A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS 
Spring 2019 / VOL. 19 ISSUE 1

Milwaukee Irish Fest's Poetry Winner, Gahagan

By: Elliot O. Lipchik, Irish American 

This is a story of a talented writer with a pained soul who constructed a double life. I was fortunate to have acquired, strictly through chance, Joseph Raymond Gahagan’s papers, correspondence, memorabilia, bills, some medical records and additional history. I gathered much information from those sources and from my talking with three of his academic friends and from his sister.

 

Gahagan was prominent in Milwaukee’s Irish cultural scene, responsible for many Irish Fest play productions, frequent poetry and prose readings in multiple venues, and a few years as an instructor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (UWM)  and Cardinal Stritch University.

 

Gahagan was born in 1952 in Wisconsin and raised in small town Merrill. He earned a bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison in 1984, a Master of Arts from UWM in 1991, and a doctorate from UWM in 1995. His doctoral thesis was a novel.

   

According to his family, Gahagan tested as a near genius on a grade school IQ test, affirming that he always seemed far above any of his peers in knowledge and intelligence.

 

Gahagan’s favorite subject in research, teaching and writing were Irish history and mythology. He had a few short years of success and recognition with his scholarly knowledge of these subjects. For example, in 1994 he was awarded $1,500 by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture, “for work in literature enhancing the quality of life in Milwaukee County.” In l993, the Council For Wisconsin Writers presented Gahagan with a short fiction award, “In Recognition of Outstanding Creative Achievement in the Field of Professional Writing.”

 

A fascinating aspect of Gahagan’s life was the fictitious life story he created of having lived and been educated in Chicago, a son of Irish immigrants. There is some truth of Irish heritage in that his great-grandfather from Kilbride Parish, was a soldier in the Civil War. Why he created and stuck with this persona is unknown. He was successful in this deception because of his Joycean knowledge of Chicago, particularly the South Side.  He claimed to have been a high school track star there, but was never thin or athletic.  Steadfast in those Windy City tales, he kept all his adult academic friends distant from his family to keep the secrets intact. 

 

This false identity hurt no one.  What were his psychological benefits?  One can only wonder. Several of his official letters even claimed that he lived on and off in Ireland, that he had been active in Irish-American groups throughout the U.S., and also to have been published in nearly every major Irish-American magazine.

 

Eventually, Gahagan’s trouble with hugely challenging obesity problems -- resulting in multiple physical ailments, with excessive medications, hospitalizations and infirmity -- began to take its toll. At 6’2” and weighing 500 pounds, he was an imposing presence. One tale told of his leaning against a small car and sliding it into the roadway. But with COPD, diabetes, vascular sores on his lower extremities and frequent hospitalizations, Gahagan was unable to keep a job or academic position for any length of time. 

Yet his friends appreciated his sense of Gaelic irony and humor, and also a pessimistic view of the world. He certainly had the Irish gift of gab.  However, after a long period of confinement to his apartment and between hospitalizations, the pals would no long visit Gahagan due to his dirty, roach-infested, moldy apartment. During his last years, he had no money, owed telephone bills, rent, income tax and had other financial challenges. He died alone at age 49 on Oct. 24, 2001.

 

However, he is still noted by Milwaukee’s Irish community through the Milwaukee Irish Fest’s Joseph Gahagan Prize of $100,awarded in the memory of the man who served as poetry consultant to the Fest for many years.  

 

Joseph Gahagan Prize Winning Poem, Milwaukee Irish Fest, 2018

Awarded to Kathleen Hayes Phillips
 

At the Pyle Art Show

It was the grass that slowed me down...grass
so green it seemed unreal, the verdant field squared off
into a checkerboard dotted with toy sheep
and whitewashed cottages, the artist's remembering
of a place and time held in an ornate frame,

a difficult tast at best, for memories are known to be
will-o-the-whisps, hiding behind the flower, the three,
the smile...hard to catch, and when captured,
impossible to own...slipping away
only to reappear when you least expect them,

She was at the Healy Pass, the passage through
the rugged Caha Mountains. She stood at the top
where you are able to see in the distance the waters
of the Kenmare River. And Bantry Bay. 

What you cannot see is what she did not paint:
the road you must travel to reach this spot, the way up
turning in twisting spirals like a snake intent
on biting its tail...which is why I can picture

my husband's tight face, his hands clutching the wheel,
both of us breathless, afraid to look too far ahead, 
fearing what the next turn might bring, ignoring
the scenery, the vistas were told not to miss.

I am old now. And he is gone. Standing in the stillness,
I let myself return to the Healy Pass, seeing
as if for the first time, what was once right in front of me. 

It seems the mist is blowing away; yellow gorse
and purple heather aside the road, hint at more gentle
return to the valley, the turns and breathing, easier.

And I can see us together, finally enjoying the view.

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