Sunday, 1 December 2019

Charles Stewart Parnell and Wexford Quare Wans!


A girl from Liverpool once told me I was “smashing.” It was probably the best compliment I’ve ever received, coming as it did with a Beatles accent.

She definitely had more than a couple of drinks taken but what matter? How many compliments does a man get in the dreary daylight hours of sobriety?

Nowadays there are only two compliment choices - you’re either “hot” or more likely you’re not – “smashing” only applies to atoms and pumpkins.

Words are indeed on the decline. Some feel that President Trump got elected because his vocabulary doesn’t make the less loquacious feel inadequate. 

“Great,” “sad,” bad,” “perfect” do the trick – and who can argue, after all he’s the president and we’re not!

He’d never get elected in Wexford – you can bet the Bull Ring on that, hon - for the vocabulary back home is ever mutating and takes skill to deploy.

For over two thousand years Wexford has been sacked and settled by all manner of bowsies from Celts to Vikings, Normans to Limeys and returned Yanks.

No joke, but it gave us our own language – Yola – a mix of Middle English, Gaelic, and French, with smatterings of Saxon, Hessian, and Dutch – double and otherwise. 

When these invaders weren’t raping and pillaging down our narrow streets they were adding their linguistic licks to our arcane dialect, Wexford “shpake.”

Here’s a gentle introduction: a gentleman describing the looks of a lady might describe her thus: “She’s the real segocia, I’m not coddin’ yeh, boy, and not hard to look at either!”

Whereas a lady of my acquaintance upon being accused of fluttering her eyelids at a local Lothario was heard to declare, “If he was the last creatúr this side of the cyrpt, I wouldn’t ride him for the exercise!”

Words have always mattered in Wexford. When Charles Stewart Parnell gave a speech at the Imperial Hotel in October 1881 he was promptly accused of “seditious language” and deposited in Kilmainham Gaol.

His crime - denouncing Prime Minister Gladstone as a “a masquerading knight errant, the pretending champion of the rights of every other nation except those of the Irish nation.” (Try that line on your base, Mr. Trump!)

Whereupon, a Wexican hard chaw was heard to retort, “Divil a word of sedition did the man utter! Sure wasn’t he only actin’ the gatch.” (the clown)

As one approached puberty you had to delve even deeper into “Wexican shpake” to figure out the birds and the bees. What would you say this following statement meant?

“Did you get a gander at the quare wan from the Red City and her skidaddlin’ off to the Harbour bundled up to her tonsils on the lethalest day of the year?”

Well, simply put, this is a coded reference to a young unmarried lady from the Maudlintown area seen leaving for Rosslare Harbour to take the ferry to the UK while wearing a long coat to hide the evidence of her pregnancy on the hottest day of the year.

Ah now, “family way” used to be the great Wexford gossip item, and yet notice that even in our barbarous past the unfortunate lady was not named. 

With no contraception available “quare wans” (queer ones) were ubiquitous back then, but if you were of a charitable nature you could let matters rest and inquire no further into the lady’s identity.

Alas, all in the past, for on a recent visit I heard an auld wan comment on the current crop of unmarried pregnant girls: “Sure dem young hussies do be going around as brazen as brass monkeys, they’d do anything for a medical card!”

Take note of the “do be going around” for in Wexford we’ve always put great store in the continuous present tense and lament that proper English do be wanting in that department.

Americans, however, do be very welcome in our metropolis, for as Wexicans fondly note, “Sure didn’t we give yez John Barry, John F. Kennedy and ran Kirwan the hell out of here to New York!”

But always remember, the past is ever present in the old town, and the present is beyond active, and there’s often more to Wexican shpake than meets the eye – or the ear. And whatever you do, don’t go drinking with quare wans!

Friday, 22 November 2019

Why Go Somewhere You're Not Wanted?


One of the best things about escorting 80 people to Ireland every year is that you are forced to see the country through their eyes rather than mooning about what used to be.

Many people are on their first trip, while others are seasoned visitors well read in Irish history and politics.

Still the US system of democracy can seem very different from the Irish and UK models, although both the US and UK are now led by white nationalists with unconventional hairdos.

The complexities of Brexit can be difficult to explain to Americans especially when out on the town in Belfast where Boris Johnson’s brave new border in the Irish Sea has thrown a real spanner in the works of partition.

As we traveled over the current invisible border to the Republic I was struck by the change in Irish attitude to the US. No one seems to care much any more.

It’s as if a veil has fallen between our two countries and we Americans have floated off to Tír na nÓg or somewhere equally incomprehensible.

Though there is a mass bewilderment as to why we’ve elected President Donald Trump there was no hostility shown to my fellow travelers – nothing like the days of Reagan or Bush when you might be forced to disavow such ogres before you’d be served a decent pint of porter.

I believe this change has to do with emigration or the lack thereof. Back in my own emigrant days we were invested in the very idea of the US, and during the 70’s through the 90’s there was a mass exodus from Ireland to the shores of Amerikay.  

We populated The Bronx, Broward Country, Geary Street, Tipperary Hill and the many South sides of cities across this vast country.

On Saturday nights there were so many people jiving in the pubs around 204th Street and Bainbridge Avenue minor earthquake tremors were regularly reported.

That day is gone and with it the dynamic Irish-America we knew. Paddy and Mary are as rare as a decently pulled pint on Bainbridge now.

The talk back home is about saloons in Sydney, Christmas spent surfing on Bondi Beach and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s about brunching in Toronto, snowmobiling in Banff, and roping in steers in Calgary.

For Irish people are welcome in Australia and Canada while the doors have been slammed shut in our shining city on the hill. To top it all, as citizens of the EU Irish people can come and go as they please in a legion of countries across Europe.

The UK now wishing to make Britain great (or white) again is prepared to downgrade its economy for the privilege of keeping the great unwashed out.

Many young Irish are skipping this once desired destination – why go somewhere you’re not really wanted? 

The same story, alas, is true in relation to the US. We’ve been keeping people out for so long, the general feeling is – why bother? 

Who wants to sneak in, work illegally, and perhaps get collared by ICE when you can make good money in Melbourne or Vancouver in democracies that more mirror the values you grew up under back home.

Our immigration laws make no economic or practical sense. A country is as strong as its people and right now there are many Rust Belt cities and rural towns that are hemorrhaging their populations and could do with an influx of foreign-born strivers.

It makes you wonder about nationalists and wall builders in general. The EU may have its problems but there have been no wars among its members since it was first conceived as the EEC back in 1957.

Look at the history of Europe before that – a litany of conflict, hatred, and ethnic extermination much of it fueled by nationalism. 

Britain will inevitably learn a hard lesson from its Brexit delusions. Our modern interconnected world is not very well suited to solitary island states with a nationalist bent.  

As for ourselves - roll on 2020 and the opportunity to once again crack open the doors of our shining city on the hill.

To hell with nationalism! I miss the jiving on Bainbridge Avenue and the fast disappearing, dynamic Irish-America we once treasured.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Belfast October 2019


Every year I accompany a couple of busloads of Americans and Canadians to Ireland to explore the history, politics, and music of the island.

At least every second year I make sure we visit Belfast, Ireland’s most interesting city. The changes have been remarkable since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and in particular over the last 10 years.

It’s as if a cloud has lifted and the sun is now revealing the city’s promise and possibilities.

And yet you can never forget that awful things happened and that deep wounds lie just below the surface.

Part of my purpose in visiting Belfast is to introduce North Americans to the Protestant/Unionist parts of the city and to the various points of view found there.

Music has always provided a great bridge between communities and the obvious place to begin is the East Belfast of Van Morrison. 

Any lover of Van’s music knows that there is a treasure trove of local references to be found in his early lyrics from the leafy lawns of Cyprus Avenue to the less salubrious environs “down the Hollow” in Brown Eyed Girl.

The Union Jacks flowing in the breeze can be worrisome to those who experienced the Troubles; but on the whole people are going about their business and happy to show off new projects like the Connswater Community Greenway or CS Lewis Square where the local author’s Narnia is celebrated.

Still, it’s hard not to notice an underlying unease over Brexit and what it might portend.

This came to the fore during a tour of the Shankill and Falls Road where we were guided by Loyalist and Republican ex-combatants.

Both sides have traveled great distances in the last 20 years, yet there’s an unmistakable fear that insensitive British politicians could help resurrect the conflict.

Concern is more pointed on the Loyalist side. Republicans are well used to “British perfidy” – it’s been a constant theme in nationalist history.

Loyalists have little faith in Boris Johnson and his lip service to the Union between Britain and Northern Ireland; they fear, and rightly so given the British Prime Minister’s recent agreement with the Republic and the EU, that they’ve become a disposable pawn in a game played out on the chessboards of London, Dublin, and Brussels.

Will there be a renewal of conflict - definitely not on the scale witnessed during the Troubles. A new outward looking generation has emerged – they were bred on the internet, they travel and are familiar with the ways and doings of the world’s capitals.

They’re invested in the bustling prosperous Belfast that struts around downtown at night. They have no interest in returning to the tragic thirty or more years of insurrection and sectarian killings.

But then you visit the Peace Wall and realize that it’s been standing now for half a century, and that many on both sides prefer that it remain, at least in the short term.

In some ways Ireland is already united. The steady stream of trucks and traffic flowing both ways between Belfast and Dublin shows how impossible it would have been to reinstate a hard border. Those days are long gone.

But in Belfast you can almost touch the psychological and social walls that still separate the communities.

And yet people of good will are reaching out on both sides. Take Turas – the word means journey or pilgrimage in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It’s a flourishing cross-community project in East Belfast formed by Linda Ervine, wife of Brian Ervine the PUP leader.

One of the goals of Turas is to connect people from Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language – Catholics, of course, are welcome.

Let’s face it – Brexit has always contained seeds of disaster. From the start it has been fueled by lies and exaggerations – some spun by Boris Johnson himself.

Unfortunately, Brexit chickens are more likely to come home to roost in Belfast, not in London where they belong.

As we head into a winter of discontent let’s wish Belfast the very best, and that any problems raised by Mr. Johnson and his Brexit conundrum can be worked out across the negotiating table rather than in the brooding shadow of the Peace Wall.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Peter Quinn - Eugene O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award


Irish American Writers & Artists was formed back in 2008 when it was suggested that Irish-Americans were unlikely to vote for an African-American presidential candidate.

Although a gripping question at the time it pales in comparison with some of the issues that have arisen in the three years of Mr. Trump’s unorthodox presidency.

Be that as it may, IAW&A has thrived in its eleven years of existence. 

We’ve raised money for various causes, granted scholarships, and each month we provide two salons where members can perform their work before large audiences. There is no admission charge – all are welcome.

The level of creativity and performance has continued to improve as word has spread about a unique opportunity to present original material to a discerning and attentive audience.

And yet for me the real thrill is watching someone take the first daring step that transforms him or her from audience member to performing artist.

All of this comes at a price however, and to keep IAW&A functioning we hold one annual fundraiser where we present the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award to a deserving artist.

How fitting that it should go this year to our first president, Peter Quinn. Irish Echo readers need little introduction to this handsome, erudite figure. He is a best selling novelist for his marvelous Banished Children of Eve among other works, and was a political and corporate speechwriter – ever wonder who put a touch of the poet into the oratory of Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo?

I was privileged to catch a particularly close look at Peter while serving on the board of the IAW&A during his presidency. 

Though we operated close to the edge financially, and otherwise, in the early years of the organization Peter radiated a sense of graciousness and quiet confidence that got us over many the hump. 

Of course, he’s from The Bronx, and like many who hail from the only borough on the mainland he’d already overcome much before ascending to the presidency of a non-profit arts outfit.

What is it about those who emerge from those storied concrete fields above Manhattan? In small ways I’ve benefitted too from spending so many nights playing in Bronx saloons and dancehalls.

You gain a wry acceptance of the slings and arrows that attend life but also a feeling that if you keep a weather eye open you just might upset the odds and beat the spread.

Peter has done that time and again and has provided a quiet inspiration to others who have observed his many victories, hard won and otherwise.

When someone is needed who can wring poetry from the reeling march of New York’s immigrant Irish out of the Five Points slums – Quinn is your man.

It’s never easy for an Irish person to become a successful artist – we’re constantly haunted by the shanty whisper: “What makes you think you’re so special?”

Eugene O’Neill did it – beat the drink and forsook the hobo West Village life to become the dominant playwright, and artist, so many of us look up to.

Peter Quinn did it too. He once told me how he used to rise every day at an ungodly hour and arrive at his desk early enough to put in at least a couple of hours of writing before his corporate toiling began.

Becoming one of the best is never easy – the hours are long, the sacrifices many, but that’s the gig.  

At IAW&A salons we provide a springboard for entry into that life. Somewhere along the line Eugene O’Neill and Peter Quinn grasped their opportunity and ran with it.

If you want your shot find out more about Irish American Writers and Artists at iamwa.org

We have new leadership, Mary Pat Kelly, an author from Chicago’s South Side is President, and New York’s Maria Deasy, actor and producer, is Vice President.

Join us on Monday, Oct. 21st for one of Irish-America’s premier social evenings when we bestow the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award on Peter O’Neill, artist and gentleman.  See you there.

Mon, October 21, 2019  6:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Manhattan Manor, Upstairs at Rosie O'Grady's
800 7th Avenue, NYC
For tickets and information visit iamwa.org

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Farewell Ric Ocasek


It was the summer of 1992 and I was walking downtown from an MTV interview accompanied by Black 47’s manager, Elliot Roberts.  

We were passing by Gramercy Park when Elliot pointed at a house straight out of an Edith Wharton novel.  “Ric lives over there.”

“Ric who?” I replied trying desperately to mask my lack of coolness.

“Ocasek! Who do you think? You wanta meet him?”

We were admitted to an amazing reception room with a ceiling somewhere up in the stars. I was commenting on this when I became aware of a presence behind us. I spun around and a very tall, gaunt figure in black, including shades, loomed over us.

Elliot, used to such spectral appearances, laconically remarked, “By the way, Ric would like to produce your new album.”

That’s managers for you! Elliot managed Ric, Neil Young, and a legion of others, and did well by all of us.

A couple of nights later while onstage at a jammed Paddy Reilly’s I noticed the crowd separating like the Red Sea before Moses, as Ric arrived with a blonde goddess so lovely even Steve Duggan’s worldly Cavan mouth dropped a yard.

Not only that, this apparition in chic designer gear floated throughout the beer-splashed room signing autographs and bestowing smiles on all and sundry.

I sat next to an abandoned Ric who smiled bemusedly at the scenes of abject Paddy adoration.

I refrained from inquiring “Who’s yer wan?” I was obviously the only one who didn’t recognize Paulina Porizkova, supermodel and delight of paparazzi.

 “I can make this independent album of Black 47’s great.” Ric casually noted and fired off a couple of suggestions that made eminent sense.

“That’s fine but there are things I want to do with it too.”

He looked at me for a long moment then nodded. “So it will be a co-production?”

“Your name first, of course,” I allowed, and he chuckled at the thought that it might not.

“We’ll have to finish within 3 weeks as Paulina and I are off to St. Bart’s. So, start tomorrow?”

And we did in the basement recording studio of his amazing house with a ceiling up in the stars.

“You had some ideas?” He said.

“Yeah, I want to lay down some other guitars on Fanatic Heart.”

He pointed over to a rack of axes almost as impressive looking as Paulina. And that’s how we worked. I would add to the independent album. Ric would sketch, listen, and whenever I was stuck – which was often – make a succinct suggestion that was always what the song needed.

Around 4am I would crawl home and he would continue. He never made an appearance before dusk, so in the early afternoon I’d check out what he had added or mixed the night before.

It was always magic. Listen to the intro for Fanatic Heart from Black 47’s Fire of Freedom CD. I still shiver when I hear the gorgeous layer of digital guitar from which the Uilleann Pipes emerge.

And when I suggested that the song Black ‘47 should reflect the pain of the Irish who had endured The Great Hunger, he bade me channel a legion of their anguished voices until I was near catatonic.

He adored Mary Courtney’s voice and one day I discovered two vignettes that he had casually chiseled from Livin’ in America. I named them Fordham Road 8:00AM and Bainbridge Avenue 2:00AM. They became the bookends of the album. 

As the deadline loomed we worked separately and together around the clock. He only once lost his patience – when I was taking too long to mix Maria’s Wedding. 

He swept into the studio, adjusted a couple of faders and knobs that instantly transformed the recording. Then left without a word.

When Paulina would look in all work stopped. Their “love of the century” was so intense I would excuse myself and stroll around Gramercy Park for an hour - be the weather fair or foul.

Ric’s creative mantra seemed to be – trust your instincts but never hesitate to question them! 

He passed away recently. I learned so much from him in those magical three weeks spent in the house with the supermodel under a ceiling somewhere up in the stars.


Saturday, 21 September 2019

Why Is Everything so Loud?


Did you ever think that things are very loud nowadays? This might sound strange coming from someone who stood in front of two Fender Amplifiers with Black 47 for 25 years.

But while dining with a companion in my local recently each of us had to implore the other to “speak up” on various  occasions, such was the level of background noise.

There was no music playing, I might add, and the customers were far from three sheets to the wind.

It made me long for the days of the former bartender – a Serbian heavyweight boxer – who would periodically bellow, “Shut the ?!!!? up!”

Such was the menace in his voice the din would invariably subside to a low murmur. Japanese tourists, in particular, would look for the exits in alarm while we New Yorkers would exchange knowingly cool glances; whereupon the Serbian who had lasted two rounds with Larry Holmes would growl, “now, start again from that level.”

This is not just a male New Yorker disorder either. While at Buffalo Airport recently at the ungodly hour of 6am, four lovely lassies trundled by with their rolling cases stridently comparing the relative merits  – athletic and otherwise - of the Jets and Bills Quarterbacks.

And it’s not just me. Frank Bruni, former food critic of the NY Times, has proposed opening a chain of restaurants so quiet it be known as Geezers. He claims to be unable to hear himself think nowadays while dining out.

What’s going on? A drummer friend who lives above a well-known musical saloon tells me that the volume of customers has risen drastically over the last thirty years.

In fact every bar owner of my acquaintance laments that people are drinking far less but speaking much louder.

Subways, where once you kept your eyes and voice lowered, are now deluged with people disclosing private details that would have your grandad adjusting his hearing aid and blushing from the sheer booming salaciousness.

I blame my colleague, Howard Stern, for much of it although he himself appears to be a very mannerly and quiet-spoken gentleman the few times I’ve spotted him at SiriusXM.

For he has given license to every pip-squeak to unload their vitriol whether it be screaming from behind the wheels of their cars, or just favoring us with their unalloyed opinions in a volume that would make Ozzie Osbourne envious.

The difference, of course, is that Mr. Stern has a refined – if riotous – sense of humor and rarely raises his voice.

Now, liberals would tend to blame the national loudness on our current president, but allow me to disagree. Mr. Trump rarely raises his voice, because he knows full well that he’ll be haranguing the world for 20 hours a day and cannot afford an attack of laryngitis. 

Nor is the national inflated decibel level coming from the Left – Speaker Pelosi addresses us in very measured terms, while I often have to stick my ear closer to the television to pick up Senator Schumer’s Brooklyn whisper.

So who or what is to blame for this audio-explosion? I believe it comes from the ubiquitous earphones. 

Who hasn’t got a set of them nowadays? I bet your Grand-Aunt Bridie has a couple of pairs to match the current tint in her hair.

Think about it, more and more people are walking around in their own private universes. They can shut out the world and raise or lower the volume of those around them at will. Mostly raise, I would wager, for if you speak to anyone wearing earphones, they always reply in an oblivious bellow.

Is there any solution? I can’t think of one unless you bring back the random violence on New York streets in the 1970’s.

Back then one would not dream of wearing earphones while outdoors for fear of getting the head beat off you.

Perhaps it’s time to bring back my old Serbian bartender. We could appoint this man of few – but pointed – words to the newly created position of National Quiet Enforcer.

We better grant him a decent salary. He will have much work to do as we go slouching towards the loudest and most ferocious presidential election of our history.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

A Kind of Love - Long Ago


It was the sweetest farm you can imagine: one hundred acres of lush grassland almost within sight of Wexford’s spires.

I can’t say I remember every blade of grass but I can still summon up every stream, hill, lake, and valley though I haven’t set foot there since the 1970’s.

I think of the farm often, particularly in times of stress. Life seemed a lot simpler then in the big old house at the end of a rutted avenue where my grandparents lived.

Theirs was not a marriage made in heaven. He was from stolid cattle-dealing stock while my granny was from a nautical family and cut from more dramatic cloth. 

As my father, a plainspoken merchant marine once remarked, “There was no small problem she couldn’t turn into a full-blown crisis.” 

And yet, my grandparents were in their own way devoted to each other.

They didn’t seem to converse much but I’m not sure many married couples of their generation did.

They did have a certain comfort level though, or perhaps by the time I was old enough to observe they had come to understand that neither was going to change the other. I suppose that’s a kind of love in itself.

They did like to attend race meetings together and we’d often head off to Gowran Park in Co. Kilkenny, Tramore in Co. Waterford, or even mighty Leopardstown. 

They didn’t care for Wexford Racecourse. My grandfather complained, “That place is so full of auld nags it’s hard to predict form there.” 

Television, oddly enough, brought them closer because with its arrival they could attend Aintree, Ascot and even Longchamp for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, without leaving the comfort of their armchairs.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of racehorses in Irish life. There’s almost a spiritual connection between these highly-strung ponies and the Irish people.

We all bet on them for back in my boyhood there was no age bar in a bookie’s office. The lowest wager allowed was “a shilling each way” and I remember my first win. ‘Twas a French filly, Petit Etoile and my grandparents beamed their approval.

Yet, if horses were sacrosanct, then cattle were beyond importance to my grandfather. He had no time for milch cows and would barely cast them a glance, for the bullock was his bread and butter.

He bought them at fairs and cattle markets; had them delivered to his farm where they would sate themselves on the rich green grass until they were deemed fat enough to be transported to Birkenhead, outside Liverpool, for slaughter.

He moved among these gelded bulls as if he were a ghost. They barely noticed his presence whereas they would gaze sullenly at me or bound off in a haze of horseflies.

He counted them every morning after breakfast and immediately after evening tea, unless Raymond Burr or Jackie Gleason were lording it on the black & white television in the kitchen corner. 

Shep, his faithful sheepdog, accompanied him on these excursions and I watched them grow old together. Finally Shep could no longer make it past the outer haggart and would sink down in the grass to await his master’s fatigued return.

My granny would watch fretfully out the window awaiting the peak of her husband’s cap to come bobbing home above the yellow gorse hedgerows. 

By the time his faltering step would echo in the scullery she would have composed herself. I used to wonder if he knew the turmoil she had gone through in his absence.

I would have accompanied him on his rambles for there are few things as lovely as an Irish farm on long summer’s evenings. But he preferred his own company, this taciturn man who merged effortlessly with the trembling rural silence.

When you’re young you think all things will last forever. But what does youth know?  Shep died first, then my grandfather, and finally my Granny was forced to move.

The farm is long gone, replaced by one hundred acres of suburban homes that I’ve never seen. 

And why should I risk viewing such a blasphemy, when I can summon up fields and trees and streams, and grandparents that are as real to me now as they ever were as a boy.