Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Donald Trump & Wexford Teddyboys

Anyone care to speculate on who might end up Democratic candidate in 2020?

That race seems not unlike the Aintree Grand National – it’s long and winding, with lots of steep fences and plenty of time for every participant to fall or self-destruct.

Bear in mind too that front-runner Joe Biden tossed in the towel in 1987 when caught lifting a few lines from British Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. 

Good man though he is, will Joltin’ Joe have the stamina to survive the intense primary season ahead, let alone withstand the mountain of sludge headed his way should he gain the nomination?

On the Left, Bernie and Elizabeth will ultimately have to duke it out, a shame since both are principled and have done much good for the country.

Beto and Mayor Pete will ultimately go mano a mano for the cute young white guy title, while either Kamala or Cory are likely to meet their Waterloo early on in South Carolina, or three days later on Super Tuesday when the field will be reduced to the few left standing with sufficient money and buzz.

Senator Harris in particular has much going for her with early primaries in South Carolina and her home state of California, and could be a formidable November foe for President Trump.

Still, my only prediction is for the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee. Should Senator Harris not make top of the ticket, either she, Senator Klobuchar, or Sherrod Brown of Ohio will get the nod.

Which leaves me still pondering something the Democrats have ignored these last two and half years – why was Hillary Clinton such an awful candidate back in 2016?

Water under the bridge, you might haughtily declare, or “we wuz robbed!” I beg to differ and until the party takes the time to figure this out they might as well be doing you know what into the wind.

You can be sure Donald Trump spends his tweetless hours ruminating on this. Because he knows he’d be currently living on Fifth Avenue if he’d been running in 2016 against Bernie Sanders who would have beaten him handily in the Rust Belt.

On paper Secretary Clinton looked invincible, she was eminently qualified, the first viable woman presidential candidate, she had a huge war chest, and yet it all came to naught over 77,744 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

That she didn’t even campaign in Wisconsin is a black mark, but hey, we all make mistakes.

Many women of my acquaintance feel that misogyny was the issue, and I’m sure it played a significant part.

I used to feel it was because of over-familiarity with the Clintons and their fondness for big fee speeches, but Donald Trump has made a career of flashing his money around like a Wexford Teddyboy on a Saturday night booze-up.

Still, you have to hand it to the man from Fifth Avenue, for he persuaded the white working class to vote against their best interests. 

Sure, he made them false promises about returning well-paying factory jobs from overseas, and that he would provide first-class health care insurance at reasonable prices, and so on.

But his stunning victory may have more to do with the perception that he cared more for the regular person than Mrs. Clinton. Given his history and public persona that’s pretty astounding.

I thought he was dead in the water until late October when I began to hear back from wherever I inquired, “Yeah, Hillary has it sown up but everyone around here is voting Trump.”

I also experienced a “eureka” moment myself when a very smart union leader confided that while he and other officials were voting Hillary, the membership was all behind the Donald.

It’s a long way to Nov. 2020, and there’ll be many the slip twixt between the cup and lip, but if the economy stays strong, the market remains high, and the creek don’t rise, then it’s won’t matter if the Republicans haven’t a clue how to provide decent health care insurance, or return manufacturing jobs to the US.

Donald Trump, the king of compassion and guardian of the American working class, will romp home in a canter.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

"Famine" Irish and Fundamental Decency

It was a tough life on the streets of New York for the “Famine Irish” who poured into the city from 1845 onwards. Few had any idea of urban living and many did not speak English.

Most had sold anything they had of value to pay for the fare over, while others were packed like beasts on to coffin ships by “sympathetic” landlords, eager to be rid of them in order to lessen the hated poor tax.

As long as their names were on the list of ship’s passengers presented to immigration officials - and in reasonable health - they were accepted into the United States. Indeed, immigration was almost unrestricted until the first federal laws regulating entry were passed in 1875.

The Famine Irish were despised for their Catholic religion, their perceived ignorance and lack of hygiene, and the widespread belief that they carried disease and would add to the growing crime rate.

In a boom and bust economy poor immigrant women were sometimes forced to resort to prostitution and broken men often found solace in shebeens where rotgut rum was cheap.

They lived in fear of uptown social reformers who considered them morally unfit to raise families.

Vagrancy was a crime and many poor Irish children were swept up and sent to foster homes in rural America where they were expected to change their religion and labor from dawn to dusk for their meager keep. 

Some escaped and made their way back to New York, while many just simply vanished into the vastness of America.

I can’t help but think that there are similarities and parallels with the migrant children separated from their asylum-seeking parents on our southern border.

Amazingly, no one knows for certain but it’s estimated that between 1500 and 5000 migrant children recently taken from their families by government agencies are now unaccounted for. It is feared that some children may never be reunited with their parents.

Most of these asylum seekers are fleeing repressive regimes and gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Are they really that different from the million or more Irish who fled oppression and official negligence during the Great Hunger? They too sought – and gained - a new life in the United States?

Even with his bellicose pronouncements and policies, the problem predates Mr. Trump’s presidency.

 For many years there’s been a general unwillingness to come up with a sane system for immigration into the US.

This has as much to do with xenophobia, prejudice, and racism as good old economic suicide.

For with an aging population the country needs immigrant workers of all abilities and education levels, if nothing else to bolster the Social Security Fund.  Not surprisingly, there’s a particular need for those who will take unwanted jobs in the low paying agricultural and hospitality sectors.

No matter what “base” you’re playing to, Mr. President, the country is not “full”. Take a look around the decaying rust belt cities and the dying small towns in the rural heartland.

All of these areas could do with an infusion of new immigrants who would eventually add to the local tax base.

When the Famine Irish arrived they worked at anything to get their start; they were also willing to live in any part of the country, even when unwelcome. So too would these new refugees and asylum seekers. 

It’s high time Democrats and Republicans came together and devised an immigration policy that suits the country’s current needs – rather than looking back nostalgically at an America that never was.

In the meantime, the missing migrant children are a blight on our country’s good name. As Sen. Portman (R-OH) said, "I don't care what you think about immigration policy, this is wrong.”

For President Trump to suggest that the policy of separating children from their  asylum-seeking parents may be reinstated makes you wonder what type of country we have become.

Perhaps it’s time to ask the question once put to Senator Joseph McCarthy by Joseph Welch, chief counsel to the US Army – “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

We’re not a country that “loses” children, migrant or otherwise. It’s not just a matter of law - it’s one of fundamental decency.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Take me home, mon, to the Irish Caribbean!

Every year immediately after St. Patrick floats off on an ocean of beer I head for the Caribbean.

It doesn’t cost much as long as you book ahead and don’t fly on weekends.  The price of living down there is also reasonable especially if you stay away from tourist traps and the playgrounds of the 1%.

Right-wingers can even savor the considerable fruits of socialism in Cuba. At one of the top Afro-Jazz Club in Havana when paying for a couple of Mojitos I was informed that my admission charge of $10 had covered my tab.

But there’s another reason to go down the islands – they’re so Irish.

For those who arrived voluntarily down the centuries what a paradise it must have seemed – balmy waters, silver sands, with exotic fruits and vegetables there for the picking. Oh yeah, mon, there’s nothing quite like island living!

Vitamin starved Northern Europeans were convinced that limes and lemons were miracle fruits for they cured so many diseases. The wonders of Vitamin C!

Unfortunately, many Irish arrived in chains to work the sugarcane fields of Barbados and other island hellholes.

Their fate was terrible and, given the working and living conditions, inevitable. Many died in the first years of servitude. And yet there are inspirational stories of escape from this human bondage. 

I was reminded of these recently while at a post-St. Patrick’s Day party on a floating bar off the island of Bequia. The green was flying, the rum was flowing, and the color of your skin unimportant – we were all Irish. 

The talk soon turned to the nearby island of St. Vincent’s, a legendary safe haven for pirates.

Roughly 100 miles from Barbados across a stretch of beautiful, but often turbulent, water St. Vincent’s was a magnet for both black and white slaves. 

However, while visiting Barbados some years back I learned about some of the obstacles to escape. 

The sheer heat - while toiling from dawn to dusk in the sugarcane fields - sapped the spirit of so many.

Even as a relatively pampered visitor this heat could be debilitating – you quickly learn the value of a siesta. Rise at 6am, go about your business, nap from 1 to 3pm then take to the streets or beach again in the cool of the evening.

Irish slaves soon gained the name Red Legs - plantation owners did not provide sunscreen.

Nor was there much chance of stealing or building a boat for escape; the shores were so well patrolled. 

The only hope was to find discarded planks or malleable branches from trees, hide them in caves or bury them in the sand. Then steal rope, paddles and material for a rudimentary sail; water also had to be stored and some small portion of one’s daily food allotment. 

Wait for a moonless night with calm waters. Lash together a raft then row quietly, but with determination, for it was essential to be beyond the horizon by dawn.

At sea, the problems of sun, thirst, sudden squalls, and interception by unfriendly craft were ever present.

Who knows how many escapees died on those voyages? But some did make it to the pirate camps where they were welcomed – probably because of their legendary bravery when attacking English vessels. Revenge, no doubt, played a part.

Back at the party on the floating bar I recalled my visit to Barbados. It’s a beautiful island but there’s a brooding quality to the countryside – not unlike the feeling you get when you look up at a Mayo mountain and see the remains of abandoned cabins.

It’s only then that you grasp in some superficial way the fate of the people who dealt with The Great Hunger.

Likewise a visit to the undeveloped East coast of Barbados provides some understanding of the savagery of Caribbean slavery.

I have to say I identified far more with the pirate islands of St. Vincent and Bequia where our people found acceptance and blended in with the oppressed Afro-Caribbean culture.

And so I bellied up to the swaying bar, melded in with these island folk proudly wearing their green. I had found my people and ordered another rum punch.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Johnny Reck & the Great Wexford Showband Blackmail

“There are only two rules for being in a band, Kirwan, get paid and get out alive – not necessarily in that order!”

Thus did Johnny Reck induct me into his showband. I’m not sure I was even shaving yet but I had joined the august ranks of professional musicians.

Johnny had managed and played in a band around Wexford for much of his life. He kept an eye on local talent and either felt my star was on the rise or, more likely, he needed a live body to play bass. 

Whatever, he couched his offer thus: “Seeing you’re not bad on six strings, young fellah, there’ll be no stopping you on four!”

Problem was I had never even held a bass before and couldn’t get over the weight of it, or the thickness of its four strings.

Johnny felt that time would sort out these issues, and advised me to practice scales, and show up at the CYMS Hall the following Friday night.

At this notorious bucket of blood the other band members wouldn’t speak to me, and refused to tell me what keys we were playing in. 

To add to my anxiety, a major gang fight broke out during which a drunken teddyboy got his head split open and for some reason blamed me.

After four hours of trying to stay in tune and ignore the teddyboy’s threats, Johnny gave me a bottle of Harp (although I was a Pioneer), and slipped a ten-shilling note in my breast pocket.

He also advised me to pay no heed to “the other gobshites in the band,” that given time they’d recognize my genius.  More importantly, I should smile at the girls – “you never know your luck!”

Johnny was wrong about the gobshites, a couple of them quit in protest the next week. And so I brought along my friend, Pierce Turner who played piano and saxophone. 

Pierce’s debut was a lot more civilized, for our next gig was at Wexford Boat Club and boasted a decidedly more up-market clientele.

There I smiled at the girls until my face ached though my luck didn’t change, but at least there were no teddyboy threats.

Pierce smiled too. He was delighted to be allowed play music for a full four hours, and on our walk home he marveled, “and you get paid too.”

Johnny was thrilled with his two newest members. We were far from musical prodigies, but neither of us complained and we gave 120% every night.

The gigs started rolling in – probably because we had many names: The Johnny Reck Showband, The Palladium, and The Liars are three that spring to mind. If we hadn’t impressed a promoter  – usually the case unless he was deaf – we merely showed up for the next gig at his dancehall with a different name.

Then Johnny pulled off his major coup. He enrolled us in the Musicians Union of Ireland and demanded that we fill the opening slot for every union showband that played County Wexford.

And so we opened for fabled giants like The Royal, The Miami, Joe Dolan & The Drifters. Didn’t matter if they liked or despised us – Johnny threatened to bring the whole of County Wexford out on strike should they replace us with a non-union band.

This all worked like a charm until Turner and I neglected to attend the annual high mass for departed members in Dublin, whereupon we were summarily dismissed from the Musicians Union – I kid you not – and thus did Johnny’s socialist blackmail scheme come screeching to a halt.

But through thick and thin Mr. Reck stood by us as the gigs diminished and promoters gained their revenge.

Pierce and I eventually moved to New York where we scandalized staid audiences as Turner & Kirwan of Wexford.

After a long eventful life Johnny passed away some years back. His last words to me were, “Oh to be 80 again, Kirwan!” 

Bob Dylan, Luke Kelly, and Jimi Hendrix may have been major influences, but no one shaped me like Johnny Reck.

I think of him and his two rules every time I get paid after a gig - while pinching myself to make sure I’m alive. 

Here’s to you up in Rock & Roll heaven, Johnny, long may you boogie!

A Nation Once Again

Seeing a Sean O’Casey play recently, with its implicit criticism of conservative nationalism, has led me to wonder how should one rate the Irish Free State and its successor, the Republic of Ireland?

Neither was exactly a disaster, but it’s hard to argue that the country didn’t really mature socially or economically until at least the mid-1960’s.

There are many reasons for this slow start, including the war of independence, an even more brutal civil war, the violent early deaths of so many visionaries such as Michael Collins, Liam Lynch, Arthur Griffith, and Liam Mellows, a lack of capital after British withdrawal, and worldwide depression in the 1930’s. 

And yet, let me suggest three main reasons for over forty years of spiritual and economic poverty: emigration, Éamon de Valera, and the Catholic Church.

Emigration was just assumed to be a fact of life. If you weren’t “connected” and the beneficiary of the “jobs for the boys” club, then it behooved you to get lost, pronto - and we’d prefer if you didn’t make too big a fuss about it! 

London, Birmingham, New York, Boston, Sydney, Toronto await you, but please make sure to send money home regularly.

Odd as it may seem, emigration turned Christmas into a magical time in Wexford. So many fathers, brothers and sisters returned from the UK, but oh the heartbreak as the boat train pulled out in late December, the night echoing with teary promises to return for a full week in the summer. 

But at least we saw our relatives for two weeks a year. What about those who lost kith and kin to North America, many of whom didn’t make it home until old age – if at all?

Emigration has left a scar across much of rural Ireland – you can still witness its devastation in the ruins of long abandoned cottages. 

What’s less apparent is the pain of separation that so many suffered down through all the years of official nonchalance.

Éamon de Valera had one great achievement for which we can never thank him enough. Though he suffered great scorn from Winston Churchill and his ilk, the “Long Fellow” did keep Ireland out of World War Two.

However, roughly 250,000 out of our population of 3,000,000 either worked in the UK or served in the British forces during that conflict, including my father, a merchant marine.

Despite this mass migration Mr. deValera still managed to do great damage to the country’s economy with his deflationary tariff-ridden policies; while his puritanical and xenophobic views did little for a society still trying to define itself after independence.

And what of the Irish Catholic Church? Well, we’re finally seeing the hidden fruits of its malfeasance in the lurid tales of child molestation, Magdalene laundries, and medieval attitudes towards women.

And these thoughts come from no enemy of the church. I was raised in a clerical family with an uncle a priest, served as a Franciscan altar boy, and am blessed to have many friends in the religious community.

But even to a teenager it was obvious that there were deep problems within the Irish Catholic Church - that ultimately the “corporation” was far more important than the temporal or spiritual lives of its members.

Take the debacle with the first coalition government that came to power in 1948.  While the Catholic Hierarchy rarely publicly opposed the Minister for Health Dr. Noel Browne’s crusade against TB, they did little to help. 

But then in 1951 the bishops brought down the government over Browne’s proposed plan for free health care for women, and their children up to the age of sixteen. 

Unfortunately, when we got rid of the English it would seem we replaced them with a new set of homegrown masters.

One can disagree with the politics and policies of current Irish politicians, but there is at least official concern now for those who must emigrate; the long shadow of Mr. de Valera is merely a memory, and the Catholic Church is in the process of finding its proper place in a modern secular society.

There are many problems in modern Ireland but those Irish who live there have a right to be proud of their nation. 

Still, every now and again it’s only fitting that we remember the many blighted lives that were unceremoniously sacrificed on the journey. 

President Trump Reads My Column in the Echo

Want to have a humdinger battle over the relative merits of capitalism and socialism?

I thought not! So how about something more akin to – “Is the present US economic system working for you?”

Well, it’s certainly rocking for the top 1% of American households who own more wealth than the bottom 90%.

Meanwhile, real wages (adjusted for inflation) have barely increased since the 1970’s, despite negligible unemployment and a booming job market?

This last detail troubles me greatly, for despite all my roaring good times in that blessed decade, I was poorer than any church mouse. 

In fact, once when soliciting an apartment on Avenue B, the landlord advised me to “go on Welfare, bud! That way I’ll definitely get my rent.”

I got the apartment – without Welfare – but life would have been a lot simpler if I’d been in the 1% these last 40 years.

I doubt many of that financial class read the Echo; although apparently President Trump always begins his Wednesday staff meetings with, “What’s Kirwan writing about me today?”

Flattery indeed, but nowadays we’re being duped by politicians right across the spectrum. And while we support them in their ideological bloodletting, large corporation are printing money, as they say in Canarsie.

Didn’t President Obama rescue the banks during the Great Recession and how about President Trump giving away the shop to big business courtesy of his 2017 Tax Relief Act?

It can be argued that President Obama had little choice, with the whole financial system collapsing around his ears. But who ended up paying for it?

You got it - Joe and Josie Blow the taxpayer!

They’ll continue to shell out for President Trump’s deficit ballooning 40% cut in corporate taxes - particularly if interest rates rise as expected.

And what so far have the corporations done with their $1.5 trillion windfall? Well instead of investing in jobs and long-term capital improvements they’ve bought back their stock to the tune of $900 billon – further enriching the 1%.

Does anyone honestly expect Joe and Josie’s real wages to rise in the next 40 years, particularly with the “gig” economy gathering steam?

So, the one shot we have is to curtail rising costs. 

I know, you’re blue in the face hearing that US health care is absurdly expensive compared to the Canadian model. 

Having experienced emergency rooms in both countries, I can honestly say there was little difference in the quality of care either side of the border.

But wait there’s an admirable movement afoot to introduce Medicare for All that would bring us closer to the Canadian system.

The problem is that many people down here are satisfied with the health coverage provided by their employers. However, with costs continuing to rise, most corporations would be only thrilled to pass on this expensive obligation to the government.

Health care companies, as you might imagine, want no part of such a change. But why should we give a fiddler’s about them and their profits?

With Medicare for All the US government could also dictate fairer prices from the drug companies, as happens in many industrial countries.

Everything I’ve just proposed however is just a pipe dream. We can barely keep the L train running, let alone reform a complicated health care system.  

But a compromise might be possible if politicians would drop their catcalls of “capitalism” and “socialism,” drink a few pints together and cut a deal that for once might benefit the 90% – for instance, allowing those over the age of 50 to choose between Medicare and private coverage.

Given this choice, corporations would shovel their eligible employees into less expensive Medicare. 

But even this is unlikely to happen since health insurance and drug companies are already furiously greasing their politicians’ palms.    

Meanwhile, the deficit balloons, the 1% grows wealthier, and poor Joe and Josie continue to take their partisan cues from Fox TV and MSNBC blowhards.

I’ve been wasting my time this past 40 years so I’m finally joining the 1%!  Where’s my cell phone?

“Hello, Mr. President, Kirwan from The Echo here… I have this killer idea – how about you, me, and the Russians go into business and develop the Lower East Side into a five star Golf Course? I have connections with this landlord down on Avenue B…”

Friday, 8 March 2019

Is Sean O'Casy Still Relevant?

I once missed Led Zeppelin in Madison Square Garden, and didn’t attend The Who, with The Clash opening, at Shea Stadium, so help me god! 

I even scalped a ticket to Bruce Springsteen for thrice the price in lean times, but under no circumstances will I miss the upcoming Dublin Trilogy of Sean O’Casey at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

It’s not as if I haven’t seen The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, or The Plough and the Stars before – I even attended opening night of the latter back in 1988 when it was the Rep’s first offering.

But to see all three in sequence will be like getting a front seat to one of Ireland’s most turbulent periods of history as seen through the jaundiced eye of its greatest playwright.

Nor was O’Casey some casual hurler on the ditch, he was an active participant in the years of industrial turmoil that led to Dublin’s 1913 Lockout right through to the end of the Civil War in 1923.
My grandfather adored these three plays and thought nothing of driving the 80 miles to Dublin for a decent production.

Odd in itself as Thomas Hughes was a conservative Catholic Republican. O’Casey on the other hand had strong communist sympathies, and was a Protestant to boot.

But their world was “in a state of chassis” - many Republicans had been excommunicated, while many Christians had grown to question the alliance of their churches with a brutal capitalist world order.

One thing Sean O’Casey and Thomas Hughes had in common was a dislike for James Connolly. I once heard my grandfather mutter that “Connolly was nothing but a little Scottish troublemaker,” a sentiment shared by O’Casey.

They both, however, adored Big Jim Larkin, labor agitator supreme and founder of the Irish Transport & General Workers Union – strange in my grandfather’s case, since he was a small businessman.
But that’s part of the magic of this dynamic era, and O’Casey captures it so well in his plays.

William Butler Yeats, O’Casey’s champion at the Abbey Theatre, said that poetry should be “cold and passionate as the dawn.” He was intimating that balance is essential in all things, especially art.
He could have been speaking about O’Casey’s trilogy, all tragicomedies balancing on a fine fulcrum. 

Set in Dublin’s fatigued tenements, tragedy lurks around every corner, and humor one of the few ways of combating the roiling poverty.

But overplay either tragedy or mirth and the audience can be in for a long evening. 

There’s little fear of that happening at the Rep. They know their O’Casey, and although Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly have differing directorial skills and process, they always highlight O’Casey’s sheer humanity and love for his characters.

One way or another all three directors will have a wonderful repertory cast to work with.

As ever I’m interested in seeing Terry Donnelly and John Keating, two of my favorite Rep veterans, both outstanding O’Casey interpreters.

Terry is what I call a “light-stealer.” No matter the part she soaks up the light onstage and I always await her entrance – the energy in the room shifts and it’s hard to take your eyes off her.

Though John’s entrances are equally powerful, at first his comedic chops sweep all before him, but gradually he coaxes out the tragedy inherent in all O’Casey’s major characters. 

There’s a pathos to this 20th Century playwright that some modern interpreters are wary of. Bald as it may be it never bothers me, for those times were indeed tragic. A dream was betrayed, and the Irish people traded one set of masters for another.

Sean O’Casey never lets us forget that. And over the next four months the Irish Repertory Theatre will bring his turbulent world roaring back to life. 

O’Casey bared the soul of a nation in these plays. The political and social questions he asked have yet to be answered.

And yet, Captain Boyle’s innocent, if enigmatic, inquiry to Joxer Daly is still my favorite, “What is the stars?”

Perhaps The Rep will answer it this time round.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Rick Kelly's Carmine Street Guitars

New York is changing. Streets I walk down now are a mere shell of what they were in the 1970’s. Starbucks, CVS and Banana Republic have displaced the bodegas, record & book stores that gave New York its particular stamp.

But when was the city ever different? Surely Walt Whitman railed against the changes he saw on his return from the Civil War. 

Some businesses, however, weather the changes and continue to provide both great service and a much-treasured dollop of hospitality.

Take, for instance, Rick Kelly’s Carmine Street Guitars – it’s like entering a haven from a bygone era when the music business was idiosyncratic and occasionally even fun.

The front room - full to the gills with guitars of all shapes, sizes, vintage and prices - is usually devoid of attendants. You’ll hear laughter leak out from the workshop, and eventually Rick or Cindy Hulej will venture out to offer assistance.

Rick has had a shop in the vicinity since 1976 and if you wish to experience the old West Village then take a hike down to Carmine Street, just west of Bleecker. 

You can browse in the Un-Oppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Bookstore while across the street House of Oldies (no CDs or Tapes sold) flaunts its vinyl, all basking in the considerable shadow of Our Lady of Pompeii Church.

Rick himself hails from Sunnyside Gardens and is from solid Irish-American stock, though he’s not sure from whence his branch of the Kellys originated. “Maybe Dublin,” he offers without too much conviction.

The shop is a delight for musicians, or just the plain curious - any space not occupied by guitars, mandolins, and banjos is filled with pictures of Patti and GE Smith, Lenny Kay, Lou Reed, and the many others who have ventured in.

Rick has a lot of time for working musicians. Tell him you’re in a panic because you have an upcoming gig, and he’s likely to bump you up the line for repairs or a quick set up.

If you have a guitar whose strings buzz or are too high off the neck to play with comfort, Rick’s your man! And he doesn’t charge an arm or a leg, much less a finger.

One of the problems with modern guitars, he feels, is that the wood employed is not what it used to be. It can’t hack the winter heat of apartments or the air-conditioned rigors of summer.

Which brings me to Rick’s main gig. The man makes his own guitars. Bob Dylan owns two and plays his sunburst Eaglecaster regularly onstage. Why - because like all Rick’s guitars it sounds great.

The key is the wood he uses. And that’s where the “old New York” comes in. According to Rick our city was originally built with Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus). And that’s what he’s been hunting down since 1976. 

He keeps his eye on old buildings and recently got some beams from the loft of his friend, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

Inside his workshop you can witness how Cindy and Rick convert this venerable wood into all manner of “axes.” 

Not only does White Pine sound sweet but it’s one of the straightest trees and thus its guitar necks rarely bend. 

You tell Rick and Cindy what kind of axe you want and they design it for you, and don’t take forever about it either.

Meanwhile Rick’s mother, Mrs. Dorothy Kelly does the books and, like the white pine, keeps the enterprise on the straight and narrow.

Rick is about to lose some of his anonymity. A movie has been made about him and his shop. Carmine Street Guitars debuted at the Venice Film Festival, and Rick himself was persuaded to attend the prestigious Toronto Festival. He’ll soon be traveling to Amsterdam to receive well-earned plaudits there.

In April, this “five days in the life of a unique guitar shop” will hit the nearby Film Forum for a run and will be available in DVD soon, before it ends up on Netflix.

But Kelly’s Guitars will always remain the same – a place where refugees from the pre-Spotify world still drop by for a chat and a laugh, and where their axes will always receive TLC at a decent price. 

Long may you thrive, Rick & Cindy!

An Duanaire - The Dispossessed

There are books… and then there are books that change your life. Most of the latter I read in my teens and early 20’s. 

I remember so well reading For Whom The Bell Tolls in a frigid Dublin bedsit and becoming ensnared by the poetry, principle and pragmatism of its hero, Robert Jordan.

In somewhat similar circumstances in the East Village I first ploughed through The Alexandrian Quartet and discovered that not only could there be two sides to a story but four in Lawrence Durrell’s classic collection.

And where would any of us be without an introduction to Ms. Molly Bloom. Along with being introduced to literature’s greatest character, Sunny Jim Joyce demonstrated to me, at least, that the very sound of words is as important as their literal meaning.

Each of these books catapulted me into new worlds of imagination. But two others that I read in my 30’s were glances back into a history that I’d brushed against as a young boy in Wexford.

How odd too that I read them on Avenue B with the sound of drug dealers hawking their wares outside my window and the occasional gun shot to make sure I didn’t doze off.

The Hidden Ireland by Daniel Corkery might be a study of 18th Century Munster culture, but it also helped me understand that buskers like Margaret Barry and Pecker Dunne who I had listened to on the streets of Wexford were among the last survivors of a fast disappearing Gaelic Ireland.

I realized how privileged I was to have experienced that world in some small way.  Corkery’s book opened up a vista that I’ve drawn on as a writer and composer, and showed me how vapid and insubstantial it is to be a “dedicated follower of fashion.”

Before you move forward you must first look backwards and come to terms with your roots.

I can’t even remember when or where I bought An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed, but as I look at my dog-eared copy it’s obvious I’ve turned to it often.

This priceless book of Gaelic poetry was collected by Sean Ó’Tuama with exquisite English translations by Thomas Kinsella.

These years encompass both the Cromwellian genocide and the Penal Laws era that ended with Catholic Emancipation in 1829. You can almost touch the loss of a people dispossessed seeping from An Duanaire.

The poems within are written by well-known bards steeped in learning like Piaras Feiritéar down to Filíocht na nDaoine – the anonymous verses of the common people.

Kinsella’s translations are both muscular and sublime, and he opens up a whole new world to those of us with little or no proficiency in the Irish language.

An Duanaire also contains internationally renowned poems like Brian Merriman’s Midnight Court, and perhaps one of the world’s greatest laments, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire written by his wife Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill.

Lament for Art O’Leary enriched my life considerably for back in 1992 I was privileged to write the music for a Dance/Theatre piece by June Anderson that featured Black Eileen’s passionate response to the murder of her husband.

Part of this vocal elegy became internationally known when I used it as an introduction to the Black 47 song, Big Fellah which was featured in Sons of Anarchy.

How strange is life – a lament for an 18th Century Cork mercenary finds its way onto a contemporary TV motorcycle drama!

By the way, don’t miss Paul Muldoon’s upcoming translation and re-enactment of The Lament for Art O’Leary at the Irish Arts Center, featuring Lisa Dwan with music by Horslips.

One of the most moving poems in An Duanaire is Mo Bhrón ar an Bhfarraige.  My Grief on the Ocean speaks of a woman longing for her partner who has departed for America.

As in other poems from An Duanaire it describes an earthy and sensuous relationship – feelings rarely mentioned in verse after puritanical European Jansenism overwhelmed Gaelic Catholicism in the wake of An Gorta Mór.

“My love came near
up to my side
shoulder to shoulder
and mouth to mouth.”

An Duanaire is out of print and can be expensive, but find one. You’ll get a view of the past - both precious and frightening - that could help you comprehend the complexities of the dizzying present.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

From Paradise Square to Berkeley 155 years later

Have you ever looked up at a Broadway stage and wondered just how a riveting performer got there? I can assure you it did not happen without hard work and fierce determination.

Many have special gifts, and they’re all talented, but the sheer effort that goes into getting cast in a top-of-the-line musical is extraordinary. 

Cyndi Lauper once put it to me in her inimitable manner, “Anyone can give 100%; it’s what do you got at 120 or 125 that counts?”

Paradise Square is now well into its sold out run at Berkeley Rep and has already been extended until Feb. 24th. Some of you will remember the project began as Hard Times at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell, directed by Kira Simring back in 2012.  

There’s a tremendous buzz about this musical that deals with the amalgamation of “Famine” Irish and African-Americans in New York City’s Five Points in 1863.

The wonderful 32-member cast has brought “the most notorious slum in America” roaring back to gritty life on the huge stage of the beautiful Roda Theatre in downtown Berkeley, CA.

So herewith – an insight into three young performers who hail from quintessentially Irish-American locations – Pearl River, NY; South Philadelphia, PA; and Dublin, OH.

I remember the day Bridget Riley auditioned for choreographer, Bill T. Jones.  She was so photogenically Irish - long red hair, pale skin, and sparkling blue eyes. Then again she was born and bred in Pearl River.

Though she seemed almost waif-like, you could sense her determination. More importantly she possessed an odd timeless quality and I instinctively knew she would embody the spirit of the many young women who escaped Ireland’s Great Hunger, attended Five Points dance halls, cast aside convention, and married African-American men.

And can she dance! She began ballet at 5, switched to Deirdre Guilfoyle’s School of Irish Dance in West Nyack at 12, before adding Jazz & Tap at 14.  But from the moment her mother took her to see Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, the six-year old girl knew where she was headed.  
Ambitious and organized, Bridie has a way with people and was chosen as one of two dance captains for Paradise Square’s run at Berkeley Rep.

Sidney DuPont is a solid 2% Irish. He learned that through Ancestry.com. He attended CAPA (Creative Performing Arts High School) in South Philly, a safe haven where he could shape his craft; he began performing professionally at sixteen.

It was while marching/performing in the St. Patrick Day Parade that he was first introduced to Irish step dancing which he finds mesmerizing, and calls a fusion of tap and ballet.

He plays William Henry Lane, AKA Master Juba, a runaway slave hiding out in The Five Points who enters into a partnership with Owen Duignan, recently arrived from famine-stricken Ireland.

The friendship of the two young men is severely tested when Owen’s name is called in the Civil War Draft while Will Henry, as an African-American, is prohibited from joining “Mr. Lincoln’s Army.”

Sidney is a triple threat, a dancer who can channel the legendary Master Juba, a singer not unlike Curtis Mayfield, and a skilled actor.

Anyone who’s been to their big annual festival knows just how Irish Dublin OH is. You could say the same for A.J. Shively who plays Owen Duignan.

Although he’s an amazing mover it’s been an experience to watch him learn Irish step dancing from the ground up. 

He did have Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman from Hammerstep for coaches. But six months later he’s matching steps with them nightly as he goes mano-a-mano against Master Juba in a dance battle for his life. 

But that’s the signature of all these 32 performers – if there’s a skill you need to master in a hurry, then bring it on! A gig’s a gig and it’s all a step forward to a hallowed goal – originating a role on the Broadway stage.

Did I mention that A.J. has a voice to die for and that he’s fallen in love with Sean-Nós singing through merging his psyche nightly with Owen Duignan, the Gorta Mór refugee.

Three major talents from three bedrock Irish-American areas, and every night they give 125 % in a theatrical séance that summonses up the spirits of the Irish and African-Americans who for a brief moment rewrote American history.

 "Paradise Square" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA Jan.10-Feb.17 Tickets and information www.berkeleyrep.org

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Christmas in Wexford

It’s been thirty years now since I’ve spent Christmas in Wexford. But as many of you can testify the memories of an Irish Christmas stay strong.

Of course, your relationship to “home” changes when your mother, father, and the old house are gone, but once you come to terms with those losses there’s still a whole vista of nostalgia to reacquaint yourself with and treasure.

Back in my youth Ireland had certain universal traditions: a delirious Christmas Eve followed by midnight mass or service, and a dead certainty that from Christmas morning on until New Year’s Day one could relax and celebrate with family and friends. 

And yet, each town and county had its own traditions. In Wexford the main one was the sheer joy of welcoming home emigrants.

Like many other areas of Ireland, Wexford was scarred by emigration. Because of the proximity of the UK and the low cost of travel, there was often a casual nature to many an exit.

You could go out for a drink on a Saturday afternoon with some of the lads home from London, and find yourself still in their company on the Rosslare ferry to Fishguard later that night.

By the same token you had to be very down on your luck not to make it home to Wexford from London, Dagenham, or Birmingham for “the Christmas.”

The boat train that arrived twice a day would be jam packed from Dec. 20th on, and the old town would echo with the footsteps of returning emigrants as they strode up and down the Main Street making sure that nothing had changed in their absence.

Families would return too – local men and women accompanied by their English wives and husbands, the children with hilarious cockney & scouse accents, sounding like pintsized Jaggers and Lennons.

Christmas lights would stretch from lampposts across the narrow streets and Woolworths, our one department store, would be chockablock with flirting teenagers, and anxious grown-ups seeking bargains for Christmas presents.

Few people had much money back then and the rich took care not to flaunt it, for it would have been considered the height of bad taste to make even the lowest feel less valued.

Was that a Christian ethic or an awareness that every Irish family had at one time experienced either repression or famine – and there could well be another come-uppance lurking just around the corner?

Whatever, Christmas was a time of communal joy, and the pubs reverberated with good fellowship as everyone – both emigrant and stay-at-homer - vied with each other to buy their round.

Faces would be flushed from the heat, overcrowding, and the sheer delight of seeing an old classmate - resplendent in the latest London fashions - flash a twenty-pound note at a dazzled barman.

And while the owner was shouting, “Ah lads, come on now, drink up, or the guards will take me license,” many would already be winding their wobbly way up to the Friary or one of the diocesan churches for midnight mass.

Others would arrive beyond fashionably late, and the wiser priests would stall their entry so as not to suffer the inevitable tumbling into pews or the loudly whispered greetings among the hard chaws back by the holy water font.

Nor was it unusual for the flutered devout to doze off into a fit of snoring until rudely awoken by a comrade’s elbow in the ribs. For attendance at midnight mass meant that you could forego the bleary downtown excursion for last mass the following morning.

But there was something else about this late night religious tradition – the pure joy of knowing you were home and taking part in a communal celebration about who you were and where you came from.

A very happy Christmas to the Irish Echo community and special best wishes to those undocumented who will once again not make it home for fear they will not be allowed back in the US.

I remember the feeling well in my own undocumented days, and the hope that something would change for the better the following year. My heart goes out to you.  Hang in there, perhaps in 2019.

Anthony Bourdain

Like many I was saddened by the death of Anthony Bourdain. He was the real deal in a medium full of botoxed puppets who spin their seven-minute slots of scripted talking points in between interminable ads.

Right from the start I felt I knew him from somewhere, but such things happen for as Joan Rivers once wisely proclaimed, “After 50 everything rings a bell.”

On reading his obituary I thought I’d found the answer: he had been chef at Les Halles, one of my favorite restaurants, mere crawling distance from Rocky Sullivan’s and Paddy Reilly’s. 

And so I figured he was one of those gregarious lords of the kitchen who descend on your table soliciting compliments, usually while your mouth is full.

But when I watched his final CNN show devoted to the Lower East Side the penny dropped.

It was nothing spectacular - he was just another face in the crowded mad scene of the early ‘80’s down around Avenues A and B. 

I never spoke to him but I saw him often enough, usually standing in the center of a crowd, his charismatic face lit up with laughter and booze, the center of attention in a scene of many stars. 

But there was another recurring memory of him – solitary and hunched over his drink, often picking at a small plate of food.

Did you ever notice that some people habitually gravitate to the same part of whatever bar they find themselves – Anthony’s was down near the service station where he could banter with the bartender and waitresses when the mood hit him.

When he talked about his heroin use in that last show, pieces of his puzzle fell into place. Many hard drug users are dual characters, extroverts dominating the conversation, but more often than not loners wearing almost visible “don’t mess with me” psychic armor to keep the world at bay.

His Lower East Side CNN show rocked me back on my heels. I had blacked out so much of the scene, partly because I spun off into a different universe when Black 47 took off; I moved away from Avenue B and a world I’d long been a part of.

Bourdain kept posing the same question to Debbie Harry, Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie and Lydia Lunch among others, “Was the scene on the Lower East Side really that special?”

In typical LES cool, each of the interviewees made a point of stating that “it was just a phase, life goes on, I’m still creative,” with the unspoken plea, “you should see what I’m doing now!”

And they’re right. No matter what you’ve achieved in the creative world, you’re only as good as your new song, novel, painting or film. 

Perhaps, the most grounded of his interviewees, the eternally creative John Lurie put it best. “I’m just glad I survived the excesses of the times and am still working.”

But there was something beyond special about the Lower East Side in those years - just think of Hilly Crystal’s CBGB’s! What a place – what a guy, so understated and matter of fact – but would there have been an international Punk scene without him?

Hilly’s own musical taste ran to Country and Bluegrass, and yet his club spawned a musical movement that rocked the world and changed the aesthetic of popular music. 

I saw The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, and the amazing Television emerge from CB’s miasma of mediocrity, for Hilly gave everyone and his mother a shot – including me!

But Lower East Side music was also the background track to a wonderful DIY kaleidoscope of poets, painters, choreographers, novelists, dreamers & cultural revolutionaries that you collided with in the bars, clubs, galleries and parties that seemed to go round the clock.

Craziness too – I once got a lovely kiss from Debbie Harry who upon hearing my accent mistook me for a Boomtown Rat.  Ah well, mistaken identity it may have been but she was our Marilyn and I still treasure the moment.

Yeah, Mr. Bourdain, your suspicions were right – those years in Alphabet City were amazing. They didn’t last. Nothing does. But thanks for the CNN memories and that tunnel back to a spiky past when everything seemed possible.