Eithne Merriam Golden Sax
2 November 2006
2 hours, 20 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Eithne Merriam Golden Sax – a multi-linguist who worked for the United States Foreign Service, the United Nations, and Voice of America – and her twin sister Deirdre were born in New York City in 1919. They entered the world on West 125th Street in Manhattan with the help of Dr. Gertrude Kelly (1862–1934)(1), who was a friend of their parents, Peter and Helen Golden.
A native of Masseytown, Macroom, Co. Cork, her father was deeply pre-occupied with the Irish struggle for independence from Great Britain at the time his daughters were born. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916, Irish ex-patriates and refugees in New York City gravitated to their apartment at 1245 Amsterdam Avenue, between 121st and 122nd Street near Columbia University. Golden had been in the United States since 1901. A gifted orator, poet, and writer, he worked tirelessly for Ireland’s cause as New York Secretary of the Friends of Irish Freedom, General Secretary of the Irish Progressive League, and National Secretary of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic.(2) Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, whose death on hunger strike in 1920 while imprisoned in England rallied Irish America, was Peter Golden’s second cousin.
Helen Golden – the daughter of an heiress to a timber fortune in Lyons Falls, Lewis County, New York(3) – was actively involved in Irish republicanism as well as suffragism and the peace movement. When Peter Golden was on tour, Helen Golden was his representative at meetings: she was secretary of the Irish Progressive League and, in August 1920, helped organize a longshoremen’s strike in support of Terence MacSwiney that prevented British ships from being loaded on the New York docks, the first of several anti-British protests in the United States.(4) In addition to Eithne and her sister, Helen Golden had one son, born in 1917.
Eithne Golden’s education at the Horace Mann School for Girls (then part of Columbia’s Teachers College) ended when her father was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease and doctors advised him to move to a warmer climate. At the suggestion of [Eleanor] Cyprian Beach (1891–1951), the Goldens chose the emerging artists colony in Pasadena, California(5) but Peter died en route, at Denver, Colorado in March 1926, when Eithne was six-and-a-half.
Four years later, after completing a promotional tour for the Irish Press newspaper, the Irish republican Ernie O’Malley (1897–1957)(6) looked up Helen Golden in Pasadena and quickly convinced them to de camp to the artist colony in Taos, New Mexico. From 1931 until 1937 – her most formative years by her own admission – Eithne Golden lived in Taos with Ernie O’Malley as her tutor; there she began to learn Spanish from him as well as Russian from their neighbor Alexandra Belkovitch Fechin (d. 1983).
Musical interests brought Eithne Golden to New York City when she was seventeen, first studying singing with Theodore Van York, then classical guitar, Russian, and Portuguese. At twenty-one, she applied for a position with the United States Foreign Service and in 1940 was sent to Portugal. For “two most rewarding years,” she worked by day in the secretarial pool, translating Portuguese documents for the American Legation in Lisbon; in the evenings, she learned to play the Portuguese guitar and made a name for herself as “the American girl who sings the Fado,” the mournful music of the urban poor just then being popularized by Amália Rodrigues (1920–1999).
Her mother’s serious illness prompted Eithne Golden’s return to the United States, and after her death in 1943, a move to New York City’s East Village. She joined the New York Society for the Classical Guitar and in 1946 was a founder of Guitar Review magazine. That same year, she began to work for the Basque government in exile, campaigning for independence through editorial work with sympathetic newspapers and spots on local radio shows much like the advocacy Peter Golden had undertaken for Ireland. She also had an intimate relationship with António de Irala, a delegate to the Basque Government in the United States.(7)
In 1949, Eithne Golden tested for and was accepted as a translator at the United Nations, then just four years old. She quickly moved up the ranks, at first working primarily in Spanish, Portuguese, and French, but, over time, adding both Russian and three Turkic languages to her repertoire. She met and married Ernest Sax, an Austrian immigrant and producer for Voice of America, at a U.N. party in 1956 and, under his tutelage, moonlighted as a producer of music shows in Tatar and Uzbek for the network.
Eithne Golden Sax went to Ireland for the first time in 1959, to visit her relatives in Macroom and to briefly meet her father’s old friend, Eamon de Valera (1882–1975), who was then the President of the Republic of Ireland. After her husband’s death in 1969, she continued working at the United Nations for another decade. In retirement, she volunteered her services each fall for the General Assembly and began the study of Irish with the Gaelic Society of New York. She also joined Glucksman Ireland House at New York University where she attends the annual Ernie O’Malley Lecture.
Excerpt No. 1
On why she considers herself IrishDisc 2, 41:30–42:42
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
EB: Do you consider yourself Irish?
EGS: Yes. Oh, yes, defiantly. I’m rather proud of it. Is that alright?
EB & MC: Yes.
MC: Eithne, what makes someone Irish?
EGS: That is a good question. I don’t think I’m typical.
EB: Well, what’s the typical Irish?
EGS: You go to pubs. Well, it depends on what class you’re talking about, what social level. They’re great on humor.
MC: You were born in the United States and your whole young adulthood and working life was non-Irish. Why do you call yourself Irish?
EGS: Well, because mother and father made a big thing about it. My mother was not at all Irish but was very interested in the Irish cause. And Ernie O’Malley. I told you about Ernie. And so we were always very aware of that side.
Excerpt No. 2
Ernie O’MalleyDisc 1, 44:09–44:52
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
MC: So you were in Pasadena for –
EGS: Four years.
MC: – four years?
EGS: Yes, four boring years.
MC: And what made your mother – your mother went on a trip to New Mexico and fell in love with Taos?
EGS: And then she went on a trip to New Mexico. Oh, Ernie O’Malley was the one that suggested going on to Taos. Ernie appeared in 1929 while making a trip for the Irish Press.(8) And [Eamon] de Valera had told him to go and look up Mrs. Golden, my mother. So that’s how Ernie appeared in our lives and became a big influence in our lives and went to New Mexico with us, and so forth, and taught us, tutored us, and was a very stern tutor and told us we were the stupidest children he’d ever seen.
Excerpt No. 3
Life after TaosDisc 1, 63:03–64:42
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
EGS: But then, coming to New York, then I started working for – what did I start working for? Oh, I was just waiting to turn twenty-one years of age to go to Washington and get a job being sent overseas somewhere during the War, I’d hoped. And to everyone’s surprise, I wasn’t just sent to South America; I was sent to Portugal in 1941 because I’d been studying Portuguese. As soon as I had my twenty-first birthday, I went from the house where I was living in Washington – and I had a great aunt and uncle living right near there, so it made sense for me to be there – and I went to the State Department and applied for a job abroad, preferably Portugal. And lo and behold, to everyone’s surprise, a few days later they sent for me and said, “Well, how would you like to work in Lisbon?” So that’s how I went over to Lisbon in 1941.
MC: Now, let’s backtrack a little bit. When did you start to learn Portuguese? Where? In New York or in –
EGS: Oh yeah.
MC: – New Mexico?
EGS: See, we learned Spanish in New Mexico, so then later when I was living in New York it seemed to make sense to study Portuguese. So, who was I studying Portuguese with? Now that would take some – some mental searching to remember who I was studying Portuguese with.
- Elizabeth Bedell [EB]
- Marion Casey [MC]
- Eithne Sax circa 1936. Photo courtesy of Eithne Sax.
- Eithne Sax in Lisbon, 1943. Photo courtesy of Eithne Sax.
- Eithne Sax circa late 1950s. Photo courtesy of Eithne Sax.
- Eithne Merriam Golden Sax. Photo by Marion R. Casey.
- Peter Golden, General Secretary of the Irish Progressive League, New York City offices, 1919. Photo reproduced from Jim Herlihy, Peter Golden: The Voice of Ireland (Ballincollig, Co. Cork: Peter Golden Commemoration Committee, 1994)
- poster, Irish Progressive League Mass Celebration, Central Opera House, New York City, 5 March 1919. Photo reproduced from Jim Herlihy, Peter Golden: The Voice of Ireland (Ballincollig, Co. Cork: Peter Golden Commemoration Committee, 1994
- advertisement, Peter Golden Lecture, Sioux Falls Coliseum, South Dakota, 21 April 1921. Photo reproduced from Jim Herlihy, Peter Golden: The Voice of Ireland (Ballincollig, Co. Cork: Peter Golden Commemoration Committee, 1994)
- program, Peter Golden Concert, New York City, 28 November 1925. Photo reproduced from Jim Herlihy, Peter Golden: The Voice of Ireland (Ballincollig, Co. Cork: Peter Golden Commemoration Committee, 1994)
- Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly, a surgeon, philanthropist, and suffragette, emigrated from Ireland in 1873. She was outspoken in her support for Irish independence and helped establish the American Branch of Cumann na mBan.
- Jim Herlihy, Peter Golden: The Voice of Ireland (Ballincollig, Co. Cork: Peter Golden Commemoration Committee, 1994)
- Joe Doyle, “Striking for Ireland on the New York Docks” in The New York Irish, ed. Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 360.
- Sister of Sylvia Beach who operated Shakespeare & Company in Paris.
- Richard English, Ernie O’Malley: IRA Intellectual (NY: Oxford University Press, 1999)
- António de Irala is the author of Bat bitan banatzen da / Irala’tar Andoni (1975); Aarma revolucionaria de Mao Tse-tung (1976); Revolución de nueva democracia (1976); and Escritos políticos sobre la situación vasca, 1984-1985 (1997). See also Gloria Pilar Totoricaguena, Basque Diaspora: Migration and Transnational Identity (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2005), pp. 320–322.
- O’Malley’s fundraising tour of the United States for the Irish Press, a newspaper established in 1931, was in 1928 and he settled in Taos in 1930.