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Your St. Patrick’s Month Reading List, Part 1

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There’s nothing like immersing yourself in a good Irish book to get into the spirit of the month. While it’s all music, dancing, parades, and Irish potatoes everywhere you look, storytelling is quintessentially Irish, arguably the oldest form of entertainment in any culture. If you count history in there, it’s how the Irish saved civilization, according to the book of the same name by Thomas Cahill.

There’ll be no touting of “the 10 best Irish books ever” here. There are hundreds of books that are near and dear to people who love Irish literature and culture. We know. We asked the members of our Irish Philadelphia Facebook group to recommend their favorites, and we added our own, plus some on our “to read” list, to a master list we’re keeping.

Starting this week, we’ll be sharing some with you every Friday. If you click on the book title, it will take you to Good Reads, a book website, where you can see how others rated the book and find links to take you to websites where you can buy it.

Feel free to include your favorite book or books in the comments section at the end of the story and come back every week for more reading material.

Let us know if you might be interested in forming an Irish reading group. It’s something we’re considering since we not only love to read, we’re writers and one of us is a librarian. Books rule!

Fiction

The Agnes Brown Trilogy (The Mammy, The Chislellers, The Granny) by Brendan O’Carroll

Comedian Brendan Carroll not only played the foul-mouthed Agnes Brown, matriarch of a fatherless brood, on television (Mrs. Brown’s Boys), he wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels about the very funny, charming, and irascible Brown family. Angelica Huston starred as Agnes in the movie. We still prefer Brendan. (This link takes you to a clip of an episode–strong language/sexual situations alert.)

Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy

Set in Ireland in 1950, the story follows the unlikely friendship between 10-year-old overweight only child Benny (Bernadette) and skinny orphan Eve who is being raised by nun in a convent where she was placed by her mother’s wealthy family. The narrative takes them to university, through various romances and betrayals. Binchy was a prolific writer whose novels are wildly popular; some, like this one, have been made into films.

Dubliners by James Joyce

A collection of fifteen short stories by James Joyce depicts life among middle-class Irish living in and around Dublin in the early years of the 20th century, when Irish nationalism peaked. Some of the characters in these stories later appear in Joyce’s most famous novel, Ulysses. Use this book as your entree into that one, which may be a more difficult read.

Ireland by Frank Delaney

The last of the great Irish storytellers, or seanachies, arrives at the home of 9-year-old Ronan O’Mara in 1951 but is run out by Ronan’s mother, who thinks the stories he tells, handed down in Ireland’s great oral storytelling tradition, are blasphemous. Ronan is smitten and tracks down the storyteller who presents him with what one reviewer called “a kind of Irish book of Genesis,” starting with the construction of Newgrange in 5000 BC.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

This novel set in New York merges the lives of a seemingly disparate group of people, including two men from Ireland—Corrigan, a monk working in the slums, a his brother Ciaran , newly arrived. The plot revolves around the real tightrope walk of Phillipe Petit between the Twin Towers in 1974 and the fictional trial of a prostitute. The Twin Towers serve as a metaphor for man’s uncanny ability to find meaning in life.

The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle

You saw the movies—The Commitments, The Snapper, and the Van—now read the books that chronicle the lives of the Rabbitte family of Dublin.

Nonfiction

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

This Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 memoir by the Frank McCourt covers his gritty, impoverished childhood and early adulthood in both Limerick, Ireland and New York. The son of an alcoholic father and resourceful, loving mother (Angela), McCourt tells his story of tragedy and, eventual, redemption with skill and humor.

McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy

Pete McCarthy grew up in England, but spent time with his mother’s family in Ireland. His book began with a single premise, “Never pass a bar with your name on it,” and he doesn’t.

Paddy’s Lament by Thomas Gallagher

Written in 1962 by a second generation American of Irish descent, Paddy’s Lament is an eye opening history of what’s erroneously called “The Potato Famine”—the failure of one crop doesn’t constitute a famine—and the difficulties faced by the Irish both in Ireland and in emigrating.

How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

How did they do it? According to this entertaining book, by preserving the great thoughts of other cultures in excruciating detail, Book of Kells style.

1916: The Easter Rising by Tim Pat Coogan

The 100th anniversary of this landmark of Irish freedom is next year. Bone up now with this book by this controversial journalist and historical writer, who is former editor of the Irish Press newspaper.

Mystery
In the Woods by Tana French

This is the first in a series of mystery novels by French, who is American, that uses the Dublin Murder Squad as its backdrop. This plot of this Edgar Award winner for best first novel focuses on the murder of a 12-year-old girl and the two detectives assigned to the case.

Haunted Ground by Erin Hart

Hart specializes in bog bodies—the dead whose remains are preserved in Ireland’s turf lands. Her protagonists in this first of three novels are Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist Nora Gavin who work together to solve the mystery of a woman with red hair whose body is found by farmers cutting turf. Read our interview with author Erin Hart.

Inishowen by Joseph O’Connor

Police Inspector Martin Aitken thinks his life is a mess—he’s divorced, his career’s on the skids—until he meets an American woman who has collapsed on a Dublin street. Ellen is an Irish adoptee, taken out of Ireland as a baby and adopted by an American couple. She’s dying, and looking for her natural mother. Their roads and that of a successful New York plastic surgeon meet and take the three to Inishowen,  County Donegal, Ireland’s most northerly point.

The Sister Fidelma Mysteries by Peter Tremayne

Writing under one of many pseudonyms, Peter Berresford Ellis has spun more than a dozen tales of the fifth century noblewoman turned lawyer turned nun and her companion (later husband) Eadulf who solve mysteries while revealing the history of Ireland and Europe of the time and, in particular, the unique Irish or Brehon system of law, which was fairly modern in its outlook. The books are so popular they’ve spawned the Sister Fidelma Society where you can learn more about them.

Arts

Flights of Fancy: The Art of Deirdre Murphy

Deirdre Murphy with her bird painting on paper, now at The Shipley School

Deirdre Murphy with her bird painting on paper, now at The Shipley School

Birds dominate the artwork of Deirdre Murphy, but so does the storytelling tradition she inherited from her Irish ancestors. As she moves from painting to painting, now hanging at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, she explains that the birds—the hawk, the pigeon, even the little resin sculptured bird that repeats in different poses in her newest paintings on paper—are characteristic of the oral tradition of Ireland.

“Birds, being in multiple places, on land and in the air, have a different perspective and each tells a different story,” she says, pausing by the oil paintings of hawks she observed years ago in her South Philadelphia neighborhood and, more recently, on the grounds of Haverford College near her Ardmore home. “I started to do research on how birds see—my father was a scientist so I’m a total nerd–and I discovered that birds have prismatic vision. Where we see the color red, they see 20 shades of that red. Their optics are extremely sophisticated. It gives new meaning to the phrase, ‘bird brain.’”

So, her realistic hawks fly in the midst of a flock, not of other birds but of shards of color. In other paintings, there are color wheels. A pigeon (“They’re not rats with wings, they’re doves,” she insists) flutters among magnolias, magnolia leaves, and bands of disparate hues. And in other works not on display at Shipley, she paints the wheeling of birds, called mumurations, black as silhouettes against a colorful often abstract sky. Those “Sky Paintings,” as she calls them, are installed now at Philadelphia International Airport, in the hallway between terminals C and D above the moving walkway.

““I think one of the singular things about Irish heritage is our love of nature. What do they call the Irish who left Ireland? Wild geese?” she says smiling.

Murphy, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, traces her love of birds, and probably her artistic ability, to the Irish grandmother who “always had about 20 bird feeders up” and was an inveterate knitter. “I’m sure I got the small handwork skills from her. She was an amazing inspiration.”

Murphy is not a Philadelphia native. Born in New York, she led the peripatetic childhood of the daughter of a grant-dependent scientist father and an academic mother, whose earned a PhD in English and Irish literature. The family lived in Paris, Manchester England, Australia, and in Memphis, TN, where he father worked as a leukemia researcher at St. Jude Hospital. He eventually established his own lab in Dayton, Ohio.

She traces her Irish roots to great grandparents who emigrated from Achill Island in County Mayo. Not coincidentally, she’s applying for a residency at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation on the north coast of Mayo, a family-friendly artist retreat where she would be accompanied by her artist husband, Scott White, and their two children Liam, 10, and Fiona, 5.

A year in Japan after high school set her on the path to become a Japanese translator “but I knew I needed to go to art school,” she says. She graduated from Kansas City Art Institue with a BFA and got her MFA in painting from the University of Pennsylvania.

It was the right move. Murphy has won numerous awards and grants for her work, including the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts Fellowship in 2004, a Leeway Foundation Award, and serves as artist in residence at Vermont Studio Center and Pouch Cove Artist Residency in St. Johns, Newfoundland. She’s had six solo exhibitions in Philadelphia (including the current one, running through March 10 at Shipley School) and numerous group exhibits in New York, Delaware, Minnesota, and Oregon, as well as in South Korea and Italy. She’s represented by Gross McLeaf Gallery in Philadelphia.

This week (February 26) she is scheduled to guest on Articulate, the WHYY series with Irish-born host Jim Cotter.

Her newest works, paintings on paper she calls Sky Mirrors, explores the patterns of the constellations (she incorporates Libra—her astrological sign–and a small resin bird sculpture, turned to a different vantage point in each “so its gaze is everywhere”) and how they resemble the flocking patterns of birds—murmurations again, but in a chart form, in great swaths of a single color.

It’s clear that the story they tell is also the one of the artist. “It’s their ability to see from a different vantage point that intrigues me,” she says. “As an artist, my primary job is to see the world anew for myself and to present that to the viewer.”

As the mother of young children, she acknowledges, part of the birds’ appeal is that they’re not tethered to home—or even to one plane. “I am in awe of flight,” she admits. “I’m jealous of their ability to walk on land and fly in the air. I’m just a landlubber! But I think of myself as a visual problem-solver so they offer me a whole array of possibilities to explore.”

You can see more of Deirdre Murphy’s paintings at her website.

Arts, How to Be Irish in Philly, Music

How To Be Irish in Philly This Week

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

Along with the weekend-long East Coast Celtic Supporters’ Feile in Philadelphia—most events are at The Plough and the Stars at 123 Chestnut Street—you have an opportunity to absorb some Celtic culture (that Celtic race, not football club) this week.

The Inis Nua Theatre Company’s latest production, “Long Live Little Knife,” opens at the Off Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church. The playwright David Leddy will be on hand on Wednesday, February 4, to talk about this work which features Corinna Burns and Tim Dugan as husband and wife con artists who want to become the world’s best art forgers. The show runs through February 22. Inis Nua produces contemporary plays from Ireland, Scotland, and Great Britain.

At the Kimmel, catch “Oscar,” an opera based on the works of Irish writer Oscar Wilde, which starts a short run of five performances on Friday, Feb. 6. It’s the East Coast debut of the work.

“Misalliance,” a rarely produced play by one of Ireland’s most honored writers, George Bernard Shaw, is being mounted by The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, a Philadelphia-based theater company best-known for illuminating, challenging and humorous interpretations of absurdist-leaning plays, at Walnut Street Studio Five in Philadelphia. In the preface to this play, Shaw apparently foresaw the state of entertainment—and a few other things–in the new millennium: “A new sort of laziness will become the bugbear of society: the laziness that refuses to face the mental toil and adventure of making work by inventing new ideas or extending the domain of knowledge, and insists on a ready-made routine.” The show runs through February 22.

No, we didn’t forget The Superbowl! You can enjoy it from the warmth of your own home, at a bar (Irish Times in Philly is doing its annual pig roast), or even at the Irish Center, where there are at least four TVs, food, and if you’re not interested in hearing Katy Perry, you can get up and dance to some live half-time entertainment.

On Saturday night, catch Jamison at RP McMuphy’s in Holmes.

On Tuesday, celebrate James Joyce’s birthday with story and song at McShea’s Pub in Ardmore.

On Wednesday, Gerry Timlin continues his history classes at McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub with the conquest of Ireland, part 2. A lot of people would have done way better in history if, one, they’d held classes in a pub, and two, Gerry Timlin taught it.

Get a respite from the cold and snow on Thursday at Bistro St. Tropez in the Marketplace Design Center in Philadelphia, where Irish Network-Philly is holding its monthly networking event with drink specials and appetizers.

Also on Thursday, people who already know a little Irish are welcome to an Irish conversation group at Villanova University’s Falvey Library, Room 204.

Thursday is also the launch of a photographic exhibit by local music historian Robin O’Brien Hiteshaw called “The Face of Irish Music: at the Consulate General of Ireland’s headquarters at 345 Park Avenue in New York City.

With the loss of pubs like the Shanachie in Ambler and Molly Maguire’s in Lansdale, there’s a dearth of venues for Irish music sessions in Montgomery County. But AOH Notre Dame Div. 1 is stepping in to fill he void. The AOHers have formed a committee to have music at their Swedesburg club house on a regular basis. There will be a session there on Saturday, February 7, between 7 and 10 PM. You don’t have to be an AOH member to attend.

Check our calendar for more details–and check back frequently, since latecomers often add events during the week.

Arts, News, People

A Wall That Tells An Irish Story

Joe Magee in the midst of his mural.

Joe Magee in the midst of his mural.

A canvas was too confining for artist Eric Okdeh. That was clear when, after graduating from Tyler School of Art , he got an opportunity to exhibit in a gallery. “All throughout college I was painting murals and the idea of painting on canvas just didn’t click,” says the Philadelphia native. “I like being able to work on public art. I like the inclusiveness, the ability to tell people stories.”

You’ve probably seen one of Okdeh’s murals. He’s done more than 80 all over the city, most for the city’s Mural Arts Program, including an homage to work, based on interviews with local residents, called ‘How We Fish,” at 8th and Cherry Streets and a poignant look at the effects of incarceration on families, “Family Interrupted,” on Dauphin Street which included the work of some of the men from Okdeh’s mural arts classes at Graterford Prison. He’s had commissions as far away as Aman, Jordan, and Sevilla, Spain.

One of his most recent works tells a story that is very personal for the region’s Irish community. It was a private commission from his childhood friend, Joe Magee—“we both grew up in the same Southwest Philly Irish Catholic neighborhood”—who, along with being a director, partner and information security expert at Deloitte and Touche, owns Marty Magee’s, a pub in Prospect Park, Delaware County.

Drive down Route 420 into the heart of Prospect Park and you can’t miss it—a masterpiece on the wall of the pub, overlooking the parking lot. It tells the story of Duffy’s Cut—57 Irish immigrants who died working locally on the railroad. It pays tribute to Commodore John Barry, the Wexford man and Philadelphia transplant who is considered the father of the US Navy. It portrays the Molly Maguires, a group of Irish coal miners who fought—and died—for equality in Pennsylvania’s mines, and Black Jack Kehoe, the leader of the Mollies, whose memory is kept alive by the local Ancient Order of Hibernians division to which Joe Magee belongs. The mural images also stretch back to Ireland—there’s Michael Collins, a hero of Irish independence, and a tribute to other muralists, the Bogside Artists, whose murals, including one of a child in a gas mask, are synonymous with more recent struggles in Derry City in Northern Ireland

“And if you squint your eyes and take a step back, the color base we did was the tricolor,” says Magee. “I wanted to meld all the local Irish history with some of what I spent a lot of time researching—where my family comes from, Antrim, the heart of the troubles.”

Magee bought the pub about eight years ago and had just enough money left over to do a basic renovation of the place, which was always a local tappy (and for a time, a biker bar) that drew construction laborers at the end of their shift, usually still wearing their grubby work clothes.

But Magee wanted his pub to be “more of an Irish pub and a place where someone would be comfortable taking their wife,” so this year he embarked on a renovation on a grander scale. But not before he engaged the “regulars” in a discussion about what changes he wanted to make. “My goal was to keep everybody who was here now here, but to be able to have anyone else walk in and feel comfortable.”

When he held his first ersatz “town meeting” of bar regulars, 80 people showed up and they were, he says, “very open-minded about it,” even the establishment of a dress code. There was buy-in, which made Magee feel like he was on the right track.

Today, Magee’s Irish Pub is more Irish inside and out. A renovated second floor holds three high-end billiards tables which attracted the local pool league. “We added some traditional Irish décor, but with a modern American feel,” says Magee. “It’s like Frank Daly (of Jamison and American Paddy’s Productions) says, it’s all about being Irish-American. “

And the mural, he says, makes the statement loud and clear. “We’re so close to 95 and we wanted to give people enough reason to pull off the road and check it out and also come in an have a beer—maybe.” He laughs.

It was a no-brainer to tap his friend Eric for the job. “I called him two years ago and sent him a picture of the building and told him we were going to clean it up (it was covered in siding) and that I wanted him to do something awesome with it.”

Okdeh, who usually does voluminous research on his mural projects, didn’t have to do much for this one. “Joe felt really strongly about what he wanted to see on the wall.”

Since the Duffy’s Cut incident occurred in 1832, there were no photographs for Okdeh to use for reference. “I went through loads of old photos searching for railroad workers, and many of them were clearly Chinese,” he says. He found enough information on the era and the clothing to allow him to imagine the Duffy’s Cut victims, standing and stooping as if they were posing for a picture.

Portraying the Bogside murals was trickier. They’re someone else’s art, so instead of reproducing the gas mask mural, he found the original photo of the boy and reproduced that rather than the mural itself. “Reproduced” is probably not the right word for what Okdeh does. It’s not like tracing. “I put my own kind of spin on what the photo is depicting. It’s not like lifting someone else’s photos.”

The mural will be dedicated on Saturday, starting at 2 PM at Marty Magee’s, 1110 Lincoln Avenue, in Prospect Park. Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade Director Michael Bradley will emcee the event, which includes an introduction of Eric Okdeh, remarks by Prospect Park Mayor Jeff Harris, a musical tribute by Blackthorn, and an open social event in the pub with the Ancient Order of Hibernians featuring Galway Guild, Joe Magee’s band.

For Joe Magee, the mural has many meanings. Besides a new image for his pub, it also represents the same kind of thing a reunion does—an unforgotten and unbreakable bond formed in childhood. “The neat part for me is that I didn’t have to wonder how to make this happen,” says Magee. “Eric and I grew up playing soccer together at St. Barney’s (St. Barnabas) and then we went out and did stuff with our lives. I’ve always supported his work. It meant a lot to be able to work together on this.”

View our photos of the mural below.

You can view Eric Okdeh’s other murals here.

Marty Magee's MuralMarty Magees muralJoe MageeDuffy's CutTribute to the Victims of Duffy's Cut
Arts, History, Music, News, People

Duffy’s Cut: A Voice in the Arts

Matt Patterson, Walt Hunter, Bill Daly, Pat McDade, Anna McGillicuddy, Bill Watson, Earl Schandelmeier and Frank Watson

Matt Patterson, Walt Hunter, Bill Daly, Pat McDade, Anna McGillicuddy, Bill Watson, Earl Schandelmeier and Frank Watson

 

They’ve been called the “forgotten souls” of Duffy’s Cut, but the 57 Irish railroad workers whose deaths in 1832 remained a mystery for nearly 180 years are now well on their way to achieving immortality.

The story of the immigrant laborers hired by Philip Duffy to work Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania-Columbia Railroad in Malvern, PA, but who died within six weeks of their arrival and were buried in a mass grave alongside the tracks, has captured the interest of the news media since it first came to light through the efforts of the Duffy’s Cut Project, led by Bill and Frank Watson, Earl Schandelmeier and the late John Ahtes.

But the story is far from finished (there is still much excavation work to be done, DNA testing, historical and genealogical research), and the impact of the discovery of the Duffy’s Cut site has significance that demands an audience far beyond the one it’s already found.

Irish Network Philadelphia President Bethanne Killian, who is also deeply involved with Duffy’s Cut, realized that the project has established a voice in the Arts. To promote awareness of the presence it’s found in film, music, theater, painting and literature, as well as to raise funds for the continuation of the work, she organized “Duffy’s Cut & the Arts: A Symposium.” Held at Immaculata University, where Bill Watson is both a professor and the History Department Chair (and it’s also the home of The Duffy’s Cut Museum as well as the center of the project), the Symposium was a daylong event that focused on the artistic achievements that are bringing Duffy’s Cut into greater public awareness.

“I’m still amazed at the number of people from the Philadelphia area who are completely unaware of Duffy’s Cut,” Bethanne explained. “Anyone I’ve shared the story with who hears it for the first time is fascinated and appalled. We need to get the word out there—this isn’t just for history buffs. This is a human story—and given its reach into the art world—the humanities as well.”

With an appearance by Irish Vice-Consul Anna McGillicuddy, who braved the trip down from New York for the occasion, the Symposium officially was underway.

Throughout the day, there was music provided by Vince Gallagher and his Band, Marian Makins (who sang Wally Page’s haunting song “Duffy’s Cut”), Pat Kenneally (who sang her original song “Duffy’s Cut” that won first place in the 2013 Pennsylvania Heritage Song Writing Competition), Karen Boyce McCollum, Rosaleen McGill, the band Irish Mist and Bill and Frank Watson on the bagpipes.

There were readings by poet John Bohannon who recited three poems from his collection, “The Barmaids of Tir na Nog,” writer Kelly Clark who has a forthcoming book called “Duffy’s Cut—A Novel” and writer Kristin Walker whose forthcoming book is titled “Between Darkness and the Tide.”

Maria Krivda Poxon performed scenes from her play “Ghost Stories of Duffy’s Cut” with actor Mal Whyte, there were showings of the documentaries “Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut” and “Death on the Railroad” and the presentation of the music video “57” from Kilmaine Saints.

A lot of interest was generated by the panel discussions. The first was “Duffy’s Cut and The Pennsylvania Railroad” with Bill and Frank Watson and Earl Schandelmeier. The second was titled “Duffy’s Cut: Why It Matters” featuring CBS3 news reporter Walt Hunter, film producer and director Bill Daly and actor and Drexel University Film Studies Professor Pat McDade.  Daly and McDade have partnered to form their own production company, Duffy’s Cut Films. They have three feature films in development, and first up is a movie based on Duffy’s Cut. They have the script written, and filming is scheduled to begin in Ireland in April of 2015.

Walt Hunter, who was the first Philadelphia area reporter to cover the Duffy’s Cut discovery explained why the story resonated with him from the beginning. “This was a no-brainer for me. My grandfather was a railroad engineer. He came over from Ballina in County Mayo…it is a very captivating story…at it’s most basic level it is a deeply human story of people with a hope, a dream…and everybody dead within six weeks.”

It was Pat McDade who summed up the the motivation behind the upcoming film he and Bill Daly are developing. “These guys who died, these 57 men, they’re the real Irish story, and we never hear that…here is the beginning of it. Because there are 8,000 other stories out there, about these hardworking, honest people that come to try and find America and don’t find it. And then some of them do. And we’ve got to make sure to get the story told.”

A CD titled “Songs of Duffy’s Cut” was introduced at the Symposium, with all proceeds going to raise money for the Duffy’s Cut Project. It will be available at future Duffy’s Cut events and may also become available for purchase online.

Check out our photos from the day’s events:

Bill Watson, Anna McGillicuddy, Earl Schandelmeier & Frank WatsonMatt Patterson, Walt Hunter, Bill Daly, Pat McDade, Anna McGillicuddy, Frank Watson, Earl Schandelmeier & Bill WatsonWalt Hunter, Bill Daly & Pat McDade disuss "Duffy's Cut: Why It Matters"Walt Hunter, Bill Daly, Bethanne Killian & Pat McDadeKathy McGee Burns, Anna McGillicuddy, Bethanne Killian & Lisa MaloneyVince Gallagher and his band, including Pat KildeaPat Kenneally sings her Pennsylvania Heritage Songwriting winning song, "Duffy's Cut"Jimmy Meehan, Barney & Carmel Boyce and Sean McMenaminKathy McGee Burns & Kris HigginsMarita Krivda Poxon & Gerry Sweeney

 

Arts, News

“The Weir”: A Big Play by a Small Company

Bridget Reilly Beauchamp goes over lines with Jim Broyles.

Bridget Reilly Beauchamp goes over lines with Jim Broyles.

You could say “The Weir” is about ghost stories.

You could say it’s about faeries, and the forts where they hid.

You could say, as playwright Conor McPherson once described it, that “just people talking.”

“The Weir,” opening Friday, October 17, in a bright, cozy little performance space on the second floor of a commercial building at 305 Old York Road in Jenkintown, is much more than that, says Bridget Reilly Beauchamp, founding director of Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre Company.

Beauchamp, who read the play and fell in love with it, says she has trouble explaining it because, on the surface, it might not seem like much more is going on than a gathering of people—as McPherson would have it, just talking.

Presiding over a rehearsal one night last week, Beauchamp explained as best she could. “Weirs are dams that don’t restrict water. The currents downstream from the weir can be deep, and they can pull you down. This play is about what you do when you go over the dam and hit the currents. At the end of it, there’s such hope. It’s like a new family has been found. There’s a sense that they have broken free of the currents.”

In “The Weir,” four men gather one night in a sleepy pub in Ireland’s dark countryside, and they’re joined by Valerie, a far more worldly-wise young woman from Dublin. And, yes, the evening begins with some creepy ghost stories, but the conversation turns darker as the young woman shares her own harrowing tale.

A review in London’s Guardian summed it all up pretty well:

“When the stories are spun from the men’s lives, they have a competitive edge—but Valerie has a story that can top them all. As Jack (Brian Cox), the grumpy, melancholic garage owner, proves in the dying embers of the evening, we are all haunted by different kinds of ghosts.”

Ultimately, “The Weir” is a story about the sadness and isolation of the men’s’ lives out in the back of beyond, but there’s a hint of redemption at story’s end.

Beauchamp, who grew up in Jenkintown, understands the closeness—sometimes too close—of small-town life, and it gives her an even deeper appreciation for the play. “Every ‘hello’ here has 40 years of life behind it.”

Her Irish background—her mother a Costello, her father a Reilly, and a birthday two days before St. Patrick’s Day, with its legacy of green birthday cakes—also plays a small part in her understanding of “The Weir,” even though she has never been to Ireland. “There is an ‘Irishness’ to it. You have faeries, of course. There is that sadness, but there is also perseverance.”

“The Weir” opens the season for this tiny company, which draws in a fair number of people who have never acted before. Its name, Beauchamp, comes from a line in a poem by Naoli Shihab Nye, “Famous.” This is the verse:

“I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.”

Beauchamp fell in love with acting and the theatre while she was in high school, as she sat on a stage and watched people dancing around her. She went on to earn degrees in theatre and French from the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales. “I always knew that’s what I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to do.” She now makes her living as a theatrical dresser, and, although she describes her job as “fun and interesting,” something was missing. That’s when she and friend Kate Pettit co-founded Pulley & Buttonhole.

Working with local people, only a few of whom have acting background, is for Beauchamp a fulfilling part of the process.

Watching the rehearsal, you can tell that her actors feel the same excitement—and they’re quite good, and very convincing in their roles as the take up seats around a bar, replete with Guinness bottles—the fact that the taps are down is a source of some consternation for one of the characters—and bottles of Irish whiskey. (Not real, says Beauchamp.) They’re accents are not quite always spot-on, but for people with no experience on the stage, they come a lot closer to the real deal than many actors with more experience.

One of the cast members, Mark Schule, spent some time in County Sligo, and he developed a good sense for the rhythms and inflections of native Irish, and he shared what he knew with his fellow actors. Beauchamp kept them practicing, and she even told them to do something a little chancy. “Go hang out with people who don’t know who you are, use your accent, and see if they fall for it.”

The experiment apparently worked. The result is some fairly convincing, almost musical, but in no way over-the-top Barry Fitzgerald hammery. “I told them: We’re not doing Lucky Charms here.”

The Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre will hold about 60 audience members. You can be one of them. The play runs October 17, 18, 24 & 25. There’s no elevator access to the theatre space.

Learn more here:

http://www.pulleyandbuttonholetheatre.org/the-weir.html

Here are a few photos from rehearsal.

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Arts, News

A New Look at the Easter Rising

terrible beautyAs World War I wore on, German zeppelin raids were making Nottingham in England’s East Midlands increasingly unsafe, so British Army Lt. Frederick Dietrichsen of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment sent his Irish wife to Dublin, along with their two children.

Dietrichsen, a lawyer in peacetime, was among the reinforcements sent to assist in putting down an armed insurrection in the same city. It was Wednesday morning, April 26, 2016, two days after a ragtag army of revolutionaries, led by a charismatic school teacher, Patrick Pearse, had launched what became known as the Easter Rising, the seminal event in Ireland’s long quest for independence from British rule.

Dietrichsen’s wife saw the troops marching up the street as they headed toward the Mount Street Bridge, a key entrance to the city, which was held by the rebels. Dietrichsen fell out for a brief, loving meeting with his wife and children, and then rejoined his men.

Less than an hour later, he was dead, one of the first British soldiers to be killed in the initial volley of shots from the volunteers, in what is now remembered as the Battle of Mount Street.

This was one of many poignant stories that riveted the attention of documentary director Keith Farrell and producer Dave Farrell as they conducted research for a new 90-minute docudrama, “A Terrible Beauty/ÁIille An Ufais,” which will have its world premiere September 6 at 6 p.m. at International House, just a few blocks from the University of Pennsylvania campus. The event is co-sponsored by the Irish Immigration Center , together with AOH Dennis Kelly, Division 1, Delaware County, and the Irish Easter Centennial Commemoration Committee.

The Farrells are not unfamiliar to Philadelphia audiences. Their recent film, “Death on the Railroad” shed new light on the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of 57 Irish immigrants,who were working on a stretch of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad , near Malvern, in the autumn of 1832.

The new film takes a slightly different approach. It tells stories of the Rising from the perspective of the people who were there in Dublin during those bloody six days—the ill-fated Irish volunteers, British soldiers, and Dublin citizens.

“It became clear to me that to tell these stories, I would have to dramatize them,” says Keith Farrell, reached by phone from County Wicklow. “The characters speak to each other, and they speak to the camera as well. We see their actions in dramatic form. When the actors look at the camera, they’re speaking their actual words.”

Many of those stories paint a complex picture of people taken completely by surprise.

In a time of war, being dispatched to Dublin to put down a rebellion was probably the last thing Dietrichsen ever expected to have to do. He was far from alone.

“The British soldiers never expected to find themselves fighting on the streets of Dublin,” Farrell says. “They expected to be in France, fighting in the trenches. No one told them where they were going. To find yourself fighting in the second great city of the empire must have come as a shock.”

Everyday Dubliners caught in the crossfire were just as stunned, Farrell says—and in more than a few cases, outraged and completely unsupportive of the rebellion.

“The citizens of Dublin were not happy. Many had sons and husbands at war in the British army. (35,000 Irish soldiers serving with the British army would die in World War I.) They were getting separation allowances from the British government. When the Rising happened, they weren’t getting that money. All of the bakeries were closed. No one could get bread. The city was completely disrupted. No one could get to work, so no one had any money.

“There were huge numbers of civilian casualties in Dublin. (Many fell at the hands of the British. The worst atrocity occurred on Friday of that week, when soldiers of the South Staffordshire regiment murdered 15 innocent civilians on North King Street.) Dublin was devastated by the Rising. People said it looked like Ypres in Belgium. The citizens of Dublin paid a price. While it’s mythologized, it was really a difficult, dirty guerrilla war. I was like a mini-Stalingrad.”

Then there was the question of the volunteers themselves. “A lot of Irish Volunteers didn’t know there was going to be a rising. They thought they were just going out on maneuvers.”

After the battle began, Farrell says, the volunteers themselves were initially optimistic. That optimism didn’t last long. “I don’t think the leadership were optimistic. Even the ordinary guys realized pretty quickly that they didn’t stand a chance. They probably would have been proud that they held out six days.”

Farrell culled his stories from a variety of sources.

He found one particularly rich treasure trove. “Between 1930 and 1940, the Irish Army interviewed survivors of the Irish war of independence. That included British soldiers, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, anyone who was involved. They transcribed them, and stored them in army archives.”

Obtaining access to an accounting of the North King Street massacre wasn’t easy. Decades after the fact, the report was sealed. Farrell filed a freedom of information act request to get the painful details released. The report had been shielded by a 100-year rule. “There I suddenly had access to accounts from Dubliners on the north side of the city, ordinary citizen accounts. Women who lost their sons, wives who lost their husbands.”

Farrell also tapped into the memories of two brothers who fought with the volunteers. “They fought together in the Battle of North King Street. As old men, they never talked about the war to their sons, but they left their accounts with other people.”

The story of the Rising, Farrell says, continues to resonate with the Irish. 1916, he says, was “a bit like your Battle of Bunker Hill. It was a loss for the rebels, but it was an iconic moment. It was the beginning of our war of independence, and that’s why it captures our imagination.”

The Irish audiences are completely aware of the complexity surrounding the events of those few bloody days in 1916, but some Americans might be surprised what they learn from this new film. They might not be aware of all of the back-stories—stories that can only be told by the people who were there.

“What I try to do is try to tell the human side. Even the ‘bad guy’ has a complicated background. There’s a tendency to make it all black and white. You can mythologize a lot. What I wanted to show was people affecting people affecting people. I don’t try to make a postscript to say whether it’s good or bad. I leave that up to the audience. ”


Siobhan Lyons, director of the Irish Immigration Center, has seen a sneak preview of the film, and she regards it as essential viewing.

“It’s a fantastic film. It’s really, really good. Even for, me, I feel like I know quite a bit about the Easter Rising. I know a lot about the politics, and the importance of the Rising, but I had never thought as much about the battles. You can still see bullet holes at the General Post Office (the epicenter of the revolt). You can just imagine the bullets flying. When you see it dramatized, you see what it really meant. It’s a must-see for anyone who calls themselves Irish in Philadelphia.”

Tickets are $50. They include an after-party at St. Declan’s Well on Walnut Street, with music by well-known local singer Marian Makins, who is putting together a playlist around 1916, together with flutist Paddy O’Neill. The new Irish Vice Consul Anna McGillicuddy will also be there.

 

A TERRIBLE BEAUTY… background to story. from Tile Films Ltd on Vimeo.

Arts, News, People

Get Ready to Laugh: Here Comes Mick Thomas

Comic Mick Thomas

Comic Mick Thomas

Mick Thomas is from a small town in County Wexford. “That’s in the southeast of Ireland. It’s the Florida of Ireland, except without the nice weather,” Mick told me as we chatted this week on the phone. I am already laughing, then he makes it worse. “It’s 20 degrees out and people flock to the beach. [Insert high-pitched heavily accented voice here] ‘Oh God, it’s lovely out.’”

Thomas, who now lives on Long Island, is a staple on the New York comedy scene, opening for comedy greats like Colin Quinn, Dom Irrera, Louis Anderson, and the late Greg Giraldo; performing with Jerry Stiller and Christopher Lloyd; and headlining clubs like McGuire’s Comedy Club (where he recorded his first CD, Live at McGuire’s), the Comic Strip, and the Governor’s Comedy Club, among others. He also provides the comic relief on the Celtic Thunder cruises.

He’ll be appearing next Friday night, September 5, at The Irish Center, with fellow Long Island comic Dennis Rooney opening for him. It’s a fundraiser for the Center, which has fallen on hard financial times. Thomas says he likes helping causes, especially if he knows ahead of time what they are. He got burned once.

“I never say no to worthy causes,” he says. “But I once did a gig in the Hamptons before I found out what the cause was. They were raising money to hire people to scrape barnacles off their yachts. I was genuinely angry. I made fun of them for an hour and all they did was laugh. ‘Do you not understand that people are dying of cancer and I’m raising money for you to hire Mexicans to scrape barnacles off your yachts?’”

Thomas, who moved to America 10 years ago “to marry one of your women,” says that he wasn’t the funniest guy in Wexford by far. He gives that accolade to his two brothers, neither of whom does it for a living. “The two funniest people in the world are my two brothers.” They—and the rest of his family and friends back in Wexford—are also his toughest audience.

“I went back to Ireland for a tour and did a theater in my hometown and I bombed horribly,” he recalls ruefully. “Family, friends, the local people—they won’t give it up to ya. They’re out there, ‘We paid for this? We know all these stories.’ Eventually, people are shouting out the ending. ‘And you spent the rest of your life in jail. We get it. Yer wasting valuable drinking time.’”

But Thomas says he’s pretty much hardened to the effects bombing on stage. Before he became a stand-up, he was a four-time Ireland professional kickboxing champion and the European kickboxing champion. “I’ve never had any phobia about bombing on stage. I once got knocked out in front of 7,000 people. That was embarrassing. If somebody doesn’t like a joke, who gives a crap?”

He was more than knocked out. Over the nearly 10 years he spent in the kickboxing ring (starting at 16 and while also working as a banker) he was seriously injured. “If you look carefully at me, my left eye closes more than the right. My smile is crooked from a broken jaw. And I only have one kidney now too.”

That, I observed, isn’t visible. “Oh, I don’t know,” he retorts. “’Ye’ve got a weird walk on ye—ye must be a one-kidney guy.’”

When he followed his then girlfriend, now wife, Kelly, to New York 10 years ago, he decided to follow his other passion for making people laugh. “I went to a comedy class where I learned all about the business. You can’t learn to be funny. You either are or you aren’t. But it was helpful businesswise.”

He also caught the eye of Jon Starr, the actor-writer known for his role in “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Date Night.” “He took me under his wing and I started with a seven-minute set and slowly built it up, adding material, till I had an hour.”

Thomas started doing open mikes, then began getting booked for money, opening for the headliners. Lately, he’s been the headliner. He’s also done TV, including Live at the Gotham. He recently auditioned for another show that could provide a huge break—but we can’t go there yet. “I don’t want to jinx it, but they liked me,” he says.

But it was that audition where he learned something he sort of knew—that he can “get away with a lot more than the average person,” in part because of his accent and in part because, “even though I’m very honest, my comedy isn’t malicious, it doesn’t come from a hurtful place. And I’m the always the victim of my story, even when it’s about my kids.”

For example, he does a bit on going to see his daughter’s first dance recital. “She was up there for six minutes and she was by herself doing a solo—that’s what solo means–and she was dancing, and I welled up and got teary-eyed and I’m not afraid admit I realized. . .that I had wasted so much money on these dance lessons. She was absolutely shite. She was terrible, really bad at dancin’. And I’ve seen some bad dancin’. I’ve been to strip clubs in Chernobyl. Just awful dancin’.”

You can watch the bit here.

He laughs when I bring up the bit, which I loved. “It happened again,” he tells me. “I picked her up from karate this week and watched for a while and thought, jeeze, she’s terrible. But of course I said, ‘good, honey, keep at it you’re doing great.’ She has no coordination, good God. She gets that from her mother. But really, how many parents are on the sidelines thinking that?”

Show of hands?

Many comics today measure their success by whether they get their own sitcom. While he wouldn’t turn it down, Thomas says his passion was, is, and always will be standing in front of a live audience, making them laugh. “It goes back to when I was a kid, when I was five. I remember allmy family members saying, ‘oh, he’s funny’ and I thought this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, make people laugh for a living. Of course, I didn’t know what ‘for a living’ meant. I thought it as like an episode of ‘Bob the Builder’ and the doctor made the same money as the baker and my role would be to be the funny one. I didn’t understand ‘pay scale.’”

You can see Mick Thomas and also help raise money to scrape the barnacles off the Irish Center on Friday, September 5, starting at 7 PM. Tickets are $25 and are available at the door.