations have a tendency to coincide with a heat wave. I glanced at the girl in front of me hoping that my Yeats page was stuck in her exam paper but all I saw was a focused student who thrust herself into the task. Had I known that she would complete a PhD in English and become a published author I would not have compared my panic with her composure. For me, the unbelievable had happened. After only studying WB Yeats – he was guaranteed to appear on exam papers every second year – he was replaced with a poet whom I’ve buried in my subconscious. It was my first venture in gambling and I should have spread the bet (i.e. studied more).

You can’t blame me for betting my future on the twentieth century’s greatest writer, Irish Parliamentary Senator, Nobel Prize winner and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland. WB Yeats was born in Dublin on 13th June 1865 and spent much of his childhood holidays in his mother’s native county Sligo, a region which provided much inspiration for his later work and is his final resting place.

What has WB Yeats got to do with a travel blog post? Plenty! The Yeats Country trail is an engaging tour of the places of importance in WB’s life. You can begin the trail anywhere but we started in Coole Park, near Gort in County Galway which was home to Lady Augusta Gregory, a life-long friend of WB’s, fellow writer and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre. It was at Coole Park that Yeats and the heavyweights of the Irish Literary Revival regularly met, and evidence of their visits are visible on the park’s Autograph Tree into which they carved their initials.

The next stop on our Yeats trail was Thoor Ballylee, a Norman tower-like castle near Coole Park and summer home to Yeats during the 1920s. The museum inside the castle gives an excellent insight into the life of the Nobel Prize winner. 2015 sees the 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth and Thoor Ballylee will open its doors to the public for the writer’s birthday celebrations (http://yeats2015.com/).

Next stop on the trail is County Sligo, the heart of Yeats country. The Sligo County Museum has a selection of artefacts covering many facets of Yeats’ life but head for the Lough Gill region to see the landscape which inspired much of his poetry. Here you will find Innisfree, the lake isle of Yeats’ most recited poem of all. Glencar Waterfall and Dooney Rock are also in this area. The poem “Down by the Sally Gardens” was inspired by a song Yeats heard in Ballisodare, a village south of Sligo town. Another site on the Yeats Country Trail is Lissadell House in Balinfull in North Sligo. It was during his childhood WB and his artist brother Jack B met Constance Gore-Booth (aka Countess Markiewicz), a leading figure in the Irish independence, workers and suffragette movements, the first woman MP elected to the British Parliament, and one of the first female government ministers in the world. Our final stop on the Yeats Country Trail was Drumcliffe Church and Graveyard where Yeats is buried. Although he died in France in 1939 his remains were returned to Drumcliffe in 1948 with the following thought-provoking epitaph on his gravestone as per his burial instructions in the poem “Under Ben Bulben”:

Cast a cold Eye

On Life, on Death.

Horseman, pass by

Yeats’ literary work is impressive on its own earning him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, Ireland’s first Nobel recipient. The ten years previous to his Nobel Prize were ones of political and social upheaval in Ireland with an unsuccessful but influential rebellion (1916 Rising), a War of Independence (1919-1921) and Civil War (1922-1923). Whilst Yeats was a nationalist he was a cultural revolutionary eschewing violence believing in the power of words over weapons and that from the arts a national identity for an independent Ireland could be formed. Possibly his greatest poem, September 1913, demonstrates this best and is a hopping-mad criticism of a lazy, corrupt and cowardly element in Irish society. The expression “fumble in a greasy till” is still used today in Ireland in reference to corruption.

What need you, being come to sense,

But fumble in a greasy till

And add the halfpence to the pence

And prayer to shivering prayer, until

You have dried the marrow from the bone;

For men were born to pray and save;

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

                        September 1913 (Verse 1)

The Yeats Country Trail covers the landscape which inspired Yeats but he drew inspiration from another source: Maud Gonne, his muse. The unrequited love story filled pages with timeless poems of lyrical beauty and diverse emotions. After multiple proposals from Yeats, Maud Gonne married fellow militant nationalist Major John MacBride and lived unhappily ever after. MacBride was later executed for his part in the 1916 Rising. In an unbelievable twist of fate, the Irish Government Minister responsible for the operation to re-inter Yeats’ remains from France to Drumcliffe was Sean MacBride, son of Maud Gonne, and also a Nobel Prize winner (1974 – Peace Prize).

Yeats’ legacy is immense and I often wonder if the importance of the arts in Irish society and identity is an impact of Yeats’ literary and non-literary work. The ultimate validation for an Irish writer is inclusion on the Leaving Certificate school syllabus, although the jury is out on whether this removes the enjoyment factor. Yeats gambled on Maud Gonne and I gambled on Yeats. Both of us were disappointed. To paraphrase Yeats, my own life up to that point was a preparation for something that never happened. But Yeats’ loss is the literary world’s gain. Great poetry can be born of much torment and I’ll leave you with the words of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who, in the 19th century, was of a similar opinion:

What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

© Hazel Joy 2015

 

Wild Atlantic Way: Notable Kerry People

The Wild Atlantic Way shouldn’t be viewed as just a scenic route alone but a portal into the history and heritage of the places it travels through. In this post, I examine the notable historical figures with connections to the Wild Atlantic Way in Kerry. I’ve limited it to five for brevity sake and the selection is a combination of people who achieved extraordinary feats and/or who’ve had an influence on my own life. The list runs from north to south.

John B Keane

John B Keane was born in Listowel in 1928 and worked in a number of jobs both in Ireland and the UK prior to running his own pub in 1955. Regardless of job, the constant in his life was his writing and in 1959, the Listowel Drama Group performed his first play, Sive, which won Best Play at the All-Ireland Drama Festival in the same year. It was a pivotal moment in the Irish arts scene as it was an honest and often humorous exploration of the social issues facing rural Ireland of the day through the timeless themes of love, loneliness and poverty. Sive was the first full-length play I saw on stage and such was the emotional impact it still remains my favourite stage production beating a West End viewing of Phantom of the Opera into second place. John B became one of Ireland’ most prolific playwrights and novelists, and was a favoured guest on radio and television shows for his engaging stories and philosophy of common sense. His play, The Field, was made into a film starring Richard Harris, Brenda Fricker and John Hurt. He won numerous awards and received honorary doctorates for his contribution to the arts. He co-founded Listowel Writers’ Week, Ireland’s premier literary gathering. His observations and insight into the human condition along with his articulation of the truth through his art has been a huge influence on me which is why I chose to include John B in this list over other Kerry writers. He died in 2002 leaving a bulk of literary gems behind. The B in his name was Brendan which brings me nicely to my next noted Kerry person.

http://johnbkeane.ie/

John B Keane statue in Listowel

John B Keane statue in Listowel

 

St. Brendan

St. Brendan was born in the Fenit area north of Tralee in 484. His early education was provided by St. Ide but his seafaring and boat-building skills were honed at the monastic school run by Bishop Erc, the Bishop who later ordained Brendan. St. Brendan travelled extensively around Ireland but his first major sea voyage was to the Outer Hebrides, the Faroe and Shetland Islands as well as Iceland. However, it was the seven year voyage he and other monks undertook in the early 6th century that he is most famed for. Setting sail in a self-made boat of leather and wood from Brandon Creek on the Dingle Peninsula, it is widely believed that St. Brendan and his group of monks discovered America given the evidence written in the Navigatio Brendani (Voyage of Brendan), a manuscript detailing his adventures. In 1976 British explorer and historian Tim Severin re-traced St. Brendan’s journey in a replica boat as per the Navigatio proving that it was physically possible to traverse the Atlantic in such a vessel. More and more evidence is coming to light to prove that St. Brendan reached America several hundred years before Christopher Columbus. In 2011, evidence of a 1521 report by Spanish historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera includes a description of a colony of tall grey-eyed European-like people, the Duhare, in the areas that are now the Carolinas and Georgia1. It is alleged that Christopher Columbus researched the Navigatio Brendani prior to his 1492 voyage. St. Brendan died in 577 leaving a legacy of monastic settlements and stories which historians and travellers still discuss to this day.

 

Tom Crean

A farmer’s son from Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula, Tom Crean was born in 1877 and enlisted into the British Royal Navy at the age of fifteen, lying about his age in order to be submitted. While serving on a naval vessel in New Zealand in 1901 he volunteered to join Robert Scott’s Discovery expedition to the South Pole. He re-joined Scott on the Terra Nova Antarctic expedition of 1910 and was awarded the Albert Medal along with William Lashly for the courage shown in saving Lt. Teddy Evans in physically and mentally challenging circumstances. This experience didn’t discourage Crean as he was selected by Sir Ernest Shackleton for the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on board the Endurance which became stuck in ice in early 1915. Crean was amongst Shackleton’s group which trekked hundreds of miles across packed ice and sailed over a thousand miles in lifeboats, first to Elephant Island and then to South Georgia in some of the toughest sea conditions ever experienced. It is said that Crean’s physical and mental strength, along with his seamanship and good humour added greatly to all three polar expeditions. In 1920, he retired from the British Navy on medical grounds and returned to Annascaul with his wife and children to run a pub which he called “The South Pole Inn”. His reluctance to speak of his achievements was due possibly to the prevailing republicanism in Ireland at the time, which rejected all things British, rather than Crean’s own modesty. As a result, his feats have never been officially recognised and most people had never heard of him until the publication of Michael Smith’s biography, An Unsung Hero, in 2000. Tom Crean died in 1938 from an infection caused by a delay in treating a burst appendix.

 

South Pole Inn, Annascaul

South Pole Inn, Annascaul

 

Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty

Out of my list of brave and brilliant Kerry people, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty is the only one to have a film made out of his exploits, that being the 1983 production The Scarlet and the Black with Gregory Peck playing the title role. Born in 1898 in his mother’s native Cork, the Monsignor grew up in Killarney where his father worked at the Golf Club instilling a lifelong love of the sport in the young Hugh, an interest which served him well in diplomatic circles later in life. He was ordained in 1925 and served in Egypt, Haiti, San Domingo and Czechoslovakia for four years before returning to the Vatican. In 1934 he was appointed Monsignor. Witnessing the widespread anti-Semitism around Rome in 1942, the Monsignor arranged for the Jewish community to be hidden in Catholic Church properties. When German forces occupied Rome in 1943, Monsignor O’Flaherty extended his operation to include Allied servicemen. His actions came to the attention of Nazi Commander Herbert Kappler who ordered the capture of the Monsignor should he step outside Vatican grounds. O’Flaherty defied and duped the Nazis by travelling throughout Rome in a variety of disguises. By the end of World War II it is believed that the Monsignor helped 6,500 Jews and Allied servicemen escape the clutches of the Third Reich. For his bravery, he was honoured by several countries, receiving the US Medal of Freedom, made a Commander of the British Empire and deemed Righteous Among the Nations by Israel. In 1960, he retired to Cahersiveen due to ill-health and lived with his sister until his death in 1963. He is buried near the main entrance of the Daniel O’Connell Memorial Church in Cahersiveen. Like Tom Crean, the Monsignor has never had official state recognition for his achievements although, in Killarney, a memorial and mural celebrate his life as does the annual Hugh O’ Flaherty Memorial Weekend held in October/November.

A humanitarian of extraordinary courage, more information can be found on the official Memorial Society website www.hughoflaherty.com.

Monsignor O'Flaherty grave, Cahersiveen. (Picture courtesy of Kathleen Rice)

Monsignor O’Flaherty grave, Cahersiveen. (Picture courtesy of Kathleen Rice)

 

Daniel O’Connell

Daniel O’Connell was born in Cahersiveen in 1775 and was schooled in France, with his wealthy uncle Maurice “Hunting Cap” O’Connell in Derrynane acting as benefactor. Whilst in France he witnessed the French Revolution. Appalled by its violence he adopted a pacifist approach to Ireland’s struggle for freedom from the British. He trained and worked as a Barrister gaining a reputation as an eloquent yet fierce adversary. He became involved in politics and campaigned for the betterment of Irish Catholics, most notably Catholic Emancipation which would allow Catholics to become members of parliament. In 1828, O’Connell was elected to the British Parliament for the County Clare constituency but was unable to take his seat as the Emancipation Act was not retrospective. Another election was held with O’Connell topping the poll. O’Connell acquired the name “The Liberator” for this achievement and continued legal work and political campaigning. His desire for a separate parliament in Ireland (Repeal of the Union with Westminster) was a step too far for the British and he was imprisoned for such a campaign. He died in Genoa in 1847 on route to Rome with his heart buried in the Italian capital and the remainder of his body interred in Glasnevin Cemetary, Dublin, the non-denominational burial ground which O’Connell campaigned to establish. His non-violent methods have inspired leaders and humanitarians around the world including Gandhi, Martin Luther King and US anti-slave reformer Frederick Douglass, whom O’Connell became acquainted with. The Daniel O’Connell Memorial Church in his native Cahersiveen is the only Catholic Church in the world to be dedicated to a lay person. Derrynane House, O’Connell’s home, is now opened as a National Historic Park.

Daniel O’Connell, the only one of my five to be featured on Irish currency gracing the £20 note prior to the Euro.

Daniel O’Connell, the only one of my five to be featured on Irish currency gracing the £20 note prior to the Euro.

 

All five above have lived outside of Ireland at some stage of their lives which raises the question as to whether time away from Ireland is the best way of understanding it. But it’s the courage, honesty and leadership which all five displayed in the achievement of their feats, traits which are sadly seen as impediments to success nowadays. The ability of the above five to take action and inspire others only highlights the weakness in character of modern life’s procrastinators and self-serving yes men. If role models are needed to reverse this trend then look no further than John B, Tom, Brendan, Hugh and Daniel.

I hope this blog post is informative and entertaining. But most of all I hope my choices and conclusion encourage debate. So let the courage and honesty begin.

1. http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/old-spanish-document-suggests-irish-were-in-america-before-columbus-190817901-237769001.html

© Hazel Joy 2014