Irish-Americans offer tales of inspiring Emerald Isle immigrants
Their most important marches didn’t need shamrocks or bagpipes.
They bucked the systems, or created new ones. They stood up for themselves, and for others. They were men and women, priests and publishers, from different times and different parts of Ireland.
What united this disparate group was the simple, stubborn knowledge they were right. Their tales unfold in “Nine Irish Lives: The Thinkers, Fighters & Artists Who Helped Build America.”
Editor Mark Bailey asked nine Irish-Americans to write about the immigrants who inspired them. Rosie O’Donnell, Pierce Brosnan and Michael Moore are among the more famous names saluting their personal heroes, some well known and others mostly forgotten.
Publisher Samuel McClure fought corruption in an era when America fell “prey to wretched corporate greed and men with maniacal, narcissistic egos,” a story that Michael Moore says is more inspirational today than ever before.
O’Donnell was volunteering in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina when she stumbled across a neglected statue of Margaret Haughery (1813-1882), who had run several orphanages. O’Donnell, who adopted her own children, immediately related to the nurturing, stocky woman.
“Maybe because she looked so much like me,” O’Donnell writes. “Maybe because she was a survivor, and I was working on, in and around survival. But what I didn’t know was the many ways in which her life would seem to mirror my own.”
Haughery came to America on an overcrowded, disease-ridden ship when she was 5. Like O’Donnell, she was named after her mother and orphaned young.
The tale of filmmaker Rex Ingram, once referred to as “the world’s greatest director,” is told by Pierce Brosnan.
Also like O’Donnell, she had no problem standing up to overbearing men.
During the Civil War a thuggish Union general, known as “Beast” Butler, decreed that any woman alone on the street was a prostitute — there for his soldiers’ pleasure.
Haughery was brought before him for daring to cross state lines, looking for food for the orphans.
“Nine Irish Lives: The Thinkers, Fighters, and Artists Who Helped Build America” tells the stories of nine Irish immigrants, written by nine contemporary Irish-Americans.
“I wonder if you feel it is Mr. Lincoln’s opinion that there is a military advantage in starving helpless people to death and I am wondering now if you have any reverence for God?” she coolly asked him. “If so, you will not hang me, for I am needed here.”
That kind of brazen righteousness runs through the essays. Nowhere is it clearer than in Moore’s piece about bold publisher Samuel McClure (1857-1949), who named his magazine after himself and sponsored waves of muckraking investigations during the Gilded Age.
It’s an era Moore finds sickeningly familiar.
Mark Bailey edited the collection of inspiring tales.
“Stop me if you’re heard this one before,” Moore begins. “America, swept up in an era of innovative technology, exploding economic inequality and deep political turmoil, falls prey to wretched corporate greed and men with maniacal, narcissistic egos.”
McClure understood the poor. Born in County Antrim, in a country still decimated by the potato famine, his father was killed in a shipyard accident.
Soon after, his destitute mother and her four sons left for America.
Father Edward Flanagan.
Bright young Sam thrived. Smart enough to enroll at Knox College by 14, he edited the student newspaper and launched a news service. His McClure’s Magazine hired Lincoln Steffens to expose government corruption and Ida Tarbell to investigate Standard Oil.
“Here we were, nearly two decades before women could even cast a ballot in the United States,” Moore writes, “and Ida Tarbell was taking on John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in the country.”
Moore clearly identifies with McClure’s swaggering confidence, and hopes other writers will learn from him, too.
Thomas Addis Emmet.
The publisher started his magazine during an economic downturn. He avoided sensational “yellow journalism” — the clickbait and “fake news” of the time. And he developed talent, urging his reporters to follow the story no matter where it led.
McClure endures as an inspiration we need now more than ever, Moore insists, if journalists are going to “save us from our self-inflicted doom.”
Sometimes, though, salvation comes one soul at a time. Asked for his personal inspiration, Kennedy kin Mark Shriver chose Father Edward Flanagan. (Incidentally, editor Bailey is married to RFK daughter Rory Kennedy).
Mary (Mother) Jones.
Flanagan (1886-1948) was a devout priest who adroitly exploited celebrity and the media. His life’s mission began by helping homeless migrant workers. Finding an abandoned hostel in a seedy section of Omaha, he had the men refurbish it and turned the building into a much-needed shelter.
That gave him an idea.
With a borrowed $90, he founded Father Flanagan’s Boys Home. On opening day, Dec. 12, 1917, he welcomed five boys. Within two weeks, their ranks expanded to more than two dozen.
Albert D.J. Cashier.
Their Christmas feast was a donated pot of sauerkraut.
Three years later, Flanagan was taking care of 1,200 children. The home — now called Boys Town — would eventually spread over 1,300 acres.
Flanagan’s ministry expanded in other ways. During World War II, he offered housing and jobs to Japanese-Americans who faced internment.
He continued to fight racism — and when the Boys Town football team went to Miami to play the Florida state champions, he refused to stay in any hotel that wouldn’t welcome his black players.
The hotel owners eventually relented. And Boys Town won the game, 46-6.
While his politics seemed radical — at least to racists — Flanagan said he was simply following the Bible.
As he wrote another priest, “My understanding of Catholic doctrine is that Christ died for the Negroes, for the Mexicans, for the Germans and for the Japanese, and for all of these other nationalities.”
Boys Town continues to grow 70 years after his death.
Not every Irish hero here is bucking for sainthood.
Pierce Brosnan writes of a nearly forgotten trailblazer, the filmmaker Rex Ingram (1893-1950). Ingram — not to be confused with the African-American actor of the same name — launched Rudolph Valentino’s career and had a string of silent-movie hits.
As he writes about Ingram’s life, Brosnan shares much of his own. Like the director, he spent his childhood in Ireland’s countryside. Like him, too, Brosnan made his career in motion pictures and found his comfort in art.
Ingram, though, came from a middle-class family and attended Yale after immigrating to America. Brosnan’s life was harder. His father deserted the family when Brosnan was an infant. When he was 4, his mother went to England to work as a nurse, leaving him with his grandparents.
Yet Brosnan feels a kinship to this other boy, born 60 years before, sketching on the riverbank and dreaming of a life beyond.
“Don’t we take our leaving in stages?” writes the portrayer of James Bond. “Whether it be from a place or a person — it begins in the imagination. The morning I left Ireland it was gray and wet. I was by then 11.”
Brosnan recounts Ingram’s incredible highs during the 1920s, turning out memorably exotic epics from Valentino’s star-making “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to early swashbucklers like “Scaramouche.” Erich von Stroheim once called Ingram “the world’s greatest director.”
But there were deep lows, too. The mercurial filmmaker fought with many and walked away from overbudget pictures. When talkies came in, he simply closed his studio in Nice on the French Riviera. After his last movie, in 1932, he devoted himself to art. He died 18 years later, at 58.
Not quite the happy ending Hollywood favors. Still, Brosnan asks, “Wasn’t it one hell of a life?”
And maybe that’s the most Irish epitaph of all.