The PBS documentary ‘The Irish in America: Long Journey Home’ is a lively and great and historically important document that comes with so many characters and top images that it’s not possible to describe or pick out one favorite.
But one of the leading candidates that stands out in this magnificent 6-hour, 3-night impressive exploration of one of the most important facets of American immigration, and that person is Frank McCourt.
Frank (author of the widely acclaimed ‘Angela’s Ashes’, an Irish memoir) was captured on film together with his brother Malachy, warbling some ribald ditty during the Tammany Hall days that New York politics was dominated by the Irish.
‘The Irish in America’ is really a beguiling mixture of personality and history, including educational struggle and the telling detail and the big picture, and it’s so great that the documentary takes a little time to reflect for a moment with Frank McCourt and some others who understand the art of bringing a story to life and the people who lived that life.
Thomas Lennon, the producer, said Frank McCourt should be blessed by God as he actually is the ‘rock star’ of all Irish in America, and plays a crucial role and participation in the documentary that aired on PBS stations across America. But it wasn’t only this literary giant who eagerly participated in the documentary.
Both the film and the accompanying book ‘The Irish in America’ (Hyperion, $40) are including important contributions by writers such as Pete Hamill and Maeve Binchy, famed actor Jason Robards, and let’s not forget Michael Murphy, the narrator of the program. The music that supports the documentary was selected by The Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney who managed to recruit Van Morrison, Vince Gill, Elvis Costello, and Sinead O’Connor for contributions to the documentary.
‘The Irish in America: Long Journey Home’ starts at the early days of the Irish in America and the massive exodus from Ireland caused by the mid-19th-century potato famine. The program is following the Irish immigrants as they were moving up into the ranks of business, politics, culture, and follows them through the process of assimilation and acceptance. The documentary is the story of how the Irish immigrants transformed from Irish into genuine Americans, a hard, bloody, and costly process, but also a story filled with pride and joy.
The program highlights individuals like politician Al Smith, boxer John Sullivan, and of course the Kennedy clan, but also pays attention to some lesser known elements of the Irish experience in America, like how they built their Western mining empires. Fact is that the ‘Monarch Notes’ version of the history of the Irish in America refers mostly to the American East Coast, and now the experiences and stories of the Irish-Americans in places like Butte, Montana, Virginia City, or New Orleans are opened up to the greater public as well.
Throughout the program, there is an eloquent, lively stream of words and talk as you may expect from a culture that’s renown for all its wordsmiths. Playwright Eugene O’Neill is doing great according to Thomas Fleming, the writer, and colleague writer Peter Quinn is comparing his reaction when he meets John F. Kennedy (at a 1960 presidential campaign meeting) to something like ‘the Aztecs first viewing Cortez.’
PBS is known for their sweeping, serious documentaries, but all the commercialism that surrounded ‘The Irish in America’ seems to be explained by PBS’ pretty unusual partner for this production, Walt Disney Studios. It was actually Roy Disney’s personal passion and interest that made the three year, $4 million program possible. Disney executive Roy, a full nephew of Walt Disney, is proud of his Irish ancestry and also owns a house in Ireland, and the Disney corporation offered lots of creative support.