Chapter One: From Maine to Hollywood
Today, western Ireland is a sparsely populated landscape, but in the early nineteenth century it was filled with people. John Feeney, the father of John Ford, was just one of four million people who abandoned Ireland in the long aftermath of the potato famine of 1846, when three-fourths of the potato crop was blighted and much of the western part of the country was threatened with starvation.
By 1851, Ireland had already lost about 2.4 million people, 1.1 million to death by starvation, 1.3 million to emigration. As the Irish dispersed to other lands, they took their country with them. Ireland has a very specific spiritual temper -- irreverent, socially conservative, with a booziness of almost manic proportions, and an authentic contempt for demagogues and politicians. The guile of the Irish fails to stem their self-destructiveness, the nihilistic alcoholism that often accompanies song, entertaining persiflage, historical reminiscence. The Irish know how to maneuver; they're a nation of factionalists and operators.
As a country that has been occupied for most of its history, the only power the Irish were allowed was over their families, their only self-expression dance, music, literature, and conversation. So Ireland became a land of indirection and duplicity, with a people wary of betrayal. The concept of victory in defeat, and the hero as stylish victim -- Parnell, Wilde -- are as ingrained in the Irish character as eloquence, and would come to their finely polished perfection in the work of John Ford.
John Feeney was born June 16, 1854, in Galway, the son of Patrick Feeney and Mary Curran. Spiddal, the town in which John grew up, was a little farming community. It was a time when, as one Galway man remarked, a local Catholic "would gladly embrace any pecuniary assistance that would take them anywhere they could make a living." That assistance came in the form of a visit from an uncle named Mike Connelly (some accounts spell it Connolly) who had gone to America more than a decade before, and done very well for himself.
At eighteen, John Feeney was a large, strong young man, not without intellect, not without ambition. The only opportunity to be had in Spiddal was eking out a living by farming on somebody else's land. He could see there was more opportunity someplace else. Someplace like America.
There was, in the western part of Ireland at that time, a tradition called an "American wake" that John Feeney might well have been accorded. It was a farewell party for the departing native -- food and drink and dancing to a vigorous fiddle into the wee hours, and then little or no sleep into the morning, when it would be time to make the rounds and say farewell. It was the kind of social ritual -- outwardly exuberant but with an underlying touch of valedictory sadness -- that John Feeney's son would portray better than anybody.
John Feeney arrived in America on June 8, 1872. The town was Boston, the ship a Cunard vessel he had boarded in Queenstown. The year John Feeney arrived in America, about 72,000 other Irish did as well.
Feeney was typical in every sense, for the immigrants of Feeney's time were predominantly young, predominantly Catholic, predominantly from poor rural or western districts. They were laborers and farmers who had little capital -- a couple of pounds at most. But they didn't need a great deal of capital to make the voyage. Because of the volume of traffic, and the rise of steamships that could carry a thousand or so people in steerage, the fares were surprisingly affordable -- an Irishman could travel to America for as little as $8.75.
The great majority of the Irish sailed to either New York or Boston. The dangers on the long voyage were typhus and cholera from overcrowding; the dangers upon landing were only marginally less -- gangs of "runners," Irish hustlers who stole baggage and cheated countrymen trying to make their way from the port. Confused and broke, many Irish immigrants got no farther than the tenements of their landfall city.
John Feeney was made of sturdier stuff. There was no work in Boston? Very well, he'd go someplace else, someplace where there was family, a cousin or two, and plenty of work to be had -- Maine. John Feeney, like his youngest son, had a knack for finding his way.
If the famine was the defining event of the nineteenth century in Ireland, it turned out to be one of the defining events of America as well. The influx of the Irish in various Northern cities strengthened institutions -- the Democratic Party, Tammany Hall -- but it also traumatized immigrants like Feeney. No matter where they settled, they remained more intimately connected to their native land than many other European immigrants, who were only too glad to come to America. For the Irish, it was a forced march, and their ambivalence would infect their children.
As soon as John Feeney emigrated, he followed in the emotional footsteps of millions of his countrymen. The harshness, the dourness, the malice of his native country was forgotten, and all that was remembered was the beauty, the whimsy. Ireland became a green place where joyous people had an endless party and uttered memorable aphorisms. The inherited Ireland, the Ireland of the imagination, became far more important than the often disillusioning reality.
In time, John Feeney's son would come to know and like Joseph Kennedy and support Jack Kennedy in his political rise, but that family's carefully constructed country club fantasy held no charms for him. John Ford's Irish were and would always remain hard-drinking peasants -- raffish, tough sons of bitches -- as well as generous, funny, curiously honest, and complex people.
Despite the success to be found by so many of the Irish in America, many Irish-Americans never overcame deep-seated feelings of inferiority and insecurity; emotional conflicts were often internalized, and resulted in self-destructive behavior -- overwork, apostasy, alcoholism.
In 1875, three years after John Feeney came to America, he married Barbara Curran, who would be known to family and friends as Abby. Barbara had been born in the town of Kilronan on the island of Inishmore, one of the ferociously hostile Aran Islands, a limestone reef at the mouth of Galway Bay, unreclaimable rock separated by a profusion of crude stone walls. For Abby, life in Maine would have been a year-round Christmas compared to the insular hardships of Kilronan.
The year after they were married, the children began arriving, eleven of them -- Mary Agnes in 1876, Della in 1878, Patrick in 1879, Francis in 1881, Bridget in 1883, Barbara in 1888, Edward in 1889, Josephine in 1891, Joanna in 1892, John in 1894, and Daniel in 1898.
Of these children, five died in infancy, leaving Mary Agnes (known as Maime), Patrick, Francis, Edward, Josephine, and John -- six brothers and sisters. Despite the dreadful infant mortality, which couldn't have been much of an improvement over Spiddal, America seemed to suit the Feeneys; eight years after his arrival in America, on September 11, 1880, John Feeney became an American citizen.
John Ford always claimed to have been born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna -- or some small variant -- on February 1, 1895. For ninety-odd years, he was taken at his word. But the registry of births for Cape Elizabeth, Maine, clearly records the birth of John Martin Feeney on February 1, 1894. That is the date on his birth registration, on his school records at Portland High School, and on his death certificate. When young John -- family and friends always called him Jack -- was born in Cape Elizabeth, an agrarian community a few miles outside of Portland, his father was working as a farmer.
The subtraction of a year from Jack's age stemmed from a childhood bout with diphtheria that caused him to lose a year at school. His reasons for Gaelicizing his name were almost certainly because it made him feel more Irish, more authentic. O'Fearna is indeed the Gaelic equivalent of Feeney, but there are no O'Fearnas in Spiddal, and if you inquire about that family, you will get the response, "No, Feeney."
From his Irish roots, his New England environment, and from what he observed around the dinner table, young Jack's character was formed. Ford rarely spoke in specifics about his parents, but it's probable that his father's nature was a combination of the loving but stern fathers that Donald Crisp would play in his films, crossed with the transparent braggadocio of Victor McLaglen's Sergeant Quincannon. John Feeney was many things, for he had a large family to feed. He would be a fisherman, a farmer, a saloonkeeper, an unofficial alderman around Portland's Munjoy Hill. He would be whatever he needed to be.
In old age, John Feeney looked like a potential hard case -- tall, with big shoulders, long arms, and huge, gnarled hands -- but the testimony of his children and the people who knew him is of a benign, engaging character. When the spirit moved him, he could tear off a prodigious Irish jig. He loved horse races, and he loved to gamble.
"He would tell about the great things he'd done as a young man," Ford would say of his father, "such as the time he lifted a heavy boulder up out of the water, or how he swam Galway Bay. Of course, he was a damn liar, but he would entertain us as kids. He was always stopping runaway horses -- in fact it was his great yen; it was all horses and buggies in those days and, like a bullfighter, he stopped a horse and grabbed it -- he was a big, powerful man -- and yanked this horse to its knees."
There would be a persistent legend in the Feeney family that they believed explained their doggedly contrarian natures. It seemed that John Feeney's uncle Mike Connelly -- or Connolly -- had emigrated to America early in 1862. As he descended the gangplank, he was asked by a smiling stranger if he would like to be a streetcar conductor. Mike thought that was a very fine idea indeed, so he was given a uniform which he found entitled him only to fight in the battle of Shiloh. He took this duplicity amiss and promptly deserted to the Confederacy, serving with great distinction in that cause.
Ford was always to claim a kinship with Uncle Mike. The story is probably apocryphal -- there was a Michael Connolly who served as a volunteer in the Maine Infantry, but he never deserted, entering and departing the service as a private, while, on the Confederate side, there were numerous Michael Connollys, Connellys, or Conleys, but none of them were from Maine. More importantly, the idea of a man without a clear allegiance to any political interests besides his own would always have a metaphorical resonance for Ford.
Portland, Maine, is a peninsula jutting into Casco Bay. It is three miles long by about three-fourths of a mile wide, and its shape resembles that of a Viking ship, with the area called Munjoy Hill at the prow. The French and English fought over the land, and the English won, building the town they called Falmouth. White pines from nearby forests provided masts for the Royal Navy, but the English failed to have any sense of gratitude; during the Revolution, they opened fire on the town from the harbor and destroyed it. On July 4, 1786, Falmouth was renamed Portland, so as to obliterate the hated English patrimony.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Portland was a lively maritime town, the second largest molasses port in America after New York. The city was only partially derailed by a great fire that swept through its heart in 1866. By 1872, sixty-five trains stopped in Portland every day, and that was before the Boston & Maine Railroad came into town, or, in 1875, the Portland & Rochester. By 1880, the population was 33,810.
Portland was no backwater. There was a B. F. Keith vaudeville house, and the Jefferson Theater opened in 1897. The Feeneys could have seen Bernhardt in Camille and Maude Adams in Peter Pan. As far as the nascent nickelodeons were concerned, Preble Street was the site of the Nickel, which was one of the few theaters in America to show an early talking picture system called Cameraphone. Portland had clean, wide, tree-lined streets of cobblestone and dirt, with streetcars and a few broughams. The only famous person to emerge from Portland in the nineteenth century was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose statue has occupied a place of honor in the heart of town since before Jack Feeney was born.
Jack's world was small but rich. In the long New England summers of this time that would later be enshrined as the Gilded Age, the wealthy families of Portland would head for Bar Harbor, while the middle class would settle for a twenty-minute ferry ride to Peaks Island, picturesquely located in Casco Bay, with magnificent views of the ocean, the harbor, and the mountains eighty miles away. On Peaks Island, people could amuse themselves with a band concert, a play from the repertory theater, a trip to Greenwood Amusement Park, and a climactic clambake, followed by the trip back to Portland. It was an idyllic setting, with bowling alleys, swings, and old apple trees.
The Gem Theater was adjacent to one of the boat landings on the island, and offered movies and dancing at the same time. You could dance with your girl in the darkness while watching a movie over her shoulder. The Union House, the oldest hotel on the island, was particularly favored for its fish chowder. Although the year-round population of Peaks Island was only about 370, in summer the population would swell to around 1,300, not counting day-trippers.
A few miles from downtown Portland is Portland Head Light, which has been there since 1791, the first lighthouse erected on the Atlantic Coast. It's a beautiful white pillar erupting 101 feet from the rocky shoreline. In a storm, the waves break and the spray scatters as high as the lighthouse itself. Young Jack Feeney learned of the awesome power of a Maine storm as soon as he was old enough to listen to the foghorn moaning its warnings to the ships offshore.
In those days, if you wanted to call somebody a bad name, you called him an Irishman, so Jack quickly learned to adopt an air of don't-mess-with-me truculence. The rapid population growth of the 1890s made Munjoy Hill a village unto itself. Most of the Irish population of Portland were laborers on the waterfront, the railroad, or the auto works at the base of the Hill.
Maine enacted prohibition in the mid-nineteenth century, but there was a good deal of back-and-forth on the issue. The temperance movement was at least partially stimulated by the nearly universal drunkenness of the time. Every grocery store had casks of rum and gin, and rum breaks at 11:00 and 4:00 occurred every working day.
In 1880, the year he was naturalized, John Feeney and his family were living at 53 Center Street and he was working for the gas company. The year after Jack was born, John Feeney quit farming and went into a new business. "Mr. Feeney had a barroom," remembered Portland native Mary Corcoran, whose father worked for Feeney.
John Feeney came by his calling honestly: he married into it. Several of Abby Feeney's sisters had bars. As Don MacWilliams, the local historian of Munjoy Hill, says, "They couldn't always read and write [English], but they could count money." The farm on Cape Elizabeth may have been purchased as a buffer against the periodic spasms of prohibition, and there was a family legend to the effect that the only reason the farm was sold was because the children were growing older and needed the higher quality schools in Portland.
Feeney's bar was located near the apex of a five-corner meeting place called Gorham's Corner, which, until World War II, was the heart of Munjoy Hill. (Today, the site of Feeney's Saloon is a vacant lot.) By 1900, the census listed John Feeney's occupation as "restaurant," a pleasant euphemism. Five of the six surviving children were living at home at 48 Danforth Street. (Also renting at that address was one Edward Feeney and family, presumably John's brother or cousin.) Pat was working at the "restaurant" with his father; the mercurial Francis, newly returned from the Spanish-American War, was working as a tailor; and Eddie, Josie, and young Jack were all at school.
The Portland city directories tell the tale of the extended Feeney clan. In 1898, half the thirty-nine Feeneys in the city were laborers; by 1915, there were seventy-eight Feeneys, four-fifths of them tradesmen. America was working for John Feeney's family; by the turn of the century, their long climb up the ladder was well under way.
Copyright © 1999 by Scott Eyman