Tuesday, 15 January 2019

From Paradise Square to Berkeley 155 years later

Have you ever looked up at a Broadway stage and wondered just how a riveting performer got there? I can assure you it did not happen without hard work and fierce determination.

Many have special gifts, and they’re all talented, but the sheer effort that goes into getting cast in a top-of-the-line musical is extraordinary. 

Cyndi Lauper once put it to me in her inimitable manner, “Anyone can give 100%; it’s what do you got at 120 or 125 that counts?”

Paradise Square is now well into its sold out run at Berkeley Rep and has already been extended until Feb. 24th. Some of you will remember the project began as Hard Times at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell, directed by Kira Simring back in 2012.  

There’s a tremendous buzz about this musical that deals with the amalgamation of “Famine” Irish and African-Americans in New York City’s Five Points in 1863.

The wonderful 32-member cast has brought “the most notorious slum in America” roaring back to gritty life on the huge stage of the beautiful Roda Theatre in downtown Berkeley, CA.

So herewith – an insight into three young performers who hail from quintessentially Irish-American locations – Pearl River, NY; South Philadelphia, PA; and Dublin, OH.

I remember the day Bridget Riley auditioned for choreographer, Bill T. Jones.  She was so photogenically Irish - long red hair, pale skin, and sparkling blue eyes. Then again she was born and bred in Pearl River.

Though she seemed almost waif-like, you could sense her determination. More importantly she possessed an odd timeless quality and I instinctively knew she would embody the spirit of the many young women who escaped Ireland’s Great Hunger, attended Five Points dance halls, cast aside convention, and married African-American men.

And can she dance! She began ballet at 5, switched to Deirdre Guilfoyle’s School of Irish Dance in West Nyack at 12, before adding Jazz & Tap at 14.  But from the moment her mother took her to see Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, the six-year old girl knew where she was headed.  
Ambitious and organized, Bridie has a way with people and was chosen as one of two dance captains for Paradise Square’s run at Berkeley Rep.

Sidney DuPont is a solid 2% Irish. He learned that through Ancestry.com. He attended CAPA (Creative Performing Arts High School) in South Philly, a safe haven where he could shape his craft; he began performing professionally at sixteen.

It was while marching/performing in the St. Patrick Day Parade that he was first introduced to Irish step dancing which he finds mesmerizing, and calls a fusion of tap and ballet.

He plays William Henry Lane, AKA Master Juba, a runaway slave hiding out in The Five Points who enters into a partnership with Owen Duignan, recently arrived from famine-stricken Ireland.

The friendship of the two young men is severely tested when Owen’s name is called in the Civil War Draft while Will Henry, as an African-American, is prohibited from joining “Mr. Lincoln’s Army.”

Sidney is a triple threat, a dancer who can channel the legendary Master Juba, a singer not unlike Curtis Mayfield, and a skilled actor.

Anyone who’s been to their big annual festival knows just how Irish Dublin OH is. You could say the same for A.J. Shively who plays Owen Duignan.

Although he’s an amazing mover it’s been an experience to watch him learn Irish step dancing from the ground up. 

He did have Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman from Hammerstep for coaches. But six months later he’s matching steps with them nightly as he goes mano-a-mano against Master Juba in a dance battle for his life. 

But that’s the signature of all these 32 performers – if there’s a skill you need to master in a hurry, then bring it on! A gig’s a gig and it’s all a step forward to a hallowed goal – originating a role on the Broadway stage.

Did I mention that A.J. has a voice to die for and that he’s fallen in love with Sean-Nós singing through merging his psyche nightly with Owen Duignan, the Gorta Mór refugee.

Three major talents from three bedrock Irish-American areas, and every night they give 125 % in a theatrical séance that summonses up the spirits of the Irish and African-Americans who for a brief moment rewrote American history.

 "Paradise Square" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA Jan.10-Feb.17 Tickets and information www.berkeleyrep.org

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Christmas in Wexford

It’s been thirty years now since I’ve spent Christmas in Wexford. But as many of you can testify the memories of an Irish Christmas stay strong.

Of course, your relationship to “home” changes when your mother, father, and the old house are gone, but once you come to terms with those losses there’s still a whole vista of nostalgia to reacquaint yourself with and treasure.

Back in my youth Ireland had certain universal traditions: a delirious Christmas Eve followed by midnight mass or service, and a dead certainty that from Christmas morning on until New Year’s Day one could relax and celebrate with family and friends. 

And yet, each town and county had its own traditions. In Wexford the main one was the sheer joy of welcoming home emigrants.

Like many other areas of Ireland, Wexford was scarred by emigration. Because of the proximity of the UK and the low cost of travel, there was often a casual nature to many an exit.

You could go out for a drink on a Saturday afternoon with some of the lads home from London, and find yourself still in their company on the Rosslare ferry to Fishguard later that night.

By the same token you had to be very down on your luck not to make it home to Wexford from London, Dagenham, or Birmingham for “the Christmas.”

The boat train that arrived twice a day would be jam packed from Dec. 20th on, and the old town would echo with the footsteps of returning emigrants as they strode up and down the Main Street making sure that nothing had changed in their absence.

Families would return too – local men and women accompanied by their English wives and husbands, the children with hilarious cockney & scouse accents, sounding like pintsized Jaggers and Lennons.

Christmas lights would stretch from lampposts across the narrow streets and Woolworths, our one department store, would be chockablock with flirting teenagers, and anxious grown-ups seeking bargains for Christmas presents.

Few people had much money back then and the rich took care not to flaunt it, for it would have been considered the height of bad taste to make even the lowest feel less valued.

Was that a Christian ethic or an awareness that every Irish family had at one time experienced either repression or famine – and there could well be another come-uppance lurking just around the corner?

Whatever, Christmas was a time of communal joy, and the pubs reverberated with good fellowship as everyone – both emigrant and stay-at-homer - vied with each other to buy their round.

Faces would be flushed from the heat, overcrowding, and the sheer delight of seeing an old classmate - resplendent in the latest London fashions - flash a twenty-pound note at a dazzled barman.

And while the owner was shouting, “Ah lads, come on now, drink up, or the guards will take me license,” many would already be winding their wobbly way up to the Friary or one of the diocesan churches for midnight mass.

Others would arrive beyond fashionably late, and the wiser priests would stall their entry so as not to suffer the inevitable tumbling into pews or the loudly whispered greetings among the hard chaws back by the holy water font.

Nor was it unusual for the flutered devout to doze off into a fit of snoring until rudely awoken by a comrade’s elbow in the ribs. For attendance at midnight mass meant that you could forego the bleary downtown excursion for last mass the following morning.

But there was something else about this late night religious tradition – the pure joy of knowing you were home and taking part in a communal celebration about who you were and where you came from.

A very happy Christmas to the Irish Echo community and special best wishes to those undocumented who will once again not make it home for fear they will not be allowed back in the US.

I remember the feeling well in my own undocumented days, and the hope that something would change for the better the following year. My heart goes out to you.  Hang in there, perhaps in 2019.

Anthony Bourdain

Like many I was saddened by the death of Anthony Bourdain. He was the real deal in a medium full of botoxed puppets who spin their seven-minute slots of scripted talking points in between interminable ads.

Right from the start I felt I knew him from somewhere, but such things happen for as Joan Rivers once wisely proclaimed, “After 50 everything rings a bell.”

On reading his obituary I thought I’d found the answer: he had been chef at Les Halles, one of my favorite restaurants, mere crawling distance from Rocky Sullivan’s and Paddy Reilly’s. 

And so I figured he was one of those gregarious lords of the kitchen who descend on your table soliciting compliments, usually while your mouth is full.

But when I watched his final CNN show devoted to the Lower East Side the penny dropped.

It was nothing spectacular - he was just another face in the crowded mad scene of the early ‘80’s down around Avenues A and B. 

I never spoke to him but I saw him often enough, usually standing in the center of a crowd, his charismatic face lit up with laughter and booze, the center of attention in a scene of many stars. 

But there was another recurring memory of him – solitary and hunched over his drink, often picking at a small plate of food.

Did you ever notice that some people habitually gravitate to the same part of whatever bar they find themselves – Anthony’s was down near the service station where he could banter with the bartender and waitresses when the mood hit him.

When he talked about his heroin use in that last show, pieces of his puzzle fell into place. Many hard drug users are dual characters, extroverts dominating the conversation, but more often than not loners wearing almost visible “don’t mess with me” psychic armor to keep the world at bay.

His Lower East Side CNN show rocked me back on my heels. I had blacked out so much of the scene, partly because I spun off into a different universe when Black 47 took off; I moved away from Avenue B and a world I’d long been a part of.

Bourdain kept posing the same question to Debbie Harry, Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie and Lydia Lunch among others, “Was the scene on the Lower East Side really that special?”

In typical LES cool, each of the interviewees made a point of stating that “it was just a phase, life goes on, I’m still creative,” with the unspoken plea, “you should see what I’m doing now!”

And they’re right. No matter what you’ve achieved in the creative world, you’re only as good as your new song, novel, painting or film. 

Perhaps, the most grounded of his interviewees, the eternally creative John Lurie put it best. “I’m just glad I survived the excesses of the times and am still working.”

But there was something beyond special about the Lower East Side in those years - just think of Hilly Crystal’s CBGB’s! What a place – what a guy, so understated and matter of fact – but would there have been an international Punk scene without him?

Hilly’s own musical taste ran to Country and Bluegrass, and yet his club spawned a musical movement that rocked the world and changed the aesthetic of popular music. 

I saw The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, and the amazing Television emerge from CB’s miasma of mediocrity, for Hilly gave everyone and his mother a shot – including me!

But Lower East Side music was also the background track to a wonderful DIY kaleidoscope of poets, painters, choreographers, novelists, dreamers & cultural revolutionaries that you collided with in the bars, clubs, galleries and parties that seemed to go round the clock.

Craziness too – I once got a lovely kiss from Debbie Harry who upon hearing my accent mistook me for a Boomtown Rat.  Ah well, mistaken identity it may have been but she was our Marilyn and I still treasure the moment.

Yeah, Mr. Bourdain, your suspicions were right – those years in Alphabet City were amazing. They didn’t last. Nothing does. But thanks for the CNN memories and that tunnel back to a spiky past when everything seemed possible.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Ireland - Today and Yesterday

I take a couple of busloads of Americans and Canadians to Ireland every October. Most are listeners to Celtic Crush, my three-hour weekly radio program. As the show deals with history, politics, and current events the travelers already have a general awareness of the Ireland of today and yesterday.

Through conversations and attempts to answer my guests’ many questions I’m often forced to re-evaluate my own ideas and core beliefs.

I long ago realized that modern Ireland is far removed from the island I left behind in the 1970’s.  Even as late as the 1990’s there was still a familiar quaintness to the country - something I came to treasure, even though I had railed against it while living there.

I didn’t care for the changes that occurred around the time of the Celtic Tiger; but I partly attributed my attitude to the deaths of my parents in the early 2000’s. Those two milestone events cause most people to reassess life in general.

The financial crash of 2008 had dreadful consequences, yet oddly enough I began to relate to Ireland once again. People seemed more gracious, and as my mother would have put it, they regained “the run of themselves.”

Then recently Ireland took a giant leap forward. The present Taoiseach though young, gay, and of Indian descent, is very Irish.  And yet compare Leo Varadkar to Eamon de Valera, Charles Haughey, or even Enda Kenny, his immediate predecessor. We’re talking revolutionary change! 
Now you could say this is a fluke and that the old status quo will reinvent itself in the guise of some new conservative leader.

But I doubt it, for the electorate who chose Mr. Varadkar has transcended many Irish traits, customs, and prejudices. The Ireland I grew up in would never have countenanced such a change.

This brings us to the position of the Catholic Church in modern Ireland. What a change - and a healthy one at that!

My opinion has little to do with faith or lack thereof; but the lifting of the awful blanket of clerical oppression that suffocated the social, sexual, and spiritual life of Ireland has transformed the country.

It’s not that one couldn’t temporarily kick off this suffocating blanket - I remember no clerical oppression in the randy bedsitter world of Rathmines in the early 1970’s; but as soon as you caught sight of the foreboding twin spires of Wexford town you could feel the clammy fist of clerical power reassert itself.

Don’t get me wrong: there were many compassionate and charitable people of the cloth, but the system had already corrupted itself by protecting the monsters who preyed upon children and the trusting.

The question is – what will replace the paternal influence of the Catholic Church? 

And now with the rise to respectability and prominence of Sinn Fein, nationalism – the other twin strand of Irish DNA – is also being transformed.

Of course, Brexit could change that. It’s hard to imagine that the British would be stupid enough to resurrect a “hard border,” but they’ve surprised us before.

Nor is Ireland impervious to the nativist winds of change sweeping Europe; the country even appears to have spawned its own mini-Trump in the figure of recent presidential candidate, Peter Casey.

And yet I witnessed a new Ireland last month when I watched a woman in hijab casually stroll through a small town with her Syrian husband, their young son already flaunting his Kerry accent.

I heard teenagers in Dublin converse as Gaeilge as though it were no big deal while a gay couple among them embraced openly without fear of aggression or ridicule.

The country may have problems – people sleep on trolleys in hospital corridors as they await medical care – but its citizens are no longer weighed down by the repressive baggage of centuries.

Ireland has finally become a modern European country. People may still be “wearin’ the Green” but they’re now doing so as a fashion statement.

Who knows what brave new world the little Syrian refugee boy will help build in County Kerry. But it will smack a lot more of Leo Varadkar than Eamon de Valera.

For Information on Larry Kirwan Tour of Ireland Oct. 1-7, 2019 write blk47@aol.com

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 http://www.brooklynjesuit.org/