By rights, Hugh O'Conor should not have been standing on the banks of the Santa Cruz on a hot Arizona day in August 1775.
An Irishman, he'd been born in Dublin in 1734, the second son in a high-ranking family. But here he was, red hair and all, peering down at the waters coursing through the desert. Granted, this was not the Shannon, the river that flows through Roscommon, where his family had its estate. But the Santa Cruz ran regularly through an oasis of trees and abundant grasses. O'Conor was impressed.
"I selected and marked out ... a place known as San Agustín del Tucson as the new site of the presidio," he wrote in a formal declaration. "It ... fulfills the requirements of water, pasture and wood and effectively closes the Apache Frontier."
Dating the proclamation Aug. 20, 1775, he signed it "Hugo O'Conor, knight of the order of Calatrava, colonel of infantry in His Majesty's armies and commandant inspector of the frontier posts of New Spain."
Nowadays, the date is considered Tucson's birthday, the document its birth certificate, and O'Conor the city's founder. His life story is dramatic, meshing the tragedies of English colonial rule in Ireland and Spanish colonial rule in America. So dramatic, in fact, that an Irish playwright is undertaking the task of bringing his tale to the stage.
Caroílin Callery, also from Roscommon, kicks off the Old Pueblo's seasonal Irish events with a talk on her project Friday evening, at a dinner sponsored by the Tucson-Roscommon Sister Cities group. (See below for a list of other Hibernian happenings.)
Callery is a cousin of Patrick Lavin, a Tucsonan and Sister Cities member who often travels home to Roscommon. Last summer in Ireland, Lavin reports, "We were just talking, and she said, 'That would be great to do a play.' It was her own idea."
An actress and playwright with an advanced degree in theater, Callery got a grant last year from Culture Ireland/Cultúr Eireann to bring an original production of Women and the Trojan Horse to the New York International Fringe Festival. One critic opined that her Praxis Theatre Laboratory's collaborative Trojan Horse "travels from experimental cutesiness to muddiness to brilliance."
Callery has already done some research in Ireland, Lavin says, and she'll spend several weeks in Southern Arizona ferreting out O'Conor facts at this end.
"She'd like to get a feel for the area here, and meet historians," including Father Kieran McCarty, whose translation of the O'Conor declaration above appears in his 1976 book Desert Documentary. Callery is also relying on Mark Santiago's definitive The Red Captain: The Life of Hugo O'Conor, published in 1994.
As McCarty and Santiago tell the story, at the age of 16, young Hugh joined the flocks of other young Irishmen fleeing 18th-century Ireland. Called the Wild Geese (na Geana Fiadhaine, in Irish), these émigrés fled English oppression at home to seek their fortunes in Europe. Not a few signed on with the king of Spain.
O'Conor became an officer in the Spanish army, and picked up the nickname El Capitán Colorado--the Red Captain--in honor of his flaming hair. He served the Spanish crown for 28 years, mostly in the borderlands. In these parts, he was charged with moving multiple Spanish presidios on the far northern frontier of New Spain to more secure locations.
The fort at Tubac was too vulnerable to Apache attack, so O'Conor settled on the new site due north along the Santa Cruz, at Tucson, a Tohono O'odham word for "at the foot of the black hill." O'Conor stayed only briefly in Tucson; his long military career would last only another four years. He died in Mérida in 1779, without ever seeing Ireland again.
"The play will be written after Caroílin returns to Ireland," Lavin says. And if the funds can be assembled, Callery will return with a small theater troupe to perform it in Tucson in the fall.
Here's a selected list of more Gaelic goings-on. For more information, check www.tucsonirishcommunity.com.
· Kickoff to Saint Patrick's Day, 7 p.m. party and 8 p.m. concert, Friday, March 9, Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St. Tucson's Round the House, an Irish traditional band, and Oceans Apart, from Phoenix, play tunes. Champion step dancers from the Maguire Academy of Irish Dance perform, along with teacher Darren Maguire, who danced with Riverdance for 10 years. Tickets cost $14 and $19, or $30 for a loveseat. Bar opens at 7 p.m. with Guinness, and dancing is encouraged. 547-3040; foxtucsontheatre.org.
· Emerald Ball, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 10, Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave. Staged annually by the Emerald Isle Society, the ball includes dinner, live music, ceili social dancing and a rival Riverdancer. Michael Patrick Gallagher, formerly with the famed troupe, steps up, along with students from the McElligott-Gallagher School and the Tir Conaill Irish Dance Academy. With tickets priced at $125, this one's a benefit, with proceeds going to the Tucson Alliance for Autism and the Ulster Project. Raffle, silent auction, free parking; 722-1018.
· Liz Carroll and John Doyle concert, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 15, Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. An all-Ireland fiddling champion, Carroll teams up with Doyle, a traditional singer and guitarist who helped found Solas. The acclaimed Carroll, now living in Chicago, makes her first Tucson appearance in 10 years. The busy Tir Conaill dancers once again step up to the rince (that's Irish for "dance"). Advance tickets cost $20 general, $18 for seniors and kids, at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave., and CD City, 2890 N. Campbell Ave.; $3 more at the door; (800) 595-4849; www.inconcerttucson.com. Carroll and Doyle will hold teaching workshops for musicians on March 14. For time, location and price, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
· St. Patrick's Day Parade and Festival, 10 a.m. to late afternoon, Saturday, March 17. The Celtic stars aligned just right this year. With St. Patrick's Day falling on a Saturday, the parade and festival take place on the big day itself. This year's theme, Twenty Years O' Growin', echoes the title of Maurice O'Sullivan's Blasket Islands memoir. The festival's return to Armory Park, at 220 S. Sixth Ave., is another blessing. The festival begins at the park at 10 a.m., and the parade starts up at 11 a.m. After winding around downtown streets, merrymakers return to the park for traditional Irish music, dance and food; www.tucsonstpatrick.com.
· Gaelic Storm concert, Friday, March 23, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Doors open at 7 p.m.; concert begins at 8 p.m. The band's big moment was in the movie Titanic, when its members played the dance band entertaining the Irish down in steerage. But its latest CD, Bring Yer Wellies, zipped up a number of charts. Though they play a blend of traditional and Celtic fusion, the musicians, hailing from Ireland, the United States, Canada and England, pride themselves on "channeling the rowdy communal feel of an Irish pub," with sing-alongs, pipe sets and fiddle tunes. General-admission seats cost $20 in advance, $23 at the door; 740-1000, www.rialtotheatre.com.