Monday, 21 August 2017

Tramore and the Feast of the Assumption


How many children could fit in the back seat of a battered, blue Morris Minor? Five of us, though it seemed we had enough writhing knees and sharp elbows to suggest a dozen.

Who cared? It was August 15th and we were on our way to Tramore in the County Waterford to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption.

We had gone to early mass, my mother packed sandwiches and flasks of hot tea, my grandfather sat stiff-backed behind the steering wheel, and with a roar we shuddered out of sleepy Wexford.

We were not on some pilgrimage, however - far from it - we were hotfooting it to the Mecca of secular excitement in the Sunny South East.

Tramore, as its Gaelic name "Trá Mór" implies, may have had a gigantic strand but it also boasted a veritable Disneyland of swings, rings, carousels, bumpers, and sundry other amusements.

My grandfather, a taciturn widower, even seemed to perk up as we crawled through Waterford City and got in line behind the other culchie cars on our odyssey to wonderland.

Dowdy Waterford had assumed a Vegas-like sheen since the local Royal Showband catapulted into Irish superstardom. Everyone was familiar with Brendan Bowyer, the “Irish Elvis,” who could shake a leg and rattle a tonsil as soulfully as the King himself. 

And hadn’t The Royal got their start playing in Tramore’s Atlantic and Silver Slipper ballrooms. Oh, the glamour of it all!

By the time we caught sight of the rolling waves Tramore’s fabled beach was already packed with countrymen in their dark suits, starched white shirts, and rolled-up trousers.

The ladies’ hair was tall and teased as Dusty Springfield’s, and their bright summer dresses swirled around naked sunburned legs in the devilish South wind.

The Blessed Virgin Mary may have ascended into heaven on Aug. 15th but in Tramore Lugh, the Celtic god of light and plenty ruled that rollicking seaside town.  

Teddyboys in drainpipe trousers, pink shirts and multi-colored jackets, cruised the proceedings seeking fights with red-faced chaps who’d bicycled in from the country.

But a spirit of randy frivolity prevailed; this was not a time for aggression or repression – either secular or religious. The smell of Brylcreem and Woolworths perfume melded in the breezy Atlantic sun, and sparks of freedom ricocheted all around that brazen gathering.

Old Ireland had come out for the day in the form of itinerant cardsharps, tricksters, contortionists, and the choice of fabled musicians. I saw Maggie Barry there one year, Pecker Dunne another – the last voices of an ancient, if fading, tradition.

They faced a fierce challenge from Bowyer and early Beatles singles blasting from a myriad of tinny speakers. New and old co-existed uneasily but there was little doubt that the times were indeed a changin’ as a nasal young American voice kept on insisting.

My grandfather watched over us in a very unfussy manner; even in our delirium we respected that and stayed within his sight. And yet I sensed his unease. Though he smiled reassuringly he longed for his wife and was wary of this new world that everywhere was swamping the old.

And then a flash of violence – a Teddyboy and a big rawboned country chap went at it, fists striking bone with a sickening thud, sweat and blood flying, until separated by the ebullient crowd. 

At the same moment Maggie Barry’s banjo and George Harrison’s guitar locked horns before waltzing off together in joyful, pagan counterpoint.

The world was changing. Kennedy had been assassinated, rumblings were being heard up North, people were no longer content with sparks of freedom – they desired a cleansing flame.

The shadows were lengthening; it was time to go home. One last tear-around on the bumpers, one last bottle of orange, and if there was enough change from a ten shilling note, some bars of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut for the road.

After we cleared Waterford City, my grandfather began the Rosary. Some of us were already asleep in the back seat. 

A seasoned altar boy, I recited those sorrowful mysteries by heart, but my soul was a million miles away floating along on that mystical lick from George Harrison’s weeping guitar and Brendan Bowyer’s velvety voice.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Radio Dreams


I’ve always loved radio. I can still recall the old cloth-covered Siemens that my grandfather set up next to my bed back in Wexford. The tubes glowed in the dark and cast a ghostly blue light on the fading wallpaper as voices and music drifted in from all over Europe.

I got over television and its force-fed images round about the time I figured that the wondrous equine, Mr. Ed, wasn’t really talking. 

Radio, on the other hand, was transformative. Hearing Like a Rolling Stone and Bob Dylan’s taunting defiance changed my life.

Likewise Van Morrison’s depiction of Madam George conjured an erotic aura of Presbyterian Belfast that we in the South had never imagined.

It wasn’t just music - each of the Soviet bloc countries broadcast English hours on state radio. Propaganda it might have been still it definitely broadened adolescent horizons.

But the real prize was AFN (American Forces Network). On clear nights this station beamed laser-like from West Germany to Wexford and all of a sudden you’d have James Browne, Otis Redding, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran proclaiming the real truth about what it meant to be alive.

And so it was like a dream come true to get my own three-hour radio show on SiriusXM Satellite Radio twelve years ago.

As with many good things in life it came out of the blue. I was up at Sirius doing an interview with Meg Griffin for a newly released Black 47 CD when one of the executives overheard my accent. Turned out they needed such a blas to host a Celtic show!

Nor was anyone exactly sure what a Celtic show might be – including me. But one was needed for the following weekend, so into the studio I went - with Meg to teach me the technical side.

Sirius had around 100 vaguely themed “Celtic songs” in their vaults and I initially brought roughly the same from my own collection. At first I stuck to the music from the 8 Celtic nations: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, The Isle of Man, The Dutchy of Cornwall, Brittany in France, and Galicia and Asturias in Spain. 

Meg suggested I follow the old FM Radio strategy of a set containing three songs followed by a chat about the music, the musicians, or the price of turnips should nothing else spring to mind.

Unbeknownst to me Sirius had been banging the gong about this new Celtic experiment so I had an audience from the git-go - and a fairly informed one at that - from all over the US and Canada.

One of the few Sirius stipulations was that your show be not parochial or too New Yawk based – North America is a big bloody place, they reasoned, and since the introduction of the SiriusXM App the world is your oyster.

SiriusXM (the two satellite channels merged 9 years ago) is personality driven and you’re encouraged to air your views. Hardly a problem, since it would be difficult to ignore the historical and political roots of Celtic music.

Besides there’s a great hunger for heritage and a visceral need to connect with the past – something I learned on my trips around the continent with Black 47.

In an increasing age of disconnection and banal perfection, there’s also a growing taste for a human voice that improvises, riffs, and even falls flat on its face. 

The show is about the song rather than the singer. Perhaps that’s self-preservation for with Howard Stern down the hall and 150 other channels competing for the 32 million subscribers you’d better have interesting and compelling content. 

But it’s more than that, most radio is so programmed nowadays, it’s important that the unknown with a dream back in one of the 8 Celtic nations, or adrift in the Diaspora, has the same shot as U2, Christy Moore, The Dropkick Murphys or other stars in the Celtic firmament.

Yeah, it’s a long way from a cloth covered old Siemens wireless back in Wexford to the 36th Floor SiriusXM studios in Midtown Manhattan but what a thrill to be a weaver of my own radio dreams!

Celtic Crush can be heard on The Loft, Channel 30, SiriusXM Satellite Radio Sundays 9amET, Tuesdays 9pmET, Wednesday MidnightET or On Demand.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Ireland and Irish-America


Ireland and Irish-America are drifting apart. The links between the two countries remain strong but the dearth of Irish immigrants is finally taking its toll.

I began to notice the change in the late-90’s around Irish saloons in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, and other cities in the greater Mid-West. But I attributed it to the return home of so many Irish during the Celtic Tiger Years.

One could say the change really began with the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. This ended a long-standing quota system based on national origin that favored Irish immigration. One side effect of this act was that during the watershed 1960’s, with the lack of new blood arriving, values and attitudes calcified.

When I first played at dance-pubs like Durty Nelly’s and The Archway in The Bronx in the mid-70’s, I often felt like I was stepping back in time. 

I was with Turner & Kirwan of Wexford then – a progressive duo who specialized in long, complicated musical pieces. We quickly had to revert to sets of three fast songs and then three smooches in order to retain the gigs and keep the patrons happy.

The ladies, for the most part, wore dresses and heels, the gentlemen suits. The only difference between a Kingsbridge Road saloon and a 1950’s Irish ballroom was that everyone got blasted and danced until near dawn.

The 80’s quickly changed this state of affairs. Mass unemployment in the Republic and violence in the North led to a surge in illegal immigration. Bainbridge, Woodside, Bay Ridge, and other Irish enclaves around the country thrummed to the beat of the “New Irish” who transformed Irish-America in that rollicking decade.

Those Northern Irish immigrants who had come of age in “the struggle” radicalized Irish-America in the years between the Hunger Strikes and the Peace Process. 

In fact it could be argued that many Irish-Americans knew far more about what was going on in the Falls Road or South Armagh than most residents of the Republic.

A somewhat blind eye was turned towards the undocumented Irish back then. Stay out of trouble and you had little to fear; it didn’t hurt that many in the law-enforcement community were of Irish descent.

All changed after 9/11. Fortress America clanged shut with a vengeance and there’s little likelihood of the doors opening anytime soon.

Ireland, however, was changing too. The ongoing scandal of pedophilia destroyed the power of the Catholic Church, while a booming economy opened minds as well as wallets. Ireland truly became a European country and a young person was as likely to move to Berlin as The Bronx.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was one of the breaking points. While approval ratings for this disaster were in the 70% range in the US, Irish disapproval numbers were roughly the same.

Why go to a country where you were unwelcome and forced to bite your tongue before making a political statement? Better instead emigrate to more liberal Australia, Canada, or mainland Europe.

Socially, the gulf continues to grow. Ireland has just elected a gay man of Indian descent as Taoiseach; such an event is unlikely to happen here in the near future.

Nonetheless Native Irish and Irish-Americans still share many bedrock values. But as someone who has visited every major Irish-American community with Black 47, the divide seems to be widening rather than diminishing.

Who knows if President Trump will be re-elected in 2020 or even survive until then? But he has unleashed some serious Nativist and Know-Nothing forces that don’t bode well for Irish immigration, legal or otherwise.

Meanwhile most young native Irish never even cast a thought about moving to The Bronx, Beverly, Tipperary Hill or the hundreds of other once bustling Irish-American centers. They have Sydney, Toronto, Paris and Berlin on their minds.

What a waste! And how shortsighted that we’re driving away a well educated and dynamic demographic that once naturally gravitated to the US.

In a fractured political environment, it’s time to put pressure on politicians from both parties to come together and introduce new legislation that would encourage young Irish people to come here once again and help revivify the connection between the “old country” and Irish-America. 

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!