'Irish': a quick journey to the heart Preview: PBS look at immigrants' culture and plight is a rich, and richly rewarding, television experience.

January 26, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There are all sorts of places to find history on the television dial these days -- the Discovery, A&E and History cable channels, to name a few.

But when it is on its game, no one does American history like PBS. Witness "The Irish in America: Long Journey Home," a three-night documentary starting tonight on MPT.

Produced and directed by Thomas Lennon, who last year gave us the acclaimed "Battle Over Citizen Kane" on PBS, "The Irish in America" is one sweet, sad, great song of desperation, aspiration, achievement and loss. It grabs your heart in the first 10 minutes and then takes you deeper into Irish-American culture than you thought you'd ever want to go. It is one of the richest and most rewarding television trips I have taken in years.

It starts with the Brits routing the great Gaelic chieftains in the 17th century, and it ends with John F. Kennedy being elected president of the United States in 1960. Along the way, we get Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, the potato famine, the great wave of Irish immigration in the 1840s, tenement poverty, servant girls, railroad gandy dancers, heavyweight boxing champ John L. Sullivan, working-class pride, vaudeville caricature, Tammany Hall, former New York Gov. Al Smith, movement into the middle classes.

And, if the history and the voices telling it aren't lyrical enough, it is all set to a marvelous, melancholy score that includes Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Sinead O'Connor and the Chieftains.

This is the most carefully crafted documentary since Ken Burns' "The Civil War." It seems as if every major point has its counterpoint.

The film opens on a modern-day St. Patrick's Day parade in New York and then starts to take you back in time. Through words, music, archival photographs and pictures of barren landscapes, Lennon communicates the incredible poverty of Ireland in the mid-19th century, when the famine hit.

"They lived in clusters, sharing their cabins with pigs and cattle," narrator Michael Murphy tells us. "Ten or 12 people in a single room. In the hungry months of July and August when the old

potatoes were rotten and the new not yet ready, men from the west went to work in foreign harvest fields while their families went begging on the roads."

Historian Robert Scally tells us that most of the population was barefoot, and visitors always used the word "rags" to describe what the people wore.

Five hours later, just as you are starting to revel in the achievements of the Kennedys and the victory of a people having arrived, Lennon revisits those earlier themes of hardscrabble to heighten the viewing experience. He does it so

gracefully that at first you don't notice, you only feel.

Lennon has Will McDonough, a Boston Globe sportswriter, telling an anecdote about returning to Galway to visit his parents' birthplace. His parents had always told him they were farmers, and that is what he told his wife and children, McDonough says. But when they got to Galway and looked at the place that his parents had lived, McDonough's wife said, "What did they farm, rocks?"

There is a film filled with great anecdote and narrative. An aged storyteller in Ireland explains how many of the 19th-century Irish peasants spent their nights from mid-October to May "huddled in semi-darkness in their cabins listening to their history told in great myth and tale."

Over the next three nights, public television offers us the same kind of profound passage into the past and a sense of our national identity in the hands of a great storyteller.

'Irish in America'

When: 9 to 10: 30 tonight; 9 to 11 Tuesday and Wednesday nights

/# Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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