On my first St. Patrick’s Day in New York, Turner & Kirwan of Wexford played four sets in the Pig & Whistle on 48th Street before hopping the RR Train to Bay Ridge and knocking off another four sets in Tomorrow’s Lounge.
Endurance and Southern Comfort were the name of the game. Hey, if that sweet sticky liquid gave Janis Joplin a boost, it might put the power of god in two hayseeds from Wexford!
I played a number of St. Patrick’s Days on the road – once at some god-forsaken college in West Virginia where we were warned not to leave the grounds with long hair, as we would definitely not return with it – such was the hostility of the local rednecks.
Another March 17th we were prevailed upon to play ten sets in a New Hampshire establishment. To protest this injustice we threw a huge party afterwards in our lodgings. Next morning the owner returned unexpectedly to a scene out of a Paddy Fellini movie. It was not my happiest March 18th.
New York City is unequivocally the place to be on St. Patrick’s Day. There’s a wildness in the air. I trace it back to the “Famine Irish” who on that one day of the year defiantly stepped out from their urban hovels to the beat of: “we have survived, we have arrived!”
Back in the 1970’s with a struggle against discrimination going on in the North of Ireland one dug deep and summoned up the many rebel songs that were part of our DNA.
With his tightening of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act in 1976, Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien blockaded that rebel musical avenue on Irish radio and television, and Ireland lost a vital link to its heritage.
When we formed Black 47 Chris Byrne and I set out to renew the link by writing our own contemporary rebel music with the help of Reggae, Hip-Hop, and Rock beats. Thus came James Connolly, Time To Go, Fire of Freedom and other songs that challenged the political status quo.
Our mantra was to use the beats from the street but always keep the link – and the faith - with the past.
Saint Patrick’s Days were a riotous blur for twenty-five years with Black 47. We’d arrive back in the city from some late night gig, do an early morning TV show, then load in for Conan, Letterman or Fallon. With fatigue and adrenaline battling it out, I once forgot a line of James Connolly on national television. Few noticed but I died a hundred deaths.
We insisted that our St. Patrick’s Night gigs be open to all ages – it was important that the youth be introduced to the old Irish political traditions. And, oh those nights were full of life, and the triumph and tragedy that attend it.
When BB King’s called and asked me to put together a band for March 17th, I hesitated; I’ve been enjoying playing solo since Black 47 disbanded, exploring the lyrical side of the band’s anthems.
But there was a need for a big midtown gig on St. Patrick’s night in this centenary year of 2016.
Besides I had written a new song about Sean MacDiarmada, the spark plug of the Rising.
And so I reached out to some unique musician friends to form a band for the night. My old comrade, David Amram, who pioneered the Poetry/Jazz fusion with his friend Jack Kerouac, will even sit in.
Chris Byrne will join us after his set with Lost Tribe of Donegal. John McDonagh from Radio Free Eireann will MC and present a piece from his successful Cabtivist show. My son, Rory K, a hip-hop artist will play – the next generation deserves its night also.
But the link to the past will as ever be bone-deep. We’ll tackle some of the score of my musical, Hard Times, set in The Five Points in 1863 when the “Famine Irish” were beginning their ascent up the social and political ladder.
The unruly spirits of Sean MacDiarmada, Stephen Foster, James Connolly, Michael Collins - and god knows who else - will collide on 42nd Street this St. Patrick’s night. See you at BB King’s!