Telling It Like It Is
By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
Our cover story on Stephen Colbert’s Irish roots reminds us that with his ascension to the Late Show throne this coming fall, he will be joining a venerable group of Irish-American hosts on late night television, past and present.
While today’s audiences are familiar with Conan O’Brien who hosts Conan and Jimmy Fallon who took over from Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, the Irish have been among the most popular “talk” personalities in the medium since the early days of
television. These esteemed broadcasters include the very first Tonight Show host, Steve Allen (his mother was a Donoghue), whose show premiered opposite Ed Sullivan’s popular Sunday night variety show. Then there was the one-time king of daytime talk television, Phil Donahue. Later, Rosie O’Donnell’s popular talk show helped seal the notion that the Irish are good at talking or at least good at asking questions.
Yet, for all the reputation that we Irish have as great talkers and storytellers, I think of us as a quiet people.
In the Ireland I grew up in, so much was communicated with a nod or a wink or a raised eyebrow. People talked in whispers, and it seems to me, looking back, there was a “say nothing to no one” wariness about the place. A sort of subdued battle-weariness from the brutality of centuries of occupation, ending in the brutal civil war that divided the country in two.
Censorship was rife, especially during the Troubles. Under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, people rather than content were censored. This prevented RTÉ, the national broadcaster, from interviewing Sinn Féin spokespersons on radio or television even when the subject was not related to the conflict. (At least one RTÉ journalist that I know of, Jeannie McKeever, was fired for breaking this rule. She had previously worked for The Irishman newspaper in San Francisco, a forerunner to Irish America.)
When Gerry Adams finally got to speak on television on his first trip to the U.S. in 1994, generations of Irish people had never heard his voice before.
There was also censorship of movies and newspapers (The News of the World was still, in theory, banned when it ceased publication last year), and of course, books. Some of our best known authors, including John McGahern and Edna O’Brien, fell victim to the aptly named Committee on Evil Literature.
Such righteous legislation meant that there was a damping down of the voice of the people by those in power. But there was also a kind of self-censorship that went on – how else to explain the damning silences on abuses of children in industrial homes and the treatment of unmarried mothers?
Section 31 was in place until 1994. No surprise then that it took an American, George Mitchell, to chair the talks in Northern Ireland which, after some years, finally led to the Good Friday Agreement and the laying down of arms.
While more recent times have signaled new social advances in Ireland, there are still silences about dark happenings in the past that need to be broken. For instance, the families of those who disappeared during the Troubles need information, even if it’s just where their relatives are buried.
But let’s turn now to the Irish in America.
After centuries of learning to hold their tongues, our Irish forebears found their voice in America and used it well. As political reformers, writers, journalists, broadcasters, and union leaders they made their presence felt in a country where freedom of speech was not just a given but was protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
By far the best political satirist in the United States today, Colbert has used his constitutional right to free speech to highlight issues of paramount importance to all of us, and he has never been afraid to speak truth to power. (Google his 2006 performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner for a real treat of humor with guts).
We can only hope that Colbert will keep some of the audaciousness of the fictional character he played on the Colbert Report when he takes over The Late Show, broadcasting from the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York in September.
As Megan Smolenyak illustrates in her wonderful exploration of Colbert’s roots, there’s a good chance that the ironic humor that Stephen “Tyrone” (so named for his N.I. ancestors) employs to such good measure is inherited from his Irish great-grandfather George Colbert.
George converted to Catholicism on his marriage to Angeline Garin, also Irish. As Megan reports, when the wedding provoked a cross-burning in the couple’s yard by anti-Catholics, George calmed his new bride saying, “Let it burn. It sheds a lovely light.”