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)

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Dispossessed Generation


I’ve travelled this country for many years in awe of its beauty and sheer size. 

I admire its self-sufficiency, the way it picked itself up after the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and the attack on 9/11. 

There’s a resiliency and a willingness to roll up the sleeves at the worst of times, and an openness and generosity of spirit that emerges when things get better. 

But there’s a new element swirling about in the hinterland – despair. I see it in the faces of the many opioid abusers. They were a mystery to me at first – I could tell they were junkies, but they differed from the fevered smack heads of the East Village.

Opioid users tend to be more passive, perhaps because they have much more access to their drugs of choice, many of which are prescription painkillers. Debilitating these drugs may be but they seem to be keeping a lid on the almost existential pain that you sense in so many economically depressed areas. 

This despair has become more pointed over the years. I first noticed it soon after the attack on the World Trade Center. Did the sudden loss of American invincibility cause the change? 

Still, New York City suffered more than anywhere else and yet I don’t sense the same debilitating angst in the five boroughs. But head 75 miles in any direction out into the country and it begins to hit you. Despite longstanding urban poverty, I suppose cities breed more opportunities.

I have little doubt but that the Great Recession of 2008 opened the floodgates of despair. People who had always treasured job security were shocked by the fragility of the American economic system. It suddenly became crystal clear just how much more their corporate superiors cared about the financial bottom line than the loyalty of employees.

But the collapse of 2008 only hastened what was already afoot. Out in the Rust and Coal Belts, 21st Century technology had for years been replacing jobs that paid $25 per hour. Meanwhile, standbys like the great service employers, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, rarely pay more than an entry level $9.   
   
Is there any wonder there’s a curdling despair rampant across the country? And now instead of getting people to face up to the fact that we are in a time of great and inexorable economic change, we have a president who is promising a return to the good old days.

What’s staggering is that many people believe him, even as his party is busy trying to demolish the Affordable Care Act one of the few meaningful safety nets for this dispossessed generation. 

Many others are convinced that the president hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of turning things around, but at least he’s “shaking things up” and “draining the swamp” – even as Goldman Sachs dominates his cabinet. 

What unifies these people is that they have no faith in the Democratic Party, once the defender of the working class.

Nor do they trust the federal government to do anything for them. And yet who else is there? Surely not their erstwhile corporate masters who have little interest in anything but the bottom line.

And yet the federal government is the only entity with enough power – or interest - to form a coalition with corporations and begin to educate workers for the new economy, as has been happening in Germany for years. 

This won’t solve the whole problem. But it could help current high school graduates gain work-study apprenticeships in the new 21st Century factories that are rapidly becoming the norm.  Unfortunately, these modern work sites will be mostly automated and employ few - though pay will be good. 

And what of the rest? Many will be forced to work in service industries, which is why it’s vital that a national minimum wage provides a livable income.

It all sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but it beats the dishonest promises of bringing back jobs that have gone forever.

And what of the opioid users? Well, Obamacare, for all its defects, offered rehabilitation opportunities for those who wished to kick the habit. Trumpcare - if it ever materializes - will provide none. 

And so, the president’s hollow promises will continue to echo in the shuttered factories of the hinterland as a despairing, hollow-eyed generation shuffles by.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Saint Patrick's Wild Stallion In Times Square


I’ve seen many a St. Patrick’s Day – mostly playing in a band atop a large stage, amidst a swirl of action but removed enough so that the forest can be clearly distinguished from the trees.

Where to begin?  I suppose in the metropolis of Wexford where St. Patrick’s Day was at best an insipid dud. With not much else going on in March we’d line up on the Quayside and watch the Confraternity men and Legion of Mary ladies parade by in a murmur of rosaries, accompanied by the local FCA (Army Reserve) who at least marched in time. 

My favorites were the Foresters – they wore green and white Robert Emmet type uniforms, knee-high black leather boots, and plumed hats. 

The lack of alcohol, however, weighed heavily on both marchers and observers, as pubs back then closed for our national feast day.

At my first New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade I felt I had stepped into Caligula’s Rome. Though quite early in the morning the bacchanal was already in full swing – not just booze either, but weed wafted gently by on the cool breezes of Fifth Avenue. Sex, too, was in the air as leggy drum majorettes kicked for the skies and suburban high school kids made out with vigor in fashionable retail doorways.

Later that night in Tomorrow’s Lounge, Bay Ridge, I had one of the best gigs of my life as Turner & Kirwan of Wexford shook the considerable dust off the rafters. In truth we could have played Enya-on-Ambien dirges and the packed house would have roared along with gusto. To top it all we got paid double!

It was then I realized that on St. Patrick’s Night a band mounts a wild stallion. All you have to do is hold on to its mane, dig in the spurs, and off you go with the flow! 

The following year, however in our innocence, Turner & Kirwan played ten 40-minute sets in Manchester, NH and received sweet damn all bonus. Somewhat miffed we invited the friskier looking part of our audience back to a party in a house that had been lent to us. 

I will not bore you with the salacious details; suffice it to say we left Manchester in somewhat of a cloud. So much so that when I returned many years later with Black 47 I had to put forth that the Kirwan playing with the disgraced duo from Wexford had been my Uncle Larry.

There was never a need for such white lies in New York City on March 17th. For one thing, no one would be crazy enough to give Black 47 a loan of their house on that sainted liquid evening.

Not that there weren’t hiccups. One night in a shadowy corridor of the Letterman Show, fatigued and overwhelmed, I thought I had lost my mind when assaulted by a battery of little people dressed as leprechauns who were merely seeking autographs. 

Another year on the Conan O’Brien Show I almost had a heart attack when I forgot a line from our song James Connolly on national TV.

But there were triumphs too. I can still feel the crowd and band meld together into one tightly clenched fist when I hear our Live in New York City CD recorded on St. Patrick’s Day in the late lamented Wetlands club.

I thought I might give the whole thing a break when Black 47 disbanded, but BB King’s on 42nd Street wanted the real rockin’ New York Irish music experience again, so I’m back in the game with a new kick-arse band for a night. 

Cáit O’Riordan of The Pogues and Chris Byrne of Black 47 will join us for some songs. Lia Fail Pipes and Drums from Mercer County will kick off the evening. Pat McGuire, our old comrade from Spéir Mor and Paddy Reilly’s days will team up with Geoff Blythe of Black 47 to do a set; and my son, Rory K, the hip-hop artist, will jam the grooves with Celtic themes like Fresh Off The Boat – dear God how did I beget a rapper – perhaps it’s karma for Uncle Larry’s long-ago wild night in Manchester?

Whatever! See you at BB’s in Times Square when we mount that St. Patrick’s Night wild stallion one more time. Bring your spurs!

Larry Kirwan & Friends, BB King’s, 237 W. 42nd St. NYC  (212)997-4144     
Doors 6pm/Show7pm
Tickets: http://bit.ly/2iK94Xl or at the door

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Fanatic Ladies


It’s odd to see yourself in a movie, especially when you have no idea what’s coming next. Such was the case when watching a rough cut of Fanatic Heart recently.

In the course of 25 years with Black 47 I’d acted the clown in a number of MTV videos – hardly a great experience, since that pathetic medium emasculated Rock & Roll and left it the flaccid force it is today.

Still, I’ll be there with my popcorn tomorrow night March 2nd when Fanatic Heart (the Black 47 movie) premieres at Cinépolis Chelsea for Craic Fest’s Gala opening.

The directors, Vic Zimet and Stephanie Silber really captured the arc of the band. It is far from the usual musical puff piece as our only directive when they began filming 17 years ago was to “show it like it is.”

They didn’t stint on that – the passage of time is well commemorated in lined faces and graying hair – but who gives a goddamn considering the alternative? We all got out alive - more than can be said for many around us.

It was interesting to watch from the outside. From my perspective at the center of the cyclone it was all one big swirl of passion, fatigue, dissonance and delight in a continual battle to do exactly what we wanted.

One of the most interesting people interviewed was my sister from another mother, Mary Courtney. She was the woman’s voice on Livin’ in America, one of the band’s signature songs. 

I guess the reason she fit so perfectly is because we all came from the same Bronx music cauldron and shared many political views.

Watching her made me realize how interesting it would have been to feature the other women members of Black 47. What a cast of characters!

I first met Mary Martello while setting Caoineadh Airt Uí’ Laoghaire (The Lament For Art O’Leary) to music for a dance-theatre piece by June Anderson. Mary had never heard the Irish language or the great epic poem and yet she sang as though raised in a Munster Gaeltacht.

I used part of that performance for the intro to Big Fellah, our song about Michael Collins. Kurt Sutter, Sons of Anarchy creator, was so taken with Mary’s vocal he featured the track on the Lochan Mór episode gaining the band a worldwide audience. Mary continues to act and sing in the Philadelphia area.

I don’t know where I met Christine Ohlman. A Rock & Roll legend and singer with the Saturday Night Live Band, she’s often called The Beehive Lady on account of her spectacular bouffant! And what a voice – somewhere between Ronnie Spector and Janis Joplin! Take a listen to her on Black 47’s Blood Wedding where she channels the pain of Carlita, a Lower East Side woman caught in a crime of passion.

Some of you already know Celtic princess, Ashley Davis. I met her on her first night in NYC after a stint as sean-nós singer in a Michael Flatley extravaganza. A collector of rare songs when she’s not writing her own classics, her solo career is booming and, to top it all, she had the good fortune to marry a Bronx boy. She adds her haunting voice to Fatima, a young Muslim woman with a decision to make, on Black 47’s New York Town album.

Nora Shanahan showed up at our recording studio after a night on the town. She was one of the singers in New York’s great lost band, The Táin. Totally distinctive, she reminded me of a peroxide punked-out Bridie Gallagher. She was accompanied that morning by an entourage as well oiled as herself. But, man, when she lit into Bodhráns on the Brain, the room lit up. 

Bodharns is a rip-roaring fare-thee-well-sucker song about an Irish girl ditching her cool New York boyfriend for an “auld alcoholic bodhhrán maker.” I still laugh whenever I hear Norah ripping me apart and am delighted she found happiness back home in Ireland.

There were other ladies - just as distinguished - who sang with Black 47, God bless them. Perhaps they’ll show up at Cinépolis Chelsea tomorrow night. If not, see you there.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Alternative Facts


Like many I’m saddened by the finger-wagging and brow-beating the media is taking nowadays.

For I wholeheartedly subscribe to the Thomas Jefferson dictum, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

But with newspapers under attack from all angles in these digital days, we are now all part of the media. One only has to crack one’s Facebook page to be exposed to a host of views – temperate and otherwise.

It was a much more efficient world when you bought your Times, News, or Post, and read the considered words of giants like Breslin, Hamill, Kempton et al.

They didn’t just keep their opinions for their columns - I once overheard Pete Hamill discussing the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. 

“We’re Americans, we don’t do torture.” He said quietly, and no one dissented. 

I wonder what Pete is saying about President Trump right now? For after a month of almost constant mistruths, one has to question the president’s judgment, at the very least.

These erroneous statements range from crowd size at his inauguration, to the rising murder rate, onto the number of people affected by his immigration executive order. And I’m only skimming the most obvious.  

Almost equally questionable are the president’s diversionary attacks on the media in phrases such as “dishonest press,” and “lying media;” neither does he stint on reporters and columnists labeling them “lying disgusting people.”

Now I’m not, as you might gather, a Trump supporter, but I’m far from a nihilistic hater. He did win the Electoral College vote, so unless he abdicates or Tubbercurry’s Mike Pence locks him up in the Oval Office and throws away the key, we’ve got four more years to get through with this man. 

And not to beat around the bush, if he were to bring millions of manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt and Coal Country, I might even vote for him in 2020. But that’s highly unlikely given the tides of history and technology.

Donald Trump is not the first president to lie. In fact when faced with the choice of a lunatic or a liar with his finger on the nuclear button, I’d go with the latter any old day of the week. After all we survived Nixon and Clinton.

But we’re faced with something different here. What will four years of constant “alternative facts” do to us?

Every journalist and columnist I know double checks their facts – the most embarrassing thing is to be called out on some “misstatement.” Opinions are one thing – we’re hired to offer those – but playing loose with the truth is quite another.

Now like the president I come from the world of entertainment where massaging facts is rarely frowned upon. It’s not life or death, after all. And reality television is about tied with professional wrestling at the bottom of the entertainment totem pole.

But c’mon, Mr. President, that was then; you’re now leader of the free world. People take what you’re saying seriously. They’re working hard paying off mortgages or bookies, they don’t have time or energy to come up with an answer to, “why is the president lying, Mom?”

There are boundaries to taste, discretion, and above all truth, and 99% of politicians pay lip service to them. Most of these pillars of probity are familiar with the name, George Orwell, even if they’ve never opened their high school copy of 1984. 

Take a read of it, sir, the next time your cable goes on the blink. It’s actually somewhat calming compared to your first month in office. It’s also becoming a best seller again, thanks to you. 

The message in this classic book is clear. A constant diet of “alternate facts” is anathema for a healthy and sane society. A journalist’s job is to point this out.

Besides those of us with half a brain can already predict your endgame – “the dishonest media has sabotaged my agenda.”

Well, so be it, you’re the one calling the shots. Did it never occur to you that running a country was always going to be harder than strutting around reality TV?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Wexford


                          WEXFORD
I remember a town by the mouth of a river
Its mossy-backed gloom can still cause shivers
The moon peering down through a foggy midnight
While redundant sailors pine for Pacific starlight.

I remember a love that was just about over
Red sails in her sunset past the silting harbor
Storm clouds in the North but down South we were cautious
When you’re all of nineteen you can be so oblivious.

The old man on a sofa in tie and starched collar
His back poker stiff, he’s wearing the scapular
Of our dear St. Francis and his divine Third Order
He can’t understand why I don’t head for the border.

It’s five in the morning the old man is up reading
One last glance at your loveliness as you lie sleeping
The ghosts in the Abbey snap to attention
The mossy-backed streets thrum with apprehension
A young man has slipped past the sentries in Selskar
And abandoned the past to escape his own future.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Bainbridge and Kingsbridge Forever


Though Bainbridge Avenue seems far away now, it was once the dead center of Irish America. 

Not that it got much love from Manhattan’s Irish elite. I might never have discovered the place myself if Phil Delaney hadn’t stumbled upon Turner & Kirwan of Wexford ripping up East Durham and booked us for Durty Nelly’s.

Yeah, I know, Nelly’s was on Kingsbridge Road – hardly crawling distance from Braindamage (as Bainbridge was often called) - but the two areas are forever linked for me, living as I was in the wilds of the East Village. 

My life would have been much poorer if I hadn’t ventured north frequently. It wasn’t that you couldn’t have fun in Manhattan’s Irish bars, Fleming’s on 86th St. was a riot, Eamonn Doran’s rarely closed, and The Pig & Whistle gave me my first New York gig; but there was a raw majesty to the Bainbridge/Kingsbridge joints that will never be replicated.

Part of their appeal was that there was no concession to America. It was as if Cultimagh, Cahirciveen and Carrickmacross had been uprooted and beamed down upon The Bronx. Within a couple of pints I’d have shed my Alphabet City veneer, be jiving to the showbands, and wondering how many goals Tony Doran had netted against near-invincible Kilkenny.

Although some of the pubs could be on the rough side and a bartender might have occasional need of a camán or baseball bat, yet there was a rare magic astir in those sheet-rocked saloons.

I experienced much warmth and acceptance too from the many excellent musicians who played the scene. I can still see the smiling faces of Dermie Mac, Gerry Finlay, Tommy Mulvihill, Paddy Higgins, John Morrison, Gabriel Donohoe, Joe Nellany and a host of others. The laughs we had as we tried to outdo each other with the “the most disastrous gig I ever played” stories.

The owners and managers were a breed apart also. Phil Delaney was a smiling rogue from central casting, Sean Lynch used to hire us just to annoy his more conservative customers, and John Flynn - with a well-timed gig and bonus - paid many of my overdue rent bills.

I also met one of the best friends a man could have in Brian Mór, aka Bernie O’Boyle. He was the doorman (among other duties) at the fabled Bunratty. If you read my novel Rockin’ The Bronx he’s easily recognizable as the implacable Benny, keeper of the faith on Kingsbridge. A wonderful artist, Brian lived by a set of hard-won principles; but oh what a twinkle he had in his eye. 
         
It was in the Bunratty that I first heard real traditional music – unhinged and unfettered - as played by Johnny Cronin, Andy McGann, Accordion Joe Burke, and Banjo Joe Burke. I’ve never heard the beatings of it since. Of course eight hours of straight drinking could, and did work wonders. The Bronx in those days, as you might imagine, was not a place for the sober or fastidious.

It did throw all types together, however, in that many young Irish from the Republic were introduced to their counterparts from British occupied Ireland. That rarely happened at home. Few of my Wexford contemporaries had ever been to Belfast or Derry, and why would they? It was a different country and in many ways we in the south had turned our backs on our people in the north.

For the first time many of us got to experience the effect of state-backed religious and political discrimination on our Irish brothers and sisters, and it changed our lives.

I had no idea when I returned in the early 90’s with Black 47 that the minutes were counting down for Bainbridge. Nelly’s, The Archway, and The Bunratty were already shuttered. There would be no more old time waltzes or Kerry slides heard on Kingsbridge.

But Bainbridge seemed solid – after all it was as much of a way of life as a geographical area by then. But immigration was tightening, the nascent Celtic Tiger beckoning, and one night the lights went dark on the avenue.

That’s New York for you – a city of change – but the warmth and memories of Braindamage and Kingsbridge will never fade.