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History, News, People

SJU Program Explores John Hume and the Northern Irish Peace Process

Former President Bill Clinton described the late John Hume as “the Irish conflict’s Martin Luther King.”

A native of Derry, a founder of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and co-recipient with David Trimble of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, Hume is remembered as a determined driving force behind the Northern Ireland peace process, leading up to the Good Friday Agreement.

Hume died August 3. His contribution to the cause of peace in Northern Ireland will be commemorated October 22 in a Zoom-based event sponsored by St. Joseph’s University’s Irish Studies and the English Department. The presentation features a screening of “John Hume in America,” followed by a Q and A with the film’s director, Maurice Fitzpatrick, with an introductory lecture by Nicole McClure, Ph.D. of Kutztown University, “Visualizing Truth, Seeing Empathy: Documentary Films, the Troubles and the Peace Process.”

The first official event for the fledgling Irish Studies program, it was scheduled to take place in early April. Then the pandemic hit and the event was canceled, necessitating the move to online later on. Continue Reading

Arts

A Salute to the Flag

Filmmaker John Foley of Wayne.

Filmmaker John Foley of Wayne.

A few weeks after 9/11, you couldn’t buy an American flag in this country. They were sold out, flying from flag poles, porch roofs, even car antennas from sea to shining sea. Seven years later, where are they?

Wayne filmmaker John Foley asked himself that same question not long ago.

“I was listening to some people who’d gone on a holiday in Europe and they were joking about how they told everyone they were Canadian. I thought to myself, why? What are you ashamed of? And it dawned on me that what the flag represented had changed since it was hoisted over Iwo Jima in World War II or even over Ground Zero. It had gotten lost. To many people, it had been co-opted or hijacked by the religious right or the Republicans, and all the sacrifices people had made along the way faded into the past and it became a symbol of what’s wrong with this country.”

At the time, Foley was in the midst of filming what would later become “The Color Bearers,” a film examining the history of patriotism as embodied by the symbol of the flag, from the Revolutionary War to the present day, which he also produced with childhood friend Steve Newbert. He’d begun the documentary as a personal tribute to a distant relative, James Seitzinger, a 17-year-old from Schuylkill County who lied about his age to join the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry during the Civil War. On the first day of the battle at Cold Harbor, VA, in June of 1864, the unit’s color bearer—the soldier who carried the flag into battle in front of the troops—was shot down. The young farm boy rushed forward to seize the flag and raise it, dropping his rifle to do so. For his bravery, Seitzinger received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“When I started looking into it,” says Foley, “I found that of the 3,500 soliders in the entire history of the Medal of Honor, most of those who received the award had something to do with the flag during the Civil War—they were either color bearers or had captured the enemy’s flag. I started asking the experts, what’s the big deal about the flag capture? What it comes down to is that carrying the flag was a dangerous job. It required an inordinate amount of bravery and courage heading into battle, holding just a flag. You’re stepping into battle six feet ahead of your troops, the battlefield is filled with smoke, and there’s the flag popping out of the smoke. There were no radios or telegraphs on the battlefield. The only way to communicate what you wanted your troops to do was, as an officer, position yourself behind the flag and tell the color bearer what you wanted the troops to do, go left, right, forward, or back, and they just followed the flag. You became a bullet magnet. The life expectancy of the average color bearer in battle was six months. They had to drop their rifles to pick up the flag, and that’s what Seitzinger did.”

Foley found three other color bearers from the Civil War and not only told their stories, but found living descendants who talked about how their courageous ancestors affected their lives today. For example, the descendants of Union color bearer Ben Crippen—who include a police chief and Desert Storm vet from Guyton, GA—ritually return to the battlefield at Gettysburg to take a family photo under the statue of Crippen, a member of the 143rd Pennsylvanians, who was killed while his regiment was attempting to keep the Confederate army from entering the town. Crippen lagged behind his troops, which were engaged in a rear guard action, and would periodically turn to face the Rebels, only a few feet away, and shake his fist at them. Crippen was gunned down, but it was his act of defiance that rallied his troops, who kept the Confederates at bay.

But Foley felt the focus on war heroes made the film “too dusty, too History Channel,” so he also talked to other people for whom the flag has held great significance beyond the battlefield, including singer Lauren Hart, who performs the Star Spangled Banner at Philadelphia Flyers home games and never fails to think of her father, announcer Gene Hart, the legendary “voice of the Flyers;” Tim and Brian O’Connor, owners of Humphreys Flags, located across from the Betsy Ross House, which has been making flags since 1805 and created an American flag so large it didn’t fit on a football field; and Scott LoBaido, a New Yorker who painted flags on 50 buildings in 50 states as a tribute to America’s soldiers. Former Eagles star Vince Papale narrates the one-hour film.

Foley, who grew up in St. Dominic’s Parish in Northeast Philadelphia and graduated from Father Judge High School, took a long, circuitous route back to one of his earliest passions, TV and filmmaking. When he entered Temple University in 1974, he was a physics major, but switched to the radio-television-film . Unfortunately, for financial and other reasons, he had to drop out. He never graduated from college, but wound up in the telecommunications business, eventually as the CEO of a company.

But a few years ago, when the telecom industry started to implode, Foley made what seemed to be a good business decision. “One thing that hasn’t imploded, but has actually exploded, is content,” he explains. “Content is on the rise. So about five years ago, I said to myself, ‘Do I want to be scraping by well into retirement in the telecom industry until it’s dead, or do I cut my losses now and chase my dream?’”

The dream won. Today, he’s director of business development for PMTV (Producers Management TeleVision) in King of Prussia, a 20-year-old company that provides mobile facilities and production services for clients as varied as Home Depot and ESPN. He had a brief stopover as the world’s oldest intern too—working gratis for another Philadelphia production company, Teamwork Productions, writing and producing documentaries and TV pilots with an African-American theme.

Life has changed dramatically—in many ways. “I had a little money for a little while, but it’s been scary,” Foley admits. “Right now I’m earning half of what I earned as a CEO. It’s hard. I had a lot of nice rewards rising to the top of the telecom industry, but I’ve shed them now, the boats, the cars. . . .But I have a nice condo in Wayne and where I didn’t see a future in the telecom industry, I see a future now. And did I mention that I’m having fun?”

“Color Bearers” became his resume piece, allowing him to convince his new boss that he should hire a guy for TV production who had no real experience. “If it hadn’t been for this film, I wouldn’t have gotten this job,” he says.

The film, which premiered on June 14 (Flag Day) at the Independence History Museum on Third Street, has also opened his eyes about the ambivalent relationship Americans have with the symbol of their nation, he says.

Some of that began to surface while he was filming. One of the questions he asked each of his interviewees was “What is patriotism?”

“Tim O’Conner of Humphreys Flag, when I asked him that question, Tim went off on this riff on how we were creatures in the trees in Africa, and when we came out of the trees, we got together and basically protected one another. A patriot was someone who gave up his life for his tribe,” recalls Foley. “Well that particular day, I shot the segment on my lunch hour and was dressed in a suit and a tie, and Tim assumed that I was a staunch member of the religious right making a film about the flag. He was convinced that what he said would never make it to the film and he was laughing to himself. Of course, it’s in there.”

Foley laughs, but then suddenly becomes serious. “The fact is, you’re prejudged if you have a flag out. To many people, you’re automatically a hawk, and that is one of the very things we’re trying to combat with this film. Republicans and the religious right don’t own the flag. Americans own the flag. It’s lazy to jump to assumptions about people because of the fact that they’re proud to be an American.”

He wanted “Color Bearers” to restore the flag to its historical significance as a symbol of freedom for people who longed for it where they came from, but never found it until they arrived here.

“I wanted people to make the connection, through the story of the color bearers, that the flag wasn’t something to be ashamed of, to remember what had gone into giving us the freedoms we have,” he says. “You can burn a flag in this country without going to jail. If you want freedom of speech, you have to accept people who don’t believe what you do.”

The film has had a profound effect on those who’ve seen it. At a Temple University “teach-in” conducted by history professor Ralph Young last month, a screening before an audience of students, professors, and non-students, provoked a spirited discussion that went on for 90 minutes. “It was very interesting,” notes Foley, who attended the screening. “The students responded very positively, but people in their 50s and older took us to task for doing anything that glorified America and the flag. They were upset with me that we didn’t show more of the Vietnam era antiwar movement with people burning flags in protest. But we wanted it to be a positive film, and frankly, we only had an hour.”

Foley admits he made a conscious decision not to show flag-draped coffins in the film. “I found a lot of those images on military websites of funerals at Arlington Cemetery, but I felt like I was intruding on people in their deepest pain ever in life To put that into the film and sort of exploit the image felt wrong, and I just decided I wasn’t going to do it.”

What you will see in the film are photos of Foley’s son, Sean, now a Philadelphia police officer, who was deployed to Iraq in 2003-2004. Sean (“now there’s an Irish name for you,” laughs Foley) joined the National Guard prior to the Iraq war, like many young men and women, to make some money for college. “Now, I firmly believe that we were sold a bill of goods by Bush who didn’t do enough work to determine if there were in fact weapons of mass destruction over there, didn’t have the support of our allies, and didn’t really have a good plan. But when I was standing with his sisters and his mother at Fort Dix as he was leaving, I didn’t want to say anything negative to him that might cause him to hesitate at a crucial moment, a hesitation that could cost him his life. You can hate the war and love the soldier—I hope that was the lesson we learned from Vietnam.”

Instead, Foley removed a Claddagh ring he bought in Dublin “that really means a lot to me,” and handed it to his son. “I said, son, you bring this home to me. A year later, he pulled me aside, took the ring off, and handed it to me and said, ‘I told you I’d give it back, Pop.’ I get choked up now as I say this. I will never take this ring off.”

Then Foley, the historian, brought it all back to the flag. Just as he gave his son the ring, historically, soldiers were often given flags sewn by the women of their towns so they could take a little “home” with them to war and they were admonished to “bring it home proudly,” says Foley. “I gave my son the ring for the same reason, to let him know I was with him.”

Carolyn Blashek, founder of Operation Gratitude, the nonprofit group that sends care packages to service people deployed overseas, wants to carry on the tradition in a more modern way. “She called me up and said she had just finished watching the film and couldn’t stop sobbing,” says Foley. “Operation Gratitude has already sent more than 350,000 packages to troops in harm’s way, and they are going to do doing another drive for the holidays and they start packing this month to send packages addressed to 70,000 individual soldiers nominated by people on their website. She wants to get as many copies of ‘The Color Bearers’ to stick into the packages. So far we’ve raised enough corporate and individual sponsorships to send 600 copies.”

Foley says he’d like to donate 70,000 copies, but doesn’t have the money to create that many duplicates. You can help. If you go to the “Color Bearers” website, you’ll find information on how you can donate a pack of 10 DVDs for just $25 (one copy normally costs $24.95). That small donation will help remind a solider that he or she is also a color bearer, a living symbol of the land of the free, the home of the brave.

Arts, People

Local Filmmaker Revisits a ’50s Music Scandal

Shawn Swords with singer Bobby Rydell holding Swords' last release, Charlie Gracie: Fabulous.

Shawn Swords with singer Bobby Rydell holding Swords' last release, Charlie Gracie: Fabulous.

A couple of years ago, a young Irish-American filmmaker named Shawn Swords from Glenolden trailed a popular Irish-American band around and produced a critically acclaimed documentary called, “Blackthorn, It’s an Irish Thing,” which appeared on UPN.

Last year, Swords completed a documentary of Philly rock and roll pioneer Charlie Gracie, whose “Butterfly” knocked Elvis from the top of the charts in 1957 and sold more than 3 million copies worldwide—without benefit of the internet. “Fabulous” was picked up for World Wide Distribution by Oldies/Gotham/Alpha distribution and was a huge hit two summers ago during a PBS fundraiser.

This month, Swords, who went to film school at 32 and now steers Character Driven Productions (Conrad Zimmer, Blake Wilcox, Paul Russo), debuts a brand new documentary, this one on the American Bandstand Philly years with Dick Clark, on September 27 at the Wildwood By the Sea Film Festival at the Wildwood Convention Center.

But if you think “Wages of Spin” is a feel-good trip down memory lane with Bobbie Rydell, Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon, Jerry Blavat, Justine, Eddie, Arlene and the other and all the other Bandstand dance regulars, you’re in for a shock. The same one I got when I caught Swords’ trailer on YouTube.

It opens with a black screen, like a chalkboard, on which is scrawled the word, “Payola,” with a definition for those who have no memory of the ‘50s music scandal, the origin of the term “pay to play”: “A secret or private payment in return for the promotion of a product, service etc, through the abuse of one’s position, influence or facilities.” Then you hear the voice of Artie Singer, who wrote the popular Danny and the Juniors’ hit, “At the Hop.”

“Where do you think Dick Clark made all his money? Initially where do you think he made it? From guys like me.”

Singer is looking at the off-screen interviewer. He raises his arms in the classic “but wait” move. “Granted,” he continues, “I can’t say anything derogatory. I can’t say anything bad because I owe my success in the record phase of it to Dick Clark.”

He had to “love the guy,” Singer tells the off-camera Swords, because without him, “there would have been No ‘At the Hop,’ no Danny and the Juniors.”

And by “without him,” Singer says, he means without Clark taking 50% of the publishing rights to the song. If the record producer hadn’t given it to Clark (as a gift, he later said, because they were friends) there’s a good chance that “At the Hop” would have gotten no play on what was the most popular teen program in the ‘50s.

Oh, say it ain’t so! America’s oldest teenager, the fresh-faced host who squeezed between two Philly teens every day from 3 to 4:30 PM to introduce the latest hit record or musical heartthrob, the guy who’s been counting that ball down on Times Square every New Year’s Eve? Dick Clark? Making hay to play?

To hear Swords tell it—and he’s talked to the players and read the transcripts—it was big time. He first came across the story when his friend, Paul Moore (formerly of Blackthorn, now of Paddy’s Well) asked if he was familiar with the story of Charlie Gracie. “Charlie was a talented musician, but he wound up being blacklisted back in the ‘50s, says Swords. “Charlie has a number one hit, at 19 years old, went on tour for a year, appeared on he Ed Sullivan Show, with [teen rock show DeeJay] Allan Freed, Dick Clark, then comes back home to Philadelphia and he’s not getting royalties. The record sold 3 million worldwide.”

Gracie discovered that Dick Clark owned 25% of “Butterfly.” Gracie sued the record producer and got $50,000, but that was the end of his career. Though he signed with a new label, he couldn’t get airplay. “He knocked Elvis off the charts and he couldn’t get airplay,” Swords says.

Digging deeper, Swords discovered that according to Congress, Clark was given somewhere in the neighborhood of 160 copyrights with the implied guarantee that those songs would air on Bandstand. But during the payola hearings before congress in 1960, Clark denied taking payola to play songs. In a New York Times article written at the time, Clark is quoted as telling the House Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, “I have not done anything that I think I should be ashamed of or that is illegal or immoral, and I hope to eventually convince you of this. I believe in my heart that I have never taken payola.”

And in fact, says Swords, even if songwriters or producers never handed a fistful of cash over to Clark, he got paid. Instead, as was the case with “At The Hop,” he was given copyrights to songs, which meant that he benefited financially from their rise to the top of the charts. The New York Times report said that the Committee produced figures showing that over a three-year period, Clark had received $167,750 in salary and $409,020 in increased stock values, on investments of $53,773. That led one legislator to remark that if Clark hadn’t gotten payola, he’d certainly gotten plenty of “royola,” referring to royalties.

But by the time of he hearings, Swords says, Clark had divested himself of many of his holdings, including as many as 30 various businesses related to the record industry (as documented by Congress), so that the committee gave him nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Other DeeJays weren’t so lucky. Allan Freed lost his job and though he received only a small fine, his career was over; he died penniless at 43.

“Clark took the money from the divestiture and started Dick Clark Productions which became one of the most profitable independent TV production companies of all time,” says Swords.

While it took the filmmaker some time to uncover this chapter of the history of rock and roll, it really wasn’t hidden all that well. In fact, one of the producers of the film is John A. Jackson, author of the book that laid out many of the details, “American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n Roll Empire.”

“John wrote a fantastic book, one of my favorite books, but it barely showed up on the radar,” says Swords. “Why isn’t more of this public knowledge?” One reason, he suspects, is that it’s hard to get corroborating evidence from some of the singing stars of the era, with whom Clark still has dealings. “Some of them are still getting checks from him for appearing in Branson [the Missouri musical destination where yesteryear’s idols play to packed houses of nostalgic audiences],” says Swords. Nevertheless, Swords has at least 7 interviews on tape, like Singer’s, detailing what went on, but that’s out of about five dozen interviews. “They would tell me what happened, but a lot of them just stopped talking when the camera was rolling,” he says.

While Swords admits he likes digging into “abuses of power,” he doesn’t want to be typecast as a muckraking filmmaker. As a boy, he attended Girard College where he watched “the epic films” on old projectors “because they could get better rates on the old films,” he recalls. “We wouldn’t see the first-run films like the karate movies everybody loved back then. But I loved those old films, great English pictures on Cromwell and Henry the Eight, the David Lean movies, like ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ and ‘Dr. Zhivago.’”

“I like the art films too, and have a real affinity for John Ford films, which are very melodic and emotionally impacting. I love the great action films and the film noirs, where there’s a great story.”

It was those kind of narrative films Swords planned to make when he went to the New York at 32, after getting out of the Navy, working two jobs to put himself though New York Film Institute. In fact, he’s working on a new screenplay now. “I worked most of it out during the two hour walks I take every day,” he says. “The whole plot, twists and everything. If I could sit and write all the time I’d be pretty good. I can really kick them out. Right now I’m tightening up one of my better screenplays and working on a couple of pilots, including one that’s a black comedy.”

He has six finished screenplays that he’s going to shop in LA by the end of the year. “I’ have had two offers for talent representation,” he says.

And when we talked a few weeks ago, Swords was still putting the finishing touches on “Wages of Spin,” which meant weeks of “being nocturnal,” while readying the documentary for The Wildwood By the Sea Film Festival, which he co-founded with his executive producer Paul Russo. “I have black circles under my eyes,” he admitted.

Don’t let it be for naught. Check out “Wages of Spin,” Saturday, September 27, at the Wildwood by the Sea Film Festival. If you can’t make it to the shore, there will be four screenings of “The Wages of Spin” at The Elaine C. Levitt Auditorium, 401 S. Broad Street (Avenue of The Arts) at: Noon, 2 PM, 4 PM and 6 PM. on Saturday, October 11. Admission is $10 at the soor. Artists featured in the documentary will be present at screenings.

“The Wages of Spin” will run continuously from 5 P.M until closing on several screens at Rembrandt’s Bar and Restaurant, 741 N. 23rd Street in Center City, on October 18 with several music and entertainment industry notables in attendance.?Tickets are $30 and are available at the door.

Arts

Answered Prayers

Philadelphia documentary maker John Foley and Fergus O'Farrell.

Philadelphia documentary maker John Foley and Fergus O'Farrell.

Philadelphia film maker John Foley met Fergus O’Farrell in 2000, when the musician was working at the reception desk at the Hotel Eldon, which his father owned.

Foley had just cashed out of his dotcom business and was fulfilling a dream: to show his four children the places in Western Europe he had discovered on his business travels “and to go seek our Irish roots.”

I asked John about his friendship with Fergus and this is what he wrote:

My 4 children, Lauren, Sean, Ali, and Julian and I flew into Dublin, rented a van, and made our way from town to town, staying in B&B’s in most places to get to know the towns and the people better. We visited Limerick, Bunratty, The Burren, The Cliffs of Moher, Bantry, Kenmare, Cork City, Baltimore, Cobh, and some other towns as well.. Of course we spent a few days in Dingle and drove the Ring of Kerry.

We were interested in the story of Michael Collins, (ok, I was interested) and so we stayed at the Eldon Hotel in Skibbereen, where Collins had his last meal before his assassination.

This was in the third week of July 2000, and on the 17th, my youngest Julian turned 8. I wanted to get a little birthday cake and a gift for him but didn’t want to leave him alone. I asked the hotel proprietor, a cheerful man in a wheelchair named Fergus O’Farrell, if he wouldn’t mind looking after Julian while I ran an errand.

He and his wife Li were only too happy to help and so off I went to get a cake and a gift.

When I returned, Julian had fallen asleep in the lobby of the Eldon on a couch in the front room.

As we were leaving the hotel on the 18th of July, Fergus gave me two CD’s, and said “I’m a musician, here are some of my records, I hope you like them”. As we drove the road from Skibbereen to Cork City, I popped the CD in and the opening string parts of “Cain and Abel” played through the speakers. I almost drove off the road. I was a professional musician in the 70’s, and I still play when I can. I am a great fan of music and stay as active as I can to hear and learn the best music. This was some of the most beautiful, soulful, mature, and highly competent music I had heard in my life. I had no idea, but we were the guests of a musical genius – someone that the music intelligentsia of Ireland had known for some time – but sadly the international record labels had been keeping a secret.

Over the years I stayed in touch with Fergus, writing by e-mail frequently, speaking on the phone occasionally. I so much wanted to hear Ferg with his band Interference perform, but a throat condition and Ferg’s advancing MD were keeping him from singing and travelling.

Over the years I learned more about Interference – how they were actually a cult legend in Ireland, influencing top artists like the Frames and Hothouse Flowers. I also learned that they were sort of a super-group, as top musicians from Ireland and other parts of Europe would drift into and out of Interference to make records and perform very occasionally.

In about 2002 Fergus was feeling much better and interference began performing again. But their gigs always seemed to spring up very spontaneously and so getting to see them proved impossible. But all the while we continued to correspond and our friendship grew as we schemed to somehow get Interference noticed in America.

I fantasized about interference playing in America – that if I couldn’t get Mohammed to the mountain, maybe I could bring the mountain to Mohammed. The likelihood seemed slim.

By 2006 Ferg and Interference were playing more regularly and he was working on a new record. He sent me “sketches” of songs he was working on – essentially music tracks, maybe just chords, some a little more developed. He may have a verse or a chorus of lyrics, or in many cases he would scat the vocal melody so the lyrics could be developed later. His lyric collaborator, Malcom Mac Clancy, would frequently work that way. I sent Ferg lyrics for one track called “the na na song” (because he scatted the words na na na na na na for the melody), but he wrote back saying he didn’t feel they fit. I later spoke with Malcom about the sketches, and he said “You know, I love that na na song. I submitted two sets of lyrics to Ferg for it and he passed on both. I want to NAIL that song, I love it.” So apparently, the song is important to Ferg and I felt better about not having my lyrics picked.

In 2007, interference were (and in Ireland, that’s how they say it – “Interference are a band….”) scheduled to perform in the Czech Republic, and I tried to work it out to see them there, but I just could not make the arrangement work. Foiled again.

Instead, I decided to schedule a trip to visit Ferg in his home town of Schull in West Cork. There was an International Guitar Festival in Clonakilty in September, and I figured if I could not see Interference, I could hear good music and hang with Ferg and his wife Li.

After I made the arrangements, I happened to go see a little indie film called once at the little art house cinema in Bala Cynwyd. I had seen the trailers, and I knew that Glen Hansard was a wonderful musician and a friend of Fergus’, so I decided to go. About halfway through the movie, there is a scene in Glen’s kitchen where his friends gather for a round of Noble Calls – each person taking a turn singing a song. And there was Fergus and Interference singing one of my favorite songs, “Gold”! I jumped up from my seat and yelled out “atta boy Ferg!” Then I quickly sat down a little embarrassed, but the people around me were nice about it. He had never bothered to mention that he was in a film that would play in America.

The mountain had not come to Mohammed, but a film of the mountain had come.

The trip to Ferg’s along the Irish sea coast was stunning. I passed through the sea coast town of Bonmahon, where my great grandmother and her family had lived. According to civil records, her father was an “ore dresser” in the local copper mines. Being in this part of the world was so moving I had to divide my time between taking photos and videos, quiet reflection, and overwhelming emotion.

The time with Fergus in Schulll, a little sea coast town in West Cork, was wonderful. Sadly, Li was in China – her mother was not well and her amazing intuition told her to get to China right away. Her mother passed away while she was there.

We travelled to the Clonakilty International Guitar festival – and everywhere we went Ferg was treated as royalty. It was great fun getting the collateral royal treatment. Clonakilty is the birthplace of Michael Collins, and it was stirring to walk around town and see portraits and statues of him everywhere.

Ferg and I posed for a picture in front of General Collins in a local hotel where we had dinner.

We drove Ferg’s friend David Bickley home into the nether regions west of Clonakilty in the pouring rain, with me doing my best to drive Ferg’s wheelchair-capable van up winding country lanes with little paving and no light whatsoever. Add to that, the steering wheel was on the wrong side, it was a manual transmission, and the bushes on either side of the road scraped the sides of the van on the narrow rural lanes.

We dropped off David at his home and used the glow of the distant highway and dead reckoning to find our way back to the road to Schull. Somehow we wound up in front of Michael Collin’s homestead, the one that the Black and Tans had burned to the ground. I like to think the Lord was navigating that night.

The trip ended and it was back to America and reality, and Ferg and I continued to talk via email and telephone. In January, Ferg called excited beyond words that Swell Season were playing somewhere in New York, and that Interference had been invited to play – the entire 10 piece band!

I looked at the road schedule for Swell Season and saw that New York’s Radio City Music Hall was slated for May 19th, and Philadelphia’s Tower Theater was set for May 20th. The begging and pleading to get Interference to Philadelphia began immediately.

Word finally came sometime in March that indeed interference would open two shows for Swell Season – at Radio City and in Philadelphia. After eight years of hoping and waiting, the mountain was coming to Mohammed!

The rest of the story you know. Thanks so much for helping to bring out Ferg’s story – I love the guy – the music is a wonderful bonus.

Arts, People

She Knows the Real Ending of the Story Told in the Film “My Left Foot”

 

Hyacinthe O'Neill knew disabled=

Hyacinthe O'Neill knew disabled writer/artist Christy Brown.

What Hollywood calls the “biopic” –biographical films like the recent Johnny Cash-June Carter homage, “I Walk the Line”—tend to treat the facts of a life as though they were Silly Putty, not concrete. What’s ugly is gussied up; what’s pretty is sometimes muddied. The ordinary moments are edited for the sake of drama; the extraordinary, exaggerated for the same reason.

But those who knew Christy Brown—the severely disabled Dubliner who gained fame by using the toes of his left foot to write and paint—say his portrayal by Oscar-winning actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, in the movie “My Left Foot” was uncannily accurate.

“He completely did it,” says Siobhan O’Neill of Philadelphia, who grew up in the same Dublin neighborhood as Brown, a close friend of her parents, Hugh and Hyacinthe O’Neill. “As a little kid, I used to sketch and I would sit and study people. My mother would tell me to stop staring. But Christy would hold his hands in such a twisted way that I can’t even imitate it, and Daniel did it, not even knowing Christy. It was like he was channeling Christy.”

Day-Lewis also captured Christy Brown’s dark side. “He was very funny, a bit of a genius, in some ways great, but in other ways he was terrible,” says Hyacinthe O’Neill, who became close to the Brown family (“his sister Anne was my best friend”) as a 19-year-old engaged to Hugh O’Neill, a lifelong friend of Christy’s youngest brother. “A mind so active as Christy’s, being shut up in a body that doesn’t work was torture. He was depressed a lot which may be why he drank so much.”

Hyacinthe O’Neill will share her reminiscences of Christy Brown next Thursday night at 7:30 PM when The Irish Film Series at Philadelphia’s Irish Center, concludes with “My Left Foot.” And she will provide the disturbing epilogue to Jim Sheridan’s uplifting but unsentimental movie that ends with Christy lifting a glass of champagne with the woman who eventually becomes his wife, Mary Carr. Hyacinthe O’Neill and her daughter sat down at the Irish Center this week to talk to www.irishphiladelphia.com about their old friend, who died in 1981.

Hyacyinthe O’Neill, the daughter of a British Army officer and an Anglo-Indian missionary’s daughter, spent much of her childhood in India where she attended boarding school with Nepalese princesses and a Thai king’s son. After Indian independence, her father left the military and became a policeman in Scotland. O’Neill was living in London when she met Irishman Hugh O’Neill whom she married and with whom she had three children. She lived most of her adult life in Ireland, much of it in the Dublin neighborhood where the Brown family—Christy was the ninth of 13 surviving children—lived.

“His mother was a saint,” says O’Neill, who now lives in Mt Airy and works as an accountant for a Manayunk firm after years in a family business in London and California. Though Brown’s mother was told by doctors that her son was hopelessly mentally disabled, she refused to believe it. And when he picked up a piece of chalk with the only part of his body he could move—his left foot–and tried writing words on the floor, she began to teach him to both read and write.

“There were always tons of visitors at the Brown house and there was always a huge pot of stew on no matter when you went there,” O’Neill recalls. “She was a wonderful woman. I don’t know how she coped with such a huge family and a son who needed so much, but I never saw her lose her temper.”

Not so Christy. “Oh, he swore all the time,” says Siobhan, who works in the admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania. “He had little tolerance for fools, though he was always nice to kids. He really liked children. When we were little, there were always parties at Christy’s house. There were famous people there, like Peter Sellers and Richard Harris, but I guess we were too little to appreciate that. We were bored stupid by them. So we would go up to Christy and ask him if we could play with his wheel chair and he would say yes, and off we’d go, racing each other up and down the way.”

The O’Neills would often give the Brown family a much-needed break, and whisk Christy away to a nearby lake where he could paint. Or down to the neighborhood pub, The Stone Boat. “Christy loved to drink,” says Hyacinthe O’Neill. “There was very little else for him to do besides read.” They would also travel with him to the north side of Dublin to hear his favorite musical group, The Dubliners.

While the film of his life isn’t sugar-coated, it also celebrates Christy’s indomitable spirit—though he knew he would never live like a normal man, he was determined to wring everything out of life that he could. But the ending, which hints that Christy found both fame and the love of his life, says O’Neill, wasn’t truly the end.

“It was a horror story in the end. It was heartbreaking,” she says.

In the film, the nurse (called Julia) Christy meets and falls in love with was actually a former prostitute and lesbian named Mary Carr, once briefly a dental assistant who couldn’t hold a job because of her drinking and drug use, a claim made by a controversial biography, “Christy Brown – The Life that Inspired My Left Foot” by British author Georgina Hambleton, published last summer. Though the movie shows Christy and his future wife meeting at a gala event in his honor, in the book Christy’s brother Sean says that he introduced the two. Mary Carr, he says, was the lesbian lover of a friend.

“Oh, she was terrible,” says Hyacinthe O’Neill of Mary Carr Brown, who, like Christy, has since died. “But after he met Mary and married her, Christy was happy. She was not ideal, but he had a companion, someone to talk to. He influenced her to read and they could talk about books. Whether it was obsession, which is probably was, not love, right to the end, no matter what she did, he wanted to be with her.”

What she did, says O’Neill, besides having affairs with both men and women, was neglect her invalid husband, whom she hustled away to an ocean-front cottage in Kerry to keep him hidden from the prying eyes of his anxious family. “We went down there once and found Christy in his wheelchair perched at the edge of a cliff, looking out at the sea alone,” says O’Neill. “And he was emaciated. I don’t think he’d eaten in weeks. Sometimes she would lock him up in the house, leave him with bottles of whiskey and a straw, and go away for God knows how long.”

Yet, hospitalized by his family in Dublin for malnutrition, “he still wanted to go back to her,” says O’Neill. “He said if they didn’t take him back, he would crawl on his hands and knees to get back to her.”

In 1981, Brown choked to death while eating dinner. “All his food had to be cut up into very small pieces so he could swallow it,” explains O’Neill. “He choked on a piece of meat that was too big.” The implication remains unsaid.

After Christy’s death, O’Neill recalls, Mary threw out many of his paintings. Her husband, Hugh, was so disturbed by this that he went into the dumpster and rescued as many of them as he could. For years, the O’Neills kept them in storage. “They moved with us everywhere we went, including to California,” she says. “In the movie, all the paintings you see were the ones we rescued. Anne [Brown] told the producers that we had them, and they borrowed them.”

Unfortunately, all of these early works were all lost when a friend of the O’Neills, a German art conservator who was in the middle of restoring them, died of a heart attack. “We don’t know where they ended up,” she says.

Although the O’Neills, like Christy’s family, believe Mary Carr’s neglect led to his untimely death at 49, they also believe—hope really—that his love for her, however unwarranted, was a source of his happiness to the end. “He was happy with her and he was happy when they moved to Kerry,” says Siobhan O’Neill. “Hopefully, he died happy.”

“My Left Foot” will be shown at the Irish Center, Carpenter and Emlen Streets, in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, on Thursday, May 1, at 7:30 PM. Hyacinthe O’Neill will introduce the film and answer audience questions. The Irish Film series was jointly sponsored by The Irish Center, WTMR radio host Marianne McDonald, and www.irishphiladelphia.com. Refreshments are available for purchase.