Before my wife Joyce and I went to Ireland for the first time in 1985, the Ireland we knew was a few stories and a handful of Irish songs.
For me, though, there had been something else, an experience I'd always been a little proud of, a brief part I'd once played in the life of one Irish family.
In the intervening years I've forgotten a couple of the names. I'm sorry about that, but most are right and the story is true.
It's a travel story. The hardest kind, when you pull up stakes and go to a new land, leaving everything you've ever known and loved behind, even the people who are a part of you. John O'Mahony did it.
My involvement began one morning when Bernie Gould, my writing partner, and I were working on "About Faces," one of Ralph Edwards' TV shows on ABC. Ben Alexander was the host, Tom Kennedy the announcer, and there was a flock of us writers who were supposed to fill the daily half hour with entertainment.
A Family Beachhead
The phone rang. The caller introduced himself as Brad Preston and said he was manager of the Los Angeles City College Bookstore. He told me about an employee, John O'Mahony, who had come from Ireland the year before and who was working two jobs to earn enough money to send for his wife and two children.
He'd hoped to bring them over in six months. Now it looked as if it might be closer to two years and Preston was beginning to worry about his Irish employee's health.
"Now, sir," Preston said, "figuring how your program does a reunion once in a while . . . and St. Patrick's Day is coming. . . ."
"Stop," I said. "Have you talked this over with him?"
"Absolutely not. You like to surprise people on the air, right?"
I told him I'd call back, then laid the whole thing out for Gould. "Let's make Joe buy it," he said. Joe Landis was the producer.
"What if he won't?"
"Easy," Gould said. "Then we'll kill him and sell the idea to the new producer."
Landis listened. "You're talking about flying the man's wife and children over from Ireland and surprising him on the air, right? Let me think it over." Landis thought for about 20 seconds, slapped the arm of his chair and said: "Do it!"
I called Preston back. Between "Thank Gods" he gave us the information we needed from O'Mahony's personnel folder.
Keeping a Secret
I telephoned Ireland. Eileen O'Mahony had no telephone, but the party I called said he'd run and get her and for me to hold the phone. Ten minutes later Mrs. O'Mahony came on the line, sounding young and very much out of breath.
When I told her we might be able to bring her and the children to this country to surprise her husband, there was silence. "Can you keep a secret, Mrs. O'Mahony?" I asked.
Still there was silence at the other end, until the man came back on. "Sir, can you hold the phone a little minute? She'll be right along. And, yes, sir, she can keep a secret just fine."
The family transfer went without a hitch.
Eileen O'Mahony and her daughter, 7, and son, 5, were flown to Los Angeles, installed in the Hollywood Knickerbocher Hotel and given some time to get over their jet lag.
On the day of the show, when I went to pick them up, I was told she and the children had checked out earlier.
My heart did not skip a beat, it stopped altogether. I raced out the front door and almost ran into a petite redheaded woman with a child on each hand.
Not a Single Star
"Not a single movie star," she said. "Up and down Hollywood Road and not star one did we see."
We introduced ourselves and I put the family's bags into my car. "You checked out?"
"Wouldn't I be the one to let them charge you and your lovely Mr. Ralph Edwards, who's paying all the bills, for an extra day?"
In the studio parking lot, just before I handed Mrs. O'Mahony and the children over to Vickie, the production assistant, Mrs. O'Mahony put her hand on my arm.
"Wait," she said. Mrs. O'Mahony put her suitcase on the ground, opened it and handed me a bottle of Paddy's Irish Whiskey. "And for making us feel welcome and that you really want us." She stood on her tiptoes, put her arms around my neck and kissed me on the cheek.
Preston and his employee, O'Mahony, were waiting in the line outside the studio with the rest of the audience. O'Mahony, medium height and sandy-haired, did indeed look tired.
The taping started at 1:30 p.m. At 1:45 Ben Alexander pointed to the rear-projection screen on which a line drawing of the map of Ireland had just appeared.
"Can anyone identify this country?" Alexander asked.
Fifty hands went up but O'Mahony's was not one of them. Alexander chose another anxious member of the audience and asked him to come on stage. The man was Henry Hoople, a former vaudeville performer who was one of our writers.
In a broad Swedish dialect, Hoople identified the image on the screen as a map of Stockholm.
"Everybody agree with that?" Alexander asked. Again the 50 hands were up and waving. Again O'Mahony's hand was not among them. There was a little tension backstage.