Those We Lost

Clockwise from top left: Leland Bardwell, Bill Cunningham, Michael Curtin, Alphie McCourt, Bronwyn Brigid Fitzsimons pictured with her mother Maureen O’Hara, and Joe Derrane.

By Irish America Staff
August / September 2016

Leland Bardwell

1922 – 2016

Leland Bardwell, an Irish poet and novelist, died in June at the age of 94. She had a prolific literary career that spanned over five decades.

Bardwell’s first collection of poetry, The Mad Cyclist, was published by the New Writer’s Press in 1970. In 1975, she co-founded the literary journal Cyphers and later helped establish the Irish Writer’s Co-Operative. In her adopted home county of Sligo, she set up the literary festival, Scríobh. Bardwell published a total of five novels and five collections of poetry, as well as several plays (including a musical based on the life of her heroine Edith Piaf), a memoir, and countless short stories.

Brian Leydon, Bardwell’s fellow writer and close friend, said that “She embodied that bird of passage in her poem ‘Cuckoo on Top of The Protestant Church, Dugart.’” A line from the poem reads: “gate crasher, percher on steeples. Such selfishness, such panache, never in the one place twice.”

Born in India to Irish parents, Bardwell was brought back to Ireland at the age of two, where she grew up in Leixlip, Co. Kildare. She studied at Alexandra College, Dublin and the University of London.

She met and married Michael Bardwell in 1948, and they had three children. It was the beginning of a time Bardwell referred in her memoir to as a “crescendo of madness” fraught with infidelity and drama. In the 1960s, she left London and returned to Dublin with her six children. She quickly became a prominent name in Irish literary circles, counting among her friends poet Patrick Kavanagh and singer Luke Kelly.

Bardwell’s Irish publisher, Liberties Press, has announced that her 1975 novel Girl On A Bicycle will be republished in celebration of her memory.

– Olivia O’Mahony

Bill Cunningham

1929 – 2016

Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham died in New York City in June after hospitalization due to a stroke. A contributor to the New York Times’ Style section for nearly 40 years, he was renowned for his ability to capture a cultural moment through the lens of fashion.

Cunningham was born March 13, 1929 to an Irish Catholic family in Boston, Massachusetts. He claimed his interest in fashion began in church, telling the New York Times in 2002, “I could never concentrate on Sunday church services because I’d be concentrating on women’s hats.” He was accepted to Harvard University on scholarship but dropped out after two months, working briefly in advertising before opening his own hat-making business under the name “William J.” Encouraged by his clients (which included Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, and First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier), he closed the hat shop in 1962 to pursue fashion journalism. He began to write for Women’s Wear Weekly, and used his influence to introduce American audiences to designers such as Azzedine Alaïa and Jean Paul Gaultier.

Cunningham was a self-taught photographer who believed that fashion mirrored the times. While working at Women’s Wear Weekly and the Chicago Tribune, he began to take candid photographs of women’s outfits on the streets of New York. He was first published with the New York Times in 1978. His regular series, “On the Street,” began soon after. He made a career photographing everyday people and celebrities alike, valuing fashion choices as a mode of personal expression.

Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary film directed by Richard Press, was released in 2011, but Cunningham had little interest in pouring over the past. When approached by Harold Koda, former curator in charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, to curate a retrospective of his pictures, he declined, claiming it would be a diversion. “He did what he loved,” Koda has said, “and what he loved was documenting this very ephemeral world.”

– Olivia O’Mahony

Michael Curtin

1942 – 2016

Limerick author Michael Curtin died in April at the age of 74, leaving behind the unpublished manuscript of his seventh novel. His friends and readers have rallied to call for the final book to be made available to the public.

Born in 1942, Curtin was best known for his use of dark humor in novels that depicted the places and faces of Limerick. His titles include the critically-acclaimed The Plastic Tomato Cutter, The Self-Made Men, The Replay, and The League Against Christmas.

At the launch of The Plastic Tomato Cutter in 1996, he drew the audience’s attention to the hardships endured by unpublished writers, saying “Not all of them are as tough or as resilient as I am, and even I found the going hard.” The Plastic Tomato Cutter itself was rejected 11 times by various publishers, as revealed in an archive of Curtin’s work purchased in 2005 by the University of Limerick’s Glucksman Library.

Curtin had a “great eye and ear for the surreal,” Eoin Devereux, a faculty member of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences department at the University of Limerick, told the Limerick Leader. “His novels captured Limerick in all of its glory. He told me that like James Joyce, he would like Limerick to be recreated from them in the event of a nuclear bomb.”

Curtin is survived by his wife, Anne, and sons, Jason, Michael, and Andrew.

– Olivia O’Mahony

Joe Derrane

1930 – 2016

Born in Boston, on March 16, 1930 to Irish immigrants, both musicians, Joe Derrane began playing the button accordion at age 10 and while still in high school began recording a set of eight solo 78 RPM discs that showed his distinctive style. He went on to become a legend in the Irish ballroom scene in the 1950s and early ’60s. As the golden age of dance halls faded, Joe, who worked for the Massachusetts Transit Authority, switched to a piano accordion and played weddings and other gigs with non-Irish bands to support his family.

In the 1993, having all but disappeared from the traditional music circuit, Joe was rediscovered when Rego Records re-released his albums. In 1994, he took the stage at the Wolftrap Festival in Vienna, Virginia and the response to that performance heralded his return. He went on to play at the White House and the Kennedy Center and to record seven albums over the next 16 years. Some of those recordings, such as “Tango Derrane,” reflected his broader musical experience. He also recorded “Waltzing with Anne,” a tune he composed for his wife, Anne. They met in a dance hall in New York when Anne, a Longford native, tapped him on the shoulder for a “Ladies Choice” and married in 1955. Anne passed away in 2008. “She was always there for me, she was the one who kept encouraging me to practice and play, she told me I could do it, even when I wasn’t sure I could,” he told the Boston Irish Reporter in 2010,

In 2004, Joe was made an NEA National Heritage Fellow, and that same year in an interview with Mary Eckstein for the NEA, he said, “Most importantly, the music itself is a joy. There’s a saying that music has its own rewards and I think that’s true. I could come home from work or be frustrated or worried about something and I’d sit down and just start to play and within 10 or 15 minutes the music would take over and all those worries and concerns would fade into the background. At least for a while.”

Joe Derrane is survived by his son Stephen and his wife Cynthia, his daughter Sheila and her husband, Robert, and grandsons Russell Burns and Joseph Derrane.

– Patricia Harty

Bronwyn Brigid Fitzsimons

1944 – 2016

Bronwyn Brigid Fitzsimons died in May in Glengarriff, Co. Cork. She was born in Los Angeles on June 30, 1944 to actress Maureen O’Hara and her then husband, writer director, Will Price. Taking her mother’s maiden name, “Fitzsimons,” she appeared in minor roles in several films including, Spencer’s Mountain (1963) and co-starred in The Ravagers (1965) with John Saxon. She also appeared in various TV series episodes in the 1960s including The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Cadaver, McHale’s Navy, The Virginian, and Bachelor Father.

Bronwyn shared her mother’s love for Ireland and moved there in the 1960s, first to Dublin and later to Glengarriff. A gifted musician, she played guitar and composed songs and lyrics as a hobby that eventually evolved into a produced album. Above all, Bronwyn loved entertaining and was recognized as a delightful hostess. During her final years, she settled in a lovely cottage in Glengarriff and enjoyed the friendship of the village. In addition to her son Connor, she is survived by her two grandchildren, Bailey and Everest.

– June Beck

Alphie McCourt

1940 – 2016

Irish American writer and memoirist Alphonsus “Alphie” McCourt died of natural causes at his New York home on July 2nd. He was 75.

Following in the footsteps of his brothers Frank (Angela’s Ashes) and Malachy (A Monk Swimming), Alphie had his own memoir, A Long Stone’s Throw, published in 2008. When asked by the Limerick Leader why he’d felt the need to write his own perspective of the McCourt family history, he said “I felt I should tell my part of it because my experience was very different from my brothers.” McCourt’s writings also appeared in the Washington Post and The Villager. His most recent collection of short stories and verses, The Soulswimmer, was published in 2014.

The youngest of seven children, McCourt was born in Limerick in 1940. He attended the Christian Brothers school and was a Munster rugby player and member of the Limerick Debating Society. He began a law degree at University College Dublin, but dropped out to work in the restaurant and bar trade. He left Ireland in 1959 and spent time in Montreal and California before settling in New York.

Though he lived in New York for most of his adult life, the city of his birth was never far from his heart. He was on hand in 2012 to oversee the opening of the Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick. He was “one of nature’s gentlemen,” Una Heaton, the curator of the museum, told the Irish Times. “He was kind, warm and always softly spoken and had very deep feelings. He was very quirky; he had a great turn of phrase and a real dry wit.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Alphie is survived by his brother, Malachy.

– Olivia O’Mahony

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