November 6, 1981 Remarks in New York, New York, at the 84th Annual Dinner of the Irish American Historical Society
Dr. Cahill, I thank you and all those who are responsible for this great honor. And I want to say that I happen to know that there is one among us here who has known, also, today, the same joy and even greater, if possible, than I could feel. And that is Dr. Cahill, himself, who this morning was presented by Cardinal Cooke, on behalf of the Pope, the Grand Cross Pro Merito Melitensi. He is the first American to ever receive this award.
Your Eminence, the other clergy here at the head table, the other distinguished guests, and one in particular that I might pick out and mention, Teddy Gleason of the International Longshoremen's Association. And I mention him because on Sunday he is going to celebrate the 42d anniversary of his 39th birthday. Teddy, I've found that for some time, that makes it much easier to greet each one of these annual occasions.
But I do thank you very much. You know, there is the legend in Ireland of the happy colleen of Ballisodare who lived gaily among the wee people, the tiny people, for 7 years, and then when she came home discovered that she had no toes. She had danced them off. I feel happy enough-when I get home tonight I'm going to count mine. [Laughter]
Nancy is sorry that she couldn't be here, and so am I. She sent her warm regards and her regrets. Unfortunately, on the last trip into town she picked up the bug.
Now, I'm happy to say that's not a situation for me, like the two sons of Ireland, who were in the pub one evening and one asked the other about his wife. And he said, "Oh, she's terribly sick." He said, "She's terribly ill." And the other one says, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." But he said, "Is there any danger? .... Oh," he said, "No. She's too weak to be dangerous anymore." [Laughter]
A writer for the Irish press who was based in Washington, a correspondent for the press there, stated to me the other day—or stated the other day about me-that I have only recently developed a pride in my Irish heritage or background, and that up till now I have had an apathy about it. Well, let me correct the record. That is not so. I have been troubled until fairly recently about a lack of knowledge about my father's history.
My father was orphaned at age 6. He knew very little about his family history. And so I grew up knowing nothing more beyond him than an old photograph, a single photo that he had of his mother and father, and no knowledge of that family history. But somehow, a funny thing happened to me on the way to Washington. [Laughter] When I changed my line of work about a year ago, it seemed that I became of a certain interest to people in Ireland, who very kindly began to fill me in. And so I have learned that my great grandfather took off from the village of Ballyporeen in County Tipperary to come to America. And that isn't the limit to all that I have learned about that.
Some years ago, when I was just beginning in Hollywood in the motion picture business, I had been sentenced for the few years I'd been there to movies that the studio didn't want good, it wanted them Thursday. [Laughter]
And then came that opportunity that every actor asks for or hopes for, and that was a picture that was going to be made and the biography of the late Knute Rockne, the great immortal coach of Notre Dame. Pat O'Brien was to play Rockne. And there was a part in there that from my own experience as a sports announcer I had long dreamed of, the part of George Gip. And generously, Pat O'Brien, who was then a star at the studio, held out his hand to a young aspiring actor, and I played Gip. Pat playing Rockne, he himself will say, was the high point of his theatrical career. My playing "The Gip" opened the door to stardom and a better kind of picture.
I've been asked at times, "What's it like to see yourself in the old movies, the reruns on TV?" It's like looking at a son you never knew you had. [Laughter] But I found out—in learning about my own heritage, going back to Ballyporeen—that, believe it or not, what a small world it is, Pat O'Brien's family came from Ballyporeen.
But I've been filled-in much more since. An historian has informed me that our family was one of the four tribes of Tara, and that from the year 200 until about 900 A.D., they defended the only pass through the Slieve Bloom Mountains. They held it for all those centuries and adopted the motto, "The Hills Forever." And that, too, is strange, because for the better part of 9 months now, I've been saying much the same thing, only in the singular: "The Hill Forever." Capitol Hill, that is. [Laughter]
I do remember my father telling me once when I was a boy, and with great pride he said to me, "The Irish are the only people in the country, in America, that built the jails and then filled them." [Laughter] I was a little perturbed even then, at that tender age, because at the sound of pride in his voice and from the way I'd been raised, I couldn't quite understand why that was something to be proud of, until I then later learned, which he had never explained to me, that he was referring to the fact that the overwhelming majority of men wearing the blue of the police department in America were of Irish descent.
You know, those weren't the only jobs that were open to the Irish. Back in the high day of vaudeville, long before sound pictures drove it out, there were, very popular in this country, comedians who would reach great stardom in vaudeville with a broad German accent. German comedians coming on "Ach und Himmel Sic der." What is little known in show business is that almost without exception, they were Irish. Their wit and humor that made them comedians, they came by naturally and honestly.
I was on a mission to England for our government some 10 years ago. I should say to Europe, to several countries, and finally wound up and the last country was Ireland.
On the last day in Ireland, I was taken to Cashel Rock. I didn't know at that time that it's only 25 miles from Ballyporeen. But I do know that the young Irish guide who was showing us around the ruins of the ancient cathedral, there on the rock, finally took us to the little cemetery. We walked with great interest and looked at those ancient tombstones and the inscriptions.
And then we came to one and the inscription said: "Remember me as you pass by, for as you are, so once was I. But as I am, you too will be, so be content to follow me." And that was too much for the Irish wit and humor of someone who came after, because underneath was scratched: "To follow you I am content, I wish I knew which way you went." [Laughter]
But the Irish, like many, a great many of the people and like my grandfather, great-grandfather, were driven to the New World by famine and by tragedies of other kinds. The Irish—they built the railroads, they opened the West wearing the blue and gold of the United States Cavalry. There was John L. Sullivan, the heavyweight champion of the world, writers like Eugene O'Neill, clergy like Cardinal Cooke, and even physicians to the Pope like Dr. Cahill.
And it goes all the way back in our history. George Washington said, "When our friendless standard was first unfurled, who were the strangers who first mustered around our staff?. And when it reeled in the fight, who more brilliantly sustained it than Erin's generous sons?" And a century and a half later, who else than George M. Cohan would write of the Grand Old Flag, the Stars and Stripes, and Yankee Doodle Dandy with the line, "I'm a real live nephew of my Uncle Sam."
There must have been a Divine plan that brought to this blessed land people from every corner of the Earth. And here, those people kept their love for the land of their origin at the same time that they pledged their love and loyalty to this new land, this great melting pot. They worked for it, they fought for it and, yes, they died for it—and none more bravely than Erin's generous sons.
Tragedy, as I've said, very often was the impetus that sent many to America. Today, as has been said here already tonight, there is tragedy again in the Emerald Isle. The Cardinal prayed and His Holiness, the Pope, plead for peace when he visited Ireland. I think we all should pray that responsible leaders on both sides and the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland can bring peace to that beautiful Isle once again. And once again, we can join John Locke in saying, "O Ireland, isn't it grand you look—Like a bride in her rich adornment? And with all the pent-up love in [of] my heart, I bid you top o' the mornin'!"
No, I have no apathy, no feeling at all, I am just so grateful that among the other things that happened when I was allowed to move into public housing— [laughter] —I had a chance, finally, to learn of the very rich heritage that my father had left me.
And I can only say once again, with heartfelt thanks, I wear this and take it home with a feeling of great honor, and say something that I know to all of you is as familiar as "top o' the mornin'" or anything else. That is: "May the road rise beneath your feet, the sun shine warm upon your face, and the wind be always at your back, and may God, until we meet again, hold you in the hollow of his hand."