On This Day – 23.3.1893   Birth in Dublin of Cedric Gibbons


There are numerous anecdotes about how the Academy Award statuette got its name. One story has it that Bette Davis named it after one of her husbands, the band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson. The more probable narrative relates to the executive secretary of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick who is supposed to have exclaimed, when she saw the statuette for the first time, ‘It looks just like my Uncle Oscar’.

All of which is apropos of the man who was given the task of designing the golden trophy, one of the founding members of the Academy, Cedric Gibbons. He was born Austin Cedric Gibbons in Dublin in 1893 and his family migrated to the USA in the early 1900s. His father was an architect, which must have influenced his future career as a Hollywood art director. Cedric, after graduating from Art school, began to work for his father before joining the Edison studio in New York in 1915. This was at a time when the movie industry still hadn’t quite made up its mind whether it was going to be a west coast or an east coast phenomenon.

The lack of year-round sunshine, and proximity to the litigious holders of film-making patents, like Gibbons’s first employer, put paid to New York as the spiritual home of La La Land by the 1920s and Gibbons, like most of his talented peers, headed for Hollywood.

In 1918 he started working for Samuel Goldwyn, the father of such celebrated Goldwynisms as ‘A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’ and ‘Can she sing? … why she’s practically a Florence Nightingale.’ When, in 1924, Goldwyn’s company became the ‘G’ in the MGM sandwich—the ‘M’s, of course, being ‘Metro’ and ‘Mayer’, Gibbons had arrived.


In negotiating his MGM contract, he insisted that he be credited as Art Director on every single movie the studio produced during his tenure. Which meant that Gibbons was credited on over fifteen hundred movies between 1924 and 1956. He probably had direct involvement in around a tenth of that number. Still, being art director on one hundred and fifty movies over three decades is quite a career.

As it happens he was one of the earliest winners of the award he had been asked to design. He won his first Uncle Oscar at the second awards ceremony in 1930. Altogether he received thirty-nine nominations and won eleven awards. His first award came in 1929 for The Bridge of San Luis Rey and his final nod was almost thirty years later, in 1957, for the Paul Newman boxing film Somebody Up There Likes Me. He was also nominated for The Wizard of Oz, a film you would have thought was a triumph of art direction, but didn’t win. Similarly with the likes of National Velvet, and the more visceral The Blackboard Jungle, in 1957,  the film that launched the song ‘Rock Around the Clock’.

His marriage to the actress Dolores del Rio was probably not one of the best decisions either of them made. She was going through a divorce AND splitting up from her lover around the time they were introduced by William Randolph Hearst and his wife Marion Davies. The marriage lasted a decade, by which time Del Rio had taken up with Orson Welles – so no chance of any more matchmaking from Hearst or Davies there.

Gibbons died in 1960 and is buried in Los Angeles, in 2006 he became one of the earliest inductees into the newly formed Art Director’s Guild Hall of Fame.

Austin Cedric Gibbons, one of the first and one of the greatest Hollywood art directors was born in Dublin, one hundred and twenty-five years ago, on this day.




On This Day 9.3.1931  Birth of Jackie Healy Rae 



He actually shares a name with one of Ireland’s best known journalists, the great political columnist John Healy, a noted champion of rural Ireland. Which is oddly appropriate, because the man we know as Jackie Healy Rae had similar affinities, albeit largely to his own small part of the Irish countryside.

He was born in 1931, one of six children who grew up on a farm in Kerry. The ‘Rae’ in his surname, the bit after the unlikely hyphen, comes from the area in which he grew up, Reacaisleach. He was a prominent member of the local GAA in his youth. But his prowess would be of little use to him when it came to winning votes at elections. Because Jackie Healy-Rae, as well as sporting an aristocratic hyphen, was a hurler. Now who would vote for a hurler in Kerry? Who can even name a single Kerry hurler?  He was also an accomplished musician. Accordion perhaps? Maybe the flute? Neither. Jackie Healy-Rae, always a contrarian, shared a passion for the instrument made famous by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Lisa Simpson. He was a saxophone player.

Starting in the early 1970s Healy-Rae was a dedicated member of the Fianna Fail party, working assiduously and effectively at election times to get local supremo John O’Leary into the Dail over and over again. Under his guiding hand as director of elections and a county councillor Fianna Fail regularly claimed two seats out of three in his South Kerry bailiwick.

Then came the 1997 general election and it was Jackie’s turn to stand for the Dail after John O’Leary announced he was retiring. Except that it wasn’t. Despite all his hard work over the previous thirty years he was passed over for selection. Fianna Fail would go on to rue the day they messed with Jackie Healy-Rae. He stood as an independent, was given no chance, but did what far too many politicians are doing today, and defied the pollsters, by taking a seat. Not only that but he topped the poll. The seat has been in the family ever since.

He got lucky—though in politics you make your own luck—when the putative Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition was a few nails short of a governing tool box. Bertie Ahern’s government needed the support of four independents. Jackie—by now becoming known to a wider and not altogether welcoming public for his impenetrable Kerry accent and glued on cap—drove a hard bargain for his constituents, and they loved him for it. He arrived in Dublin after the election stand-off with a shopping list of road-building, pier, harbour and hospital construction, spiced with a tincture of agricultural grants, and job creation projects, for South Kerry.

His reward, during the 2002 general election, was a surprise call for a recount when the second Fianna Fail candidate, Tom Fleming, finished just over two hundred votes behind him. That did not go down well in Healy-Rae-ville. He was returned to the Dail, but the new government didn’t need his vote any longer, so the shopping list went back into his pocket. He did not get to produce it again.

Never renowned as an orator, his contributions to Dail debates were infrequent, and his attendance rate at the Oireachtas committee which he chaired left a lot to be desired. But that didn’t greatly bother his constituents. And he was nothing if not colourful. Among his most memorable Rae-isms are his immortal threat to pull the plug on the FF/PD coalition with the observation that ‘the fellas inside there [he was referring to the Dail] can be getting oil for the chains of their bikes.’ On his less affluent constituents he remarked that, ‘some people coming to me are so poor they couldn’t buy a jacket for a gooseberry.’

Though seen as a conservative political force he was no backwoodsman, and often adopted a libertarian, ‘live and let live’ approach. His attitude to a proposal for a nude beach in Ballybunion, for example, was ‘If people want to go without clothes, why should they be made wear them.’ When asked about the fate of Bishop Eamon Casey, he pointed out that the prelate had ‘got a raw deal, and what the man did was very light indeed compared with things that emerged about other churchmen afterwards.’

Jackie Healy-Rae, an independent voice, but a politician from the Fianna Fail gene pool, was born eighty-seven years ago, on this day.


On This Day 2 March 1948  – Birth of Rory Gallagher




He was the first Liam Gallagher, albeit with a hundred times more talent than the former Oasis lead singer. That’s because he was christened William Rory Gallagher. The William bit never caught on and we all know him simply as ‘Rory’.  In this country, if you just use his first name, everyone knows who you mean.

He was the Siamese twin of a sunburst 1961 Fender Stratocaster—Serial Number 64351—  purchased for around £100, second hand, in Crowley’s Music Store in MacCurtain Street in Cork in 1963, when he was fifteen.  He wanted a guitar like Buddy Holly’s. As a kid, he loved Lonnie Donegan and skiffle, graduated to Muddy Waters and the blues, and played the music of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, before he found his own unique voice. He couldn’t afford to buy records, so he listened a lot to Radio Luxembourg and the American Armed Forces Network, drifting in and out of coverage, on the family radio. Eventually, as a guitarist and, arguably, as a singer and songwriter, he would eclipse all his early influences. Because Rory Gallagher was the business. He was also shy, charming, engaging, modest, and an out and out gentleman.

Just to rewind a little. William Rory Gallagher was born in Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal—I would be justifiably slaughtered if I omitted to mention that—but was raised in the city of Cork, from where he got his accent, as well as his first electric guitar, which, by the way, was once stolen from the back of his van, and found in a ditch a few days later.

As a music crazy teen-ager, he earned the money to pay for the Fender Stratocaster by playing with the Fontana showband, but pop music covers were not his thing and, in 1966 he formed the R&B trio Taste, along with Norman Damery and Eric Kitteringham, also from Cork. Two albums later, he went solo, and began a twenty-year association with bass player Gerry McAvoy. By 1971 he was topping the Melody Maker’s Guitarist of the Year list, ahead of someone called Eric Clapton.

In a career that lasted more than thirty years he sold an average of a million albums a year, but it was his live performances that got his juices going, and endeared him to a generation of air-guitar playing fans. Alongside Van Morrison and Phil Lynott—to both of whom lead guitar was anathema—Gallagher became a bona fide Irish rock superstar, without ever courting or exploiting that status. His check shirts, blue jeans, flowing hair, battered Fender, and passion, set him apart from the posers, pranksters and piss-artists who populated rock music in the 1970s and 80s, just as they do today.

Rory always remained true to himself and his music. He was asked to replace the legendary Ritchie Blackmore as lead guitarist with Deep Purple, and, allegedly, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, but opted to stay solo. Throughout his career there is little doubt that, despite his notorious perfectionism, he placed far less value on his own abilities than did his legion of fans, and music industry admirers. Sometimes you can be just a little too modest and self-deprecating.

He also had time for everyone. One young guitarist recalls asking Rory how he achieved his unique sound. Gallagher sat him down and showed him. The young man went on become Brian May, so Queen owe at least some of their distinctive sound to Rory.

Although never your stereotypical recreational drug-taking rock star Gallagher had a fondness for alcohol which, over the years, adversely affected his liver. In 1995, he was admitted to King’s Hospital in London for treatment, and while awaiting a liver transplant contracted an MRSA infection, and died at the age of forty-seven.

Jimi Hendrix was once asked who was the greatest guitarist in the world, he responded, with becoming modesty, ‘I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher.’

Ireland’s greatest guitarist, Rory Gallagher, was born in Ballyshannon—there, I’ve said it again—seventy years ago, on this day.