St. Patrick’s Day & John Beall

Being the daughter of an Irish war bride (maiden name: Bridget Tierney, Knocklong, Co. Limerick), St. Patrick’s Day has always been a big date on my calendar. I’ll never forget the Irish dancing at Toledo’s Commodore Perry Hotel or Mass at old St. Pat’s.
But St. Patrick’s Day, 2011, has to go down as one of the more memorable.
That’s the day we shot on Governors Island in New York for “Rebels on Lake Erie,” a new documentary.
Here’s the inside story behind that day….
John Yates Beall, one of the main characters in our story, had been executed outside Fort Columbus (now Fort Jay) on Governors Island on Feb. 24, 1865.
I wanted that shot for the documentary but timing was important.
First, we had to get it before Governors Island was crowded with tourists.
Second, we had to schedule it when Georges Yazbek, a tremendously talented videographer (and a University of Akron graduate), was available.
Third, we had to go before the government shut down in one of the many budget crises of 2011.
Thanks to the cooperation and assistance of Michael Shaver, supervisory park ranger at Governors Island (and perhaps a small intervention from St. Patrick), all that happened on March 17, 2011.
It was a bright, sunny St. Patrick’s Day, when our plane landed at LaGuardia.
We (graduate student Keith Aukeman and I) caught a cab and hoped to make the 10 a.m. ferry to Governors Island.
At 9:15, we were caught in traffic with little hope of ever getting to the pier on time.
Georges called. He was parked at the pier – but where were we?
Stuck in traffic, we replied.
Just when it appeared we’d never make it, the cab driver saw an opening, switched lanes and we never looked back.
We made it with lots of time – 15 minutes — to spare.
Georges drove his car on board the ferry and we were on our way to a great St. Patrick’s Day shoot.
Once we landed, we were dispatched to Building 107, command central for the National Park Service.
The rangers on Governors Island are experienced in dealing with the press, videographers and documentarians.
We were given relatively free access to the island and the fort – and a park ranger to keep us out of trouble.
After shooting our way into the fort – wait, that doesn’t sound right. After driving into the fort with a camera strapped to the hood of the car (you’ll see that shot in the documentary), we were ready to start our work.
We were able to go virtually everywhere (except one location that our ranger, by then a pal, warned us against. Something about open culverts and falling in.)
Since Georges brought battery-operated lights, we were able to shoot in John Yates Beall’s cell, where he spent his last days.
It was cold and damp and very dark. You’ll see that cell in the documentary.
Since I had read the letters Beall had written from that cell and the reminiscences of his friends who had visited him there, I was moved by the whole experience. I know that sounds a little weird, but I’d been researching the topic for about a year and had never really visited a location like this before.
At about 1 p.m., roughly the time of Beall’s execution, we went out to shoot where the National Park Service believes the hanging took place. You’ll see that location – framed beautifully by Georges – in the documentary.
You’ll also see the actual path Beall took on his way to the gallows. It’s another moving scene in the documentary.
We have lots of footage from our day at Governors Island that doesn’t appear in the documentary – inside the magazine, on the second floor of the fort, or along the shore of the island. Perhaps we’ll issue some outtakes.
By 2:45 p.m., we were ready to head back to the 21st century and New York City.
Georges volunteered to take us back to LaGuardia – we had a flight back that afternoon, but I figured we could easily find a cab.
What was I thinking?
After a couple of cabbies gruffly declined the fare, we got lucky and made it back to LaGuardia in plenty of time to eat, check in and get through security.
In the mercifully uneventful flight back to Akron, I reflected on St. Patrick’s Day 2011 and wondered how this documentary would come together.
This St. Patrick’s Day, the documentary is close to completion. It’s scheduled for broadcast in April on Western Reserve Public Media. We still have lots to do and you’ll hear all about it in this blog.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day and wish me luck as we finish up the documentary.