Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fear, Hope, The Future, and Other Tall Tales

Though the Cuban adventures of “A Captain Unafraid” uncovered little new about Dynamite Johnny, a-lot was revealed about Cuba and its connections to Ireland: how we both imagine our heroes, our aspirations for the future, our visions of the past, losers and winners, the bulldog and the underdog, Uncle Sam and Uncle Tom. Ireland has struggled for centuries to stand on its own, and recently the country seems to have been completely assimilated by larger forces. Cuba, for her part, has just begun a spate of conciliatory politics with the U.S. that will see it change considerably too. In consolation, the scale of Ireland as an island nation might always give it a distinct character; its smallness may still be its saving grace. Cuba too, is a small island nation. As the plaque in old Havana states "two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope, Cuba and Ireland.”

"A Captain Unafraid" still. O' Rielly Street, Havana.
Tribute to Carlos Roloff in Havana. Polish immigrant and Cuban general, 
Roloff was ferried to the war by Dynamite Johnny. 

As well as being a very real and lasting influence on the Cuban struggle against imperialism, the internationalist element is pushed to the fore in the story the Cubans tell themselves. That is why discourse between the likes of Cuba and Ireland can be so important. In Ireland, it is important for us not to forget, that it was standing militarily against imperialism that forged our country, most especially as the centenary of the 1916 rising looms. In Cuba, as they begin another wave of grappling with the U.S. eagle, it might help looking to Ireland-as an example of what can happen when placation is taken too far. One of the fears most often confessed to us in Cuba, was that the country might again become a neo-colony of the U.S.  Ireland, in many ways, can give the Cubans a template to see what happens, both good and bad, when you embrace Uncle Sam. Embracing Uncle Sam is all fine and good, but remembering who you are after the heady embrace is most important. The image below sums up a-lot of what can go wrong! The "Tourist Office" in the background is a front for "PaddyWagon Tours" (whistle-stop tours of Ireland aimed at the younger market). As far as I'm aware, the government sold "PaddyWagon" the rights to use the term "Tourist Office." The shop is a gaudy, vapid, fly trap for tourists, staffed by wide eyed, wet around the ears youngsters. Tourist Office, it isn't.

Killarney, 4th of July, 2015 

The Americanisation of Ireland over the last 50 years has been one of the great influences on the country. I arrived back into Killarney from Cuba just in time for our fourth of July celebrations. Plastic statues to Uncle Sam and The Statue of Liberty were rolled out to the sound of beating drums and swish of twirling batons, the stars and stripes waved from every corner. It took a bit of adjusting of hearing and accustoming of eyes after the different colour and beat of Havana.

The filming of A Captain Unafraid in Cuba was done in conjunction with the “UNEAC.” The UNEAC or "The Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba," welcomed us with open arms. Two of our Cuban compatriots were surprised to hear that Ireland still has, here and there, the last scattered vestiges of the colonial rule. I mentioned how I had petitioned the head of the O’ Brien Clan, Sir Conor O' Brien (an Eton Educated Lord and British army veteran now living in his ancestral home in County Clare) for a few pound for the “A Captain Unafraid” coffers. They were surprised he wasn't ousted by the land league in the 1880's! This all got me thinking about the nature of power and the stories we tell ourselves. The O’ Brien clan, since the early days of the Norman invasion sided with the invaders, so that once the British lion sunk its claws in with the rise of the ascendancy class in the 17th and 18th century, the O’ Briens had become so Anglicised they comfortably fitted into the structures of power. Their priority was keeping power rather than taking a stand, that tree moved with the wind and so avoided breaking. So, now the O' Briens have a British army veteran as clan leader. The clans who opposed the crown are those whose genealogies cannot now be traced. Their clan lineage (that was so important to them) has been destroyed. Many of those clans have been erased from history, uprooted, the remains of their seed scattered across the globe. I heard the heir to the throne of McCarthy Mór is in Tangier, the O’ Neill royal bloodline may indeed be in the Caribbean, in Puerto Rico! 

John Mitchel

While in Cuba I began reading ‘Jail Journal, Five Years in British Prisons’ by John Mitchel (having been given it as parting gift before leaving).  The Journal was begun in 1848 as Mitchel's convict ship set sail for the Caribbean. It is a sharp, young, eloquent, and blistering indictment of the British presence in Ireland.

“England has been left in possession not only of the soil of Ireland, with all that lives and grows thereon, to her own use, but in possession of the world’s ear also. She may pour into it what tale she will: and all the world will listen. Success confers every right in this enlightened age; wherein, for the first time, it has come to be admitted and proclaimed in set terms, success is right, defeat is wrong.”

Mitchel saw the Irish in the middle of the 19th century as an enslaved race. It must have looked like the country and its inhabitants were about to be (and in many ways were) annihilated. During the American Civil War he pinned his flag to the mast of the Confederate cause. Strangely, Mitchel had some abhorrent views on slavery itself-he proposed re-opening the African Slave routes with the U.S. Thankfully, this dark future never happened. This is why the stories we tell ourselves, and that we believe in, have so much power and relevance. We are "dreaming our own dream," and it is important not to let our dream (whatever it may be) turn into a nightmare! Mitchel sojourned briefly in Havana, a few months after his escape from the prison Island of Van Dieman's land. He made these observations on the similarities between Morro Castle and Dublin Castle-"Those two strongholds of hell! When will they be raised and swept away and the places where they stand sowed with salt." Morro Castle and Dublin Castle still stand, though one is surely more removed from its origins than the other!

Morro Castle, "A Captain Unafraid" Still

Ireland, in many ways, is an unfinished revolution. Maybe we should listen to Havana as we listen to Washington, listen to South America as we listen to North America. Those well trodden roads between North America and Ireland have become super highways of unbending vision, and the Irish discourse with Latin America (which might have helped inform our discarded revolution) is left as a trickling stream of thought on the verges of those great torrents. Ireland's obsession with anglo culture, although it has its roots long before, takes on a symbiotic relationship after the famine. The effects the cataclysm of An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger) had on the mindset of the Irish cannot be overstated. Since then, the country, (often unbeknownst to itself) seems to think that it can't be anything, or do anything, without London or Washington leading the way.  The narrowness of these lenses, in their large monstrosity, can sometimes be overwhelming. It's not that they are bad or good, but by their very size they seem to say "this is the only way."

The following is another extract from Jail Journal. It's a conversation between Mitchel and another Irishman, Nicaragua Smith. Mitchel named him Nicaragua, because of his support for the railways of that country.

"The disarming of the native population. Cuba and Ireland are the two islands of Arms Bills, the hunting-fields of gen-d'armes, the paradises of informers and detectives." "But what are the substantial wrongs of Cuba?" "A Wealthy State Church, maintained for the comfort of Spanish clergymen; high taxes imposed on indispensable articles of import, the revenue of the island swallowed up by thousands of civil and military officials, who gather fortunes here, and spend them in Madrid, every honorable career barred against the creoles and their sons, and contempt poured upon them by every younger son of every hungry hidalgo, who come here to do them the honor of devouring their substance." "My friend, it is another Ireland." "Except in the matter of patience and perseverance in starvation. There, the Irish are unmatched amongst the white inhabitants of the earth. No people will lie down and die of hunger by myriads and millions, save only the natives of that gem of the sea." "In reply, I could but bite my tongue," Mitchel mused darkly.

While in the province of Ciego de Ávila we visited the remains of the Spanish military line 'La Trocha' which once fenced off the eastern part of Cuba from the rest of the Island.  Our guide, historian, Sixto Espinosa, told us "the objective of the monument is to show how things were, it has no value, outside of its historical educational value." This is the sort of talk you'd be hard pressed to hear out of any guide in my home town of Killarney. They'd be too busy praising Queen Victoria, telling you where she had a particular cup of tea. "The Famine Queen" visited Killarney for a couple of days in 1861 and all our good fortune stems from that momentous time, some would have you believe. The fact that she (as figure head of the British State) presided over the worst calamity in Irish history is left to the wayside in the tale spun.

Sixto Espinosa, la Trocha
La Trocha Militar de Júcaro a Morón
José Martí, Cuba's founding father, was a great admirer of Anglo-Irish author, Thomas Moore. Martí even translated one of Moore's books, "Lalla Rookh," into Spanish. I presented a copy of 'Moore's Melodies' from 1858 to Félix Flores Varona (the Vice President of the UNEAC of Ciego De Ávila), at a ceremony organised for us when we arrived. The book had been in the Convent of Castleisland for well over one hundred years (I got it from my aunt, Sr. Margret O' Brien, who is a nun in there). The book now has a new home in Ciego! In return, Félix presented me with a book written by himself on Martí's lost translation. Both Martí's and Félix's tomes have the same title -Mejillas de Tulipán (Tulip Cheeks). The book Venezula y La Independencia de Cuba was presented to me by José Quintana. Myself and José have been in contact since 2011 (when I first interviewed him about his article "John Dynamite, Marine Mambí"). José held a celebratory dinner for us all in his home after our long weeks work in Ciego. It was a great feeling to be flinging out our strands of discourse over the table, with a solidarity of purpose, sharing our visions of the past.

José, his son and myself. The books in the foreground are all written by José
Félix Flores and myself, UNEAC, Ciego De Ávila, Cuba

Plaque to Dynamite John, Havana
Trundling through the streets of Ciego De Ávila and Havana I mused on the similarities with the streets of Tralee or Dublin. Many of the main thoroughfares in Cuba are named for revolutionary leaders, the countryside too has many monuments to those who fought for independence, like the one below in Lazaro Lopez.

Lazaro Lopez, A Captain Unafraid Still

Lazaro Lopez, José Quintana, myself, and Sixto Espinosa

Cork and Kerry, at every second bend of mountainous country roads, has monuments to the War of Independence and both sides who died in our Civil War, many, monuments that won’t be unveiled until Ireland is free. Though we all seem to have come to some understanding in the Free State turned republic, it’s hard not to feel like your living in an occupied land, and these monuments are the discarded remnants of a forgotten country that never emerged.

IRA Memorial, around the corner from my apartment in Killarney
the dedication reads "this monument won't be unveiled until Ireland is free"

Ireland is littered with the trappings of an uncompromising, anti-colonial historical narrative, but the modern Irish republic, in its workings, has become a shadow, a fleeting spectre. The bright Republic dreamt up in minds of the executed signators of the declaration of 1916, in fact, never happened. Indeed, its eventual surfacing 34 years later was more a scribbled adage than a declaration. Maybe that was the inevitable end, “the revolution devolved into a government” as a Mexican revolutionary turned bureaucrat once said. To complicate the dawning vista of independence, since the 1920's larger world forces have taken over from national politics, and made Ireland more a commodity than a country. In a way, those forces have always been there, the same ideologies that were fought over during the War of Independence and  Civil War are still ongoing. Its still about use, misuse, abuse of resources and people, stories we tell ourselves, stories we tell others, conning, convincing, compromise. Here is an example of some of the waffle they've decided to sell. Unfortunately, it happens to be our country. Ireland Inc. (a term I still can't believe is used) is now what is being peddled.

Though Mitchell's views on slavery were surprising and abhorrent by any standard, his uncompromising indictment of the British presence in Ireland is laudable, and one of the few eloquent voices, indeed, one of the only voices, to emerge in written word directly in the wake of the Famine. As said, the prison ship on which he began his journal set sail in 1848. Maybe here is where he was most wrong: the discourse with himself was too provincial; he failed to see the larger picture, he ran from one madness into another, he was an angry young man that became ensnared in the hysteria and power struggle of the American Civil War. It's no wonder that John Mitchel was drawn to the agrarian, rural, insular south. And he wasn't the only one, people fought in the American Civil War for innumerable reasons-fifty thousand Irishmen fought for the Confederates, one hundred and fifty thousand Irish born soldiers fought for the Union.  As he says in Jail Journal "So even in that shady Clyde Valley (of Van Dieman's land), which turns its back to the 'great powers,' and slopes towards the Antarctic Circle- if there be a hundred men and women, there are a hundred worlds."

Jail Journal, in many ways, made me think of “The Open Veins of Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano. Mitchel's Journal is as relevant and scathing as Galeano's tome, which itself, is a cutting indictment and itemisation of the colonialism that carved up and shaped Latin America over long centuries. "They lie to us about the past as they lie to us about the present, they force the oppressed to absorb an alien desiccated sterile memory fabricated by the oppressor, so that they will resign themselves to a life that isn't theirs as if it were the only one possible. I seek to portray the past as something always convoked by the present, a live memory. A search for keys in past history to help explain our time," Eduardo Galeano. 

So lets take a lesson from Mitchel to be careful what we believe in, not to get caught up in our own world, to converse with other "worlds" as Mitchel might have it. Our ideas become our worlds. Remembrance is the horse on which we ride to the future. Some would have us forget and plunge headless into whatever world others will make. It may not be Ireland, or Cuba that will forge the future of the world, but we both need to carry our understanding of our past with us as a talisman and guide for the future. We also need to converse, talk, hablar. To fling two languages together, we need to- charlar le chéile (talk together). Personally, that is what I got most from our trip to Cuba-the feeling that we don't stand alone, that our views of where we come from in the Rep. Of Ireland may be informed better by discourse with the likes of Cuba than with the likes of the U.S. or U.K. Unfortunately, the U.S. and the U.K. are still buttering the bread, carving the mould that we live in, they are still, as Mitchel said, "in possession of the world's ear," constantly pouring diatribes that inform our way of living in every conceivable way. Travelling and conversing in Cuba was a welcome relief from that heavy bombardment.

And yet, the Young Irelanders we still name “young.” Old Ireland is still old, the stories we tell ourselves are essential parts of our future and past. As I once quoted in song and sang to myself, “The past isn’t dead it isn’t even past, our stories are the sail on future's mast.” And what way do we remember The Rising? what tale do we spin for ourselves? And what way are we to remember Dynamite Johnny? And what way do we remember John Mitchel? These are all very relevant and important questions, a few of them will surely be answered over the coming year!

Looking back in Havana, fearful of the future

The images in the blogpost are all taken by our stalwart cameraman, Pat Hartnett, except, "Lazaro Lopez (A Captain Still)," "Sixto Espinosa (A Captain Still)," "Carlos Roloff" and "The IRA memorial," I took those meself. The Killarney 4th of July image was ripped from the net (SocialBoxTV). The first image of Dynamite John is by our illustrator, John O' Leary.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Tales of Manhattan

In deciding who was to contribute Johnny's voice in "A Captain Unafraid," our deliberation was short and our decision was sweet-Wynn Handman is to be the contributing voice actor for, among other things, the illustrated sections of A Captain Unafraid. This all means that whenever we use direct quotes from Johnny in our documentary, Wynn's voice will be heard. Wynn, at 92 years of age, is probably one of the most productive nonagenarians in Manhattan. He still gives acting classes four times a week, each four hours long. Since 1963 Wynn's non-profit theatre company "The American Place Theatre" has been a shining beacon of dedication to, as George Bernard Shaw said of theatre in general, "the ascent of man!"

Early last March I travelled to New York on very short notice to record Wynn's voiceover. The week before St. Patrick's day a window of opportunity opened that suited all involved, and we quickly dove with abandon into the breach. A million thanks to, among others, Norrina Fleming, Billy Lyons, and of course, the mighty Wynn Handman.

Norrina Fleming took this photo before we started recording

Here is an example of some of our recording -

Wynn told us of how he was once stuck in pack ice during World War II, surrounded by German submarines. Wynn's vessel was a destroyer class, intended to destroy submarines. When we had our first "dynamite" reading up on 57th street, Wynn read out these pertinent quotes for us from Johnny-

“I would like to chase those submarines, they are the fellows to go after. But we’ll win, they haven’t got a chance.”

“We can lick those Deutshmen, we can lick ‘em, and we ought to drive them off the seas. I could do it! We ought to have three submarines to every one of the Deutshmen’s, and we ought to ride over him 'til he’s gone. If only I were able I’d like to ride over him and under him and just trample him until he’s gone. If only I were able I’d like to take another ship out tomorrow. I’d go where I pleased and no submarine would stop me either.”

Our meeting took place in Wynn's apartment right by Carnegie Hall. The whole experience was as strange and wonderful as walking into the first scenes of some Hitchcock movie from the 40's.  It did indeed feel like walking into the past, and why wouldn't it? As the writer William Faulkner said "the past isn't dead it isn't even past." Wynn's home abounds with the depth and color of a long and well lived life. As you walk down the hall, one of the first things to catch the eye is a stars and stripes hanging on one of the walls. We were told by Billy that it hung over the white house for two weeks in recognition of Wynn and his wife Barbara's contribution to the arts. In the corner of the living room is a rare bust of the aforementioned George Bernard Shaw, only three exist.

Wynn told us how he spent his childhood, just like Johnny, rambling round the banks of Manhattan's East River. He also regaled with tales of his brief time in Cuba. On one particular sojourn in Havana he discovered how it felt to, as he put it, "stare into the eyes of a dictator." Wynn and another Navy companion were being courted by two Cuban lasses (as is often the fashion in Cuba), when suddenly they were interrupted by an eerie silence from the two girls. A creeping arm curled around the ladies, as a voice with very few words told them to curtail their advances on the two Navy men. The imposing, reprimanding figure was none other than that of Fulgencio Batista. Wynn told us how Batista stared single-mindedly into his eyes before departing, along with the ladies.

Fulgenio Batista, Cuban dictator
When it finally came to recording the voiceover I brought on enough audio gear to record an orchestra, but ended up having to resort to my fateful Marantz field recorder. The recording was done in Wynn's dressing room (you can see the set up in the first image above). We had to turn off the air conditioning because of the rattling hum it caused. To keep other sounds out we compounded our isolation by shutting the door to our tiny room. It was hot, it was muggy, every few minutes, like divers digging for oysters darting for the surface, we flung open the door and breathed easy as Billy Lyons blasted us with the air conditioning. Our oysters were "Dynamite" Johnny's words and didn't we pick out some good old ones!

"Certainly it does not come with good grace from a country which prides itself on the principal that the will of the people is the law of the land to say to its neighbours that it shall not oppose tyranny and fight with every means in their power for what they believe to be their rights. We [Americans] should not forget that we were rebels once ourselves, and warmly welcomed filibustering aid from France in the time of the revolution."

One of the added bonuses that came from this last trip to New York was the filming of the opening scene of our documentary. Geoff Cobb, Brooklyn native and local historian, took me on a merry jaunt of various Johnny related sites. While on our ramble, I managed to capture some eerie images of the East River from Greenpoint. Greenpoint is where Johnny got his first taste of the sea, aboard his brother's sailing ferry which ran from there to Manhattan, back in the 1850's. 

"A Captain Unafraid" still, East River from Greenpoint, Brooklyn
We celebrated our successful trip in Fannelli's, one of Soho's last old time bars. Now it was Billy's turn to regale us with tales from the past which lighted up our present, in between shuffling dances around the bar. Billy, whose family have resided in Manhattan since they stepped off the boat 150 years ago from County Cork, Ireland, had tales of woe and wonder spanning a century or more, up and down the mighty broadway!

Billy Lyons dancing off broadway in Fanelli's Bar

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

That Old Time Fire

Stephen Barranco gave me a copy of the note below, he is a nephew of Victor, the writer of the note. We met Stephen and his son in North Carolina last August as part of the U.S. filming of "A Captain Unafraid." This typewritten recollection of his uncle was just one of many resources Stephen gave us access to. I've written out the whole note under the image.

the last page of Victor's reminiscence 

"Dead," exclaimed "Dynamite" Johnny O' Brien, at his home 896, South 17th Street, Newark, N.J. when I visited him on June 24th. "Dead, huh? not by a damn sight! I'm going back to Havana this winter, and I'll beat the block off the man who spread the story." The man who made the Cuban Republic was reclining in an easy chair in the living room of his little cottage in New Jersey, but the news that his death had been published in Havana brought him to an erect position and filled him with indignation. He was undeniably very feeble but his eyes were bright with their old time fire as he promised to come back to Havana for at least one more winter before his activities on earth should be ended forever. "Tell 'em at the Plaza" said Johnny, "that I'll be there and to have a small glass, a little sugar, lemon peel-lemon-not lime- and a bottle of Bacardi ready, I'm going to meet all my friends and have a drink and a cigar with 'em all." The old man was sick and tired and I urged him to recline in the chair again. 

Victor Barranco and Dynamite John

His eyes became remininisent as he obeyed and it was easy to imagine that he once more saw the bright waters of the gulf, the blue heavens and the cool, green shoreline of his beloved Cuba, something was said of the Spanish War Veterans and he became interested again. " Tell 'em all "how" for me when you write" he said. "I wish I could be with 'em on the Fourth. Tell Fitzgerald to send me that medal they have for me and be sure and tell 'em that I'll be back in Havana again before I die" added Johnny before I departed, under the promise to call on him again and tell him the latest news from Havana.


Victor H. Barranco

I was surprised to see Johnny back in New Jersey in 1914. I had thought he had moved permanently to Cuba in 1904 (only returning home in the winter of 1916).  The Cuban Newspaper "La Lucha" mentions Johnny moving to Cuba along with his wife and two daughters. It seems, like in earlier years, Johnny did wander in his last days.