Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Storyteller With Roots in 2 Lands: Seanchaí Jim Hawkins

Jim Hawkins
Jim Hawkins, 66, has spent decades telling stories, with a sly, folksy understated humor, just like the seanchaís of old, whom Hawkins emulates. The Baldwin, N.Y. resident, with a gentle, easy-going manner and warmth, tells the stories of nearly vanished Irish folkways to audiences far and wide, in public libraries, pubs, churches, universities, in Ireland and here in the United States. Hawkins’ website is aptly,, where, he notes, “Today, I wish to be a vehicle that carries the history, culture and traditions of the Irish people, and to share the stories, songs and poetry of this great culture with the world. It will be my contribution to keeping this wonderful art-form alive and well.” The former teacher spoke over the phone to The Wild Geese’s Gerry Regan last week. The topic: Jim’s ‘Irish Story.’

The Wild Geese: When did you first feel the tug toward immersion in Irish culture, which so clearly defines your life these days?

Jim Hawkins: I grew up in Ireland from the age of 1 1/2 to 10 1/2, though I was born in Astoria, in New York City. My parents were both native Irish, my mom from Westmeath and my Dad was from Galway. They met here, and were married in 1944. I was born in 1946.

Economics forced my Dad to emigrate. He’s the third son, and his mother wanted him to have the farm. His oldest brother got the farm, instead. When my Dad saw the farm out of reach, he came to America, in 1939. ... He was drafted into the US Army, and hated it, for the war’s final six months. When he arrived in the States, debarking in Manhattan, a cousin arranged, but failed, to meet him. So he took the American dollars his mother had given him and found an Irish bar off the docks. Four guys called up from the end of the bar, one guy from Galway, like himself. The fellows got him a room in a boarding house, and eventually a job working in the buildings trade, as a handyman, doorman, elevator man, et cetera.

The Wild Geese: Do you have any memories of America before your family moved you to Ireland?

Hawkins: No, and interestingly, I didn’t start walking until I was in Ireland, at age 3. We lived with my Uncle Jack, Jack Fallon, who owned a dairy farm at Rathnugent, Castletown Geoghegan, County Westmeath, about 20 miles from Athlone, 50 from Dublin.  My cousins still live on the farm. The farm and the farmhouse have been in the Fallon family from the 1840s or 1850s. Jack’s daughter and son live in it today. It was a dairy farm, 30-40 cows, when we were living nearby. Now the family has the land leased to different neighbors, and have about 60 acres in the farm now, up from 30 acres decades ago. … Growing up, I was like a Tom Sawyer, a Huck Finn, in the sense that I was on a farm, and there were no restrictions. I spent more time in my Uncle Jack’s house than I spent in my own down the way.

The Wild Geese: Did you consider yourself Irish or American growing up there?

Hawkins: Actually both. ... Ultimately, it was very hard to leave Ireland. I didn’t understand what was going on, why I had to leave. It was basic economics. My Dad worked on the farm with my Uncle Jack for a while, then worked for the County Council, repairing roads, but that job gave out. In the early 1950s, he got a job with the ESB, the Electric Supply Board, digging holes for utility poles in our part of Ireland. I guess that job gave out, also. We returned here Easter Saturday, in 1956. I had just turned 10. We came back to Astoria, to my Aunt Annie, who lived in a house in Astoria with her husband, Jimmy Madden. .... When I came back here I was angry for quite a while. My years in Westmeath were the life that I knew. As well, I was teased because of my accent. I got into quite a lot of fights on account of my big Midlands accent.

The Wild Geese: When did you fall into Irish culture?

Hawkins: I came to like the life in Astoria. One of the first things my parents did was enroll me in an Irish step-dancing school, run by Cyril McNiff, in Astoria. I studied with him for two or three years, and had pretty good natural talent. My parents went to many Irish gatherings in Astoria, often fundraisers, often for people in the North of Ireland, struggling under British rule. We used to go to all these parties. I liked singing. My mother used to sing herself. She encouraged me. At these parties, she would encourage me to sing songs like “The Hills of Glenswilley” and “The Boys From the County Armagh,” which spoke of the beauty of the Irish countryside. I did sing “Kevin Barry,” as well. I got away from the Irish interests altogether in high school, at Power Memorial, and got into sports then too. Attending Iona College, I did, informally, perform some songs that the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had made popular. 

In the early 1970s, I walked into The Irish Arts Center [housed in Manhattan's once- gritty Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, in a once-shabby tenement provided by New York City]. I couldn't believe what I was seeing: There were people singing, dancing, all these young people, doing the steps, and I was mesmerized, drawn into it, sensing this is what I really was meant to do. I became totally immersed in the center, through the 1970s. There were 30-40 of us at the heart of it then, mostly single, everyone into the culture -- whether you played an instrument, taught the music or the dancing.  

The best thing I fell into there was the Siamsa [‘gathering’ in English] -- storytelling, music, dance. It was a performance that literally told the history of Ireland from pre-Christian times to the years before The Hunger Strikes, and later the hunger strikers themselves were incorporated. 

The Wild Geese: When did you focus on the art of Irish storytelling?

Hawkins: There’s a book called “An Béal Bocht” -- it literally means “The Poor Mouth,” written by a great satirist, one of the greats of the 20th century, named Brian O’Nolan [aka Flann O’Brien], writing in Irish. He wrote under the pen name in The Irish Times, “Myles na gCopaleen.” There was a story in the book, one of the things that the Brits did; they tried to destroy the Irish language. For example, a child giving his name in Irish would be renamed with an English name by his [British-sponsored] teachers. 

I ended up telling the story in some of my performances. I had grown tired of acting, which I did for a while, and I started looking for other stories to tell. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “I’ve got all these anecdotes myself, from growing up in Westmeath, and I’ve got my Uncle Jack. … I would be down at his house at night, sitting on his lap, and he would start to tell about the local events of the day.“ 

The Wild Geese: What can someone expect to experience at one of your performances?

I take different themes from Irish history, Irish culture, Irish traditions -- what I try to do is take a story and a song that have a common theme and relationship and put them together and perform them. I try to educate my audience on different aspects of Irish culture, and then learn about their connections to Ireland. I try to educate, answer questions in terms of history, about the oppression the Irish faced. Many of my performances are humorous but I also do serious pieces. I do a piece that involves the works of [playwright] Sean O’Casey and include the song “The Foggy Dew” [which is set against the Easter Rising]. I can recite parts of [Irish revolutionary] Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock. It’s very rarely asked, for but I believe it one of the great speeches in the history of the world, and should be heard more. 

I’m working on a performance with a wonderful performer named
Kate Danaher, “The Life and Stories of “Eamon Kelly.” He was from Rathmore, County Kerry. I believe he was Ireland’s greatest storyteller and collector of stories. I was very fortunate to see him perform here in New York. We are in the process of marketing the performance, gauging interest from academia and the like in wanting to hear his stories performed. Kelly’s accounts shine a light into an Ireland that is almost gone, except perhaps in Gaeltachts, in Donegal, the Aran Islands, Limerick, Mayo, little villages out here and there.  WG

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