My standard line when asked this maddening question, maddening in both its complexity and rate of recurrence, goes something like this: “Because I’m an Irish-American male who grew up in Connecticut and New York and always felt at home in dive bars. I also love plays, and when they’re set in dive bars, all the better.” There’s autobiography in all scholarship of course, no matter what the purists say. But the deeper question for me is why I feel so at home when I watch or read a play by O’Neill, whether they take place in dives or not. It’s one of the great ironies of literary history that a man so desperately alienated could conjure the ability to make so many feel they belong. But perhaps that’s why we settle into a peculiar comfort zone when we enter O’Neill’s imagination, and why we don’t find his plays as gloomy as others complain.
Each O’Neill lover’s explanation will be different, of course, a point “Celtic Twilight” categorically demonstrates. For my own part, I spent my teenage years at prep school in Connecticut as O’Neill had in his youth. This period in both our lives fostered a sense of isolation rather than community; and it instilled less a desire to uphold the structured lifestyle our parents and teachers had hoped than a longing to explore every unorthodox social and intellectual outlet within our limited grasp. I found release in the authors that inform much of O’Neill’s work—Nietzsche, Conrad, London, Crane, Joyce, Baudelaire, et al. (and for me, O’Neill himself). The expansive worldview these writers engendered in the playwright never waned over his lifetime. Nor have they in mine.
But one value our families encouraged did sink in—the Irish rebel past. My father’s side waxed as romantic about our connection to Ireland’s history as the O’Neills did when he was a young man. O’Neill’s sect went back to Hugh O’Neill (a.k.a. “The Great O’Neill”), Earl of County Tyrone, and he was given the middle name “Gladstone” after the British Prime Minister William Gladstone, a progressive advocate for Home Rule in Ireland. My ancestor Michael O’Rahilly (a.k.a “The O’Rahilly”) wound up being the only officer to die at Dublin’s General Post Office in the Easter Rising of 1916. Both our fathers—James O’Neill and Richard O’Rahilly Dowling—brought up the old clans any chance they got. Proudly carrying on our fathers’ tradition, O’Neill and I left ourselves open to derisive sneers from the actual Irish, as all self-proclaimed Irish Americans do (though a typical greeting in Ireland to someone of Irish ancestry: “How long’ve ye been back?”).
At 13, I made the first of many visits to my sister Susanne Magee’s home in Carrigaholt, Ireland, a fishing village in County Clare where eight pubs served about 100 residents. Susanne is an American-Irish emigrant who transplanted to County Kerry in 1979. Within a year, she married a lobster fisherman named Geoff Magee, and the two settled in West Clare on a small peninsula called Kilkredaun at the mouth of the Shannon River, where they now operate a dolphin-watching tour called Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt (the picture of me on the bio page was taken by Susanne outside their office in 2009). For a home, Susanne and Geoff conjoined a brace of barrel-top gypsy caravans with no running water or electricity. It was a haphazard structure lashed together by boards and sheets of tarp to protect them, and soon their three children, Naoise, Daithi, and Jenna, from the relentless wind and rain of the North Atlantic.