Friday, 22 April 2016

Connolly, Pearse, MacDiarmada - Ultimate Winners

   The 1916 Uprising in Dublin was not particularly popular at the time. This should come as little surprise since 200,000 Irish served in the British Army during World War 1 and many families were dependent on the “separation” money. 

   Since Ireland was doing relatively well economically, with wartime exports booming, it should raise few eyebrows that the surrendering rebel forces were spat at by angry Dubliners.

   Indeed the spark plug of the rebellion, Sean MacDiarmada was gloomy when escorted to his prison cell, feeling that the endeavor had been a failure; while the young Michael Collins was furious at the poor military strategy employed and felt the leadership, with the exception of James Connolly, was amateurish.

   Help came - as it often does - from British over-reaction. Had the leaders not been executed it’s unlikely we’d be celebrating a 1916 centenary this month.

   These leaders came from many walks of life but they shared two traits – courage and a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.

   They roughly fit into three broad groups: poets and academics, professional revolutionaries, and militant socialists. Let us, for argument’s sake, choose one from each group.  

   Padraig Pearse, son of an Englishman, was a well-regarded poet, a Gaelic scholar, and an educationalist. Reserved, often self-conscious, but ambitious, he longed for a free, Gaelic speaking republic.

   Sean MacDiarmada, though only 33, was a long-time leader and chief recruiter of the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). It was said that he had men and women in every parish and townsland in Ireland ready to rise at his command.

   We can hardly pass over James Connolly as the militant socialist. Born to Irish parents in an Edinburg slum, he left school at 11 to shovel manure from the streets; he did a stint in the British Army before deserting, and eventually became a union organizer on both sides of the Atlantic.

   One hundred years later Padraig Pearse is still an enigma. Ill at ease in many Dublin social settings you get a much better grasp of the man when you visit his cottage in Rosmuc, Connemara. 

   His one regret about the failure of the rebellion was that his brother, Willie, would also be executed. He appears to have felt that only a blood sacrifice would awaken the patriotism of the Irish people and is said to have whistled contentedly on his way to the firing squad. 

   Would the dashing, athletic Sean MacDiarmada have shared the same death wish had he not been struck down by polio four years previously? It’s hard to say.  His left side largely paralyzed, after his release from hospital he was forced to use a cane to tap his impatient way around Dublin.  

   MacDiarmada knew it was only a matter of time until he succumbed to his affliction and there’s little doubt he was the prime force that kept the uprising roughly on schedule despite its cancellation by Eoin MacNeill, leader of the Irish Volunteers.

   Connolly’s decision to go ahead with the rebellion seems the least logical for he had a wife and young family and feared for their financial and emotional wellbeing. Despite his love of books and learning, he was a very practical man, and having served in the British Army he had no illusions about his fate should the rising fail.

   By Easter Monday Connolly knew there would be no supportive German invasion, so, why didn’t he wait for a more auspicious time? Perhaps he was tired of failure and was willing to risk all in one roll of the dice, for he had suffered major defeats in the recent Dublin and Wexford labor lockouts. 

   Or did he feel that the British authorities would soon move against the IRB and his own Irish Citizen Army thus condemning another generation of Irish workers to poverty and economic slavery.

   It’s a fine line between brilliant tactical decision and death wish, but our three leaders were ultimately proved right. They did not live to see the terrible beauty they had conceived; but in the end, Irish patriotism was rekindled. 

   History is indeed written by the ultimate winners and that is why we celebrate Pearse, MacDiarmada, and Connolly wherever green is worn in this their glorious centenary.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

From de Valera to Trump

            So many of Donald Trump’s aspirations for the US are un-American it’s hard to know where to begin. The reintroduction of torture, the banning of Muslims from entry into the country, the erection of the Great Wall of Mexico spring immediately to mind; yet each is so unconstitutional or impractical as to be unlikely.

            However, a trade war with China or Mexico could be distinctly on the cards should Mr. Trump be elected. We Irish learned all too well the consequences of trade disputes.

            In 1932 the Fianna Fail party came into government in the Irish Free State. Whereupon, its leader, Eamon de Valera refused to pay land annuities to the British Government for loans that had been granted to Irish tenant farmers in the 19th Century.  
This did not sit well with Whitehall and a trade war broke out that did serious damage to the Irish economy.

            Both my grandfathers – although from opposite ends of the political spectrum – opposed this war, though for different reasons.

            Even 30 years later one could not mention Mr. de Valera in my Fine Gael grandfather’s house as it could have driven this reserved cattle dealer to apoplexy; for in retaliation the British government put a tariff on the importation of Irish beef that wreaked havoc with his business.

            My maternal grandfather already had little time for “Dev” because of his internment of former Republican comrades. The fact that the Irish stopped buying his headstones during the economic collapse only added salt to his wounds.

            Both grandfathers, however, weathered the storm and lived relatively affluent lives. Not so the many who were forced to emigrate because of the lack of employment opportunities.

            Eventually the land annuities issue was settled but Mr. de Valera continued to maintain his economic wall around Ireland. He did so for the best of motives: many Irish industries were inefficient and could not compete with their British counterparts.

            And so Ireland struggled along, hemorrhaging its citizenry as hundreds of thousands emigrated until 1959 when Dev was kicked upstairs and his protégé, Sean Lemass, finally threw open the economic and sanctimonious curtain that had long suffocated the country.

            Free trade is hardly the answer to all US economic problems. Jobs are inevitably lost – often the best paying; unfortunately this is a cyclical reaction that began in the 1970’s and the US will not become a major manufacturing power again until wages rise appreciably in China, Mexico, and the Asian rim countries.

            But if Apple and the other corporate titans, whose products are manufactured overseas, were obligated to pay US taxes on their foreign profits then this lost revenue could help retrain US workers and rebuild a crumbling infrastructure that would in turn lead to more jobs.

            Still, the last thing we need right now is a trade war. Much as we might quibble about the prevalence of Chinese imports, we would be truly outraged were we forced to pay 20 to 30% more for them.

            Blowing off Trumpian steam is one thing but imagine what a trade war would do to our already jittery financial markets. The average American’s retirement savings are invested in stocks that are already trading up and down like well-oiled yo-yos. 

            Mr. Trump’s working class supporters should think twice before voting for this uber-wealthy man. His celebrity brand will continue to flourish no matter what bombastic miscalculations he makes; his deluded supporters, however, will be left to pick up the pieces. 

            Instead of venting their anger on Muslims and Mexicans they should urge their leader to demand a fair tax on financial transactions and a livable national minimum wage.

            These innovations would bring meaningful change to their lives but are hardly likely to resonate with Mr. Trump for they would impact on his profits and lack the sound bite appeal of erecting imaginary walls.

            Both Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders are correct. The US is in need of change and hopefully a substantive debate will take place in the run up to November’s elections.

            We’re more likely to get a screaming match. But we, as citizens, have a right to demand a real debate of ideas and practicalities.  A trade war with any other country is the last thing we deserve.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Spring Unleashes Memories

            Isn’t it odd how spring unleashes memories? 

            The other morning while looking out the window at the concrete fields of Manhattan I was transported back to a farm on the South East tip of Ireland where the South Atlantic crashes headlong into the Irish Sea.

            It was a wild, salt-sprayed place where shipwrecks were often left to rust on gravelly beaches. On summer days, however, there was nothing like it – no people, just seagulls diving against a backdrop of the moody Saltee Islands. The beach was ever treacherous for the gravel moved under the pounding surf; we children were forbidden to swim there.

            My father, a merchant marine, didn’t give a damn. If the mood was on him, he’d hop in and swim outwards, folly in itself, for the currents and eddies could sweep you out to sea.

            We watched fearfully but he never stayed in long. “Just coolin’ off,” as he put it, “nothin’ like the sting of the salt on your skin!” 

            Perhaps he needed it, for he was the eldest son and had a tense relationship with my grandfather who owned the big farm, and another of equal size on the outskirts of Wexford Town some 12 miles away. They clashed often for both were strong-willed, with the result that my father would storm off to sea leaving my grandfather to brood in his absence.

            The old man was beginning to lose it but was unwilling to give up the reins - a common enough situation on the farms of Ireland back then, probably still is today.

            But that’s just the background, the memory is of an early summer’s morning when my father, my brother and I drove fifty or more prime bullocks from the windswept farm to the rich pastures outside Wexford, where they would fatten until the fall before being shipped to Birkenhead for slaughter.

            I was probably eleven years of age, my brother, Jimmy, ten. Strange how huge livestock could be afraid of such tiny drovers, but we wielded our sticks with authority and weren’t shy about whacking an errant bullock on the behind.

            We set off at dawn for it was imperative to get as much of the twelve miles covered while traffic was light. My father drove a grey Volkswagen ahead of the herd while Jimmy and I brought up the rear. Bullocks are stupid but they can be curious too and often wished to make the acquaintance of their peers who watched them pass from behind ditch and fence.

            My father knew all the broken gates and loose palings, and lined up the car beside them; then when the herd had passed, he’d rev up that bug and inch forward to lead the way again.

            The morning was glorious - thrush and lark serenaded us as we passed through land that had been fought over by every invader who ever set foot in Ireland. The roads were narrow and we moved uneventfully with many the wave from laborer’s cottage and farmhouse.

            But our trial came at the village of Killinick on the main road from Rosslare Harbor where we hit traffic arriving off the boat from Le Havre. Many the speeding German and French automobile was stopped in its tracks and forced to fall into convoy behind the ambling herd. A number of motorists jumped out to take pictures of the pint-size herders, but Jimmy and I paid them no heed, though secretly we were chuffed.

            We crossed over Killinick railway bridge then up the steep hill, thirty or more cars straggling in our wake, until we made it to the winding back roads that led to the farm outside Wexford.

            I still retain a sense of the power of the land that struck me on that dewy morning. Politicians and priests may think they control it, but they’re just transient possessors. The land endures - or does it?

            Some years later, after another row, my father stormed back to sea, my grandfather died soon thereafter, and the beautiful farm outside Wexford Town was swallowed up in a miasma of housing estates.

            The other farm still stands; I occasionally stroll its salty beaches and look for two worried boys watching a father swim out to sea - when spring unleashes memories.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

St. Patrick's Day

   On my first St. Patrick’s Day in New York, Turner & Kirwan of Wexford played four sets in the Pig & Whistle on 48th Street before hopping the RR Train to Bay Ridge and knocking off another four sets in Tomorrow’s Lounge.

   Endurance and Southern Comfort were the name of the game. Hey, if that sweet sticky liquid gave Janis Joplin a boost, it might put the power of god in two hayseeds from Wexford!

   I played a number of St. Patrick’s Days on the road – once at some god-forsaken college in West Virginia where we were warned not to leave the grounds with long hair, as we would definitely not return with it – such was the hostility of the local rednecks.

   Another March 17th we were prevailed upon to play ten sets in a New Hampshire establishment. To protest this injustice we threw a huge party afterwards in our lodgings. Next morning the owner returned unexpectedly to a scene out of a Paddy Fellini movie. It was not my happiest March 18th.

   New York City is unequivocally the place to be on St. Patrick’s Day. There’s a wildness in the air. I trace it back to the “Famine Irish” who on that one day of the year defiantly stepped out from their urban hovels to the beat of: “we have survived, we have arrived!”

   Back in the 1970’s with a struggle against discrimination  going on in the North of Ireland one dug deep and summoned up the many rebel songs that were part of our DNA. 

   With his tightening of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act in 1976, Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien blockaded that rebel musical avenue on Irish radio and television, and Ireland lost a vital link to its heritage.

   When we formed Black 47 Chris Byrne and I set out to renew the link by writing our own contemporary rebel music with the help of Reggae, Hip-Hop, and Rock beats. Thus came James Connolly, Time To Go, Fire of Freedom and other songs that challenged the political status quo.

   Our mantra was to use the beats from the street but always keep the link – and the faith - with the past. 

   Saint Patrick’s Days were a riotous blur for twenty-five years with Black 47. We’d arrive back in the city from some late night gig, do an early morning TV show, then load in for Conan, Letterman or Fallon. With fatigue and adrenaline battling it out, I once forgot a line of James Connolly on national television. Few noticed but I died a hundred deaths.

   We insisted that our St. Patrick’s Night gigs be open to all ages – it was important that the youth be introduced to the old Irish political traditions. And, oh those nights were full of life, and the triumph and tragedy that attend it.

   When BB King’s called and asked me to put together a band for March 17th, I hesitated; I’ve been enjoying playing solo since Black 47 disbanded, exploring the lyrical side of the band’s anthems. 

   But there was a need for a big midtown gig on St. Patrick’s night in this centenary year of 2016. 
Besides I had written a new song about Sean MacDiarmada, the spark plug of the Rising. 

   And so I reached out to some unique musician friends to form a band for the night. My old comrade, David Amram, who pioneered the Poetry/Jazz fusion with his friend Jack Kerouac, will even sit in.

   Chris Byrne will join us after his set with Lost Tribe of Donegal. John McDonagh from Radio Free Eireann will MC and present a piece from his successful Cabtivist show. My son, Rory K, a hip-hop artist will play – the next generation deserves its night also.

   But the link to the past will as ever be bone-deep. We’ll tackle some of the score of my musical, Hard Times, set in The Five Points in 1863 when the “Famine Irish” were beginning their ascent up the social and political ladder.

   The unruly spirits of Sean MacDiarmada, Stephen Foster, James Connolly, Michael Collins - and god knows who else - will collide on 42nd Street this St. Patrick’s night.  See you at BB King’s!

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The "Famine Irish"

   Emigration has never exactly been a walk on the beach. First of all there’s the long “should I stay or should I go” question; quite often a niggling career or love disappointment influences the final decision – sometimes rashly taken in a pub with too many pints aboard.

   Next comes the countdown that culminates in the bittersweet American wake and then the pain of farewell at Dublin or Shannon airports.

   Even in my day of leaving in the 1970’s there was a sudden severance of ties with loved ones, unless you were a regular letter writer – which most of us weren’t. Of course, separation still hurts nowadays even with email, Facebook, Skype, and any other manner of digital communication.

   But imagine what it was like for those dislocated by An Gorta Mór back in the 1840’s. The problem is – most of us cannot put ourselves in the shoes of those desperate people. At best we identify with the hapless immigrant of “The Streets of New York.”

   But that song was set some generations later when the Irish had gained a foothold in the cities of the American East Coast. The Famine Irish arrived in teeming, deprived multitudes and were universally despised.

   Most of their money had been spent for berths on overcrowded coffin ships where they were expected to feed themselves over the long and brutal voyage. Many were already worn down by fever and disease not to mention endemic seasickness. 

   Those who passed the often stringent medical examination were instantly overwhelmed by the bustle of dockland Manhattan; they were easy targets for the “guides” and thieves who preyed on them. Pete Hamill once noted that the average rural Irish immigrant saw more people in the first hour in New York than in a lifetime in Ireland.

   To add to the sense of dislocation, many were native Gaelic speakers with only a smattering of English.

   How did they fit in – how did they even begin to find work in this alien environment? Daniel O’Connell had prepared them. His Repeal (of the Union) Association had recruited and organized them in every parish and townsland in Ireland. 

   The Famine Irish used these networks of contacts from home when they arrived in New York City. Thus we find Sligo and Galway houses in Lower Manhattan’s notorious Five Points slum. With neighbors and relatives close at hand there was the chance of finding “the shtart” (the first job) - even if it was only shoveling manure from the streets.

   Gaelic, unfortunately, was quickly abandoned in a drive to gain better employment; but O’Connell’s training proved invaluable as the Famine Irish learned to manipulate the political system and move up the social ladder, despite the sectarianism and discrimination they experienced from Nativist and Know-Nothing Americans.

   We tend to hear only of the success stories but let’s spare a thought for those who were psychologically unsuited to the extreme stress of this new urban life. Many cracked, retreating to the shebeens; others left for the Californian Gold Rush and never returned. 

   Let’s also remember the many Irish women who had to take to the streets to provide for themselves and their children. It’s an uncomfortable, even jarring, thought now but an economic fact of life for many at that time. 

   Speaking of Daniel O’Connell and the gift of ward organizing that he bequeathed Irish-Americans – it would behoove us to honor him this year by using our clout to influence the immigration policies of the two major political parties. 

   Irish immigration has been stymied since 1965 by the Hart-Celler Act. In a tight primary season and perhaps an even closer general election, we can exert pressure on candidates from both parties.  

   It’s way past time to open the door - even slightly - and allow a new generation of Irish to join us. The old neighborhoods could use them and Irish-America could profit from some youthful native Irish invigoration.

   With their free university education many young Irish immigrants would likely find work with high-tech companies.  Few would have to shovel manure like our brave and desperate Famine Irish who despite all odds eventually triumphed – no matter what the cost.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Miracle on Avenue B

           Miracles do happen - particularly on Avenue B. That’s where St. Brigid’s stands, just east of Tompkins Square Park.

            I have been involved in many the lost cause down the years but none, seemingly, as hopeless as the battle to restore and reopen the old “Famine church.”

            Our ranks were broad - Conservative and Marxist, Jansenist and Liberationist, Puerto Rican and Irish, among many others opposed the demolition of this treasured landmark.

            My own connection to St. Bridie’s was far from religious. Following nights spent carousing in The Kiwi, an after-hours establishment on 9th Street, I often watched the sun rise from a park bench in Tomkins Square. 

            I noticed the Irish name and took a stroll in during early mass one morning, and to my amazement learned that the church had been built by survivors of An Gorta Mór.

            I did not become a parishioner but grew fond of the place and occasionally took refuge in a shady pew on blazing summer days. 

            When demolition seemed likely back in 2006, along with other members of the Irish American Writers & Artists I assisted in running some benefits. To be honest I felt we needed a miracle, for I come from a clerical family and know that victories are scarce when you oppose the judgment of prelates and princes.

            Then lo and behold, when we activists were on our last legs in 2008, an anonymous donor gave $20 million with the express wish that St. Brigid’s be restored and returned to the community.

            The church reopened on Jan. 29, 2013 and some weeks ago I found myself passing my old-after hours Tomkins Square park bench on my way to a much delayed celebration.

            There was another reason I hadn’t been back in the old neighborhood for some time and it weighed on my mind as I entered the church basement. But I was soon overwhelmed by the warmth and friendship of comrades and parishioners.

            Peter Quinn was there; he had been president of IAWA when we ran our benefits. Ed Torres, the dynamic leader of the parishioners, was as ever gracious and inspiring. I sat with his lovely wife, Dolly, as she showed me the pictures of her grandchildren and, not for the first time, was made to feel like a member of her extended family.

            My colleague at The Echo, Peter McDermott, was in attendance, his finger as ever on the pulse of Irish New York?  I sat with my old musical friends, Joe Hurley and Kirk Kelly while we demolished pulled pork, barbecued chicken, corn beef and cabbage and talked of old times playing The Pyramid, 8BC, and other iconic neighborhood clubs.

            Joe was still shattered over the death of David Bowie. As we traded stories about our encounters with this mutual hero, I remembered why I’d stayed away for so long but chose not to mention it.

After all, we were at a celebration and the talk of Mr. Bowie had put us both in a melancholic mood. To add fat to the fire, Brian Monaghan’s relatives were in attendance and the talk had turned to this sorely missed entertainer.

            Eventually it was time to go and I left with many a hug and fond word. I thought of cutting back across the park but instead I headed down Avenue B and around the corner to my old apartment building on 3rd Street.

            Once more I stood on the pavement that had been stained with blood on that August morning 20 years ago. Black 47 had played the Dublin Ohio Irish Festival the pervious night and I’d caught the first plane back.

            Johnny Byrne, soundman and recording engineer, the best friend of so many Irish musicians, had fallen off the fire escape. I gazed up at my old windows - one was shuttered, while a large air-conditioner blocked the other. The current residents would never pull a mattress onto the fire escape on a hot night.

            The old sadness resurfaced but it was no match for the warmth I had felt at St. Brigid’s party. Then it struck me that it was time to let the past go – that miracles do indeed happen, especially on Avenue B.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Music and Society

            It’s interesting how music and the manner in which it is presented is so closely related to the politics and social mores of the times.

            Take a look at Ireland in the 1950’s through the late 1960’s. Showbands dominated popular culture and large halls sprung up all over the country to accommodate dancing. People flocked in their thousands to these venues and danced the nights away, always three fast songs in a set followed by three slow smooches.

            Up on stage showbands – all boasting roughly the same instrumentation: three horns, a rhythm section and a lead singer - played songs from Radio Luxembourg’s Top Twenty along with country staples from the likes of Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash.

            Should the venue be a parish hall then the local priest trained an eagle eye on his parishioners thereby monitoring their conduct. Everything was controlled and conservative, and it seemed as though this state of affairs would last forever.

            But by the mid-60’s times were indeed a’changing. With longstanding Taoiseach, Éamon deValera, kicked upstairs into the presidency, the economic reforms initiated by Seán Lemass, his successor, began to bear fruit. With more jobs available emigrants returned from the UK bringing with them new ideas - one being that alcohol should be available with entertainment.

            This innovation coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and a renewed sense of national identity. Traditional folk groups like The Dubliners became popular and large new lounges were constructed wherein they might entertain their followers. Women were welcomed into pubs for the first time and abandoned their Babychams for vodka, gin, and the Lord save us, pints of porter and lager.

            With more money flowing social mores adapted. Suits and ties were relegated to the wardrobe, and anyone who could strum a guitar or possessed half a voice joined the Ballad Boom. Luke Kelly and his socialist anthems replaced Dickie Rock and his Top Twenty imitations, dancehalls were abandoned, showbands faded away, and the parish priest retreated to his Sunday morning pulpit.

            Meanwhile up North a generation of young Catholics who had benefited from the British free university system began to question their role as second-class citizens.

This led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and in response the spiked fist of Unionism, unprepared to cede ground or equality, struck back. Armed revolt soon followed and led to the splintering of an entrenched sectarian system.

Music echoed and reflected the political sound and fury as Rory Gallagher, Horslips and Thin Lizzy came storming into prominence. All three bands contained Northern and Southern members and each outfit, to its credit, insisted on playing Belfast through the worst of the Troubles.

Though this era was marred by horrific violence it was a golden age for Irish music. Even traditional music was affected with The Bothy Band stretching boundaries by creating impassioned and adventurous ensemble pieces that still sound fresh to the ear.

The arts and creativity in general seem to flourish in unsettled and even violent times. Let’s take a quick detour to New York City. Was there ever a more creative scene than the Lower East Side - and particularly CBGB - in the late 1970’s while the area was dangerous and anarchistic? 

One could even cite the music scene in Paddy Reilly’s during the recession of the early 1990’s when a host of new bands emerged from the collision of Celtic music and urban rhythms.

And what of U2? Well, ever since I first saw Bono performing to a paltry crowd in The Ritz circa 1980 I felt he epitomized the new Ireland that was finally shedding its dowdy uniform of inferiority. 

The band’s music was not as yet innovative or particularly original, but a Rock & Roll Irish Napoleon strode that stage, and I had little doubt but that U2 would one day conquer the world of popular music.

Ireland’s inferiority complex is a thing of the past; the crassness and consumerism of the Celtic Tiger gave it the final boot. Irish arts are in the ascendancy. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another recession and further mass emigration to keep the scene flourishing.