Monday, 10 July 2017

A Hymn to Blarney Stones


Does anyone miss the old Blarney Stones? They were all over Manhattan when I first hit New York in the 1970’s.

I don’t mean the Blarney Stone chain in particular – the last one of which is still swinging down on Trinity Place. No, I’m talking about that generic type of bare-boned working class saloon – a long bar on the left, a food counter on the right, and some rickety tables and chairs down the back.

What you saw was what you got, and even a seldom-flush musician could afford the prices.

For those of you never lucky enough to stray within, a Blarney Stone posted its prices above the bar. Thus, while awaiting the attention of the barman, it was possible to estimate just how serious a hangover you could afford.

There were certain unspoken rules and strategies to be observed: although I often departed those establishments penniless and without notion of where the next buck was coming from, I always left a tip of $2 from the ten or twenty-spot I had entered with. 

This had little to do with decorum - more about being remembered as a man of substance despite the fact that I was a bearded, hair-down-to-my-shoulder “damned hippy from Wexford” – as I once heard myself described.

One of the perils of a Blarney Stone - the longer you stayed, the more enticing the aroma that wafted from the food counter.

You could enter after a full breakfast, lunch or dinner, but eventually the corn beef simmering behind your back would work its wonders.

Then you were faced with a quandary. With your capital quickly diminishing you had to decide on either a final beer and a shot, or go for broke, order a plateful of food, and bet that the bartender would recognize your dilemma and throw you a couple of drinks on the house.

This was a whole different New York City than the current tourist trap we inhabit. Buybacks were de rigueur after every second or – God forbid – third drink and could dependably be factored into the economics of a night’s drinking.

I never heard of a Blarney Stone where this nicety was not observed. In fact, one could often count on a drink for the ditch, along with one for the road, on your unsteady exit.

You did not take a date for men preferred to keep their own company in this class of establishment. It wasn’t that wholesale swearing or spitting on the floor were rampant, far from it. Indeed, use of the “F word” was frowned upon and the spittoon had long since vanished from the saloons of New York.

None of this mattered much since no lady worth her mascara would have wished to be wined and dined in a Blarney Stone. Let’s just say that the likelihood of a second date would have been slim to none.

Oddly enough, in his courting days I occasionally encountered David Byrne, leader of Talking Heads, in Glancy’s of 14th Street. But he at least had the good taste to park his date down at the back tables. 

Then again, David is somewhat of a social anthropologist and probably found Blarney Stones exotic.

Ah, Glancys, what a joint! I always presumed it had once been called Clancy’s but one didn’t delve into such matters. An establishment was entitled to its secrets.

It stood almost opposite the Academy of Music - later called The Palladium. This theatre hosted at least two packed rock concerts a week, before and after which Glancy’s would be packed to the gills with music connoisseurs from Woodlawn, Bay Ridge, the wilds of Jersey and Long Island, and god knows where else. The talk of fabled shows and musicians ricocheted around the bare walls as shots were downed and acquaintanceships renewed.

Alas, all gone now. Zeckendorf Towers swallowed up Glancy’s and NYU obliterated our temple of rock ‘n roll.

The days of the Blarney Stones are over - aye and their comradely nights too. To the many owners, bartenders, and patrons still vertical, I raise a glass and a simple toast: thanks for the memories - and the buybacks!

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Russian Roulette


Elections have consequences! Think how different the world would have been if George W Bush had lost that presidential squeaker in 2000. No invasion of Iraq – no lost American lives and treasure, and a Middle East in much less turmoil.

As for the 2016 election, it’s hard to fathom President Trump’s reluctance to deal with the ongoing crisis of climate change. The man owns – or leases – much waterfront property including some of County Clare’s finest. 

Has he never waded the streets of Miami in his wellies during a high tide? Of course, maybe he’s invested in Pocono real estate and is already marketing it as oceanfront.

You have to grant the man one thing – he has not only changed the country but the conversation.

Can you imagine President Bush, “W” or “H,” allowing the Russians to unleash a cyber-attack against the US without an appropriate response? And I’m not talking about some adolescent assault on Facebook, Putin’s hackers were going after the US electoral process - with the likely intention of hindering the Clinton campaign?

Now it can be argued that the Kremlin would sooner deal with a president who ran beauty queen contests than a boring policy wonk like Mrs. Clinton; still and all Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB thug and cares little for Democrats or Republicans.

Don’t get me wrong. Russians are a generous people. While touring there you couldn't admire a picture on an apartment wall – the owner would simply unhook it and present it to you with a large glass of vodka.

Putin and his hackers, though, are a whole different kettle of fish.   

Yonkers Jim Comey, erstwhile FBI Director, says it best: "The reason this is such a big deal is that we have a big, messy, wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time, but nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except for other Americans… But we're talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion and lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act."

What Mr. Comey doesn’t understand is that this country is now so full of hatred that many would sooner the Russians mess up our whole electoral system rather than live under President Hillary Clinton. 

Just as there are those who would prefer the Dalai Lama became dictator rather than respect the fairly elected 45th president.

What’s become of us that we’re not up in arms over a foreign government interfering with our democratic system? Have we become so accustomed to partisan discord that we can accept this heavy-fisted intrusion?

While our president remains silent, the Senate is threatening new sanctions against Russia; a more meaningful action might be to expose the hidden financial assets of Putin and his cronies.

This would be of great aid to the Russian democratic opposition that has been trying to draw attention to the widespread corruption under Mr. Putin’s rule.

Of course if President Trump was to toss in his own tax returns for inspection our own swamp would be drained a little. Vladimir could then fly over for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago, the boys could settle any differences with a little arm wrestling, and we’d all be as happy as Ukrainians and Syrians.

President Trump has much to offer in foreign affairs. In one fell swoop he has swept aside the perennial knee-jerk US/Russian rivalry dating back to the rupturing of the successful alliance that won the Second World War.

But ground rules must be established. Keep out of our election process and we’ll keep out of yours!

President Trump might want to take note that the Republican Party has had an anti-Russian bias for over 70 years. Thus, it would not be surprising if some ambitious young bucks within the party are already weighing an insurgent run in 2020, a la Reagan against Ford in 1976 over detente.

Keep an eye on Senators Sasse and Lankford, both smart, conservative, and from states so ruby red they are unlikely to lose their seats should they misread the wind in 2020. 

But hey, there’s always 2024 and you'll never go wrong in this country betting against the Russians.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

News and Views from my local


President Trump should be catnip for a columnist with an interest in politics. Problem is – I write for a weekly and with the current administration you risk being old news a long time before The Echo hits the stands on a Wednesday morning.

So, one is resigned to writing about Trumpian trends, feelings, prejudices - anything that steers clear of hard news or predictions. 

With presidents Obama and Bush what you saw is what you got - apart from turning grey they basically didn’t change much.

One could spend a column wondering if President Trump will ever turn grey, but such speculations are better left to the National Enquirer; the Irish Echo has bigger fish to fry.

Still and all, I predict that anyone above the level of janitor in the Trump administration has by now “lawyered up.”  

Oh, how I love that term! It makes me feel like Jimmy Breslin when I casually murmur it across the bar of my local. Though I may not wear a trench coat, or speak with a Queens accent, the clientele pricks up its ears and definitely looks at me in a different light.

Lest you think I do my drinking in some trendy liberal environment, I’ll have you know that my local has been serving booze since 1847 and all manner of views are bandied about therein by civil servants, construction workers, yuppies, feminists, old punks, and the general detritus and riff-raff of Lower Manhattan.

One opinion offered recently by a retired postal worker is that the 45th president has begun to remind him of Homer Simpson. While this caused initial gales of laughter, the discussion that followed was deep and insightful.

I have to say that I was a little upset at first, as Homer is one of my favorite TV characters. However, the retired postal worker – a Trump voter – made some cogent points until finally silenced by a grizzled punk I’d once seen fall off the stage in CBGB’s. 

“No way!” He snarled a la Johnny Rotten. “Trump don’t imbibe, Homer downs Duff Beer!”

Whereupon, an inebriated Goldman Sachs employee bet $100 that Duff Beer was really Miller Light in disguise since Homer never seemed to gain weight. 

With much dark mutterings about “him and his $100 bill” and vows to drain our local swamp we passed on to graver concerns - such as who would be the first member of the Trump administration to go up the river.

The smart money appeared to be on Lt. General Mike Flynn. 

Speculation then broke out as to why so many Irish names are dominating the political news? Comey from Yonkers, Pence from Tubbercurry, Kelly-Anne from Looney Tunes, not to mention Paul Ryan whose budgetary projections are so out to lunch, a New York City detective opined, “That guy couldn’t balance his check book.” 

The waitress took a dim view of the remark made on Ms. Conway’s origins, and the guilty chauvinist blushed – his long hoped for chance of a date finally crushed. 

But really, what was President Trump thinking? Flynn was already in trouble for taking money from Turkey, he had retweeted the suspicion that Mrs. Clinton was a child sex trafficker; and even more damning, President Obama had already pink-slipped him and warned the president-elect to keep his distance.

A bitter Rangers supporter, still wearing the same vintage shirt on his two-week-bender, suggested, “Flynn got the gig ‘cause he’d heard something about Trump in Russia. The whole Garden was talkin’ about it!”

The retired postal worker countered that the president’s only mistake was leaving New York for the swamps of DC where a man couldn’t tell his posterior from his elbow.

“To make matters worse,” the grizzled Punk snarled, “With all the fake-news flyin’ around, we’ll never know the truth?”

“Truth is relative,” the NYC Detective groaned as his wife, a Serbian Melania lookalike swept in, and we hastily changed the subject.

Still, my money is on Mike Flynn to throw light on the whole Russian imbroglio – he just doesn’t look like the type who’ll go quietly into that dark night. 

I just hope his people didn’t come from Wexford! It would put a fierce dent in the celebrations when we win this year’s All-Ireland Hurling Final! 

Fake news, how are you!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Memorial Day Weekend


For twenty years I knew exactly where I was going to be on Memorial Day Weekend.  This was highly unusual for Black 47 – though our schedule was always full, it was rarely predictable.

Still the six musicians and two technicians of the band had much need of stamina for we usually spent Friday and Saturday among the green hills of East Durham, while Sunday and Monday took us to the deep Southside of Chicago.

Old dogs for the hard road we departed New York City early Friday for two reasons – to miss traffic and secure the best musicians’ rooms in The Blackthorne Resort.

 I always enjoyed the drive up the Thruway, for these would be our last easeful hours until Tuesday.

Once we were given our room keys by the ever welcoming Rita, I’d begin my rounds.  Hellos to Bob Handel and his two sons, Dale and Roy, then I’d make my most important call – into the kitchen for a visit to the late, lamented Ginger, Bob’s wife. 

With one warm appraising glance she could tell me exactly how the last year had treated me better than any doctor, wife or mother. 

For that matter, it was not unusual to find various members of the hardboiled Black 47 crew in deep conversation with her around the kitchen table at all hours of day and night.

The large bar/dancehall of The Blackthorn would be full on Friday night. Our job was to keep that audience totally engaged for the cream of Irish bands would be playing in the many other excellent resorts. 

As we only played original music this called for maintaining a sustained sense of drama – easier than you might think since we never played the same set twice. If we didn’t know what was coming next – then how could the expectant revelers?

I always spent Saturday afternoon trekking around the local back roads, inevitably visiting the ruins of an overgrown cottage flanked by a stone wall that could have been transported direct from the Aran Islands. Had the original inhabitants moved west or cut their losses and returned home?

Such musings vanished at 9pm when we’d take the stage at the East Durham Irish Festival. As headliner you’re expected to draw crowds from NYC to Albany – not just for vanity but for admission receipts, and to provide customers for the many vendors, the lifeblood of any festival.

We were now in the thick of the weekend – strutting our stuff on the big stage. However, there would be barely time for pictures, autographs, hugs and kisses before we’d again hit the packed Blackthorne for an in-your-face audience more akin to CBGB’s in the 70’s than the gently rolling Catskills. 

I loved those second gigs. New songs, new energy, all thought gone, back to basics, the reason you got into Rock & Roll in the first place.

But we would already be in a rush against time for our flight to Chicago would leave at 8am from LaGuardia. Our tech crew would go into high gear. Pack the van, round us up, get on the Thruway, speed down to our West Side storage, load off amps, drums, and out to the airport, bleary-eyed, but full of cranky attitude.

If possible then, pass out on the plane, hopefully get picked up at Midway and be whisked off to the Holiday Inn; but sleep was dangerous, better retain last night’s intensity, for by the time we hit Gaelic Park that evening, what seemed like the whole South Side of Chicago would be expecting the show of their lives.

And what a sight - a moshing, propulsive crowd, teetering on the edge of alcoholic anarchy hurling themselves over the barricades beyond eager to join us onstage.

No sleep yet though for the party would be raging back at the Holiday Inn with fans from all over the Mid-West who had traveled far to greet us. What did we talk about? Who knows – who cares!  It’s all a blur now. One year bleeding into an abandoned other! 

And yet, a happy Memorial Day Weekend to my many friends in the green hills of East Durham and in the concrete fields of South Side Chicago, I haven’t forgotten you. You’re still the best!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Surgical Strike Shopping


I have a confession to make. I’m a reluctant shopper. I know this is very unpatriotic since 70% of US GDP comes from us spending money on ourselves or each other. My reluctance has nothing to do with cheapness, I hasten to add, for I vigorously compensate in various saloons and hostelries around the country.

Christmas is a time of trial for me. I begin to get nervous around Thanksgiving and the first onslaught of carols. But I have the perfect antidote for the following month-long orgy of consumerism. I become a surgical-strike shopper!

However, I do procrastinate until Christmas Eve, and this has led to panic-filled moments of elbowing one’s way through crowded stores, while imploring surly employees to descend into basements to locate a particular size or color.

All changed, utterly changed. Last December 24th such was the paucity of shoppers I could have demanded that I be carried like a pasha through the deserted racks; and talk about the smiles I received, surliness is indeed a thing of the past in retail. Not to mention that everything had been marked down 20-40%.

I was home within hours - gifts wrapped and hidden under the bed - confident that I had aided President Obama boost his paltry 2% annual growth, soon to be measured against President-Elect Trump’s promised gargantuan 4%. 

Unfortunately, two of the three stores I visited on Christmas Eve have closed, while the staff looked particularly glum in the empty third the last time I sauntered by.

Nor is this retail cataclysm limited to my neck of the woods. Malls are in trouble everywhere, American Apparel is closing down, JC Penney and the mighty Sears are scaling back and may not survive the full frontal assault of online shopping. 

There is no doubt that many jobs in warehousing and transportation have been created by the mighty Amazon and other online retailers. But what happens to cities if you take away the great downtown flagship stores? 

Will they be replaced by mom and pop stores, as one might hope? No way, Jose! If the big chains cannot do battle with online retailers, who can?

Amazon is finally turning a profit. Hurray, but Twitter, Uber and so many other online behemoths are not. The common online formula seems to be – drive competitors out of business by slashing prices, survive on Wall Street investment, and eventually take the company public and make a killing. 

Spotify’s annual revenue crests 2 billion dollars and yet it still has not turned a dime in profit. But it has obliterated the livelihood of a generation of musicians and destroyed their entrepreneurial dream of someday making back the money they’ve invested in recording an album. That dream still exists for the vaunted .001% of megastars; but for your meat and potatoes musician – fuggedaboutit!

It’s the same disturbing trend that we see in life in general – the world belongs to the super-rich, with an ever-dwindling share of profits accruing to everyone else!

Candidate Trump used to trumpet a cruel world where $25 per hour miners and manufacturing employees were being swindled of their jobs by crafty foreign governments, elite liberals, and criminal Mexicans. These dispossessed workers were being forced to downgrade to service jobs in the $8-12 per hour range. 

However, what happens if many of these service jobs are also disappearing. And don’t tell me that warehouse workers won’t soon be replaced by robots that don’t even need a lunch break, let alone a couple of hours of anxious sleep.

If there’s a solution it will come in the form of education and skill attainment. After all, someone’s going to have to oil the bloody robots and keep them from rusting.

Education costs money, however, and such expenditure is hardly on the books in President Trump’s New Deal. Ah yes, we’re back to good old-time voodoo economics – cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy and eventually the bucks will trickle down to the rest of us peons. 

Oh dear, I’m already fretting about Christmas. Excuse me while I click on Amazon – I’m sure they’ve already got some good December deals on tap. No more surgical strike shopping for me!

Friday, 28 April 2017

Dev - The Boy From Bruree


In a recent interview I was asked why I didn’t include Éamon de Valera in my play, Rebel In The Soul, now running at The Irish Rep.

I had to pause a moment before not owning up to the truthful answer – I don’t care much for this most preeminent of Irish politicians. 

Truth be told, though, Dev was far too canny to ever get mired in a fight between church and state as happened to Dr. Noel Browne. He instinctively knew that battling the Catholic Church in the Ireland of 1951 was akin to “dancing jigs on quicksand.”

Even his enemies were in awe of Éamon de Valera, for he stood apart, cultivated an air of aloofness, and had no trouble sticking a knife between a rival’s ribs. This consummate Irish politician was born in New York City.

His mother sent him back to Bruree, County Limerick at the age of two, soon after the death of his father, a Spanish music teacher. His grandmother, Elizabeth Coll, raised young Éamon in a laborer’s cottage. Too poor to afford a bicycle he walked seven miles to and from the Christian Brothers School at Charleville before winning a scholarship to Blackrock College.

Blackrock would have a huge influence on the Boy from Bruree. He taught mathematics there and later in life befriended a president of the college, Dr. John Charles McQuaid with whom he would craft the Irish Constitution of 1937. 

He became a national figure when he was one of the last leaders left standing after the 1916 Uprising - spared execution because of his American birth.

The first great question mark about de Valera arose when he refused to attend the treaty negotiations in London in 1921. Many feel that he sent Michael Collins in his place to reap the blame, for he knew that gaining a united Ireland was impossible.

Dev’s reputation has suffered as Collins’ star has ascended. For good reason - Ireland would have been a far different place if the charismatic, outgoing Collins had lived to lead the country.

It’s hard to argue that de Valera’s conservative vision did not stifle the country socially and economically thereby contributing to the ongoing curse of emigration. However, he did keep Ireland neutral and out of World War II; and yet one of the great strikes against him is that he officially offered condolences to the German minister in Dublin on the suicide of Adolf Hitler.

Whatever way you weigh it, the Boy from Bruree is a play unto himself – though Machiavellian and judgmental, he had a burning love for Ireland, its language, customs, and people. But was this love perverted by his overweening ego and sheer sense of entitlement?

If he doesn’t play an actual part in Rebel in the Soul, he is the elephant in the room that influences the other three characters.

Sean MacBride may have outgrown his position as de Valera’s secretary but he never lost his awe of the man. And in 1948 when MacBride’s star was rising as leader of the nascent Clann na Poblachta party, Dev called a surprise election knowing that he might lose but that his former secretary had not as yet developed the organization to win. My guess is he also figured that MacBride would not thrive in a coalition with the conservative Fine Gael party - “men I had been shooting at 25 years ago.”

Soon after his expulsion from Clann na Poblachta, Dr. Browne joined the Fianna Fail party. De Valera had little time for iconoclastic reformers, however, and showed him the door some years later.

Perhaps, John Charles McQuaid suffered the cruelest fate for he and Dev were close friends. Yet the Limerick man stymied McQuaid’s ambition of becoming Cardinal by putting in a word with the Vatican on behalf of the more mild-mannered, and easily managed, Archbishop D'Alton of Armagh.

For when push came to shove Éamon de Valera brooked no competition – a fact that each of the three major characters in Rebel in the Soul eventually had to come to terms with.

His star may be on the wane but it would be the height of folly to ever ignore the towering, tireless Boy from Bruree.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Rebel in the Soul


On April 11th, 1951, Dr. Noel Browne, Minister for Health, resigned from the first coalition government, and a new Ireland was born. 

His decision had far reaching consequences. The most important was that church and state would begin to separate and the nascent Republic of Ireland would set out on a long painful journey that would eventually lead to an independent civil society.

Within weeks the coalition government fell and in the subsequent election Éamonn de Valera and his Fianna Fail party were returned to power. Sean MacBride’s Clann na Poblachta party was decimated, and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, de facto leader of the Irish Catholic Church, would soon be seen in a new light.

Hopefully, you can find out how this all came to pass at The Irish Repertory Theatre when my play, Rebel in the Soul, begins previews April 12th with opening night April 18th.

The story has always fascinated me, probably because the three main characters, Browne, MacBride, and McQuaid were such interesting figures; it’s hardly surprising that each gave a somewhat different account of how the events in question came to pass.

It’s been a thrill to watch Patrick Fitzgerald, Sean Gormley, and John Keating bring these characters back to life. In many ways we see the events unfold through the eyes of Browne’s wife, Phyllis, played by Sarah Street; Mrs. Browne was a singular person herself for she knowingly married a man with Tuberculosis. Talk about love and commitment!

I hasten to add that this is a play, not a documentary. Playwrights can go places that the narrators of mere facts cannot. We can explore character and act on strong supposition, or even hunches. 

And what characters! You couldn’t invent Browne’s life and trajectory. His parents both died of Tuberculosis, the dreaded “silent death” leaving him orphaned and penniless on the streets of London at the age of 10. 

From out of the blue he was granted a full scholarship to a prestigious Catholic Prep school, and eventually returned to Ireland as a member of a wealthy Anglo-Irish family. He became a medical doctor with the one goal of eradicating Tuberculosis; elected to parliament, on his first day he was made Minister for Health.

Sean MacBride was the son of Maude Gonne - muse of Yeats - and Capt. John MacBride - 1916 martyr. At his birth, his mother declared him “a man of destiny.” And he surely was. A confidant of Michael Collins in his mid-teens, he became IRA Chief of Staff, founded Clann na Poblachta, arguably the most promising Irish political party; and after his political career imploded he helped found Amnesty International and introduced the MacBride Principles that did so much to outlaw sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

And what of John Charles – so powerful and ubiquitous was he in Irish life that he had little need of a surname or title. Nowadays it’s often hard to appreciate the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland up until the 1970’s or just how completely this complicated man micro-managed the country’s political, social, and cultural affairs.

Volumes have been written about Archbishop McQuaid and, yet, he usually emerges as an ecclesiastical ogre, instead of a solitary man of his times and position. An obsessive-compulsive, he had a deep love of poetry and, indeed, was an unlikely patron of the hard-drinking, obstreperous poet, Patrick Kavanagh.

Did anyone ever know Sean MacBride? Such an extraordinary and admirable man, and an Irish-American icon, he was not at his best during the 1951 crisis. Then again, which of us is in the eternal battle between principle and pragmatism. There’s a haunted quality to MacBride’s gaze that’s hard to ignore in most portraits.

And Browne? He eradicated the scourge of Tuberculosis from Ireland and demanded free comprehensive health coverage for pregnant women and children up to the age of 16. But was ever a man so unsuited to the game of politics.

The US is still wrestling with the issue of decent health care for all its citizens. Perhaps, we’re in need of an iconoclastic Noel Browne who was willing to risk all for his goals back in 1951.   

Rebel in the Soul, written by Larry Kirwan, directed by Charlotte Moore, at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC 10011, April 12-May 21, irishrep.org – 212.727.2737
$20 off preview performances April 12-17 with Code PREVIEW
$10 off all performances using Code EARLY (expires 4/18/2017)