Salon honors railway workers

Theodore Wheeler, Felicity White, Maggie Smith Hurt, Vanessa Dobles, Bob Churchill, Drucilla Wall, Adrian Koesters and Eamonn Wall at the Irish American Writers and Artists Salon at Union Pacific Railroad Museum, Council Bluffs, Iowa, on June 1.

Salon Diary / By Eamonn Wall

Irish American Writers and Artists presented a Salon on June 1 at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, as part of the year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the building and completion the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The Salon, which attracted a large and appreciate crowd, honored, celebrated, and commemorated the thousands of Irish immigrants who helped to build the railroad and the many achievements of Irish-American writers and artists through the past two centuries.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

The Salon was curated by the author of this diary (an IAW&A board member) and by Bob Churchill, a poet and essayist who lives in Council Bluffs. The Union Pacific Railroad Museum is located in downtown Council Bluffs in an elegantly-restored Carnegie Library.

Bob Churchill.

Museum director Vanessa Dobles welcomed IAW&A to Council Bluffs and declared how proud and thrilled she was to welcome a group representing Ireland and its diaspora to join in the celebration of the 150th anniversary, recognizing the vital contributions made by Irish men and women to the building of the railroad that linked East with West.

In my opening remarks, I spoke about the mission of IAW&A and the organization’s embrace of Salons as a way of providing opportunities for emerging writers and artists to perform their work in public. I said that there had been a great renaissance in Irish-American cultural activity in recent decades but it was important to have salons as a means of encouraging the new generations to take part in the arts. To get the program started and set the stage for the performers, I read poems in Irish and from Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Moya Cannon, and Seamus Heaney.

Maggie Smith Hurt, who was born and raised in Iowa, was the first reader. She lived in Dublin for nine years before recently returning the United States and many of the poems she read were written in and about Ireland, including a beautiful evocation of the Hook Peninsula in Co. Wexford. Drucilla Wall, the co-editor of “Thinking Continental: Writing the Planet One Place at a Time” (Nebraska, 2017) and author of “The Geese at the Gates” (Salmon Poetry, 2011) read from her own poetry and from and the work of other writers and addressed the theme of the reading with an acapella version of Carson Robinson’s 1927 song "The Wreck of the Number Nine" by Carson Robinson (1890-1957). Theodore Wheeler read from his novel “Kings of Broken Things,” an evocative and nuanced work that explores the lives of young men in Omaha. It is also a recounting of the ethnic and racial tensions and harmonies in early 20th Century Omaha, across the river for Council Bluffs. Ted is co-director of Omaha Lit Fest and helps operate the Dundee Book Company bookcart, one of the world's smallest bookstores.

Drucilla Wall.

After the intermission, your diarist read some prose and songs related to the railroad: songs about the back-breaking work performed by our ancestors and an entry from Wallace Stevens’ journals about taking a train across America, including his fulsome praise of Iowa’s beauty.

Bob Churchill is a Vietnam combat veteran (1969-70), poet and essayist, and for this reading he read from a new essay that chronicled the many ways in which the railroad has intersected with his own life: back through the generations, family members had worked on the railroad; he recalled taking the train to Chicago with his father to see the Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley Field; taking the train home from college; and a recent trip from Iowa to Philadelphia.

A chance encounter with an Amtrak conductor on the latter journey introduced Churchill to the story of Duffy’s Cut, now part of the Philadelphia Main Line, where 57 Irish railroad workers were murdered in by vigilantes who blamed the Irish for the spread of cholera.

Felicity White.

Reading from her own work, as well as including a Ted Kosser piece, Felicity White engaged with the role the railroad has played in American lives, particularly in the Midwest. In a longer, and deeply engaged, narrative poem set in Missouri, White showed how the railroad responded to segregation, and found to resist it, when African American and white American worked and traveled together. Adrian Koesters, an Irish-American poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer, concluded the program with a reading from her first novel “Union Square.” In part, the selection that she read explored the world of boxing with a particular focus on how the sport serves as a meeting place of Americans across generations and ethnic and political backgrounds. The novel is set in Baltimore where Koesters was raised.