Turlough McConnell's "Eugene O’Neill: An Irish-American Boyhood": a portrait of a young genius in post-famine New York.

In his dramatic presentation "Eugene O’Neill: An Irish-American Boyhood," noted theatre writer, curator, and producer Turlough McConnell has painted a vivid portrait of the formative years of the young Irish American genius in “post-famine” New York, illustrating the impact that Irish immigration had on O’Neill’s later writing.

With a cast that includes Ciaran Byrne, Colin Ryan, and Carey Van Driest and directed by Jenny Sterlin, the performance-reading concludes with a talkback with McConnell and joined by the noted O’Neill scholar Zander Brietzke from Columbia University. 

Eugene O'Neill.

Eugene O'Neill.

“The whole project grew out of working with the Sisters of Charity at Mount Saint Vincent's in the Bronx,” McConnell tells the Irish Voice. “That was where I stumbled onto the fact that O'Neill went there as a boy. He was there between ages of seven to twelve, primarily because his father wanted him to be among the up and coming Irish, the children of well to do first-generation immigrants.”

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Right outside O'Neill's boarding schoolroom was the first large scale grotto to be built in America. It was a grotto that decades later came back to him when writing about the character Mary Tyrone, who frequently visits one in his signature play Long Day's Journey Into Night. 

There were other remarkable connections between the young writer the school O'Connell discovered. “The whole Mount Saint Vincent campus was tied to Edwin Forrest, the great 19th-century Shakespearean actor. Eugene's father James O'Neill had been in Forrest's company as a young actor, so I started sort of drilling down deeper into that.” 

Later explorations led McConnell to New Ross in County Wexford, where both the O'Neill's and the Kennedy families first set out on their fateful journeys to America, both families hailing from the same small town, underlining the impact that the Great Hunger had and the legacy that it created.

“To be in New Ross with all these American O'Neill scholars (who stage an annual festival of his work there) is to really understand the connection between O'Neill's world and his deep Irish inheritance. I could almost see Eugene's father James and his siblings coming down the road with a cart on their way to the boat to take them to Canada and then America. It's an extraordinary story and I want to tell it in this presentation. I want to show that throughout his plays, his Irishness is so dominant.”

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McConnell has produced multiple celebrated exhibitions and events over the last 10 years on the subject of the Great Hunger and to his surprise, they have turned out to be the ideal backdrop from which to understand O'Neill's preoccupations and achievement. 

“I've done so many different stories on the subject, but what we lack and what all of those stories have lacked is a personal connection because the events are so old, we simply don't have the witnesses, but we do have a brilliant spiritual witness who understood the famine's long legacy and who could write unforgettably about what it made of us and that's Eugene O'Neill.” 

O'Neill understood the meteor strike that hit Ireland sending his family into an orbit they never quite recovered from. “His genius is that he wasn't afraid of tragedy,” said McConnell. “He was the first American playwright to really deal with the tragic, and he went to the Greeks for that. As Pat Moynihan once said, you're not really Irish unless you know that life is going to break your heart.” 

But it cost him his life, says McConnell. “He died as a result of the challenges he set himself in his work. It was such a powerful, traumatic experience for him. The thing that people don't understand about him is that he's really Irish and nobody really gets that when they write about him O'Neill used to remark.”

O'Neill's life gives new meaning to the phrase the great hunger, McConnell says. Because with O'Neill the great hunger is for truth and beauty and art and peace.

But what does O'Connell want the audience to know when they attend Eugene O’Neill: An Irish-American Boyhood?

“I want us to reevaluate O' Neill as a great Irish American writer. I want him to be seen as Irish American because he is, but I want Ireland to claim him too and to share his legacy through the O'Neill festivals in Danville, California and the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut as well as with the O'Neill Festival in New Ross, County Wexford.”

Eugene O’Neill: An Irish-American Boyhood is staged as part of the First Irish Theatre Festival.

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