Monday, 20 August 2018

Happy Birthday Phil Lynott


            He was the most charismatic man I’ve ever met. Even before he “made it,” he cut a figure the length and breadth of Dublin. Phil Lynott was black, beautiful and sported a gurrier accent that could peel the skin off a turnip. 

            In the early days, Hendrix was his role model but I’m now reminded more of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Loping down O’Connell Street like some psychedelic Pied Piper, he was usually trailed by a bunch of kids. His white teeth gleamed in a perpetual smile and he winked or bade hello to anyone who caught his eye.

            I knew him by repute before I ever laid eyes on him - his small triumphs on the Dublin beat scene were trumpeted in Spotlight Magazine. His humiliations were even more public: Skid Row broke up to get rid of him, then reformed without him.

            But nothing could stop Philo – within months he’d mastered the bass and formed Thin Lizzy. Soon thereafter, I met him.

            On good weeks Pierce Turner and I would treat ourselves to a curry in the Luna Restaurant on O’Connell Street, a popular hangout for showband heads and rockers. To our delight we were given a table right behind Phil and Eric Bell.

            Eric who? Oh, you know him well enough – you listen to guitarists emulate his lines on Whiskey in the Jar damn near every time you enter an Irish bar.

            I can still recall Phil in the Luna declaiming, “we’re goin’ nowhere in Ireland, man!” He was trying to convince a skeptical Eric that they should decamp for England. They did and the rest is history.

            Have you any idea of what it was like to first hear Whiskey in the Jar explode out of car radios and cloth covered transistors? Roll over Amhrán na bhFiann, we’d just found our own national anthem – Eric’s overdriven guitar and Phil’s cathartic voice took that old tune to places we’d never dreamed of.

            Even now when I play it on SiriusXM I’m struck by its sheer originality. It always raises my spirits and shoots me back to a time when rock & roll was fresh and adventurous and unaware of itself.   
        
A couple of years later Eric quit the band onstage in an orgy of smashed amps and overdriven dreams. I guess he really hadn’t wanted to go to England. 

            It took two guitarists to replace him but Lizzy stormed on. Phil used his presence, voice and songwriting chops to propel them far beyond his Crumlin roots. Their concerts were riotous mind-bending affairs, pulsing with life and dicing with controlled chaos. You could almost touch the adrenaline – and it wasn’t always natural.

            Those were the days when rockers lived on the jittery edge, forever on the road with a costly album to promote, and another to write and record before they’d even unpacked – everything speeded up in a crashing, burning, collapsing cycle. The highs so high - a pity they couldn’t be bottled. And the lows, well, you don’t want to go there.

            Phil was so intense onstage it almost hurt to watch him. He was living his dream and he demanded 120% of those around him – 150% from himself. He knew the difference between poise and posture, and dare any of his band-mates indulge themselves. You could catch his curses and exhortations from the side of the stage – never from the front. Every molecule had to be directed at the audience – they’d paid good money, they deserved a show! It was the Dub working class ethic colliding head on with the rock & roll dream. 

            The band was not at its best the last time I saw him in NYC. New Wave was all the rage, Graham Parker opened and, to the critics - if not the fans - Lizzy seemed a trifle overbaked. Yet, back in the dressing room Phil was as ever polite, welcoming and delighted to meet someone who “knew him back when.”

            It was like being hit with a hammer that Christmas Day in 1985 when the news of his collapse spread, but I didn’t shed a tear. By then I’d learned the hard way that you can’t trade tomorrow’s energy for tonight’s performance.

            Still, whenever I hear Whiskey in the Jar, I sit back, close my eyes and relive the sheer exhilaration and Paddy pride of those days when Philo’s Dub accent exploded through car radios and cloth-covered transistors like a tricolor siren.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Fake News and The Holy Family


I had occasion to be in Madrid recently and took the opportunity of visiting the legendary Prado Museum.

I went with the intention of viewing their collection of Francisco Goya paintings.  I have long been an admirer of this radical visionary as much because of his unbending moral and political principles as his skill with a paintbrush.

He appears to have been constitutionally unable to obfuscate the truth – while an artist at the court of Spain’s Ferdinand VII, at the risk of his life he portrayed the king as a vacuous popinjay.

Goya later became the first major artist to depict in realistic terms the grinding poverty of the common people. 

Neither did he shy away from representing the actual horror of warfare at a time when the artist’s job was to highlight its patriotic glory. 

Eventually, however, he did pay a price for his independence - deaf, depressed, and elderly, he was exiled to France for his political views.

I thought that in these days of “fake news” in our “deep state” there might be lessons to be learned from this unreconstructed radical.

To my surprise, however, my eyes were instead opened by El Greco the very conservative Christian artist whose work had never touched me before.

Although few Spaniards now appear to be practicing Catholics, yet the country continues to be defined by its history of militant Christianity. 

In 1492 Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or choose exile, while 80 years ago Catholic Nationalists defeated Left Wing Republicans in a brutal civil war.

El Greco (so called because he was born in Crete) believed that Christian heaven and earth are inextricably linked and separated by only the flimsiest of veils.

Whatever your views on such matters, there’s little doubt that this 16th Century artist reflected the beliefs and mores of his times.

After viewing a number of his overblown, if legendary, pictures I was drawn to his very simple and beautiful The Flight into Egypt. 

Mary and her infant, Jesus, are mounted on a donkey while Joseph attempts to drag the frightened beast across a bridge.

The Holy Family was fleeing the oppression of King Herod and seeking asylum in Egypt.

How often had I been told this tale as a boy and how little impact it had made on me. Just another “holy story” that droned on in another Wexford sermon.

It seems to have just as little resonance in contemporary USA, one of the most Christian of countries.

Then again the teachings of Jesus have been twisted to suit political expediency time and again. The Nazarene carpenter is often portrayed as a righteous militant rather than the compassionate visionary who delivered his bedrock moral principles in the Sermon on the Mount.

I gazed again at El Greco’s luminous portrayal of the Holy Family. Though the painting was over five hundred years old, yet I was reminded of a recent newspaper photo of a Guatemalan couple and their child apprehended on our borders as they sought political asylum.

Is the analogy too simple? Perhaps, and yet I remember nothing in the Sermon on the Mount that would justify separating young children from their families as has been done lately in this country.

Jesus, as far as we know, was not taken away from his family in Egypt. Joseph was allowed to practice his craft as carpenter and when the danger from Herod had passed years later, the family returned to their native land.

Although we have no way of knowing, it seems probable that the “dreamer” Jesus would have had little problem remaining in Egypt had he so chosen.

I turned away from the painting. I had intended to take another look at some of the radical Goya’s s masterpieces, but I had learned enough lessons for one day – and from a conservative visionary too.

As I strolled out into the blazing Madrid afternoon, however, the words of another radical thinker, Ewan McColl, echoed from somewhere within my consciousness:

“Two thousand years have passed and gone
Many a hero too
But the dream of that poor carpenter
Remains in the hands of you…”

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

A Secret Garden


I often wonder how her garden is doing now?  It was my mother’s pride and joy.  Like many such an oasis in the heart of Wexford Town it was long and narrow, and nestled behind crumbling stone walls.

We hadn’t been raised in the house on John’s Road, yet I came to love it. From my mother’s garden you could see the twin diocesan church spires, the Franciscan Italianate belfry, and the sweep of the narrow streets down to the harbor.

This view gave you a sense of the town, its bloody history, and the quiet determined stoicism of its citizens.

After I had my own children I stopped going home at Christmas and instead spent a vacation there every summer.

At first this was hard – Christmas being such an integral part of the Irish psyche - but the long quiet summer days possessed their own charms.

Like many emigrants my notion of “home” was challenged; I no longer totally fit in anywhere, constantly tugged between two vital forces with the new gradually gaining ground.

And yet the old maintained its own inviolable encampment deep within my psyche. My mother’s garden came to embody that particular place.

It was a quiet spot and I was often reminded of Yeats’ “bee loud glade,” for it would be in full bloom in those mid-summer days.

The sweet pea was my favorite; with its vivid colors and seductive fragrance, I found this plant calming and loved to sit nearby. My mother, however, informed me it was invasive and had to be kept in check or “it would take over the whole place.”

The Buddleia also comes to mind. She had taken a root from my grandfather’s headstone yard. It grew there out of the very walls – she suspected it liked the limestone dust.

It certainly favored her garden and butterflies swarmed around it. I could never settle on the color of its blooms. Was it mauve or purple?

I asked her opinion on this once. She looked at me oddly and said that depended on the quality of the day’s sunlight.

Many Wexford Town people of her era were but a generation or two removed from farms and had an instinctive knowledge of nature. My parents’ greatest pleasure was a drive to a rural seaside spot on a Sunday afternoon. The slow meandering passage through the countryside seemed to replenish their souls.

Perhaps that’s why I never minded the long grueling journeys around America with Black 47 – there was always something to look at, to compare with the gentler vistas of County Wexford.

Her roses were the crowning glory of her garden. She didn’t go in for the more delicate types, although she appreciated them. No, her first requirement was that they bloom throughout the summer. And they did.

She liked to study her demesne from a glass encased “sun room,” often consulting some old gardening books. My father would sit there too, his face buried in the “racing pages” of the Independent until he dozed off in the gathering heat.

In the ensuing quiet she would plan her horticultural moves. I could always tell, for a quiet look of determination would settle on her face.

My father might be resistant – he’d wonder, for instance, why a butterfly plant or rose with such deep roots had to be moved. But she was insistent and always got her way.

Those were the last pre-digital years. News came by the morning paper and the radio. Life was slower, perhaps deeper, and certainly less frazzled.

By the time I’d return to New York my own biological clock would seem to tick a little slower and less loudly. I would have had time to reflect, and plan my own creative endeavors – what book, play, or album would I attempt in the coming year?

The house is leased out now. Tenants come and go, most with little time for the garden.

And so I often picture it – the sweet pea running riot, the Buddleia high over the walls, and the roses intertwining with each other in a riot of glorious libertarian color.

Even though she’s long gone, my mother’s garden still provides the same safe center in an ever-roiling world.

Jimmy Joyce on the Streets of New York


New York is James Joyce’s kind of town - lots of bars, fevered conversations, the occasional buyback, and many the soft touch.

Well, many more than his usual stalking grounds in Dublin, Trieste, Zurich, or Paris; it is estimated that Mr. Joyce borrowed the equivalent of $500,000 in his lifetime.

New York definitely has a soft spot in its gruff heart for Sunny Jim, and why wouldn’t it? James Joyce was the most egalitarian of writers. He described in voluminous detail exactly what Joe and Josephine Citizen were thinking, doing, and fantasizing about.

Still the man does have a rap for being difficult to comprehend. The key is to either read him aloud behind closed doors, or tread downtown to Ulysses on Stone Street on June 16th.

Need another excuse to attend this annual Joycean shenanigan – well, pints are free between 4 and 6pm. Mr. Joyce would most definitely have approved.

What makes this particular shindig so special is its populist nature. Begun by Colum McCann and Frank McCourt fifteen years ago, the emphasis is on irregular New Yorkers declaiming their favorite passages of Ulysses.

These readings range from hilarious, droll, pedantic to just plain unintelligible, but as the booze and sunshine kick in they all mesh together into a bloody great “Blooming” afternoon.

To top it all we have Aedín Moloney and Patrick Fitzgerald! I often marvel that Joyce doesn’t come bounding out of his grave in Zurich when these two hit the outdoor stage on Stone Street.

Talk about living their parts! They positively exude the life and times of Ulysses. Mr. Joyce would have adored their devotion to substance and detail, and promptly solicited a short-term loan from each. 

Aedín is the finest Molly Bloom I’ve ever experienced and that’s saying something. There’s a fierceness to her interpretation - a willingness to wholeheartedly embrace the stark and stunning sexuality of Joyce’s greatest creation.

I’ve seen blasé men of the world blanch at her ecstatic embrace of Molly’s desires and carnal tastes.

Of late though she’s been homing in on Mrs. Bloom’s apprehension of aging, and that’s added a new dimension of courage to an already heroic character. 

Of course Molly had lost her only child and her determination not to surrender to “the glooms” has always been inspiring.

Suffice it to say that this year’s performance was Aedin’s best.

Do yourselves a favor, go to iTunes and download a copy of "Reflections of Molly Bloom" Vol. 1 and 2, with music by Paddy Moloney (The Chieftains) and Carlos Nunez.

With Aedín, piper Paddy Moloney, and Molly Bloom at home with you – what more could you ask for? Jimmy Joyce himself might even drop by for a listen – and perhaps a loan.

I’ve watched Patrick Fitzgerald since he was the young stud-star in residence at The Irish Repertory Theatre. In fact his portrayal of Christy Mahon in Playboy of the Western World back in 1990 remains my favorite.

He also played Dr. Noel Browne in my play, Rebel in the Soul, at The Rep, so I’m hardly lacking in appreciation of his acting. 

And yet nothing prepared me for this year’s fiery Bloomsday performances – both from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.

His timing, pitch, and attack are galvanic. I often feel that he’s channeling Joyce’s verbose, articulate and outraged father particularly in the strident “Citizen” passages. He and our expansive host Colum McCann are a great stage pairing and bring the dead soaring back to life on Stone Street. 

Patrick has written his own play 'Gibraltar: An adaptation after James Joyce's Ulysses' and performed it to acclaim in Dublin, Philadelphia, and New York.

A member of the James Joyce Foundation USA he leads a Ulysses Reading Group at the Irish Consulate on the 3rd Tuesday of every month. Judging by the robust performances of the group’s members on Stone St., the New York Irish diplomatic day must get off to a blistering start.

Is it a coincidence that New York City has spawned the two most exciting contemporary interpreters of James Joyce?

I think not! By adding a shot of Gotham grit to Ulysses Aedín Maloney and Patrick Fitzgerald drag James Joyce roaring out of academia, and resurrect him on our raucous streets where he belongs.

Big Tom & The Jive


I played Four Roads to Glenamaddy by Big Tom recently on Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM radio show. It seemed only fitting as the Big Man had just departed this earthly coil.

I tried to highlight the importance of Mr. McBride to Ireland’s social and sexual scene back in the 1960’s through 70’s.

Everyone danced back then and if you were a genuine culchie you frequented huge ballrooms in the middle of God-Knows-Where.

Be that as it may there was a schism in the dance world. Pop bands led by the inimitable Freshmen from Ballymena competed with Country bands led by Big Tom from Castleblaney, and rarely did the twain meet!

Being a teenage musician in an “opening band” I got to experience both sides of this societal divide. 

It was great training as you got to play before a couple of thousand people who didn’t give a fiddler’s if you dropped dead as long as you kept the beat. 

You were there solely to “black the floor” so that the stars could nonchalantly stroll onstage to a full house.

And yet I recall a traumatic humbling while opening for Big Tom and The Mainliners in Adamstown Ballroom, in the far recesses of County Wexford’s back of beyond.

It had all to do with the Jive – a particular Irish form of Rockabilly social dancing. Back in those simple days dancers liked their three fast songs so that they could check out the looks, wealth, and general mobility of the opposite sex. 

That being established they then clung to their partners for three slow smooches, the closest thing to sex they were likely to experience in County Wexford.

We were not a good band. We had no problem with the smooches. But we met our Waterloo with Big Tom’s disciples, for they only wished to jive to the fast sets.

Now I knew Buddy Holly, and Rockabilly songs in general, were ideal for jiving, but around an hour into our set I had run out of such numbers with still an hour to go.

Our elderly bandleader saved the day for he had a store of old Jazz standards like Down By The Riverside, Bill Bailey, etc. that the local farmers, commercial travelers, artificial insemination agents, and shop assistants could shake a leg to.

The memory of this humiliation led me to ponder the “Jive” and just how it came to be so embedded in Irish rural culture.

For all I know it may have been invented by the Parish Priest of Cultimagh to keep virginal Irish ladies safe from the clutches of sex-mad Mayo cowboys.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that the common Jive has Harlem and ultimately African roots. But then how in the name of Our Lady of Knock did it end up ruling the roost in rural Ireland?

While researching the origins of Tap Dancing (Famine Irish meet African Americans in the Five Points) I discovered a riveting exhibition of the Lindyhop performed in the movie Hellzapoppin. 
   
Lindyhopping became popular in American ballrooms of the 1930’s. And spread like wildfire courtesy of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras.

As ever white musicians imitated the sounds and rhythms of their black brothers & sisters. Glen Miller in particular spread the word throughout Europe and when WW2 broke out and American servicemen and women hit England they took their dance-floor moves with them.

The many Irish who worked in Britain during the war years brought these dances home to parish and townsland. 

Not to be outdone Irish musicians formed “seated” big bands, until The Clipper Carlton from Co. Donegal, stood up, kicked out the jams, and laid down the onstage schematic for showbands.

Lindyhopping might have been okay for Harlem but the Irish country punter preferred a more conservative take on such moves and voila – the Jive in all its glory! 

Take my word for it, there was nothing quite like witnessing a couple of thousand sex-deprived culchies moving to the same twirling quickstep tempo.

So farewell Big Tom! You taught this smart Alec from the metropolis of Wexford a thing or two about rhythm. Safe travels down those roads to Glenamaddy, and long live the multi-cultural Jive!

Whiteys Lindy Hoppers… Hellzapoppin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahoJReiCaPk

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Astral Weeks


I first heard Astral Weeks while lying in bed in the darkness of a coldwater Rathmines flat.

I was listening to BBC Radio late at night on my old transistor radio. I must have been dozing for I don’t remember any DJ introduction – just the familiar, womblike G-C-D chords of an acoustic guitar.

But there was something about the dreamy delivery that arrested by attention. And then the voice that I was so attuned to from his days with Them and Brown Eyed Girl, cut through the hushed Dublin night.

“Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision leaping into view
Clicking clacking of the high heeled shoes
Ford and Fitzroy, Madam George…”

So many years ago now, and I have listened to that track and album so many times since.

I’m far from alone. Astral Weeks has sent a battalion of musicians galloping down the road to ruin.

Phil Lynott once told me he’d probably never have persevered on his brutal path to stardom if he hadn’t heard it. 

Midwesterner Bob Seger temporarily forsook Rock ‘n Roll and reinvented himself as a folkie under its Belfast influence; while it crippled rock critic Lester Bangs, for he knew he’d never come close musically – better instead to write a heartfelt treatise about “the greatest album ever.”

And yet, Astral Weeks was a flop at first. Warner Brothers had expected Van to deliver an album of Brown Eyed Girls and had no idea what to do with it. But Lew Merenstein, its producer, was certain that something timeless had been created.

In fact, without Lew’s guiding hand it’s unlikely we’d even be talking about Astral Weeks now.

Merenstein had come from a jazz background and was asked by Warner Brothers to go listen to Van up in Boston where the 23-year old Belfast man was hiding out. Bert Berns who had signed him to Bang Records had died suddenly, supposedly after a vitriolic phone call between them.

Berns had shady connections and “the men in suits and pinky rings” were dismayed by Morrison discarding his Brown Eyed Girl for the more sultry, cross-dressing Madam George.

Merenstein, however, was ecstatic about the new material and its jazzy free-form nature. He immediately thought of Richard Davis, the reigning double bass player on the New York scene.

Because of Van’s unwillingness to give any kind of direction, both producer and bassist, knew that the project would demand unobtrusive but adventurous musicians.

Most of those chosen had already done two sessions that day, and they assembled after dinner at Century Sound Studios on 52nd Street. Some drink had been taken, and the studio lights were low.

Van was already seated in a vocal booth with his acoustic guitar and didn’t care to introduce himself; when the drummer, Connie Mack, inquired what the Belfast man would like him to play, he was cryptically informed, “whatever you like.”

But Merenstein and Davis were prepared. They encouraged Van to lay down his vocal and guitar tracks. Davis listened for the groove of Van’s acoustic and the metre of his vocal, and then swooped in with the musical intelligence and distinct touch that have graced hundreds of recordings. 

When he’d settled within “the pocket”, the other band members followed him. It’s still fascinating for me to hear a killer musician teetering on the edge before diving in and, within fractions of a second, nailing the groove.

The New York “pocket” is wide and deep, second only to New Orleans, and oh how that fantastic band careened around it.

Occasionally they did a second take, but they recorded most of Astral Weeks in two 3-hour sessions. No need for computers, click-tracks, or punch-ins - what you hear is what you get - the triumph of poetry over machines and banal perfection.

And when it was over Van didn’t even bid the band good night. Merenstein reckoned he was being reborn in those days. He caught no hint of the surly superstar Morrison has since become, nor any echo of the rebellious teenage leader of East Belfast’s Them.

Instead, a half-century later, so many of us are still stunned, uplifted, and in a strange manner, redeemed every time we step into the mysterious aural back streets of Astral Weeks.

Monday, 11 June 2018

A Post-Truth Society


You have to wonder what the end result of the Donald Trump presidency will be?  I’m not talking about impeachment or a second term in 2020, no I mean how will the US emerge from this post-truth era – or will it? 

With President Trump’s absolute unconcern for any concept of truth – he has apparently made well over 3000 false or misleading claims since inauguration – what effect is this having on the country or, indeed, on its befuddled citizens?

The common conceit is that come 2020 the 77,744 voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who swung the electoral college to Mr. Trump will see the light, and elect a god-fearing Democrat who’d sooner steal his mom’s social security check than tell a white lie.

But “it’s a long way to Buffalo,” as Van Morrison proclaimed, and it’s an even longer way to 2020 - much can happen. 

Bob Dylan probably nailed our era best with his enigmatic, “Nowadays, I don’t even know what normal is anymore.”

So true, for often when I hear a presidential whopper I find myself rationalizing, “Ah, it’s only the Donald, what else is new?”

But will I still be able to differentiate between truth and pathological obfuscation by 2020?

All presidents lie and as yet Mr. Trump hasn’t blown the hell out of Iraq like cuddly George W. Bush.
Still, how is Mr. Trump getting away with his arsenal of fibs and falsities in this once rather puritan, upstanding democracy?

We blame it on his “base,” and to listen to the pundits the president’s partisans are a collection of toothless good ol’ boys and unemployed Rust Belt factory workers, all barely a step away from opioid addiction.

However, the reality is that 85 % of Republicans believe Mr. Trump is the hottest thing since fried bread, while 46% of all voters favored him in 2016. This particular politician is far from marginal.

His dumber-than-ditchwater environmental policies may ultimately bring catastrophic flooding to Miami and New York City, but “the economy, stupid” will be what re-elects him or sends him packing to Mar-a-Lago in 2020.

And as long as his “base” doesn’t wake up someday and wonder why the top 20% of households in this country owns 90% of the nation’s wealth then Mr. Trump will likely get another four years to look after his real “base” – commercial real estate owners and the super-wealthy.

Like many I’m adapting to the Trumpian post-truth society, but I draw the line at the man’s persistent whining.  

One thing that puzzles me - is the president a manifestation of our modern moaning society or is he indeed pushing the envelope in the whine stakes?

Look at any sports game, from Little League up to the NFL. Every player believes that he or she is being routinely dissed and cheated by referees, linesmen, and even God Almighty; while fan-whine has reached Caligula-like proportions.

Did Donald Trump start this? Hardly, but does a day go by when he doesn’t exhibit a first-class persecution complex?

As for his “fake news” accusations, they would be funny if they weren’t so dangerous. Because where Mr. Trump leads, so many lemmings are only dying to follow.

Now, I proudly read the New York Times and am aware of some of its liberal foibles, but I find the actual news reporting to be fair and consistent.

Likewise, the Wall Street Journal; I steered away from this right-wing colossus for years fearing my virginal left wing principles might get contaminated. 

I still make a sign of the cross when dipping into Journal editorials, but their reporting of current events is spot on, and often better than the Times in my not so humble opinion.

It’s time to quit whining, Mr. Trump! Take your lumps and criticisms like every other president. And dare I suggest - quit watching dumbed-down television; instead read a book, have a couple of beers, or visit the Bronx.

No doubt Mr. Trump would consider what I’ve just written “Fake News;” but it’s really an attempt to re-establish my own personal “normal” in a world where our president is estimated to tell 6.9 lies a day.

Ah well, there’s always the prospect of 6-pack, and I’m long due a pilgrimage up to An Béal Bocht.

Go Back To Cuba Part 2


The Irish came to the Caribbean in many ways – as Oliver Cromwell’s slaves, sailors in British naval fleets, even pirates. 

But the greatest early influx came courtesy of the Spanish army that employed four regiments of Wild Geese – those who fled Ireland rather than submit to British rule.

That’s how Dubliner General Alejandro O’Reilly arrived. He took control of the Spanish Army in Cuba after a humiliating defeat by the British, restructured Havana’s fortifications, and set the city on a course to become the jewel of the Caribbean.

There’s a street named after him - and a decent pub - but perhaps more importantly there’s a plaque on the corner of O’Reilly and Tacon that states, “Cuba and Ireland, two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope.”

The Irish play a prominent part in Cuban history:  Poet Bonifacio Byrne wrote the patriotic and inspirational Mi Bandera (My Flag) still quoted frequently, the O’Farrills of Longford became one of the wealthiest families (slave trading didn’t hurt their coffers), while Irish-American Johnny “Dynamite” O’Brien is revered for running much needed arms to Cuban revolutionaries in the 19th Century. 

But there is little doubt that Che Guevara Lynch had the greatest impact.

He still holds an almost mystical sway over the island. Physician, poet, writer, political theorist, military commander and ultimate martyr, he was the spark plug of the Revolution.

His literacy campaign led to universal education. He demanded and achieved free universal health care; he was also the force behind the Agrarian Reform Law that redistributed land to the peasants, and limited the size of private farms to one thousand acres. 

He often reminds me of Michael Collins – another man of huge ambitions and abilities; it should be noted that neither had the least compunction about executing political opponents. 

Che will always be the young, handsome, idealistic hero urging his people onwards, for he was executed at age 39 in Bolivia while on his quixotic mission to pursue world revolution.

The pertinent question is: What does Cuban youth now think of Che’s ongoing revolution?

There are more hip-haircuts on the Malecón waterfront than on New York’s Lower East Side, while Beyonce’s commercial paeans can now be heard arising amidst the Afro-Cuban chants on the narrow back streets of Havana.

And yet there’s a widespread acceptance of La Revolución as homegrown and part of intrinsic local culture. Cuba’s socialist state has its problems but it does inure the populace from the black hole of college debt and the financial uncertainty of US health care. 

While everyone seems to have some complaint with their economic system Cubans take pride in what they’ve achieved as a people. In the words of one person – “We’re not all about money. There are other things in life.”

Part of that has to do with Castro culture. Though Raul is seen ambivalently, Fidel is their George Washington. He may have his failings but there’s never been a suggestion that he – or his family – have lined their pockets at the expense of the people.

That’s a huge thing in an island nation that has dealt with an economic embargo for almost sixty years. “As long as everyone is in it together,” a waiter stated, “one can accept sacrifice.”

Cuba is a strange and often fascinating country where the Yoruban religion of the African slaves has syncretized with Catholicism, and co-exists with a James Connolly style socialism.

Where Iyawó (initiates) in the all white garb of their Santería religion stroll past giant etchings of Che and Fidel. I never saw anything of that nature in the old Eastern Bloc countries where religion was at best frowned upon. 

But that’s modern day Havana for you. Rum, rumba, and politics jig together in a great big Caribbean cocktail under the shadow of a giant statue of Jesus.

But now it’s late - tomorrow I go home. The windows are wide open in this mosquito-banished city.
A television drones in the distance, a Salsa band kicks into gear, while down on the Malecón Latino lovers walk arm-in-arm.

“Go back to Cuba!” A memory taunts.

“Yeah, I probably will, and you should come too. You never know, you might like it.”

Go Back To Cuba


“Go back to Cuba!” was a refrain shouted at me for half a lifetime.

“I wish!” was my silent reply, as I jacked my amp to lay a little hurt on the heckler.

Truth was, though, I’d never been to Cuba as I recently watched Havana merge with the shimmering Caribbean on my Jetblue descent.

I had gone on an impulse; besides, the price has been right ever since President Trump’s hissy fit restriction on US travel last November.

I’ve always felt strong parallels between Ireland and Cuba, not the least is that both island countries have fraught relationships with neighboring empires.

Right from its first European settlement in the 16th Century Cuba has had many Irish connections – mostly courtesy of Wild Geese regiments in the Spanish army.

In fact, the emblematic El Morro Lighthouse that dominates Havana’s harbor was once called O’Donnell’s Lighthouse - built by a relative of Red Hugh’s.

I had another reason for going – in the summer of 1989 I had played with the Brooklyn performance poet, Copernicus, on a chaotic tour of Eastern Europe and the USSR.

The Berlin Wall came down some months later and we may have knocked a few chinks in it, particularly in Prague where unknown to us the dissident promoters used our shambolic visit to challenge the government.

When we voiced discomfort at the idea of playing the national ice hockey stadium with militia rifles aimed at the stage, we were reassured that “zey will not keel us all.”

The Eastern Bloc is barely a repressive memory now but Cuba is still celebrating its Revolución.

And with good reason: whereas the Eastern European communist countries were drab, dreary and oppressive, Cuba is a vivacious society, proud of its achievements and determined to plough its own furrow. 

Still, you can feel change in the wind and it’s always exciting to be present as the hammer hits the anvil.

Free universal health care and education have invigorated this largest of the Caribbean islands, and life expectancy has rocketed from just over 60 when Fidel Castro took control in 1959 to almost 80, as we speak.

Lest I’m painting too pretty a picture there are major problems: a lack of housing, too much bureaucracy, and a continuing failure to develop agriculture necessitating much importation of food. 

And there are many, no doubt, who would like a crack at the capitalist society they have been warned about since the cradle.

The real achievement though is that Cuba is a post-racial society. Black, white, and all shades in-between mix easily and on an equal footing. Since everyone receives the same education, there is a social fluidity that makes you painfully aware of the lack of integration back home.

While the US blockade - in effect since 1960 - does hold Cuba back economically it seems to have little effect on the spirit of the people. 

They’ve survived worse, particularly the “special period” during the 1990’s when the USSR collapsed thereby eliminating favorable trade deals and subsidies. Food was scarce for many years and public transport rare.

The blockade, however, has had some positive effects, particularly on Cuba’s lifeblood: music. 

Afro-Cuban Jazz is thriving – the integrated bands, left to their own devices, have syncretized their distinct culture and history with the universal jazz tradition.

At times you feel the whole country is grooving to the addictive 1-2, 1-2-3 Afro-Cuban syncopated beat.

But all cultures are equally valued. My friend and guide, Enrique Núnez, took me to meet Rafael Fernández Moya, the local expert on Cuban-Irish history. 

This former diplomat now works with elementary school children explaining Irish culture and its effect on Cuba.

The vibrant elementary school Pioneers, with their distinctive red neckerchiefs, were bubbling with questions about the life of a New York Irish musician.

Barely out of Pre-K many are already invested in Ireland courtesy of their hero, Che Guevara Lynch.

You should visit Cuba, go with an open mind and savor the experience. Your airline company will advise you on how to get a visa. 

Raúl Castro retires this month. A new leader will be elected from a younger generation.

Change is inevitable and on the way but La Revolución is strong and there’s a rebel Irish tradition close to the heart of it.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Nights in Reilly's


The word was that it had been a “classy kind of joint.” Those days were long gone by the time we moved in.

Probably the only reason we got a gig in the first place was that no one else really wanted to play there.

Years later I was quoted as saying, “The place was so deserted even the cockroaches were jumping ship.” A bit of an exaggeration as it had a diverse, though small, clientele – most of whom became fast friends.

Whatever – within a year Paddy Reilly’s was one of the best-known bars in America. With lines around the block, it was New York’s in-spot. 

What a place! People were jammed so tight you had to love your neighbor for you would inevitably share some physical intimacy by the time you were poured out onto the corner of 28th Street and 2nd Avenue.

There was an attempt to turn an abandoned kitchen into a “Green Room,” but eventually even that was knocked down to provide space, and celebrities had to shoehorn among the swaying, sweaty crowd of New Yorkers and astute out-of-towners.

It was Black 47’s Cavern. We played there Wednesdays and Saturdays. In the beginning we did two long sets; eventually we combined them into a marathon that often stretched until the cows came home. We never tired, though fingers, lips, and voices took a beating.  

It was a scene! And it set the stage for 25 years of performances by Black 47. 

We never rehearsed although we performed hundreds of original songs. Why spend money on rehearsal studios when you could work out material onstage in Reilly’s and get paid for it.

This strategy demanded a certain fearlessness. Chris Byrne or I would bring a song in with lyrics and chords, and during sound check we’d work out an intro, and mark out a space for an improvised instrumental section, then it was 1-2-3-4 and we were off to the races.

Perfection was the last thing on our minds – as long as we all started and finished together, who cared? You’d learn more about the song in that first outing in front of an audience than you ever could in a couple of prissy rehearsal hours.

Though we eventually played stadiums, theatres and legendary clubs, my favorite moment on stage was the night we first performed the complex James Connolly in Reilly’s.

There was the usual jostling and shouting when we began but as we entered Connolly’s inner dialogue, an odd hush descended as both audience and band realized something special was happening.

When the song ended that hush lingered. Between us we had created something new – that rarest of things in music. 

Monsignor Steve Duggan presided over the place with a deft hand and a ready smile. Manager Dympna McDonald became best friend, and champion to a host of bands.

And what a line up it was in those early days – Friday, Spéir Mor, Sunday Roguesmarch, Monday Eileen Ivers & Seamus Egan, Tuesdays Paddy-A-Go-Go, Thursdays a seisiún led by that infamous Sligo Indian, Tony DeMarco, and John Dillon. 

Eventually, The Prodigals and other great bands would gain their residencies.

The doors may have been locked at 4am but the partying continued until whenever.

It was a time of intense politics both in the North of Ireland and the US. Passions were high and many a dignitary stood next to a felon, many a cop next to a robber, and so many superstars next to their fans. 

No one received preference. It was first come, first served - you stood in line with the punters outside and waited your turn.

I could fill a page with the names of the celebrities but who cares – the music is what counted – raw, in your face, full of passion, urgency, and a yearning for originality. It’s hard to ignore that Joe Strummer was a regular, but he was there for the music and cared little for celebrity.

And one day it was over; then 9/11 drained the remains of the wildness out of our insomniac city. 

But the memories remain and so does Paddy Reilly’s still pumping live music, although now on 29th Street. Say hello to the Monsignor when you next venture in. 

What nights we had – what a scene we created!

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

From Bank Clerks to Chieftains


“55 years on the road?“ Said I.

“56 and counting, actually.” Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains coyly smiled.

Since Paddy took up the Tin Whistle at 6 yars of age he’s probably knocked off over 5,000 gigs. But I let that thought rest during our recent interview at SiriusXM.

Paddy is the surviving godfather of Irish Traditional Music; he and Seán O’Riada created the genre as we know it now.

But even within Ceoltóirí Chualann, O’Riada’s masterful ensemble, Paddy was a driving force.

The interview bounced along merrily with PR maestro, Anita Daly, in attendance, and SiriusXM A&R rep, Liam Davenport - himself a bagpiper – dropping by for an earful of a living legend. 

My only fear was that we were laughing so much the listeners might not be able to decipher what we were actually talking about.

The Chieftains were already a household name before I first saw them perform at a festival in Wexford in the early 70’s. Apart from Irish acclaim, John Peel played them regularly on his groundbreaking BBC radio shows.

How odd to hear Irish Traditional Music sandwiched in between Cream and Frank Zappa. But it all fit seamlessly for each was plowing their own furrow, and to hell with the begrudgers!

I reminded Paddy about that Wexford gig. With his near photographic memory he recounted the scene. 

“Out we shuffled onto the stage before the progressive band, Curved Air. We must have looked like a crowd of bank clerks in our dark suits.”

Up near where I sat in the balcony Curved Air fans hooted their displeasure until threatened by veterans of local Teddyboy rumbles.

Then Paddy recalled his involvement with the movie Barry Lyndon. 

“It was a Friday afternoon and I was doing an interview in Dublin when I got a phone call from a Mr. Stanley Kubrick who wished to speak to me. Unfamiliar with his name, I asked if he could give me a shout back on Monday and hung up. Luckily the world famous director persisted and the rest was history.”

Talk about the right music for the right scene. I can still recall the emotion I felt when hearing Mná na hÉireann during a Times Square showing of Kubrick’s iconic film.

If Seán O’Riada’s Mise Éire sountrack changed the way Irish people thought of themselves, then Moloney’s scoring of Barry Lyndon for this Academy Award winner put Irish Traditional Music on the international stage.

But then Paddy has received many awards including a doctorate from Trinity College Dublin. That finally put paid to his mother nagging him about giving up his “nice steady job” as an accountant for the uncertain life of a gigging musician.

The Dublin of the 1950’s was a quiet, but seething, backwater when Paddy took his first steps on the road to fame. Was there anyone of note he didn’t know?

Brendan Behan was a friend and “had a lovely voice. He could hit a high G effortlessly and was a nice man – most of the time.”

Paddy, in his work for Claddagh Records, actually recorded Patrick Kavanagh and recounted the poet’s volcanic and argumentative nature while imbibing in McDaid’s Pub.

Another poet, John Montague, suggested the name The Chieftains when the boys were contemplating calling themselves “The Quare Fellahs” in honor of Brendan Behan. 

Think how Irish Traditional Music might have been perceived down the years if they’d been known as “The Quare Fellahs!”

Though he’s recorded with everyone from The Stones to Pavarotti, Paddy is at his hilarious best talking about the Chieftains’ outings with Van Morrison. His take on the East Belfast man’s accent and eccentricities is spot on.

And yet Moloney has a reverence for musicians, and is well aware that together Van and The Chieftains created Irish Heartbeat - a classic in modern Irish music – in five frantic days. 

As you read this The Chieftains are touring America. As ever they mix the mad, the merry and the melancholic.

Go see them. They are a link to both the past and the future, and will work wonders on your soul.
Not bad for a crowd of bank clerks!

Friday, 13 April 2018

Bob Dylan's Everlasting Tour


I went to see Dylan in Bridgeport, CT some years back. It was during my Black 47 touring days when I rarely attended other shows – but, hell, it was a free box seat for Bobby. How could I refuse?

I might never have become a musician if I hadn’t heard Like A Rolling Stone. That groundbreaking single sent me helter-skeltering out of womb-like Wexford and into the maelstrom of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

I never met Dylan, though we briefly shared the same manager. However, one hung over snowy morning in Tribeca I overheard his unmistakable drawl. Sure enough, he and a lady friend were approaching me on the icy sidewalk.

As you might imagine I did a double take, whereupon he threw me a frigid glance that thundered, “Stroll on, pal!”

And I did, though I wouldn’t have known what to say anyway except, “Hey, man, any chance of an Alka-Seltzer?”

But here I was – almost a lifetime later - in Webster Bank Arena in the unaccustomed comfort of a boxed seat, far from my roots in the mosh pits of CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.

The opening bands, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket, were excellent – for about 30 minutes - but as their sets stretched beyond the hour mark, I had to wonder, “What are you thinking, Bobby? These guys are wearing out your audience!”

But after the rigors of 4000 or so gigs I guess Dylan doesn’t concern himself with such trivialities.

Then he was suddenly, if laconically, onstage – no announcement, just a stroll on with his band. 

Nor did things click straight away. The guitarist was new, and unfamiliar with some of the songs.
The audience too seemed underwhelmed. As I made my way towards the stage people were already leaving. And then there were only three rows of diehards between me and The Man.

It was a surreal scene. Dylan doesn’t play guitar anymore and the band was gathered around him in a semi-circle. They were dressed in Tex-Mex style, but they had found the groove and were beginning to swing.

Occasionally Bob tinkered with a keyboard, but for the most part he stood out front like a weathered Old Testament prophet; however, as the set progressed and the audience thinned he became more defiant, his shades unable to mask the brittle flashes of anger.

That mattered little to the audience, many of whom were wondering aloud when he would play Just Like A Woman, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, or other classics.

I didn’t care. That familiar nasal voice from my youth washed over me like warm Wexford rain - comforting, nourishing, and ultimately healing.

The new songs sounded good, though I couldn’t distinguish many words; but who cared, I knew exactly what he was saying. 

Dylan may be our most gifted and enduring lyricist but, like Joyce, he has transcended mere words – he speaks his own language now and its snarls, sighs, and syllables are imbued with a universe of moods and meanings. 

Still the crowd got smaller and I found myself in the front row, as close as I had been on that long-ago, hung over Tribeca morning.

Then he began She Belongs To Me and I remembered singing that song for my first girlfriend back in Wexford, and with that the dam broke.

I might have been rooted to the floor in Bridgeport but I was also ricocheting around the country through a Montana sunset, a Geary Street midnight, an East Village afterhours, a Key West dawn - down all the years of knocking about on a rock & roll journey that for once made some sense.

And in those hallucinogenic moments I experienced all the strains of poetry and music in Dylan’s voice - from Congo Square in “Nawlins” up the Mississippi Delta to Route 66, and back East to Washington Square, in shades of Kerouac and Liam Clancy, Blind Willie McTell and Buddy Holly, Walt Whitman and crazy-man Allen Ginsburg howling to the moon on East 12th Street.

And then Bobby was bowing, smirking like the joker he’s always been, heading for his bus - the Voice of America off on the next leg of his everlasting tour.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Heroes/Belfast


New York was a different place back then.  Smaller, less complicated, when you went out for a night, it was just you, the world and whomever you ran into.

Thus it came to pass that Phelim Lunny and I ended up one night in the early 80’s at Tier 3, a “happening” club in Tribeca. 

After a pint or so there was a commotion at the door and in bounded Jayne County, as only Jayne – once known as Wayne - could do. 

All heads turned, especially when a sheepish looking David Bowie was spotted in her entourage.

Phelim and I, being ultra-cool Lower East Siders, spun nonchalantly back on our stools and stared stone-faced at the bar mirror.

Perhaps David was tired of Jayne’s shenanigans for he suddenly materialized behind us inquiring if he might join our company.  

To say we were shocked would be an understatement but Phelim had enough presence of mind to include him in our round. Whereupon the former Ziggy Stardust said he’d have the same as ourselves.  

Meetings with superstars can be fraught with questions of etiquette. For instance, how does one begin?

Our coolness prevented us from us from dropping to the floor and licking the soles of his shoes – although if he had suggested such an action we would have gladly obliged.

However, David was very down to earth and instantly put us at our ease.

He was wearing a trendy tweed overcoat and looked extremely healthy.  This had not been the case the last time I had seen him perform when he was rail thin and shivering from stress. 

In fact at each performance he seemed to adopt a different persona. Then I had a moment’s panic, was this “very natural David” just another act.

Then he smiled gently while relating some anecdote about a visit to Ireland and all doubt fled. Although very handsome, up close he looked much more like the slightly tweedy English gentleman than the “thin white duke” of his staged photos.

It was around the time of the Hunger Strikes and we spoke about Belfast - what a great but troubled city. He left little doubt that he was not well disposed to Mrs. Thatcher or her handling of Irish issues.

Over some more pints the talk swung back to Berlin. Both Phelim and he had lived there. I told him that his classic Heroes – the city’s signature rock anthem - was one of my favorite songs.

He thanked me and gave a brief, but insightful, account of how he, Brian Eno, and Tony Viscont had concocted this sonic masterpiece.

There were more pints, the club had filled up and the word had inevitably spread that Bowie was in the house. A crowd had gathered behind us, their eyes wide with expectation. David sighed and said he must be going, we shook hands and wished him the best.

As he was putting on his coat he leaned over and said, “You know I could just as easily have written Heroes about Belfast as Berlin – two cities with walls between them.”  

When I heard of his death those last words of his resurfaced.  Like many I was devastated for he had been a great influence, and I thought how lucky to have experienced his charming spirit for an hour or two. 

And in that instant Berlin and Belfast magically morphed and these words gelled into a chanted bridge for Heroes:

You were from the East I was from the West,
You were wearing orange I was wearing green.
You adored in your church, I adored in mine
All we had in common was a special dream
That we could live together, never be apart
No walls could separate the union of our heartsa
Until the bullets ricocheted along the Shankill Road
You became a memory I would always love, forever…

I recorded a version of Heroes/Belfast recently and it’s now available on iTunes and all other digital outlets.

It’s a tribute to David Bowie, and all the brooding joy and inspiration he gave us. But it’s even more for those of us who violently disagree but day by day tear down the walls that keep us apart.

Available Now http://www.theconnextion.com/black47/black47_index.cfm?ArtistID=339&RefID=16

Or on iTunes (https://itunes.apple.com/…/album/heroes-belfast-…/1351583349) and Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Heroes-Belfast-Larry-K…/…/ref=sr_1_1…).

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Crazy Eddie


I sometimes think we’re living in a country run by Crazy Eddie.  Remember him?

There was a certain novelty to the guy at first – an endearing quality to his shouting and haranguing on television ads. 

Same story in his stores, you were barked at, belittled, and hustled like a lamb to the slaughter of his cash register. Eventually, however, old Eddie went bust.

President Trump almost makes you long for the simple homespun qualities of George W. Bush. But that’s hardly fair to our present POTUS, for so far he hasn’t destroyed the Middle East, nor does he have a budget surplus to blow.

Still, it would be a nice break to bask in Barack Obama’s icy calmness or Ronald Reagan’s reassuring smile every now and then.

For President Trump is wearing us all out. The man thrives on trouble and strife.

But I’ll grant him one thing – he’s enabled this political junky to go cold turkey. I’ve sworn off politics and returned to more important matters - like worrying about The Mets and Manchester United.

This doesn’t preclude me from considering the consequences of the president’s policies.

For instance, the new corporate tax rate of 21% will definitely enrich corporations and their 1% handlers, leaving the frothy promise of one-off bonuses for lesser souls like you and me – if we’re lucky.

What the new tax rate does guarantee is a huge bump in the deficit. The piper will have to be paid and cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are inevitable.

The carried interest loophole for hedge fund executives, however, remains untouched, while a last minute provision to the new tax legislation will benefit wealthy real estate investors. Eddie may be crazy but he ain’t stupid!

Forget about any meaningful infrastructure investment. Of course, the president’s idea of such spending is that the private sector should provide the bulk with the Feds kicking in a minute remainder.

Speaking of which I have a nice little stretch of the Connecticut Turnpike up around Greenwich available at a bargain price; you can charge your own tolls, and before you know it you could end up in the White House.

On the plus side, assuming the stock market is still booming, a congratulatory fist-bump for El Presidente and everyone else with some bucks in the game! And yet, personally, I prefer a cool hand on the rudder when the markets swoon which they inevitably will.

What does this president really believe? Between lies and exaggerations it’s hard to tell. You have to hope he doesn’t believe his own hype. The alternative of a self-deluded, nuclear-packing narcissist running the show is too frightening for words.

I always felt better knowing that the actor who played Crazy Eddie went straight to the pub then home to his wife after his manic TV rants.

But then our guy in the White House doesn’t even take a pint, and Melania doesn’t seem to be very good company these days.

On a private matter, doesn’t Mr. Trump understand that the US eventually benefits from mass immigration? Back in the mid 19th Century many Irish immigrants arrived unwashed, hungry, and illiterate from a broken, priest-ridden land. Now their descendants are running the US.

Because they have less choices immigrants tend to start their own businesses, thereby creating jobs for native-born Americans. A case in point - Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian immigrant, Abdul Fattah Jandali.

Donald Trump hasn’t cracked a book since Goodnight Moon, but he’s a TV junky, and thus instinctively knew that there’s little difference anymore between reality shows and reality itself – whatever that is. Just keep shouting, threatening and tweeting, and you never know what you might achieve. 

Anything is possible when the Democratic Party is led by Chuck Schumer who puts all his cards on the table by offering funding for a Mexican wall in exchange for long term amnesty for Dreamers.

Crazy Eddie understood that if he got you inside his store he’d make a sale.

Likewise President Trump knows you don’t have to be lucky for four full years – you just need to keep the waters muddied and get a couple of breaks around polling day.

Bah humbug, enough of this politics, the Mets and Manchester United need my attention!

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.