Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Best Left

“The best left” was a phrase I heard often as a boy. Usually it was muttered by my grandfather and not in the most charitable of tones.

Thomas Hughes was a headstone maker. This tough business demanded certain sensitivities. The “widow-woman,” - more often than not the customer - was usually still grieving on the first visit to his stone yard near Wexford’s Quay.

A headstone, kerbing, and a couple of bags of marble chippings would be chosen. Some down-payment would be agreed upon and a “rough date” for erection set.

The occasional customer would settle up in the graveyard when the last chipping had been spread – a furtive exchange of a sweaty roll of banknotes.  But more often than not there’d be a promise of imminent payment.

And so the dance would begin and could continue for years. Polite letters would be dispatched and a settlement usually occurred somewhere down the line.

When it didn’t and the debt was finally written off – that’s when the judgment “the best left” would be muttered.

Emigration ripped the heart out of Ireland. People had always left the country for better opportunities, but the Great Hunger that began in 1845 opened the floodgates.

With so many dead and a way of life destroyed, what was the point in staying? 

Those with the financial means boarded ferries for Liverpool where they would catch the great ocean going ships that transported them to America.

Others, less fortunate, left from ports around Ireland often on small “coffin” ships.

And when the first huge wave of emigration subsided around 1855 those who remained often commented on the silence that blanketed the countryside and the deserted streets of small towns.

We tend to dwell on those who left – their courage and how they eventually overcame the travails that awaited them in an unwelcoming, Know-Nothing foreign land.

But what of those who chose to remain in an atrophying society where a conservative Catholic Church was busy consolidating its power with the tacit agreement of the Anglo-Irish establishment. 

It would be another thirty years before Charles Stewart Parnell attempted to restore national Irish pride and dignity.

My grandfather like many of his generation often wondered aloud how his life would have turned out had he taken the emigrant boat?

His boyhood best friend, Will Cuddihy, had departed with his family for New York and never wrote.
Even in his late 80’s Thomas Hughes was often heard to say, “I wonder where Will ended up?”

Perhaps that’s why a song like Kilkelly can rip you apart. Based on a series of letters written by a father to his son in Maryland between 1858 and 1893 you learn painstakingly about the immense divide between those who left and those who stayed behind.

There were no winners, the heartbreak was shared, and yet you somehow feel that those who moved westward were at least entering a dynamic, changing society.

Even growing up in Ireland in the 1960’s you could sense the feeling of loss and stasis throughout the countryside. Something had fled leaving a dread loneliness, An uaigneas, the old people called it. 

I felt it often but in particular while visiting my paternal grandfather’s farm down in Rostoonstown within view of Carnsore Point, the actual southeast corner of Ireland.

It was wild and windswept country, and about a half a mile down a grassy lane stood the four walls of a long abandoned house.

There was an ache about the place that was almost palpable, though it didn’t bother my grandfather’s cattle who sheltered there from the bracing Atlantic breeze. 

But who had lived in the house? What was their story? Are their descendants living in New York City or Butte, Montana, even now wondering about their roots?

Did the best leave or was that just a way of rationalizing the despair of those left behind?

As Ireland and Irish-America drift even further apart because of today’s repressive immigration policies, it’s always good to remember that we all once came from the same small fields and little houses - we have much in common. 

If the best did leave Ireland then many of the same remained to pick up the pieces.

Beware of the Deep State, fake news, and novenas to St. Jude

Did you ever get the feeling that that you’ve become an extra in someone else's movie?

For almost two years now I’ve resisted that notion but it’s time to ‘fess up that like everyone else in these United States my life is being controlled by our obsessive-compulsive president.

I’ve consistently refused to take any responsibility for the everyday freak show that the country has morphed into. Why should I - I’d vote for Packie McCarthy’s jennet before President Trump.

I’m a New Yorker – we know Mr. Trump and have to the best of our abilities ignored his Fifth Avenue shenanigans. 

I’ve never experienced the wonders of The Apprentice, and would run a tabloid mile from Omarosa, Stormy, Ted Nugent and the other hapless minions who flock to the great man’s orbit.

I do however follow current affairs and am well aware of the swamp-dwellers, sycophants, and borderline psychopaths like Manafort, Flynn, Miller, Cohen, et al who “know a good thing when they see it coming” as my granny used to say.

But for the most part I’ve lived in my own cocoon with the volume turned way down so that I can ignore Mr. Trump’s egotistical braying.

About a year ago I even began to marvel at the man - for I’ve known his type in the music business, but even those bozos tended to eventually pass out after a night of blow and bluster.  

How does the president keep it up? Doesn’t he ever tire of his own narcissism? I’ve long since learned the answer.

Up until recently I was able to rationalize that at least he’s not as bad as George W. Bush, he hasn’t invaded Iraq and upended a whole region of this planet along with millions of lives.

And the economy is ticking along nicely, particularly for those invested in the stock market and those in the top 5%. 

However, the upcoming tax giveaways to corporations for the most part will not be reinvested in jobs or workers, but will be used to buy back stock and increase the already massive corporate wealth.  

Regardless, the piper must inevitably be paid and a deficit bill of one trillion dollars looms in the near future.

Guess who’ll be paying for it – Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid recipients.

Brace yourself, Bridget, the fix is in, and don’t expect any mercy from either Fifth or Pennsylvania Avenues. 

Compassion is not our president’s strongest suit - witness the ongoing separation of children from their asylum-seeking parents.

I’m apparently not the only one suffering Trump fatigue for the once deficit-fearing Republican Party is now firmly aboard the president’s good ship fiscal lollipop.

Mr. Trump himself does appear to be having a little buyer’s remorse for he has now turned his attention to the Fed. The “king of debt” knows that any meaningful rise in interest rates could send the trillion-dollar deficit ballooning even further into the stratosphere.

I almost feel churlish in bringing up such awkward realities. Far better to enjoy my own tax rebate crumbs – rock that swamp, President Trump, to hell with draining it!

Except that no matter what kind of earplugs I wear I can’t tune out the 24/7 braying. If only Melania would steal his phone, lock the bedroom door and throw away the key for a week!

Maybe I should just jump on board the outraged liberal impeachment express, except that – to the best of our knowledge - Mr. Trump was fairly elected, and you can’t impeach someone just because you don’t like the cut of his jib. 

That day may yet come, particularly if Russian money and meddling played a significant part in the 2016 election – the president did look like a scolded little boy during his press conference with Mr. Putin.

Until then there’s always Joe Hill’s advice, “Don’t mourn, organize!” The November elections are close and 23 or more judicious victories will ensure that some legal restraints can be put on our own would be Tsar.

In the meantime, check your sanity – and your earplugs – every morning, leave twittering to the birds, beware of deep state and fake news, and don’t forget your novena to St. Jude!

A Dream Grows in Brooklyn - BJP

Bobby Sands, MP, made many poetical statements while interned in Long Kesh. With apologies to Bobby this is the essence of my favorite quote  – “No one can do everything but everyone has their part to play.”

I thought of it recently when volunteering to do a benefit performance for Brooklyn Jesuit Prep.

I had been introduced to the school some years back by a friend, Fr. Vin Biagi, SJ. What a visit it turned out to be; for out in Crown Heights Brooklyn Jesuit Prep is striving to achieve an inspirational goal – break the cycle of poverty among the working-poor.

Each year roughly 30 students are accepted into 5th and 6th grades of this exemplary middle school. 

They are not “cherry-picked” by academic achievement. No, first and foremost Brooklyn Jesuit Prep chooses its students by family income level and is dedicated to those who cannot afford traditional Catholic school; even the modest monthly tuition of $75 can be a struggle for many BJP families.

In essence, both students and parents are fighting for a chance to succeed and to provide a new generation of well-rounded leaders for their communities.

50% of these strivers are African-American, while 36% are Caribbean-American. This is their shot to receive a first class Jesuit education, and the very walls of the old St. Theresa of Avila School on Sterling Place reverberate with purpose and determination.

You’re greeted by a student guide and spoken to in a welcoming but forthright manner. The guide is not only eager to talk about his or her own experience but to share their pride in the achievements of their peers. 

Almost 100% of BJP students eventually graduate from excellent high schools, while over 95% continue on to college or post-secondary education.

But this school is not just about academics. The goal in President Patricia J. Gauvey’s words is "to educate our students to be men and women for others so that by the end of their time at BJP, our graduates are open to growth, are intellectually competent, religious, loving and committed to doing justice."

You’ve only to sit in on one of the classes given by any of the excellent teachers to see how these goals are achieved. Each student receives dedicated individual attention, is challenged and expected to contribute to the class both intellectually and socially.

The school also fosters a distinct culture of mentorship where the older students work with the youngsters to help them find their own path to achievement.

This mentorship continues every summer when all rising 6th, 7th, and 8th graders attend the month-long BJP leadership program at Fairfield University.

But what’s most amazing is that BJP continues to support its graduates when they leave for high school, whether that’s providing financial assistance or counsel through the difficult teenage years.

The annual budget for all this is $1.5 million and less than $100K comes from tuition. The state kicks in almost $200K but the balance of $1.2 million is raised through donations with some help from the Jesuit Community. 

As you can imagine it’s an ongoing struggle to keep this dream solvent and alive. How can you help? 

Well, you could attend the “Ireland – A History in Song” benefit show that Andrew Sharp and I will perform at Manhattan’s Xavier High School on Friday, Sept. 21st at 7:30pm. Tickets at $25 can be purchased on line, (see below) and if still available at the door. Beverages will be served.

This is no dry history lesson, I can assure you. It will contain many of Black 47’s iconic songs including James Connolly, Fire of Freedom, Livin’ in America. 

You’ll discover how “Sex in Wexford” led to 800 years of English colonization, get a bracing eye witness account of An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger, and visit New York’s legendary Five Points where Irish Famine immigrants and African-Americans intermarried, and created tap-dancing to the re-imagined music of Stephen Foster.

If unable to attend, you might wish to contribute on line to Brooklyn Jesuit Prep, and I urge you to do so. 

You’ll be assisting the children of the working poor to break the cycle of poverty, rejuvenate their communities, and partake fully in the American dream.

Larry Kirwan & Andrew Sharp at Xavier High School, 39 West 15th St., NYC  Friday, Sept. 21, 7:30pm
For tickets, information, or to make a contribution

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Book Store Blues & The President Swears Off Tweeting!

I was staying a dozen or so miles from New Haven when my laptop crashed. After a fruitless couple of hours on the phone with a technician it was mutually decided that I should visit the nearest Apple Store.

I was in a bit of a panic as I had a number of deadlines, so I arrived 40 minutes early for my appointment. No dice!  I was instructed to come back in half-an-hour.

To my delight, Yale Book Store was next door. What a break! As I was entering I realized that I hadn’t darkened such a door in a long time.

Strange, because I used to spend much time in both book and record stores; yet it all seemed so long ago.

Whenever I had nothing to do, which was often enough, I frequented a legion of such stores within walking distance of my East Village apartment.

But even the notion that I had “nothing to do” seemed very distant. I don’t know about you, but nowadays I have to write down a list of the things I MUST do for fear of my universe collapsing, and another list of things I SHOULD do before they too migrate to the cataclysmic column. 

How did my life get so busy and needlessly complicated, I wondered, as I stepped through the portals of Yale’s gleaming bookstore?

All was familiar - tables of cut-price tomes up front and in the distance great shelves of volumes awaiting my touch and appreciation.

I smiled as I picked up a new edition of Justine by Lawrence Durrell – I had bought my old battered copy thirty years ago at The Strand on Broadway; it opened a universe that I’m still exploring.

I moved on to familiar sections: poetry, biography, history, and of course, recent arrivals, for one must keep up with and support current writers.

I saw a book by a new Irish author that had been well reviewed. It was somewhat bulky and I knew in my heart that I’d never read it in hard cover; no I’d buy it later on Amazon and read it on my phone or iPad.

A wave of sadness swept over me, as happens when one realizes that an old romance is irrevocably over. When was the last time I read a hard cover – bulky or otherwise?

With a pang of guilt I had to admit that I long ago gave away my treasured collection of LPs – battered and scratched though they may have been. 

To add insult to injury I had recently been wondering if I had any more need of my CD collection. Shouldn’t I be converting all my favorites? After all, the writing now appears to be on the wall for CD players.  

Where would it all end? And then I realized that I was some minutes late for my Apple appointment. I rushed next door. 

My “genius “impatiently awaited me – smile firmly attached, but no doubt wondering if this analog miscreant was going to blow his appointment.

To make a long story short, the genius fixed my computer and explained in detail what had gone wrong. Once I realized I’d make my deadlines I blanked her out. I knew I’d never remember the helpful advice anyway.

I had other matters on my mind. To hell with deadlines! I strode back into the hallowed halls of Yale Bookstore. I picked up the voluminous Collected Stories by William Trevor then made a dash for the Classics shelves.

I knew it would be there – Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I had last tried to read Volume One on the riotous Black 47 tour bus back in 1994. Not a prayer - I had thrown in the towel long before we staggered into Cleveland.

Will I ever read Monsieur Proust? Probably not, but I grabbed it anyway - another foolish act of defiance? Perhaps, but even a couple of chapters might work wonders on my frazzled digitized brain!

I even made a vow while speeding out of New Haven - less deadlines and more reflection! About the same chance as the president swearing off tweeting! 

Still, stranger things have happened – or have they?

Monday, 27 August 2018

Take Me Back To The Village Pub

BB King’s of Times Square closed its doors recently and another concert venue bit the dust. 

There was once a string of such clubs from New York City to San Francisco where a band could hang its hat – most, alas, now mere memories.

Just as important, pubs that acted as minor league venues for these clubs dotted the country. Nowhere boasted as many of these musical saloons as The Bronx.

What was it about “the only borough on the mainland” that made it stand out musically from Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island?

Well, for starters, Bronxites expected live music with their booze. This could range from a solitary box player to a full fledged Irish showband or Latino orchestra, dolled up to the nines and shaking the very rafters with their rhythm and brass sections.

I have to confess that my various landlords in the East Village would have had even less hair for the pulling if a number of disparate Bronx pub owners hadn’t thrown me a gig from time to time.

Chief among them were Phil Delaney from Carrick-on-Suir who operated Durty Nelly’s on Kingsbridge, Tom Brogan and his bon vivant manager Sean Lynch of The Archway, and the mighty John Flynn of The Village Pub.

Ah, I can sense that eyes are misting up in Woodlawn, Pearl River, and all other points of the compass at the memories these revered names are conjuring. 

It’s amazing there are any memories at all, for the sheer rate of drinking in each of these establishments seems staggering in retrospect.

Back in the years I’m referencing, the 70’s and 80’s, many of us were undocumented (don’t tell Mr. Trump), rents were cheap as was booze, the craic was mighty, and there was a flirtatious sparkle in many the eye.

Allow me to dwell on The Village, as it was fondly known. I’m afraid I have trouble describing this hallowed establishment since I never darkened its door in daylight – I did spend dawn-lit morning there but who was observing décor then?

However, as best I can recall, it was small, woody, full to the gills, throbbing with music, and conversation often peppered with first class slagging.   
It was also very dark; on my first visit, while lugging in an amplifier, I tripped over a customer who was taking a nap on the carpeted floor.

Upon offering my bruised apologies his friends informed me there was no problem - Paddy often lay there to regroup out of harm’s way after the long day on the site and the prospect of a night’s dancing ahead in the Archway.

Unlike many Bronx establishments you were not required to play any particular type of music, still John Flynn expected it to be top shelf. 

I would go so far as to say that John was mainly responsible for the nurturing of original music in the Irish Bronx, for he demanded that at some point in the evening musicians stretch beyond their usual repertoire and highlight their chops to the best of their abilities.

With many of our Northern brethren present there was little love for the British Army, and a radical anarchistic Republicanism reigned. 

I’ve always found such circumstances conducive to experimentation, for it’s far easier put an original spin on Sean South of Garyowen than Cracklin’ Rosie.

“Nice girls did not go The Village,” a somewhat matronly lady informed me recently. I was forced to disagree, for ‘twas there I met Morningstar. Mary Courtney, Margie Mulvihill, and Carmel Johnston were not only crack musicians but unfailingly friendly and ladylike, which was saying something given the state of many of us.

The music ranged from Jazz to Trad – with many detours in between - and I can visualize a legion of players not limited to Paddy Higgins, Eileen Ivers, Gabriel Donohue, Chris Byrne, Joanie Madden, Pierce Turner, Robbie Furlong, Morningstar et al, jamming late into the night.

It was a passionate place, and there were disagreements aplenty, many a heart was broken, but many a match also made in this small heaven.  

I often think of The Village for it left a decided mark on me. I hope all the friends I made there are thriving. What nights – and early mornings – we had!

Monday, 20 August 2018

Happy Birthday Phil Lynott

            He was the most charismatic man I’ve ever met. Even before he “made it,” he cut a figure the length and breadth of Dublin. Phil Lynott was black, beautiful and sported a gurrier accent that could peel the skin off a turnip. 

            In the early days, Hendrix was his role model but I’m now reminded more of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Loping down O’Connell Street like some psychedelic Pied Piper, he was usually trailed by a bunch of kids. His white teeth gleamed in a perpetual smile and he winked or bade hello to anyone who caught his eye.

            I knew him by repute before I ever laid eyes on him - his small triumphs on the Dublin beat scene were trumpeted in Spotlight Magazine. His humiliations were even more public: Skid Row broke up to get rid of him, then reformed without him.

            But nothing could stop Philo – within months he’d mastered the bass and formed Thin Lizzy. Soon thereafter, I met him.

            On good weeks Pierce Turner and I would treat ourselves to a curry in the Luna Restaurant on O’Connell Street, a popular hangout for showband heads and rockers. To our delight we were given a table right behind Phil and Eric Bell.

            Eric who? Oh, you know him well enough – you listen to guitarists emulate his lines on Whiskey in the Jar damn near every time you enter an Irish bar.

            I can still recall Phil in the Luna declaiming, “we’re goin’ nowhere in Ireland, man!” He was trying to convince a skeptical Eric that they should decamp for England. They did and the rest is history.

            Have you any idea of what it was like to first hear Whiskey in the Jar explode out of car radios and cloth covered transistors? Roll over Amhrán na bhFiann, we’d just found our own national anthem – Eric’s overdriven guitar and Phil’s cathartic voice took that old tune to places we’d never dreamed of.

            Even now when I play it on SiriusXM I’m struck by its sheer originality. It always raises my spirits and shoots me back to a time when rock & roll was fresh and adventurous and unaware of itself.   
A couple of years later Eric quit the band onstage in an orgy of smashed amps and overdriven dreams. I guess he really hadn’t wanted to go to England. 

            It took two guitarists to replace him but Lizzy stormed on. Phil used his presence, voice and songwriting chops to propel them far beyond his Crumlin roots. Their concerts were riotous mind-bending affairs, pulsing with life and dicing with controlled chaos. You could almost touch the adrenaline – and it wasn’t always natural.

            Those were the days when rockers lived on the jittery edge, forever on the road with a costly album to promote, and another to write and record before they’d even unpacked – everything speeded up in a crashing, burning, collapsing cycle. The highs so high - a pity they couldn’t be bottled. And the lows, well, you don’t want to go there.

            Phil was so intense onstage it almost hurt to watch him. He was living his dream and he demanded 120% of those around him – 150% from himself. He knew the difference between poise and posture, and dare any of his band-mates indulge themselves. You could catch his curses and exhortations from the side of the stage – never from the front. Every molecule had to be directed at the audience – they’d paid good money, they deserved a show! It was the Dub working class ethic colliding head on with the rock & roll dream. 

            The band was not at its best the last time I saw him in NYC. New Wave was all the rage, Graham Parker opened and, to the critics - if not the fans - Lizzy seemed a trifle overbaked. Yet, back in the dressing room Phil was as ever polite, welcoming and delighted to meet someone who “knew him back when.”

            It was like being hit with a hammer that Christmas Day in 1985 when the news of his collapse spread, but I didn’t shed a tear. By then I’d learned the hard way that you can’t trade tomorrow’s energy for tonight’s performance.

            Still, whenever I hear Whiskey in the Jar, I sit back, close my eyes and relive the sheer exhilaration and Paddy pride of those days when Philo’s Dub accent exploded through car radios and cloth-covered transistors like a tricolor siren.

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…”