During the months of lockdown Irish America ventured into video-presenting Emma Donoghue and Timothy Egan were interviewed by Tom Deignan. We also partnered with Northwell to support its presentation of Michael Dowling discussing his new memoir, After The Roof Caved In, with Timothy Egan asking the questions. We bring you highlights from those conversations in the following pages. Visit us at www.irishamerica.com to watch the entire broadcasts.
Emma Donoghue Looks to the “Stars”
Best-selling Dublin-born author Emma Donoghue started working on her latest novel The Pull of the Stars in the fall of 2018. The initial inspiration was the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, which ravaged the world, forcing millions into quarantine, and upending life in the United States, Ireland and all over the world.
Donoghue was finishing this book (just released by Picador in paperback) in the late winter of 2020 – just as the world began to hear about a certain new virus that would go on to upend the lives of millions.
“I was so immersed in the book that I didn’t really notice COVID starting,” Donoghue told Irish America, while sitting on the porch of her home in London, Ontario, during a recent Zoom chat.
So, what had initially been planned as a portrait of a Dublin maternity ward nurse, amidst the last days of World War I and the aftermath of the Easter Rising, also became a very 2020 kind of story.
The Pull of the Stars (the title comes from the Italian root of the word influenza – the disease was traditionally attributed to the “influence” of the stars) unfolds over the course of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day in 1918. Various priests, nuns and orderlies are on hand, commenting about the expectant mothers – many from the slums, “banjaxed by their lives,” as Donoghue puts it – as well as the pandemic, the war, and the recent uprising by Irish rebels aiming to end British rule in Ireland.
Donoghue’s narrator, a nurse named Julia Power, tends to her patients, as well as a brother at home, until a mysterious figure drifts into her life. In the end, she has to make a difficult choice, given her time, place and circumstances.
One of the most fascinating supporting characters is Kathleen Lynn, a forgotten, groundbreaking female medical professional, who was also chief medical officer for Sinn Féin.
“Any good historical novel is always going to have echoes of what is going on in the writer’s own world,” said Donaghue, best-known for her celebrated novel Room, which became an acclaimed Hollywood film starring Brie Larson, for which Donoghue earned an Oscar nomination in the Best Adapted screenplay category.
Room – about a mother and son attempting to escape the clutches of a man who is holding them hostage – also won a slew of Canadian and Irish film awards, including best movie in both countries.
If Room and Pull of the Stars seem wildly different, Donoghue says there is a theme that runs through much of her work, which now includes nearly a dozen novels, as well as books of short stories and non-fiction.
“I’m very interested in people who find themselves in new worlds,” says Donoghue, whose own life has included quite a few moves, and efforts to adapt to new environments.
She was born in Dublin, one of eight children raised by her mother, Frances, and father Denis, the celebrated literary critic.
Donaghue left Dublin at 20 to pursue a Ph.D. at Cambridge, and later settled in Canada, where she is raising her children, Finn and Una, with her partner, Chris.
“I’ve emigrated twice, which is extremely Irish of me, I suppose,” says Donoghue. “I’ve been out of Ireland longer than I was in it. But those first 20 years shaped me, and I’ll be Irish for the rest of my life. … The flavor is cooked deep into the bone.”
That certainly fits the next film project Donoghue is working on, an adaptation of her 2016 novel, The Wonder, about an Irish girl tended to by an English nurse, who may (or may not) have decided to stop eating, in the years after the Irish Famine.
As for Donoghue’s life during the COVID pandemic, it did shut down a stage production of Room that was slated for a March opening. She does miss travelling, and was unable to take an annual family trip to Ireland.
Overall, though, Donoghue says she has been fortunate enough.
“A writer’s life is fairly locked down anyway,” she said. “We stay home and read and write and talk to imaginary people in our heads.”
See the entire interview at https://irishamerica.com/2020/07/the-pull-of-the-stars/
A Long Way From Limerick
From an impoverished youth in Limerick to the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.
Timothy Egan interviews Michael Dowling
During a December 2020 live virtual conversation sponsored by Northwell Health, Irish America magazine, and Irishcentral.com, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan covered a lot of history with Limerick born and current Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling.
Dowling’s tough early years coming of age in Knockaderry, the oldest of five children, raised by two disabled parents, and his journey from a home with a thatched roof and mud floor, to a position in the New York State Governor’s office, to leading the largest medical system in New York State, are covered in his memoir After the Roof Caved In: An Immigrant’s Journey from Ireland to America.
Timothy Egan began the interview by candidly stating that he did not know Michael Dowling but from reading his written work felt he knew him well, and would welcome him as a friend.
“This extraordinary book…is the most improbable life story I’ve read in some time,” raved Egan, himself the author of many best-selling books, about the Dust Bowl and Irish rebel Thomas Meagher, among others.
In fact, Egan connected his Dust Bowl research to Dowling’s impoverished youth in Ireland.
“You lived under a thatched roof, with a mud floor. It seems like something from centuries ago. But surely, it’s still a big part of who you are, is it not?” Egan asked.
“I’ll never forget those times,” Dowling responded. “I recall it just like it was yesterday. I actually built a model of that house, because I wanted to remember, and recall what it was like. I built all the furniture, just the way the bedrooms were, and the living room. It’s something that I recall constantly, to recall how fortunate I’ve been.”
Egan then wondered if Dowling understood, at the time, that he was living a life of “utter privation.”
Dowling said: “I knew we were worse off than most who lived around us. I knew all the families that were in other homes similar to mine. But I didn’t think that I lived in utter deprivation at that time. Your perspective is different. I didn’t know anyone in really beautiful homes. But I (also) knew there were others worse off than we were.”
At one point, Egan pointed out that while America often views itself as a “classless society,” Dowling’s book is explicit about “an underlying class tension in Ireland,” which Dowling said bothered him when he was younger.
“People (felt) they were more sophisticated than you just because they had material goods,” Dowling added. “That they’re entitled. And I would get angry about this. I decided that I was going to break out of that circumstance. I am not going to be in this circumstance forever. I am going to do something, go someplace, try something different. I am not going to play victim. I am not going to be a victim.”
Dowling continued: “I did not have any idea how. There’s a part of the book when a person says to me, “Isn’t it too bad you can’t go to college. Which, by the way, it was probably one of the most motivating statements anybody ever said to me. I remember walking back to the fields after that statement was made and every step I said to myself: I’m going to college, I’m going to college, I’m going to college. I’m going to prove I’m good enough to go to college. I am not going to take that put down as a put down. I’m going to take it as a motivator.”
Which is all well and good. But as Egan acknowledged, things could have gone very differently for Michael Dowling.
“You could have turned into a bitter man,” Egan said. “Your father didn’t get the farm. Your mother was deaf. Why didn’t you become a bitter man?”
Dowling quickly responded that such emotions are “a distraction from what it is you want to do. Why spend your energy on stuff that doesn’t really make an awful lot of difference? I had a lot of empathy for my mother. She was deaf, but she taught us a wonderful lesson. She never, ever, would recognize that she had any form of disability. She never let her deafness ever impede on anything she ever wanted to do. She didn’t have a hearing aid that worked. But she never saw it as a handicap in any way.”
Dowling added: “My father’s circumstance, obviously it was difficult for him. He could be kind and angry and violent all at the same time. You never knew what you were going to come home to. But I looked upon it as – I was the oldest. I had a responsibility to the family. And I had a responsibility to do something special and make a difference and do something with my life. I wasn’t going to be confined to that. That was the one thing I knew from the very beginning.”
Egan then pointed out that given the general lack of opportunity around Dowling in Ireland, others actually could have accused him of having a superior attitude, with his big goals and unlikely dreams.
“That also happened when I came to the United States,” Dowling recalled. “When I came here and I was working down at the docks, and when I was working in construction. I ended up going to Fordham University, and I ended up becoming a professor at Fordham. When they found out that I was actually teaching at Fordham, their attitude toward me changed. I was no longer one of the guys. Even though I was. I was just doing something else. I hadn’t ever told them that I was teaching at Fordham because I enjoyed the camaraderie. But their attitude had changed.”
As a writer who closely follows political developments, Egan couldn’t let Dowling go without asking about his work in government with New York Governor Mario Cuomo.
“Government is criticized often, these days,” Egan noted. “Do you think government gets a bad rap?”
Dowling agreed, noting that government made necessities ranging from highways and libraries to schools possible.
“Government was in many ways, the innovator for an awful lot like that. And public health issues. I could go on and on,” Dowling said.
“I was also amazed at the number of bright, committed, dedicated, compassionate people that worked in government, that gave their careers to the government. They believe in public service, in doing good for other people. They understand that sense of community.”
No organization is perfect. . . Government makes mistakes, it over-regulates, you get too micro at times. Like every organization. We have to find that balance.”
Some of the most poignant moments in Dowling’s book are the sections in which he writes about personal depression. Egan noted, “We’re in one of the darkest periods in American life right now. Can you give us any guidelines, or insights, about getting through that?”
Dowling recalled: “I went through a bad period around 1975. Physically, I was in a lot of pain from a bad back. I had left home when I was 16 and had been by myself since then. I had longings for home. It was a period when I wasn’t sure what the future was going to hold.”
And though Dowling says he didn’t get any professional help with his depression, he “worked his way through it,” he is a big supporter of people who do get help, especially as we continue to struggle with all that the Coronavirus pandemic has wrought.
“Today, I would say that if you’re in that situation, you should get some professional help. (And) you have to look over the horizon a little bit, and be a little bit optimistic about the future and be positive about what can happen post-COVID. Out of a bad situation, there is light at the end of the tunnel. So you’ve got to be looking at that.”
Dowling, of course, understands that this may not be easy, especially for the Irish. Flashing his trademark wit, he added: “You know, Irish people …. They don’t even like to ask for directions.”
See the entire interview at https://irishamerica.com/2020/12/after-the-roof-caved-in-an-immigrants-journey-from-ireland-to-america/
Timothy Egan: An Irish Pilgrim
It’s a good thing that the big questions about the big things – God, mortality, our legacies – hit Timothy Egan a few years back. Because if they had struck him in 2020, he would have had to ponder them from his home office in Seattle, rather than embark upon the amazing journey that is at the center of his latest book.
“I’d stopped thinking about these big questions,” Egan told Irish America recently via Zoom.
“I had gotten to a point in my life where my spiritual thinking had become sort of lazy. … So I thought, what can I do to get these engines started, to provoke an internal discussion, to test my faith, to get rid of my agnosticism and see where I could go.”
For the Irish-American New York Times columnist and author, the result was A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of Faith, recently released in paperback.
“I found this fabulous pilgrimage … the Via Francigena,” Egan continued, “which goes from Canterbury in England all the way to Rome and was once used by a million people a year. It’s 1100 miles. It’s now a European cultural route. And so I went the entire distance of the Via Francigena as a way to push my buttons and to test my own faith.”
A Pilgrimage to Eternity also explores Egan’s own Irish Catholic upbringing, and the state of this ancient faith in the 21st Century, all as Egan hikes his way across Europe. Along the way, Egan is communicating with the Vatican, and, in the end, just might conclude this pilgrimage by sitting down with the pope himself.
Pope Francis was an inspiration for Egan’s spiritual journey.
“(He is) the only pope to take the name of Francis, the pauper who changed the world in the 12th century – and (Francis’) leading by example on climate change, on charitable actions towards your fellow human beings, washing the feet of the lame and the poor, people who live in the shadows. I find him very inspiring.”
The real start of Egan’s spiritual journey came when he was born into what he calls “a classic Irish American family.”
He adds: “First Communion was a very big deal. The priest lived across the street. The families that I hung out with had like lots of kids. The Flynns had 12 kids. Another family had 14 kids.
Our seven kids, making a family of nine, was relatively normal. This is in the 60s and 70s…so I had a relatively happy Irish American childhood.”
At an early age, Egan grasped the complex role religion played in Irish life and history.
“The Irish had clung to Catholicism as a way to defy the British when they tried to strip them of their ethnicity and their faith. That was an important thing that was drilled into me, that in America they couldn’t take away this faith of yours. So the cultural part of it was a big deal.”
Egan’s own background also led him to his previous book, about 19th century revolutionary and Civil War general Thomas Francis Meagher, The Immortal Irishman.
“You see in his short life – he only lived to be 43 – almost the entire arc of 19th century Irish Americanism.
“All the stuff that you see coursing through our low points of history, thrown at the Irish and thrown at people like Meagher. … He was a world-renowned figure. He was the best-known Irish American until John F. Kennedy came along. But he still took up the cause of the poor. He still took up the cause of new immigrants, and he took up the cause of anti-slavery, saying that the way for the Irish to become a part of this country was to prove it by blood itself. And they fought, I mean, some of the greatest battles of the civil war. Some of the greatest warriors were new immigrants. And it was tough for Meagher to lose so many of those people. So he’s a wonderful figure.”
And even though the Via Francigena does not cross Ireland, the impact of Irish Catholics over the centuries was still clear.
“For a tiny little nation, I found the influence of these Irish monks all over the Via Francigena. And that alone…as someone who values his heritage to that tiny island. My tracing my people to that island, that alone was worth it for me.”
See the entire interview at https://www.irishamerica.com/2020/10/a-modern-day-pilgrimagean-interview-with-tim-egan/ ♦