Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Joyful, Glorious, and Sorrowful 15th of August

           The 15th of August always seems radiant to me now. But then I come from Wexford in the “Sunny South East,” so perhaps my memory is not playing tricks.

            The date marks the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven. Since we believed implicitly in Catholicism this miraculous event was no less plausible than Original Sin or Limbo. Of more concrete importance, the 15th of August being a national holiday, I had a choice to make – which grandparents to spend the day with?

My paternal side would take their usual leisurely trip down to their farm near Carnsore Point. On the 15th, however, they would also visit Our Lady’s Island where the faithful commemorated the feast day with hymns, rosaries and a banner-led procession.

We never marched for my grandfather didn’t approve of such gratuitous displays of holiness, preferring his own somber, silent faith.

The old rural Ireland was already beginning to fade, and you could now catch the occasional Roy Orbison song leaking from some huckster’s transistor radio and mixing uneasily with O Sacrament Most Holy or O Salutaris Hostia.

Unfazed by such sacrilege, those seeking relief from diverse maladies hobbled along in the wake of the procession. Cures were not uncommon and the faithful lustily rejoiced in the afterglow of these supernatural happenings.

            Despite such heavenly signs I usually opted to spend the day with my maternal grandfather. He had been a widower for some time but still followed his wife’s family tradition of driving the 50 miles to Tramore in Co. Waterford on the 15th. 

He would cram as many of us grandchildren as would fit into his old blue Morris Minor and with a roar of the engine we would thunder off down the long and winding road. Despite his many years of driving he had never mastered the interplay between clutch and accelerator, and had gained the nickname, Dan Dare, in honor of a rocket-propelled, science fiction radio star of the time.

Tramore was a wonderland back then - its name derived from the Gaelic, Trá Mór, or Big Strand. The beach is enormous, and though we would often emerge from the Atlantic blue from the cold, still we spent hours frolicking amid the crashing waves.

            But it was the slot machines, the dodgems, swings and general carnival-like atmosphere that captivated us. Though heavenly in its own way there was little hint of devotion to any virgin - sacred or secular - in this mad, swirling rural Las Vegas.

            The crowds rivaled Dublin’s O’Connell Street on All-Ireland Hurling Final day. Buskers the like of Maggie Barry and The Pecker Dunne cast their spell over the hundreds gathered around them on street corners. Con men and tricksters from the nearby city of Waterford plied their wares and skills on unsuspecting culchies.

 Everyone wore their Sunday best: the men uniformly attired in heavy dark suits, the collars of their white shirts sportily thrown open, their sensible ties rolled neatly and deposited next to rosary beads in jacket pockets. Many sat on the beach like so many penguins or rolled up their pants legs and waded in the surf and transient tide pools.

            When the shadows deepened we would tumble back into the old Morris Minor, sunburned, and sated by bottles of Miami Orange and bars of Cadbury’s Chocolate.  

Somewhere between New Ross and Wexford Town my grandfather would begin the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, never the Glorious or Joyful. I suppose that says something about his nature or, perhaps, the still keenly felt loss of his wife.  We would answer by rote, some of us dozing in the soft evening light.

            We had no idea that change was so close and would soon sweep this world away. The Beatles were already making a name for themselves in Hamburg, Martin Luther King was on the march in Alabama, and up the road in the partitioned North of Ireland Catholics were beginning to question their second-class citizenship.

Everything seemed permanent and in its appointed place as we thundered on, scattering Hail Mary’s and Glorias in our noisy wake on another glorious and joyful 15th of August.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Rave on Mr. Yeats

          William Butler Yeats was born 150 years ago. He was an outsider in so many ways – a Protestant from the merchant classes never entirely at home in the big houses of the landed gentry, a nationalist with a pronounced Anglo-Irish accent, a poet revered in universities who never sat for a degree, the list goes on.

            Renowned for his glittering and insightful poetry, there was so much more to Willie Yeats. A shy and introverted man he felt that the artist should not only develop his craft but fully engage in public affairs. Thus, he immersed himself in the “national question” and thoroughly embraced his Irish identity.

            He believed that knowledge should be shared, and traveled widely around Ireland giving lectures to workingmen and women. My grandfather told me of a talk “Mister Yeats” gave at the Mechanics’ Institute in Wexford on “The Necessity of Creating an Irish National Theatre.”

            Apparently the lecture was stirring but what impressed the workers most was that Yeats refusal to leave the building until every last question was answered.

            He did create an Irish National Theatre with Lady Gregory from the ground up - finding suitable premises, hiring actors, writing and soliciting plays, down to counting the proceeds and paying the bills. All this from a man with little experience of handling money – his father was an impecunious artist who ended up in New York City dependent on the charity of others.

            Though aware of his own genius, Yeats was generous to anyone with talent. A world figure at 39, yet he listened to both the personal and professional criticisms of a supremely confident, but unpublished, 20-year old James Joyce.

            He never doubted that Synge’s Playboy of the Western World would be performed wherever people loved great playwriting. Likewise, he stood by the prickly Sean O’Casey through thick and thin, taking to the stage when the Abbey Theatre audience rioted in protest against the young socialist’s attitude to sex and religion in The Plough and the Stars.

            A man of many interests, Mr. Yeats went mano-a-mano with the scandalous Aleister Crowley over the stewardship of The Golden Dawn, a hermetic magical society. Crowley, a man of powerful intellect wrote with some glee that for all Yeats’ gifts he could not imagine the gangly, ungainly poet engaged in any kind of sexual endeavor.

            And yet, the cerebral Mr. Yeats was not without his successes with the ladies. Alas, the one closest his heart, Maud Gonne, led him a not-so-merry dance. The poet wrote “White Birds” immediately after his proposal of marriage was refused by the wily Maud who promised that instead of a plunge into matrimony they would forever be united like “white birds on the foam of the sea.”

            Despite this greatest of literary kiss-offs, Willie persevered with his suit for further decades. However, he did gain the ultimate revenge by proposing to Maud’s daughter, Iseult. One can only imagine Mama’s reaction.

            And yet, the world is a much richer place because of the many lovelorn lines penned by Mr. Yeats in the pursuit of his stony beloved.

            Is there a more profound yet succinct poet – one who gets to the heart of the matter with the least fuss? I often think his following lines perfectly distill and encapsulate the tragedy of our national and religious divisions:

 “Great hatred, little room, maimed us at the start
I carry from my mother’s womb a fanatic heart”

            While his pithy statement “a terrible beauty is born” says so much about the flawed redemption of the 1916 uprising.

            Perhaps more than anyone Yeats saw that the new Ireland created in 1922 had merely exchanged masters – Catholic bishops for British royalty. In a speech in 1925 when the Irish Free State was about to outlaw divorce, he spoke somewhat presciently, “We (Irish Protestants) are no petty people. Your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.”

            Outsider he might have been but this often-unworldly poet had his finger on the pulse of Ireland, and could see that theocracy of any kind limits and ultimately damages a society.

            Rave on, Mr. Yeats, 150 years young, your words and actions still resound across the ages.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Here's to The Catskills and O'Shea's Irish Center

            We were fired from The Casino on Cape Cod immediately after we stepped offstage. It came as a total surprise as we’d been hired for the summer and it wasn’t yet Memorial Day.

Not a good night for Turner & Kirwan of Wexford, we were flat broke, our money spent on immigration lawyers and a new van.

            After three nights of cadging drinks around Falmouth I called Mike O’Brien of the infamous Trinity Two - a mentor of sorts to us.

            “Fired again,” says he. “What did you do this time?”

            “Nothing, Mike, everyone loved us, honest to god!”

            “Oh yeah? Well, you’re in luck. The band here just got fired too, and the owners are looking for some bowsies who can make people dance.”

            “No better men,” I volunteered. “Where’s the gig and when do we start.”

            A man of few words, Mike rattled off, “O’Shea’s Resort, Leeds. Tonight!”

            “Where’s that?

            “The Catskills, buy a map. Be here no later than 7pm.”

            With that he hung up.

            Leeds was not as we expected. We sped through the village a number of times, eyes peeled for an Irish Grossinger’s replete with golf course and Olympic style swimming pool.

            Eventually we found the more utilitarian O’Shea’s Irish Center and thus began one of the great summers of my life. It didn’t start too auspiciously, for we knew none of the waltzes and foxtrots favored by the regulars. Luckily, a large group of young waiters from a nearby Italian resort dropped in and we bopped them ‘til they dropped.

            Within a week we were the toast of the town – such as it was – although I suspect people came as much to look as listen. I hadn’t shorn my hair or beard for over a year, and Turner’s cut was akin to David Cassidy’s on steroids.

            If we looked different, we fit right in as regards carousing, gambling, and all the other pastimes that back then attended the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Though it was the mid-1970’s, that summer the 60’s hit Leeds with a bang.

            Not that Jerry and Mrs. O’Shea seemed to notice. What a lovely couple! Forty years out of Kerry and you could still cut their accents with a knife. Mrs. O’Shea’s specialty was a formidable meatloaf that she served with great regularity; perhaps more to the point she had a kind word for everyone’s hangover.

She did insist that all her staff take three communal meals a day; this caused no end of problems at the breakfast table as few had hit bed before dawn.

            Mr. Jerry O’Shea had been a boxer. His favorite pastime was to feint the unwary with a left hook, then hammer home a straight right to the shoulder that caused near paralysis. Needless to say, his staff was always on its toes.

            Down the street in Gilfeather’s Sligo Tavern, the late, lamented Joe Nellany held court. Joe may have occasionally played his accordion without a lit cigarette dangling from his lower lip, but never in my presence.

Gerry Finlay and Tommy Mulvihill, the soundest of musicians and gentlemen, were stalwarts in his Sligo Aces, while in nearby East Durham, Dermie Mac belted out rockers and, to our considerable chagrin, was adored by the ladies.

We spent our Mondays at the free concerts in Saratoga Springs or in Woodstock where one blessed night we sat next to members of The Band in Tinker Street Café.

            We wasted away steamy days in the river below O’Shea’s; it was on the nearby rocks I began my first novel – it was god-awful, but it hooked me on this writing business.

            The O’Sheas have long gone. But I bet there are many loyal Echo subscribers who remember them, for everyone in Leeds devoured this paper in those serene pre-internet days.

            Eventually, the summer ended and we all went our separate ways. I didn’t return until the 1990’s with Black 47. The world had changed immeasurably but everything in Leeds and East Durham seemed much the same. That’s the glory of the mountains – peace, continuity and simplicity.

            To everyone up there this summer, I wish you the best, and let’s raise a glass for those no longer with us. Here’s to the Catskills!

Monday, 13 July 2015

A Great American

            I didn’t totally recognize the voice on the other end of the line but he laid straight into his subject.

            George Washington’s refusal to become king of the newly liberated American states is hardly is hardly an everyday topic; yet the speaker was utterly convinced of its relevance to the then ongoing Iraq War.

            I listened to the laconic, yet impassioned, voice for further clues. But it wasn’t until he inquired, “And how are you, Lang?” that I finally concluded that Pete Seeger had called me.

            I first met him in an era when one wrote letters. He had given me his phone number but I just couldn’t get my head around ringing the great man.

            In my best Christian Brothers’ handwriting the two “r’s” in my first name apparently resembled an “n” and so he called me Lang. After he’d done so a couple of times I couldn’t bring myself to correct his mistake; it would have been akin to lecturing Mount Rushmore.

            He pronounced my new name with a vaguely Scottish burr, so perhaps he thought I’d been named after Robbie Burns’ New Year’s Eve song. It caused many a raised eyebrow when he addressed me in public, but eventually I got used to it - the fact that he was talking to me at all was reason enough for celebration.  

And now, a quarter of a century after our last conversation he wanted my help in crafting a play about a meeting between General Washington and his officers where he declined their offer to declare himself head of state.

            Though the subject was gripping I could sense straight off that it presented problems. From what I knew, old George was already sick to the teeth of public life and wished for nothing more than to get home to Mount Vernon where he could murder pints of homemade dark porter. So where would the drama be?

            Pete swept this niggardly consideration aside.

            “Lang,” said he, “I’m not sure you understand the analogy. The great George Washington could innately understand the dangers of overstepping his mandate, but our current imperial president has no such qualms about dispatching our young people around the globe in wars of choice.”

            There was no two ways about it, Mr. Seeger had a point, and once he had the bit between his teeth, no president or congress would sway his views – let alone some trumped-up Wexford corner-boy.

            I could foresee many aggravated trips up to his house in Beacon and many sleepless nights as I strove to put the great man’s thoughts into a coherent dramatic form. And so we talked on for an hour or more until he had to leave for his ongoing protest against George Bush’s Folly. This consisted of Mr. Seeger standing at a rural crossroads bearing a banner denouncing the Iraq War.

            You had to hand it to him. He’d spent a lifetime in such pursuits and now in his 80’s he showed no signs of flagging. He expected no less of those around him.

He seemed unaware of, or impervious to, any kind of danger. I remember Turner & Kirwan of Wexford performing for him outdoors in Beacon in the 1970’s.

            The show was running an hour late and we were about to take the stage when the soundman declared that our set would be cut to 15 minutes. When we protested the gentleman informed us we could play as long as we liked but we would do so acoustically as the town was dangerous and he would be on the highway with the PA system before the sun went down.

            I looked out and there was Pete strolling around like a pied piper surrounded by the local urban youth. Color, creed, nor class meant little to him. He thought the best of everyone until proved otherwise. And so we played our full set regardless of the soundman’s protestations and everyone got home safe and satisfied.

            We never did get around to writing the Washington play but I often think of Pete when confronted by the demands of principle and pragmatism. What a privilege to have had dealings with someone who embodied so much of what’s great about America. 

Monday, 29 June 2015

St. Patrick's Day Parade 2016 - all changed utterly

            The recent decision of the Irish people to legalize gay marriage closed a chapter of church-state integration and laid a foundation for a secular Irish society.

            Yet in all the immediate celebration and commentary there was little mention of the very obvious elephant in our room – the ongoing war over gay participation in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

            Yes, I know it’s barely three months since the last battle, but with the referendum everything has changed utterly. Talk about a terrible beauty being born!

            Let’s recap a little. When it seemed like the 2015 Parade would have to allow participation by Irish gay groups or suffer sponsorship boycott, the Parade Committee threw two brilliant counter punches. They chose the popular Cardinal Dolan as Grand Marshal and invited the NBC LGBT group, Out@Universal, to march.

            It was a short-term victory for there’s little doubt that unless an LGBT Irish group is invited to march Parade sponsors will come under popular pressure to withhold their support in 2016. Hopefully, this won’t be necessary.

            This is, after all, New York - one of the world’s most progressive cities. Besides with next year being the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Uprising, it’s a good time to settle this contentious matter once and for all.

            I firmly believe that there’s a desire on both sides to do so, despite Parade Chairman Dunleavy’s statement that LGBT groups “will have a problem” marching. The key is to get an early start and not leave it until early March when positions have already hardened.

            In any meaningful compromise both sides need to feel that their views are respected and that they do not have to totally surrender long-held principles. Senator George Mitchell was very cognizant of these points in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Belfast Agreement.

            Thus, it would behoove both sides to take into account the other’s respective hurts, goals and traditions. The back-story to the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization’s (ILGO) groundbreaking activism in the 1990’s often goes unmentioned. By then the New York Gay community had suffered through the scourge and heartbreak of AIDS for over a decade. This curried ILGO’s desire to be accepted as an organization that wished to march and celebrate its Irish heritage under its own banners.
            From the perspective of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, the members merely feel that they are upholding their right to continue the traditions of a Catholic gathering that observes Catholic Church teaching.

            But was the first NYC parade in 1762 exclusively Catholic? Probably not, since it was organized by Irish troops serving in the British Army. Perhaps it’s time the Parade focused on its Irish rather than its Catholic identity? That works in Dublin, so why not New York City – the home of inclusiveness?

            I have friends who argue that the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade honors those who fought Know-Nothing anti-Catholicism down the centuries. But such bigotry is a thing of the past, and traditions can become rusty chains if they’re not greased with relevance.

            The real crux of the issue is that many structured religions have problems dealing with the breadth of human sexuality and, like it or not, homosexuality is a part of the natural order. Likewise, it’s hardly a secret that down through the ages the Catholic Church has provided a safe haven within its clergy and religious orders for many with no inclination to marry whether for sexual or other reasons.

            But times have changed and nowadays there’s an accelerating acceptance of diversity. Pope Francis himself when questioned about gay people remarked, “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?”

            He’s right, of course, and what a breath of fresh air sweeping aside the cobwebs of dogma. People have always found ways of circumventing the strictest of Church rules – ask the overwhelming percentage of married Catholics who disregard church teaching on contraception.

            What’s needed is someone of stature who will bring both sides together in a spirit of good will. Once people start talking face-to-face anything is possible.

            The time for mediation is now otherwise next March the parade will become a major battleground, not to mention a financial basket case  – it’s time for a little sanity.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Bloomsday - James Joyce - June 16th

            I was a callow youth when I attended my first Bloomsday event in New York City. I remember little about the setting except that it was dark and much drink was taken. 

            From the stage Frank McCourt related that while serving in the US Army in Germany he was asked out by a lady officer much taken with his accent.

“Are you familiar with Joyce?” She inquired over their first drink.

            “No,” Frank replied, “what does she look like?”

McCourt who would later become the best-selling Irish writer of his generation had little notion of James Joyce, whereas nowadays every Paddy that ever lifted a pen could quote from Ulysses ‘til the cows came home.

            Take yours truly, for instance, with three upcoming Joycean engagements; you could posit that I’m a first class literary poseur or another poor soul afflicted with Joyceitis.

            James Joyce himself profited little from his writing. His wife, Nora Barnacle, complained that “them auld books caused nothing but trouble. You should have stuck to the singing.” She had a point for at one Feis Ceoil he came in third place to the great Count John McCormack.

            But Joyce never doubted his own brilliance. As a young man with nothing yet published he told the world renowned WB Yeats that the poet was beyond help.

            Joyce was also an accomplished mooch who borrowed like it was going out of style. When it came to creditors and landlords he was rarely more than one step ahead of the hounds.

            Hemingway (a man who knew whereof he spoke) said that Joyce was a rummy of the first order. And yet Sunny Jim was a drunk with discretion, for though he quaffed white wine by the gallon, he would not touch a drop of red – for it reminded him of blood.

            Joyce knew his women and wrote expertly - and intimately - about them. Every man contemplating matrimony should read the last 30 pages of Ulysses when Molly Bloom shares her thoughts. Some will go dashing back to the safe haven of bachelorhood; many more will roar out “tally-ho!”

            That’s the power of Joyce and you will have two opportunities to experience the wondrous Aedín Moloney inhabit the character of Molly in the coming weeks. First up will be on June 11th at Barnes & Noble in Tribeca where she will terrify the uptight in the company of Pete Hamill, Malachy McCourt and yours truly. 

This event will be sponsored by Irish American Writers and Artists; however don’t bring your Grand-Aunt Fanny unless she can handle unbridled womanhood in the raw, for Molly Bloom is a woman of considerable appetites.

Aedín will reprise the role outside Ulysses Folkhouse on Pearl Street on the afternoon of June 16th.

            I am often hailed as the world’s foremost male interpreter of the Ulysses character, Gerty McDowell – being the only one certainly helps. I’ll be unleashing Dirty Gerty, as she is commonly known, while leading a discussion on Ulysses in Bryant Park Reading Room at lunchtime on June 16th.

            All these Joycean events are free in honor of Sunny Jimmy Joyce who never cared to pay for anything himself. You should attend one or more for Ulysses is much better heard than read.

            Jot down some quotes that tickle your fancy – and there will be many for Joyce put the kitchen sink into “the world’s greatest novel.”

            Then on June 17th, in the solitude of your room, with a roaring hangover, you can commit your favorite lines to memory.

Upon recovery, dressed in your best seersucker suit and straw hat, head for your local saloon where you can mouth off these priceless nuggets to the assembled shocked and awed peasants. Have no qualms about accepting every free drink offered you, and demand copious buybacks from your barkeep.

            Ah yes, God bless Jimmy Joyce, genius and freeloader, the month of June would not be the same without him.

June 16  12:30-1:45pm, Bryant Park Reading Room, 42nd St./5th Ave., NYC
June 16  2pm  Ulysses Folk House, 95 Pearl St., NYC
June 16  11pm  Celtic Crush, SiriusXM Radio - The Spectrum, Ch. 28, Bloomsday Show

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Celtic Crush - 10 Years Later

I’ve always loved radio. I suppose that comes from spending so many solitary nights back in Wexford tuned into an ancient tube-powered wireless. What treasures seeped from its cloth-covered speakers! I could summons voices from Luxembourg, London, American Forces Network in Germany (AFN), not to forget Bulgaria.

            The comrade with the sexy voice from Radio Sofia was my favorite. It didn’t matter that she was preaching the destruction of capitalism and the demise of the Holy Father in Rome, I was hooked by her sultry Eastern European accent. I even wrote her a fan letter and was rewarded with a big package addressed to “Comrade Laurence Kirwan.”

            This caused no end of problems, as Jim Morris, our postman, was not only a Fianna Fail member of Wexford Corporation but a very devout Catholic. He complained to my grandfather about the godless, communist propaganda I was receiving. He needn’t have bothered - I was already disenchanted: instead of a picture of the sexy comrade, they had sent a long boring treatise on Marxism.
            Fast-forward many years to an interview with Meg Griffin at Sirius Satellite Radio about the latest Black 47 CD. Steve Blatter, Vice President of Music Programming, happened to hear my accent and inquired from Meg if I’d be capable of stringing a couple of coherent sentences together as they were in need of a host for a Celtic show.
Ms. Griffin assured him of my rapier-like loquaciousness and a week later I was behind the controls at Sirius delivering the first broadcast of Celtic Crush. 

            I’ve been doing it now for ten years and it has enriched my life enormously.  Once I’d figured out the studio technology I was encouraged to produce the show.

            This essentially means that I choose the songs, and I decided from the outset that I would reward songwriters and musicians who took chances in their search for excellence.  

There are many types of Celtic music - each with its own boisterous proponents; however, most agree that we feature a strong selection from their genre on Celtic Crush with little nod to commerciality. Finding great songs is always a task; on the other hand “modern” Celtic music has over fifty years of material to choose from.

            Because it’s satellite radio the show is broadcast throughout the US and Canada and can be accessed by computer anywhere in the world. With over 150 full-time channels broadcasting simultaneously you’ve got to be engaging and on your toes, but with 28 million subscribers there’s a potentially huge audience.

            I keep the show as loose as possible for there’s a thrill in being just one step away from disaster. I begin with a three to five minute soliloquy and this sets the tone for the show. I usually concoct this “opening statement” on my pre-dawn subway journey to the studio. If nothing else it keeps me awake!

            I use no notes or computer. It’s just one person with a microphone and a lot of great music. Having played 25 years with Black 47, I often personally know the artists I’m talking about. But I’m not concerned with their personal foibles – only their art and how they create it.

            During interviews I try to put the artists at ease so that they’ll open up to the listeners about their music and its inspiration.

            Ray Davies was my favorite interviewee. What an intelligent person and a gentleman to boot – he walked me through the recording of Waterloo Sunset, as though it had happened yesterday instead of 1967.

            Why is Ray Davies Celtic? Well, his people originated in Wales and he lives in Ireland part of the year. That’s Celt enough for me. Still, we feature everything from The Kilfenora Ceili Band to Dropkick Murphys with many a stop in-between.

            And so this coming Saturday I’ll celebrate ten years of Celtic Crush with a look backwards. It never ceases to amaze me how great songs hold up while great arrangements and fashionable choices so often don’t.

            Or as Stephen Foster is reputed to have said, “great music is forever, everything else fades away.” Celtic Crush continues to thrive ten years later.

Celtic Crush can be heard on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, The Spectrum, Ch. 28, Saturdays 7-10amET, Tuesdays 11pmET.  Two full shows always available by signing up for On Demand.