Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Seán MacDiarmada, John Redmond and Wexford

I must have been around seventeen when I realized I had never seen my grandfathers in the same room together. They were both quite old by then and this behavior had been going on for well over fifty years.

One lived on a stately farm less than a mile outside town – now sadly buried beneath estates full of houses – the other, a headstone maker, occupied a big old barracks of a house near Wexford’s Selskar Abbey.

The cattle dealer drove into town most mornings for a shave, and a whiskey in The Wren’s Nest; he passed close to the headstone maker’s yard, yet their paths never seemed to cross.

By the same token, I never heard either of them say an unkind word about each other.

Lest you think this tale somewhat odd, there were many similar stories in the Ireland of my childhood. Most had their genesis in the brutal civil war of 1922-23.

This one, however, began some years earlier, yet it retains a certain resonance.

You see, the cattle dealer was a follower of John Redmond, leader of the Home Rule Party and a local Member of the British Parliament, while the headstone maker was an admirer of Seán MacDiarmada, one of the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

In a major parliamentary victory in 1914, the bookish, uncharismatic Redmond gained Home Rule for Ireland – something that Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell failed to do in their legendary careers.

Alas, that August the “war to end all wars” broke out between the Allies – Britain, France and Russia – and the Central Powers of Germany, and Austria-Hungary.

Redmond’s allies in the British Government prevailed upon him to postpone enactment of Home Rule until the war ended. Redmond advised Irish men to enlist in the British Army in a show of good will.

It was commonly expected that the war would be over by Christmas 1914 and that the young men would return matured and all the better for their great adventure; however it stretched on until 1918 and over 40 million people would perish in the years of combat.

One of them was my grand uncle, John Kirwan, aged 22, the cattle dealer’s only brother. Thus did the lofty affairs of Europe play out on the narrow provincial streets of Wexford.

John was among 59,247 British soldiers killed at the Battle of Loos over a couple of days in the Autumn of 1915 - in what was later deemed a suicidal advance towards the German lines.

He’s buried somewhere over there – another undistinguished pawn in the “great game.”

His death, however, had grave repercussions in Wexford. John’s mother, my great-grandmother, was consumed with grief and in the whispered words of my granny, “she lost her senses.”

Apparently she would accost other returned soldiers on the street and demand why they survived while “my John” did not.

My grandfather never spoke about the loss of his brother. He was a taciturn man at best, and I can only imagine that the event deepened his somewhat pessimistic take on life.

The headstone maker always spoke kindly of John Kirwan, and admired his athletic prowess and general character; though he would usually sigh about “the great mistake” such a fine man had made in joining the British Army.

For my grandfather Hughes was a supporter of the 1916 Uprising – a minority group in the Home Rule citadel of Wexford.

My grandfather Kirwan considered this “suicidal debacle” the ultimate “stab in the back” to the young Wexford men off fighting the Great War.

John Kirwan considered himself to be no less an Irish patriot than any republican; he gave up his life in a foreign land to achieve Home Rule for Ireland.

Alas for him and the thousands of other Home Rule Irish dead and injured, they were essentially written out of history, for they became an inconvenient fact in the new 26 County Free State where the Republican sacrifice of 1916 was venerated.

Every year, however, on Poppy Day they were uneasily celebrated and memorialized in the streets of Wexford, on a day you can be certain that my two grandfathers took more than usual care not to meet.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Sean O'Casey - Unrepentant Playwright/Navvy

I heard the song, Red Roses For Me, recently. Written by Sean O’Casey in 1943 for his play of the same name, it unleashed a wave of memories.

The commercial failure of the play caused O’Casey to veer away from theatre and write an amazing autobiography. We’re all the better for it.

Born in 1880 into the shabby genteel world of a lower middle class Dublin Protestant family, Sean was six when his father died leaving a family of 13 to fend for itself. As O’Casey would later somewhat drily recall, “All the world’s a stage and most of us are woefully unrehearsed.”

Because of an eye disease Sean’s schooldays were few; however, he taught himself to read and in his early teens mastered Shakespeare.

His lifelong passions were theatre, music, and politics; he mixed them with abandon.

Long on principles, short on patience, Sean O’Casey did not suffer fools easily and never forgot a slight.

If his life was etched in poverty O’Casey refused to be humbled by it. Indeed he was fired from his position as a lowly clerk in Eason’s newspaper business for refusing to doff his cap when receiving his wages. 

Sean O’Casey doffed his cap to no man and was consequently often unemployed.

He was even less successful in affairs of the heart, for his lack of income and Protestantism severely limited his marriage prospects in the largely Catholic world he inhabited.

Nonetheless, he threw himself into the churning political and cultural life of early 20th Century Dublin, and crossed paths – and often swords – with many of the prominent men and women of his day.

Along with Pádraig Pearse and other nationalists he founded the famed St. Lawrence O’Toole Pipe Band, and took up that most difficult of instruments, the Uilleann pipes. In a fury over his constant rehearsing, Sean’s brother eventually took an awl to his wailing pipes.

Outraged by the living conditions in Dublin slums O’Casey became an avid trade unionist and socialist revolutionary. He came under the influence of Jim Larkin’s towering personality and was one of the founders of the Irish Citizen Army. However, he cared little for his comrade, James Connolly, and they clashed over the Scottish socialist’s perceived tilt towards Irish nationalism.

After disagreeing with Countess Markievicz on similar issues he resigned as Secretary of the Citizen Army.

This would ultimately save his life, for it’s hard to imagine that the British authorities would have shown clemency towards the fiery proletarian revolutionary after the 1916 Uprising.

With time on his hands O’Casey began to write for the theatre and after many rejections he scored three massive successes with Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars. Each a perfect blend of tragedy and comedy these searing plays laid bare the effects of poverty, and religious and patriotic cant on the Irish soul.

But O’Casey was never totally accepted in any field - riots broke out in the Abbey Theatre during The Plough and The Stars over his portrait of a prostitute in “holy Catholic Ireland.”

After The Abbey rejected his anti-war drama, The Silver Tassie, Sean moved to England. Though he is recognized as one of the world’s greatest playwrights he never repeated the success of his dramatic Dublin trilogy. 

And so he turned to memoir, and in six volumes with the umbrella title, Mirror in My House, we get a detailed insight into eighty years of Irish political, social, and theatrical history from an acid-tongued observer. 

Sure he settled a score here and there, and if he was harsh on James Connolly at least we get to see the man rather than the legend.

And oh the heartbreak! Was there ever a more searing rejection than his beloved ignoring the impoverished workman when out walking with her well heeled friends?

Sean O’Casey not only changed the world of theatre, he took the time to put the passion and pain of his eventful life into print for the rest of us to marvel at.

He may have been peevish, harshly ideological, and easily wounded, but the Dublin playwright/navvy summed himself up best.  “I’ll go the last few steps of the way rejoicing; I’ll go game, and I’ll die dancing.”

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Hendrix and Christmas

The past and the present are inexplicably interlinked, yet we often forget how closely.

I had been thinking of writing a particular musical for some time – oh, perhaps twenty years; like many things it seemed to fit nicely on the back-burner. I had a good idea of its shape, scope, cast of characters, and theme but couldn’t quite figure how to begin.

Then I got the call. Stewart Lerman, a producer friend, had left a package for me at Electric Lady Studios - could I pick it up?

Nothing like a bit of a stroll on a December day, particularly to the recording studio built by Jimi Hendrix!

It was always a magical place but never more so than when Pierce Turner and I recorded there one Christmas Eve in the 1970’s. The song was called “Neck and Neck (in the race of life)” and I hummed it as I set out on my journey up to 8th Street.

I remembered little of the nuances of the session, but for the first time one of our songs sounded as good on tape as it did in our heads. 

I vividly recalled the psychedelic mural that Hendrix had painted on a corridor wall. Years ago I’d heard that a new owner had painted over Jimi’s vision.

Such is life in New York, and yet to many musicians this was considered sacrilege.

I have two favorite streets for my rambles north through Soho – Mercer or Greene. Back in the 19th Century the former was known colloquially as Oyster Row due to the number of fish merchants peddling their wares on its pavements.

I’m sure Greene Street too had a suitably serviceable name, as it was known internationally for its brothels. Queen Victoria’s son, the future King Edward VII famously paid his amorous respects there in 1860.

Since I was on a rock & roll mission, I chose Mercer Street so as to pass the site of the old Bottom Line club, now unfortunately displaced by a dispassionate New York University office. 

I had seen Springsteen there three times on his legendary five-night stand, and had been ejected for gregariously toasting Peter Gabriel with my own half-pint bottle of Southern Comfort when he danced on my table.

As I approached Washington Square I could hear the drums. The Bottom Line may be history but the Square has always marched to its own different drummer - each decade to its own inimitable beat.

This percussionist was precise and totally on the beat, the product of a life listening to Hip-Hop – so unlike the drummers from the 70’s and 80’s who grooved around a much more spacious pocket.

He was young, dreadlocked, tatted to the hilt, and he shook the Square as he hammered an upturned plastic bucket – no kick drum, just a sheet of beaten aluminum for his high-hat.

The receptionist was expecting me in Electric Lady. She smiled and was so friendly I inquired what year Jimi’s mural had been painted over. 

“It’s still there.” She pointed downstairs. “Why don’t you take a look?”

And there it was, much as I remembered it – a bit faded, but then which of us isn’t?

I stared down that long corridor – each panel a different psychedelic vista. It was like traveling back in time - coming home in a way.

I remembered how full of hope and optimism Pierce and I had been that Christmas Eve. And how that song Neck and Neck had hurled us on to a career in music, and how in some small way Hendrix had been a part of it.

In my head I could still hear the beat of the dreadlocked drummer, and his precise beats deepened the vibe of the mural until the colors and forms seemed to pulse out at me. I was taking a furtive picture on my iPhone when I felt I was being observed.

I spun around certain it was a security guard about to complain– but no, it was Jimi, young and forceful, and glaring out of a frame as if to say “get on with it.” 

And then I heard the opening song from the new musical - the Hendrix magic had worked all over again. Some things never change.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Ewan MacColl

I was reminded of his influence recently when playing three covers of his songs on Celtic Crush/SiriusXM Radio. 

An avowed Marxist he was once considered too dangerous to be allowed into the US, yet he changed the way we listen to music. Born James Miller in 1915, you might know him better as Ewan MacColl.

He was such a towering cultural figure in my youth it never occurred to me that he didn’t hail from the Highlands. His parents were indeed Scottish, but Jimmy Miller was born in Salford, part of Greater Manchester.

You probably never heard of the joint but you’ve hummed along to Millar’s hymn to its industrial dourness - Dirty Old Town.  

Millar couldn’t wait to get out of there. He quit school at 14, was organizing on the streets at 15, began his own theatre company at 16, while the British Secret Service opened their first file on him at 17.

Eventually he would shed his given name too. Ewan MacColl had a better ring for a man intent on changing the world.

He had plenty to revolt against - of four children born to his blacklisted ironworker father and charwoman mother, he was the only survivor. He grew up in a house throbbing with political songs, radical dogma, and a desire for universal revolution.

A voracious reader and self-educated man, he greatly resented the fact that people of his class were rarely granted entry to the halls of academia, much less the corridors of political power. 

Through his travels with his theatre company he came to understand that Britain’s old rural way of life was fast disappearing; and so he set out to record the songs and stories of the poor and dispossessed.

He presented a series of programs on BBC Radio and for the first time many “common folk” heard their accents, vocal mannerisms, and traditions broadcast on a medium that had been the exclusive preserve of the upper classes.

This was to open the door for “regional” people like Brendan Behan, Michael Caine, and The Beatles, all of whom would have been considered figures of fun in earlier decades.

MacColl was a hard, flinty man whose extreme Left Wing views barely softened with time. 

He could be intolerant and though almost singlehandedly responsible for the British folk revival of the 1950’s/60’s, he drew up strict rules for what songs could be sung in his folk club and how the performers should dress and present themselves.

He cared little for public opinion, and caused grave scandal by leaving his second wife while in his ‘40’s to marry Peggy Seeger, Pete’s 21-year old half-sister. Still he wrote one of the great love songs for her, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and their union lasted until his death.

I hear his influence often especially in Celtic Music for he was a strict taskmaster to Luke Kelly of The Dubliners who apprenticed at his school for folksingers. 

MacColl’s credo was to dig deep and find the inner core of a song, then sing it from the soul without any kind of ornamentation. He took this to rather absurd lengths with women for he frowned on the use of make up during performance. 

The Pogues would have appalled him and yet Shane McGowan’s delivery is vintage MacColl courtesy of his adoption of Luke Kelly’s soulful, stringent technique.

I once saw MacColl at Folk City in Greenwich Village. Finally admitted into the US, he dominated the stage – and yet there was a sadness about him. It was during the age of Reagan and it was obvious that time had passed the old Marxist by – his revolution would never come.

Oddly enough, the sadness humanized him and as I shook his hand after the gig I was never less than aware that the man who had written Dirty Old Town, The Traveling People, School Day’s Over, and a hundred other great songs, had indeed changed the way we listen to music.

I told him that Turner & Kirwan of Wexford had recorded a heavily synthesized version of Traveling People. With a glint in his eye he said, “I’ve heard of it.”

Choosing discretion over valor, I did not tell him I’d worn mascara many times while performing it.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Belfast - Soul City

I’ve always loved Belfast - a city with some serious soul.

Then again, I had a novel introduction. My uncle took me there as a boy to meet the Rev. Ian Paisley. Recently home from missionary work on The Philippine Islands Fr. Jim Hughes was convinced that the Rev. Ian was “the reincarnation of St. Paul” and just needed a “little change in direction.” I kid you not!

A hair-raising rural encounter with the B Specials put a crimp in Fr. Jim’s style, but we did drive through East Belfast on a Sunday morning while our Protestant brethren raised their voices in praise of the Lord. This outpouring of devotion left an indelible impression on my papist soul.

Soon thereafter I became a fan of the Belfast beat group, Them. Van Morrison’s classic Astral Weeks sealed my musical deal with the city.

I also visited during the dark days of Bobby Sands hunger strike; even then I was struck by the sheer humanity of the people.

I return every couple of years now and am always amazed at Belfast’s continuing strides towards inclusiveness. Walk out any evening into the crowded downtown streets, enter The Crown, Kelly’s Cellars, or any of the great local pubs and restaurants and you’d be forgiven for wondering, “Was it all just a bad dream?”

For Belfast is a city busy putting its past in the rear view mirror.

I take a group of North Americans to Ireland every year, most of them listeners to Celtic Crush on SiriusXM. Like my three-hour radio show I focus on history, politics, music and how they ineffably intertwine.

Belfast is always a highlight for it epitomizes William Faulkner’s line, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

Instead of shunning Belfast’s recent history Coiste deals with it in a way that could well pay dividends for other divided cities like Jerusalem or Beiruit. This enterprising organization puts together various political/historical excursions, but my favorite is the Joined Falls/Shankill Tour.

This is a unique opportunity to be taken through Republican and Loyalist areas by ex-combatants. This year our guides were Robert “Dinker” McClenaghan and Noel Large.

We began at The Spectrum, a vibrant community center in the Unionist Shankill Road area. It’s always important to remember that there is a wide variance of views in both Loyalist and Republican circles, likewise with our guides.

Noel Large is an intense and powerful presence, and a most interesting person in a city teeming with characters. He is proud of his native streets and heritage but, unlike the caricature of the dour Ulsterman, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and gave our busload of travelers a rare and passionate view into the Loyalist soul.

Dinker, as he is affectionately known, is no less an ardent spokesman for his Republican streets and point of view – remember that the Shankill and Falls are mere blocks from each other.

Republicans, however, have more experience in dealing with the outside world, and let’s face it: North Americans in general are more disposed towards their point of view. Which was why it was a riveting experience to share a bus ride with these two 60-year old ex-combatants who, to put it mildly, would not have been well disposed to each other not all that long ago.

Both had served long prison sentences for desperate deeds, and had given much thought to what they had done, and the reasons they had taken up arms in the first place.

The most touching aspect was the rough friendship they had carved out, for who could understand their shared experiences better than each other.

Towards the end Noel said something riveting, to the effect that “we should never have been fighting each other, but rather those who divided us.”

It was a moment of truth for two working class Belfast men looking back at a troubled past, both determined to make the present and future better for their people.

When you go to Belfast make sure you visit the Spectrum Centre on The Shankill as well as An Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on The Falls. There’s truth and revelation to be found on both sides of a once impregnable divide.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Who are these guys - Butch & The Kid?

Who are these guys? This is not a flashback to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. No I’m talking about President Trump and the Republican Party?

Now I’m a man of the Left, as you might have gathered, but I’ve always felt a little more secure knowing that if my tribe happened to overspend, as has happened, then my brethren on the Right will be there bewailing rising deficits, crippling interest payments, and other fiscal calamities.

Being somewhat of a Keynesian in matters economic, I believe that during times of high unemployment, deflation, or catastrophe, it behooves the government to invest in infrastructure, thereby putting people back to work and giving the economy a jumpstart.

Generally speaking this economic “goosing” tends to work, though it can take time and much verbal lashing from the Right. 

And sometimes the Right is right! In a rush to pump money into the economy, there is often waste and overspending.

That’s why the recent about-turn by the Republican Party is so troubling. The GOP abandoned its loathing of deficits, along with its fear of “crippling future generations with debt,” and all at the behest of the two mighty “M’s” – Mnuchin and Mulvaney.

These two gentlemen are currently advising us that if we cut taxes for corporations these institutions will be so grateful they will spread their already massive largesse among the rest of us.

Not only that but there will be a surge of economic growth, the like of which we haven’t seen since the invention of the wheelbarrow; in fact, we’ll all be riding the gravy train like Mr. Mnuchin and his one-percent colleague, Gary Cohn, chief economic adviser to President Trump, who is reputed to have declared, “only morons pay the estate tax.”

Well he did work at Goldman Sachs so he should know. Or should he? Tinkering with stocks and bonds hardly qualifies you to expand a rapidly changing service and high tech economy that already boasts a minimal 4.1% unemployment rate.

However, such experience will help in managing debt, and there’ll be plenty of that. These Goldman Sachs alumni can share their expertise with our president, aka “the King of Debt” who also has intimate knowledge of the nation’s bankruptcy laws.

As for the bould Mick Mulvaney – he used to be one our foremost budget hawks. During the Obama administration he preached undying frugality and fiscal restaint. During the Great Recession he fought tooth and nail against federal infrastructure and research spending, as it would add to the national debt of $10trillion. Hey Mick, guess what. That debt is now well over 20trill.

Fiscal probity how are you! Let’s risk it all on one big throw of the dice. Add a trillion and a half more in tax cuts, and growth will pay for it. But let’s add a national novena to St. Jude for interest rates to remain flat. Could be hard servicing all these trillions in debt if rates rise – as they eventually will.

Hey, I like a little flutter at the track now and again, but I’m always careful to have bus, train, or even taxi fare home. If the Mnuchin-Mulvaney gamble fails, I’ll be hitching to Manhattan from Belmont.

By the way, has anyone reminded these whiz kids that corporate profits have been sky high for years, and corporate coffers are full of cash both here and abroad, yet wages continue to barely keep up with inflation? 

Does anyone really believe that increased corporate gain will trickle down to America’s workers? When was the last time you got a meaningful raise? 

And so we wait, certain of only one thing – the Big Man on Pennsylvania Avenue needs a legislative victory before the balls fall off the Christmas tree. Talk about government by Santa Claus!

But where will the Big Man be when the deficit balloons in the coming years?

Not to worry, he’ll blame it on Hillary Clinton, when he’s not engaged in trading insults with the other hair maven, Kim Jong-un. 

Or maybe, just maybe, some Republican Senators and Congressmen will come to their conservative senses and start worrying about exploding deficits again. 

Ah well, there’s always Santa Claus.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Irish American Writers & Artists

Irish American Writers and Artists was formed back in 2008 when it was suggested that Irish Americans would not vote for an African-American candidate.

Well, we not only voted for Barack Obama, we helped elect him, thus laying to rest another demographic shibboleth.

IAW&A is a proudly progressive organization, but non-political in that we accept members from across the political spectrum; although those of us of a conservative ilk tend to be more in the Edmund Burke tradition rather than that of our current president.

Broadly speaking, our brief is to highlight, energize and support Irish Americans working in the arts, and to provide a safe platform for others who might wish to read, perform, or show their work.

To that end we sponsor two salons monthly in New York City but our aspirations were always national; in the last month we have held salons in Santa Fe, NM, Hartford, CT, and at the Electric Picnic Festival in Ireland.

So, if you have a poem, song, novel, play, dance, film, painting, and wish to show it off, then you should abandon your lonely garret for an evening, and mingle among your peers. 

Annual membership costs less than a buck a week, or five pints and a decent tip should you measure life in more liquid metrics.

Of a reticent or retiring nature, then you may slip into the back row of a salon, lurk in the shadows, and audit the goings on – admission is free. 

You might end up discussing politics or the price of turnips with Malachy McCourt or one of the other notables who frequent such occasions. 

Whatever, you’ll get a feel for what’s going on, and perhaps toss your hat in the artistic ring on your next venture into the mystic. 

Irish American Writers & Artists is a non-profit outfit – board members and officials do not get paid. I can attest to that. I’ve been president for some years and have yet to make a cent – red or otherwise.

Any monies raised go to promoting salons, funding various artistic endeavors, and supporting good causes here and overseas.

Speaking of money! We host one major fundraiser a year when the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award is given to an artist who has created a distinguished body of work.

Past awardees have included William Kennedy, Brian Dennehy, Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly of the Irish Rep, Judy Collins, John Patrick Shanley, Pete Hamill, Patrician Harty, and the aforementioned scourge of recalcitrant reactionaries, Mr. McCourt.

Phil Donahue will receive the 2017 award at a festive evening on Monday, October 16, 2017 at the Manhattan Club, upstairs at Rosie O’Grady’s.

Born in Cleveland, Phil graduated from Notre Dame University and worked his way up through local radio and television, interviewing the like of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X before creating the innovative The Phil Donahue Show.

Instead of the usual wasteland fare, Donahue focused on topics dividing American liberals and conservatives in his record-breaking show’s run of 29 years.

One could herald his achievements until the cows come home; but perhaps his greatest moment was his dismissal in Feb. 2003 as host of Donahue on MSNBC for his opposition to the imminent invasion of Iraq.

It was a courageous move at a time when patriotism was measured in jingoistic support for one of the greatest disasters in US foreign policy. Unfortunately, Phil Donahue was proved right. How different would US history have been if more people of influence had taken this Irishman’s courageous stand!

Join us on Oct. 16th.  The O’Neill event is one of the highlights of the social season when everyone can rub shoulders with the mighty or the low – and there’ll be plenty of both in attendance.

Remember - the goal of Irish American Writers and Artists is to give the carpenter in Queens a shot at becoming the next O’Casey, or the homemaker from Brooklyn an opportunity to emulate Sinead, or Frank, O’Connor.

And for those of you who just want a good night on the town, the O’Neill is your man! And what else would you be doing on a Monday night in October anyway?