“Why O’Neill?”

Aside from my brother-in-law, the first Irishman I got to know well was their neighbor Jimmy Maloney. Now deceased, Jimmy was a sixty-something jobless farmer (“cultchies,” the local youth called them) who lived in a white-washed thatched cottage, dressed in black wool suits even in the heat of summer, and sustained himself on strong tea, white bread, and filterless Woodbine cigarettes. He spoke a near-incomprehensible dialect of Irish-English that made O’Neill’s Irish dialect characters—Mat Burke in “Anna Christie,” Paddy in The Hairy Ape, Phil Hogan from A Moon for the Misbegotten, the spongers in Con Melody’s pub in A Touch of the Poet, or the maid Cathleen in Long Day’s Journey to name a few—sound like so many announcers for the BBC. Ireland was in the throes of an economic depression in the early ‘80s, before the rise and fall of the “Celtic Tiger,” and on top of hours spent at Jimmy’s hearth, I witnessed first-hand what I imagined, and still do to a large extent, constituted true Irishness: renegade fishermen seeking shelter in the caravans, soaked to the bone after scuttling their vessel in an insurance scam, then swimming to shore and scaling the two-hundred-meter-high cliffs a short walk away; the fall-out of “wobblers,” as the Irish call them, a phenomenon of domestic abuse wherein the man of the house blacks out from a combination of fury, alcohol, and despair, then proceeds to rip apart his home—demolishes furniture, breaks windows, tears down doors—and more often than not turns on his wife and children; I became acquainted with gypsies (“travelers” or “tinkers”), local priests and nuns, publicans (pub owners), traditional seisún musicians, lobster fishermen, renegade bakers, dog-breeding gamblers, first-language Irish speakers or “Gaeilge,” and self-styled “Provos” (members of the Provisional IRA).

In short, I encountered a mélange of individuals that might comfortably stock the character list of a play by Eugene O’Neill. To paraphrase the great Irish playwright John Millington Synge, I found Mother Ireland as she was, not as she wished to be found.

O’Neill himself never visited his parents’ homeland, much as he longed to. But paying tribute to such unwonted types from his own country, the United States, became a lifelong project for the playwright, one he would explore in the years to come with his treatment of a redeemed prostitute in “Anna Christie,” a black Pullman porter in The Emperor Jones, a coal-stoker on a steamship in The Hairy Ape, and one he would perfect over the following decades, culminating with his late barroom masterpiece The Iceman Cometh. With these plays and dozens of others, O’Neill reached broadly across the American social matrix—sailors, prostitutes, pimps, gamblers, hustlers, anarchists, socialists, hotel clerks, down-and-outers, black gangsters, Irish tenant farmers, bohemian artists, safe-crackers, bartenders, and Broadway “rounders”—unleashing virtually every outcast from America’s misbegotten landscape onto the world stage. Following Synge’s example, O’Neill wrote about his own motherland as he found her rather than as she wished to be found, and he inspired countless members of the next generations, myself included, to do the same.