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James Joyce, Set to Music

John Feeley, left, with Joyce's guitar, and Fran O'Rourke.

John Feeley, left, with Joyce’s guitar, and Fran O’Rourke.

Had they consulted a marketing wizard before naming their CD, “JoyceSong: The Irish Songs of James Joyce,” singer Fran O’Rourke and classical guitarist John Feeley might called it “James Joyce’s Greatest Hits: A Soundtrack from the Collected Works of Ireland’s Foremost Writer.”

If you’ve casually read  The Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Finnigan’s Wake, or Ulysses, you may have missed Joyce’s musical references, though they’re prominent symbols throughout his body of work.

But Dublin’s favorite son was a singer and guitarist, the son of a singer and guitarist, who was leaning toward a musical career before he was captured by the lyricism and harmonies of language. In fact, he once shared a stage with renowned Irish tenor John McCormack. And his wife Nora, the inspiration for many of his female characters, once bitingly remarked, “Jim should have stuck to singing.”

Though writing took primacy over a career on the stage, Joyce remained captive to song—from Wagnerian opera to the Irish traditional music he learned as a boy, what O’Rourke, professor of philosophy at University College, Dublin, calls “the music of the people.”

O’Rourke and Feeley, who is considered Ireland’s leading classical guitarist, will be performing Joyce’s greatest hits on Saturday at 4 PM at the Rosenbach Museum and Library at 2008-2010 Delancey Place in Philadelphia, as part of the Rosebach’s annual “Bloomsday” festivities, marking the fine June day (June 16) Leopold Bloom wandered the streets of Dublin in the 900 pages of Ulysses. The Rosenbach houses one of Joyce’s handwritten copies of the book.

O’Rourke, whose first “artistic connection” with Joyce came when he was 14 and sang a traditional song on Irish television, “a line of which occurs in Finnegan’s Wake,” revisited Joyce as a scholar because of their mutual interest in philosophy. He was delighted—and remains delighted—to also find the music there.

“The story, ‘The Dead,’ from The Dubliners, almost the entire tenor of that story, the ‘mood music’ of that story, comes from the Irish traditional song, ‘The Lass of Aughrim,’” said O’Rourke, whom I met, with Feeley, this week in the lobby of their hotel in Center City. “The story is so sparse, so beautiful, not a word out of place. The atmosphere of the story was inspired by that song.”

It is the recreation of an Irish family party attended by one of the main characters, Gabriel, and his wife who, listening to someone singing the lachrymose song about a lover’s death at the party, finds her mind wandering back to her teenaged sweetheart, Michael Furey, who died of a cold after coming to visit her. When the two return to their hotel after the party, Gabriel faces the truth that he is not his wife’s first—nor greatest—love. You can see and hear Feeley and O’Rourke performing “The Lass of Aughrim,” with Feeley playing Joyce’s own guitar, here. 

Ulysses is composed of 18 episodes and in each episode a different art dominates,” says O’Rourke. “The episode called ‘Sirens’ is the counterpart of the sirens who bewitched Homer’s sailors in ‘The Odyssey,’ [the Greek story of Ulysses’s travels]. The episode takes place in a hotel where people are singing two songs. One is “The Croppy Boy” and the other is “The Last Rose of Summer,” by Thomas Moore. Practically every word is quoted or parodied in that episode.’

Those songs are part of the program the two musicians are bringing to the Rosenbach on Saturday, then to the Irish Embassy in Washington and Solas Nua, a DC nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of Irish arts, next week to honor both Joyce and Irish poet William Butler Yeats, whose 150th birthday is Saturday, June 13. Their tour is sponsored by Culture Ireland (Cultur Eireann), which provides funding for the presentation of Irish arts internationally, and, in Philadelphia, by the Irish Immigration Center.

One treat you can hear on their CD but not in concert is Feeley’s rendition of “Carolan’s Farewell” on Joyce’s guitar, which is now owned by the Irish Tourist Board and housed in the Joyce Tower Museum since 1966. In 2012, O’Rourke helped fund the guitar’s restoration (along, he says, with a “generous donation” from New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon) by UK luthier Gary Southwell.

It went from playable to barely playable, but Feeley was able to coax out the tune. “It was in very bad shape to begin with,” says Feeley. “Gary Southwell dated it to 1830, which means it was an old guitar when Joyce got it. It’s not a top guitar which you can see the way the finger board is worn down. As a guitar, it’s not particularly great, and that’s being generous, but it’s actually a sweet instrument, with a small sound. It also has a small problem. The turning pegs are irregular. They’ve worn down quite a bit so it tunes in installments.”

But, he says, that didn’t diminish the thrill of playing it. “It’s amazing,” says Feeley. “You feel you’re playing a piece of history.”

Because they’re only scheduled to play for an hour on Saturday, you also may miss the highly entertaining banter between the two men. How did they meet, I asked them.

“I had John’s first album,” said O’Rourke.

“At least he had some taste,” Feeley remarked with a glint in his eye.

“That first album was fabulous. Happily one day we met on the street  and said hello,” O’Rourke continued. “What was your first album anyway?” he asked, turning to Feeley.

“It was just called ‘John Feeley,’ actually,” said Feeley, returning the gaze. “It came out in 1985. I was two years of age.”

And so, I asked, are you two friends?

“Oh no. No, no,” said Feeley, barely surpressing a laugh.

“Intermittently,” deadpanned O’Rourke. “We have a lot in common.”

“Yes,” said Feeley. “We live in the same country.”

You don’t need to be a Joyce scholar—or even a fan—to enjoy the JoyceSong concert, but a love of Irish traditional music helps. Purists may be thrilled to hear O’Rourke’s and Feeley’s rendition of “Down by the Salley Gardens”—one of Yeats’ compositions– which is historically accurate. That is, it may not be the tune you’ve heard or played—it’s been done by everyone from John McCormack to the Everly Brothers, the Clancys and Black 47. But it’s probably the one Joyce sang in his sweet though thin tenor voice.

You have a second chance to hear John Feeley this weekend. He’ll be playing classical guitar the the Settlement Music School, 416 Queen Street in Philadelphia, at 3 PM Sunday, a concert sponsored by the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society. 


“Shadow of a Gunman” Comes to Philly

Josephine Patane and Dexter Anderson

Josephine Patane and Dexter Anderson

That’s the Irish People all over—they treat a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing.
Seumas Shields

People make assumptions about poet Donal Davoren. When he takes up lodging in the flat of friend Seumas Shields in the Dublin slums, the other tenants make a rash assumption. They assume he is a gunman for the Irish Republican Army, and at a particularly turbulent time—1920, during the War of Independence. It’s a charade Davoren is happy to play out, especially since it helps him woo and win another tenant, the winsome Minnie Powell.

Plays about mistaken identity are often played for laughs. Sometimes this one is. But Irish playwright Sean O’Casey doesn’t let the audience off that easily.

“Shadow of a Gunman” is the first play in O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy. It makes its debut courtesy of Philadelphia’s Irish Heritage Theatre Dexter April 10-26 at the Skybox at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street in Center City. Dexter Anderson plays the title character. Peggy Mechum and John Gallagher direct.

All of the action takes place in Shields’s tenement flat. On a practical level, this makes the play easier to present, says producer Armen Pandola.

“It’s easier for the set designer,” he explains. “There’s not a lot of set changing going on.”

On another level, concentrating the action to one room was part of O’Casey’s modus operandi. “O’Casey was a big believer in time and place. It all takes place in one time and in one place.”

That one place, a room in a tenement, happens to be situated amid a sea of violence and discord. It was a time of revolution, a time when nationalists struggled to regain their own country by force of arms—and a time when almost anyone who was Irish, regardless of their loyalties, could be stopped, humiliated, brutalized, put away and possibly killed by paramilitaries acting on behalf of the British government.

“Shadow of a Gunman” focuses on those caught in the crossfire. “O’Casey had a very different view of the revolution,” Pandola says. “It was the people who suffered for it.” In this sense, everything that transpires in that one room encapsulates all of the suffering into one place and one time.

As with any play featuring Irish characters, American-born actors face a difficult challenge—how to actually sound Irish without crossing the line into territory. PR Director Kirsten Quinn has a lot of useful tips as she coaches the actors, but one in particular is particularly interesting: “If you imagine putting a cork in your mouth and talking around the cork … that’s Irish. “You don’t want to sound like a leprechaun. This is a standard Dublin dialect.”

Listening to the actors rehearse one night last week in a long, mirrored room cluttered with chairs, it’s clear that they’re “getting it.”

You’ll hear more Irish accents as the months go on. The next two plays of the trilogy are yet to come: “Juno and the Paycock” in the fall, and “The Plough and the Stars” next spring, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

“Shadow of a Gunman” wasn’t exactly “The Sound of Music” when it debuted at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. “It was a huge risk for him (O’Casey) to put up this material,” notes Pandola. And ”The Plough and the Stars” touched off something of a riot.

This is gritty stuff, and it does a pretty fair job of playing with your emotions. For all of its gentle humor, “Shadow of a Gunman” grabs you by the throat toward the end. Don’t miss it.

Arts, Music

Strumming a New Tune

Zakir Hussain (photo by Jim McGuire)

Zakir Hussain (photo by Jim McGuire)

Back in December, premier Irish guitarist Tony Byrne got an unusual email. Would he be interested in going on tour with Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain and his troupe of Indian and Celtic musicians?

“Are you free, are you interested?” Byrne recalls. The answer was easy. “Being on a stage like that, I couldn’t say no.”

Speaking from his hotel room outside Washington, D.C., on the fourth night of the tour, Byrne has absolutely no regrets about playing in Hussain’s show “Pulse of the World: Celtic Connections.” He joins some of the world’s best Indian and Celtic musicians: Rakesh Chaurasia, bamboo flute; Fraser Fifield, flute and pipes; Jean-Michel Veillon, flute; Ganesh Rajagopalan, violin; Charlie McKerron, fiddle; Patsy Reid, fiddle; John Joe Kelly, bodhran—and Hussain himself, widely acknowledged as the master of the Indian tabla drums, one of the most devilishly complex percussion instruments on the planet.

Celtic Connections explores the surprising ties between the rhythms and melodies of two distinctly different genres of world music. Those connections can be close indeed.

“A lot of these styles of music are linked, especially through percussion instruments, and a lot of the wind instruments as well,” says Byrne.

Still, the instruments, the styles of playing them and the musicians themselves are different enough that the contrasts are also pretty clear—and if some of it sounds like experimentation, it’s because it often is, says Byrne.

“The Indian musicians who are playing with us will pick up on a motif in a small line we play, and then they can come back to you with a little four-note phrase. It’s like they’re echoing back to you, and call and answer. You have a match, and a mismatch at the same time.

“They can dip in and out. That’s really fun when that happens. The more concerts we do, the more that that happens. We have a blueprint, but we can all deviate from that. It’s great to see that developing. It’s almost like jam sessions. That’s really exciting.”
Earlier in his musical career, Byrne was a rock drummer, and when he learned to play guitar, he incorporated a lot of percussion into his right-hand technique. That’s good when it comes to rhythm, but Byrne has to hang in there with the melody as well, which can be complex.

“I’ll always lock into John Joe and Zakir’s playing but I also have to lock into the chords,” Byrne says. “You try and cover all the bases.”

Even though Byrne’s style of play is powerfully percussive, that’s no walk in the park, either. John Joe Kelly is most directly in Byrne’s sightline, he says, “so we naturally, almost instinctively think together what to do.”

Zakkir is a bit more challenging. “Zakkir can play in any time signature. The guy has never missed a beat in his life. Its mesmerizing to watch him do it.”

If you’re a musician, though, that kind of challenge is what you live for.

“You’re always striving and trying to making it better,” Byrne says. “You become more focused and you become really alert. It is a challenge but it’s an exciting challenge as well.”

Pulse of the World: Celtic Connections will roll into Philly on March 27 for a concert at Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street. The show starts at 7. Tickets and info here.



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


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!


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.


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.

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.


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.

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: