Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Ghosts in Snug Harbor

   The creative life of a playwright or novelist tends to be one long hard slog. Oh, there’s the initial inspiration for a project, and the occasional day when the gods favor you, but for the most part a career in the Sanitation Department makes a lot more sense.

   Songwriting is a whole different kettle of fish. Like play and novel writing it takes craft, but the art springs from that magic moment when your musical and lyrical sensibilities collide – hopefully in a hail of sparks.

   I had one such moment out in the Noble Maritime Museum in Staten Island last year. Now unlike certain MLB batters I can’t point at the sky claiming divine intervention, but I wonder if I didn’t get a little nudge from beyond the grave.

   I had been impressed with the gracious 19th Century building – once a home for aged sailors - when taken on a tour prior to the gig by Dawn Daniels, director of programming. While staring at a picture of an old sailing ship, a tragic piece of family history came to mind.

   My great-grandfather, Capt. Thomas Moran, was lost with all hands when his ship, City of Bristol, went down off Cornwall in 1898. Over the next six weeks his body floated 150 miles north towards his home in Wexford, but ultimately washed ashore directly across the Irish Sea in Pembrokeshire, Wales.

   As a boy my grandmother, Maggie Moran, often told me this story. She always finished with the words, “he loved us so much he was trying to get home.”

   Even back then I knew someday I’d capture the tragedy in a song. I failed a number of times – the words and melody were always decent but a certain spark was missing.   
   My father had little time for such romantic tales. In his view, Capt. Moran ran into a storm he couldn’t handle. Life at sea, as he put it, was not for the faint of heart – ships he had served on in WWII had been torpedoed twice by German U-Boats.

   After the second such incident, Jim Kirwan spent a couple of months in New York City, in no big hurry to renew his acquaintance with German submarines. He never talked much about his wartime experiences, but mentioned washing dishes on 42nd Street and that he occasionally found lodgings in an “old sailors’ home in Snug Harbor.”

   I had forgotten this last detail but it sprung to mind while onstage at the Noble Museum; I realized I was actually in the “old sailors home in Snug Harbor” my father had mentioned.  
   It was a riveting moment but I was totally unprepared for what happened next. 

   A window into the night of Capt. Moran’s shipwreck was suddenly thrown open and I experienced the terror, loss and longing of the man in a rush of words:

“Now the waves they are like mountains
And the wind’s a howling gale
And I know for surely certain
I’ll never kiss your mouth again.” 

   I might as well have been on board the City of Bristol with the captain as he came to terms with the fact that the ship was lost, all aboard would drown, and that his wife and three young children would go through life without him.

   On the trip back to Manhattan I was fearful I’d lose the vital spark that fused the lyrics and melody of “Floating.” But there was no problem. The song was like a gift - there for the taking.

   At my next gig in the Noble, Dawn Daniel’s brother, Dave Cook recorded my performance of “Floating” live and it can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon, and most digital platforms, with all proceeds going to The Noble.

   Snug Harbor is one of New York City’s treasures. It’s serene and beautiful, and the grounds and buildings pulse with the restrained sensibility of another era. 

   It’s a short bus or cab ride from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Take a trip someday and visit the Noble Maritime Collection – there’s magic in the air out there, maybe you’ll strike it lucky too.

  Noble Maritime Collections, 1000 Richmond Terrace # 8, Staten Island, NY 10301 (718) 447-6490 www.noblemaritime.org

Monday, 13 June 2016

Joan of Arc from Chappaqua

            I’ve always loved elections. The polls, policies, and debates leading up to the final thrill of the count - you can almost see the wheels of democracy spin.

            Then why do I feel anxious about the upcoming presidential campaign? I suppose it’s the prospect of constant personal attacks, vilification, and half-truths, all curried with a disregard for any kind of factual accountability.

As usual, Mr. Yeats sums it up pithily: “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” But for once the master fails to capture the sheer boorishness and mean-spiritedness of this dogfight, at a time when there’s such a need for a cool and logical national discussion. 

The promises being bandied about are wishful thinking at best - the “good” jobs that have gone overseas are not coming back. This particular industrial flight has been gathering steam since the 1970’s.

Despite sermons on national decay, manufacturing output is at an all time high in the US; unfortunately less employees are needed in this new technological age. A modern factory that might have employed 1500 people 30 years ago can now make do with less than 500; with the expected advances in robotics things will only get worse.

Instead of rants and threats, steps could be taken to retrain discarded workers. With an actual shortage of skilled labor in many parts of the country vocational colleges could be created where firms enroll apprentices in work-study programs.

This would call for investment in a new economic model but if Germany can do it, why can’t we?

American corporations could help by repatriating the profits they are making and stashing overseas. That’s unlikely to happen until they’re made an offer they can’t refuse by an activist congress – all the more reason to cast your vote wisely in November.

There’s a lot of pain across the country because wages - adjusted for inflation - have actually diminished over the last 40 years. Blaming illegal immigrants and foreign governments might feel good but the solutions are closer at hand.

“Who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?” Mr. Trump demands? How about the 4 million plus American workers who would be laid off in a tariff battle with China and Mexico. In this interconnected world, both of those countries would likely head into recession, driving down stock markets, your 401(k) and the American economy for good measure.

Mr. Trump is long on quick-fix solutions but short of any actual details. Even his greatest illusion – the Great Wall of Mexico – is not worth considering since more Mexicans are presently leaving the US than arriving. 

Facts, however, have rarely been important to Mr. Trump – beginning with his inane “birther” assaults on President Obama.

Amazingly, Secretary Hillary Clinton is the last bulwark against a Trump presidency. Had she voted against the invasion of Iraq she would now likely be finishing out the final year of her second presidential term, while that seasoned Senator Barack Obama would be running against Mr. Trump.

What an awful campaign the Secretary has run so far! How could she not see that receiving exorbitant speaking fees from Goldman Sachs would be anathema to a country livid about banks and other high rollers? Likewise her decision to use a private server for her government emails defies logic.

The amazing decision not to contest the Indiana primary when Senator Sanders was on the ropes makes you wonder who’s running her campaign? Choosing small intimate meetings with supporters rather than Trump-Sanders barnstorming outdoor events in this age of spectacle is equally puzzling?

There are so many questions. Has President Bill Clinton totally lost his once acute political chops? Why have so many women deserted Secretary Clinton? Isn’t it time for a woman president – especially given the alternative?

African-Americans and Latinos know exactly what a Trump presidency will deliver. But the big question is - how will the rest of Americans react to the next five months of constant negativity?

Democracy is a messy business – it calls for a lot of scrubbing away at the grime and examining the facts underneath. 

I hope Madame Secretary is up to the task; come November the country will have a lot riding on this flawed, but steady, Joan of Arc from Chappaqua.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Those Berrigan Boys

            I recently attended the memorial service for Fr. Dan Berrigan SJ.  I’d never met the man but he was an inspiration.

            A familiar figure at anti-war protests he had the look of the true believer – someone who had come to terms with his mission in life and intended to prosecute it to the fullest.

            His brother, Fr. Philip Berrigan SSJ, was no less committed, and yet he had the eyes of a boxer, always alert for the jab or hook that would soon be coming.

            I remember an activist friend from Baltimore saying: “I always felt safer when Phil was at a protest for he was a formidable man if things got ugly. Dan was a quieter presence but equally fearless.”

            Things often got ugly for the Berrigan Brothers and the militant pacifists around them. They believed that war was immoral and that those who promoted it should be called to account.

            St. Francis Xavier Church was jam-packed despite a deluge of rain. Many familiar activist faces were sprinkled throughout the congregation.

            Father Dan had obviously touched everyone attending the service. The heartfelt grief was curried by a feeling that if things had not gotten worse, they had hardly improved much either.

            Dan Berrigan himself was no pie in the sky optimist; he was of the opinion that a dogged evil still held sway in worldly affairs – and yet, if good people stood up and did the right thing, that evil could be held at bay, if not defeated.

            Standing amidst the crowd of mourners at the back of the church, I idly wondered what this pacifist priest had thought of the upcoming presidential contenders – one a know-nothing, aggressive nationalist, the other a hawk whenever the chips are down, as they so often are in the US.

            One of the speakers stated that Dan would not wish to be placed upon a pedestal – for that merely allows the rest of us to shirk our social, moral, and political responsibilities.

            Dan Berrigan believed in building and fostering community through individual testament, and his contrarian spirit suffused the ornate church on that wet Friday morning.

            The service pulsed with commitment as speaker after speaker recalled the Berrigans and their shock tactics that included pouring blood on draft records or burning them with homemade napalm.  

            They and their comrades were no turn-your-cheek Christians but, for the most part, outraged Irish-American Catholics who took hammers to warships and missiles, and accused US presidents of war crimes. 

            They went to the wall for their beliefs and as Dan wrote for the Catonsville Nine Statement in 1968 – “The suppression of truth stops here. This war stops here!”

            The question posed to us at the service was the unlikely, “Are we prepared to wake from our day-to-day slumbers and confront the evils of poverty and militarism in these United States of Amnesia?”

            The Berrigan Brothers were not popular with many Irish-Americans for they repeatedly questioned US foreign policy. But time has proved them right about Vietnam, Iraq and the many other wars of choice. 

And yet they were grudgingly respected for they didn’t gloat, much less rest - there was always a battle to be fought - if not against militarism, then against the degradations of poverty in this land of plenty. 

            Dan Berrigan practiced what he preached. Midway through the service the children present were asked to gather around a well-used cardboard box. 

It contained Father Dan’s prize possessions: some well-worn books, photos, a banner or two, a worn shirt and a Ben & Jerry wool hat that he wore frequently. Each child brought a piece of the material side of this deeply spiritual, man up to the altar. 

            Despite all his principles and commitment, Dan Berrigan was deeply human, as a relative recounted. Inevitably at family gatherings one of the brothers would say “We’ve been good long enough;” whereupon a bottle of whiskey would be produced and the joking and laughter would continue late into the night.

Father Dan’s message remains – look around you and witness the defects in society, then go beyond yourself and don’t rest until you make the situation better.

            Irish-America should be proud of those Berrigan boys. They called it as they saw it and made a difference.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Sunday Afternoons in the old Morris Minor

   I miss the old Ireland – especially Sunday afternoons when I’d head off with my grandfather in his old, and battered, blue Morris Minor. Amazingly I can still recall its license plate, ZR 5486.

   We would be dolled up in our Sunday best: suits, ties, and crisply-ironed white shirts. He never announced where we were headed but the first stop was inevitably a country graveyard. 

   He was a headstone maker, although he preferred to be called a monumental sculptor. He’d putter around those old cemeteries for a couple of hours in rain, hail, sun, or sleet, selectively perusing ornate Celtic crosses or moss-covered brooding limestone slabs, most of which he had carved himself.

   He never spoke during these inspections and I wonder now what was he thinking? I never asked though I inquired about many other things. I suppose we had come to some unspoken agreement that this was the time for his own thoughts.

   He had a great sense of history and one day mentioned that he had met Padraig Pearse’s English father - another monumental sculptor. He was full of little jewels of that nature; such details are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to me now – they give you inklings of what life was like before the founding of the modern state of Ireland.

   Eventually, he would head back to the old Morris Minor and sit there until he had decided upon which old friend or relative we should visit. He was a very popular man among his own circle and we would receive a hearty welcome in the farmhouse of his choice.

   Tea would be made and scones or other delicacies served as we settled in around the fireplace for a chat that would encompass history, politics, gossip, and scandal that would stretch far beyond nightfall.  Whereupon another tea would be served with slices of chicken, ham, turkey or occasionally some gamey pheasant. 

   By then natives from far and near would have gathered - courtesy of the culchie telegraph - to marvel at this visit from two sophisticated denizens of the metropolis of Wexford. After many goodbyes and promises of return we’d head out into the cool starry night.

   My grandfather always soldiered through the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary on the way home. Did he not know the Joyous or Glorious equivalents or had he by this time in life come to the conclusion that sorrow was more appropriate to his lot?

   I don’t know but I learned much from him on those long Sunday afternoons. He told me how his own father had watched thousands of silent, starving people shuffle by in the dark and deadly days of 1847. My grandfather made me promise to give voice to those voiceless wraiths and to “never forget!”

   People like him expected little from life. They learned how to entertain themselves, and it was a rare person who didn’t have a party piece – be it singing, reciting, whistling, dancing or, in his case, telling long and involved stories.

   They were viscerally connected to the past and believed we were only separated from the supernatural by the thinnest of veils. One of the old ladies we used visit on Sundays was adamant that the electric light had done much damage to “our friends from the other side,” for they no longer had shadows to dwell in.

   Time passed slowly in those days and it seemed as though boyhood would last forever. Oddly enough, I last saw my grandfather on a Sunday afternoon. I was living in Dublin then and had hitched the many miles to the home for the elderly in which he dwelled.

   I was moving to New York the next day and told him I’d see him at Christmas. He nodded briskly at my optimism. People of his generation were familiar with the trials of emigration.  

   Alas the naturalization process was slow and my lawyer advised me not to risk going home until my case was settled. It was three Christmases later before I made it back. I was almost in time for he had only just passed away.

   I often think of him on Sunday afternoons heading off for some country graveyard. His Ireland is long gone. Whatever would he think of it now?

Monday, 2 May 2016

Celtic Crush 11 Years On

   Eleven years ago I was standing in a corridor of Sirius Satellite Radio’s headquarters laughing and joking with legendary host Meg Griffin. She had just interviewed me on the release of a Black 47 CD, and we were reminiscing about late nights spent in CBGB’s.

   Upon noticing my accent a passing executive inquired if I might be interested in hosting a weekly Celtic Music show. As ever, being in the right place at the right is the name of the game.

   Meg sat in the first couple of weeks and suggested that I play three songs, then say whatever came to mind; thus was the template for the three hour show conceived.

   She warned that unlike terrestrial radio I would be speaking to people the length and breadth of the US and Canada so act accordingly. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” says I to myself, “I hope I have something to say.”

   As I soon discovered, if you’re producing the show and choosing the songs you’ll find plenty to talk about - assuming you have an interest in music, half a brain, and a regard for your own opinion. 

   It has from time to time been suggested that I possess only two of these characteristics – a thick skin, as you might imagine, is required for this gig. 

   I decided upon three rules: I would only play great songs; that Celtic would include the eight recognized nations and their diasporas; and that I would not disqualify musicians because of jealousy, revenge or plain old personal distaste.

   The last rule was the most difficult, having spent years on the road with the greatest collection of alcoholics, cardsharps, sheep-shaggers, petrol-siphoners, prima donnas, bad check artists, and others even less reputable. 

   Celtic Crush has become very popular both in the US and Canada, probably because it’s the only Celtic show on all platforms of SiriusXM. Ah yes, there’s nothing quite like a monopoly for boosting business! 

   SiriusXM has now over 30 million subscribers so you’re playing to a very broad demographic. That’s why Celtic Crush is song - rather than musician - oriented. With over 150 channels to choose from, if you play something merely average, or god forbid, banal, it really stands out, and subscribers are only too willing to move on to another channel.

   That doesn’t mean that I only play accepted standards. Far from it! I’m always searching for what I call “future classics.” There’s nothing quite like finding a great song by a new band and introducing both to a large new appreciative audience. 

   One such band is Lynched who may one day fill the big shoes of The Dubliners. And yet, I could never have helped them if they hadn’t written the haunting, enigmatic Cold Old Fire. 

   It’s amazing how little exposed North Americans have been to The Dubliners, and the twin magic of Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew. But it’s also great to turn the world on to Corner Boy, a band from Wexford not unlike Mumford & Sons, but perhaps a little better. Try their rousing, Morning Morning.

   For Scottish music, give a listen to Peatbog Faeries or the best band you’ve never heard, Runrig. But Celtic music travels far afield nowadays, so experience Alan Stivell’s collaboration with one of the world’s great singers, Senegal’s Youssou n’Dour on A United Earth.

   Of course, I play all the recognized Celtic greats from Sean O’Riada through Van Morrison to Dropkick Murphys but it’s always about the song – not the singer, and the more original the better.

   Celtic Crush is not without social and political content. In fact it’s a direct retort to Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s dastardly Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act that did so much damage to Irish culture and tradition. For on SiriusXM one is encouraged to say what one pleases without fear of censure.

   The show has spawned a number of Facebook pages including Fans of Celtic Crush where discussions and arguments break out frequently on musical, political and social topics.

   It’s been an eleven-year old joy to introduce so much great music and place it in a relevant context where it can be even more appreciated. I hope you’ll join me some Sunday morning.

   Celtic Crush can be heard on SiriusXM The Loft, Ch. 30, Sunday 9amET, Tuesday 9pmET, Wednesday Midnight ET.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Connolly, Pearse, MacDiarmada - Ultimate Winners

   The 1916 Uprising in Dublin was not particularly popular at the time. This should come as little surprise since 200,000 Irish served in the British Army during World War 1 and many families were dependent on the “separation” money. 

   Since Ireland was doing relatively well economically, with wartime exports booming, it should raise few eyebrows that the surrendering rebel forces were spat at by angry Dubliners.

   Indeed the spark plug of the rebellion, Sean MacDiarmada was gloomy when escorted to his prison cell, feeling that the endeavor had been a failure; while the young Michael Collins was furious at the poor military strategy employed and felt the leadership, with the exception of James Connolly, was amateurish.

   Help came - as it often does - from British over-reaction. Had the leaders not been executed it’s unlikely we’d be celebrating a 1916 centenary this month.

   These leaders came from many walks of life but they shared two traits – courage and a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.

   They roughly fit into three broad groups: poets and academics, professional revolutionaries, and militant socialists. Let us, for argument’s sake, choose one from each group.  

   Padraig Pearse, son of an Englishman, was a well-regarded poet, a Gaelic scholar, and an educationalist. Reserved, often self-conscious, but ambitious, he longed for a free, Gaelic speaking republic.

   Sean MacDiarmada, though only 33, was a long-time leader and chief recruiter of the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). It was said that he had men and women in every parish and townsland in Ireland ready to rise at his command.

   We can hardly pass over James Connolly as the militant socialist. Born to Irish parents in an Edinburg slum, he left school at 11 to shovel manure from the streets; he did a stint in the British Army before deserting, and eventually became a union organizer on both sides of the Atlantic.

   One hundred years later Padraig Pearse is still an enigma. Ill at ease in many Dublin social settings you get a much better grasp of the man when you visit his cottage in Rosmuc, Connemara. 

   His one regret about the failure of the rebellion was that his brother, Willie, would also be executed. He appears to have felt that only a blood sacrifice would awaken the patriotism of the Irish people and is said to have whistled contentedly on his way to the firing squad. 

   Would the dashing, athletic Sean MacDiarmada have shared the same death wish had he not been struck down by polio four years previously? It’s hard to say.  His left side largely paralyzed, after his release from hospital he was forced to use a cane to tap his impatient way around Dublin.  

   MacDiarmada knew it was only a matter of time until he succumbed to his affliction and there’s little doubt he was the prime force that kept the uprising roughly on schedule despite its cancellation by Eoin MacNeill, leader of the Irish Volunteers.

   Connolly’s decision to go ahead with the rebellion seems the least logical for he had a wife and young family and feared for their financial and emotional wellbeing. Despite his love of books and learning, he was a very practical man, and having served in the British Army he had no illusions about his fate should the rising fail.

   By Easter Monday Connolly knew there would be no supportive German invasion, so, why didn’t he wait for a more auspicious time? Perhaps he was tired of failure and was willing to risk all in one roll of the dice, for he had suffered major defeats in the recent Dublin and Wexford labor lockouts. 

   Or did he feel that the British authorities would soon move against the IRB and his own Irish Citizen Army thus condemning another generation of Irish workers to poverty and economic slavery.

   It’s a fine line between brilliant tactical decision and death wish, but our three leaders were ultimately proved right. They did not live to see the terrible beauty they had conceived; but in the end, Irish patriotism was rekindled. 

   History is indeed written by the ultimate winners and that is why we celebrate Pearse, MacDiarmada, and Connolly wherever green is worn in this their glorious centenary.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

From de Valera to Trump

            So many of Donald Trump’s aspirations for the US are un-American it’s hard to know where to begin. The reintroduction of torture, the banning of Muslims from entry into the country, the erection of the Great Wall of Mexico spring immediately to mind; yet each is so unconstitutional or impractical as to be unlikely.

            However, a trade war with China or Mexico could be distinctly on the cards should Mr. Trump be elected. We Irish learned all too well the consequences of trade disputes.

            In 1932 the Fianna Fail party came into government in the Irish Free State. Whereupon, its leader, Eamon de Valera refused to pay land annuities to the British Government for loans that had been granted to Irish tenant farmers in the 19th Century.  
This did not sit well with Whitehall and a trade war broke out that did serious damage to the Irish economy.

            Both my grandfathers – although from opposite ends of the political spectrum – opposed this war, though for different reasons.

            Even 30 years later one could not mention Mr. de Valera in my Fine Gael grandfather’s house as it could have driven this reserved cattle dealer to apoplexy; for in retaliation the British government put a tariff on the importation of Irish beef that wreaked havoc with his business.

            My maternal grandfather already had little time for “Dev” because of his internment of former Republican comrades. The fact that the Irish stopped buying his headstones during the economic collapse only added salt to his wounds.

            Both grandfathers, however, weathered the storm and lived relatively affluent lives. Not so the many who were forced to emigrate because of the lack of employment opportunities.

            Eventually the land annuities issue was settled but Mr. de Valera continued to maintain his economic wall around Ireland. He did so for the best of motives: many Irish industries were inefficient and could not compete with their British counterparts.

            And so Ireland struggled along, hemorrhaging its citizenry as hundreds of thousands emigrated until 1959 when Dev was kicked upstairs and his protégé, Sean Lemass, finally threw open the economic and sanctimonious curtain that had long suffocated the country.

            Free trade is hardly the answer to all US economic problems. Jobs are inevitably lost – often the best paying; unfortunately this is a cyclical reaction that began in the 1970’s and the US will not become a major manufacturing power again until wages rise appreciably in China, Mexico, and the Asian rim countries.

            But if Apple and the other corporate titans, whose products are manufactured overseas, were obligated to pay US taxes on their foreign profits then this lost revenue could help retrain US workers and rebuild a crumbling infrastructure that would in turn lead to more jobs.

            Still, the last thing we need right now is a trade war. Much as we might quibble about the prevalence of Chinese imports, we would be truly outraged were we forced to pay 20 to 30% more for them.

            Blowing off Trumpian steam is one thing but imagine what a trade war would do to our already jittery financial markets. The average American’s retirement savings are invested in stocks that are already trading up and down like well-oiled yo-yos. 

            Mr. Trump’s working class supporters should think twice before voting for this uber-wealthy man. His celebrity brand will continue to flourish no matter what bombastic miscalculations he makes; his deluded supporters, however, will be left to pick up the pieces. 

            Instead of venting their anger on Muslims and Mexicans they should urge their leader to demand a fair tax on financial transactions and a livable national minimum wage.

            These innovations would bring meaningful change to their lives but are hardly likely to resonate with Mr. Trump for they would impact on his profits and lack the sound bite appeal of erecting imaginary walls.

            Both Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders are correct. The US is in need of change and hopefully a substantive debate will take place in the run up to November’s elections.

            We’re more likely to get a screaming match. But we, as citizens, have a right to demand a real debate of ideas and practicalities.  A trade war with any other country is the last thing we deserve.