Thursday, 2 August 2018

Fake News and The Holy Family


I had occasion to be in Madrid recently and took the opportunity of visiting the legendary Prado Museum.

I went with the intention of viewing their collection of Francisco Goya paintings.  I have long been an admirer of this radical visionary as much because of his unbending moral and political principles as his skill with a paintbrush.

He appears to have been constitutionally unable to obfuscate the truth – while an artist at the court of Spain’s Ferdinand VII, at the risk of his life he portrayed the king as a vacuous popinjay.

Goya later became the first major artist to depict in realistic terms the grinding poverty of the common people. 

Neither did he shy away from representing the actual horror of warfare at a time when the artist’s job was to highlight its patriotic glory. 

Eventually, however, he did pay a price for his independence - deaf, depressed, and elderly, he was exiled to France for his political views.

I thought that in these days of “fake news” in our “deep state” there might be lessons to be learned from this unreconstructed radical.

To my surprise, however, my eyes were instead opened by El Greco the very conservative Christian artist whose work had never touched me before.

Although few Spaniards now appear to be practicing Catholics, yet the country continues to be defined by its history of militant Christianity. 

In 1492 Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or choose exile, while 80 years ago Catholic Nationalists defeated Left Wing Republicans in a brutal civil war.

El Greco (so called because he was born in Crete) believed that Christian heaven and earth are inextricably linked and separated by only the flimsiest of veils.

Whatever your views on such matters, there’s little doubt that this 16th Century artist reflected the beliefs and mores of his times.

After viewing a number of his overblown, if legendary, pictures I was drawn to his very simple and beautiful The Flight into Egypt. 

Mary and her infant, Jesus, are mounted on a donkey while Joseph attempts to drag the frightened beast across a bridge.

The Holy Family was fleeing the oppression of King Herod and seeking asylum in Egypt.

How often had I been told this tale as a boy and how little impact it had made on me. Just another “holy story” that droned on in another Wexford sermon.

It seems to have just as little resonance in contemporary USA, one of the most Christian of countries.

Then again the teachings of Jesus have been twisted to suit political expediency time and again. The Nazarene carpenter is often portrayed as a righteous militant rather than the compassionate visionary who delivered his bedrock moral principles in the Sermon on the Mount.

I gazed again at El Greco’s luminous portrayal of the Holy Family. Though the painting was over five hundred years old, yet I was reminded of a recent newspaper photo of a Guatemalan couple and their child apprehended on our borders as they sought political asylum.

Is the analogy too simple? Perhaps, and yet I remember nothing in the Sermon on the Mount that would justify separating young children from their families as has been done lately in this country.

Jesus, as far as we know, was not taken away from his family in Egypt. Joseph was allowed to practice his craft as carpenter and when the danger from Herod had passed years later, the family returned to their native land.

Although we have no way of knowing, it seems probable that the “dreamer” Jesus would have had little problem remaining in Egypt had he so chosen.

I turned away from the painting. I had intended to take another look at some of the radical Goya’s s masterpieces, but I had learned enough lessons for one day – and from a conservative visionary too.

As I strolled out into the blazing Madrid afternoon, however, the words of another radical thinker, Ewan McColl, echoed from somewhere within my consciousness:

“Two thousand years have passed and gone
Many a hero too
But the dream of that poor carpenter
Remains in the hands of you…”

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

A Secret Garden


I often wonder how her garden is doing now?  It was my mother’s pride and joy.  Like many such an oasis in the heart of Wexford Town it was long and narrow, and nestled behind crumbling stone walls.

We hadn’t been raised in the house on John’s Road, yet I came to love it. From my mother’s garden you could see the twin diocesan church spires, the Franciscan Italianate belfry, and the sweep of the narrow streets down to the harbor.

This view gave you a sense of the town, its bloody history, and the quiet determined stoicism of its citizens.

After I had my own children I stopped going home at Christmas and instead spent a vacation there every summer.

At first this was hard – Christmas being such an integral part of the Irish psyche - but the long quiet summer days possessed their own charms.

Like many emigrants my notion of “home” was challenged; I no longer totally fit in anywhere, constantly tugged between two vital forces with the new gradually gaining ground.

And yet the old maintained its own inviolable encampment deep within my psyche. My mother’s garden came to embody that particular place.

It was a quiet spot and I was often reminded of Yeats’ “bee loud glade,” for it would be in full bloom in those mid-summer days.

The sweet pea was my favorite; with its vivid colors and seductive fragrance, I found this plant calming and loved to sit nearby. My mother, however, informed me it was invasive and had to be kept in check or “it would take over the whole place.”

The Buddleia also comes to mind. She had taken a root from my grandfather’s headstone yard. It grew there out of the very walls – she suspected it liked the limestone dust.

It certainly favored her garden and butterflies swarmed around it. I could never settle on the color of its blooms. Was it mauve or purple?

I asked her opinion on this once. She looked at me oddly and said that depended on the quality of the day’s sunlight.

Many Wexford Town people of her era were but a generation or two removed from farms and had an instinctive knowledge of nature. My parents’ greatest pleasure was a drive to a rural seaside spot on a Sunday afternoon. The slow meandering passage through the countryside seemed to replenish their souls.

Perhaps that’s why I never minded the long grueling journeys around America with Black 47 – there was always something to look at, to compare with the gentler vistas of County Wexford.

Her roses were the crowning glory of her garden. She didn’t go in for the more delicate types, although she appreciated them. No, her first requirement was that they bloom throughout the summer. And they did.

She liked to study her demesne from a glass encased “sun room,” often consulting some old gardening books. My father would sit there too, his face buried in the “racing pages” of the Independent until he dozed off in the gathering heat.

In the ensuing quiet she would plan her horticultural moves. I could always tell, for a quiet look of determination would settle on her face.

My father might be resistant – he’d wonder, for instance, why a butterfly plant or rose with such deep roots had to be moved. But she was insistent and always got her way.

Those were the last pre-digital years. News came by the morning paper and the radio. Life was slower, perhaps deeper, and certainly less frazzled.

By the time I’d return to New York my own biological clock would seem to tick a little slower and less loudly. I would have had time to reflect, and plan my own creative endeavors – what book, play, or album would I attempt in the coming year?

The house is leased out now. Tenants come and go, most with little time for the garden.

And so I often picture it – the sweet pea running riot, the Buddleia high over the walls, and the roses intertwining with each other in a riot of glorious libertarian color.

Even though she’s long gone, my mother’s garden still provides the same safe center in an ever-roiling world.

Jimmy Joyce on the Streets of New York


New York is James Joyce’s kind of town - lots of bars, fevered conversations, the occasional buyback, and many the soft touch.

Well, many more than his usual stalking grounds in Dublin, Trieste, Zurich, or Paris; it is estimated that Mr. Joyce borrowed the equivalent of $500,000 in his lifetime.

New York definitely has a soft spot in its gruff heart for Sunny Jim, and why wouldn’t it? James Joyce was the most egalitarian of writers. He described in voluminous detail exactly what Joe and Josephine Citizen were thinking, doing, and fantasizing about.

Still the man does have a rap for being difficult to comprehend. The key is to either read him aloud behind closed doors, or tread downtown to Ulysses on Stone Street on June 16th.

Need another excuse to attend this annual Joycean shenanigan – well, pints are free between 4 and 6pm. Mr. Joyce would most definitely have approved.

What makes this particular shindig so special is its populist nature. Begun by Colum McCann and Frank McCourt fifteen years ago, the emphasis is on irregular New Yorkers declaiming their favorite passages of Ulysses.

These readings range from hilarious, droll, pedantic to just plain unintelligible, but as the booze and sunshine kick in they all mesh together into a bloody great “Blooming” afternoon.

To top it all we have Aedín Moloney and Patrick Fitzgerald! I often marvel that Joyce doesn’t come bounding out of his grave in Zurich when these two hit the outdoor stage on Stone Street.

Talk about living their parts! They positively exude the life and times of Ulysses. Mr. Joyce would have adored their devotion to substance and detail, and promptly solicited a short-term loan from each. 

Aedín is the finest Molly Bloom I’ve ever experienced and that’s saying something. There’s a fierceness to her interpretation - a willingness to wholeheartedly embrace the stark and stunning sexuality of Joyce’s greatest creation.

I’ve seen blasé men of the world blanch at her ecstatic embrace of Molly’s desires and carnal tastes.

Of late though she’s been homing in on Mrs. Bloom’s apprehension of aging, and that’s added a new dimension of courage to an already heroic character. 

Of course Molly had lost her only child and her determination not to surrender to “the glooms” has always been inspiring.

Suffice it to say that this year’s performance was Aedin’s best.

Do yourselves a favor, go to iTunes and download a copy of "Reflections of Molly Bloom" Vol. 1 and 2, with music by Paddy Moloney (The Chieftains) and Carlos Nunez.

With Aedín, piper Paddy Moloney, and Molly Bloom at home with you – what more could you ask for? Jimmy Joyce himself might even drop by for a listen – and perhaps a loan.

I’ve watched Patrick Fitzgerald since he was the young stud-star in residence at The Irish Repertory Theatre. In fact his portrayal of Christy Mahon in Playboy of the Western World back in 1990 remains my favorite.

He also played Dr. Noel Browne in my play, Rebel in the Soul, at The Rep, so I’m hardly lacking in appreciation of his acting. 

And yet nothing prepared me for this year’s fiery Bloomsday performances – both from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.

His timing, pitch, and attack are galvanic. I often feel that he’s channeling Joyce’s verbose, articulate and outraged father particularly in the strident “Citizen” passages. He and our expansive host Colum McCann are a great stage pairing and bring the dead soaring back to life on Stone Street. 

Patrick has written his own play 'Gibraltar: An adaptation after James Joyce's Ulysses' and performed it to acclaim in Dublin, Philadelphia, and New York.

A member of the James Joyce Foundation USA he leads a Ulysses Reading Group at the Irish Consulate on the 3rd Tuesday of every month. Judging by the robust performances of the group’s members on Stone St., the New York Irish diplomatic day must get off to a blistering start.

Is it a coincidence that New York City has spawned the two most exciting contemporary interpreters of James Joyce?

I think not! By adding a shot of Gotham grit to Ulysses Aedín Maloney and Patrick Fitzgerald drag James Joyce roaring out of academia, and resurrect him on our raucous streets where he belongs.

Big Tom & The Jive


I played Four Roads to Glenamaddy by Big Tom recently on Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM radio show. It seemed only fitting as the Big Man had just departed this earthly coil.

I tried to highlight the importance of Mr. McBride to Ireland’s social and sexual scene back in the 1960’s through 70’s.

Everyone danced back then and if you were a genuine culchie you frequented huge ballrooms in the middle of God-Knows-Where.

Be that as it may there was a schism in the dance world. Pop bands led by the inimitable Freshmen from Ballymena competed with Country bands led by Big Tom from Castleblaney, and rarely did the twain meet!

Being a teenage musician in an “opening band” I got to experience both sides of this societal divide. 

It was great training as you got to play before a couple of thousand people who didn’t give a fiddler’s if you dropped dead as long as you kept the beat. 

You were there solely to “black the floor” so that the stars could nonchalantly stroll onstage to a full house.

And yet I recall a traumatic humbling while opening for Big Tom and The Mainliners in Adamstown Ballroom, in the far recesses of County Wexford’s back of beyond.

It had all to do with the Jive – a particular Irish form of Rockabilly social dancing. Back in those simple days dancers liked their three fast songs so that they could check out the looks, wealth, and general mobility of the opposite sex. 

That being established they then clung to their partners for three slow smooches, the closest thing to sex they were likely to experience in County Wexford.

We were not a good band. We had no problem with the smooches. But we met our Waterloo with Big Tom’s disciples, for they only wished to jive to the fast sets.

Now I knew Buddy Holly, and Rockabilly songs in general, were ideal for jiving, but around an hour into our set I had run out of such numbers with still an hour to go.

Our elderly bandleader saved the day for he had a store of old Jazz standards like Down By The Riverside, Bill Bailey, etc. that the local farmers, commercial travelers, artificial insemination agents, and shop assistants could shake a leg to.

The memory of this humiliation led me to ponder the “Jive” and just how it came to be so embedded in Irish rural culture.

For all I know it may have been invented by the Parish Priest of Cultimagh to keep virginal Irish ladies safe from the clutches of sex-mad Mayo cowboys.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that the common Jive has Harlem and ultimately African roots. But then how in the name of Our Lady of Knock did it end up ruling the roost in rural Ireland?

While researching the origins of Tap Dancing (Famine Irish meet African Americans in the Five Points) I discovered a riveting exhibition of the Lindyhop performed in the movie Hellzapoppin. 
   
Lindyhopping became popular in American ballrooms of the 1930’s. And spread like wildfire courtesy of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras.

As ever white musicians imitated the sounds and rhythms of their black brothers & sisters. Glen Miller in particular spread the word throughout Europe and when WW2 broke out and American servicemen and women hit England they took their dance-floor moves with them.

The many Irish who worked in Britain during the war years brought these dances home to parish and townsland. 

Not to be outdone Irish musicians formed “seated” big bands, until The Clipper Carlton from Co. Donegal, stood up, kicked out the jams, and laid down the onstage schematic for showbands.

Lindyhopping might have been okay for Harlem but the Irish country punter preferred a more conservative take on such moves and voila – the Jive in all its glory! 

Take my word for it, there was nothing quite like witnessing a couple of thousand sex-deprived culchies moving to the same twirling quickstep tempo.

So farewell Big Tom! You taught this smart Alec from the metropolis of Wexford a thing or two about rhythm. Safe travels down those roads to Glenamaddy, and long live the multi-cultural Jive!

Whiteys Lindy Hoppers… Hellzapoppin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahoJReiCaPk

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Astral Weeks


I first heard Astral Weeks while lying in bed in the darkness of a coldwater Rathmines flat.

I was listening to BBC Radio late at night on my old transistor radio. I must have been dozing for I don’t remember any DJ introduction – just the familiar, womblike G-C-D chords of an acoustic guitar.

But there was something about the dreamy delivery that arrested by attention. And then the voice that I was so attuned to from his days with Them and Brown Eyed Girl, cut through the hushed Dublin night.

“Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision leaping into view
Clicking clacking of the high heeled shoes
Ford and Fitzroy, Madam George…”

So many years ago now, and I have listened to that track and album so many times since.

I’m far from alone. Astral Weeks has sent a battalion of musicians galloping down the road to ruin.

Phil Lynott once told me he’d probably never have persevered on his brutal path to stardom if he hadn’t heard it. 

Midwesterner Bob Seger temporarily forsook Rock ‘n Roll and reinvented himself as a folkie under its Belfast influence; while it crippled rock critic Lester Bangs, for he knew he’d never come close musically – better instead to write a heartfelt treatise about “the greatest album ever.”

And yet, Astral Weeks was a flop at first. Warner Brothers had expected Van to deliver an album of Brown Eyed Girls and had no idea what to do with it. But Lew Merenstein, its producer, was certain that something timeless had been created.

In fact, without Lew’s guiding hand it’s unlikely we’d even be talking about Astral Weeks now.

Merenstein had come from a jazz background and was asked by Warner Brothers to go listen to Van up in Boston where the 23-year old Belfast man was hiding out. Bert Berns who had signed him to Bang Records had died suddenly, supposedly after a vitriolic phone call between them.

Berns had shady connections and “the men in suits and pinky rings” were dismayed by Morrison discarding his Brown Eyed Girl for the more sultry, cross-dressing Madam George.

Merenstein, however, was ecstatic about the new material and its jazzy free-form nature. He immediately thought of Richard Davis, the reigning double bass player on the New York scene.

Because of Van’s unwillingness to give any kind of direction, both producer and bassist, knew that the project would demand unobtrusive but adventurous musicians.

Most of those chosen had already done two sessions that day, and they assembled after dinner at Century Sound Studios on 52nd Street. Some drink had been taken, and the studio lights were low.

Van was already seated in a vocal booth with his acoustic guitar and didn’t care to introduce himself; when the drummer, Connie Mack, inquired what the Belfast man would like him to play, he was cryptically informed, “whatever you like.”

But Merenstein and Davis were prepared. They encouraged Van to lay down his vocal and guitar tracks. Davis listened for the groove of Van’s acoustic and the metre of his vocal, and then swooped in with the musical intelligence and distinct touch that have graced hundreds of recordings. 

When he’d settled within “the pocket”, the other band members followed him. It’s still fascinating for me to hear a killer musician teetering on the edge before diving in and, within fractions of a second, nailing the groove.

The New York “pocket” is wide and deep, second only to New Orleans, and oh how that fantastic band careened around it.

Occasionally they did a second take, but they recorded most of Astral Weeks in two 3-hour sessions. No need for computers, click-tracks, or punch-ins - what you hear is what you get - the triumph of poetry over machines and banal perfection.

And when it was over Van didn’t even bid the band good night. Merenstein reckoned he was being reborn in those days. He caught no hint of the surly superstar Morrison has since become, nor any echo of the rebellious teenage leader of East Belfast’s Them.

Instead, a half-century later, so many of us are still stunned, uplifted, and in a strange manner, redeemed every time we step into the mysterious aural back streets of Astral Weeks.

Monday, 11 June 2018

A Post-Truth Society


You have to wonder what the end result of the Donald Trump presidency will be?  I’m not talking about impeachment or a second term in 2020, no I mean how will the US emerge from this post-truth era – or will it? 

With President Trump’s absolute unconcern for any concept of truth – he has apparently made well over 3000 false or misleading claims since inauguration – what effect is this having on the country or, indeed, on its befuddled citizens?

The common conceit is that come 2020 the 77,744 voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who swung the electoral college to Mr. Trump will see the light, and elect a god-fearing Democrat who’d sooner steal his mom’s social security check than tell a white lie.

But “it’s a long way to Buffalo,” as Van Morrison proclaimed, and it’s an even longer way to 2020 - much can happen. 

Bob Dylan probably nailed our era best with his enigmatic, “Nowadays, I don’t even know what normal is anymore.”

So true, for often when I hear a presidential whopper I find myself rationalizing, “Ah, it’s only the Donald, what else is new?”

But will I still be able to differentiate between truth and pathological obfuscation by 2020?

All presidents lie and as yet Mr. Trump hasn’t blown the hell out of Iraq like cuddly George W. Bush.
Still, how is Mr. Trump getting away with his arsenal of fibs and falsities in this once rather puritan, upstanding democracy?

We blame it on his “base,” and to listen to the pundits the president’s partisans are a collection of toothless good ol’ boys and unemployed Rust Belt factory workers, all barely a step away from opioid addiction.

However, the reality is that 85 % of Republicans believe Mr. Trump is the hottest thing since fried bread, while 46% of all voters favored him in 2016. This particular politician is far from marginal.

His dumber-than-ditchwater environmental policies may ultimately bring catastrophic flooding to Miami and New York City, but “the economy, stupid” will be what re-elects him or sends him packing to Mar-a-Lago in 2020.

And as long as his “base” doesn’t wake up someday and wonder why the top 20% of households in this country owns 90% of the nation’s wealth then Mr. Trump will likely get another four years to look after his real “base” – commercial real estate owners and the super-wealthy.

Like many I’m adapting to the Trumpian post-truth society, but I draw the line at the man’s persistent whining.  

One thing that puzzles me - is the president a manifestation of our modern moaning society or is he indeed pushing the envelope in the whine stakes?

Look at any sports game, from Little League up to the NFL. Every player believes that he or she is being routinely dissed and cheated by referees, linesmen, and even God Almighty; while fan-whine has reached Caligula-like proportions.

Did Donald Trump start this? Hardly, but does a day go by when he doesn’t exhibit a first-class persecution complex?

As for his “fake news” accusations, they would be funny if they weren’t so dangerous. Because where Mr. Trump leads, so many lemmings are only dying to follow.

Now, I proudly read the New York Times and am aware of some of its liberal foibles, but I find the actual news reporting to be fair and consistent.

Likewise, the Wall Street Journal; I steered away from this right-wing colossus for years fearing my virginal left wing principles might get contaminated. 

I still make a sign of the cross when dipping into Journal editorials, but their reporting of current events is spot on, and often better than the Times in my not so humble opinion.

It’s time to quit whining, Mr. Trump! Take your lumps and criticisms like every other president. And dare I suggest - quit watching dumbed-down television; instead read a book, have a couple of beers, or visit the Bronx.

No doubt Mr. Trump would consider what I’ve just written “Fake News;” but it’s really an attempt to re-establish my own personal “normal” in a world where our president is estimated to tell 6.9 lies a day.

Ah well, there’s always the prospect of 6-pack, and I’m long due a pilgrimage up to An Béal Bocht.

Go Back To Cuba Part 2


The Irish came to the Caribbean in many ways – as Oliver Cromwell’s slaves, sailors in British naval fleets, even pirates. 

But the greatest early influx came courtesy of the Spanish army that employed four regiments of Wild Geese – those who fled Ireland rather than submit to British rule.

That’s how Dubliner General Alejandro O’Reilly arrived. He took control of the Spanish Army in Cuba after a humiliating defeat by the British, restructured Havana’s fortifications, and set the city on a course to become the jewel of the Caribbean.

There’s a street named after him - and a decent pub - but perhaps more importantly there’s a plaque on the corner of O’Reilly and Tacon that states, “Cuba and Ireland, two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope.”

The Irish play a prominent part in Cuban history:  Poet Bonifacio Byrne wrote the patriotic and inspirational Mi Bandera (My Flag) still quoted frequently, the O’Farrills of Longford became one of the wealthiest families (slave trading didn’t hurt their coffers), while Irish-American Johnny “Dynamite” O’Brien is revered for running much needed arms to Cuban revolutionaries in the 19th Century. 

But there is little doubt that Che Guevara Lynch had the greatest impact.

He still holds an almost mystical sway over the island. Physician, poet, writer, political theorist, military commander and ultimate martyr, he was the spark plug of the Revolution.

His literacy campaign led to universal education. He demanded and achieved free universal health care; he was also the force behind the Agrarian Reform Law that redistributed land to the peasants, and limited the size of private farms to one thousand acres. 

He often reminds me of Michael Collins – another man of huge ambitions and abilities; it should be noted that neither had the least compunction about executing political opponents. 

Che will always be the young, handsome, idealistic hero urging his people onwards, for he was executed at age 39 in Bolivia while on his quixotic mission to pursue world revolution.

The pertinent question is: What does Cuban youth now think of Che’s ongoing revolution?

There are more hip-haircuts on the Malecón waterfront than on New York’s Lower East Side, while Beyonce’s commercial paeans can now be heard arising amidst the Afro-Cuban chants on the narrow back streets of Havana.

And yet there’s a widespread acceptance of La Revolución as homegrown and part of intrinsic local culture. Cuba’s socialist state has its problems but it does inure the populace from the black hole of college debt and the financial uncertainty of US health care. 

While everyone seems to have some complaint with their economic system Cubans take pride in what they’ve achieved as a people. In the words of one person – “We’re not all about money. There are other things in life.”

Part of that has to do with Castro culture. Though Raul is seen ambivalently, Fidel is their George Washington. He may have his failings but there’s never been a suggestion that he – or his family – have lined their pockets at the expense of the people.

That’s a huge thing in an island nation that has dealt with an economic embargo for almost sixty years. “As long as everyone is in it together,” a waiter stated, “one can accept sacrifice.”

Cuba is a strange and often fascinating country where the Yoruban religion of the African slaves has syncretized with Catholicism, and co-exists with a James Connolly style socialism.

Where Iyawó (initiates) in the all white garb of their Santería religion stroll past giant etchings of Che and Fidel. I never saw anything of that nature in the old Eastern Bloc countries where religion was at best frowned upon. 

But that’s modern day Havana for you. Rum, rumba, and politics jig together in a great big Caribbean cocktail under the shadow of a giant statue of Jesus.

But now it’s late - tomorrow I go home. The windows are wide open in this mosquito-banished city.
A television drones in the distance, a Salsa band kicks into gear, while down on the Malecón Latino lovers walk arm-in-arm.

“Go back to Cuba!” A memory taunts.

“Yeah, I probably will, and you should come too. You never know, you might like it.”