July 30, 2015
Irish culture has for many years extended its reach well beyond Ireland itself, whether through emigration, various advances in technology, or the enduring popularity of Irish music, dance, and other forms of artistic expression. That’s the concept behind a newly launched magazine, Éirways, which has a Massachusetts/New England connection in the form of its co-founders and publishers, Scituate native Kevin O’Brien and Kieran O’Hare, a Chicago resident now living in Portland, Me.
Éirways, which debuted in May, is a bold venture – a print-only publication – and looks it, with slick typography and design and compelling high-quality photographs and other graphics. As such, it’s a refutation of the view that the publishing industry is on a one-way slog to digital format. But more to the point, O’Brien and O’Hare believe their magazine fills a need: broadening the perspectives for “those who live in Ireland, those who leave Ireland, and those who love Ireland,” as they state in the introduction to the premiere issue.
“There is absolutely nothing like Éirways on the market right now,” says editor and contributing writer O’Hare, who is best known to the Boston area as a member of the band Open the Door for Three. “The idea is to explore different aspects of Irish culture, and different types of people, all over the world: in Ireland, and in the Irish diaspora.”
Éirways certainly hits on all those buttons in its inaugural edition. There is a feature on Irish-American painter Micheal Madigan, who is interviewed by his brother, renowned journalist Charles M. Madigan. O’Hare presents an interview with Kevin Henry, a traditional musician and singer from Sligo who lives on Chicago’s South Side, about his life, music, and work. Dublin playwright Shaun Dunne, who staged his production “The Waste Ground Party” at The Abbey Theatre, discusses emigration as a source of artistic inspiration.
The edition also showcases the letterpress printer and artist Mary Plunkett, Irish Traditional Music Archive founder and broadcaster Nicholas Carolan, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition, “Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840.” On the literary side, there are five new poems from acclaimed poet Terence Winch, a short story by Dubliner Kevin Curran, and an essay about traveling and writing from novelist and critic Rob Doyle. A “Bits & Pieces” section offers quick-hit factoids, such as the number of Irish people who emigrated between 2008 and 2014 (241,300).
To browse through Éirways’ pages is to observe a full spectrum of Irishness – its glories, its pride, and even its pain. The stories on Henry and Dunne, in particular, are a fascinating complement to one another, not least because they appear in sequence. Henry, 86 and full of vigor, reminisces about his youth, catalogues his myriad travels in search of a better life (doing seemingly everything from coal-mining in Lancashire to working at a convent in Nova Scotia to toiling in the subway tunnels of New York) and gives an insight into a time when Irish music had nowhere near the presence it has today.
“I played music for a hobby,” Henry says. “That was my night off, a good blast of music. I had a feeling that the music was far more appreciated in this country than it was in Ireland, and only for this country our music would have gone to the flaming dogs.”
Sixty years younger than Henry, Dunne is of the generation that grew up in the vaunted “Celtic Tiger” years, only to see the promise of Ireland’s long-awaited economic boom fall apart, leaving them to face the hard choice so familiar to the Irish: stay or leave. Many young people, of course, have chosen the latter course, and Dunne reveals his own struggles with the dilemma, a motif in his works.
“What we were exploring a lot was the frustration, the anger towards the country, the expectancy to leave, the anger at those who find it very easy to leave,” he says, discussing one recent project. “We explored guilt, a feeling as though we need to stay because we have to be the generation that tries to make something happen, because if we leave, then it’s a no man’s land, there’s nothing happening.
“We’re going to stay here because there are things to do here even if it doesn’t seem as though that’s the case.”
And just to be clear about it, Éirways can only be experienced in print – the magazine’s website [eirways.com] functions mainly as a point of contact, although it does include a blog co-written by O’Hare and O’Brien.
Éirways’ founders are well aware of the chorus of doom that has resounded throughout the print industry in recent years, but insist that the medium is still relevant, enjoyable, and even necessary in a world of ubiquitous smartphones, tablets and laptops.
“I’ve always enjoyed the tactile feeling to reading a magazine while holding it in your hands,” says O’Brien, who is the magazine’s designer. “You can touch the paper, smell the ink, experience the typography and beautiful images, and enjoy reading in a much more pleasant way than you can experience digitally. We hope our readers see it as a coffee-table publication that can delight them time and time again.”
O’Hare points to a “new wave” of independent magazine publishers that are reestablishing print as a viable, and welcome, alternative to the web.
“With the Internet, we are bombarded and overwhelmed with electronic so-called ‘content,’” he explains. “To me, it’s fleeting, fast-moving, and ultimately transient. A beautiful magazine is media that we choose to welcome into our lives. We can handle it, touch it, feel it, smell it. When the latest website has receded into the digital din, a magazine is always right there where you last put it down. I also think of print and the written word as being a vital part of the Irish cultural legacy – and the human one.”
O’Brien, a UMass-Amherst grad, spent 10 years in California before moving to Maine and starting a graphic design firm specializing in publication design – his projects have involved books and magazines on homebuilding, moviemaking, gardening, healthcare, golf, historic restoration, among other things. It was in Maine where he met O’Hare, who had relocated with his wife and Open the Door for Three band member Liz Knowles; O’Brien wound up designing the band’s CD and website.
O’Hare had long nurtured the idea of a magazine on Irish culture, and he broached it to O’Brien, who saw it as a means to affirm his ties to Ireland: His grandfather was born in Ballymena, County Antrim, the eldest of nine children and the only one to have children himself; after joining the British Navy and traveling the world, he settled in Canada and then Philadelphia, where he worked in the shipyards and raised his family, including O’Brien’s father.
“My father was looking to move our family to Massachusetts in 1963 and we settled in Scituate after he read that Yankee magazine referred to it as ‘the Irish Riviera,’” recounts O’Brien. “I’ve taken my father back to Ireland a few times searching for our roots and we discovered the old O’Brien home near the Braid River, with glorious views of Slemish Mountain [said to be the first-known home of Saint Patrick].”
Publishing anything, whether in print or online, or both, can be a challenge, especially when the editor has a thriving music career that often takes him around the country, not to mention Ireland. Fortunately, says O’Hare – by no means a technology-adverse Luddite – the sophistication and ease of laptop computers makes it easier for him to do Éirways-related work while on the move, and he has also been able to integrate magazine assignments into his travels.
“I was in Dublin the other week, meeting with booksellers who will carry Éirways, and a couple of subjects for future profiles,” he notes, “and then in Chicago following up on our feature on the Art Institute’s Irish exhibition, meeting people in the Irish-American community there – while playing a concert with my wife and Liz Carroll and Tríona Ní Dhomhaill, and then mixing the new Open the Door for Three album. That’s just how life is sometimes!”
O’Hare and O’Brien envision Éirways as a quarterly publication, and are in the midst of preparing edition number two, slated for early fall. Among its contents will be features on a Dublin antiques dealer, a publican in Washington, DC, and a young Irish couple who make their home in the heart of Cajun country. O’Hare also is writing about young people and the Irish language, the Irish cultural scene in New York City and, for good measure, a feature in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of W.B. Yeats’s birth this year.
O’Brien, for his part, is delighted at the progress of Éirways, and his partnership with O’Hare. “I just knew that he would bring something special as an editor and writer — and he has exceeded my expectations.”