March 18, 1958: Merton’s Epiphany

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On this day in 1958, Thomas Merton had a spiritual epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. As he later wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.” This event is commemorated with a historical marker by the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the Thomas Merton Center Foundation. I have always found it remarkable that the Commonwealth has honored a spiritual event in this way. The sign is located in what is now known as Thomas Merton Square.

merton sign

Patrick Kerin


A nod to the ould sod: Irish-American writers of the Ohio Valley.


Long before there was Michael Flatley there was Irish dancer Kitty O'Neil, who wowed Broadway in the late 1800s. She also has the archetypal Irish beauty associated the "Irish Colleen."

Long before Michael Flatley there was Irish dancer Kitty O’Neil, who wowed Broadway in the late 1800s. She also has the archetypal Irish beauty associated with  the “Irish Colleen.”

It’s St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve always enjoyed this unusual holiday, not only because I’m Irish-American and have memories of the celebration through the years, but also because of its peculiar nature. I can’t think of any other American holiday when one particular ethnic branch of the American tree is so loudly celebrated. It’s a day when Irish music, arts and culture are honored, and an opportunity for school children to learn about Ireland and St. Patrick himself. The day is quiet for the most part, except perhaps in some bars or taverns. People are mostly at school or work, and in some cities the parades are held the previous weekend.


It’s an unabashedly American holiday despite the celebration of all things Irish. The parades, rivers dyed green, mugs of green beer,  grocery stores full of tacky plastic buttons and leprechaun hats, all combined with a curious assertion of national solidarity—“we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day”—are certainly in the over-the-top modern American grain, although echoes of an older sentimental tradition are found in the Hallmark cards emblazoned with Irish blessings, quaint cottages, green fields, shamrocks and leprechauns. This is the legacy of earlier Irish-American pop culture, a time when the “stage Irishman” became a fixture in American theater, along with the beloved, self-sacrificing Irish mother and the bewitchingly beautiful dark-haired Irish colleen. This is the realm of John Ford’s film The Quiet Man and countless tenors rendering “My Wild Irish Rose.”


The stark simplifications that accompany this American holiday always stand in contrast to the complexity of Irish and Irish-American history, culture, and identity. As a little kid I went to school on St. Patrick’s Day in a green sweater bearing two pins: one of a leprechaun and the other of a shamrock. I was fascinated by the lore of Ireland, this misty land of the Celts. But it was the early Seventies, and the news often carried disturbing images of The Troubles in Ulster: masked IRA gunmen, protesters throwing rocks at armored cars, the grim streets of Belfast. I couldn’t understand it or put it into words, but it somehow registered that there was a real Ireland that was different and frightening. Being an American kid far away, I preferred leprechauns and legends.


This complexity surrounding Irish culture and identity resurfaced as I considered the writers to include in this post. I kept coming back to one question: What do we mean when we say someone is Irish-American?

The term has multiple definitions. One definition of an Irish American would be an immigrant born and reared in Ireland now living in the U.S. who has acquired citizenship and plans to remain in the United States. And when I refer to “Ireland,” for the sake of convenience here I’m going to let this term stand in for the entire land mass of the nation, including the Republic of Ireland that took shape in the 1920s, the country of Northern Ireland, and the smaller islands off the coast of Ireland that are part of Irish heritage.

“Irish-American” to most people certainly evokes the millions of Irish Catholics who streamed out of Ireland during the Potato Famine and who have been coming here since: The ones who formed the large Irish-American populations of Boston, New Orleans, and New York City; the ancestors of John Kennedy, James Cagney and Grace Kelly; the ones who worked the railroads, patrolled the streets, cleaned the houses of the rich and kept the Catholic parishes in America well-stocked with nuns and priests.

Grace Kelly.

Grace Kelly

Then there are the Scots-Irish, those descendants of Scottish immigrants (and some northern English) to Ireland’s northern counties who left their mark on America, becoming known as frontiersmen, pioneers, soldiers, politicians, and merchants. Their descendants, to name but just a few of the prominent, include a host of American Presidents, including Andrew Jackson and U.S. Grant, along with such fiery American notables as John Wayne, George Patton, Jeb Stuart and John McCain. Some of Ohio’s Presidents have Scots-Irish ancestry.

President William McKInley, one of many U.S. Presidents with Scots-Irish ancestry.

President William McKinley, one of many U.S. Presidents with Scots-Irish ancestry.

Then there were the Irish Protestants living throughout Ireland who also left for the New World. The association of Catholicism with Ireland can obscure the fact that the island’s history is full of noted figures who did not belong to the old Catholic culture. Their number in Irish literature–to take but one aspect of Irish culture–includes W.B.Yeats, Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift (who was Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral), Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Bowen, George Bernard Shaw, Marie Edgeworth, and Sean O’ Casey, to name but a handful.

Sylvia Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen.

Sylvia Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen.

The Ohio Valley writers featured here include authors with these kinds of varied Irish-American backgrounds. For some, Irish ancestry is just another fact of existence, part of their DNA: an ancestor came to America long ago. In other instances, the imprint of Irish-American culture forms part of the background of their works and lives.

For the purposes of this blog I’m defining the Ohio Valley as those states—and part of one state—through which the Ohio River flows. These include the western third of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. The Ohio River actually drains waters as far south as Alabama and as far west of a section of Illinois, but the above states constitute my definition. I will later update the “About” section to include this definition. There are certainly more authors with Irish roots in this region than the ones I have found here. I have only included those whose Irish heritage was included in biographical information. I did not want to make any assumptions based on last names.

And if I were to shift the focus of this blog to the entire literary Midwest—which may happen far enough down the road—the number of Irish-American literary figures would likely increase notably, with the state of Illinois alone producing three noted authors whose work dealt deeply with Irish Catholic life: James T. Farrell, Andrew Greeley, and J.F. Powers. Greeley had three careers: Catholic priest, sociologist, and novelist.

James T. Farrell on the job.

James T. Farrell on the job.

Father Andrew Greeley.

Father Andrew Greeley

And when we consider American literature overall, the volume of noted Irish-American writers—especially those of Irish Catholic stock—is remarkable. In addition to the three noted Illinois natives above, consider the following roll call: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy, Alice McDermott, Edwin O’Connor, Billy Collins, Philip Barry, Finley Peter Dunne, Kate Chopin, Nora Roberts, Mary Higgins Clark, Bill Bryson, Eugene O’Neill, Kay Ryan, John Kennedy Toole, John Patrick Shanley, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Chandler, James M.Cain, Tim O’Brien, Margaret Mitchell, William Kennedy, Mickey Spillane, John O’Hara—I could add more. A pretty impressive contribution.

Flannery O'Connor.

Flannery O’Connor

So here’s a look at some Ohio Valley authors with Irish roots.


Jim Tully (June 3, 1886—June 22, 1947) is probably the one writer here whose work draws most deeply on Irish-American life. Tully was born into a working class Irish family in St. Mary’s Ohio in 1888. Both parents were immigrants. His father was a ditch digger and alcoholic who often left his wife and kids to fend for themselves. When Tully’s mother died, his father placed him in St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Cincinnati. He spent six years there, then three years working for an abusive farmer. Later he took to the road as a hobo and wandered the country. He worked odd jobs and was also a boxer before making his way to Hollywood, where he became a journalist.

Jim Tully

Jim Tully

Tully wrote a number of novels and several volumes of autobiography. His novel Emmett Lawler concerns his mother’s Irish family, and he also wrote a memoir called Shanty Irish, detailing the life of his dirt-poor Irish-American family in rural Ohio. Tully has had a revival lately, thanks in no small part to an excellent biography by Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziak called Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler.

Jim Tully in Hollywood.

Jim Tully in Hollywood.

John Knoepfle.

John Knoepfle.

John Knoepfle ( February 4, 1923) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a noted American poet. His father’s background was Swiss and his mother’s was Irish Catholic. He attended St. Xavier High School, a Jesuit high school in Cincinnati. In recent years he has traveled to Ireland seeking more information on his ancestors.

Richard Hague.

Richard Hague

Richard Hague (1947) is a poet, essayist and teacher who has taught since 1969 at Purcell Marian High School, a Catholic high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. He grew up in Steubenville, Ohio in a family both Irish-Catholic and Appalachian. He describes his boyhood and Irish American family in his memoir Milltown Natural, published by Bottom Dog Press in 1997. Milltown Natural was nominated for a National Book Award.

Zane Grey

Zane Grey

Zane Grey (January 31, 1872—October 23, 1939) noted western novelist, was born in Zanesville, Ohio. His father, Dr. Lewis Gray, was a grandson of Irish immigrants who settled in Muskingum County. His son would later change the spelling of his last name.

Patrick Jake O'Rourke.

Patrick Jake O’Rourke

P.J. O’ Rourke (November 14, 1947) is a well-known journalist and humorist from Toledo, Ohio. He is known for his libertarian views. He has authored twenty books and writes for such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The American Spectator, and The Weekly Standard.

Lafcadio Hearn.

Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn (June 27, 1850-September 26, 1904) was born on the Greek island of Santa Maura, also known as Lefkada, to a Greek mother and an Irish father who was a surgeon in the British army. He was raised partly in Dublin, later traveling to the United States where he worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Cincinnati Commercial Appeal, then drifted to New Orleans where he worked for the New Orleans Item and the New Orleans Time-Democrat. He later lived in Martinique and then went to Japan, where he became a citizen and married a Japanese woman. He became known as an interpreter of non-western cultures, producing not only articles on the literature of Asia, but also translations and anthologies of stories and legends. He was a novelist as well.

Dan Emmett in blackface.

Dan Emmett in blackface.

Dan Emmett (October 29, 1815-June 28, 1904)—Dan Emmett, a native of Mount Vernon, Ohio, is usually credited with writing the song “Dixie,” along with “Old Dan Tucker,” and “The Blue Tail Fly.” He was a fifer in the U.S. Army and later helped develop the blackface minstrel show. Despite the crude stereotypes of the minstrel show and the southern embrace of “Dixie,” Emmett was not a Confederate sympathizer. My paternal grandmother was born in 1895 in Mt. Vernon and could recall seeing Dan Emmett on the streets of town when she was a little girl. By that time he was an impoverished old man always wearing a long threadbare coat.

Dan Emmett in later years.

Dan Emmett in later years.

General Grant at Cold Harbor.

General Grant at Cold Harbor.

U. S. Grant (April 27, 1822-July 23, 1885) was descended from Scots-Irish settlers. We know him as the commander of the Union armies from March of 1864 through the end of the war and as a U.S. President. However, General Grant also left his mark on American literature. His Memoirs are a widely admired model of clear and concise prose and have earned a place in American letters.

Roger Zelazny.

Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny (May 13, 1937—June 14, 1995) wrote many works of fantasy and science fiction. He was born in Euclid, Ohio. His father was a Polish immigrant and his mother was Irish-American.

James Hanley.

James Hanley

James Hanley (October 22, 1931—May 25, 2012) was born in Lorain, Ohio. He was a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. He received critical praise as a Broadway and Off Broadway playwright during the 1960s. He later had a successful career writing teleplays, winning Emmys for writing Something About Amelia in 1984 and 1988’s The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank. He was the nephew of two British novelists with Irish roots: James and Gerald Hanley.

William Davis Gallagher.

William Davis Gallagher

William Davis Gallagher ( August 21, 1808—June 27, 1894)—Gallagher was a poet and anthologist born in Philadelphia who later moved to Mt. Healthy, Ohio with his family. His father was an Irishman who fled the country after the Irish Rebellion of 1803. Gallagher edited one of the first regional poetry anthologies not only in the Midwest but the entire United States: Selections from the Poetical Literature of the West. This anthology also included one of Gallagher’s most well known poems: “Miami Woods.”

Western Pennsylvania:

Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864—January 27, 1922). I look forward to one day doing a profile on Nellie Bly. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran near Pittsburgh and later used the name “Nellie Bly” as a pioneering journalist. While she is well-known for her famous 72 day trip around the world—inspired by the 80 day journey of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days—she also did groundbreaking investigative work on factory conditions for women workers and neglect and cruelty in a women’s insane asylum.

Stephen Collins Foster.

Stephen Collins Foster

Stephen Collins Foster: (July 4, 1826—January 13, 1864): Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. He was the grandson of a man from County Derry. Foster is one of our most famous American composers, known especially for “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Black Joe,” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” Foster spent several years in Cincinnati.


Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry  (August 5, 1934):  Wendell Berry is a prominent essayist, poet, novelist and farmer who has become widely revered for his devotion to small scale sustainable farming and conservation. He lives in the same region where his family has lived and farmed for generations. In the “Irish Journal” section of his book Home Economics, Berry mentions his Irish great grandfather James Mathews, who came from Cashel.

Best wishes for a happy, reflective, and literary St. Patrick’s Day!

Patrick Kerin (another Irish-American writer).

Virginia Hamilton: Out of the Heartland.

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Virginia Hamilton

Virginia Hamilton

“Everything I write comes out of Ohio.”

–Virginia Hamilton in a talk to Fairborn, Ohio teachers on February 24, 1995.

Virginia Hamilton (March 12, 1936–February 19, 2002). Children’s book author, folklorist, anthologist, biographer, born in Yellow Springs, Ohio on a family farm dating back to the 1850s. Many readers know her from her books The House of Dies Drear (1968). M.C. Higgins the Great (1974) and The People Could Fly (1985).

Winter: Hail and Farewell

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Jesse Stuart

Jesse Stuart

“Farewell to winter’s frozen water-weeds.
Farewell to dark hills and clouds that foul the sky;
Farewell to snowbirds eating ragweed seeds
And winds that blow dead leaves across the rye.
And shake old sparrow nests among the eaves;
Farewell to daisies under pasture stumps;
Farewell warm rabbit blood upon dead leaves
And greenbriar thickets where the rabbits live.
Farewell weed fields so gray and desolate;
In hunting season where men searched to kill.
But now the scattered birds call to their mates
And coveys reunite upon the hill—
Late winter and the hunting season’s over;
Wild crippled rabbits sleep without a cover.”

–Jesse Stuart, Sonnet 324 from Man With A Bull-Tongue Plow (1934)

Jesse Stuart (1907-1984). Novelist, short story writer, poet, teacher. Born in Greenup County, Kentucky.


Works by Ohio Valley writers adapted into Oscar-nominated films.

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In honor of the Academy Awards this evening, I’ve got an overview here of some of the Academy Award-nominated movies based on books by Ohio valley authors. All of these writers will eventually be profiled here at Buckeyemuse.

Booth Tarkington.

Booth Tarkington.

The man who dominates the list here with two film adaptations is Indiana novelist Booth Tarkington. What I would consider his two best works–Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons–were made into successful films. Alice Adams, the story of a young woman who hides her socioeconomic status in hopes of landing a wealthy husband, came out in 1935 and starred Katherine Hepburn.


The Magnificent Ambersons, the story of the decline of a wealthy Indiana family and the rise of the auto industry, was released in 1942 and was directed and narrated by Orson Welles. I haven’t seen Alice Adams, but a number of years ago watched The Magnificent Ambersons and enjoyed it. It’s one of the films chosen by the Smithsonian for permanent preservation.


These two books of Tarkington’s both won the Pulitzer Prize, with The Magnificent Ambersons garnering the award in 1919, and Alice Adams in 1922.  I believe Tarkington deserves to be better known– he is an interesting example of the novelist as social historian. I have never forgotten what Rita Mae Brown said of The Magnificent Ambersons in her book Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual: “This book should not be in the literary doldrums.” I agree.

Alad Ladd as Shane

Alad Ladd as Shane

The year 1953 saw two films released with very different subject matter, but both based on books by native midwesterners: Shane, based on the novel by Jack Schaefer of Cleveland, Ohio, and The Robe, based on the novel by Indiana-born minister Lloyd Douglas. Schaefer grew up in Cleveland, eventually leaving the city for college–he earned his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin– and then a journalism career before becoming a novelist. Douglas was born in Columbia City, Indiana and grew up in various Indiana towns and also Florence, Kentucky. He graduated from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, then served a variety of churches in Ohio, Indiana, Washington, D.C. and Montreal, eventually spending his last years in Los Angeles.


The 1961 film The Hustler has Kentucky roots. Author Walter Tevis moved to Kentucky from San Francisco at the age of ten, and held a job in a poolroom while attending the University of Kentucky, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He also spent hours at Lexington’s Phoenix Hotel, where he observed pool hustlers ply their trade.


Enjoy the show tonight. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait past midnight to find out which movie won Best Picture!

Patrick Kerin

It’s Statehood Day in Ohio!

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ohio flagindex

Today is the 211th anniversary of the date Ohio was formally admitted to the Union, making it the 17th state admitted to the young United States of America. Happy Birthday, Ohio!

ohio seal index

Patrick Kerin

Born March 1, 1837: William Dean Howells of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio.

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William Dean Howells as a young man.

William Dean Howells as a young man.

Today is a big day here at Buckeyemuse. In addition to being the first day of the month when spring arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s also William Dean Howells’ birthday. Howells is one of the most important of Ohio’s literary lights. Novelist, editor, poet, short story writer, dramatist, promoter of realism in literature, Howells occupies an important place in American writing. A profile of him will be on the site this month–and I’m still working on Erma Bombeck and Toni Morrison as well!

Another thing about Howells–he wrote a lot about his time here in Ohio, especially in a number of memoirs, and the northwestern Ohio gas boom of the 19th century also figures in one of his novels–A Hazard of New Fortunes. He also wrote a novel late in his life called The Leatherwood God based on a real-life eccentric religious figure who was active in Ohio during the 1820s. Howells lived not only in Martin’s Ferry, but also Dayton, Hamilton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Jefferson, and rural Greene County.

I would also like to recognize another important birthday. Today is the centenary of the birth of Ralph Ellison, one of the most powerful American writers of the 20th century. His novel Invisible Man is one of the masterworks of American literature.

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

Patrick Kerin

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