Saturday, March 21, 2009
The review in The New York Times for a play called Aristocrats by Brian Friel at the Irish Repertory Theater began: "The O'Donnell family is on its last legs."
Well, I had to see that. For I am an O'Donnell.
My maternal great grandfather Dan O'Donnell came from Sligo, Ireland, to New York on September 6, 1881. He made his way up to Herkimer, New York, and was a railroad engineer on the line from Herkimer to the Adirondacks. In 1886 he married Bessie Crinion and they lived in a big Victorian house at 611 West German Street and raised in style eleven children -- my grandmother, great aunts and great uncles.
Although for thousands of years the O'Donnells were a royal family in Ireland, my great grandfather was not an aristocrat; in fact he had to leave Ireland because he was caught poaching fish. However he poached from a Protestant land owner so there was the attendant justice of poaching from a Protestant who had come in and usurped the Irish land. On his day in court his name was called: "Daniel O'Donnell?"
Someone stood up in the back and said, "He's gone to America!"
Last night TD and I went up to the Irish Repertory Theater on 22nd Street, only seven blocks away, to see Aristrocrats, a play by Brian Friel. Small theater, intimate setting, a lot of white Irish heads in the crowd including my own. I have seen two plays by Irish playwright Brian Friel, Dancing at Lughnasa and Faith Healer. I remember the joyous jig of Dancing at Lughnasa, and the terrible tragedy of Faith Healer.
Aristocrats tells the story of four adult siblings of the O'Donnell family of Ballybeg in Donegal who have gathered together in their crumbling hilltop homestead for a wedding. The once grand family is now plagued by depression, alchoholism, and a leaky roof. Their mother suffered from "down periods" before she committed suicide. Their aging father "was adept at stifling things" and squelched the dreams of his children who are in various stages of unhappiness. Anecdotes about the past are told, including how the family knew William Butler Yeats and Frederic Chopin. The truthfulness of the tales is questioned, and then we are in the Irish bog of things not said, questions not answered, stories changed. However at the end with a turn of the plot it seems that the children will be free to pursue their lives without the burden that they have borne.
At the curtain call the cast took their bows in a straight line, these O'Donnells of Ballybeg. For a moment I imagined my O'Donnells on the stage, my great aunts, my grandmother, my great uncle Fred who was a lawyer upstate – and then there was an O'Donnell tear.