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Colin Quinn Makes a “Long Story Short”

Colin Quinn in "Long Story Short"

Colin Quinn, you are funny.

I already knew that, but I had it reconfirmed for me on the opening night of Quinn’s one man show, “Long Story Short,” at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Broad Street. Fresh from Broadway, and making its Philadelphia debut, this 75 minute tour-de-farce of history bites where it’s supposed to and makes short work of some of history’s biggest moments.

And keeps the audience laughing throughout the entirety of the evening.

Quinn’s point, made with his trademark raspy-voiced rat-a-tat delivery, is that in all the years humanity has been evolving, we haven’t changed all that much: “With all the progress, where’s the progress?” he asks early in the show.

He points out that “our ancestors weren’t the ones who starved to death waiting their turn in line for food.”  In other words, survival of the fittest doesn’t mean survival of the nicest.

Directed by Jerry Seinfeld (I looked all around the theater in the hopes that he is a hands-on director who was perhaps directing from the seat next to me; no luck), the show’s style of humor reflects the sensibility of the man best known for his show about nothing. This time, however, he’s steering a show about all things universal.

No history stone is left unturned: politics, philosophy, psychology, arts & literature. Quinn touches on all of them. And the points he makes are the kind that have you going, “Oh, yeah…” Like his take on democracy, for instance:

“It’s sad. Marxism didn’t work. Communism didn’t work. Capitalism doesn’t work.  Nothing works. Even democracy doesn’t work. Democracy—the greatest form of government and we have two choices for who’s our leader. In fascism you only have one choice. That’s great. We have one more choice than the worst form of government.”

It’s sageness like this that keeps the audience holding fast for the next pithy piece of insight wrapped in humor to be delivered by the craggy-faced man pacing the stage.  It’s actually a bit like sitting around with a funny friend, the one who minored in history and knows how to draw the connections between the follies of early civilizations and our own modern messed-up universe.

As Quinn makes perfectly clear, we have always been searching for the truth of our existence, or as he puts it: “Don’t judge me by what I do…judge me by what I’m telling you when I’m doing the opposite.”

“Long Story Short” is here in town through July 10th, and it’s worth an evening of your time.  For more information, check out The Philadelphia Theatre Company’s website:


The White Walls of Malin Town

The white-washed walls of the Malin Town bridge.

By Tom Finnigan

You know that summer is approaching Malin Town, when white-wash appears on the bridge’s parapet and brushes scrub walls. Other places count swallows; we look for immaculate stones. When the rim surrounding our triangular green gleams white, the matter is fixed: summer has arrived.

I carry a pint from Maclean’s and sit on a bench near the Food Store and watch sunlight coax colour from the flowerbeds on the green. Outside the Malin Hotel, a couple sprawl under an awning and smoke. Beech trees cast shadows across the green. Seated majestically on a mower, Hughie sweeps past me and waves. A smell of cut grass follows him.

A van turns from the Glengad road. The enlarged face of a politician grins from its panels. In a stink of exhaust fumes, a microphone blares and a voice bleats for support in the coming election. The van circles the town and exits across the bridge to annoy sheep on the Carn road.

On August 7th in 1843, it was reported, thousands of people assembled near the Green Hill, outside Malin, to listen to Daniel O’Connell. The authorities feared violence and hid behind the muskets of the military but all passed quietly and J. McSheffry Esquire had no regrets about allowing his land to be used for a political gathering. “But,” a local historian remarked: “The great agitation has gone for naught…and Ireland groans under the burthen of her sorrows.”

The Psalmist says that man is like grass in a field. He grows in the sun, then withers and dies. Shinnere and Finners; Blueshirts and the Loose-your-shirts; Labour and Independents: they are blades of grass. Their sun has set. Who will remember the names of the defeated when the placards rot and the loud-speakers are silent? A few lines in the local papers, comment on Highland radio, an argument over drinks. For a few weeks their faces haunt us from telegraph poles and lamp-posts. Votes cast, they are lifted down and thrown into the back of a van to be re-cycled at ten euro a time. Those left hanging, wait for wind or rain to throw them into the dirt under a whin bush. Remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return…

Free of electoral blather, Malin resumes the tranquillity of summer. A swallow flits under oaks. The church of Ireland raises its castellated tower behind a copper beech as it has done since 1827. Outside Maclean’s, two old carousers sit on the wall by the bridge and watch a girl in shorts fill her car with petrol.

Politicians lick wounds, newspapers castigate the clergy and the banks are bust. Let the world go about its business. Be still, relax; sit on a bench under a sycamore tree at the edge of the green with a pint to hand and listen to a tractor lifting silage along the Lagg road. Gaze at what a Planter built and be thankful for white-wash and brushes – those perennial signs of summer in Malin.

Tom Finnigan writes his essays from his home in Malin, Inishowen, County Donegal, Ireland.


History’s Back Story: Douglass and O’Connell

Frederick Douglass, a former slave and eloquent social reformer.

By Michael Carolan

The Dublin crowd last week was undoubtedly grateful to have once again—after Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton to name a few—a U.S. President proclaim his Irish roots and with such precision.

Thanks to an internet genealogy service, the missing apostrophe in Obama has been located: his maternal great-great-great grandfather is Fulmuth Kearny, a Protestant bootmaker from Moneygall, County Offaly, who left Ireland during the Famine in 1850.

The President provided the throngs of well-wishers at College Green genealogical context by paying fitting tribute to a contemporary of his ancestor: Daniel O’Connell, the Irish patriot who profoundly influenced Mr. Obama’s own historical hero—the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

It was, as Mr. Obama noted, an “unlikely friendship” forged between the two men. The Irishman peacefully worked for the self-rule of millions of Irish; the former slave pushed for the freedom of millions of African Americans in bondage.

What Mr. Obama failed to note was that 166 years ago the “Emancipator” Douglass and the “Liberator” O’Connell were not always so friendly. In fact, their respective peoples had a tumultuous relationship fraught with labor politics, hatred, and violence, and right here in Philadelphia.

It is true that Douglass, born into slavery himself, escaped to Ireland in 1845 where he met his hero O’Connell, then in his 70s. The two men were fond of one another, to sure, both hating the institution of slavery. But Douglass returned to a country soon besieged by nearly two million Irish Catholics fleeing centuries of religious persecution and more immediately, the horrors of the Famine.

What they wanted in America were jobs. But African Americans in mid-19th century Northern cities had the run on the economy’s low-paying menial jobs and hence, there was competition.

Douglass complained in a speech to a New York anti-slavery society nine years after he returned from Ireland: “Every hour sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room for some newly-arrived emigrant from the Emerald Isle, whose hunger and color entitle him to special favor.”

“These white men are becoming house servants, cooks, stewards, waiters, and flunkies,” Douglass told the audience. “…I see they adjust themselves to their stations with all proper humility. If they cannot rise to the dignity of white men, they show that they can fall to the degradation of black men.”

“In assuming our avocation,” the Irishman “has also assumed our degradation,” he added.

Indeed the Irish “laborers,” like Obama’s ancestor, were often called “white negroes” to denote the exploitative, backbreaking jobs at which only blacks were previously willing to work. It was not always clear on which side of the color line an immigrant like Fulmuth fell.

Was he black or white?

Sidney Fisher, a prominent Philadelphian of the time, wrote that the Irish did not get along with blacks “not merely because they compete with them in labor, but because they are near to them in social rank. Therefore, the Irish favor slavery in the South . . . it gratifies their pride by the existence of a class below them.”

Meanwhile, the newly arrived Famine Irish for whom Daniel O’Connell spoke had little sympathy for the anti-slavery cause itself. That’s because they mistrusted the Protestant majority of the same ilk that had persecuted them for centuries in Ireland.

The gulf between the average Irishman and the Yankee Abolitionist leader was too great to bridge: their link to antislavery circles there (Britain abolished slavery in 1833) further alienated the Irish. The sudden British moral reformers were, after all, hypocrites, blind to their own centuries old, slave-like oppressive practices in Ireland.

In Philadelphia, the African-Irish problem dated back to early 19th century when Ulster (Irish) Protestants and free blacks arrived in the city in great numbers. The firehouse was the social and political center of neighborhood life and African Americans were refused their own department. Then one night in August 1834, a group of young black men attacked the Fairmount Engine Company, running off with equipment. Three days later, the city’s first full-scale riot erupted.

What newspapers called a “lunatic fringe” attacked an amusement hall that housed a carousel called the “Flying Horse,” a popular entertainment for both blacks and whites living crowded together in the working-class boarding houses near 7th and South Streets.

Correspondents claimed that a mob threw a corpse from its coffin, cast a dead infant on the floor, “barbarously,” mistreating its mother. By the end, two were dead, many beaten, and 20 homes and two churches destroyed. Twelve out of the eighteen arrested had Irish names.

A committee assigned the cause to employers hiring blacks over whites, with many “white laborers out of work while people of color were employed and able to maintain their families.”

The labor, racial and economic strife continued periodically in Philadelphia’s urban immigrant enclaves—in places like Kensington and Southwark and Moyamensing—through the 19th century.

In 1842, mobs burned down the Second African Presbyterian Church and Smith’s Hall on Lombard Street—the site of abolition lectures since Pennsylvania Hall was destroyed in the riots of 1838. A plaque today commemorates the event.

But there was also the established nativists—English and Scotch-Irish Protestants and Quakers (who had their own political party for a time “the Know-Nothings”) who disliked the new Irish Catholic immigrants and associated them with the African Americans as well, exploding into the 1844 Nativist Riots in which 2 were killed and 23 wounded.

“The City of Brotherly Love” Frederick Douglass found not, proclaiming that one could not find anywhere “a city in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia.”

For Daniel O’Connell’s part, the Repeal movement for Irish freedom from England needed capital and Southern slave-backed money poured in. This had O’Connell waffling between speaking for the anti-slavery cause and alienating his Irish-American support and keeping the tainted donations.

At one point, anti-slavery advocates were furious with O’Connell. The prominent abolitionist Wendell Phillips called him “the Great Beggar man,” fuming that the O’Connell “would be pro-slavery this side of the pond. He won’t shake hands with slaveholders, no—but he will shake their gold.”

So when President Obama proclaimed in Dublin that “When we strove to blot out the stain of slavery and advance the rights of man, we found common cause with your struggles against oppression,” that common cause—both of them—was hard fought, and indeed eventually successful. African Americans and Ireland were eventually free.

And while the President’s words were profound at just the right moment in history—his Irish and African roots unified—they didn’t tell the whole history.

Michael Carolan teaches literature at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. His father was born in Philadelphia, the great grandson of a Famine emigrant who arrived in 1847 from County Meath and lived in Feltonville. His story can be found here. Michael is the recipient earlier this year of the first annual Crossroads Irish-American Writing Prize. His website is


Remembering the Patriots of 1916

Local Irish organizations, including Clan na Gael, Irish Northern Aid and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, gathered Sunday at Holy Cross Cemetery to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Gathering at the gravesite of Joseph McGarrity, who coordinated and provided financial support for those who sought to drive the British out of Ireland, they recalled the names of many patriots for whom Holy Cross is also their final resting place. There’s a fair number: Martin Noone, Danny Catalan, John Ryan, Danny Duffy, Luke Dillon, John Devoy, Tom Mylott. And it’s probably not all.

Ireland is an ocean away and 1916 is a long time ago, but in Philadelphia, they’re not forgetting.


Remembering the Rising

Tom Conaghan and Patricia Noone Bonner at a recent Rising ceremony.

Tom Conaghan and Patricia Noone Bonner at a recent Rising ceremony.

It has been 95 years since the 1916 Easter Rising, the abortive effort by Irish republican forces to bring an end to British rule. Still, the long-ago insurrection continues to resonate for many Philadelphians of Irish descent. After almost a century, a key stumbling block remains—Ireland remains divided.

Representatives of several groups, including Clan na Gael and Irish Northern Aid, will commemorate the rising—as they do every year—with a ceremony of remembrance Sunday at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon. The memorial will take place at the gravesite of Joseph McGarrity, a confirmed physical-force republican from Philadelphia who provided a considerable sum of money to the Irish rebels.

Patricia Noone Bonner has been taking part in the ceremony for about 40 years. She remembers attending with her children. For her, the struggle remains unfinished. Memories of the 1981 Irish hunger strike at Long Kesh remain painfully fresh.

For Bonner, it’s all too personal. Her father Martin Noone was a dedicated republican from a little village near Ballina, County Mayo, who ultimately left Ireland in 1924, after the Irish Civil War, to find some measure of peace in Philadelphia, joining his brother in his home across the street from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church at 3rd and Wolf.

To this day, Bonner is not completely certain of her father’s role in the troubles of the time. “He would have been too young for 1916,” she says. “I do know he was in the civil war. He went against the treaty with England. He didn’t go with the free-staters led by Michael Collins. But he didn’t talk about a lot of stuff. He talked about some things, but he didn’t talk about everything.” Martin Noone died in 1960.

As to why local Irish continue to commemorate the Easter Rising, Bonner is clear: “The 1916 rising was hopefully going to be the start of a united ireland. For us, it’s like celebrating the 4th of July. We do it in memory of all those patriots who have died for Ireland, and those who were in it (the Rising) who did not die.”

At McGarrity’s gravesite, this turning point in Irish history is recalled through the reading of the Proclamation of Indepenence, originally recited by prominent Irish leader Pádraig Pearse outside the General Post Office.

Continuing to remember the Rising is important, Bonner says, because “it’s still not a united Ireland. I know they are working toward it. They’ve stopped the armed struggle part of it. And many of the Irish will keep that goal in there minds over there, just like a lot of us here.”

The ceremony is scheduled for Sunday, April 17, at 2 p.m. in Holy Cross Cemetery, 626 Baily Road, in Yeadon.

Genealogy, History

Vikings at Lagg

The chapel at Lagg, on Trawbreaga Bay, Malin, Inishowen, County Donegal.

By Tom Finnigan

The trees run out on the Lagg Road beyond Goorey. Near the Presbyterian Meeting House, a clump of palms rage against Atlantic breezes. Beyond them a few ragged roses in pink or white struggle to raise their heads above bracken. Half a dozen white-faced cattle stare at a middle-aged man on a bicycle until he passes the Meeting House and merges into a mist-filled landscape of water, sand and rock.

The Lagg Road is almost new. When Maghtochair passed this way in the 1860s he wrote lyrically:

“No dwelling is here; and the tourist, as he passes through it, with towering hills and precipices on one side, and the waters of Strabreagy, the sand-knolls and far extended beach on the other, feels himself quite alone with nature in all her solitary loveliness and bewitching grandeur…”

He wouldn’t have seen Norville Davies’ cattle staring. And I doubt if he was on a strong black bicycle, built with English precision, sporting a silver bell that wails above the wind and sends oyster-catchers piping into the bay. However, he did add: “One edifice only stands here; it is situated at the foot of those grand old hills, in view of the ocean and within hearing of the undying boom of its waters. It is the Catholic Chapel of Lagg, the first erected in the barony, and built by Dan O’Donnell in 1784.”

When I first came to this place in 1971, I watched people walk over the hills to Mass. I was told that, before they built an oratory in Ballyliffen, folk from the Isle of Doagh used to pack boats and row to Lagg chapel. I remember cyclists too – men in serge suits with bicycle clips. Today nobody walks or rows, and only blow-ins cycle.

Vikings came to this site when a monastery stood here. You can see them in a stained-glass window inside the chapel. They approach in a boat, sails billowing, axes raised. Recalling these invaders, crows gather on Cranny Hill like a black storm. Wind thrashes Trawbreaga. The bay runs white.

My imagination senses the panic when a sail was spotted beyond Glashedy. Monks run to the dunes, arms full of silver chalices and gold pattens. The Abbot digs a hole and buries gospel manuscripts wrapped in sheep fleeces. A bell peals violently. Driven inland by terrified children, cattle low and sheep bleat. Women sob and cling to each other; their men gather stones and take up positions on the dunes. Out beyond the bar-mouth, a striped sail and a prow carved in the shape of a beast approach the shore. Above the howl of wind, you hear the beat of a drum. The sun catches a glint of steel in axes. Terrified boys smell fear and shiver; soon they will taste blood.

I had forgotten all this until mass on Sunday, when tall Father Brendan swooped among us in green vestments and clasped our hands.

“Peace be with you!”

“And also with you!”

History, People

Ghostly Doings at Philly’s Oldest Irish Pub

McGillin's owner Chris Mullins, Sr, left, and son Chris, McGillin's manager, don't let a little haunting faze them.

By SE Burns

Philly’s McGillin’s Olde Ale House on Drury St. in Center City was recently named “one of the coolest bars” in the U.S by Gourmet Magazine. But if you feel an actual chill there, it might be old Ma McGillin. She’s not “appearing nightly,” but her ghostly presence has been felt—and now captured in a photo—taken by paranormal investigators.

Like anyone else, Ma continues to be welcome at the 150-year-old pub. Manager Chris Mullins and I sat down not long ago to talk about the paranormal activity that has haunted, so to speak, McGillin’s over the years.

The  particular ghost in question is presumed to be  that of “Ma” McGillin. She owned the restaurant with her husband William McGillin, starting in 1860. On August 31, 1901 “Pa” McGillin died and “Ma” McGillin took over running the restaurant until her death in 1937 at the age of 90. Here’s what Chris has to say about McGillin’s spectral hostess:

Q. Do you like the idea of your restaurant being haunted?

A. The concept is both scary and intriguing!  We realize that we are just the current hosts of McGillin’s, there were great characters before us and it is great to know that they are keeping us company. Hopefully we make them proud.  I am not sure we are as wild as they were generations ago, but we try!  At the same time we are proud to be in their midst.

Q. Can you give us some examples of some paranormal activity that goes on in the restaurant?

A. Back in the 70’s and 80’s our longtime manager Anita would insist that Ma McGillin would follow her through the first floor, she said she saw Ma on several occasions.  The irony of this is that when the South Jersey Paranormal group did their overnight analysis of our building, they shot a photo of a “Lady in White” in a reflection of our mirror over the fireplace, pointing to the front door.  This image seemed to be Ma!

Q. Are you afraid to be in the restaurant alone?

A. It can be a little scary when we are alone in certain areas of the building. Our late night cooks feel a bit creepy when they sense a ghost, or see a shadow. When a full pot unexpectedly falls off a counter it gets your goat!

Q.  Why do you believe that this ghost is actually “Ma” McGillin?

A.   Ma spent the longest time on this property of any past owner – she raised her children on the second and third floor, her husband, the famous William McGillin, died in the basement; after his death in 1901 she  ran the tavern until her death in 1933. Who else would it be?  McGillin’s storied past surrounds Ma so much that it seems obvious that even in death she would reside here.

Could that be Ma in the looking glass? See insert for a close-up.

Q. Was “Ma” McGillin well-liked in Philadelphia?

A.  Ma was beyond well-liked here in Philadelphia – she was beloved!  She ran a very clean, very respectable tavern, and was one of the few female proprietors of her time.  For most of her ownership, women were not even allowed in the major part of the bar, so to have her own the place is pretty extraordinary.  Hundreds descended on Drury Street on the night of January 17, 1920 to watch Ma symbolically lock the front doors of McGillin’s and mourn the end of legal consumption of alcohol.  Each November 12, thousands came to McGillin’s to receive a white carnation from Ma herself, on her 89th birthday, her last, 4000 carnations were distributed!  When Ma died, she was the oldest living parishioner of St. John’s the Evangelist, and was one of the first women to have Broad Street closed for her funeral procession.

Q. What was “Ma” McGillin’s favorite dish to eat in her restaurant?

A.  Quite honestly during most of her time at McGillin’s there were few options, mainly a roasted potato from the hearth, beer was the liquid food of choice.  During Prohibition however, Ma hired the Executive Chef from the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, then the finest hotel in the Philadelphia, to create the first real menu.   Even then the menu was fairly simple: Broiled steaks, lamb chops, ham and egg platters, and oysters, along with surprisingly similar sandwich options that we offer today.

[Chris told me that his great uncle was found dead in the alley behind the pub.]

Q. Is anyone ever nervous about going to the back alley where your great uncle was found dead?

A. No, in fact this is the way most of our “in the know” guests enter and leave daily.  My great uncle left on a very high note, I am not sure he had any regrets!

Q. Has anything unusual happened in the alley since the death of your great uncle?

A. No not so much, though on an anniversary of his death, when my grandfather and a few staff were enjoying a few cocktails after a long night of work, they were sharing stories of their deceased relative and friend, Steve, my grandfather made a crude comment about his ghost telling him to just leave the bar and its patrons alone. Then he threw a wet rag at the window above where my great uncle had passed the last year, and the entire window fell right out of the pane – from what I understand, the entire group fell as white as a ghost, so to speak!

Q. Do you feel your great uncle’s death, or the window breaking, had anything to do with the ghost of “Ma” McGillin?

A. I think that each of these characters miss the fun and are slightly jealous of the living enjoying all that they worked so hard for.  I think it is all in good fun, and they find there is something irresistible and need to come back!  Let’s hope our living customers feel the same way!

SE Burns writes frequently for about the Celtic paranormal.

History, News, People

Remembering “Those Persecuted for Righteousness”

Liz Hagerty Leitner leads the group in a response.

Msgr. Joseph McLoone had to look no further than the latest CNN report on unrest in Egypt to find an analogy for his sermon on “Bloody Sunday,” the incident that occurred on January 30, 1972, when British soldiers opened fire on protesters in Derry’s Bogside neighborhood, killing 13 and touching off decades of fighting in Northern Ireland.

“We see what’s happening in Egypt, we see people standing up for their rights, for democracy,” he told the 60 people who gathered in the Irish Center dining room for a Mass of remembrance on Sunday, January 30. “We see what happens when people are in power for so long that they forget the human person.”

The men who died on Bloody Sunday are unlikely to be forgotten. Although there will no longer be marches on January 30 in Derry, Bill Donohue, president of the Philadelphia-based Sons and Daughters of Derry (called “the Derry Society”), said that this annual religious ceremony in Philadelphia will continue “in perpetuity.”

One of Philadelphia’s last large waves of Irish immigrants come from Northern Ireland, many fleeing the violence and religious bigotry that dominated the landscape in places like Derry, Belfast, and Tyrone.

Just last year, the British government, after 40 years, released the Saville Report in which they admitted that the shootings that day in Derry were, as British Prime Minister David Cameron put it, “unjustified and unjustifiable.”

Most of the people killed and wounded were teenagers. On Sunday, their names and ages were written on white crosses placed around the wall of the Irish Center dining room.

“Let us remember,” said Msgr. McLoone, referring to the eight beatitudes of Christ, “that those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness will be received in heaven.”

See photos from the Mass here.