Saturday, 28 January 2017

‘Hollywood’s one-man UN’ and
his family roots in Askeaton

J Carrol Naish as General Philip Sheridan in Rio Grande ... it was his only Irish part, although his family was from Askeaton, Co Limerick

Patrick Comerford

An Irish actor once played so many different nationalities in Holywood that he became known ‘Hollywood’s one-man UN.’ He also took a brave stand against Hitler and Mussolini in a movie in 1943, speaking out against racism and concentration camps.

J Carrol Naish is fading from memories today. But for my generation was known for his parts in 1960s television series such as I Dream of Jeanie, The Man from Uncle, Greenaces, Bonanza and Get Smart. And I was delighted to learn that he was a member of family from Askeaton that once played an interesting role in Liberal politics in Victorian Ireland.

I first came across the story of J Carrol Naish and his Holywood career after noting the interesting family tomb of the Naish family of Ballycullen Castle, Askeaton. The tomb is generally hidden from public view, behind the padlocked gate of the Chapter House off the cloisters in the Franciscan Abbey in Askeaton. And memories of the Naish family from Askeaton are fading, for while they claimed to have been granted their land by King John in 1210, the Ballycullen estate later passed to the O’Donnell family.

Ballycullen House was built in 1740, but for several hundred years Ballycullen was the home of the Naish family. David Fitz James Ruadh Naish, then owner of Ballycullen Castle, was killed in 1581 during the Desmond Rebellion. A descendant of his was one of the few Roman Catholics who fought for Lord Broghill during the Cromwellian campaign in Munster.

Carrol Patrick Naish (1801-1861) was twice married and the father of two interesting political sons. He and his first wife, Mary Sampson, of Ballycullen House, Askeaton, were the parents of Carrol John Naish (1825-1890). Carrol Patrick Naish and his second wife, Anna Margaret Carroll, were the parents of the Right Hon John Naish (1842-1890).

Carrol John Naish was born in Ballycullen House, Askeaton, on 15 June 1825. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin, and became a magistrate for Co Limerick. He inherited the Ballycullen estate when his father died in 1861. One of his sisters, Mary Caroline, became a Sister of Mercy and died at the age of 32. He married Eleanor Mary Naish (born Staunton), and some of their children died in infancy too.

His younger half-brother, the Right Hon John Naish PC, QC (1841–1890) was an Irish lawyer and judge, and was the Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1885 and 1886. The office of Lord Chancellor was the highest judicial office in Ireland until the Irish Free State was established in 1922. Until the Act of Union, the Lord Chancellor had also been the Speaker of the Irish House of Lords.

Naish was born in Askeaton on 15 August 1841, and was educated by the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood School, Co Kildare, before going on to Trinity College Dublin. He was an outstanding student, gaining many distinctions in mathematics, physics and natural science, as well as law.

He was called to the Irish Bar in 1865, and practiced on the Munster Circuit, becoming a QC in 1880. His career as a barrister was mixed. He was too nervous and retiring to be a good advocate, but hard work and academic brilliance partly compensated for this. He appeared in the celebrated libel action brought by Canon O'Keeffe against Cardinal Paul Cullen, and with Edmund Bewley he co-wrote an influential textbook, A Treatise on the Common Law Procedure Acts.

Naish became Law Adviser to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1880 and is credited with suggesting that magistrates in their ongoing struggle with the Irish National Land League, should rely on an obscure mediaeval statute, 34 Edward III c.1, to jail activists who could not find sureties for their good behaviour.

He was the Solicitor-General for Ireland from January 1883 and Attorney-General for Ireland from December 1883. He stood as the Liberal candidate in Mallow in 1882, but in the fraught political atmosphere following the Phoenix Park murders, he was crushingly defeated by the Nationalist candidate, William O’Brien.

He was appointed to the Privy Council of Ireland in 1885 and in May 1885, at the early age of 42, Gladstone made him Lord Chancellor of Ireland, in succession to Sir Edward Sullivan. He was only the second Roman Catholic Chancellor since the Reformation, but held office only until July, when the Liberal government resigned office.

He was appointed a permanent Lord Justice of Appeal in August 1885, and became Lord Chancellor again when Gladstone returned to office in February 1886. In June 1886, the government resigned once again, and Naish resigned with them. He then resumed the duties of Lord Justice of Appeal, continuing in office until 1890.

But Naish’s health failed when he was still in his late 40s. He travelled to the Continent in the hope of a cure, but died at the German spa town of Bad Ems on 17 August 1890 and was buried there.

Naish married Maud Dease, daughter of James Arthur Dease of Turbotston, Co Westmeath, and they had three children. Her sister, Mary Dease became the Countess of Gainsborough when her husband, Charles Francis Noel, succeeded as 3rd Earl of Gainsborough; they lived at Exton Hall in Rutland, where Exton Park was the largest estate in England’s smallest county. Maud Naish is commemorated in a stained glass window in Coole Church, Co Westmeath.

The Saint Matilda window in Coole Church, Co Westmeath, commemorates Matilda (Maud) Naish (née Dease) and her family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The older of the two Naish half-brothers, Carrol John Naish, who also died in 1890, was the father of Patrick Sarsfield Naish (1871-1954), who was born in Askeaton in March 1871.

Following the death of his father, Patrick Sarsfield Naish emigrated to New York at the age of 19 in 1890. In New York, he met Catherine Moran, who was from Foynes, Co Limerick. They married and had eight children, including the Hollywood character actor, James Patrick Carroll Nash (1896-1973).

Naish, who was known professionally as J Carrol Naish, was nominated twice for an Academy Award for film roles, and he later found fame in the title role of CBS Radio’s Life with Luigi (1948-1953).

Naish was born in New York 121 years ago on 21 January 21 1896. He appeared on stage for several years before he began his film career. He began as a member of Gus Edwards’s vaudeville troupe of child performers.

After World War I, he worked as a singer and dancer in Paris, later taking his act to far-flung corners of the world, from Europe to Egypt to Asia. Once on these travels, after the ship he planned to sail on to China had engine troubles, he was left stranded in California in 1926. There his life-long film career began.

Naish found a bit part that year in What Price Glory?. Although he was not named in the credits, the role launched his career in more than 200 films, and he was twice nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

‘Are my eyes blind that I must fall to my knees to worship a maniac who has made of my country a concentration camp, who has made of my people slaves? Must I kiss the hand that beats me, lick the boot that kicks me?’ ... J Carrol Naish as Giuseppe in Sahara (1943)

The first nomination was for his role as Giuseppe in the movie Sahara (1943) in which he delivers a moving speech that is memorable for a war-time film:

Mussolini is not so clever like Hitler, he can dress up his Italians only to look like thieves, cheats, murderers, he cannot like Hitler make them feel like that. He cannot like Hitler scrape from their conscience the knowledge right is right and wrong is wrong, or dig holes in their heads to plant his own Ten Commandments – Steal from thy neighbour, Cheat thy neighbour, Kill thy neighbour! But are my eyes blind that I must fall to my knees to worship a maniac who has made of my country a concentration camp, who has made of my people slaves? Must I kiss the hand that beats me, lick the boot that kicks me? NO!

The second nomination was for his performance as the title character’s Hispanic father in A Medal for Benny (1945). For his part in this film, he won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture.

Naish often played villains – from gangsters in Paramount pictures to mad scientists such as Dr Daka in the Batman film serial. In the 1940s, he was a supporting character in a number of horror films, and played Boris Karloff’s assistant in House of Frankenstein (1944).

On radio, he starred as Luigi Basco, an Italian immigrant named, in the popular CBS programme Life with Luigi (1948-1953). The audience ratings outstripped those for Bob Hope in 1950 ratings. Luigi’s popularity resulted in a CBS television series of the same name, with Naish reprising his role.

In 1956, he portrayed Charlie Chan in a 39-episode television series, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan. In the 1960s, he had parts in television series such as I Dream of Jeanie, The Man from Uncle, Greenaces, Bonanza and Get Smart. His final film role was in 1971 as a mad scientist in Dracula vs. Frankenstein.

Naish married the actress Gladys Heaney (1907-1987) in 1929, and they were the parents of a daughter, Elaine.

The couple visited Limerick for the first time in 1957, when they stayed in Cruise’s Hotel. They visited Ballycullen House where he retrieved a slate from the house that he took back to America with him. While in Limerick, they also visited Foynes, where her mother was born.

Naish died of emphysema 44 years ago, on 24 January 1973, at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California, three days after his 77th birthday. For his contributions to television, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6145 Hollywood Boulevard.

Throughout a career that lasted for more than 40 years, he worked on over 225 films and television shows. He was famed in his time and worked with noted directors like Fritz Lang, John Ford, and Anthony Mann. He co-starred with Bogart, Edward G Robinson, John Wayne and Ingrid Bergman.

He played characters from many other ethnic backgrounds, including Southern European, Eastern European, Latin American, Native American, Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian, South-East Asian, Pacific Islander – even African American. These parts earned him a reputation as ‘Hollywood’s one-man UN.’

Despite this interesting variety of roles, and despite his family roots in Askeaton, Naish played the role of an Irishman only once as General Philip Sheridan (1831-1888) in the 1950 film Rio Grande, alongside John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. He once said: ‘When the part of an Irishman comes along, nobody ever thinks of me.’
In Rio Grande, Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) is visited by his former Civil War commander, General Sheridan (J Carrol Naish), who orders Yorke to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico in pursuit of the Apaches, an action with serious political implications as it violates the sovereignty of another nation.

It is a fictional event, despite the involvement of real-life characters. Perhaps its the sort of event that inspires Donald Trump to treat Mexico with contempt and to cinfuse fact with fiction. But perhaps he could pay more attention to J Carrol Naish as an actor who enjoyed ethnic diversity, variety and pluralism in the United States and who spoke out against a megalomaniac leader who would have his people ‘scrape from their conscience the knowledge right is right and wrong is wrong, or dig holes in their heads to plant his own Ten Commandments – Steal from thy neighbour, Cheat thy neighbour, Kill thy neighbour.’

J Carrol Naish (left) as General Sheridan in Rio Grande ... he returned to Askeaton in 1957

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