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Their lives writ large

Special to The Times

Yes, I knew him when.

So did hundreds of people -- all kinds -- in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City’s West Side.

We knew Jim Sheridan as artistic director of the Irish Arts Center, where he worked with Nye Heron to present plays traditional and experimental.

I must have met Jim at some Irish Arts function. There was always something going on. You could take classes in various aspects of Irish culture: dancing, tin whistle, acting, history. All this took place in an old building that had once been condemned but was now leased to Nye Heron and his group for, I think, a dollar a year.

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There was Jim -- fresh from Ireland by way of Toronto. There was his exquisite wife, Fran, and there were his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten.

And here is the story about the whole adventure I like best. When they drove from Toronto it was in a rented car. They had no use for it in New York and wondered what to do with it. Dump it? Yeah. That’s what friends suggested.

“No,” said Fran. She would not take the easy way out. She drove the car all the way back to Toronto -- 12-hour drive -- and took a cheap flight back.

That’s Fran, and you can see with a woman like that running the family there would be no nonsense. She insists on that strange thing called honor.

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I was sorry she wasn’t there the morning I interviewed Jim, Naomi and Kirsten. I hadn’t seen her in years and, of course, wondered if she’d changed. I wondered, also, if the daughters had changed. They were little ones the last time I saw them before they returned to Ireland.

But there they were in Naomi’s hotel room overlooking Central Park, natural, good-humored, unaffected. I expected at least a little

No, that’s not going to happen in the Sheridan family. No airs here. The sisters sat on the couch while Jim reclined in a deep armchair reaching, between remarks, for fresh fruit and a bowl of cereal. His accent is pure Dublin. Pure.

I reminded him that a long time ago at one of our late-night beer sessions he talked of making a film about a family coming here from Canada, a Polish family. Did he want to make it Polish to give himself distance? Well, maybe, but the more they talked about it the more it seemed necessary to make it autobiographical. Make it a Polish family and you have trouble with language, and isn’t life hard enough. Jim created Frankie, a new character based on his brother who died as a child, but for the rest of it the family story was rich enough.

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They weren’t easy days for the Sheridans. They lived in a Hell’s Kitchen apartment, sent the children to school and survived ‘til they decided to return to Ireland.

It’s a long way from Hell’s Kitchen (now known to the gentry as Clinton Hill) to Dublin to Oscar night.

When you see “In America,” written by Jim, Naomi and Kirsten, you’ll know it’s a love letter to New York. Jim and Kirsten still live in Dublin, but Naomi is here writing and planning various projects. It’s commonplace now to say that Woody Allen is the great lover of New York, but step right up Sheridans One Two Three.

At the end of the interview we walked along Central Park South, and I said goodbye to the Sheridans making their way into the park for a picture session. I headed west to the streets of their memories, Hell’s Kitchen. For decades this was an Irish neighborhood, where dockers raised their families, where they built Catholic schools and churches. And bars, of course. It was a tough neighborhood.

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Old timers say it was a great place to raise kids. Neighbors looked out for you.

What we see in “In America” is love.

Frank McCourt: When you were growing up, you were like midwives, weren’t you, to a script that was developing?

Naomi Sheridan: I don’t think we knew it at the time.

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Frank: But you were talking about it, weren’t you? About the adventures in New York?

Naomi: I think as soon as my dad let us. We moved up to Inwood because it was a better neighborhood and we had a bigger apartment and he was like ...

Kirsten Sheridan: "... all the Irish are here.”

Naomi: So as soon as we left I think he started talking about it.

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Frank: I remember you saying one time you’d make it a Polish family ...

Kirsten: Then the American Indian family. Is that when Johnny was a musician?

Jim Sheridan: He was going to do everything. He was a Polish musician then ...

Kirsten: He went through the entire orchestra. Then he was an American Indian. The kids were half-American Indian, half-Irish and they came from the West, or from Canada.

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Jim: I wrote the first draft about 1990. I was [going to] the Oscars [for “In the Name of the Father”]. I went to get a tuxedo and I was walking along Santa Monica Boulevard and the painter who had lived downstairs who was black [but] who didn’t die of AIDS came running our way and said, “Oh, my God, oh, my God. That house was blessed. You made, and I made it. Joey jumped off the roof but Laura’s an opera singer in Vermont.” So everybody [from that building] is either dead or famous in the end.

Frank: Extremes.

Jim (laughing): Yeah. He said, “You should write a film about that.” So I started to and it always ended up with this stupid scene about going to the Oscars and that didn’t really work.... Then I asked the girls to write it, and Naomi put in the voice-over. They wrote two completely independent scripts, which had nothing to do with me. It was all about going to school and having to shop at the

Kirsten: ... the Salvation Army. And being [ticked off]. I hated that Salvation Army.

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Naomi: All these kind of odd people would lunge out from between the racks.

Kirsten: Mam would get a Hoover for like a dollar. She loved it. She still does.

Frank: When you were writing, did you have any models from any other films?

Kirsten: No, because my dad just wanted a kid’s point of view. So it was the easiest job ever in the world. It was like writing a diary.

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Naomi: Just stories, memories, that stood out.

Kirsten (laughing): I think [Dad] expected to see a hero emerge out of the mist called Jim.

Frank (laughing): You took care of that.

Kirsten: We did. My hero was called Kirsten.

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Naomi: I think it’s weird like that everybody remembers something different or remembers the same scene differently. Kirsten wrote stuff that I was like, “When did that happen?” and vice versa. You wonder why you remember a particular thing where somebody else doesn’t.

Frank: Do you think memory is an Irish thing? You know the definition of Irish Alzheimer’s -- they forget everything but the grudge. [But] you go to an Irish party, everybody knows songs going way back to 1798.

Jim: I mean it’s, that’s the point of “Ulysses,” isn’t it? I mean remembering everything like the streets in Dublin.

Frank: It’s all we had.

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Kirsten: The nostalgia.

Frank: Compare Italian Catholicism, Irish Catholicism.... You go to Italy, they have monuments, buildings, they have art, they have the materials for art, paintings, sculpture, music, symphony orchestra. We didn’t have anything but the tin whistle and the fiddle.

Naomi: And it rained all the time, so we were always indoors.

Frank: When you have nothing, you remember everything. The tin whistle, the fiddle and the mouth. These are the symphonic instruments of the Irish.... And now with this new medium in America. People like the Sheridans came, Neil Jordan. Who was there before them? There’s “The Quiet Man” -- green fields, Maureen O’Hara and “Here’s a stick to bait the lovely lady.” That was Ireland. And now you have a few months ago “Veronica Guerin” came along. People were horrified. The Irish tourism bureau was horrified. “This is not Ireland.”

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Naomi: I think Americans like to kind of hang on to these images. And the Irish here. They want somewhere they can go back to where things are green ...

Frank: Yes, the green ...

Jim: Blacks from the South, Irish from the west of Ireland, Italians from below Naples, Poles and Jews -- that’s basically the population of American cities. In the Irish case, they were people who lost their language and their identity in the first generation. So there’s an anger here. When I go around, everybody is saying, “When are you going to do something about the famine?”

Kirsten: For us, Ireland was this idyllic place that didn’t have any conflict. It had so much conflict in reality, but for us it didn’t have any conflict. Then coming over here, I suddenly became completely aware of money, and I was 5. It was a total double-edged sword because on the one hand, it was very exciting and you’re in this Spanish neighborhood and it’s mad and there’s junkies and transvestites. On the flip side of it, it’s unsafe and vulnerable and shaky. So you kind of grow up quickly.

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Naomi: As hard as it was, [Mother] still loved it and she said she used to get a lump in her throat when she was coming back from Ireland. You can get to the point where the city drives you mad and then as soon as you leave, you’re like, “Oh, I miss New York.”

Jim: When I first went back [to Ireland] I noticed that the guys at the pub were saying, “What do you want to drink? Get this bastard a drink here.” I said, “Why are you calling me names?” And he said, “You were in America too long.” [His daughters laugh.] The toxic nature of the language in Dublin is about the political realities -- look, I’m buying this guy a drink, but he’s not necessarily on my side. [Frank laughs.]

Frank: When I first came here, I couldn’t understand the directness. The Irish are like the blacks off the plantation, they use what you call circumlocution. You had to talk in a roundabout way, you had to pluck the forelock, tweak your cap and so on. You had a way of dealing with the language which was roundabout and the outsiders would call it lyrical and poetic. But it had its practical use.

Jim: I even think it’s lying. I try to figure a little thing where the landlord came to the farm and the guy says, “You know, you’re only allowed five pigs,” and he’d pick up a pig and say, “This is a sheep, sir.” And the landlord would laugh, but they’d let the guy way with a lie, with the means of control.

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Kirsten: When I came over here I had a huge mistrust of language. A huge mistrust. I don’t believe it for a second, and I’ve been much more visual person.

Frank: But you have to use it anyway. That’s your living.

Kirsten: Yeah, but dialogue wouldn’t be my strong point. I just don’t believe it.... [In life,] the plot points are tiny. They’re like a whisper.

Jim: But drama has a structural organization that’s very limited, and real life has one that’s unlimited. So when we did the film and we were trying to put into a box the experience, we didn’t have any plot points, so we had to go back and invent a voice-over, which we took from Naomi’s script.

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Kirsten: When Dad started writing about Frankie, I wondered how did I not see this all along? It’s like just when you feel things are perfectly focused.

Frank: Did you think it was too weak without Frankie?

Kirsten: Yeah. Too episodic. My dad kept going, “We should do the story, we should do our story, we should do our story,” and we’d write it and people would laugh, but it never came together.

Jim: It must be something in the Irish, where a child dying is as worse as you can get.

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Frank: It wasn’t until after [my mother] died that I began to think about what she’d gone through having six children in 5 1/2 years and then three of them dying within a year and a half. When I became a father, if I heard [my daughter] sniffling in the middle of the night, I was rushing to the crib. And then I began to realize what she’d gone through. It’s unbearable.

Jim: Think of it on a national level then. When the famine happened, that happened on a psychic level for the whole race. And that’s the foundation stone.

Frank: That hasn’t been dealt with in Irish literature.... The pain is there and now there are historians, what they call revisionist, who say, ah well, you’re paying too much attention to the famine. You can’t pay too much attention to the famine. I met Iman and she’s Somalian. She says when she gets off the plane in Somalia, the first people she meets are Irish aid workers and what is it about the Irish that makes them flock to wherever there’s hunger. Even though a lot of them are young and they don’t understand, they do it anyway. The pain is still there.

Kirsten: It seems only when you leave Ireland that you can express it. I don’t know of anyone in Ireland who articulates it.

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Jim: I’m thinking about what you said about language, Frank. If you go back in history, there was a tax on windows and a tax on chimneys. So the Irish used to put the slate on the chimney, board the windows, and sit with the door open in the hovel looking out. And that’s Irish vision. Smoke-filled interior, nothing outside except white light.... Any means of expression is like defusing a bomb. Because when you can express it verbally it means you’re not illiterate and mute and a rage-aholic. The rage comes from not being able to express yourself.

McCourt: When I came here, I didn’t know you could think for yourself. It took me a long, long time to get over the catechism and the ritual, which is gorgeous and powerful. [But] you’re dealing with a new Ireland where the young are thinking for themselves, they can travel.

Naomi: When I was growing up it was kind of like the end of the church’s power anyway. When we were there when I was a kid it was still very prevalent. But by the time I’d gone back after having been in America, you could feel it starting to lose its power.

Frank: From what you know from the young Irish filmmakers, what are the subjects?

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Naomi: Maybe they’re concentrating more on relationships than on Ireland as a theme -- about relationships within their lives there.

Frank: When you were making [the film], were there moments when you felt you were being edited out?

Naomi: I wrote about us all going to Central Park and we got into one of those boats and we went out on the lake. It was so ridiculous. Everyone else is floating by in these boat rides, and we were going around in circles. And me dad was screaming, “You take oar and go the opposite way.” And Kirsten was standing up and me mom was going, “Jesus, sit down!” We ended up like that, turning around and around and everybody else just drifting passed us ...

Frank: You couldn’t do anything simple in a relaxed way.

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Kirsten: No.

Frank: You had to be dramatic.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Frank McCourt wrote “Angela’s Ashes,” which received a Pulitzer, and “ ‘Tis.” He is working on a book about his years as a teacher.

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