An enlightening six-hour portrait of what the Irish have endured and what they’ve accomplished in the U.S. will be must-seeing for viewers with a heart. PBS’ lopsided scheduling won’t help the cause (with part three’s two complete episodes playing back to back), and what’s missing is surprising. But what’s here is rich in sadness, laughs and astonishments; it not only takes the cake, it eats it.
“Irish in America” proves an engrossing, revelatory study of a particularly special people. But there’s a definite feel of painting with a wide brush from a tube of generalizations. Dark recollections surface of Ireland’s onetime glorious days when superb art and literature were flourishing.
Ireland, Christianized by the 5th century’s St. Patrick, was blooming through the 1500s. The storytellers, descendants of poets attached to the courts of chieftains, had been the keepers of history — “the Gaelic aristocracy at its finest hour, before the disasters of the 17th century, when the British broke the power of the Catholic chieftains, took possession of their lands, sacked the castles, banned their faith.”
Views of now-ruined castles, of stony, moonlike landscapes and haunting music suggest the outcome of ancient troubles and poignant, instinctual memories, but what happened isn’t always clear.
The first two hours stick mostly to the old sod, harking back, way back, to misty times followed by the 1840s’ massive potato famine. In 1607, the year the English were settling Jamestown, the Irish began their emigration to the New World, where they arrived mostly as indentured servants and laborers.
In the States, Irish Catholics eventually began swarming into Protestant Boston, worrying the propers. The immigrants saved some of the pittance they earned to send home. The women hired on as domestics, called “Bridgets,” were considered stupid because they didn’t know of fine silver and tureens. The program flashes stills of sturdy young women decked out in starched maids’ outfits, and there are sadistic, anti-Irish cartoons about the ignorance of the girls.
There’s a sharp passage about Dublin-born John L. Mackay, who’d struck it obscenely rich in Nevada City’s Comstock Lode before moving on to Butte, Mont., where he dominated copper mining. He was disappointed when his uppity wife left him for New York, where she and her children were going to make the big splash in society. Snubbed because she had once been a Bridget, she ended up in Europe.
Docu also looks at the stories of Jack Kefoe, Alec Baldwin and the Molly Maguires, and John L. Sullivan’s tale is wonderful, replete with lively music and good pictures of the solid, bare-knuckled boxer. There were no rules, and anything was allowed, including biting noses and ears.
The Irish became a force in the United States — on Wall Street, in the theater, in literature and the arts, in sports and in politics. George M. Cohan was producing 10 shows a year in the 1920s, and NYC’s Mayor Jimmy Walker was riding high. The Irish were not just lower-class citizens any longer, with Joe Kennedy making millions out of booze and the market, F. Scott Fitzgerald penning major best-selling novels, champ Jack Dempsey at Madison Square Garden.
The film’s Eugene O’Neill segment plays to the Irish intellect just as its Kennedys section plays to the Irish spirit. The thoughtful, if too-brief, look, does cover O’Neill’s Irish sense of foreboding and guilt. Claire Bloom and Jason Robards read in voiceover from his autobiographical masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Irish Protestants get the short end of the shillelagh here, but under series producer Lennon’s sure-handed guidance, the program is entertaining, involving and, at times, amusing as well as dark. It’s eye-opening about not only the Irish but about America. Each chapter adopts a distinctly different tone.
The Irish Mafia, actors and directors, scientists, Ronald Reagan, the Fighting 69th, Audie Murphy, Joe McCarthy, Hollywood figures and the five Sullivan brothers who perished in World War II are passed over, but it can’t be helped. A million pounds of shamrocks can’t be crammed into a six-pound sack.
“The Irish in America,” astutely directed by Lennon and Mark Zwonitzer, counts off how the Irish have moved upward from deepest darkness to the top of the morning. The camerawork throughout is superb, the research enterprising, the editing exemplary. The score by Paddy Moloney, of the Chieftains, and Brian Keane is terrific, as are the mood-setting contributions of the vocalists and musicians. The whole production is as riveting as its subject matter.