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Pretenders to the Throne

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With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announcement that the vote on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court will take place tomorrow, I have to remark to myself how far we’ve come as a nation. It seems like just yesterday in American history that anti-Catholic bias and ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ was the norm. When Donald Trump’s daddy Fred Trump was arrested at a Klu Klux Klan Rally on Memorial Day, 1927, the organizing leaflet that was passed around in Jamaica, Queens beforehand warned that “Native-born Protestant Americans” were being “assaulted by Roman Catholic police of New York City.” “Liberty and Democracy have been trampled upon,” it continued, “when native-born Protestant Americans dare to organize to protect one flag, the American flag; one school, the public school; and one language, the English language.” We’ve come a long way. Today, even being an angry, drunk Irish-Catholic isn’t disqualifying for a seat on the highest court in the land.

King Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, Ireland in 1170, was deprived of his kingdom by Rory O’Connor (Ruaidhrí Ó Conchobhair), High King of Ireland. MacMurrough or ‘Mac Murchada‘ had, in 1152, abducted the wife of the King of Breifne, Tiernan O’Rourke (Tighearnán Ua Ruairc) who allied with Rory O’Connor to drive Dermot MacMurrough out of Leinster. In order to recover his kingdom, MacMurrough sought the assistance of Henry II, the King of England, who then enlisted mercenary nobleman Richard fitz Gilbert, better known as Strongbow, leader of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. Dermot’s male-line descendants include Art Óg mac Murchadha Caomhánach’ who revived the kingship of Leinster and Cahir mac Art Kavanagh who continued to rule parts of Leinster until the Tudor conquest of Ireland in the 16th century. The last King of Leinster, ‘Domhnall Spáinneach mac Murchadha Caomhánach,’ died in 1632. A descendant of these ‘Caomhánach’ (Cavanaugh or Kavanaugh) kings, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, nominated by Donald Trump to replace Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, comes from a long line of pretenders to the throne.

When Anthony Kennedy was nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1987, he was Ronnie’s third choice behind Robert H. Bork and Douglas H. Ginsberg. The third time was the charm with Kennedy, who replaced conservative Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. — the last time in history that the U.S. Supreme Court was majority Protestant. If Brett Kavanaugh is appointed to the court, that will mean that six of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justice seats will remain held by Catholics, although Neil Gorsuch, appointed by ‘The Donald’ last year attends an Episcopal church, he was raised a Catholic and it’s unclear if he considers himself Protestant. Regardless, with at best 22% of the U.S. population identifying as Catholic, that would make the Supreme Court something of an anomaly.

Brett Kavanaugh was born in 1965, in Washington, D.C., and raised in Bethesda, Maryland, the son of Everett Edward Kavanaugh, Jr. and Martha Gamble (nee Murphy) Kavanaugh. He graduated from the Georgetown Preparatory School, founded in 1789, where their mission is “[G]rounded in our Ignatian Identity, and is our highest aspiration.” Kavanaugh was on the basketball team at Georgetown Prep where his coach was Kevin Dowd, brother of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and anyone who reads Maureen’s stinging weekly columns in the Times knows that her brother, Kevin is a Trump-supporting, loveable lunkhead. Georgetown Prep, part of the Jesuit order,  follows the Society of Jesus and one of it’s founders was the Basque soldier-turned-priest: Ignatius of Loyola, Spain. I was raised a Dominican, named for the order founded by Saint Dominic of Guzman, Spain and I’ve always looked upon my Jesuit brothers and sisters with a combination of envy and admiration. Not the Donald Trump kind of envy, more the kind of envy that Red Sox fans have for Yankee fans. Dominicans really respect Jesuits, we just think they suck. The Society of Jesus, or ‘The Jesuits’ were founded in part by St. Ignatius, or ‘Inigo’ as he was known growing up as a member of a wealthy, noble Basque family with a long tradition of military service. Inigo was a fine soldier until his legs were pulverized by a cannonball and just after that, he found God and became the best known of the founders of the Jesuit Order. Saint Ignatius of Loyola was the patron saint of all soldiers and was canonized on March 12, 1622. Dominic Guzman, the founder of the Dominican Order is the patron saint of all astronomers and he was canonized on July 13, 1234. Both the Jesuits and the Dominicans have long been dedicated to the calling of education, enlightenment and science in the furtherance of the faith, in other words, these are the most intelligent Catholics you’ll find in the church. 

Growing up in Boston introduced me to many cultures, yet the Irish have held sway here in ‘Beantown’ since the turn of the (last) century, so ‘up the Irish!’ where 34% of the population of Massachusetts identify as Catholic. The Irish flag has two color bars set on white: orange and green; the orange represents the Protestant House of Orange (the Orange Order); the green representing the Catholic tradition, it’s home based at the Vatican in Rome, Italy since the time of Jesus. In the 1980’s and 90’s the Irish Republican cause had some very serious warriors to fight the British Loyalists and their military wing in the UDF, or the Ulster Defence Force (or UDA, Ulster Defense Association). The ‘Provos’ or Provisional Republican Army soldiers of the IRA working out of Boston traveled in some of the same haunts as me — around Dilboy Field on Winter Hill in Medford and later, the Memory Lane Bar in nearby Assembly Square — the only places where ‘civilians’ like me were allowed to mingle with the soldiers of the Troubles. The IRA was, in those days, a secret society that no one in Boston spoke about in public. You would hear stories about some IRA man that had just left the bar or something, and that was about it. In the 1980’s Whitey Bulger and Howard Winter controlled the Boston underworld so successfully in their extortion, murder and drug rackets that they had a few million left over to support the Provisional IRA as a pastime. In 1989, the trawler Marita Ann was loaded with $11 million in army-grade weapons bound for the coast of Ireland, yet it was intercepted by Britain’s MI5, scuttling Bulger’s plan to help arm the Provos. The Provisional IRA was descended from the the original Irish Republican Army, or Óglaigh na hÉireann (Soldiers of Ireland) that rose up to fight the British during Easter week, 1916. Formed in the revolutionary year of 1969, the Provisional IRA sought to represent the ideals of the first Provisional Government of the Irish Republic (after the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read by Irish Patriot Patrick Pearse, as opposed to the Second Provisional Government of Ireland in 1922), which preceded the Irish Free State, lasting from 1922 until 1937.

The Kennedy clan, our Irish-Catholic royalty here in Massachusetts, was introduced to politics by James Michael Curley, the legendary Irish Mayor of Boston who defined an era of Irish-Catholic Big Bossism — gregarious, thoughtful and witty — as well as a wee-bit corrupt. In director John Ford’s The Last Hurrah (1958), Spencer Tracy portrayed Mayor Curley as a twinkle-in-his-eye rogue, with an innate understanding of the big and little things in life. As Frank Skeffington, Tracy portrayed a mayor not above blackmail against his Boston Brahmin (Protestant) opponents. His boyhood friend, who had risen to become a Monsignor from the local Catholic parish they both attended, reproaches him for his lack of Christian morals. He fires back that he’s playing their common opponent’s game against them to achieve real gains for his working-class constituents. The author of the book on which the movie was based, Edwin O’Connor, named his protagonist in honor of the Irish hero and patriot, Frank Skeffington of Dublin, Ireland.

Francis Sheehy-Skeffington lived in Dublin and was an ardent proponent of Irish Republicanism, women’s rights and pacifism. He denounced smoking and drinking and was a vegetarian at a time when that really meant something. His wife, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was a noted Irish Republican, from a long line of Irish Republicans, who would later make a pilgrimage to the United States after her husband was murdered to appeal for One Ireland. Frank chose his wife’s name as his own, again, at a time when that really meant something (over 100 years ago). A close friend of the Irish author James Joyce, students together at Trinity College Dublin, Joyce recognized Frank Skeffington as the smartest man in his class and he co-published an op-ed with Skeffington that was suppressed by the university administration, where Skeffington’s part of the essay called for gender equality at the university:

The life of school and college is brought more closely into accord with the natural order the more it approximates to the conditions of a large family circle of brothers and sisters. And the logical outcome, of course, is that this association should be continued throughout the University course as well, in which respect a valuable lead has been given by many of the American Universities. It is not on behalf of women alone that the claim for co-education is made; for men also, this system is the only wholesome and natural one.

Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was the inspiration for the character ‘McCann’ in Joyce’s first novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and in it’s final chapter, set during Joyce’s student years, it recreates some of the issues surrounding Irish identity that formed the backdrop to the ‘The Rising.’ Sheehy-Skeffington and his wife were Socialists (at a time when that really didn’t mean anything), and as McCann in Joyce’s book, he berates his slacker friend Stephen Dedalus (Joyce) because he won’t take a stand and sign a petition in support of democracy in Russia:

Dedalus, you’re an anti-social being, wrapped up in yourself. I’m not. I’m a democrat: and I’ll work and act for social liberty and equality among all classes and sexes in the United States of the Europe of the future… I believe you’re a good fellow but you have yet to learn the dignity of altruism and the responsibility of the human individual.

An unlikely martyr of the Easter Uprising, ‘Skeffy,’ as he was also known, was easily recognized in his tweed knickerbockers and big red beard. He tried to organize a citizen’s defense force in Dublin to prevent looting and police brutality during the chaos of the street fighting in April, 1916, and that is how he eventually met his untimely demise at the tender age of 37. The story of his murder at the hands of the insane Captain John Bowen-Colthurst of the British Army, represents a moment in history when the utter brutality associated with a government policy would forever change history. In the lead up to WWI, England was distracted from overseeing Scotland and Ireland by the encroaching German Army and the coming Great War. In the confusion to the lead up to the war, the (largely) Catholic population of Ireland rose up to declare independence from Britain. As the English had done for centuries, they decided to crack down when the rebels took control — this time in Dublin — and during that crazy week of insurrection in April of 1916, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was trying to keep everyone in Dublin cool.

A Republican (and his wife a radical Republican), Sheehy-Skeffington denounced the street violence and felt that politics was a more effective means for change than conflict and war. He was ridiculed by the rabble he was trying to defend in Dublin, the ragtag group deriding him for his ‘goody-two-shoes’ attitude in the face of British aggression — while they looted shops on the the streets surrounding Rathmines Catholic Church. The commotion that was caused by the gang harassing Sheehy-Skeffington caught the attention of the British authorities and he was arrested on the evening of Tuesday, April 25th. Bowen-Colthurst was then himself arrested on June 6th and charged with murder for the unlawful killing of Skeffington (as well as two journalists and a 19-year old boy). He would successfully plead insanity and was sent to Broadmore Hospital and then on to British Canada, where he would be found ‘cured’ in April, 1921 and released with a full pension:

His obituary in the Vancouver Sun referred to him as one of the ‘Old Contemptibles’ who marched off to war in August, 1914. It mentioned his Boer War record, his service in India and his birth in Ireland. It made no mention of his shooting out-of-hand several people during The Rising, or his role in the arbitrary execution of innocent civilians. It didn’t mention that his move to a far-flung corner of the British Empire was partly to escape an Irish Republican Army murder squad that would have killed him had they found him.

The Celtic God Taranis is synchronized with Roman God Jupiter and the Greek God Thor as Gods of Thunder and War. The chariot wheel, round and spoked like the sun the Druids worshipped, is the most evocative symbol of the Celtic tradition, save the mythical connection to the three-leafed shamrock. Even today, the Irish place a sun at the center of their cross. Most think of the mysterious Stonehenge when we think of Druid culture, their circular positions recording the the path of the sun across the daytime sky. The Wicker Man myth is also derived from the Druids, a story of human sacrifice told as bedtime ghost stories to Roman children as certainly as the story of Elizabeth Hanson was told to children in Colonial American times to scare them into behaving. The Druids are an odd bunch to us modern folk, yet the worshippers of Thor and Jupiter in Greece and Italy and the first, great civilizations that venerated the Sun God Ra in ancient Egypt, were contemporaries of the ancient Celts. These ancient European ‘natives’ existed on the Continent long before the Roman conquest of Britain and were a civilization seen as ‘barbaric’ in nature, described by Julius Caesar as cretans no better than animals. ‘Civilized’ Romans looked upon the far-flung Celts, living in their caves and earthen mounds as trolls, or tribal savages who regularly conducted ritual human sacrifice (at the same time that the Roman Coliseum hosted the weekly Monday Night Christian feeds to the hungry lions). If your barbarism was ‘civilized’ instead of ‘ritual,’ then it was a-ok. Some things never change…

These barbarous Celts of Europe were a scourge to the Romans trying to subjugate the Continent and it wasn’t until the Romans finally repented to reveal their own barbarism that they finally found our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. At least that’s the Christian version. Shortly after that a bunch of Irish pirates, with their Celtic myths and traditions worn about them as surely as any Southie gang from the ‘hood wearing their Celtic shamrocks, kidnapped a 16-year old English boy slow-footed enough to get caught by a raiding party off the coast of Old Blighty sometime in the 5th Century. This we know because he told us all about it in his harrowing, epic journey to fame and stardom as Patrick, (Patricus) Patron Saint of Ireland (and other places), in the best seller, the Book of Armaugh (9th Century) written by Ferdomnach. On the 17th of every March since, the Feast of St. Patrick has been observed and St Patrick’s Day was first celebrated in in America in Boston in 1737 and New York held it’s first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1762. 

In September, TCM featured the early films of my favorite director, Martin Scorsese, from his first feature film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968) where his collaboration with actor Harvey Keitel began, as well as Street Scenes (1970), a documentary about the stock market war protests in NYC during the Vietnam War, to the 1974 documentary Italianamerican and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). These early films reveal Scorsese’s solid foundation as a documentary filmmaker as well as the best film director of our time. Mean Streets (1974) lent a gritty and raw quality that has underpinned almost all of Scorsese’s work since and in this, his first ‘mob’ film, Robert De Niro’s breakout character, Johnny Boy, is a small time hood that always seems to put his best friend Charlie, played by Harvey Keitel, in a fix. They hang out in a bar/social club owned by their friend Tony, the shining example of success among this group of Little Italy ‘paisans’ contained in a fairly small neighborhood in Manhattan, bounded by the Bowery on the east, East Houston on the north, Lafayette on the west and Canal on the south. These and other actors portrayed actual people that Scorsese grew up with and because he suffered from asthma as a child and couldn’t go outside to play with the other kids in the neighborhood, he looked out the window from his home on the third floor overlooking Elizabeth Street in this insular little neighborhood and a scholarship to NYU film school and his ability to see and hear people around him catapulted him to become one of America’s greatest filmmakers. Torn by his classic Catholic education and what he saw on these mean streets of his Little Italy neighborhood, he needed to show the world what he heard and saw:

‘You know, we wanted to copy the social clubs that the other Italian men had all over Little Italy. So we put in a coffee machine [in ours], some tables, a jukebox. ‘Mean Streets’ was based on our social club, a little bit…

Mean Streets was a confession of what it meant to be a young Italian man in New York City in the ’70s. As Charlie leads Johnny Boy in the right direction, Johnny Boy instead veers off into chaos and possibly death. For all Charlie wants to help Johnny Boy, he eventually ends up hurting him. Their mutual friend Tony, played by the fantastic character actor David Proval, is the only real moral force in the film — introduced to the audience while throwing out a heroin addict that was shooting up in his bar at the beginning of the film. Proval is a member of the great and (still) growing tree of Scorsese-discovered actors, later going on to play the great character ‘Richie Aprile’ in The Sopranos. Like Harvey Keitel, Proval is Jewish and these two great character actors have made a fine career out of portraying (mostly) Italian mafioso. The film has a theme, a simplistic reading could be good versus evil; the character of Charlie represents the good (and conflicted), and the character of Johnny Boy represents the evil (unconflicted). De Niro’s Johnny Boy is a thoughtless, violent, degenerate gambler that Scorsese created because that was the world that he came from — basing the characters on his father Dominic and his uncle,

It took me years to really understand it’s about my father and his youngest brother. Until the day they died — and his youngest brother died only a few months after him — my father was still doing favors, as they said. My mother said, ‘Don’t do it!’ He was always in trouble. He was always in and out of jail, but I loved him.

In Scorsese’s earlier documentary Italianamerican, he interviews his parents at the Scorsese family kitchen table where they talk about the old days and the traditions that surround Italian-Americans in New York. He said about Mean Streets that it was a moral question, “How does one lead a moral life in a world that is not?” and Scorsese said that the film really didn’t have a plot, other than to reveal his life at the time. However, there is a plot which runs through Johnny and Charlie‘s relationship: Johnny is irresponsible and selfish. Charlie has a job and is deeply religious. Charlie‘s Catholic upbringing, however, leaves him without answers in a world filled with evil. As Martin Scorsese narrates in the film, there’s “no penance in church. It’s all on the streets.” Scorsese credits the Catholic Church with saving his life and he almost chose the priesthood instead of the director’s chair as his vocation:

What saved me, in a way, was going to the Catholic school, to St. Pat’s. ‘I made a few friends and then, you know, I got used to it.

In producer David Chase’s groundbreaking The Sopranos, Tony Soprano, played by the brilliant, dead-too-soon James Gandolfini, his character handed the capo or ‘boss’ title after the death of his father. Perhaps what was so different and groundbreaking about The Sopranos, other than David Chase’s incredible writing, was the juxtaposition of a mob boss going to a psychiatrist. This theme was explored for laughs with Robert De Niro, to prevent being typecast (as so many great Italian [and Jewish] actors) he basically played himself in a fully comic role in the hilarious Analyze This (1999) as good as Marlon Brando in the sendup of his Godfather role in the under appreciated The Freshman (1990). In The Sopranos, however, Chase explored the deepest problems that face almost all of us, brought to high drama by This Thing of Ours.

La Famiglia. The family. It’s where most of our problems begin. For Tony Soprano, his faint childhood memories, coaxed from him by Dr. Melfi, included a memory of the time he watched his father cut off a guy’s pinky finger because he didn’t have his father’s money. Or the time his dad shot a bullet through his mother’s beehive hairdo just for laughs. Tony’s father was Johnny Boy Soprano, the crazy, funny, violent drunkard who made the man, his son, in more ways than one. It’s as if David Chase imagined Scorsese’s Johnny Boy survived the ’70’s and grew up to have a family that moved up to New Jersey. “My brother’s keeper — it’s my brother’s keeper!” Scorsese remarked about Mean Streets,

And it goes beyond your brother. Are we responsible for other people? What is our obligation, when somebody does something that is so upsetting? … Do you really have to do it because they’re a brother, or you’re related, or you made vows of marriage? What is the right thing to do for the other person, and for yourself? All of this carried through. I would see it acted out one way in reality, and I would hear it another way from Father Principe and a couple of priests at Cardinal Hayes.

A native of Boston, Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) is obviously one of my favorite pictures, and it (amazingly) represents his only Academy Award for Best Director. A loose take on the tale of Irish mobster Whitey Bulger, I remember it more for one of the final, excellent performances by Jack Nicholson (retired, not dead!) and perfect casting of homeboy Matt Damon as ‘Colin Sullivan’ in the lead role. Another, more meaningful film for me was Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) which I saw at a movie house in Kensington, London. I remember being surprised back then that commercials played before the screening (!) and that Christ’s last temptation was brought to me by Heineken because, “Only Heineken Can Do This.” I settled into one of the most memorable film experiences of my entire life, where only Mel Gibson’s great The Passion of the Christ (2004) approached the story of Jesus with more courage and curiosity. It’s Scorsese’s later, less-known passion project Silence (2016), however, that’s his most powerful film on faith and Christianity. Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Catholic, Japanese writer Shūsaku Endō, the film roughly follows the story of the so-called Kakure Kirishtan, or ‘hidden Christians’ during the Edo period in Japan where for almost two hundred years, starting after an uprising led by the 17-year old Amakusa Shirō against the ruling Shogunate, Catholics were tortured and killed if they refused to renounce their faith. After Amakusa Shirō was beheaded in Nagasaki, Japan on February 28th, 1638, his head was stuck on a pike at the city gates as a warning to other Catholics to stay out of the ‘mud swamp’ that was Edo Japan. Since that time, the ‘hidden Christians’ of Japan were arrested, tortured and murdered until the Tokugawa Shogunate officially ended the policy in 1805. The test for religious faith was to require suspected Catholics to walk on the so-called ‘Fumi-e,’ or literally “stepping on [a] picture” — the picture in this case of Jesus Christ on the cross — and anyone who refused to tread on the image of the Christian Lord and Savior was summarily tortured and executed as a heretic.

This act of renunciation of one’s faith is apropos of today’s Republican Party, where the GOP has renounced their faith in long-held conservative values as certainly as those apostates who desecrated the image of Jesus in order to save their own skin — and Senators who walk upon the fumi-e of the Grand Old Party will cast their vote for Judge Kavanaugh — and lose what Christian moral philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called their ‘self,‘ because they have not aligned themselves with God’s plan and will be lost among the wanderers in the land of Nod.

John Underhill
October 4, 2018


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