Wednesday, 14 October 2020

THE BUCK FINALLY STOPS HERE

 

The coming presidential election will be decided by many issues including health care, policing, protests, a raging pandemic, and now the infection of the president himself.

 

But it really boils down to whether we accept Donald Trump’s version of reality.

 

While one, of course, wishes the president a speedy recovery his personal conduct while canvassing without a mask before large crowds with little thought of social distancing has been totally irresponsible.

 

You have only to look at the minute infection figures from Tulsa before his indoor campaign rally on June 20th and the current widespread contagion to see the damage he has caused.

 

And now we wait in trepidation to determine how many he and his entourage have infected in their Typhoid Mary tour of recent weeks. 

 

Although everything has been thrown in the air because of Mr. Trump’s cavalier behavior towards the virus there will be an election on Nov. 3rd.

 

So let’s assume that both Republican and Democratic candidates will still be standing.

 

Though he is currently appreciably behind Mr. Biden in both national and battleground polls Mr. Trump seems to be little worried, feeling that he underperformed in 2016 polls and is perennially favored by a “silent” majority.

 

Perhaps but I doubt this hidden strength will be as potent in the current polarized environment where all has been utterly changed by the president’s illness. 

 

Back in 2016 many middle-class male voters wouldn’t admit to their wives or partners that they were voting for the Access Hollywood tainted Trump.

 

But after four years of a relentless narcissistic bombardment uncommitted middle-class voters are as rare as Santa Claus on July 4th.

 

The working class never hid their antipathy to Mrs. Clinton and whenever I inquired from friends around the country about her prospects I got some variant of “Everyone around here is voting Trump.”

 

Those sources are less dogmatic four years later for I also hear variants of “Who the heck does this guy think he is?” - particularly since the president suggested he might not comply with the election result.

 

There appears to be little desire within any class for the Home of the Brave to morph into a banana republic - with or without paramilitary Proud Boy support.

 

However the president long ago realized that one step forward can always be followed with another step back.

 

Truth and consistency were never his strongest suits, but there has been one constant in his career - he does look out for number one.

 

He also practices a particular style of brow beating, the effect of which reminds me of the hangover that follows the downing of six pints and a couple of shots.

 

My gut feeling is that there’s a real “silent” majority that has grown tired of our daily national hangover.

 

It’s not as if the president is a ball of laughs. It’s like being out on the town with a caffeinated compulsive who never stops whining, despite his large fortune and beautiful wife.

 

Talk about being born on third base with a myopic pitcher on the mound! 

 

It’s important to remember that he inherited a booming economy. But his luck has finally run out. 

 

The deaths of over two hundred thousand from Covid-19 can no longer be brushed aside with “it would have been 2 million” if anyone else had been president. 

 

In his current medical condition not even the most fervent of his base will buy that one.

 

The millions who lost their jobs because of the lack of a concerted federal response to the pandemic are another frightening consequence of Donald Trump’s reality.

 

Most of these unemployed have also lost their health insurance, but I’m sure they won’t begrudge their ailing president the best care their tax dollars can buy.

 

Bluster and braggadocio have taken Mr. Trump on a remarkable journey from Queens to the White House.

But all of a sudden things are falling apart and the center is no longer holding. 

 

Still, as a haberdasher from Missouri once remarked “the buck stops here.” President Harry Truman understood that when you make decisions you must also accept responsibility for them. 

 

I wish Donald Trump a speedy recover and sincerely hope he’ll be in good enough health to face up to the price of his reality on Nov. 3rd.

Monday, 28 September 2020

Thank you, Mr. Sweetman!

 The Ireland I grew up in was a strange, beautiful, but often brutal place.

 

It had been seared by emigration. It was a rare person who left Wexford for the USA but many departed for Canada, and even more for Australia courtesy of a subsidized 5 pounds voyage to Sydney.

 

The majority took the boat to less glamorous England to toil in factories or construction.

 

Everyone believed in God, His Blessed Mother, and a dizzying array of saints.

 

There was little money; even the wealthy seemed somewhat strapped. We blamed this on the English though down south we’d had independence for 40 years.

 

Still colonialism had undoubtedly bequeathed us a national inferiority complex that wouldn’t begin to dissipate until the era of self-driven superstars the like of Bono and Roy Keane.

 

And what of beauty? That came courtesy of our families – mostly large and nourished by love. The little you had you were ready to share. You didn’t expect much else from the Land of de Valera.

 

To paraphrase Brendan Behan: getting drunk was not a crime it was an achievement.

 

By the time you were old enough to take a drink, however, you had already experienced the brutality of Irish life courtesy of our schools.

 

After three years in the relative safety of convent run nurseries you “made your First Communion” and were transferred to the tender mercies of the Irish Christian Brothers.

 

Some of these educators and their government trained lay teachers were decent thoughtful men though often overwhelmed with classes of up to 50 boys from all social strata. Others, to put it mildly, were mere steps away from sadism.

 

Corporal punishment was the norm and the thick leather strap, pointer stick, and even fists were not spared.

 

By the time one transferred to Secondary (High) School, after being confirmed in the Catholic faith, your trust in any kind of teacher was strained.

 

It was then at the age of 13 that I had the good fortune to spend some years taking English, History, and Geography with Mr. William Sweetman.

 

Wexford CBS was his first posting and I believe he had spent some years in a religious seminary, not unusual for a young man in those days; whatever, he seemed somewhat unworldly and not totally at ease among our class of hard-bitten, teenaged cynics.

 

When he hadn’t beaten or even threatened anyone in his first week we began to relax around him.

 

I was well read by then, visiting the County Library twice weekly to borrow books for my grandfather and myself.

 

Still I was thrilled to be reading Shakespeare for the first time and having Mr. Sweetman explain the obtuse parts of Henry IV, Part 1, this great story of a harried monarch and his dissolute son who would later become King Henry V, victor at Agincourt.

 

So many worlds began to open up as our teacher explained the historical background and what was happening concurrently in Ireland.

 

He also expounded on the importance of Shakespeare, the lyrical depth of his sonnets, and the many words he had added to the written English language. 

 

Through a rigorous study of his characters we discovered that Shakespeare had helped create and introduce the concept of the modern thinking man.

 

He read aloud to us the poetry and essays that were on our national curriculum, lamented that Yeats only merited one poem and that Joyce was considered too subversive for a Catholic education.

 

He also encouraged us to give our own unvarnished views on the subjects we were studying; in essence he taught us that our opinions mattered.

 

The day we graduated from his classes he took me aside and quietly encouraged me to read Graham Greene – a daring move in those repressive days, for Greene questioned everything including himself.

 

Years later when I came to write plays I already knew the basics from my two years immersion in Henry IV. And whenever I need to introduce a moral conundrum in a lyric or a novel, I have only to draw on Greene.

 

William Sweetman went on to write a number of fine books on the Wexford Rebellion of 1798 – a subject dear to his heart.

 

He passed away last year and I have much to thank him for.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Takes a Lot More than Empathy, Joe!

Given that 190,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, there’s massive unemployment, and the streets are throbbing with violent protests over racial injustice, you might think that Donald Trump would be considering a nice golfing retirement at Mar-a-Lago.

 

But the president has an ace up his sleeve – the Democratic Party who gifted him the 2016 election.

 

Now I have nothing against identity politics. It’s the limited nature of the Democratic brand that’s troubling. You think they’d have learned from Hillary Clinton’s reliance on a huge African-American vote in the 2016 election. 

 

Joe Biden will undoubtedly improve on Mrs. Clinton’s listless turnout of that essential group, especially with Kamala Harris on the ticket; not to mention Senator Harris will appeal to another core Democratic identity group – suburban women.

 

But White Working Class and Latinos appear to be an afterthought. What’s that all about?

 

Now I admit that I dozed off during each night of the Democratic Convention; can you blame me – two hours of testimony to Joe Biden’s empathy is like watching Mister Rogers on Xanax. 

 

Empathy is comforting but it will not create new jobs for the millions of unemployed or prevent President Trump from fomenting racial turmoil on American streets.

 

So I’m praying that Senator Sherrod Brown was rallying white working class voters during my convention snoozes; and that Congressmen Tim Ryan and Conor Lamb were describing how they turned their Trump districts Democratic as I dreamed of a Twitterless future. 

 

Scranton Joe is going to need every iota of such grassroots working class advice.

 

Donald Trump may have consistently strong national disapproval ratings but the Democratic Party is currently not putting in the ground level work necessary to beat the president in Pennsylvania and the Rust Belt states.

 

Take Lackawanna County, PA where Republicans are out-registering Democrats 4 to 1, or Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton where his campaign hadn’t even opened an office toward the end of August.

 

How soon they forget James Carville’s observation, “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.”

 

Despite Donald Trump’s gross incompetence I’ve yet to meet one of his 2016 working-class voters who is switching sides. 

 

Later for Zoom, Joe, time to at least talk about jobs and reveal detailed infrastructure plans or risk losing your home state – and the election. 

 

And how about troubled Wisconsin, you didn’t even turn up in Milwaukee for your convention. On the campaign trail that’s called “pulling a Hillary!”

 

You’ve got your mask and your private jet – time for some rough and tumble and local media interaction.  With three grueling debates looming you need the practice!

 

The polls are favorable in Ohio, a win there is a stake through Trump’s heart; you should be camping out in Sherrod Brown’s guest bedroom not shunning him at the empathy convention.

 

The under-representation of Latino major speakers at the convention is even more puzzling now there’s a chance of turning Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and even Texas.

 

True, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham got a whooping 2 minutes of convention time, but what about the 90-second snub to a Latina superstar, our own Bronx born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

 

And why no appearance from Julian Castro, and no bilingual rallying cry from Beto O’Rourke that could have put the fear of god in Republican Texas?

 

Senator “Tio Bernie” Sanders was the huge favorite of under-30 Latino primary voters, mostly due to the work of organizer Chuck Rocha. 

 

The Biden campaign has yet to hire Rocha for Latino outreach. Chances are they haven’t even read his excellent book, “Tio Bernie,” detailing how he sparked Latino interest in the progressive senator’s campaign.

 

Donald Trump may be the Divider in Chief but he is an energetic and often riveting campaigner who will stop at nothing to gain victory. To beat him Democrats must reach out to every identity – including Irish-American. You ever get the feeling you’re being taken for granted?

 

Seamus Heaney’s “hope and history rhyme” was an inspired choice for Biden’s convention speech, but it’s just a collection of pretty words without perspiration, preparation, and attention to grassroots detail.

 

This is not just an election - it’s a battle for America’s soul, and it won’t come easy.

 

Time to pick up your game, Joe! Losing this election is not an option.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

THE PRIEST AND THE FIREMAN

        Anyone knocking around Manhattan in those days knew people who perished, but for me it all comes back to the priest and the fireman.

 

            Even all these years later I can look offstage and imagine where each would be – Father Michael Judge standing by the bar, impeccably coiffed, surrounded by friends; and Richie Muldowney NYFD, darting around the room bantering with all and sundry, crooked smile lighting up the joint.

 

            Though both are frozen in time they summon up the city as it used to be. For New York changed ineffably on 9/11when the spirits of so many unique people departed. They’ve been replaced, of course, great cities do that, but it’s not quite the same, is it?

 

            I often thought of Mychal as a mirror, he was so empathetic he seemed to reflect your own hopes and fears. I never knew anyone who helped so many people; he was always concerned, forever providing a shoulder. 

 

I guess he came to see Black 47 to let off a little steam. I’m not even sure he liked our music – his own taste ran towards the more conventional – but the rhythms, juxtapositions and overall message fascinated him and, anyway, he liked to be in the thick of the action. 

 

            Richie was hard-core Black 47. He knew all the words, the players, the other fans. He delighted to show up unexpectedly at out-of-town gigs; the moment you saw him you knew it would be a good night. To think such an irrepressible spark was extinguished so early.

 

            I remember jaywalking across Times Square the first September Saturday the band returned to Connolly’s. The “crossroads of the world” was so deserted in those immediate post-9/11 nights it felt like a scene from a cowboy movie where sagebrush is blowing down the street.

 

            But cops, firemen, emergency workers, the mad, the innocent and those who just couldn’t stay at home needed somewhere to go – to let the pressure off – and that was the band’s function. 

 

Those first gigs were searing. You couldn’t be certain who was missing, who had survived, who was on vacation, who just needed a break from it all. When a familiar face walked through the door the relief was palpable, someone else had made it. 

 

The atmosphere – though on the surface subdued - was charged with an underlying manic energy, a need to commemorate, celebrate, to show that life was going on. That would be some small revenge on the bastards who had caused all the heartbreak.

 

And yet, what an opportunity was missed in those first weeks. That smoldering pit down on Rector Street had galvanized the country. We were all so united; we would have done anything asked of us.

 

Republican, Democrat, Independent, we all came together as Americans. We would have reduced our dependence on foreign oil, rejuvenated poor neighborhoods, taught classes in disadvantaged schools. You name it - nothing would have been too big, too small either.

 

But no sacrifice was asked, much less demanded. Instead, 9/11 was used by cheap politicians to get re-elected; patriotism was swept aside by an unrelenting xenophobic nationalism that brooked no dissent and flourishes to this day. The US was converted into a fortress and the lights were dimmed in the once shining city on the hill. Worst of all, our leaders sought to use the tragedy as an excuse to invade Iraq.

 

Look at us now, dysfunctional, walled off from each other and the rest of the world. That began when the national will for a positive response was squandered in the aftermath of 9/11.

 

Though he was finally hunted down, sometimes it seems as though Osama Bin Laden won, for we’ve become a fearful, partisan people, unsure of ourselves, uncertain of our future.

 

But then I think of Mychal and Richie, their smiles beam across the years and I know that the current national malaise is just a patina that covers the soul of the country – it can be wiped away. It’s not permanent. We have greatness in us yet. 

 

That’s the hard-earned lesson of 9/11 and will always be the message of the priest and the fireman.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Pete Hamill - Seanchaí

 Everyone in Wexford read newspapers – often two a day. The Irish Independent and Evening Herald if your family supported the Free State in the Civil War, or the Irish Press and Evening Press if you favored the Republican side.

 

When I arrived in New York City in the early ‘70’s I was faced with new choices. There was The Times, of course, but I tended to read that in waiting rooms or the homes of friendly professionals. No, it all boiled down to the News or the Post.

 

I loved Jimmy Breslin’s Brueghel-like columns in The News, but Pete Hamill in The Post spoke to me. There was a hint of Bogie about him, but also a simmering outrage that the US was failing its people.

 

I was drinking in the Bells of Hell in those days with occasional pit stops at the Lion’s Head so I got to see him up close occasionally, though by then he had apparently given up the sauce.

 

He seemed formidable but not unfriendly and I enjoyed overhearing his remarks. He had an innate understanding of the political situation in the North of Ireland and was unapologetic about his sympathies. I should have guessed that he was only one generation removed from Belfast.

 

Around then the US was trying to blast Hanoi into submission and in one of his columns Pete graphically described the havoc and destruction if the same tonnage of bombs was dropped on Brooklyn for a day.

 

His detailed imagery brought the savagery of this onslaught screaming into our bars and kitchens in a way that the biased idiot box rarely did. 

 

I didn’t get to know him until Black 47 made a bit of a name and we were thrown together occasionally through a mutual interest in Irish and literary affairs. It was then I noticed he was more than a writer, he was a seanchaí – a custodian of the history and hopes of urban Irish-America..

 

He was not without a sense of humor. At a fundraiser sponsored by Irish American Writers & Artists to save St. Brigid’s Famine Church on Avenue B, after casting a jaundiced eye over our motley crew he began, “Never have I beheld a bigger crowd of atheists gathered to save a church…”

 

There was a sense of romance, and even danger, to many of the journalists of Hamill’s era, especially those who had covered foreign wars. It was as if they were cut from Hemingway’s cloth, they not only reported they also sought to influence events.

 

They could certainly stop an argument with a few caustic words. Soon after the Abu Ghraib scandal someone suggested at another IAW&A function that the US had to protect itself in whatever way necessary.

 

“We’re Americans. We don’t do torture.” Pete curtly replied dispatching us back to our drinks.

 

There was a decency to the man. He was far from judgmental but he expected those around him to share that decency. I never heard him mention Donald Trump. Why waste words? It would have been akin to discussing Crazy Eddie, especially since Pete had known and loved Bobby Kennedy.

 

I live downtown and sometimes ran into him strolling around Tribeca, his eyes alive with interest. After all the years he still took joy in his city and its huddled masses. He could summon up the ghosts of the Five Points in an instant and delighted that he lived within blocks of the fabled immigrant slum. 

 

We shared the same barber on Lispenard Street, Ilya from Uzbekistan who loved to talk about his friend Pete and the progress of his latest novel.

 

When did Pete get the time to even open the “cliff of books” that lined his loft? He seemed to have read everything. 

 

I once thought I might stump him with a mention of Lawrence Durrell and his Alexandrian Quartet, instead he regaled me with a summary of the intricate four volume story along with some choice lines from CP Cavafy, the poet of Alexandria.

 

Perhaps my best tribute is that I never walked away from a chat with Pete without feeling better about myself.

 

He was indeed a seanchaí and a towering Irish-American. I hope he knew just how much he meant to so many of us.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

August 15th in another universe

 Is it my imagination or did Irish country people have more reverence for the Blessed Virgin than town or city folk?

 

Whatever the answer rural areas definitely celebrated the Feast of the Assumption on August 15th with more vigor.

 

Did that veneration hark back to the pre-Christian roots of the harvest? Perhaps, for on the Feast of the Assumption country people in their Sunday best cast aside their innate shyness and proudly promenaded along County Wexford’s many beaches.

 

My grandfather, Thomas Hughes, stonecutter and widower, went one better. After mass and an early lunch (which we called dinner) he would pack us grandkids into his blue Morris Minor and drive all the way to Tramore in Co. Waterford.

 

He had never quite mastered the relationship between clutch and accelerator and thus we would depart Wexford town with a mighty roar on this 45-mile odyssey.

 

What with the heat and anticipation I remember little of those journeys except the inevitable traffic jam on the quays of Waterford City as we joined a cavalcade of other small cars on our annual culchie pilgrimage

.

Onwards we crept with the excitement building until turning a bend we beheld the majestic sweep of Tramore beach. The name itself was an Anglicization of Trá Mór, or big strand and it was no exaggeration.

 

In my biased memory it was always sunny, and thousands sweltered and sweated as they strolled back and forth along the miles of pristine sand. 

 

The men wore dark suits and starched white shirts, those of a frisky nature removed their ties; some even discarded shoes and socks, rolled up their trouser legs, and frolicked in the foam and spray.

 

Likewise many country ladies skittishly gathered their flowery dresses up beyond their knees and waltzed out with their men folk into the waves.

 

Few adults swam in those days, perhaps due to the impropriety of disrobing in small cars, besides which many the rural priest on his constitutional would have looked askance at a woman displaying bare arms and legs on the Virgin’s feast day.

 

We pagan children had no such scruples. Even now I can taste the salt on my lips and the whip of the cold spray on my face as we raced into the frigid South Atlantic and dared the huge waves to bowl us over.

 

Meanwhile my grandfather would watch from the dry sand as his four charges cavorted for hours. But I could tell his mind was elsewhere for he had often mentioned that he and my grandmother made that same pilgrimage every August 15th

 

There was always a sadness about him when he thought of her. They had been very close and the whispered word around the kitchen was that “he was lost without her.”

 

But that was a grown-up matter and I had more immediate concerns, for Tramore was bursting with “amusements” such as swings and dodgems (which we called bumpers), and Thomas Hughes carried a pocketful of change to make sure that we had our fill of such entertainment.

 

Pop songs crackled from overdriven speakers as we meandered along avenues of vendors hawking ice cream, lemonade and toffee-apples.

 

While in many spaces between stalls buskers made their stand, attended by cardsharps, and other sleight-of-hand merchants enticing you to gamble away your hard-earned pennies and thrupenny bits.

 

This was the old hidden Ireland where I was first introduced to the like of Margaret Barry and Pecker Dunne who traveled the roads singing the lays and laments of our people that would soon be swept away by the electric onslaught of Beatles and Stones.

 

Then way too soon we would dig into our parting feast of greasy chips smothered in salt and vinegar and be on our way in our blue Morris Minor, our necks craned backwards for one last view of the magical beach.

 

And somewhere beyond the town of New Ross Thomas Hughes would lead us in the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary in honor of Mary, Queen of the Gael. 

 

My two younger brothers would doze off to the comforting drone of Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glorias, while my grandfathers’ eyes would grow soft as he recalled other times when he and his lost wife made the same journey home.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Frank McCourt and the Feckin' eejit!

 As an immigrant engaged in the artistic world I’ve learned to look on the sunny side of life. And yet in these strange days even I have to battle the blahs and blues. 

 

Still, you learn some essential things from a life of uncertainty, the most important – you can’t make it on your own. 

 

It’s so easy to retreat into a cocoon of self–reliance. But that can often leave you alone – and, even worse, lonely.

 

At times like this you need company and with so many avenues to social contact closed down, it’s time to pick up that phone and get the flow going again.

 

You used to have so many friends but as you’ve gotten older the ranks have thinned. People have passed on or moved on. But whatever, don’t go through this alone. It may be hard to make the first call but you’ll soon find that there’s someone out there who is beyond thrilled to hear from you.

 

I’m not a big social media type but in this time of trial I notice that people are flocking to Facebook pages where they can interact with others who share the same interests.

 

One of those is Christopher Carroll’s Fans of Celtic Crush where people who enjoy my SiriusXM show gather. It’s like a family, occasionally rambunctious, but always welcoming. 

 

If you have an interest in Celtic Music, history or just things Irish it’s a safe and fulfilling haven. And there are so many others.

 

How about exercise? And I mean a little more than bending your elbow. Not that there’s anything wrong with a drink or two at the end of the day, it can definitely be a mood changer, and right now who can’t deal with a dose of that?

 

But I was actually talking about walking – the premier exercise, good for the heart and the soul. Besides, there’s so much to see in nature at this time of year.

 

Say what? You live in the bowels of the city? Well I lived on the Lower East Side for an eternity and could always find some scrap of green amidst the concrete and MacAdam.

 

Queen Anne’s Lace and Wild Cornflower are blooming and waving in whatever breeze is blowing right now.

 

I don’t know why but the birds are singing like there’s no tomorrow. My favorites are the belligerent Red-Winged Blackbirds, but for color and delight the Cardinals and Blue Jays are hard to beat. 

 

As for Ospreys they’ve been on a comeback over the last decades. Take the A train out to Rockaway, stroll up towards Breezy Point and glory at their spectacular dives for dinner in the Atlantic. 

 

Wear your mask as much as possible. Despite politicians, or because of them, this plague is not going away anytime soon so it’s important to emerge from it with your health intact and possessing as many marbles as possible.

 

For that I defer to Frank McCourt who once stated, “After what I’ve achieved anyone who’s not writing their memoirs is a feckin’ eejit.”

 

He was right. I made a few bob with Green Suede Shoes – An Irish-American Odyssey, but more importantly, writing this memoir enriched my life, for it sent me off on tangents and took me back to places and people I’d forgotten about.

 

How do you start? Simple – anywhere but at the beginning. Make a list of the people and events that have most influenced you. Then off with you for an extended walk.

 

Take a pencil and notebook or even better activate the voice memo on your cell phone.

 

Note every inconsequential thought – soon your brain will be zinging with memories.

 

Don’t worry about looking stupid. You’re an artist now and beyond caring what every manner of lesser gobshite thinks of you. But I promise, you’ll soon be knee deep in your memoir and you’ll never look back. 

 

It may never sell a copy but your family, friends and stray acquaintances will know exactly who you are, where you came from, and what you stand for.

 

You’ll be so consumed with yourself you won’t notice the time flying until you’re strolling into your doctor’s office and rolling up your sleeve for the vaccine.

 

Now get cracking, there’s a new Angela waiting and she’s only dying to arise from her ashes!