Thursday 17 October 2019

Review: An Irish Voice by Niall O'Dowd

From house painter to power-broker

Hold the front page: Niall O'Dowd pictured at the printing press of the Irish Voice.
Hold the front page: Niall O'Dowd pictured at the printing press of the Irish Voice.

Tim Pat Coogan

Niall O'Dowd went from being an ordinary Irish emigrant to the US in the late '70s to playing a key role in the peace process. Tim Pat Coogan reviews his autobiography

I have always thought of Niall O'Dowd as the contemporary equivalent of John Boyle O'Reilly, the 19th-century Meath-born Irish nationalist who became both the foremost Irish-American journalist of his day and the leading proponent of a political, non-violent settlement of Ireland's difficulties.

I have known O'Dowd from the time of his early forays into journalism, as a contributor to that once great, enabling university of the talented, the Irish Press Group, through his foundation of The Irishman newspaper in San Francisco and subsequently the Irish Voice paper and Irish America magazine in New York.

I watched in admiration as he wove the insights, and the contacts he had made as a result of these ventures, into powerful coalitions that helped to produce Green Cards for his fellow emigrants and peace at home for his fellow Irishmen.

The path of a would-be leader of Irish-American opinion was, and is, a rocky one. Once, Niall and I joined in an effort spearheaded by Bob Callahan and a group of academics to found a serious Irish Quarterly -- over a lunch in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco's un-prepossessing Burbank district. The magazine had some of the brightest contributors around and should -- oh perilous word -- have prospered.

But Bob, in a laudable attempt to remind the Irish how much they and the blacks had in common in their battle against prejudice, produced the first edition of Callahan's Irish Quarterly with an arresting cover showing a typical Punch cartoon Irishman dancing a jig, with a shillelagh and -- a black face. Thit an spéir! "Who are you calling blacks?" demanded the angry, and consequently un-supportive, Irish-American readership. . .

Now Niall O'Dowd has written an outstanding book which tells, with sympathy, how such attitudes were formed. But An Irish Voice is more than that. On one hand, it is a classic work of emigrant literature which, in the Irish canon, deserves to be assessed alongside such works as Patrick McGill's Children of the Dead End and Donal MacAmlaigh's Diallan Diorat or, in the American, with Barak Obama's Dreams from my Father.

On the other, it is a fascinating tale of how, arriving in the US some 30 years ago as a penniless ex-teacher seeking work as a labourer, he rose to a position in American society wherein he has rubbed shoulders with Obama himself, to say nothing of the Clintons and the Kennedys.

Understandably, O'Dowd loves America for its opportunities and generosities. But he is Irish to his core, with all the emigrant's nostalgia for and irritation at the land that moulded, nurtured -- and ultimately failed them.

Every detail of the train journey to Dublin and the plane that first took him to America still abides with him. The cows scampering across sunlit fields to escape the noise of the train, the effort to deaden the pain of leaving his family and his first love, Jennie, by heading for the bar. The innocent, rough-hewn generosity of the working class Irish GAA supporters in Chicago who clubbed together to bring him out to play for their team, St Mel's.

Joe Gleeson, the chairman of the club, brought him home to stay with him, his kindly wife Sally and their two children, Kevin and Sean. Sally had to sleep on the couch for months while Niall had to acclimatise himself to the fact of sharing the marital bed with Joe, a 300lb (straight) Kerryman who had achieved modest success in the construction and furniture business. Nevertheless, he told Niall that he dreamed of Ireland "all night long". Sometimes his nostalgia overcame him so much that he would sing the 'Green, Green Grass of Home' until Sally called time on the rendition from the couch.

But not all the Irish were kindly Gleesons. Working as a builder's labourer, O'Dowd also encountered the sort of scumbag exploiter who destroyed the lives of so many Irish navvys on building sites in England and Ireland. A notorious slave driver, he first attempted to beat up O'Dowd and then defrauded him out of his desperately needed week's wages.

O'Dowd moved on to San Francisco, thereby missing the telegram that told him his beloved father had died of a heart attack and instead of returning immediately to Ireland, and, almost inevitably returning also to teaching and to Jennie, continued to live on in America, graduating from mixing cement and painting houses to building up The Irishman for the thousands of Irish emigrants who shoaled into the US during the 1980s.

When he moved on to New York a few years later to found the Irish Voice he was again ripped off, this time more seriously. Five thousand dollars of the money he had been loaned by Brendan Mac Lua and Jim Delaney of the Irish Post to set up the paper was stolen by a con artist who rented him a large office -- without owning it.

But, like Obama, O'Dowd has a "Yes we can" philosophy, a desire to reach across the barriers of prejudice and history, a love of his family, a sense of race and place, and, again like Obama, has an instinct for politics.

The importance of his description of his involvement in the Irish peace process is such that no scholar writing about the process can afford to ignore Niall O'Dowd's writings. But having said this, one has, in a sense, only described the surface of O'Dowd's life. For with enormous honesty, and readability, he describes his private wrestling bouts with the demons of sex, loneliness, drink, depression and poverty.

Loss of virginity, the fading of love of Jennie, the break up of his marriage to Pat, his subsequent marriage to Debbie and his joy in his daughter Alana are somehow all truthfully recorded with a blend of both candour and discretion.

Particularly relevant in view of the current debate over institutional abuse is his account of a horrific beating by a Christian Brother and its effect on deepening his sense of Catholic guilt for transgressions against "a punishing, not a loving, God".

Freud is quoted as saying that it is impossible to psychoanalyse an Irishman because of his Catholicity and denial, but a contemporary Jewish psychiatrist Mortimer Shapiro succeeded with O'Dowd after he had sought help for the depression that was threatening to destroy him: "I realised why I had practically gone nuts. . . after the oppressive moral climate of my upbringing. The drinking, the partying and the huge insecurities about myself were framed in a different context. . . I was able to close the door, albeit be it softly at first, on so much that had gone wrong for me and put it behind me."

O'Dowd's challenges are not over, the fast-moving changes in the media world guarantee that, but if any man can overcome the difficulties it is the author of An Irish Voice. Many, and influential, are his friends. Some, in fact, would say that in America, his is the Irish voice.

An Irish Voice, Niall O'Dowd (O'Brien Press, €14. 99)

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