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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Four Dead in O-hi-o

            Rummaging through some old college notebooks from a box in the attic the other day, I came upon a protest flyer from my senior year at Iona College, in New Rochelle, New York. It was May of 1970, and I was weeks away from graduating. “ON STRIKE” the flyer proclaims. I lifted it to my face for a whiff of the familiar purple smell of the mimeograph ink, but the scent had long-since faded, much as the memory of that year has receded into our collective national unconscious of that fateful time.   
            But the flyer brought rushing back the angst that roiled American campuses 46 years ago this spring. Just eight months earlier, in September of 1969, Lt. William Calley had been charged with leading his platoon in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians—including women and children—in the village of My Lai the previous year. That atrocity surely did not reflect the actions of most American troops in Vietnam; but in the virulent outrage that resulted, many in the anti-war movement unjustly vilified all American soldiers as “baby killers.” It got that ugly.
            Three months later, in December of 1969, President Richard Nixon reinstituted a draft lottery. Nearly half a million U.S. soldiers were serving in Southeast Asia and nearly 50,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese had already been killed. Then, on April 30, 1970, Nixon went on television to announce to a weary nation that U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had crossed into Cambodia to launch preemptive strikes against North Vietnamese supply lines. He also declared the need to draft 150,000 additional men. This escalation of the war provoked mass protests across American campuses. Days later, on May 4, twenty-eight national guardsmen opened fire at an unarmed crowd of protesters on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were shot dead.
            The news stunned the nation: for the first time in our history, American students were being killed by American troops on an American college campus. In response, colleges all over the country erupted in furious protests. Hundreds shut down or canceled classes as students went on strike. On campuses across the nation, ROTC buildings were set ablaze and students clashed with police and National Guard units. Within weeks, Neil Young’s song “Ohio” blared from radios across the land, stoking the flames of outrage:
                                              Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
                                                   We’re finally on our own.
                                              This summer I hear the drumming,
                                                   Four dead in Ohio.
                       On May 14, just ten days after the Kent State shootings, without warning, police shot dead two students during a protest at the all-black Jackson State University, in Mississippi. That unprovoked attack garnered comparatively little national attention. Some blacks complained at the time that maybe black lives didn’t count as much as white ones. This grievance sounds eerily familiar today.
            On the whole, college campuses in 2016 are very different places from what they were in 1970. They are communities where political correctness and nurturing of perceived slights prevail. A far cry from the university as a place to broaden one’s perspectives, American campuses have become bastions of intolerance for opposing points of view. Just ask Condoleeza Rice or the growing number of other controversial figures who have been disinvited to speak on college campuses because some group or other is offended by their role or viewpoint. Or ask Erika Christakis, a former lecturer at Yale who resigned in the face of student protests over her suggestion that perhaps they might themselves be better suited than the administration to decide what Halloween costumes they should wear. Ask the college professors who are required to give “trigger warnings” when they are about to broach a topic that may provoke unease or trauma in any of their students. Assigning a reading of The Great Gatsby or Hamlet without trigger warnings about their possibly disturbing issues of physical violence or dysfunctional families would be considered a “microaggression” against vulnerable and unsuspecting students—college students, mind you. Or ask the professors in Texas and the seven other states that allow students to carry concealed weapons on public campuses what the impact is likely to be on free and open expression of ideas or on grade inflation.
            Yet, as spring approaches in 2016, the most enduring protests on American college campuses are those over issues of persistent racial tensions. Nearly 46 years after the killings of American students at Kent State and Jackson State, numerous incidents of black men killed by police in the streets of American cities have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which in turn has galvanized minority student protests. Beginning at the University of Missouri over the slow response of administrators to a series of racist incidents, the protests and their demands for equality have spread to campuses across the land.
            But just as the vast majority of American soldiers in Vietnam were not “baby killers,” most American police officers do not shoot young black men in our streets. The truth is that police lives matter too, white lives matter, Latino lives matter. All lives deserve respect. Still, time after time, black men—often unarmed—are killed at the hands of those entrusted to keep the peace. The point of the protests is that black lives matter too, and enough is enough.
            Perhaps, then, some progress has been made in the spirit of dissent on our campuses amid what seems at times a national regression. The Black Lives Matter movement is a protest that speaks for its time. In the midst of an indulgent culture of trigger warnings, it seems heartening that some college students today are clamoring for justice and equality, demands that echo the high moral ground of bringing an end to an unjust war and the killings of innocent students. Such protests are today what my generation’s reaction to the killings at Kent State was—a defining moment, a time to take a stand on what you believe in. As Neil Young would put it,
                                              What if you knew [them]
                                 And found [them] dead on the ground
                                 How can you run when you know?

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Road I've Taken

            On some occasional rambles through my blog earlier this year, I came upon a path that had been calling me for quite some time. And so I’ve been away from these pages for the past few months, consumed with a historical novel that I’m writing.
            The working title is Tobarmaire (Mary’s Well). The story is set in a fictionalized blend of Dowra, my wife’s native village in County Cavan, and the old village of Tobar nearby that had preceded it. It takes place in 1845-46 during the Great Famine (An Gorta Mor—The Great Hunger—as it’s known in Irish), when the potato blight ravaged the land.
            Tobarmaire tells the story of Michael Corrigan, a fiery young man brimming with resentment as his family and neighbors, evicted from their cottages for non-payment of rent, face starvation.     I've been thinking and reading and writing about this story for quite some time. It began, for me, on a summer evening in Ireland in 1981, when Nan McGovern, my mother-in-law, brought me up Gubaveeny Mountain near her home in County Cavan to meet an old man who lived alone in a cottage. He was known in the region as a “shanachie” (pronounced “shanakey”), a sort of local historian who was said to have “a head full of knowledge about the history of the place.”
            During ancient times, Gaelic clans lived in particular areas of rural Ireland. Evidence of that survives today when so many families in a region have the same surnames. And so, for example, to distinguish one family from another of the same name, a man and his own family would be known locally by his first name, then his father’s first name, then his grandfather’s first name, followed by the family surname. He would be known locally as Charley Thomas Ned McGuire, and his family (if he had one), as the Charley Thomas Ned McGuires, or more simply as the Charley Thomas Neds.
            Charley Thomas Ned—Charley to his face—heard our car approaching and met us at the door of his stone cottage. Stooped, with a gray stubble and rheumy eyes, he greeted us through a mostly toothless grin in the dusty voice of his eighty-five years. “You’re very welcome,” he said to Nan, and turning to me, nodded. We sat before his open hearth, his only source of light. Many of the older folks on the mountain never had the electric hooked up when it came to the region in the 1950s—afraid of it, or just never seeing the need. The light of the hearth, for Charley Thomas Ned, was enough.
            He recalled for us the history of the region as it had been passed down to him in the oral tradition in the years before tape recorders or television, and he regaled us with tales of a local hero who roamed the area nearly 250 years ago. Dick Supple (pronounced “Souple”) Corrigan was a “rapparee,” a highwayman who ran with a gang that robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Through many daring exploits, Supple Corrigan bedeviled the English who oppressed the native Irish in the region in the late 18th century. He is remembered in legend and song in the northwest of Ireland to this day. 
            As the late summer dusk descended on the mountain, the turf fire in the hearth glowed brighter and Nan and I rose to leave. We thanked Charley Thomas Ned for his hospitality and his stories, and the old man replied in a lyrical echo of ages past: “Sure, and wouldn’t ye be happy of the visit if ye was sitting here all the week long with nary a Christian soul to cross yer doorstep?”
            In Tobarmaire, my protagonist, Michael Corrigan, is the great-grandson of Supple Corrigan. Through a series of encounters, he seeks to settle some scores with the English during the famine of the 1840s, some seventy years after Supple had done the same.
            So this is where I’ve been of late, consumed with the past in the present. I’ll be back with some more blog posts from time to time—I’ve just recorded a post at the radio station, which I’ll link to these pages soon. But if I’m away from the blog for a stretch of time, I’m probably just wandering the lanes of my imagination, thinking, researching, or writing about the characters and happenings of Tobarmaire.

Speechless in the Battle


“I have no voice,” he said, barely audible. I was driving my friend John Palencsar to SUNY New Paltz so he could teach his history classes at the college. John is battling cancer of the vocal chords and   had just had a radiation treatment that morning. His speech reduced to a raspy whisper, he told me what frustrated him most: “I have no voice.” Later, in his class, he would repeat those words into a microphone that merely amplified his gravelly message to his attentive students.
            “I think it might serve as a metaphor, too,” he told them. His class by now was rapt, leaning forward, intrigued by what “Professor P.” was saying. “I never felt this before,” he continued. “I always had a voice.” He looked around the room and smiled. The class smiled back and nodded.
            “Maybe some of you have felt this way all along,” he said. “Women . . . and minorities . . . and gays. Maybe you’ve known for a long time what it means to not have a voice. Maybe those of you who are shy or lonely know. Those who are different in any way—to feel that you don’t have a voice.” The students were riveted now by the power of his metaphor.
            Having seized upon a “teachable moment,” Professor P. related the point to the aim of his lesson—that Thomas Jefferson alone was able to articulate a voice for those colonists who objected to a king denying them a say in the conduct of their own affairs. That in the phrasing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had given vent to their frustrations and their passions. He had given them a voice.
            After weeks and weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, John’s prognosis is good. His doctors are hopeful that he will not need surgery to remove his larynx and guardedly optimistic that as his vocal chords heal from the barrage of radiation, he will recover his voice.
            I think of those who, metaphorically, have much less hope, of those who need not to “recover” their voice, but to “discover” it for the first time. How empowering that moment would be. When the poor pursue means to climb out of their penury, they have found a voice. When minorities refuse to accept that the color of their skin should hold them back they have found a voice. When women or gays or trans people insist that their gender or sexual orientation be respected in their fight for pay equity or civil rights, they have found their voice. Whenever any who feel disenfranchised in any way declare, “Enough! We’ve had enough! We’re not going to take it anymore!” they have found a voice.
            It is one thing to declare one’s passion, to have a voice, but quite another to attain one’s demands. As Professor P. would attest, the American Revolution dragged on from 1775 to 1783. But by conveying the frustrations and desires of the colonists in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson gave expression to their hopes and their dreams. He inspired them to fight against the odds. As with all who feel unrepresented or ignored, however, the journey started with discovering their voice.

            

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Walk to Remember

 
   Rich Albero has a long history as a generous soul. When we taught high school together in New York for twenty-five years, he would occasionally show up to school in the morning looking a bit rumpled and haggard, perhaps even unshaven. Some would make assumptions based on this appearance. He’d had a rough night, they’d think, or he didn’t care about how he looked. Both conclusions were right, but not for the reasons assumed.
            I knew that, in fact, Rich had arrived at school having volunteered to help supervise a homeless shelter in his hometown overnight. If he seemed less concerned with his own appearance, it was because he was more concerned with providing a warm meal and a safe bed for others in need. At school, he kept his work at the shelter to himself and asked me not to mention it to anyone. That selfless volunteer spirit spoke to who Rich was.
            It came as no surprise to me, then, when Rich began to talk last year about wanting to walk more than 1,200 miles from Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. That grand plan spoke of who he still is.
            Rich Albero is sixty-five years old now, retired several years from high school teaching and just this past year from teaching math at St. Petersburg College, not far from his home in Dunedin, Florida. Having travelled around the world as a young seaman in the U.S. Merchant Marine, Rich was later to take other trips of note with his nephew Gary Albero—a memorable excursion to the Grand Canyon, for example, or a drive up to Boston to cheer his beloved Yankees as they battled the Red Sox at Fenway.
            But now, his grandest of journeys, this trek from Tampa to the Bronx is a tribute to Gary, who died in the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. True to Rich and Gary’s generous spirits, the walk is also raising donations to the Wounded Warrior Project.
            The Yankees organization has been very supportive of his walk. In the first week of March, Rich started his journey from home plate at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, where in the midst of spring training the Yankees gave him an enthusiastic send-off. “See you in New York,” manager Joe Girardi said with a hug.
            With some help from a few sponsors—ionic sportwater, Brooks shoes, Tilley hats, Wyndham Hotels, and Wish You Were Here Productions, among others—Rich is now well past the half-way point of his journey. Calling on a small cadre of close friends or family as his support drivers, he recently made his way north through the Carolinas one step at a time. Now, in early May, with more than 800 miles behind him, he has reached the rolling hills of Richmond, Virginia.
            As he approaches Washington, D.C., I’m to join Rich as his support driver for a week. He’ll rise before dawn, do his morning exercises, then wake me for breakfast. Next, I’ll drive him to where he had ended the previous day’s walk, and he’ll resume his journey, aiming for another twenty miles that day. Around noon, Rich will call to tell me his location. Along with an afternoon’s supply of sportwater, I’ll bring his lunch and a bucket of ice water to soak his feet mid-day. Following that, he’ll resume his walk until late afternoon or early evening, when I’ll pick him up and drive him to our next hotel. After a hearty dinner, it’ll be early to bed and up again before dawn.
            Rich hopes to reach New York City by Memorial Day weekend. There he will lay a commemorative wreath beneath Gary’s name at Ground Zero. He will end his walk with a ceremony at home plate before a game at Yankee Stadium, a fitting conclusion to a selfless journey by a sixty-five-year-old Yankee fan who walked more than 1,200 miles from spring training to a home game in the Bronx to honor his nephew and our wounded warriors.

Follow Rich Albero’s progress and donate if you can at www.richardsyankeeswalk.org

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Going Home to a Place I'd Never Known

                 When I was a child, my father would regale my sisters and brothers and me with countless family stories of his youth and young manhood in the Bronx in the 1920s and ‘30s. But we knew little if anything of the life his own grandparents had left behind in Germany. Who were they? Where in Germany did they come from? What did they work at? Care about? What were their dreams? Why did they leave all they had ever known to come to this new land with its strange customs and language? And what became of them as they lived out the remainder of their lives in Massachusetts? It was all a mystery to us. 
                  His own father, Arthur Conrad Kersting, my paternal grandfather, had emigrated from Germany in 1880 as an infant in the arms of his mother and grew up in the only land he had ever known, as an American. In 1898, he served in the Spanish-American War, then in 1906 would wed Elizabeth O’Donnell in New York City. By the time my father was born in 1916, the Kerstings had fully assimilated as Americans for two generations.   
                  Through the burning curiosity of my sister Liz and that of our cousin Eddie, whose passion for family history I share, a family tree began to emerge. Resources such as Ancestry.com and immigration and census records began to provide a sense of who our people had been.
                  We had always heard that our paternal great-grandparents had “come from” Hamburg, in northern Germany. That turned out to be true—in a literal sense. Genealogical records would reveal that before they emigrated from the port of Hamburg, they had lived in the village of Ottensen, which is now part of greater Hamburg. But Johann Conrad Kersting, our paternal great-grandfather, had been born in Wiedenbrück, Germany, about 175 miles away, in 1848—exactly one hundred years before I was born in the Bronx. He would wed Leonore Baer in her hometown of Ottensen in 1876. Johann Conrad immigrated to New York City in May of 1880, some months after my grandfather was born. Leonore and the infant followed a few months later.
                In May of 2014, my wife, Rita, and I traveled to Weidenbrück in search of the place where so many generations of my ancestors had lived. But after 134 years, no one was home anymore. Before we left on our journey, I had tracked down on the Internet ten or so Kerstings in the Weidenbrück phone book. At our hotel in town, we connected with Renate Loebich, a local guide who confirmed for us that Kersting was indeed a local name in Weidenbrück. As our research had indicated, this is where the Kerstings had come from. With a promise to be in touch, Renate began to call the phone numbers I had shown her.
                  In the meantime, Rita and I began to scan the gravestones in the local cemetery. An abundance of Kersting headstones suggested that we were in the right place. Yet, while some of the given names were familiar, none of the dates coincided with our genealogical research. A visit to the cemetery office explained why. After a grave is unattended for thirty years, we were told, the plot reverts to the state, which routinely resells the gravesite. And so, 134 years later, the graves of our ancestors were as elusive as the stories of their lives. Local church and burial records from that long ago, it turns out, are stored in the state archives in the nearby town of Paderborn. We would save that research for another trip, another time.
                  A call from Renate assured us that all was not so bleak, however. She had contacted Anton Kersting, a retired local farmer who was eager to meet us. A few miles outside town we came to his farm, mostly fruit orchards and several acres of meadows now. Anton and his wife Karola met us at the door of their house, which has been in his family for three hundred years. As they spoke no English and my German was dusty at best, Renate translated. Despite the language barrier, they were warm and welcoming, as was evident in their eyes and their smiles.                  
                  To our dismay, though, we learned that Anton knew little more about his family history than we did ours. He had lost several uncles in the trenches of World War I, but beyond that—or perhaps somewhat because of it—his parents had spoken little of the past. Yet, in our search for common ancestral ground we discovered that our families shared our Catholic faith and several given names over the generations. We also shared some striking physical resemblances: height, body type, and several facial features. We departed with an invitation to return someday and hopes of doing so with my sister and some of my brothers. We were assured of a hearty welcome.  
                  Standing outside his door, Anton told us of a memory during World War II when he was a boy of five or six and allied planes were dropping bombs on a nearby farm owned by an SS general. Aside from that target, however, Wiedenbrück was spared destruction by the allied bombs, unlike the industrial sites in Germany. (As a port city, for example, 95% of Hamburg was  destroyed by allied bombings.) 
Today, many of the timber-framed houses and shops, some dating to the Middle Ages, survive in Wiedenbrück much as they were when my ancestors walked the streets of the town two centuries ago. The building next door to our hotel was in the midst of a renovation, though. “That used to be a cigar factory,” Renate told us, striking yet another genealogical chord. We had learned a while back from U.S. census records that Johan Conrad was listed as a cigar maker when he emigrated from Germany in 1880. This former cigar factory in the center of Wiedenbrück was likely where he had learned his trade as a young man. 
                  Built in 1505, the Roman Catholic church of St. Aegidius in the center of town, was where generations of our Kersting ancestors would have worshipped. For me the most striking feature of this historic church was not its medieval stone tower, not the bullet holes from the Thirty Years War, not its impressive gothic arches, nor its elaborately etched stone pulpit. Not its carved wooden statues, its well-preserved confessionals, not even its magnificent stained glass windows nor its historic wooden doors. I was drawn instead to the stone baptismal font atop a small pedestal of carved arches and biblical scenes. This is the font where generation after generation of Kerstings were Christened as infants, just as their descendants are today in “the new world.” 
                  In hopes of finding a connection, I had come to the town where generations of my ancestors had lived out their hopes and dreams. I had arrived with a vague notion of what I might find. Having walked the same streets my ancestors had trod, eaten local traditional food, and sampled the warm hospitality—the Gemütlichkeit—of the townspeople today, I came away with a distinct sense of the place, both present and past. As the language my ancestors had left behind now echoed in my mind, I found, in the end, that you can go home again, even after 134 years.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Me and My Shadow and Bobby McGee

          The commonplace use of “Me and my . . .” as the subject of a sentence has long been the bane of English teachers everywhere. “Me and my friends went to the mall,” students will say. Or “Me and Harry are going out for football.” Consider this exchange I had with a student a few years ago:

                       Clara: “Can me and Amy go to Guidance?”
                     Me: “May.”
                     Clara: What?”
                     Me: “May Amy and I go to Guidance?”
                     Clara: “You need to go to Guidance? Me and Amy do too.”
                     Me: “I think I actually do, right about now.”

          She hadn’t a clue. But the “Me and my . . .” phrasing has a long history in American popular culture. In 1917, the song “For Me & My Gal” was a vaudeville hit. “Me and my Shadow” was a popular 1927 song that was revived periodically down through the decades. In 1932, the movie “Me And My Gal” starred Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett. Ten years later, “For Me & My Gal” was heard again in the film of that title, starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. And DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox are aiming for a 2015 or ’16 release of a 3-D animated film entitled “Me and My Shadow.” So the phrasing has long been enshrined in the language and, it seems, will continue to endure for the younger generations.
            The ungrammatical construction “me and . . .” as the subject (doer) of a sentence, then, is by now ubiquitous. How often do we hear, “Me and my friend” used to start a sentence? And it’s not just the younger generations who do so. It’s so entrenched in the vernacular, that we’re likely to hear it voiced in everyday conversations, interviews across the social spectrum, TV scripts and commercials, and, of course, on social media. The mistake occurs so often now that it actually sounds “right” to many, perhaps to most. My wife kids me that I must be wrong about it, but its frequency is precisely what makes it so challenging for young people, in particular, to overcome. It simply sounds so “right.”
            The problem is with the pesky pronoun—is it “I” or “me”? Grammatically, it should be “My friend and I” as the subject of a sentence, which is usually found before the verb, that is, to the left of the verb, in English. I used to teach my students a sure-fire means of knowing which pronoun to use. In the sentence “My friend and (I or me?) went to the movies,” I’d tell them to mentally remove the words “My friend and” to make their ears reliable again. We would never be tempted to say “Me went to the movies,” and so we should never say, “My friend and me went to the movies.” Just as “I” do things, “My friend and I” do things.
            In 1971, Janis Joplin’s version of the hit song “Me and Bobby McGee” entrenched another grammatical error in the vernacular of American youth:
                But feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues, 
               You know feeling good was good enough for me, 
               Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.                                       
Joplin’s posthumous version of the song, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, would become one of the greatest blues rock classics, and deservedly so. Her rendition exudes the blues, imbuing the lyrics with a depth of raw aching feeling unparalleled in any other cover of the song. Even today it is revered as one of the best rock songs of all time.
            The phrasing “for me and Bobby McGee” is actually grammatical: “Good enough for me”—remember to remove the words “and Bobby McGee” to make your ear reliable again. But the phrasing ignores the grammatical etiquette of putting oneself last. (Perhaps it can be forgiven, since “Good enough for Bobby McGee and me” just doesn’t scan.) “Me and my friend” ignores the etiquette too. But “My friend and me” is still inappropriate as a subject (doer) in a sentence. It’s a matter of grammatical case, one of the few areas where English is still an inflected language. That is, while meaning is usually conveyed by the placement of words in an English sentence, English words still inflect, or change their form, in a few instances. Whether a personal pronoun like I, he, she, or they changes its form to us, him, her, or them) depends on whether we're using it as the subject (doer) of a sentence (usually before, or to the left of, the verb) or as an object (usually after, or the right of the verb or preposition). So we would say, “My friend and I gave him the tickets,” but “He gave the tickets to my friend and me.) Just remember to mentally remove “and me” to make your ear reliable again. No one would be tempted to say, “He gave the tickets to I.”
          The English language—especially the vitality of spoken American English—continues to evolve every year. Who knows? Perhaps “Me and my friends went to the mall” may someday be widely embraced as grammatically correct. We used to make a distinction between shall and will when I was a boy, and we’re in the midst of such a shift with who/whom today. But we’re not quite there yet, and we’re still a far way off from “Me and my friends” as the subject of a sentence being acceptable. But then, what it always comes down to, I think, is whether or not we see language as power. For those of us aware of the distinction, and there are still many of us out there, to which candidate are we likely to offer the job? The one who says, “Me and my last boss thought I should take a risk on that project.” Or the one who says, “My last boss and I . . .” ?
            

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Irish Famine "Coffin Ships"



          Alongside the River Liffey in the heart of Dublin’s modern financial district, Rita and I recently came upon a cluster of bronze statues—gaunt, despairing, their meager belongings clutched to their chests--walking  to the docks. They are among a host of memorials commemorating the 150th anniversary of An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, as the Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852 was known at the time. Docked along the quays nearby is the Jeanie Johnston, a replica of a tall ship that made sixteen crossings to Canada and America carrying a cargo of Irish emigrants. The ship is a famine museum and testament to the millions who escaped An Gorta Mor.     
         As a means of clearing the land for the more profitable raising of livestock, it was often cheaper for landlords in Ireland during the famine to pay for steerage passage aboard a cargo ship to America, Canada, or Australia, rather than evict their tenants. Unlike those in steerage class aboard most other famine ships of the time, however, no emigrant aboard the Jeanie Johnston died during the dangerous sea crossing of nearly two months, thanks largely to an enlightened captain and his ship’s doctor. Most of those ships did not even have a ship’s doctor on board. Called “coffin ships” for their deplorable overcrowding, scant provisions, and inadequate ventilation, 30% of their steerage passengers were said to have succumbed to cholera, typhus, and other diseases in the cramped quarters and to be buried at sea.  

            On a road beside Clew Bay in County Mayo, in the village of Murrisk near the town of Westport, sits The Coffin Ship, the Irish National Famine Monument at the foot of the sacred mountain, Croagh Patrick. A stylized bronze sculpture dedicated in 1997, it is a stunning sight.
             The ship is an abstract rendering of a three-masted cargo ship, sails unfurled, the main deck and hull diminutive in scale. A green patina mottles the sides of the ship as the bronze oxidizes, suggesting perhaps the ravages of the sea during the arduous crossing. With their abbreviated double yardarms, the three masts resemble crosses, symbolizing the torment of the ship’s human cargo. But most poignant of all are the skeletal figures that seem to leap and arc, as if caught in ferocious sea gales as they escape the ship. This image of departing spirits is stark and haunting.
             What strike me most about the memorial are the dreams of those who did not live to see the other shore and the legacy of those who did. How many of those who perished on the infamous coffin ships left on board sons, daughters, spouses, extended family who lived to see the crossing completed, the dreams pursued and one day fulfilled, in their lifetimes or in those of their children or grandchildren? Who might have been among them in the long lists of our own ancestors? Whose immigrant dreams may we, ourselves, be living, one hundred and fifty years later?

Publications

  • "Betting the Farm," PUTNAM Magazine, The Journal News, Summer 2008 (See link below.)
  • "So How Does My Garden Grow?" in Why Am I Doing This? Purposeful Teaching Through Portfolio Assessment, ed. Giselle O. Martin-Kniep, Heinemann, 1998
  • "What Maisie Knew," LEITRIM GUARDIAN Magazine, County Leitrim, Ireland, 1993 Annual
  • "Climbing Cuilcagh Mountain," LEITRIM GUARDIAN Magazine, County Leitrim, Ireland, 1990 Annual
  • "Administrative Jargon as a Barrier to Effective Communication," NASSP Bulletin, Journal of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, May 1984 (See link below.)
  • "Local Folk Legends: Learning From an Irish Model," The English Record, Journal of the New York State English Council, Third Quarter, 1984
  • "The Other Ireland," CARA Magazine (Dublin), Nov.-Dec. 1982
  • "Through a Glass Darkly," The Distorted Image of the Irish in America," SUNDAY Magazine (Gannett Suburban Newspapers), White Plains, NY, March 18, 1979