O’Malley’s Irish ghost writer, and a wee tale of speechifying

O’Malley’s Irish ghost writer, and a wee tale of speechifying

Colum McCann (By CatherineCronin on Flickr)

Colum McCann (By CatherineCronin on Flickr)

Colum McCann (By CatherineCronin on Flickr)

Gov. Martin O’Malley solved part of the mystery about the odd quote in his State of the State address last week.

“The only things worth doing are the things that might possibly break your heart,” O’Malley said.

As MarylandReporter.com wrote here last week, it is a partial quote from an Irish writer named Colum McCann.

We ran into O’Malley attending a Monday night kick-off party for the Center Maryland “magazine,”a slim 16 pages of columns and interviews, with O’Malley on the cover.

O’Malley seemed a little surprised we knew where the McCann quote came from and that anyone had wondered about it. Apparently he did not know reporters were curious about the origins of the odd sentence.

Plagiarism or ghost writing?

One editor in an email and another reporter wondered if the unattributed quote might be plagiarism. It turns out O’Malley didn’t just lift the quote from something he read — McCann  helped him craft some of the speech,

Back in 2002, then-Mayor O’Malley and writer McCann were honored by Esquire magazine as some of “The Best and the Brightest” in the nation. At the awards dinner, they were seated at the same table, and became friends. The Sun article about the award said “writer Robert Kurson sketches the mayor as a future presidential candidate with the charisma of John F. Kennedy.” Hmmm. Prescient?

McCann went on to write “Let the Great World Spin,” which won the National Book Award in 2009.

As O’Malley put it — he and I were just talking sans notebook as the gov nursed a pint of Guinness Black —  many hands go into “the spinning of the clay” for a State of the State speech, and McCann was one of those hands.

Esquire coverMcCann visited Columbia Feb. 28 last year as part of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s 35th annual Irish evening, according to a report by my former colleague Susan Thornton Hobby on the HoPoLitSo website.

“I have great hope for this country because we have somebody like Gov. O’Malley,” McCann said, citing his stance on gun control. “And he can sing too. I can’t. I do, but I can’t.”

O’Malley played the guitar and sang that evening.

Obama quotes him too

As O’Malley recounted Monday night, McCann got an even higher honor last March when President Obama quoted him in Northern Ireland, this time with attribution. McCann told BBC Radio Ulster he got “goosebumps” when he heard Obama quoting him in the same breath as the late Seamus Heaney and William Butler Yeats — both Irish poets who won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The president picked up the quote from an essay McCann wrote on the 15th anniversary of the Belfast Peace Agreement. Said Obama:

“ ‘Peace is indeed harder than war,’ the Irish author Colum McCann recently wrote, ‘and its constant fragility is part of its beauty. A bullet need happen only once, but for peace to work we need to be reminded of its existence again and again and again.’ ”

The meaning of that is pretty clear, but we still don’t quite grasp what O’Malley — or McCann — meant in the “break your heart” quote.

–Len Lazarick


About The Author

Len Lazarick


Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of MarylandReporter.com and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


  1. dcdeirdre

    Wow, O’Malley has now gone way up in my estimation, quoting one of the most gifted of contemporary writers!
    “It is one of their beauties, the Irish, the way they crush and expand the language all at once How they mangle it and revere it. How they color even their silences.” McCann,TransAtlantic.

  2. md observer

    @ horse: Good interpretation. I guess I don’t have enough Irish in me, more German. So I don’t like to acknowledge the
    blood, sweat and tears of action, in the midst of battle. Too busy with the battle.

    So at the risk of sounding pedantic, I will cite Nietzsche: Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.

  3. It's a horse race

    Len, I think you need an Irish heart to understand it. I am half-Irish so I get it. It means the blood , sweat and tears expended necessary to achieve goals, lofty or otherwise. Colum McCann is a stunning writer. I wish I had half his talent.

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