The Transnational Life of Kevin Henry

Kevin Henry at a festival in 1999 (photo courtesy of the Henry family).

Kevin Henry at a festival in 1999 (photo courtesy of the Henry family).

Before I met Kevin Henry in April 2013 what I knew about him primarily rested on his reputation as a musician and raconteur. He comes from the same area on the Sligo-Mayo border as Roger Sherlock and Brendan Tonra, both of whom I’d interviewed and Brendan I had the pleasure of playing tunes with during my time in Boston. I knew also that Kevin had been a mainstay of the Chicago Irish music scene for decades. What I was unprepared for was the fascinating story of his circuitous journey from Ireland to Chicago and the aplomb with which he related it.

Kevin was born in 1929, the eighth of eleven children. Following in the footsteps of his older siblings, he left Ireland for England in 1947. He traveled up and down the country working as a seasonal agricultural laborer, coal miner, and construction worker. In 1953 he decided to seek his fortune across the Atlantic and booked passage to Canada, though his ultimate goal was America. He worked his way from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Toronto and finally across the border to New York, where other siblings lived. There, he worked digging tunnels and waiting tables before deciding to head for Florida’s sunnier climes. Unimpressed with the low wages paid laying pipes in the Everglades or working on the construction of a hotel, he moved north again, this time to Chicago. Apart from a four-month stint mining copper in Butte, Montana, he has remained in Chicago ever since. He spent 37 years as an iron worker, a career that included work on the iconic Hancock Tower. Throughout his life traditional music has remained a touchstone for his identity. Now 87, Kevin continues to work to sustain the culture of his native land and the legacy of music collector Francis O’Neill in his adopted home.

Kevin’s life and the myriad ways he remained connected to his Irish identity are the subject of a new article published in the Transnational Ireland special issue of Éire-Ireland (vol.51, 2016): “‘Looking for that Pot of Gold’: The Transnational Life of Kevin Henry”.

In conjunction with that article, I have put my oral history interview with Kevin Henry, photographs, and recordings of his music on my PhD project website Voices of Irish Music & Migration. More material will be coming soon – stay tuned!

A huge thank you to Kevin and his wife Pauline for sharing their time and their stories with me! 

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Defining Freedom

Last semester I co-taught a class on American history since the Civil War. Throughout we emphasized a central theme: the changing meanings of freedom. In a prelude to the lectures on the Great Depression, we asked the class (mostly first-year Irish students, with a smattering of visiting international students) to take a few minutes to write individual responses to two prompts:

  1. Define freedom.
  2. Can meaningful freedom exist in a situation of extreme inequality?

Their varied answers gave me a lot to think about, particularly in comparing current political perspectives and goals in the US versus Europe.

The definitions of freedom fell along a spectrum from what I think of as individual to social freedom. In that roughly order and in condensed form, they included:

  • The right to live on your own terms
  • Ability to do completely as you like with no repercussions / limitations
  • Ability to do as you like within the limits of the law / reason (as long as that law is democratically established)
  • Ability to choose how to live, act, and speak without oppression, discrimination, or fear
  • Ability to achieve a fulfilled life, in which all basic needs are met and personal progress can be attained
  • Ability to do as you like and go where you please as long as you obey rules and laws that protect other people’s freedom
  • Democratic government and enfranchisement
  • Rights: vote, speak, practice any religion, safety, health, property, basic human rights
  • Equality: Ability to pursue opportunities (education, careers, wealth, property, government, etc.) regardless of race, gender, sexuality, faith, or culture

Somewhere between the individual and the social there is a shift from singular to plural; as the definitions move along the spectrum other people gradually begin to enter into the equation.

The shift became even more apparent in the responses to the second prompt. Not all the students gave an exact yes or no, but I categorized their answers for the chart below:

freedom_chart

Even many of those choose yes or no also qualified their answers. On the no side, they argued that inequalities inhibit freedom, because not all members of the society have the same freedoms in practice. Many of those who said yes added that freedom might still have limitations when there are extreme inequalities. In between, they said it depends on the nature or extent of the inequalities or that some types freedoms may exist (e.g. freedom of speech), but not necessarily meaningful freedom overall.

This was not a comprehensive survey, but from discussions with students and friends (surveyed even more informally) I got a sense that if combined with demographic data on nationality, political views, or socio-economic background the results would be even more interesting. It strikes me that the ‘individual’ conception of freedom, and the idea that it therefore can exist even alongside inequalities, is more characteristically American. The European welfare state idea – and the government influence it involves, which many Americans are quite hostile to – is based more on the freedom-as-equal-opportunities definition. Each has emerged from a unique set of historical and social circumstances.

As ways of thinking, these ideas suffuse our national collective mentalities. They pervade our political discourse. In the United States I think it would take more than legislation to successfully adopt social programs such as public healthcare or free education: it would take a shift in mindset and a commitment to a broader definition of what it means to be free.

Thanks to Sarah Thelen for being an awesome co-teacher and for comments on a draft of this post!

Reflections on (Extra)Ordinary Lives

I confess, I am allergic to biographies of the famous and exceptional. My dad gave me some prime specimens when I was younger – the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Bird among others – and recently he even tried to interest me in new books about Abraham Lincoln. But I simply cannot finish one. Why? Some subjects perhaps seem anointed from the start, the products of circumstances far removed from the realities of my life and the lives of others around me. Others may have had the benefit of living in interesting times, but I never did finish Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography either, as much as I like his historical work.

Yet I find myself drawn to read and write the lives of the ‘ordinary’ people, those whose experiences many judge unremarkable. Historian Richard White’s mother told him ‘half jokingly, but only half, that her life was more interesting than my latest book. Why didn’t I write a book about her? I told her, not joking at all, that I would.’[1] The result is my favorite history book, Remembering Ahanagran. Its subject, Sara Walsh, would have remained anonymous outside her immediate circle of friends and family had her son not become a distinguished historian and taken up her challenge. I take the book off the shelf repeatedly and never get bored. In the space between history and memory White reveals much about life, the ways we tell our stories, and how, through them, we come to understand ourselves.

As I worked on my Ph.D. I started a collection of memoirs by Irish migrants – Angeline Kearns Blain, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Anna May Mangan, Seán Ó Ciaráin, any many more – picking up stories from the boxes and shelves of secondhand booksellers. If history remembers their names it is because they took up the pen. Many who did not still have stories to tell. As an oral historian, that realization motivates my work. Some of those I’ve interviewed are household names (at least in traditional music households); others are not, but that does not make their words or memories any less meaningful. Their stories have taught me about the human experience: what it means to be a migrant, why people hold onto their cultures, and what it felt like to live in the foreign country that was the past. In biographies of the famous, perhaps some of those fundamentals get lost amidst the action.

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[1] Richard White, Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past (Hill and Wang, New York, 1998), p.4.

The First World War & Irish Identity

I don’t often take the train from Cork to Dublin, but recently I did and for the first time I paid close attention to the memorial plaques along one wall of Heuston Station. In their own way, they encapsulate the debates over Irish identity and historical memory.

Sean Heuston plaqueFormerly Kingsbridge Station, its name changed as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. The first plaque commemorates the man after whom the station is now named, Sean Heuston, Irish revolutionary and former railway clerk. It gives a brief summary, in Irish, of his life and role in the rising.

The second plaque reproduces the text of the 1916 proclamation on three, relatively bland, metal tiles. Though I was unable to find information about its origins, it’s likely that it also put up in conjunction with an Easter Rising commemoration.

The third looks the oldest and is, I think, the most interesting. It commemorates the staff of the Great Southern & Western Railway who ‘laid down their lives for their country in the Great War’. The ambiguity is striking. What country was their country: Ireland or Britain? While the inscription does enshrine the idea of patriotic sacrifice, it leaves open the question of the nation to which that patriotism was directed.

WWI plaque, Heuston Station

As many as 200,000 Irishmen served in the First World War and of those about 35,000 died. However, the context of the Home Rule crisis and subsequent Easter Rising meant that their enlistment was hotly debated at the time: Unionists joined up to demonstrate their loyalty; Redmondites enlisted to show their commitment to Home Rule; and many others simply welcomed the separation money, regular pay cheques, or sense of adventure.

Staunch nationalists opposed Ireland’s participation in ‘Britain’s war’ and saw being an Irishman and fighting for Britain as an irreconcilable contradiction. This view had a long and pervasive influence on historical memory. Keith Jeffery writes that ‘the prevailing orthodoxy in nationalist Ireland is that no true Irishman could possibly have joined the British army for patriotic and legitimate Irish reasons, or even (horrible thought) for a species of British loyalty.’[1]

Even those who enlisted realized at the time that their legacy would be contested. Tom Kettle justified his participation, arguing, ‘I have written no word and spoken none that was not the word of an Irish Nationalist’.[2] Poet Francis Ledwidge, reflecting on his life and decision to join the 10th Irish Division, asked, ‘how will I be accounted for?’[3] Patrick MacGill rejected attempts to view the war through the lens of patriotism, instead saying ‘the justice of the cause which endeavours to achieve its object by the murdering and maiming of mankind is apt to be doubted by a man who has come through a bayonet charge.’[4] He puts words in the mouths of those who lie dead, asking ‘what purpose has it served?’[5]

Placing these three plaques along the same wall gives a certain parity to their subjects. We are forced to consider the Easter Rising in its European context – the First World War – and to recognize that both events raised questions of national identity. Who are we to impose a brand of patriotism on those who did not or could not speak for themselves?

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[1] Keith Jeffery, ‘The First World War and the Rising: Mode, Moment, and Memory’, in Gabriel Doherty & Dermot Keogh (eds.), 1916: The Long Revolution (Cork. 2007), p.90.

[2] Tom Kettle, Ways of War (Constable & Co., London, 1917), p.72.

[3] Francis Ledwidge, ‘Soliloquy’, from The Complete Poems of Francis Ledwidge (Herbert Jenkins, Ltd., London, 1919), pp.259-60.

[4] Patrick MacGill, The Great Push: An Episode of the Great War (Herbert Jenkins Ltd., London, 1917), p.vii.

[5] Ibid.

In Memory of Roger Sherlock

I was saddened by the news that flute player Roger Sherlock passed away last week. He kindly welcomed me into his home in Bettystown, Co. Meath in May 2011 and shared stories about his life and music.

Roger was born in 1932 in Cloonfeightrin, Co. Mayo on the Sligo border and grew up surrounded by music: his grandfather played flute and whistle, his father sang, and his mother played melodeon. It was also a musical region: he went to the same school as fiddler and composer Brendan Tonra (late of Boston) and flute player Kevin Henry (now of Chicago) grew up about two miles away. While all these musicians were born on the Mayo side of the border, the region’s proximity to south Sligo and its famous fiddle players has led them to be associated with that tradition.

It was also an area with a high rate of emigration: Roger went to London in 1952 where the first musician he encountered was west Limerick flute player Paddy Taylor. During the mid-1950s he shared a flat and played music with Clare piper Willie Clancy. He led bands in the Irish dance halls and played with the Thatch Céilí Band when they won the All-Ireland title in 1986 and 1987. He also played regularly in the city’s many Irish pub sessions. Roger and his wife, Mona, returned to Ireland and settled in Bettystown, Co. Meath in 1994.

Roger Sherlock Memories of SligoAs a fellow flute player, one of the many things Roger and I discussed were flutes. He had a large collection, including some rather unique instruments. One of them is the beautiful ivory flute made in 1779 that he is pictured playing on the cover of his 1972 album, Memories of Sligo. In honour of Roger and the other men and women who have done so much to keep Irish music alive over the years, here is his story of how it came into his possession:

Did you ever hear tell of the White Hart in Fulham Broadway? I played there for twelve years. We used to play there three nights a week and Sunday morning. There was this gentleman from Killasser in County Mayo, he used to come in every Sunday morning. He was a contractor; he was a plasterer. He used to play the war pipes, you know the pipes with the drones on the shoulders, he used to play those and he used to play the flute. He had an accident at work with a mixer, you know them mixers? He got his arm caught in the mixer and it pulled his arm from here out, so that finished his playing. This Sunday morning, he was very dedicated to the music, this Sunday morning anyway he came in and he something wrapped up in paper under his arm. He came up to the stage to me and he said ‘Roger, I want you to have this.’ I said, ‘what is it?’ He said, ‘it’s something I want to give to you ‘cause I cannot play it anymore.’ So he said, ‘you keep it.’ That was it… Wasn’t it a lovely present? Tom Kenny was his name. He’s dead now, years. I could never forget, of course never will forget him. Until someday I hope I never will [sell the flute].

Gender in History: A Personal Perspective

Most of my oral history interviewees are male and the experiences they discuss are therefore also predominantly masculine. Consequently, at conferences I am often asked ‘what about gender?’ What this really means is ‘where are the women?’ or ‘what are you (a woman) doing studying men?’ I have yet to attend a presentation on women’s history where the speaker was asked ‘what about men?’ Gender history, though based on exploring ‘the fundamental idea that what it means to be defined as man or woman has a history,’[1] is all too often synonymous with women’s history. Let’s get one thing straight: considering gender is not the same thing as writing about women. In fact, to focus only on women is just as biased as to focus only on men. In order to write gender into history we need to consider both.[2]

Despite the fact that most of my interviewees are men, in my dissertation I’ve made a conscious effort to address how and why their experiences differ from those of their female contemporaries, relying on extant sources to supplement my own interviews. In terms of employment among post-war Irish migrants, workplaces tended to be gendered spaces. Irishmen worked predominantly in trades and manual labor (traditionally male occupations), while women moved into more traditionally feminine roles including nursing and clerical work. They came together in their social lives, meeting at church events, county associations, and dance halls. However, gendered experiences persisted. Men and women started the night on separate sides of the dance floor and a man generally had to ask a woman to dance. Some men may have wanted to get married or settle down, but felt tongue-tied even trying to approach a girl to ask her to dance. An inability to communicate well appears as a theme in discussions of loneliness and isolation among Irishmen. Others justified the fact that they remained single by saying they didn’t want to be ‘tied down’, in the words of one interviewee. Men were (and are) constrained by the expectation that they do ‘manly’ work and provide for a family and women were (and are) by the expectation that they bear and raise children. The latter has received far more attention in historical scholarship.

But the questions I am asked at conferences are not only about my subject of study; they are about my right to study it. Oral historians are taught to reflect on the nature of the interviewer-interviewee relationship:[3] Did they know each other before the interview? Are they of the same sex? The same race? The same age? The same generation? The same political outlook? How do these factors affect the interview? While these are important questions, they give the impression that there is a right or a wrong type of relationship. They suggest, for example, that a man could never get ‘the best’ interviews with feminist activists or that (in the words of someone who ran a training course I attended) ‘young people’ don’t understand their elderly interviewees. While undoubtedly a man’s experience is different from a woman’s and a teenager’s from an eighty-year-old’s, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Oral history is about listening, about capturing untold stories or hearing familiar ones in new ways. Though my interviewees and I have a common interest (Irish music), I am a different gender, a different generation, and a different ethnicity to most of them. This can lead to enlightening moments: descriptions of how people charged radio batteries in the days before rural electrification or of styles of dress in the 1950s. Because of the differences, they feel the need to explain what life was like and to reflect on why. Where tacit, mutual assumptions exist between interviewer and interviewee, stories may remain unspoken.

Last year Emma Watson launched the UN’s HeForShe campaign. In her speech, she reclaims the term feminism from its negative connotations and defines it as the support for equal rights and opportunities. It is therefore a men’s issue too, because they ‘don’t have the benefits of equality either’. She argues that gender inequality will not end if it is seen as an issue concerning only half the population: everyone needs to participate in the conversation and be part of the change. The same is true for academia: in Ireland, female students outnumber their male counterparts in third-level institutions, but women constitute only 29 percent of senior academic staff.[4] Ending gender inequality is about more than closing the achievement gap; it’s about changing attitudes. As historians, we need to extend the same courtesy to each other and to the past. Women’s history should not only be about, by, and for women; nor should history be only about elite white men. Gender in history – like class or ethnicity – needs the whole population in the picture for it to make sense.

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[1] Sonya Rose, What Is Gender History? (2010)

[2] Joanne Bailey, ‘Questions of Gender’, History Today, vol.64, no.6 (June 2014); Joanne Bailey, ‘Is the Rise of Gender History “Hiding” Women from History once again?’, History in Focus (2005)

[3] For example, see: Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2nd ed. (AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2005), pp.157-87.

[4] Higher Education Authority, ‘Gender and Academic Staff’, figures based on Dec. 2013. Women are 29% of senior academic staff in universities and ITs in Ireland.

New on Oral History @UCC

This year’s crop of students have added their interviews to the class website, Oral History @UCC.

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Quirke of the Irish Defense Forces spoke to Adam Mangan about his experiences as part of the UN Peacekeeping forces in Lebanon. He felt the Irish made particularly good peacekeepers: ‘I have often heard of situations where there would be conflict in a sort of a check point and… everyone would be shouting at each other. Suddenly the commander would come in and say to the fellow, the leader of the opposition and he would say, “hey, would you like a cup of tea?”‘

Two students focused on local sports in which they have a vested interest: Jason Abbott interviewed fellow Cobh soccer players David Curran and John Flanagan about relatively recent history. They discussed the relationship between the League of Ireland club Cobh Ramblers and the youth club, Springfield Ramblers and the sport’s strong community support. Curran recalls going to matches when he was young and says, ‘I’ll always remember how the stadium was full and everyone singing on one side of the ground. There was a great buzz about the place.’ Darren Collins, a graduate of Presentation Brothers College in Cork, interviewed three people involved in rugby union at the school. Denis Hegarty attended Pres in the 1960s and came back as a teacher and rugby coach in 1991 and felt  a great camaraderie existed between everyone involved in the sport: ‘Winning wasn’t the be all and end all. You wanted to win something, but you just wanted the lads to enjoy their sport.’

Another common theme was migration: Eve Millett-Trimble interviewed her mother, Carmel, who was born in Nottingham and moved back to Fethard, Co. Tipperary with her family at age twelve. She remembers the move through the eyes of a child: ‘The actual move of going to Ireland I was quite excited about. We’d always heard the stories about Ireland growing up. My father was a very good storyteller, raconteur, and all we ever heard about was how nice it was… We thought we were going back to this sort of wonderland the way dad described it.’ As an adult she re-migrated to England in the 1980s and then returned to Ireland with her family in 2000.

Conor Long interviewed Con Griffin, who migrated to England in the early 1960s and became a successful plasterer, running his own business. He returned to Ireland in 1990 and when asked if he felt Ireland was ‘home’ (at 9 minutes into the interview part linked) he said: ‘Yes, but it didn’t matter to me where, because I had left when I was a kid and really, when I come to think of it, my real home was probably London. You know, because I could get a little bit excited when there was a hurling match on and when Tipperary are playing Cork, just for the hell of it I might put out a flag and get all excited about Tipperary, but that would be only a one-day-wonder, ‘twould never last two days. I haven’t got that kind of, you know, thing about place or anything like that.’

Feel free too leave comments or questions about the interviews here or on the website.