December 30, 2016

The Irish in America: Long Journey Home (1998)

Immigrant children
Brown Brothers, Immigrant children from Ireland, Ellis Island, New York, 1908
Courtesy of Records of the Public Health Service (90-G-125-29)

PBS's `The Irish in America' is engrossing, lively history
(PBS's `The Irish in America' is engrossing, lively history by Lynn Elber, AP television writer Published: Monday, Jan. 26 1998 12:00 a.m. MST)

"The Irish in America: Long Journey Home", an absolutely grand PBS documentary, pulses with so many choice images and characters that it's difficult to single out a favorite. But here's a leading candidate from this six-hour, three-night exploration of one facet of the American immigrant experience:Frank McCourt, author of the acclaimed Irish memoir "Angela's Ashes," and his brother, Malachy, are captured on film warbling a ribald ditty from the Irish-dominated Tammany Hall days of New York politics. That's the kind of film "The Irish in America" is - a beguiling mix of history and personality, of the big picture and the telling detail. It doesn't hesitate to stop for a cozy moment with McCourt and others who know how to bring a story, and a people, to life. "God bless him. He's the rock star of Irish America right now," said producer Thomas Lennon, reveling in McCourt's participation in the documentary (airing at 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday on PBS stations, including KUED-Ch. 7 in Utah). But it wasn't just the literary lion who was eager to take part. The film and companion book ("The Irish in America," Hyperion, $40) include contributions from the likes of writers Maeve Binchy and Pete Hamill and actor Jason Robards. The program's narrator is actor Michael Murphy.

The music was handled by Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, who recruited Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, Van Morrison and Sinead O'Connor for the program. The documentary begins with the early Irish roots in America and the mass exodus caused by Ireland's potato famine of the mid-19th century. We follow the immigrants as they move into politics, business and culture and, finally, through the doorway of assimilation and acceptance. "The film we were trying to make is the story of this group of people transforming themselves from Irish to Americans," Lennon said. "They did that, and it was hard. It was costly and bloody, and yet a story full of joy. And in the process of changing themselves, they also left the country a different place." We encounter the familiar - such as boxer John L. Sullivan and politicos Al Smith and the Kennedy clan. And we discover lesser known aspects of the Irish-American experience, such as the Western mining empires they built. "The Monarch Notes version of Irish-American history is all an East Coast story," Lennon said. "I don't believe even well-read Irish-Americans know the story of the Irish in New Orleans or Virginia City, Nev., or Butte, Mont."

There's a lively, eloquent stream of talk throughout, as befits a culture known for its wordsmiths. Hard-living playwright Eugene O'Neill seemed as if he were "trying to commit suicide on the installment plan," says writer Thomas Fleming. Another writer, Peter Quinn, compares his reaction, on encountering golden boy John F. Kennedy on the 1960 presidential campaign trail, to that of "the Aztecs seeing Cortez." Serious, sweeping documentaries are a staple of PBS, and product tie-ins are increasingly so. But if the commercialism surrounding "Irish in America" seems more highly charged than usual, consider PBS' unusual partner in this: Walt Disney Studios. It was Roy Disney's personal interest - "I'd say personal passion," Lennon said - that lit the fuse for the $4 million, three-year project.

 Soundtrack ASIN: B001BHE1II
The Disney executive, nephew of founder Walt Disney, is of Irish ancestry and has a home in Ireland. There was a corporate passion as well, said Paul Villadolid of Walt Disney Network Television. Disney produced a series of documentaries in the 1940s and '50s, including Oscar winners, and wanted to return to the genre.Lennon said Disney gave him "creative support, no creative interference."He initially pondered such a project in the early '90s, after doing a film on Boston politician James Michael Curley, but was unwilling to tackle the required fund-raising. Then, in February 1995, Disney made him the offer he couldn't refuse. The timing was exquisite. "Irish and Irish-American culture is hot, hot, hot," Lennon acknowledged. "But this needs to be said: We started this project before (the musical) `Riverdance,' before `Angela's Ashes.' We were lucky."

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