Danny Meehan

Danny Meehan outside his restored family home in Donegal, June 2012. Photograph by Sara Goek.

Danny Meehan outside his restored family home in Donegal, June 2012. Photograph by Sara Goek.

Fiddler Danny Meehan was born in 1940 and grew up in Drimalost, in the Blue Stack Mountains of south Donegal, in a family and local area with a rich musical heritage. At age sixteen he migrated first to Selby in Yorkshire. He worked in many places across Britain, finally settling in London in 1963 where he established a career as a self-employed stonemason. He also met and played with many great musicians in pubs, folk clubs, and concert halls in London. He appears on the album Paddy in the Smoke, with the group Le Chéile, and has two solo albums. He returned to live in Donegal in 2007. In 2012 TG4 honored him with the Gradam Saoil (Lifetime Achievement Award).

However, that biography doesn’t do him justice. He is a larger than life character – humorous, generous, self-effacing, and, as he says himself, still a bit wild. Those traits come through in his music as well – his clever variations on traditional tunes, his unwillingness to put his own name to original compositions, and, having lived through what he calls a “dark age” for music, an appreciation for the young musicians of today. His is a music shaped by his roots in Donegal, his 50 years in England, and the many musicians he heard and played with along the way.

Out of curiosity, during the interview I asked Danny about his grandparents, because I’d read that his grandfather migrated to Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century and returned to marry and settle down in Donegal. Danny’s response became the focus of an article, “‘Most Good Stories Are True, You Know’: History, Tradition, and Identity in a Family Story” in The Irish Review (vol. 53, 2016). In conjunction with that article, I have put my full oral history interview with Danny Meehan and recordings of his music on my PhD project website, Voices of Irish Music & Migration. The specific audio clips referenced in the article are also available from The Irish Review‘s website.

Huge thanks, of course, to Danny for sharing his stories and music. Thanks to Aidan O’Donnell for initially helping me get in touch with him. Danny’s nephew John Daly kindly provided additional information on the Meehan family history and the family photographs. Thanks to Clare O’Halloran and The Irish Review for supporting the publication.

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“No war is easy for those who fight it”

In war, “you don’t become a killer. No normal man who has smelled and associated with death ever wants to see any more of it,” wrote cartoonist Bill Mauldin (1921-2003) in his book Up Front: “The surest way to become a pacifist is to join the infantry.”[1] His cartoons contained few feats of heroism. Instead, his central characters Willie and Joe griped about the weather, the rations, and their superiors.

Stars and Stripes, March 2, 1944. Source: Military History Now.

Mauldin observed,

I don’t make the infantryman look noble, because he couldn’t look noble even if he tried. Still there is a certain nobility and dignity in combat soldiers and medical aid men with dirt in their ears. They are rough and their language gets coarse because they live a life stripped of convention and niceties. Their nobility and dignity come from the way they live unselfishly and risk their lives to help each other. They are normal people who have been put where they are, and whose actions and feelings have been molded by their circumstances.[2]

Like war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Mauldin gave GIs on the front in World War II both their dignity and a recognizable image of themselves. His cartoons balanced realism and respect for the combat soldier with humor and a healthy dose of cynicism. Pyle himself played an important role in bringing Mauldin’s work to a wider audience. In January 1944 he wrote, “Mauldin’s cartoons aren’t about training-camp life, which you at home are best acquainted with. They are about the men in the line – the tiny percentage of our vast army who are actually up there in that other world doing the dying. His cartoons are about the war.”[3] As a result of this coverage, his series Up Front was syndicated in papers across the nation.[4]

My great-grandfather's collection of Mauldin cartoons

I first encountered Mauldin’s work in that form. When my mom moved to a new house a couple years ago, among the boxes we discovered one that her parents had kept for her when they moved decades earlier. It contained an old cigar box labeled “Bill Mauldin Cartoons (Collected by W.G.M.)” with over 200 newspaper clippings that my great-grandfather had cut from The Cleveland Press during the war and its aftermath. I don’t know why he kept them. His son, my great-uncle, had fought in the Italian campaign (as did Mauldin), so perhaps that connection had something to do with it. Or perhaps, like so many other Americans, he saw in them something of the realities of a war taking place thousands of miles away.

These drawings are not part of military history as we often conceive it – of generals, battles, strategies, weaponry, or even ideology. Rather, Mauldin’s work is part of the social history of wars – of what it felt like to be there – perhaps something those who have not experienced can never truly understand. Despite all his attempts to explain the lived reality of war through both words and drawings, Mauldin reflected, “I guess you have to go through it to understand its horror. You can’t understand it by reading magazines or newspapers or by looking at pictures or by going to newsreels. You have to smell it and feel it all around you until you can’t imagine what it used to be like when you walked on a sidewalk or tossed clubs up into horse chestnut trees or fished for perch or when you did anything at all without a pack, a rifle, and a bunch of grenades.”[5]

United Feature Syndicate, Aug. 8, 1945. Source: Library of Congress.

The perceived distance from ordinary life and the lack of understanding among ordinary people for the horrors of war may have contributed to Mauldin’s disillusionment upon returning home. Like many other veterans, he and his characters, Willie and Joe, struggled to fit back into civilian life. In their final appearance, they are “under a culvert” living “on the bum,” “totally out of luck, out of money”.[6] Despite his own troubles, Mauldin himself never stopped standing up for the Willies and Joes of the world and the respect and fair treatment they deserved.

Title quote from: Bill Mauldin, Up Front (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1945), p.202.

[1] Mauldin, Up Front, p.14

[2] Mauldin, Up Front, pp.14-15

[3] Ernie Pyle, “Bill Mauldin, Cartoonist”, Jan. 15, 1944: http://mediaschool.indiana.edu/erniepyle/1944/01/15/bill-mauldin-cartoonist/

[4] Todd DePastino, Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), pp.126-9.

[5] Mauldin, Up Front, p.130

[6] Bill Mauldin in a 1983 interview, in Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), p.360.

On Family History

Wilcox 1900 censusMy mom and aunt came to visit over Christmas and at some point, in between all the eating and shopping and walking that we did, we started talking about their father, which led to a discussion of that whole side of the family. I’ve never had much of an interest in genealogy for its own sake, but looking at census records and other sources provided a few hours entertainment and some interesting findings and observations.

Despite the amount of records and detail available through online resources (e.g. familysearch.org and ancestry.com) – names, birth dates, death dates, occupations, marriages – what I found most lacking in the whole experience were actual lives and personalities. A few bits of family lore have survived relating to some of the people in the family tree, but for the vast majority the impersonal documentary records are all that I know about them and there is nothing to truly give them context. Given a choice I’d prefer stories passed down with all the colors of everyday life and distortions of time over any amount of statistical detail.

However, it was interesting to try to match popular family stories and perceptions with the discernible facts, particularly relating to ethnic origins. I’d always heard growing up that of my four maternal great-grandparents one was Anglo-American, one Welsh, one German, and one Irish, but how far back those roots went wasn’t always clear. The English goes back to the 1630s – we knew that. If there was indeed a Welsh connection (names suggest it’s likely), I couldn’t find it so it goes back to at least the early 18th century. The German (Bavarian, actually) and Irish connections both date to immigrants who arrived in North America in the 1840s, so my great-grandparents on those branches of the family were both third generation. However, the perception of them as ‘German’ and ‘Irish’ despite the actual distance from those roots suggests the families held on to a relatively strong sense of ethnic identity. It is also interesting that when those two branches of the family came together the German traditions seem to have predominated, like celebrating St. Nicholas Day. My mother was conscious that she had an ‘Irish’ grandmother, but the family never claimed that identity and neither do I. (My standard answer to the question ‘do you have Irish family/ancestry?’ is no, because it has nothing to do with who I am or why I live in Ireland.)

This raises the issue of genealogy leading to the creation of family myths or identities where none existed before. Perhaps some who do genealogical research are motivated by the desire to have a family story where it had been largely lost or forgotten, but while in some ways the impulse is understandable, it can be dangerous in that ‘histories’ enter a story they were never part of before. Thus, people find out that they had ancestors in Ireland in the early 19th century and all of a sudden call themselves Irish, though they may have grown up knowing little or nothing of that heritage or traditions. I find that idea very strange, but maybe it’s a personal issue.