Tuesday, 17 August 2010

For Kevin Wherever You Are - 40 Shades of Blue

Kevin passed away last month. By the time Billy Roche, the playwright, wrote I’d already heard it twice over the Wexford-Manhattan bush telegraph. Still Billy had an important piece of news, a bleeding ulcer had finally knackered our old mate. It could have been worse.
Kevin was the inspiration for one of Black 47’s most popular songs – Forty Shades of Blue (For Kevin wherever you are). The sub-title captured him best, for with Kev you never knew.
In a certain way he summed up Ireland’s mass emigration of the 70’s and 80’s – remember, “Last one leaving, turn out the lights!” A generation took the ferry to England or the 747 to the US out of economic necessity or sheer boredom.
Kevin would have been just another Wexford cut-up if it hadn’t been for the ever-present twinkle in his eyes and his considerable grace under pressure. He was the “oldest” of a set of twins - the outgoing one and protector - while his brother was shyer and introverted.
In working-class Wexford where skinheads ruled you had to be tough and Kevin was, but he preferred to use his innate charm.
He came from a large, very respectable and loving family in an age when children did a lot of their own raising. At the Christian Brothers where 40 plus classes were not unusual, boys with little interest in book learning were routinely overlooked; small wonder that Kevin dropped out early on.
Before he was 20 he was well known around the pubs of Wexford for he was a killer darts player. Tall, gangly and handsome he cut quite a figure in the discos too where he threw shapes that left Rod and Jagger in the ha’penny place.
But Wexford was nowhere so one Saturday night the twins took the boat train to London. I had lost track of them by the time disaster struck – one night Kevin returned to their “squat” to find his brother’s body. The kid just couldn’t take the slurs anymore.
You could have knocked me down with a feather the night on St. Mark’s Place when I heard my name roared out in a Wexford accent. You guessed it - Kevin - in the company of a beautiful young wife, an American student he’d met in London.
Being married to Kev must have been akin to living in the teeth of a storm, every time our paths crossed he had a new job or was talking up a new scheme, but the old hurt from London was never far from the surface.
And then Kevin was single again, drinking and spiraling downwards. I’d hear of his dart-shark exploits – he’d play badly, entice some Irish wannabe into a game, “almost lose” three or four times while doubling the bet on each game. Led to a number of beatings, one of them bad.
But there were good times too, like the day on St. Mark’s I saw him striding westwards; when I inquired whereto, he breezily declared, “The Holland Tunnel, man, I’m hitching to San Diego.”
He had six bucks to his name; I spotted him a twenty. Three weeks later, a letter arrived with the twenty enclosed. Kev was on a roll – living the high life down by the Mexican border.
He came back skint and, one nasty winter after a cab struck him, he took to living in the Spring Street Subway station. My brother and I intervened - his sister sent the plane ticket.
I often wonder if we did the right thing. Returning broke to Wexford can’t have been easy after the buzz of New York, but chances are he wouldn’t have made it through that winter. Besides, by all accounts, he eventually pulled himself together back home.
Kevin may be an extreme case but he is emblematic of so many young Irish of the 70’s – bright and talented, spewed out undereducated with little option but to emigrate. Coming of age now, he’d likely be a director of marketing at some start-up, for when he set his mind to it the man could sell pints to Arthur Guinness.
As Roche the playwright wrote, “Kevin lived the life.” He sure did and now I’ll never have to wonder where he is.

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