Recent passings in the Irish and Irish-American communities.
1946 – 2013
Northern Irish civil rights and labor activist Inez McCormack died late January. She was 66. McCormack, who once said, “There is no fun in being the first woman on anything,” served on numerous boards as the sole female representative, and broke the glass ceiling in labor and politics as the first full-time female official in the National Union of Public Employees, the first female regional secretary of UNISON, the largest union in Britain, and the first female President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
A labor activist since the 1960s, McCormack was a signatory to the 1984 MacBride Principles, a code of conduct for U.S. companies investing in Northern Ireland demanding religious equality in employment, and later helped broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement from behind the scenes.
McCormack was also the founder and advisor of the Belfast-based Participation and the Practice of Rights organization (PPR), which works to change the social and economic inequalities of disadvantaged communities using a rights-based approach.
In 2010, McCormack’s life was portrayed by Meryl Streep in the Broadway documentary play Seven, in which seven playwrights created an ensemble detailing the lives of seven women who have championed change for equality in their home countries. Streep said in a statement, “She gave voice to women who had no say in their lives, and hope to others who marked her example. I salute her life.”
Among her many awards for her civil rights activism, most recently McCormack was named as one of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Shake the World” in 2011, along with Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, Michelle Obama and others.
She is survived by her husband Vincent, her daughter, Anne, and two grandchildren. – A.F
1954 – 2012
Dennis O’Driscoll, a poet lauded for his witty, penetrating and poignant attention to contemporary life, died suddenly at the end of December. Friends said that O’Driscoll, 58, had been struggling for some time with an undisclosed illness. He is survived by his wife, the Irish American poet Julie O’Callaghan.
In addition to his poetry (he was the author of nine collections, most recently Dear Life), O’Driscoll was a critic and the force behind Seamus Heaney’s definitive 2008 biography, Stepping Stones. He had also worked in Dublin for over 40 years as a civil servant with the Revenue Commissioners, where he specialized in “death duties, stamp duties and customs.”
O’Driscoll was born in Mullauns, near Thurles in Co. Tipperary, in 1954 to James and Catherine O’Driscoll. He was the eldest of 5 siblings, all of whom possessed an artistic bent, and he knew from an early age that he wanted to be a poet. Practical as he was creative, he joined Ireland’s Civil Service at 16 and pursued further education at University College Dublin, where he studied at the Institute of Public Administration.
The Civil Service would prove to be a fount of inspiration, as O’Driscoll’s poetry zeroed in on quotidian terrains such as office culture, routine, and polite conversation. As “No Thanks,” one of his most famous poems, put forth: “No, I don’t want to drop over for a meal / on my way home from work. / No, I’d much prefer if you didn’t feel obliged / to honour me by crashing overnight. / No, I haven’t the slightest curiosity about seeing how your attic conversion finally turned out.”
For Stepping Stones he won the Lannan literary award, the EM Forster award of the American Academy of Letters, the O’Shaughnessy award from the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas, and the Argosy non-fiction book of the year award.
O’Driscoll and O’Callaghan met at a reading by Heaney at the Lantern Theatre, Dublin, in 1974, and later made their home in Naas, Co. Kildare. He is also survived by his brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.
Interviewed by the Irish Times in 2000, he spoke of his dual lives: “In the Civil Service you are assigned a grade. You know your status. Whereas with poetry, you never retire and you never really know your grade – it will be assigned posthumously.”– S.L.
1951 – 2013
Irish political activist and former Provisional IRA member Dolours Price, who was imprisoned with her sister Marion for the 1973 Old Bailey bombings in London, was found dead in her home outside of Dublin in January. She was 61.
Price had been in poor health since her time in prison, where she was force-fed during a 203-day hunger strike. She was eventually released on humanitarian grounds after being diagnosed with tuberculosis and other ailments in 1981, having served seven years of a life sentence.
Price was an unapologetic republican, repeatedly criticizing the peace process for leaving Northern Ireland where it started: under British rule. She was also a vehement opponent of Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin for their role in negotiating the settlements.
Since 2010, Price, and her relationship with Adams, had come under intense public scrutiny, when she revealed to The Irish News that she had given interviews to Boston College’s oral history “Belfast Project.” She implicated Adams as her Commanding Officer in the IRA, attesting that he ordered the London car bombings at Old Bailey’s in which over 200 people were injured, and that she also carried out numerous kidnappings and executions of IRA informers at his command.
Adams denies involvement in the IRA, but the tapes themselves have been the subject of debate since a 2011 request by the Northern Ireland police to have access to the recordings was denied by Boston College and further blocked in 2012 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Price was married to actor Stephen Rea until their divorce in 2003. She is survived by Rea and their two sons Danny and Oscar, as well as her brothers Sean and Dino, and her two sisters Clare and Marion, who is currently in prison on charges of plotting a republican attack on the government. – A.F.
1941 – 2013
Tony Sheridan, an early collaborator, mentor, and fellow Hamburg red light district musician of The Beatles, died late February at the age of 72. He had recently undergone heart surgery.
Anthony Esmond Sheridan Mc-Ginnity, or “The Teacher,” as Paul McCartney sometimes called him, was born to an Irish middle-class family in Norwich, England in 1941. After a childhood education in classical music, by 1956 Sheridan had learned guitar and formed his first band. In 1958 he moved to London to play the Soho scene and reputedly became the first British musician to play an electric guitar on television.
Despite a lifetime of collaborations with famed musicians like Chubby Checker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent, Sheridan is perhaps best remembered for his formative role in The Beatles’ genesis. He allegedly is responsible for their early black skinny jeans and leather bomber jacket look and was the first to bring them into a Hamburg studio as his backup band in 1961. They recorded what would be the first “Tony Sheridan and The Beat Brothers” hit, a rocked up version of the Scottish folk waltz, “My Bonnie.”
“What a silly choice,” Sheridan recalled later. “But [the studio] said we had to do something that the Germans would understand, and they all learned ‘My Bonnie’ in English lessons.”
More recently, Sheridan corresponded with musicologist Toru Mitsui for a scholarly paper about those early Beat Brothers sessions, and released a solo album in 2002 titled Vagabond. He had lived in Hamburg more-or-less permanently since he went to play the clubs in 1960.
Tony Sheridan’s third wife, Anna, died in 2011. He is survived by two daughters and three sons. – A.F.
1922 – 2013
Josephine Stout was the oldest known undocumented Irish immigrant living in the U.S. until she finally received her green card in September, 2012. Her death at the end of February came just four weeks before she was to receive her naturalization papers. She was 90 years old.
Stout was brought to the U.S. by her parents at 18 months. When older, she worked odd jobs until the first of three children was born in 1944. She stayed in her home neighborhood in South Chicago where nobody ever questioned her citizenship status; she always assumed she was one.
One of 12 siblings, Stout remembered sneaking into the nearby stockyards to milk cows so her family would have milk. She never had an easy life, but after a series of tragedies she could no longer support herself. Her son was murdered in 1985, and in 1992 her daughter Deborah was stabbed to death, following which, Stout won custody of her seven children. When her husband died in 1996, she needed to apply for public assistance.
Then, at a routine financial services check-in in 1999, Stout was asked for verification of either legal residency or citizenship but couldn’t produce any, never having had a driver’s license, passport, or birth certificate; she was removed from financial assistance and became undocumented overnight. It would take another 12 years of struggling to make ends meet before a bilateral effort between the U.S. and Ireland that involved months of looking at microfiche, literally digging through archives, and the beneficence of local charities would confirm her legal immigration status.
Stout’s granddaughter, Sandi Stout, told the Chicago Tribune that despite her grandmother’s burdens and never officially naturalizing, Josephine “always believed in her heart that she was an American.” She was born in Limerick in March, 1922. – A.F.
1941 – 2013
Walt Sweeney, a San Diego Chargers Hall-of-Famer and All-Pro offensive guard who had deeply criticized the Chargers for fostering a culture of drug abuse that led to his own addiction, died of pancreatic cancer in February in his San Diego home. He was 71.
Walter Francis Sweeney was born in 1941 in Cohasset, MA, the youngest of seven children of Mary Ann McCormick and Jack Sweeney. He attended Syracuse University on a football scholarship, which was revoked after he was involved in a drunken brawl. A wealthy benefactor paid for his final year.
After graduating in 1963, Sweeney was a first-round draft pick and headed to San Diego where he later revealed that coaches and trainers would offer players prescription drugs, amphetamines, sedatives, and steroids on game days. Either because of or in spite of these tactics, the Chargers had a championship season his first year on the team, finishing 11-3. It remains the only championship season San Diego has had in its 50-year history.
At 6 foot 4 inches and 256 pounds, Sweeney was a dynamo on the field and a force to be reckoned with throughout his 13-year career, but once out of the NFL his substance abuse increased.
In 1997, Sweeney filed a lawsuit against the trustees of the NFL pension plan. He argued that his time in the drug culture of the Chargers directly contributed to his life-long struggles with addiction and that the NFL should be required to take greater responsibility for the fates of retired players. The judge ruled in his favor, awarding him $1.8 million in damages, but the case was later overturned by an appeals court. Nonetheless, Sweeney’s lawsuit opened the floodgates for the numerous litigations since that are forcing the NFL to reconsider how they treat and compensate retired players.
Sweeney had been sober for the past several years and is survived by his daughter Kristin and his son Patrick. – A.F.