Disney, PBS Collaborate to Bring Irish Saga to TV


They were America’s first “huddled masses”--as a new series beginning tonight on PBS points out--the 1.5 million poor and predominantly Catholic immigrants who fled Ireland in shaky ships in the wake of a catastrophic potato famine 150 years ago.

Irish and their progeny built railroads, bridges and churches. They faced “Irish Need Not Apply” signs and clashed at times with other racial and ethnic groups. A little more than a century later, having suffered the defeat of New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith, the first Irish Catholic presidential nominee, in 1928 they secured their place in the American mainstream with the election of John F. Kennedy as president.

From famine to the White House--touchstones of the Irish American saga.

All this--and much more--fills producer Tom Lennon’s poignant and essentially exuberant six-hour documentary, “The Irish in America: Long Journey Home.” The series, narrated by actor Michael Murphy, also points up a seemingly unlikely collaboration between public television and the Walt Disney Studios.


“Out of the blue, I got a call from the folks at Disney,” says Lennon, who has made documentaries for such PBS series as “The American Experience” and “Frontline.”

“I was puzzled at first about whether they wanted to undertake this kind of sweeping, expensive and noncommercial undertaking. At first it didn’t make sense to me, but when I figured out the history of the idea and how deadly serious they were, I signed on. It’s an unlikely marriage,” he adds, “and a great one.”

Disney and PBS already had actually collaborated on “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” the popular educational series for children.

“It was a positive and fruitful relationship,” notes Paul Villadolid, senior vice president of specials and nonfiction programming at Disney. “Out of that, PBS became the natural place for us to go when we decided we wanted to reenter the documentary field and do it in a big, significant way.”

Lennon, whose German-born father was part Irish, calls the Irish saga “an incredible swath of American history--never mind Irish American history.”

“It’s also a neglected piece of history,” he says, and in its sweep, “woefully neglected on television. So I had a clear run at a great American story--a filmmaker’s dream.”


He cites the “largely untouched territory of the Irish out West--Butte, Mont.; Virginia City [Nev.]. How many even well-read Irish Americans know the story of the mining towns of the West? And there’s a whole section in the series about the Irish domestics--generally referred to as ‘Bridgets’--who had a virtual monopoly on live-in domestic jobs and became an extraordinary engine of advancement.”

“Institutions we take for granted in this country--the Irish built the Catholic Church brick by brick, stone by stone, with the nickels and dimes of [domestics] and laborers,” Lennon continues. “More than any other ethnic group, they built the American labor movement--and then the modern Democratic Party.

“It took them a long time to transform themselves into Americans. In the process of fighting that battle, they made this country a more tolerant place.”

While Disney won’t discuss budget--”[money is] something we just don’t discuss at Disney,” says Villadolid--WGBH-TV in Boston says the production cost about $6 million. The series is underwritten in part by Jefferson Smurfit Corp.

There is a commercial side for Disney. On Tuesday, Disney’s Buena Vista Home Entertainment will release the series on tape for $79.99. A hefty green-jacketed coffee table book, “The Irish in America,” is available for $40 through Disney’s Hyperion imprint.

And there’s a companion CD, “Long Journey Home,” from Unisphere/BMG Classics, featuring artists including Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison and the Chieftains with Paddy Moloney, who is the film’s executive music producer.


The concept for “Irish in America” originated in Ireland at the home of Roy Disney, Walt Disney Co. vice chairman and nephew of the studio’s namesake. He and his wife, Patty, live in County Cork half the year; her brother, Peter Dailey, was U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 1981 to 1982.


Disney, whose great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland, says the idea came from Tom McGurk and Niall McCarthy--”a couple of Irishmen involved in broadcasting and documentaries. They had this basic notion,” he said by phone from Ireland, “that the Irish, as one of the tribes of America, had come here en masse, the lowest of the low, and a hundred years later, one of them was elected president. So we said, ‘Gee whiz!’ Their idea went beyond that to the notion of doing the Jews, the Germans, the Italians and the French.”

Disney took these ideas back to Burbank. There was never any thought about taking it to the company’s Disney Channel. The series is “just bigger” than that, he says.

Meanwhile, Villadolid was already in discussions with PBS about other projects, “and when I added this to the list, they said, ‘Ah, this is the one,’ ” he says.

The series launches a new Monday programming block, dubbed “History’s Best on PBS”--a series of historical documentaries, much of it from “American Experience,” including a new four-hour documentary on Ronald Reagan and a rerun of “The Kennedys.”

Kathy Quattrone, PBS’ executive vice president of programming, says she expects to pursue other collaborations. And Villadolid raises the possibility of examining American history “through the prism” of other immigrant groups. “This is the period where we have to float the Irish documentary out there to see how it’s received,” he says.


Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the memoir “Angela’s Ashes,” is among a host of commentators on “Irish in America.” So is historical novelist Peter Quinn; Boston restaurant and bar owner Gerry Burke, an avid reader of Irish history; and Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan, who says of Kennedy’s victory: “The good news was that the Irish Catholics had arrived; the bad news was that he was a Protestant from Harvard.” And to Lennon’s delight, she laughs out loud.


* “The Irish in America: Long Journey Home” airs at 9 tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday on KCET-TV Channel 28.