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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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! 

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?

_________________

[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.

Understanding Irish America

A post from The Dustbin of History in honour of St. Patrick’s Day, 2014.

'St Patrick' in the 2009 Dublin parade

‘St Patrick’ in the 2009 Dublin parade (photograph by the author)

With the importation of American-style parades, sequined shamrocks, and green beer, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland has come to seem more and more Irish-American. Meanwhile the mass exodus of politicians to the US and other parts of the world for March 17th continues as they court the now-powerful descendents of Irish emigrants. Buried under a landslide of books for my PhD and assailed by news articles and ads on the upcoming holiday, I have realized that few critically question these developments or our assumptions about them – if we say St. Patrick’s Day is Irish-American, then what is Irish America really? Viewed historically this presents less of a problem: successive waves of Irish immigrants settled largely in urban areas where they worked and lived with other Irish people, participated in Irish cultural events, went to the local Catholic Church where there was often an Irish priest, and wrote letters to relatives in Ireland and across the globe. But what about today? Historians speak about ethnic groups in an amorphous sense but few engage with the more ambiguous markers of ethnic identity in the present or only seem to notice those who actively participate in maintenance of that identity, those who take Irish dancing or language classes or, in the case of The Gathering last year, those with enough money to make the trip across the Atlantic to the ‘old country’. What about the rest?

Whatever it is, there is no doubt that Irish America is rooted in history, particularly the Famine of 1845-9. Social anthropologist Reginald Byron’s book, misleadingly titled Irish America (it’s about Albany, New York), attempts to link that history to contemporary identity. While putting the Famine at the centre of the Irish American experience places Byron in good company, his account of Irish history and the history of the Irish in America largely ends with the mid-nineteenth century and he is vague about how many of his informants might actually be descended from famine-era immigrants as opposed to earlier or later generations. After all, while approximately 1 million people left Ireland in the famine decade, emigration had begun before then and 3.5 million left between 1855 and 1921 and in all cases a large proportion ended up in the United States, though sometimes by more circuitous routes. The danger of focusing so intensely on the Famine as to give it a mythic quality is that doing so can ‘obscure the diversity of Irish migration and its changing character over time’.[1] Byron’s repeated emphasis on the ‘famine generation’ belies his otherwise patent goal to ‘dispose’ of ‘pervasive myth’.[2] Irish America was never one homogenous entity, never solely the victims of starvation and oppression; that in itself is a myth. It was and is more akin to a historically grounded, continually negotiated, and multi-faceted idea, aspects of which individuals might choose to accept or reject.[3]

When we say an idea or ethnic identity is rooted in history or a sense of the past, what does that mean exactly? Whose history? What history and where? Byron focused his questions on two areas: Irish history and family history, but found his informants’ knowledge of both lacking when he asked them to name major events in Irish history and why their ancestors left. He concludes, ‘for the great majority of our informants, the links with the past had been broken, and no family traditions of Irish history or stories of the circumstances of their ancestors’ emigration have been passed down to the present generations.’[4] Is it really so surprising that people in the 1990s (when he carried out his research) do not know the exact reasons their ancestors left Ireland a hundred-plus years ago? How many people do know their full family history back five or more generations? Byron seems interested in these ‘links with the past’ only when they pertain to Ireland – why not the experience of the Irish in America?[5] By asking about Irish history and reasons for leaving Ireland he seems to query the authenticity of Irish America in calling itself Irish at all, as opposed to examining what it is in and of itself. Irish immigrants and their descendents worked as everything from miners to mayors, domestic servants to democratic senators, but in the process they often faced discrimination, company exploitation, and poor housing, all of which have shaped the historical narrative.

For me, the more interesting questions are related to why individuals today want to have an ethnic identity and how and why those of mixed ancestry end up emphasizing one branch of the family over another.[6] What does it mean to be Irish-American or ‘of Irish extraction’ today? How does drinking green beer have anything to do with it? Is being ‘ethnic’ in America anything more than a fad, a by-product of embracing multiculturalism? The commonly quoted statistic is that roughly 40 million Americans write ‘Irish’ in the ethnic section of the census form, but what this means may differ between individuals. For some, it may simply be a fact of ancestry. For others, it surfaces in the form of participation in St Patrick’s Day celebrations or a holiday in Ireland. For others, it may be more a part of everyday life.[7] When Humans of New York published this photo and caption, the comments zeroed in on questioning the man’s Irishness, not the central lesson of tolerance.[8] Both Ireland and Irish America may have a lot to learn about each other and about the value of accepting diversity in what it means to be Irish.


[1] Kevin Kenny, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013), p.29.

[2] Reginald Byron, Irish America (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999), p.54.

[3] Kathleen Neils Conzen, et al., ‘The Invention of Ethnicity in the United States’, in Jon Gjerde (ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History (Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1998), pp.22-9.

[4] Byron, Irish America, p.82.

[5] This is despite the fact that he realizes, ‘by and large, our informants’ recollections of their family histories do not extend back to Ireland, but begin only in America’ (emphasis added). Bryon, Irish America, p.80.

[6] For a more thorough assessment of these issues see: Mary Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (University of California Press, 1990).

[7] Christine Legrand examines the implications of ‘being of Irish extraction’ and argues that it is ‘a matter of personal choice’ influenced by family and the feeling of shared history or values. ‘Nation, Migration, and Identities in Late Twentieth Century Ireland’, Narodna Umjetnost: Croatian Journal of Ethnology and Folklore Research, vol.42, no.1 (June 2005), p.51.

[8] Sheila Langan, ‘A Black Irishman in New York Gets the Internet Buzzing’, Irish Central, 21 January 2014, http://www.irishcentral.com/news/A-black-Irishman-in-New-York-gets-the-Internet-buzzing.html

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.