Black 47 played its first Irish festival in Rockaway back in 1990. It was a bare bones event, a simple stage with electric power diverted from a nearby streetlight. But it was a joyous affair, a getting together of the clans, a return to the old neighborhood.
By the next year we were playing the big Southside Chicago Fest and others in the old immigrant industrial cities that sit astride Route 80. It was an exciting time. Irish-America had been politicized by the death of Bobby Sands. There was a fire in the community and a determination that the British problem in the North be settled once and for all.
Irish festivals are now big business. I love them dearly and have been their champion over the last 18 years. Three and even four generations mix together happily, sampling the music, dancing, readings and craftwork. There’s something for everyone and, as a performer, it’s a thrill to see teenagers and grandparents come together on songs about James Connolly and Michael Collins. Some are there for the beat and attitude, the others for the history and memories, but Irish culture provides a common grid for both the Myspace and AOH generations.
Is there a chance of losing this? I don’t think so, as long as we maintain links to our history and to the old immigrant communities along Route 80. Some of those connections are fraying as the political and economic situations on both sides of the Irish border have improved. Still, Irish-America can ill afford to lose the idealism that caused so many to take to the streets, raise money, bring children over on vacations, and keep the heat on politicians until President Clinton initiated the historic breakthrough in Irish/British affairs back in the ‘90’s.
Despite the uplifting spirit of the Irish festivals, it is hard not to be saddened by the abandoned factories that litter Route 80. Sure, a small percentage of them are being converted into centers for the new info and digital technologies. And God knows, the service industry is booming. Blindfold me and put me on the outskirts of any town now and I couldn’t tell if I was in Toledo or Buffalo such is the similarity of malls, McDonald’s and other ubiquitous franchises.
But what does that say about the soul of this country and what does it portend? There was a time when people went to work, built something and were proud of it. Their unions protected them and guaranteed a certain standard of living. That’s all history now. But does it have to be?
There’s an underlying unease in the country that’s almost palpable. A feeling that things are out of control and that the system no longer works. We’re in the midst of an intractable war that’s draining billions by the month while our infrastructure crumbles, our children are receiving a sub-standard education and most of us dread illness for fear the insurance companies might pull a runner.
None of this is unfixable, of course; yet there’s an apathy abroad. Most college students could care less about the war since it doesn’t impact them; while, over and over, in my travels I hear from people that they feel powerless to effect any kind of meaningful change.
What’s all this got to do with Irish festivals? I’m not sure I know and yet I feel there’s a link. Maybe it’s time for a new idealism: a questioning of values. Where are we going and why? It’s time to take stock and make some choices.
In the meantime, support your Irish festival and if you don’t have one locally, then why not start your own? You’ll have the time of your life interacting with your own people while building a cultural grid for your children in their socially estranged world of ipods and game stations.
It will only take a small donation of time and energy but who knows, maybe it will reignite our idealism and set the machines humming again in all those deserted factories that litter the old immigrant cities along Route 80.