In 1930, a visitor to Ireland wrote to a friend:
“You must see Killarney…Can you imagine mountains of rhododendrons rising and massive into the bluest sky you’ve ever been under – white, crimson, scarlet, pink, buff, yellow and every shade God has painted on leaf and flower? As if this was not beauty enough, you come out of a mountain pass and gaze, breathless and trembling upon ‘purple peaks that out of ancient woods arise,’ and there in the gorge below, are silver lakes, reflecting as in a row of mirrors all the glory that surrounds them!”
Such a vivid description suggests an eye for art and an ear for poetry. So it may be surprising to learn that the author of this ode to Irish beauty was none other than Helen Keller, who lived her famous life both deaf and blind.
Keller visited Ireland along with her “miracle worker” teacher Annie Sullivan, whose parents were born in Limerick.
This trip, however, was no joyous homecoming for Sullivan. She did not share her pupil’s enthusiasm for Ireland. In fact, Sullivan was reluctant to make the trip, in part because it forced her to confront her far-from-idyllic Irish immigrant childhood. One biographer even suggests that Ireland forever haunted Annie Sullivan.
Thus, if Annie Sullivan’s triumph with Helen Keller represents the bright side of the Irish-American experience – the faith in hard work, education and advancement – there is also a much darker side.
Back on Broadway
The story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan is, by now, world famous. This March, yet another generation of theatergoers will flock to see a new Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, the William Gibson play that was adapted into an award-winning film in 1962, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.
This time around, on Broadway, Alison Pill (last seen in Martin McDonough’s Irish play The Lieutenant of Inishmore) will star as Annie Sullivan while 13-year-old Irish-American Hollywood starlet Abigail Breslin will portray Keller.
Though at times harrowing, The Miracle Worker is generally seen as an inspiring story, in which a teacher and pupil overcome great obstacles so that they can communicate with each other and then go out into the world and help others do the same.
But there is another side to the Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller saga, a side in which the Irish immigrant experience is central.
What happened to Annie Sullivan’s Irish immigrant parents? How did young Annie Sullivan emerge from this dark Irish odyssey to become one of the world’s most famous and inspirational women? What ultimately did Annie feel about Ireland and her Irish roots, and what role did they play when it came to her famous breakthrough with Helen Keller? Finally, how does Ireland today remember Annie Sullivan?
North and South
One year after the end of the American Civil War, in 1866, Annie Sullivan was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts. A recent biography of Sullivan, Beyond the Miracle Worker by Kim E. Nielsen, notes that “the first years of [Sullivan’s] life are largely undocumented and remain obscure.”
What we do know is that young Annie endured grim conditions which, sadly, were familiar to the children of the Irish immigrants flocking to the northeastern United States in the years after the Great Famine struck Ireland.
Annie was the oldest of five children, born to parents who had left Limerick at the height of the Great Hunger. Thomas and Alice Sullivan baptized their children in a heavily Irish Massachusetts parish, but the traumas of their journey from Ireland followed them to America. Thomas Sullivan was a farmhand but he was also an alcoholic who eventually abandoned the family. Worse still, Alice died when Annie was just eight.
In the 1962 film version of The Miracle Worker, Annie looks back on her youth with almost gothic horror, as she and her brother are separated from their parents and sent to an orphanage.
Helen Keller, meanwhile, was born in southern United States in 1880, to a family with strong ties to the former Confederacy. Keller’s mother was a cousin of General Robert E. Lee, while her father was a Confederate officer. Keller was not born deaf and blind. When she was nineteen months old, she became severely ill with what was most likely meningitis or scarlet fever. Keller not only lost her sight and hearing, she also became a violent, uncontrollable child.
Keller’s mother was always seeking possible cures for her daughter, a quest which, at one point, led to her to telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who worked with deaf children. Bell suggested that the Kellers visit Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, a school which happened to have a precocious student – nearly blind herself – named Annie Sullivan.