During his recent and very meaningful state visit to Britain, and his address to the joint Houses of Parliament, President Michael Daniel Higgins slipped in the fact that his father, John, had fought in Ireland’s struggle for Independence.*
It struck me that as we approach the significant anniversaries of our country’s freedom, I need to remind myself that the men and women who made that commitment to fight, and who let their idealism spill over into the Civil War, often did so at great personal cost. The President’s father lost everything, even his wife and children because of his commitment. The children’s mother’s simple ambitions for a house and respectability were denied her. She was plunged into povery and depression. After the break up of their home in Limerick, Michael, his brother, and twin sisters were taken into their uncle and aunt’s home, near Newmarket-on-Fergus, who loved and guided them as their own. But visits to their mother, and news of their father’s wanderings were harrowing. It deeply affected them. It would haunt Michael D for many years.
I believe that my grandfather, Ronnie Hackett, was surprised when my grandmother agreed to marry him. He was the youngest of six brothers and four sisters, born in the Blackrock area of Cork city. Many of the brothers having a medical qualification went off to see the world with the British merchant navy. But in their later lives all came back to Cork, and enjoyed a happy life fishing and shooting, and a little bit of medicine. Indeed there are several family stories about a brother’s wife apologising to a full waiting room for her husband’s abrupt departure ‘on an urgent medical matter’. Whereas in fact, the call was from another brother to come fishing.
My grandfather did not join any merchant navy. He qualified as a dentist, and immediately set up practice in Skibbereen, a small west Cork town. He was the only dentist there. Not only did he fill and pull teeth, but he made dentures and fixed broken ones. At my mother’s recent funeral near Baltimore, a woman proudly, and without embarrassment, showed me her dentures made by my grandfather!
It is possible that when the 16 years-old Orson Welles embarked from the SS Baltic in Galway Bay in August 1931, he visited the Taibhdhearc theatre. In any event, he struck up a friendship with a Galway actor. Two months later he visited the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and went backstage to see his friend. Clearly impressed by what he saw, he left a note for its founding partners, Mícheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, boldly proclaiming ‘Orson Welles, star of the New York Theatre Guild, would consider appearing in one of your productions, and hopes you will see him for an appointment.’
The only thing Orson was the star of at the time, was his absolute self confidence. He had never stood on a stage in his life up to that moment. But Mícheál and Hilton were captivated. Hilton saw a great actor in the making; Mícheál, however, fell in love with him. He described the effect of Orson’s voice: ‘A very tall young man with a chubby face, full powerful lips, and disconcerting Chinese eyes...But the voice, with its brazen, transatlantic sonority, was already that of a preacher, a leader, a man of power; it boomed and boomed its way through the dusty scene -dock as if it would crush down the little Georgian walls and rip up the floor.’