Sunday, 27 July 2014

Support Your Irish Festival!!!!!

support your irish festival!!!

They’re everywhere now. Increasing and expanding by the year, Irish festivals have outgrown their natural roots on the East Coast and the Rust Belt of the Midwest. Now they flourish in Kansas City, Savannah, Manheim, and places you’ve never even heard of. Every month I get a call from some savvy All-American wondering about his or her chances of pulling off an Irish Festival.

And why not? Get yourself a fenced-in space, a stage, a workable PA, a headlining band, beer company support, a volunteer staff, some fine weather and you could be on your way to being the next Milwaukee Irish Fest.

Where did it all start? Well, that’s a bit like the Ray’s Pizza conundrum, isn’t it? But my gut instinct is that it all began back in the New York Irish community of the 50’s. Okay! South Side Chicago and Boston, you’ve got documented proof that your festivals were celebrating their centenaries when wide-trousered Galway men and their petticoated dates from Leitrim, Mayo and Tyrone were chastely cheek-to-cheeking to Micky Carton’s Orchestra at the Jaeger House on Lexington Avenue.

My theory, though, is that when these young immigrant Irish trooped out to the Rockaways on pre-air-conditioned summer weekend and danced and drank in the haunts along the Irish Mile, that the seeds were sown for the modern Irish Festival.

With time, those dancers married, had children and didn’t get out as much. Besides, the urban decay of the 60’s hit the Rockaways hard. Most of Irish Town was demolished and the streets were no longer as safe; but the couples still wished to meet, reminisce and show off their kids. So, they unfolded their beach chairs, bought a keg, finagled a couple of hungover musicians into playing and before you knew it, they had a rip-roaring block party on their hands.

The Rockaway Festival that grew out of those innocent Sunday afternoons is one of my favorites – although, one year I was almost brained by a beer cooler thrown by an appreciative fan.

But I digress. A number of veterans of the Rockaway bash who relocated to Southern Florida, Sheila Hynes and Rory O’Dwyer (son of the great Irish American Civil Rights activist, Paul O’Dwyer) amongst other longed for an authentic hooley around St. Patrick’s Day. They hired a park, a PA and engaged Adrian Flannelly to snare some top class musicians. A couple of decades later, their festivals in Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach are still setting the pace and, given the location, they almost always have good weather.

The first festival I performed at was the Catholic Charities event out in Coney Island. Chris Byrne and I were in the midst of a very earnest version of The Patriot Game” at the end of which, to the wail of the pipes, I would denounce every Taoiseach, Tanaiste and elected rat-catcher for betraying the Cause when, to my amazement, I glimpsed the sight of a nun in full habit sweeping past me. Figuring it was some kind of flashback, I returned to my denunciations but there she was again, this time fiddling with a boom-box from which emanated the heavenly sound of synthesized strings. After the set, I found out that we had overstayed our allotted time, the good sister had a second gig to get to, and it was “later for you, Black 47, whoever the hell you are!” Sister Mary Beata is a trooper who will be playing festivals a long time after more trendy musicians have hung up their guitar straps.

Speaking of divine intervention, ask Frank Bradley about weather. Frank is the visionary behind the great South Side Chicago Festival held every Memorial Day Weekend. Sounds balmy, right? On our first appearance in 1991, snow began falling as we hit the stage. We were contracted for a 90 minute set and, fearful of not being paid, we blazed on through a gathering blizzard to about 50 hardy souls who danced to our frantic pleas for James Connolly to rise up, initiate a proletarian revolution and liberate us from the frozen stage. When we shuffled off like six emasculated snowmen, Frank stood there, check in hand (plus bonus) silently marveling at the lunacy of certain New York musicians. The Festival now takes the precaution of erecting an enormous tent. You just can’t trust that Lakeside weather. But you can depend on the warmth and rowdy loyalty of the South Side Irish.

For my money, having a headlining act is a must for a successful festival. Ask Cavan man Steve Duggan, whose Belmont Family Festival had chugged along to respectable successes. Some years back he nailed down the Saw Doctors for his Saturday night extravaganza and hit the jackpot with a record-breaking attendance.

Of course, when you have built up a reputation like the Milwaukee Irish Fest, you don’t really need a headliner. Back in 1981, the goals of the organizers were modest, hoping in some small way to emulate the successful local Fest Italiano. Now over 100,000 pass through their turnstiles annually. Founded by Chuck and Ed Ward and a loyal, hard-working committee, Milwaukee has become the Mother of all Irish Festivals. One of the projects funded by the Festival is the Irish Music Archives; it now contains almost 50,000 pieces of Irish recordings and sheet music.

Festivals, of course, reflect the current dynamics of Irish American life. There is the eternal battle between those more attuned to the homeland who cringe at leprechauns, green beer, freckle-faced competitions, and those who see no harm or, indeed, make a buck from such shenanigans. Then there are the various political activists who consider it their right to set up a table on the big day versus those who feel that festivals should be apolitical or that Irish politics ended circa 1916. This has led to friction at many festivals. But now, with peace in the ascendancy in the North of Ireland this issue shows every sign of becoming a memory. Besides, a vast majority of people now feels that festivals are about celebrating Irishness in its myriad forms and the tent is big enough for all.

I’m forever impressed by the level of altruism at festivals. Practically all of the money raised goes to an array of charities and quite often of the construction or maintenance of Irish Community Centers. Volunteers spend many months prepping, primping and preparing for their big weekend.

But in the end festivals are about community. Whether this means a return to the old neighborhood of Rockaway, a celebration of being South Side Irish in Chicago or a uniting of the clans in Patchogue, North Haven, Hartford or Herkimer, the festival is a way of getting together and celebrating heritage. In a society that becoming ever more white bread and homogenized, it’s an affirmation of all the things that make us different.

So, you want to start your own Irish Festival? Just get a fenced off space, a stage, a PA, a good band, a Mussolini-like stage manager and everything Irish you can think of – except the weather. Maybe I’ll see you there this summer.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Breezy Point Think Tank

            Economic forecasting is the perfect mix of art and science: you may blame either component if you don’t get it right! Not unlike horse racing you need to know the form and conditions, but you must also be able to sniff the wind, and be on speaking terms with lady luck.

            Some calls are beyond obvious: when shacks in Ireland were selling for a half million Euros it was apparent that one hell of a bubble was about to burst.

            Likewise back in 2007 when Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, stated that financial markets would self-regulate, it was time to head for the hills.

            The most glaring current red flag is the number of over-capitalized start-ups that still haven’t figured how to turn a profit. In other words, don’t bet Auntie Eileen’s jewelry on the next Facebook.

            So how is the American economy really doing? You’ll find an expert to confirm any opinion you might possibly hazard.  Me?  I stick to two bellwethers - one without cost, the other the price of a round of Coors Light.

            The freebie merely requires a walk up the East Side of Broadway (once known as the plebian “shilling side,”) from Canal to Houston. In the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Debacle you could walk in a straight line up that once congested commercial boulevard marveling at the sight of the empty flagstones ahead of you.  

Around 2010 shopaholics returned only to stare longingly in store windows. In the last year, however, I’m forced to swear like a trooper to clear the way while zigzagging around laden down shoppers dazed as two-bit junkies after a fix.

This leads me to believe that happy days are ahead for the economy unless the bankers and gangsters wreck the joint again.  

However, before certifying imminent boom times it would behoove one to journey out to Breezy Point on the Irish Riviera. My brother Jimmy holds court there in the Blarney Castle – a renowned economic think tank that doubles as a watering hole.

The assembled fellows of this vaunted institute have little time for the Economist or Wall Street Journal – they tend to be more News and Post aficionados. Yet it was on this sacred ground in 2007 the tragic news was revealed to me that hard times would soon be upon us.

            You see Jimmy is a waterproofer – one of that doughty band who keeps the buildings of this town from collapsing on our noggins; and when Mr. Trump and other real estate titans are not employing these gentlemen, then things are going to hell in the proverbial breadbasket. Union members, I was informed, had been told to expect the worst and, even more ominous, official applications for building maintenance and repairs were at an all time low.

            The current forecast from the Blarney is mixed. Things look good in the short term, the union is hiring - but there are grave concerns about future climatic conditions, and for good measure don’t hold your breath for a Mets or Jets renaissance. However, Jimmy and his assembled think tank brethren stand at the ready to deliver forecasts for a mere round of Coors Lights!

            Perhaps I can explain one puzzling statistic that is stumping the experts – the number of unemployed abandoning the workforce. Experts be damned! Do you know any regular person with enough stashed away to actually quit working?

What’s happening is that since most jobs being created are in the lower paid service and health care industries many unemployed have begun their own small businesses. These range all the way from financial consulting to grandparents becoming daycare givers and pocketing some of the money saved.

            Many people, however, are taking social security at 62 rather than waiting for full payment at 66. This will inevitably cause immense social and financial problems for the country down the line. But as they say out in Breezy, “What are you gonna do?”

            Oh well, it’s a nice day for a stroll up the Shilling Side of Broadway, or maybe I’ll head out to the Blarney, shell out for a round of Coors Lights and find out what’s really going on in this country.

Gerry Conlon Mo Chara

             It was a crazy time back in late 1989.  Black 47 had just been formed and was making waves. Chris Byrne and I were political and there was much to be political about.

            The four main Irish causes were the wrongful convictions of The Guildford Four, The Maguire Seven, and The Birmingham Six in the UK, and the attempt to deport Joe Doherty from the US.

            There were many benefits and demonstrations and we helped supply the music – often while on the way to a paying gig.

            There was great buoyancy in the Irish Republican and Civil Rights movement back then – great unity too, especially after the squashing of the rigged convictions of the Guildford Four. If the Brits could admit they were wrong in this case, then there was hope for the others; and with Prime Minister Thatcher facing down a Tory rebellion perhaps negotiations for a just end to the conflict were finally at hand.

            When Paul Hill, Gerry Conlon and Paddy Armstrong came to New York to thank the many people who had campaigned for their release, Black 47 played at the reception. Paul, Gerry and Paddy were music fans and took great interest in the new style we were creating. Their favorite songs were Free Joe Now, Land of de Valera and a version of Patriot Game we curried with a hip-hop beat.

            On the face of it, they appeared to be three slightly dazed, working class Belfast men whose lives had been cruelly interrupted. After a horrific mainland bombing the British authorities needed convictions in a hurry – for whatever inane reasons these three adrift Paddies and an English friend, Carole Richardson, fit the bill. Confessions were extracted under duress, evidence was concealed, lies were told, the cell doors slammed and the case closed.

            Newly freed, they were treated like heroes and celebrities in New York City; still on a high, it was like they were on a mission to make up for lost time. 

Though very distinct personalities, all three were lovely people, albeit with that endearingly sardonic Belfast sense of humor.

            Paddy was quiet and didn’t care much for celebrity; Paul was stately and intense, while Gerry was voluble and passionate. Not surprisingly they had a powerful sense of the injustice that had been visited upon them, and were vividly aware of the many others around the world languishing in jails for unjust convictions.

            They loved to party and stay out late and, oh man, did they hit the right city! They were a staple at our gigs, holding court by the bar and soaking up the atmosphere. You could tell Gerry and Paddy had never been political before their prison terms – they just weren’t the type. Paul, on the other hand, had strong political convictions.

            By their second visit to New York Black 47 were the talk of the town, and home base, Paddy Reilly’s, had become a hotbed of politics awash with musical and Hollywood celebrities. Paul’s soon to be wife, Courtney, added the Kennedy mystique. Few went home before dawn. Gerry, in particular, never seemed to want the night to end. Darkness and solitude didn’t sit well with him. As soon as one party showed signs of flagging he was off to find another.

            I thought of all three of them when news came of Gerry’s death, of the good times in London when we lived in Paul’s apartment while opening for The Pogues. But most of all I felt for Gerry and how he must have suffered on all the long nights down the lonely years when there were no more parties and he had to wait for the dawn alone.

            I hope Paul and Paddy are well and, despite all the darkness they experienced because of a cruel and inept British legal system, they think fondly of the nights we rocked and rolled in New York City.

            It’s a different town now and the Republican movement is no longer unified. As my grandfather used to say about the Irish Civil War, “it was a lot easier be against something than be for it.”

            But, oh those were great days – and nights – when Gerry, Paul and Paddy first came to town.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Roots of the Tuam Revelations

           We’re all to blame for the neglect and deprivation uncovered in St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home run by the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam. All of us, that is, of a certain age who grew up in Ireland.

            We didn’t know the details but we lived in a society where such things were possible. That’s what happens when you give up your intellectual or spiritual freedom to an ideology, a dictatorship or a religion.

            Is this another attack on Catholicism? Far from it! My uncle was a Columban father, I was a Franciscan altar boy, and I was quite happy in the cozy surety of Catholicism until I came of an age where I began to ask difficult questions. The only answer I ever received was that faith provides all answers. 

            Still I’ve always had a huge respect and affection for the many religious people who give up so much to help others; the ones who right now must feel real anguish over the Tuam revelations.

            The root of our shame comes from two sources: history and a refusal of the Catholic Church in Ireland to deal with human sexuality. It often strikes me as ironic that the Irish people have been afflicted with two branches of Christianity very unsuited to our earthy native character – Jansenist Catholicism and mordant Calvinism.

            Both have problems dealing with human sexuality and the physiological issues that inevitably arise at the onset of puberty. Sex was considered “dirty” in the Ireland I grew up in - there was absolutely no discussion of it, except in the sniggering schoolyard. You can be sure that the unfortunate pregnant girls who ended up in these Mother and Baby convents had little idea of the nature of sexuality, let alone its mechanics.

            They were banished and segregated because Irish society and the Catholic religion of the time regarded them as shameful.

            How did the church get such power? It began with the Great Hunger of the late 1840’s. With 8 million people and a church still reeling from the Penal Laws Catholicism had only nominal control of the country until then. After the cataclysm the survivors were shell shocked – their god had deserted them. A vacuum existed and a patriarchal celibate power structure stepped in and helped renew a devastated civil society – but at a cost.

            With the establishment of Maynooth, the Catholic Church and the British government cemented their uneasy alliance. That took care of the difficult Protestant, Charles Stewart Parnell and his unconventional relationship with Katherine O’Shea.

Fast-forward to the children of the striking workers of 1913 who were kept at home in near starvation rather than being sent to the refuge of Protestant English homes. 

The brutal Civil War wiped out people like Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows who might have led Ireland into a healthier secular society.

            We were left with the Cosgraves and Costellos who never saw a bishop’s ring they didn’t wish to kiss And, of course, the Machiavellian √Čamon de Valera who allowed his friend, Dr. John Charles McQuaid, President of Blackrock College, to ghost-write the Irish Constitution of 1937.

Later as Archbishop of Dublin, the same Dr. McQuaid sabotaged Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Act that would have reduced the sky-high Irish infant mortality rate of the 1950’s.

            That’s what we grew up under - a Catholic theocracy in an impoverished state. There were few voices raised. My father, an atheistic seaman, once said to me, “What’s the point? They run the show. Just get on with your life.”

            And that’s what we did. There was no contraception, no facts of life explained. Girls who got pregnant either took the boat to England or disappeared behind convent walls. Ask no questions, life goes on! There were more pressing matters – like making a living in a stagnant economy where it didn’t matter what you knew, but who you knew.

            And now the gruesome truth is out – and you can be sure more is on the way. And awful though these depressing revelations are they’re still for the best, for they will finally allow the Irish people to celebrate their religion as free thinking individuals and not the beaten passive people we once were.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Happy Birthday Nick Drake!

 A friend first pointed it out to me in the 70’s – an appreciation that appeared on the back page of the Village Voice every November.  Nothing fancy – just a plain “Nick Drake 1948-1974, thank you for the music.”

Back then very few people had even heard his name.  I had - through listening to John Peel play his incandescent songs on BBC Radio.  Still, I only possessed one of his albums, the debut, Five Leaves Left.  It’s funny, I can remember the cover so well – green bordered with a picture of a willowy young man looking out from an attic window.

I had to be in a certain mood to play it – besides there were times when you just wouldn’t want Nick in the room – especially if you thought someone with you wouldn’t appreciate him.  If it was someone you were romantically involved with – you especially thought twice about it - supposing they didn’t like Nick, then what?  One of them had to go and I well knew which one.  I can summon up that mood and a lot of other old feelings by just thinking of that album cover and the songs within.

Nick Drake’s music was enigmatic – deep and churning but deceptively calm on the surface.  It never seems to date, perhaps, because he captured a mood, rather than a time and place.

His other two albums, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon are no less enthralling.  They too evoke the same mood.  He died in 1974 – a failure, in his own eyes at any rate.  He is now best known in the US for a Volkswagen ad but you can hear his influence on a multitude of artists.  Many of them are attracted to his essence – none grasp it.  All three of his albums sold less than 5000 copies in his lifetime.  But obviously each person who bought one treasured it and the mood it identified; then passed on the word.  Incredibly, his three albums keep getting better with time.

The memorial in the Voice eventually stopped.  Did the admirer die, move on, move out of New York?  I watched the back page of the Voice for a couple of years and then I too moved on.  Just another New York oddity that I rarely give thought to, until Saturday mornings on Celtic Crush when I play Nick. 

It never seemed like morning music to me back in the day – I rarely listened to it before midnight.  But Nick Drake’s songs have become timeless and hourless – much like the man himself.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Brooklyn Jesuit Prep - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

            If there was an age of reason, and one of anxiety, few would argue that we are now enmeshed in an age of income inequality. Tomes have been filled with controversial solutions, and then there’s the old-fashioned way – changing lives one by solitary one – that’s what I witnessed in Brooklyn Jesuit Prep.

I had gone there at the behest of Fr. Vin Biagi, SJ who told me this small middle school in Crown Heights had almost gone under a year previously and needed a hand.

            The first thing that strikes you about BJP is the sense of calmness. There are only 37 boys and 42 girls in grades 6 through 8; but it’s more than that – the quiet purpose that ripples around the classrooms and down the polished corridors is almost palpable. 

All students are African-American, Caribbean-American or Hispanic – groups that often have trouble graduating from high school, are chronically under-employed and thus destined to linger on the lower rungs of the income ladder. Yet each of these 79 students at BJP is a star on the rise.

These kids are not skimmed from the top academic or intellectual percentiles; what they do have in common is that 87% qualify for the Federal Free Lunch Program – the average family income is $27,600. The belief at BJP is that all children deserve an opportunity to fulfill their potential.

You hear echoes in the classrooms of St. Ignatius and the Berrigan Brothers – Fathers Dan and Phil - all curried by a dash of the Catholic activism of Dorothy Day; but the prime influence is a belief in the magic of the written word to transform young lives by allowing them to dream and imagine.

It’s not that you won’t see computers but BJP recognizes that these are mere tools for learning, and that content is key. Not only are books at the core of the curriculum but each student is encouraged to regularly read one of their own choosing and time is provided each busy day for this private pursuit.

Parents are asked to pay $75 a month for ten months of the year along with an extra $200 that sends a kid on a leadership course to Fairfield University for the month of July. There they take classes in the morning while the rest of the day is devoted to outdoors activities. Video games are left at home while cell phones are returned to students on two evenings a week – but only for family calls.

The principal, Brian Chap, is quiet, intense and self-effacing. You can tell that when urban disorder roils his students’ lives, he is a rock of support. It often takes a couple of years to get students up to grade level but all BJP kids go on to post-secondary education and are often the catalyst in breaking the unrelenting cycle of poverty that afflicts so many local families.

Patricia Gauvey, was a volunteer librarian, who became unpaid president of BJP last year when it seemed as if the school would go under. She’s tireless, voluble and irrepressible, and has that unique drive and fortitude of the ex-nun who refuses to admit defeat.

BJP survived and thrived this year, and has just about enough bucks to reopen again in the fall. The board is very supportive and the school has many well-wishers, but this miracle in Crown Heights can use your help.

Maybe you can sponsor a kid, or expand their world for a summer month in Fairfield University; or perhaps you can donate $75 to help a cash-strapped parent with a month’s tuition.

Even better go out to BJP where you will meet Kwesi, a most impressive 8th grader whose dream came true when recently accepted to Xavier High School.  Or have a word with Brianni who will melt your heart when she tells you, “I can’t explain how much I love this school.”

That’s not surprising when you consider that BJP tracks each graduate through high school and college and steps in with financial and other support when needed.

A very special tree is growing in Crown Heights. Its roots are transforming many lives. In this age of grinding income inequality, Brooklyn Jesuit Prep is making a difference. You can too!  560 Sterling Place, Brooklyn, NY  11238  718-638-5884

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Night The Showbands Died

“Silicon suits, ballroom romance
Belfast on fire, would you care to dance?
All mixed up, no rhyme nor reason
Don’t cross the Border in the middle of Marching Season…”

            Songs have a way of shooting you back in time, don’t they? I only have to play the first chords of The Night The Showbands Died and I’m right back in Ireland in the summer of 1975.

            It was a bad time. Sectarian killings had become the norm up North; but being relatively early in the conflict, there was still an inkling of hope that things could get better.

            Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher and Planxty ruled the cool scene, while showbands dominated dancehalls on both sides of the Border. A band had to know two national anthems and be ready to play whichever depending on the community. In the rare “mixed halls,” the lights came up instantly after the last song to forestall any provocative requests for either A Soldier’s Song or God Save The Queen.

            In reality, though, showbands were hurting. Punters no longer wished to attend alcohol-free parochial dances. Large pub lounges featured three or four piece groups while strobe-lit discos were now more to the taste of the dancing populace.

            The Miami Showband was an exception. An institution since the early 60’s this Dublin outfit was surging again in popularity largely because of lead singer, Fran O’Toole. An unlikely mixture of Otis Redding and Georgie Fame, Fran wasn’t a great showman – no it was that voice; it would stop you dead in your tracks at a dance and you’d find yourself standing alone humming along while your friends danced off with the pretty girls.

            Fran was a beautiful guy. My band opened for the Miami a couple of times in Wexford; we weren’t just bad, even our friends considered us god-awful. Still, Fran always made a point of commenting favorably on some song that we’d totally butchered. Later on in Dublin if I ran into him at the Television Club on Monday’s Showband Night Out, he’d favor me with a friendly wink.

            I often wondered what was the vibe like at the Miami’s last gig in the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, County Down. As ever the six piece signed autographs and chatted with the punters before setting out on their fateful return trip to Dublin.

            Another band heading home
            Down the AI to Newry Town
            “British roadblock up ahead”

            They had reached Bushkill, seven miles north of Newry, when they were flagged down by a group of men dressed in British Army uniforms. Though in disguise, four of these were actually members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) a British Army regiment; all were members of the dreaded Catholic-hating, Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

            “Good night lads, what’s the craic
            Step out of the van, it’s just a wee check.”

            Lined up by the side of the road, the band was not unduly worried, for a British officer had arrived and seemed to be in command. Then bassist, Steve Travers, heard the “soldiers” rummaging in the back of the Volkswagen van and was fearful for his new guitar.

            “Careful with that guitar there, man
            What are you putting in the back of the van?”

            They roughly shoved Steve back in line, luckily for him, for the soldering came loose on the bomb they were planting and it detonated, ripping them to shreds. The remaining “soldiers” opened fire killing three of the band and badly injuring two others. They chased Fran through a field and pumped 22 bullets into his face.

            Awful things had already happened up North, but all innocence evaporated that night. Bands refused to cross the Border and contact between the communities froze.

            It’s almost 40 years ago but the case will soon be reopened, for some of the survivors and families of the deceased have sued the British Ministry of Defence and the Chief Constable of the PSNI over suspicion of collusion between the British Army and the Loyalist gang.

            We’ll never hear Fran O’Toole’s amazing live voice again, but perhaps someday we will get the full story of the night the showbands died.

The Night The Showbands Died is from Last Call, Black 47’s final CD. It can be heard at