New documentary on the Boys of St. Columbs

The college was founded 130 years ago and over the years has nurtured young male students, many of whom have made their mark in Ireland and beyond. In 1947 a new and revolutionary education law was introduced that allowed for the first time students from working class families to attend grammar schools in Northern Ireland.

A new documentary that will be aired on September 21 tells the story of eight of those former St. Columb's college boys who took advantage of the 1947 law and went on to distinguished careers.

The eight profiled in the film are: Nobel Prize winners Seamus Heaney (Literature), John Hume (Peace), singer & songwriter Phil Coulter, writer Seamus Deane, singer & songwriter Paul Brady, civil rights campaigner and writer Eamonn McCann, Irish ambassador James Sharkey, and retired Bishop of Derry, Dr. Edward Daly.

Not included in the documentary is Sir Declan Morgan, recently named the North's new Lord Chief Justice. This is, by any measurement, an extraordinary roster of accomplished graduates of a single school and a testimonial to the belated but amply justified legislation that opened up the educational track to worthy students regardless of wealth or social position.

Trouble In Paradise – It wasn't intended to be this way when the tony Ritz Carlton Hotel in Powerscourt, Co. Wicklow, opened two years ago, but along came the global economic crunch. As it stands today the Wicklow County Council is looking for payment of its $840,000 annual tax bill, while the Ritz owners have cited losses of $14 million since the beginning of 2008. The elegant hotel, which more than matches its lush surroundings, gets $330 for its cheapest rooms and the presidential suite rents for $7,000 a night. Built at a cost of $280 million, the hotel (which was completed after I last visited Powerscourt in 2001) is the latest in a series of upscale Irish hotels to report significant losses over the past two years. Dublin's Merrion Hotel lost nearly $4 million in a 22-month period in 2007-8, and the queen of historic Irish hotels, The Shelbourne, (my personal favorite) took a hit of $425,000 in the year following its $160 million renovation.

Controversy Fails To Dampen Presidential Medal – On August 12 at the White House a distinguished gathering of 16 internationally known super achievers gathered to receive from President Obama the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, our highest civilian honor. Among the honorees was Mary Robinson, former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Pro- Israeli lobbying groups in the US have attacked Mrs. Robinson for her harsh criticism of Israeli force against the Palestinians. Of course, that was her job. She also has come under attack for her stewardship of the controversial 2001 Durban conference in which she served as Secretary General.

In a nutshell, and in terms that we can all understand, the problem is that elements in the US and Israel governments and the major pro-Israel lobbying group here, AIPAC, are increasingly uncomfortable when Mrs. Robinson, who had the UN Human rights brief, speaks her mind. She has criticized human rights abuses wherever she has seen them, with little thought to the political fallout or the reaction to what she has characterized as offending and unacceptable government policies.

I first met then Senator Robinson and husband Nick for a brief Boston interview in the 1980s and later helped host a luncheon for her when she was president at the World Trade Center during an Irish trade festival, and have, without apology or preamble, admired this gutsy, dedicated international lawyer and activist for a quarter-century.

The caliber of former President Robinson's critics is typified by New York Congressman Peter King, who charges her with views "well out of the American foreign policy mainstream," accusing her of "coming down on the side against vibrant democracies such as Israel and the United States." More poppycock from the House member whom the Spectator Magazine calls "America's worst Congressman." And that's more than enough of Mr. King in this space.

Rickshaws, cattle rustling and bike riders – County Limerick isn't even in the far West of Ireland, let alone the old west, but that hasn't kept one enterprising Irishman from getting up before dawn and spiriting off with some of his neighbor's cattle. The rustled Holsteins are worth around $750 a head and that can be tempting. The early morning cattle raids, ranging back to 2006, were finally brought to a halt by a Gardai posse.

I recall seeing rickshaws decades ago in Taiwan but never in Galway city. In any event the Galway City Council is concerned with the growing numbers of rickshaws there and have called for an action plan. Whether the outcome is licensing (of course, with a fee) or restricting the use of the non-mechanized "Asian taxicab", the three-seat carriages on wheels pulled by people, that fate is in the hands of the council.

The Irish government is trying to get its civil servants out of their cars and onto bikes. To that end they are offering each of the 29,000 government employees a $1,400 tax break if they will commute to work by bike. To date a mere 191 have eschewed their cars and opted for a bike commute. This is not unlike the unrealized bureaucratic delusion of relocating thousands of civil servants voluntarily from the comfy confines of Dublin, Cork, and other urban centers to rural outposts in Connemara, the midlands, and similar out-of-the-way enclaves.

A Look Back – Thirty years ago this month, Sept. 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II arrived via Aer Lingus in Dublin for his eagerly anticipated three-day visit to overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland. He began his pilgrimage with an open-air Mass in Dublin's Phoenix Park before a crowd of more than a million. He later visited Maynooth and the hallowed remains of Clonmacnois, and celebrated Mass in Galway, Knock, and Limerick.

Not All Tourists Love US – A disgruntled woman named Sarah Mulvihill has a letter in the recent Irish World, the Irish paper of record in Britain, that excoriates the US customs and passport control people here. She has been to the US twice and finds the officials at United States gateways to be "gruff and rude ...acting like they are God almighty." Ms. Mulvihill, in her letter to the newspapers, goes on to say she is "appalled at the treatment of arriving visitors by custom officials."

She also complains that one is "treated as nothing more than a common criminal" and adds that she has traveled around the world and "the Americans are the only nation who treat holidaymakers like fugitives on arrival."

Has she got a point? When I come into Logan from Ireland or other countries (especially now with pre-clearance at Shannon, etc, on our Irish trips) it's a madhouse at the customs area but I have never felt abused or been treated like a criminal. Have I missed something? Do they know I am a home-towner? Whatever, I hope it goes better for her if there's a next time. We need the money.

Niall And His Voice's Narrow Perspective – I used to see Niall O'Dowd, the publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper and Irish America magazine, in airports or at various Irish events and he always looked like the type of guy who was trying to convince himself - and you - that if he only had more time he would chat you up at much greater length. Thanks anyway.

Publisher O'Dowd, who fancies himself a green guru, an amalgam of Hearst and Murdoch, got it terribly wrong recently when he poked through his tea leaves and divined that Hillary Clinton had said she would assume the special Irish envoy post. In the first place she never said it. What she did say was a" fulltime" envoy isn't needed because "This is not the 1990s. George Mitchell did his job and did it very well." And, of course, Hillary has a job already.

Then O'Dowd, under cover of unsigned editorials in the name of his Irish Voice ,blasts an Irish writer, Niall Stanage (who wrote an excellent book on Obama's campaign), for what O'Dowd calls a "major attack" on Irish America —is that us or his magazine? Stanage, in an Irish Times article last month, downplayed the importance today of Irish America's so-called "leaders." That, of course, would, rest assured, be O'Dowd and the New York claque who assumed ownership without papers of the peace process and have been patting themselves on the back ever since for having invented peace in Ireland.

Back to the unsigned O'Dowd editorial: In it he does not even try to rebut Stanage's dismissal of many of the self-styled Irish American hack leaders, but no, rather he goes after Stanage for being from the "Unionist tradition and [horrors] educated at Oxford." An ever-so-subtle appeal to quasi-racism, it seems to me.

O'Dowd also suggests that this writer from a unionist tradition might be in cahoots with the British government, alluding to a "script that the British government might be happy to write." When in doubt or under attack, accuse the opposition of being a "West Brit." But folks are wise to that by now.

Then, in another unsigned editorial, O'Dowd attacks Trina Vargo, a former Ted Kennedy aide who runs the US-Ireland Alliance. However, O'Dowd doesn't attack her policies but instead refers to her in a throw-away description as a "Portuguese American who compares Irish to pigs." (taken grossly out of context & totally distorted.) Vargo's mistake is that she also wrote an op-ed piece for the Irish Times that didn't genuflect in O'Dowd's direction and charged O'Dowd and some of his puffed-up Empire State crowd as radically unhinged when it came to strategy regarding the undocumented Irish.

So there you have it. Publisher O'Dowd is fighting for Truth, Justice, and the (Irish) American way, while he fends off Portuguese Americans and writers fatally tainted by the unionist tradition. Can't have them types elbowing the likes of O'Dowd and company off their hard-won precious center stage. Hey, they're the Irish American peacemakers. Pay attention out there.

Foynes, Flying Boats Mark Travel Milestone – Seventy years ago, July 9, 1939, Pan Am's luxury flying boat, the "Yankee Clipper," landed at Foynes, County Limerick - the first commercial passenger flight on a direct route from the USA to Europe. The Foynes site was first surveyed as a suitable European terminal for transatlantic air services in 1933 by Colonel Charles Lindbergh, who, with his wife Ann, flew into Ireland's Galway Bay.

The era of the flying boats (pontoons) and Foynes's seminal role in flight over the Atlantic lasted a brief six years. In 1945 Captain Charlie Blair, later to become the husband of Maureen O'Hara, piloted the last American Export flying boat out of Foynes to New York. Upon arrival, Blair turned around and piloted the first landplane, a DC 4, back to open the new airport Rineanna, later to become Shannon International Airport.

I visited the Foynes Museum several years ago but new displays and historical artifacts and an aircraft from that intriguing chapter in flight have now made the museum even more of a "must see" tourist attraction.

Apostolic Visitations By Any Other Name – I spent most of my critical formative years, or at least most of the days during the school year, surrounded by teachers from the Sisters of St. Joseph. It was a somewhat bruising relationship but even as memories of many of my early days have disappeared from the screen, I recall, like a Mt. Everest summit visitor, many of the names and faces of the teachers and heave a sigh of relief that while it was exhilarating and good for me, I'm glad to have gotten through it —and grateful for the good nuns' patience with this errant lad.

Likewise my wife, Jean. From grammar school through college in New York she had the good nuns: Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, and Sisters of the Presentation. A full regimen, if you will. And she, too, looks back with a sense of grace and nostalgia at those servants of God

Which brings me, painfully, to the fact that the Vatican is investigating the nuns in America.  They are decimated in number, down from 180,000 to a third of that and too liberal in some congregations, I'm sure, and not as easy to control as they work out in the neighborhoods in mufti. Oh, I know someone in the Curia behind those ornate doors patrolled by the Swiss Guard call the investigation process "Apostolic Visitations," but I still recognize a euphemism when I see it.

I know that most if not all of those bishops who were top aides to Cardinal Bernard Law and enabled or helped the Boston archdiocese to earn a reputation as a major offender in the Black Book of clerical abuse were never investigated, nor have they ever received an Apostolic Visitation, I would guess.

Bishops Murphy, McCormack, and Daly, among others, all close aides to the cardinal went up and out to places like Brooklyn, New Hampshire, and other prized dioceses. If there was any vetting of their actions, recommendations and letters of transfer written for abusive priests during their tenure with Cardinal Law, I am not aware of it.

A quick note to the Vatican if anyone cares or is listening: Be gentle with the sisters. They did all the heavy lifting. All of it!


The North's First Minister Peter Robinson's government department handed out grants of $125,000 to gay groups in Northern Ireland this year. His wife Iris, also an elected government official, has been a savage opponent of the gay culture, insisting they can be "turned" with psychiatric help. ... Parents in the US spend anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 annually on childcare. Many Irish parents are spending $20,000 a year on the same type of care. ... Lloyd's of London has written off $1.7 billion in Irish debt due to bad loans. Ireland will trail the rest of the EU in a recovery. ... US sports network ESPN has finalized a deal to launch a new United Kingdom sports channel, mainly to air non-US football. ... Aftermath of the Celtic Tiger: More than 1,000 unwanted horses will likely starve to death this year because of slacking demand and over-population during the prosperous Tiger days. ... Can someone tell me why our Veterans Administration is doling out $24 million in bonuses with the mess at Walter Reed Hospital and vet housing and a large budget deficit. ... Paddy Power bookmakers have installed Kerry Rose Karen McGillicuddy as a 3-1 favorite to win this year's Rose of Tralee contest. ... Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada who cheated on his family with his top aide's wife and won't resign, says his and Bill Clinton's affairs are different. When he was a congressman Ensign's voice was loud in urging Clinton to resign. ... The Haughey family hangs in there. Maureen and the family showed up to formally open the Dingle Regatta, a favorite duty of Charlie for many years. ... Sinn Fein is still out there working against passage of the Lisbon Treaty, due for a Irish vote in early October. It should pass this second time around, stress on "should." ... It is now being said in newly released documents that Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was blown up by the IRA thirty years ago, was a staunch supporter of a united Ireland. Mountbatten wrote to the Irish ambassador to Britain that "reunification is the only eventual solution."

Local control of policing and justice in the North, delayed by Peter Robinson for months, is now scheduled to be transferred to Stormont in Belfast by the end of the year. ... Adam Reilly, a Boston Phoenix reporter who also appears on WGBH's "Beat the Press," is gaining a reputation as one of the sharpest and most-wired reporters in Boston. He gets the story and gets it right. ... At this time next year, both Ireland and Britain could have new governments with Gordon Brown and Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen in deep political do-do. ... A major conference on Intolerance organized by the Belfast City Council is set for Sept. 9 at Waterfront Hall. ... Delighted by the news that potential buyers of the Globe are looking over the shop. May their tribe increase.