Wednesday, 14 October 2020

THE BUCK FINALLY STOPS HERE

 

The coming presidential election will be decided by many issues including health care, policing, protests, a raging pandemic, and now the infection of the president himself.

 

But it really boils down to whether we accept Donald Trump’s version of reality.

 

While one, of course, wishes the president a speedy recovery his personal conduct while canvassing without a mask before large crowds with little thought of social distancing has been totally irresponsible.

 

You have only to look at the minute infection figures from Tulsa before his indoor campaign rally on June 20th and the current widespread contagion to see the damage he has caused.

 

And now we wait in trepidation to determine how many he and his entourage have infected in their Typhoid Mary tour of recent weeks. 

 

Although everything has been thrown in the air because of Mr. Trump’s cavalier behavior towards the virus there will be an election on Nov. 3rd.

 

So let’s assume that both Republican and Democratic candidates will still be standing.

 

Though he is currently appreciably behind Mr. Biden in both national and battleground polls Mr. Trump seems to be little worried, feeling that he underperformed in 2016 polls and is perennially favored by a “silent” majority.

 

Perhaps but I doubt this hidden strength will be as potent in the current polarized environment where all has been utterly changed by the president’s illness. 

 

Back in 2016 many middle-class male voters wouldn’t admit to their wives or partners that they were voting for the Access Hollywood tainted Trump.

 

But after four years of a relentless narcissistic bombardment uncommitted middle-class voters are as rare as Santa Claus on July 4th.

 

The working class never hid their antipathy to Mrs. Clinton and whenever I inquired from friends around the country about her prospects I got some variant of “Everyone around here is voting Trump.”

 

Those sources are less dogmatic four years later for I also hear variants of “Who the heck does this guy think he is?” - particularly since the president suggested he might not comply with the election result.

 

There appears to be little desire within any class for the Home of the Brave to morph into a banana republic - with or without paramilitary Proud Boy support.

 

However the president long ago realized that one step forward can always be followed with another step back.

 

Truth and consistency were never his strongest suits, but there has been one constant in his career - he does look out for number one.

 

He also practices a particular style of brow beating, the effect of which reminds me of the hangover that follows the downing of six pints and a couple of shots.

 

My gut feeling is that there’s a real “silent” majority that has grown tired of our daily national hangover.

 

It’s not as if the president is a ball of laughs. It’s like being out on the town with a caffeinated compulsive who never stops whining, despite his large fortune and beautiful wife.

 

Talk about being born on third base with a myopic pitcher on the mound! 

 

It’s important to remember that he inherited a booming economy. But his luck has finally run out. 

 

The deaths of over two hundred thousand from Covid-19 can no longer be brushed aside with “it would have been 2 million” if anyone else had been president. 

 

In his current medical condition not even the most fervent of his base will buy that one.

 

The millions who lost their jobs because of the lack of a concerted federal response to the pandemic are another frightening consequence of Donald Trump’s reality.

 

Most of these unemployed have also lost their health insurance, but I’m sure they won’t begrudge their ailing president the best care their tax dollars can buy.

 

Bluster and braggadocio have taken Mr. Trump on a remarkable journey from Queens to the White House.

But all of a sudden things are falling apart and the center is no longer holding. 

 

Still, as a haberdasher from Missouri once remarked “the buck stops here.” President Harry Truman understood that when you make decisions you must also accept responsibility for them. 

 

I wish Donald Trump a speedy recover and sincerely hope he’ll be in good enough health to face up to the price of his reality on Nov. 3rd.

Monday, 28 September 2020

Thank you, Mr. Sweetman!

 The Ireland I grew up in was a strange, beautiful, but often brutal place.

 

It had been seared by emigration. It was a rare person who left Wexford for the USA but many departed for Canada, and even more for Australia courtesy of a subsidized 5 pounds voyage to Sydney.

 

The majority took the boat to less glamorous England to toil in factories or construction.

 

Everyone believed in God, His Blessed Mother, and a dizzying array of saints.

 

There was little money; even the wealthy seemed somewhat strapped. We blamed this on the English though down south we’d had independence for 40 years.

 

Still colonialism had undoubtedly bequeathed us a national inferiority complex that wouldn’t begin to dissipate until the era of self-driven superstars the like of Bono and Roy Keane.

 

And what of beauty? That came courtesy of our families – mostly large and nourished by love. The little you had you were ready to share. You didn’t expect much else from the Land of de Valera.

 

To paraphrase Brendan Behan: getting drunk was not a crime it was an achievement.

 

By the time you were old enough to take a drink, however, you had already experienced the brutality of Irish life courtesy of our schools.

 

After three years in the relative safety of convent run nurseries you “made your First Communion” and were transferred to the tender mercies of the Irish Christian Brothers.

 

Some of these educators and their government trained lay teachers were decent thoughtful men though often overwhelmed with classes of up to 50 boys from all social strata. Others, to put it mildly, were mere steps away from sadism.

 

Corporal punishment was the norm and the thick leather strap, pointer stick, and even fists were not spared.

 

By the time one transferred to Secondary (High) School, after being confirmed in the Catholic faith, your trust in any kind of teacher was strained.

 

It was then at the age of 13 that I had the good fortune to spend some years taking English, History, and Geography with Mr. William Sweetman.

 

Wexford CBS was his first posting and I believe he had spent some years in a religious seminary, not unusual for a young man in those days; whatever, he seemed somewhat unworldly and not totally at ease among our class of hard-bitten, teenaged cynics.

 

When he hadn’t beaten or even threatened anyone in his first week we began to relax around him.

 

I was well read by then, visiting the County Library twice weekly to borrow books for my grandfather and myself.

 

Still I was thrilled to be reading Shakespeare for the first time and having Mr. Sweetman explain the obtuse parts of Henry IV, Part 1, this great story of a harried monarch and his dissolute son who would later become King Henry V, victor at Agincourt.

 

So many worlds began to open up as our teacher explained the historical background and what was happening concurrently in Ireland.

 

He also expounded on the importance of Shakespeare, the lyrical depth of his sonnets, and the many words he had added to the written English language. 

 

Through a rigorous study of his characters we discovered that Shakespeare had helped create and introduce the concept of the modern thinking man.

 

He read aloud to us the poetry and essays that were on our national curriculum, lamented that Yeats only merited one poem and that Joyce was considered too subversive for a Catholic education.

 

He also encouraged us to give our own unvarnished views on the subjects we were studying; in essence he taught us that our opinions mattered.

 

The day we graduated from his classes he took me aside and quietly encouraged me to read Graham Greene – a daring move in those repressive days, for Greene questioned everything including himself.

 

Years later when I came to write plays I already knew the basics from my two years immersion in Henry IV. And whenever I need to introduce a moral conundrum in a lyric or a novel, I have only to draw on Greene.

 

William Sweetman went on to write a number of fine books on the Wexford Rebellion of 1798 – a subject dear to his heart.

 

He passed away last year and I have much to thank him for.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Takes a Lot More than Empathy, Joe!

Given that 190,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, there’s massive unemployment, and the streets are throbbing with violent protests over racial injustice, you might think that Donald Trump would be considering a nice golfing retirement at Mar-a-Lago.

 

But the president has an ace up his sleeve – the Democratic Party who gifted him the 2016 election.

 

Now I have nothing against identity politics. It’s the limited nature of the Democratic brand that’s troubling. You think they’d have learned from Hillary Clinton’s reliance on a huge African-American vote in the 2016 election. 

 

Joe Biden will undoubtedly improve on Mrs. Clinton’s listless turnout of that essential group, especially with Kamala Harris on the ticket; not to mention Senator Harris will appeal to another core Democratic identity group – suburban women.

 

But White Working Class and Latinos appear to be an afterthought. What’s that all about?

 

Now I admit that I dozed off during each night of the Democratic Convention; can you blame me – two hours of testimony to Joe Biden’s empathy is like watching Mister Rogers on Xanax. 

 

Empathy is comforting but it will not create new jobs for the millions of unemployed or prevent President Trump from fomenting racial turmoil on American streets.

 

So I’m praying that Senator Sherrod Brown was rallying white working class voters during my convention snoozes; and that Congressmen Tim Ryan and Conor Lamb were describing how they turned their Trump districts Democratic as I dreamed of a Twitterless future. 

 

Scranton Joe is going to need every iota of such grassroots working class advice.

 

Donald Trump may have consistently strong national disapproval ratings but the Democratic Party is currently not putting in the ground level work necessary to beat the president in Pennsylvania and the Rust Belt states.

 

Take Lackawanna County, PA where Republicans are out-registering Democrats 4 to 1, or Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton where his campaign hadn’t even opened an office toward the end of August.

 

How soon they forget James Carville’s observation, “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.”

 

Despite Donald Trump’s gross incompetence I’ve yet to meet one of his 2016 working-class voters who is switching sides. 

 

Later for Zoom, Joe, time to at least talk about jobs and reveal detailed infrastructure plans or risk losing your home state – and the election. 

 

And how about troubled Wisconsin, you didn’t even turn up in Milwaukee for your convention. On the campaign trail that’s called “pulling a Hillary!”

 

You’ve got your mask and your private jet – time for some rough and tumble and local media interaction.  With three grueling debates looming you need the practice!

 

The polls are favorable in Ohio, a win there is a stake through Trump’s heart; you should be camping out in Sherrod Brown’s guest bedroom not shunning him at the empathy convention.

 

The under-representation of Latino major speakers at the convention is even more puzzling now there’s a chance of turning Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and even Texas.

 

True, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham got a whooping 2 minutes of convention time, but what about the 90-second snub to a Latina superstar, our own Bronx born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

 

And why no appearance from Julian Castro, and no bilingual rallying cry from Beto O’Rourke that could have put the fear of god in Republican Texas?

 

Senator “Tio Bernie” Sanders was the huge favorite of under-30 Latino primary voters, mostly due to the work of organizer Chuck Rocha. 

 

The Biden campaign has yet to hire Rocha for Latino outreach. Chances are they haven’t even read his excellent book, “Tio Bernie,” detailing how he sparked Latino interest in the progressive senator’s campaign.

 

Donald Trump may be the Divider in Chief but he is an energetic and often riveting campaigner who will stop at nothing to gain victory. To beat him Democrats must reach out to every identity – including Irish-American. You ever get the feeling you’re being taken for granted?

 

Seamus Heaney’s “hope and history rhyme” was an inspired choice for Biden’s convention speech, but it’s just a collection of pretty words without perspiration, preparation, and attention to grassroots detail.

 

This is not just an election - it’s a battle for America’s soul, and it won’t come easy.

 

Time to pick up your game, Joe! Losing this election is not an option.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

THE PRIEST AND THE FIREMAN

        Anyone knocking around Manhattan in those days knew people who perished, but for me it all comes back to the priest and the fireman.

 

            Even all these years later I can look offstage and imagine where each would be – Father Michael Judge standing by the bar, impeccably coiffed, surrounded by friends; and Richie Muldowney NYFD, darting around the room bantering with all and sundry, crooked smile lighting up the joint.

 

            Though both are frozen in time they summon up the city as it used to be. For New York changed ineffably on 9/11when the spirits of so many unique people departed. They’ve been replaced, of course, great cities do that, but it’s not quite the same, is it?

 

            I often thought of Mychal as a mirror, he was so empathetic he seemed to reflect your own hopes and fears. I never knew anyone who helped so many people; he was always concerned, forever providing a shoulder. 

 

I guess he came to see Black 47 to let off a little steam. I’m not even sure he liked our music – his own taste ran towards the more conventional – but the rhythms, juxtapositions and overall message fascinated him and, anyway, he liked to be in the thick of the action. 

 

            Richie was hard-core Black 47. He knew all the words, the players, the other fans. He delighted to show up unexpectedly at out-of-town gigs; the moment you saw him you knew it would be a good night. To think such an irrepressible spark was extinguished so early.

 

            I remember jaywalking across Times Square the first September Saturday the band returned to Connolly’s. The “crossroads of the world” was so deserted in those immediate post-9/11 nights it felt like a scene from a cowboy movie where sagebrush is blowing down the street.

 

            But cops, firemen, emergency workers, the mad, the innocent and those who just couldn’t stay at home needed somewhere to go – to let the pressure off – and that was the band’s function. 

 

Those first gigs were searing. You couldn’t be certain who was missing, who had survived, who was on vacation, who just needed a break from it all. When a familiar face walked through the door the relief was palpable, someone else had made it. 

 

The atmosphere – though on the surface subdued - was charged with an underlying manic energy, a need to commemorate, celebrate, to show that life was going on. That would be some small revenge on the bastards who had caused all the heartbreak.

 

And yet, what an opportunity was missed in those first weeks. That smoldering pit down on Rector Street had galvanized the country. We were all so united; we would have done anything asked of us.

 

Republican, Democrat, Independent, we all came together as Americans. We would have reduced our dependence on foreign oil, rejuvenated poor neighborhoods, taught classes in disadvantaged schools. You name it - nothing would have been too big, too small either.

 

But no sacrifice was asked, much less demanded. Instead, 9/11 was used by cheap politicians to get re-elected; patriotism was swept aside by an unrelenting xenophobic nationalism that brooked no dissent and flourishes to this day. The US was converted into a fortress and the lights were dimmed in the once shining city on the hill. Worst of all, our leaders sought to use the tragedy as an excuse to invade Iraq.

 

Look at us now, dysfunctional, walled off from each other and the rest of the world. That began when the national will for a positive response was squandered in the aftermath of 9/11.

 

Though he was finally hunted down, sometimes it seems as though Osama Bin Laden won, for we’ve become a fearful, partisan people, unsure of ourselves, uncertain of our future.

 

But then I think of Mychal and Richie, their smiles beam across the years and I know that the current national malaise is just a patina that covers the soul of the country – it can be wiped away. It’s not permanent. We have greatness in us yet. 

 

That’s the hard-earned lesson of 9/11 and will always be the message of the priest and the fireman.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Pete Hamill - Seanchaí

 Everyone in Wexford read newspapers – often two a day. The Irish Independent and Evening Herald if your family supported the Free State in the Civil War, or the Irish Press and Evening Press if you favored the Republican side.

 

When I arrived in New York City in the early ‘70’s I was faced with new choices. There was The Times, of course, but I tended to read that in waiting rooms or the homes of friendly professionals. No, it all boiled down to the News or the Post.

 

I loved Jimmy Breslin’s Brueghel-like columns in The News, but Pete Hamill in The Post spoke to me. There was a hint of Bogie about him, but also a simmering outrage that the US was failing its people.

 

I was drinking in the Bells of Hell in those days with occasional pit stops at the Lion’s Head so I got to see him up close occasionally, though by then he had apparently given up the sauce.

 

He seemed formidable but not unfriendly and I enjoyed overhearing his remarks. He had an innate understanding of the political situation in the North of Ireland and was unapologetic about his sympathies. I should have guessed that he was only one generation removed from Belfast.

 

Around then the US was trying to blast Hanoi into submission and in one of his columns Pete graphically described the havoc and destruction if the same tonnage of bombs was dropped on Brooklyn for a day.

 

His detailed imagery brought the savagery of this onslaught screaming into our bars and kitchens in a way that the biased idiot box rarely did. 

 

I didn’t get to know him until Black 47 made a bit of a name and we were thrown together occasionally through a mutual interest in Irish and literary affairs. It was then I noticed he was more than a writer, he was a seanchaí – a custodian of the history and hopes of urban Irish-America..

 

He was not without a sense of humor. At a fundraiser sponsored by Irish American Writers & Artists to save St. Brigid’s Famine Church on Avenue B, after casting a jaundiced eye over our motley crew he began, “Never have I beheld a bigger crowd of atheists gathered to save a church…”

 

There was a sense of romance, and even danger, to many of the journalists of Hamill’s era, especially those who had covered foreign wars. It was as if they were cut from Hemingway’s cloth, they not only reported they also sought to influence events.

 

They could certainly stop an argument with a few caustic words. Soon after the Abu Ghraib scandal someone suggested at another IAW&A function that the US had to protect itself in whatever way necessary.

 

“We’re Americans. We don’t do torture.” Pete curtly replied dispatching us back to our drinks.

 

There was a decency to the man. He was far from judgmental but he expected those around him to share that decency. I never heard him mention Donald Trump. Why waste words? It would have been akin to discussing Crazy Eddie, especially since Pete had known and loved Bobby Kennedy.

 

I live downtown and sometimes ran into him strolling around Tribeca, his eyes alive with interest. After all the years he still took joy in his city and its huddled masses. He could summon up the ghosts of the Five Points in an instant and delighted that he lived within blocks of the fabled immigrant slum. 

 

We shared the same barber on Lispenard Street, Ilya from Uzbekistan who loved to talk about his friend Pete and the progress of his latest novel.

 

When did Pete get the time to even open the “cliff of books” that lined his loft? He seemed to have read everything. 

 

I once thought I might stump him with a mention of Lawrence Durrell and his Alexandrian Quartet, instead he regaled me with a summary of the intricate four volume story along with some choice lines from CP Cavafy, the poet of Alexandria.

 

Perhaps my best tribute is that I never walked away from a chat with Pete without feeling better about myself.

 

He was indeed a seanchaí and a towering Irish-American. I hope he knew just how much he meant to so many of us.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

August 15th in another universe

 Is it my imagination or did Irish country people have more reverence for the Blessed Virgin than town or city folk?

 

Whatever the answer rural areas definitely celebrated the Feast of the Assumption on August 15th with more vigor.

 

Did that veneration hark back to the pre-Christian roots of the harvest? Perhaps, for on the Feast of the Assumption country people in their Sunday best cast aside their innate shyness and proudly promenaded along County Wexford’s many beaches.

 

My grandfather, Thomas Hughes, stonecutter and widower, went one better. After mass and an early lunch (which we called dinner) he would pack us grandkids into his blue Morris Minor and drive all the way to Tramore in Co. Waterford.

 

He had never quite mastered the relationship between clutch and accelerator and thus we would depart Wexford town with a mighty roar on this 45-mile odyssey.

 

What with the heat and anticipation I remember little of those journeys except the inevitable traffic jam on the quays of Waterford City as we joined a cavalcade of other small cars on our annual culchie pilgrimage

.

Onwards we crept with the excitement building until turning a bend we beheld the majestic sweep of Tramore beach. The name itself was an Anglicization of Trá Mór, or big strand and it was no exaggeration.

 

In my biased memory it was always sunny, and thousands sweltered and sweated as they strolled back and forth along the miles of pristine sand. 

 

The men wore dark suits and starched white shirts, those of a frisky nature removed their ties; some even discarded shoes and socks, rolled up their trouser legs, and frolicked in the foam and spray.

 

Likewise many country ladies skittishly gathered their flowery dresses up beyond their knees and waltzed out with their men folk into the waves.

 

Few adults swam in those days, perhaps due to the impropriety of disrobing in small cars, besides which many the rural priest on his constitutional would have looked askance at a woman displaying bare arms and legs on the Virgin’s feast day.

 

We pagan children had no such scruples. Even now I can taste the salt on my lips and the whip of the cold spray on my face as we raced into the frigid South Atlantic and dared the huge waves to bowl us over.

 

Meanwhile my grandfather would watch from the dry sand as his four charges cavorted for hours. But I could tell his mind was elsewhere for he had often mentioned that he and my grandmother made that same pilgrimage every August 15th

 

There was always a sadness about him when he thought of her. They had been very close and the whispered word around the kitchen was that “he was lost without her.”

 

But that was a grown-up matter and I had more immediate concerns, for Tramore was bursting with “amusements” such as swings and dodgems (which we called bumpers), and Thomas Hughes carried a pocketful of change to make sure that we had our fill of such entertainment.

 

Pop songs crackled from overdriven speakers as we meandered along avenues of vendors hawking ice cream, lemonade and toffee-apples.

 

While in many spaces between stalls buskers made their stand, attended by cardsharps, and other sleight-of-hand merchants enticing you to gamble away your hard-earned pennies and thrupenny bits.

 

This was the old hidden Ireland where I was first introduced to the like of Margaret Barry and Pecker Dunne who traveled the roads singing the lays and laments of our people that would soon be swept away by the electric onslaught of Beatles and Stones.

 

Then way too soon we would dig into our parting feast of greasy chips smothered in salt and vinegar and be on our way in our blue Morris Minor, our necks craned backwards for one last view of the magical beach.

 

And somewhere beyond the town of New Ross Thomas Hughes would lead us in the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary in honor of Mary, Queen of the Gael. 

 

My two younger brothers would doze off to the comforting drone of Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glorias, while my grandfathers’ eyes would grow soft as he recalled other times when he and his lost wife made the same journey home.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Frank McCourt and the Feckin' eejit!

 As an immigrant engaged in the artistic world I’ve learned to look on the sunny side of life. And yet in these strange days even I have to battle the blahs and blues. 

 

Still, you learn some essential things from a life of uncertainty, the most important – you can’t make it on your own. 

 

It’s so easy to retreat into a cocoon of self–reliance. But that can often leave you alone – and, even worse, lonely.

 

At times like this you need company and with so many avenues to social contact closed down, it’s time to pick up that phone and get the flow going again.

 

You used to have so many friends but as you’ve gotten older the ranks have thinned. People have passed on or moved on. But whatever, don’t go through this alone. It may be hard to make the first call but you’ll soon find that there’s someone out there who is beyond thrilled to hear from you.

 

I’m not a big social media type but in this time of trial I notice that people are flocking to Facebook pages where they can interact with others who share the same interests.

 

One of those is Christopher Carroll’s Fans of Celtic Crush where people who enjoy my SiriusXM show gather. It’s like a family, occasionally rambunctious, but always welcoming. 

 

If you have an interest in Celtic Music, history or just things Irish it’s a safe and fulfilling haven. And there are so many others.

 

How about exercise? And I mean a little more than bending your elbow. Not that there’s anything wrong with a drink or two at the end of the day, it can definitely be a mood changer, and right now who can’t deal with a dose of that?

 

But I was actually talking about walking – the premier exercise, good for the heart and the soul. Besides, there’s so much to see in nature at this time of year.

 

Say what? You live in the bowels of the city? Well I lived on the Lower East Side for an eternity and could always find some scrap of green amidst the concrete and MacAdam.

 

Queen Anne’s Lace and Wild Cornflower are blooming and waving in whatever breeze is blowing right now.

 

I don’t know why but the birds are singing like there’s no tomorrow. My favorites are the belligerent Red-Winged Blackbirds, but for color and delight the Cardinals and Blue Jays are hard to beat. 

 

As for Ospreys they’ve been on a comeback over the last decades. Take the A train out to Rockaway, stroll up towards Breezy Point and glory at their spectacular dives for dinner in the Atlantic. 

 

Wear your mask as much as possible. Despite politicians, or because of them, this plague is not going away anytime soon so it’s important to emerge from it with your health intact and possessing as many marbles as possible.

 

For that I defer to Frank McCourt who once stated, “After what I’ve achieved anyone who’s not writing their memoirs is a feckin’ eejit.”

 

He was right. I made a few bob with Green Suede Shoes – An Irish-American Odyssey, but more importantly, writing this memoir enriched my life, for it sent me off on tangents and took me back to places and people I’d forgotten about.

 

How do you start? Simple – anywhere but at the beginning. Make a list of the people and events that have most influenced you. Then off with you for an extended walk.

 

Take a pencil and notebook or even better activate the voice memo on your cell phone.

 

Note every inconsequential thought – soon your brain will be zinging with memories.

 

Don’t worry about looking stupid. You’re an artist now and beyond caring what every manner of lesser gobshite thinks of you. But I promise, you’ll soon be knee deep in your memoir and you’ll never look back. 

 

It may never sell a copy but your family, friends and stray acquaintances will know exactly who you are, where you came from, and what you stand for.

 

You’ll be so consumed with yourself you won’t notice the time flying until you’re strolling into your doctor’s office and rolling up your sleeve for the vaccine.

 

Now get cracking, there’s a new Angela waiting and she’s only dying to arise from her ashes!

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

The Axis of Incompetence


I call it the Axis of Incompetence – particularly when it comes to the spread of Covid-19.

In pride of place at the top of this triangle is our own dear President Donald Trump.

At the bottom, preening like two bantam cocks stand his two acolytes, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Long live nationalist populist leaders – they top the charts in Covid-19 deaths and infections!

One could toss in President Vladimir Putin but he’s at least a very competent musician, for according to John Bolton he can play President Trump like a fiddle.

Putin may not be having great success stomping out Covid-19 in Mother Russia but he’s nothing if not scientific, for to toss back a vodka with him one must get tested, and then sprayed while passing through a disinfection tunnel to his private quarters. 

Not so our president. Forget about science, he much prefers to trust his “instincts.” 

In January he stated that Covid-19 was “totally under control… it’s going to be just fine.”

In February “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

In March, “Just stay calm, it will go away.”

Had he been uttering these inanities while working behind the scenes all well and good, but we were left defenseless, barely any testing, little PPE for healthcare personnel, along with few masks and less gloves for citizens - just an ostrich-like refusal to take federal leadership or accept responsibility.

Meanwhile down Rio way Senhor Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics” has even less regard for science - or plain old reality.

He pulled the plug on several quarantine measures initiated by state governors, summoned his supporters to mass rallies, and declared that the big C was little more than a measly cold.

Then when the unimpressed virus ripped through his country he declared, “God is Brazilian, the cure is right here! Chloroquine is working everywhere.”

This “cure” didn’t do him much good for he recently tested positive. Not to worry though, he has converted to President Trump’s anti-malaria drug of choice, Hydroxychloroquine.

The best of luck to both of them though this “cure” - widely considered ineffective against Covid-19 - can do a number on your heart. Ah well, what’s a ticker or two between populists?

Meanwhile there are rumblings in Brazil of coups, revolutions, and attempted suppression of Covid casualty figures.

And what of Boris the Brexit Warrior? Well he also took one for the team and contracted the illness himself. 

Before that he refused to close schools long after neighboring France and Ireland, allowed the jam-packed Cheltenham Races to continue, and breezily shook hands with all and sundry until the Covid brought him to his knees.

With the virus untamed and up to 45K dead he’s recently reopened pubs and cut the social distancing down to 1 meter. Does he seriously believe that this highly contagious scourge can’t be passed on at 3 feet?

He’s had one lucky break. Despite all his Brexit posturing, UK citizens will not be banned from entry into EU countries until at least December when the UK bids a fond farewell to the EU.

Not so Brazil, Russia, and oh dear, the USA. Whatever happened to American exceptionalism? 

Have no fear – it’s still strong. The vast majority of Americans have risen to the task of fighting Covid-19. 

It’s just that the sheer lack of federal leadership has each state competing for resources as the virus continues to surge nationally.

That’s what happens when one man’s drive to be re-elected dictates federal policy.

Oklahoma’s infection rate has been spiking since the president visited Tulsa 3 weeks ago; better look out South Dakota and Washington DC after Mr. Trump’s July 4th weekend of maskless masquerades.

Covid-19 will not “disappear” no matter how much the president wishes it away.  This is real life – not a reality show. 

Without meaningful federal leadership many thousands more will die before a vaccine is made available nationally.

Hopefully by then President Trump will be perfecting his golf game 24/7 down in Mar-a-Lago.

President Bolsonaro will be recovering in exile, and Boris will be fully occupied feeding his Brexit chickens as they come home to roost.

In the meantime the axis of incompetence blunders on. Here’s to better days, to your health and mine.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

University of the Streets


New York City has many fine universities, some more exclusive than others - yet the one to which I was accepted required neither superior SATs or a small fortune in tuition fees. 

In fact, it’s still free and only yards away – the University of the Streets!

It can be a challenging institution – I once had a bayonet tickle my Adam’s Apple in Tomkins Square, and was jumped on by 3 desperados near Gramercy Park; but despite these inconveniences I received my bachelors summa cum laude at NYC’s extensive classroom of taverns, saloons, and most importantly, its rigorous after-hours establishments.

I also studied abroad for the occasional semester. Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union I traveled to Lithuania with the free-form poet, Copernicus.

After our concert and reception in Vilnius I listened to my companion converse with our taxi driver in a scholarly mixture of French and German. Suddenly he shattered the Soviet silence with a Brooklyn bellow, “Are you kiddin’ me! Every city in the universe has an after-hours bar!”

When the taxi-driver reassured him that such was not the case under “these damned Russians,” I knew this would be a wasted semester. 

My favorite campus was the Kiwi Social Club on 9th Street and Avenue A, technically speaking it wasn’t even an after-hours as it operated 24/7 including Christmas Day.

 I had a “Road to Damascus” moment therein when I awoke to the genius of John Coltrane’s music.

My mentor, Jimmy Reece, an African-American academic and student of the night sensed my breakthrough and heartily congratulated me, “You got it, man.  You finally got it!”

And I had. From Trane I went on to specialize in Miles, Monk and a host of other Jazz innovators.

Consider just how much all those hours of delight would have cost me at Columbia or Fordham – not to mention that in those hallowed halls I’d have done so in scholarly sobriety.

On another occasion at a Mafia joint mere yards from NYU I took a class at dawn on William Butler Yeats from a well-oiled Lou Reed that forever opened my soul to the genius of the Irish poet. Talk about a “walk on the wild side!”

While at the renowned UK Club on 13th Street and 3rd Avenue I received an ominous lecture on behavioral science from that formidable Professor of Punk, Rockets Redglare, which made my hair stand on end and put me back on the scholarly straight and narrow. 

On another liquidy morning Frank McCourt gave me an intense private tutorial wherein he declared that any Irishman who wasn’t writing his memoirs was “a feckin’ eejit” after all the fame and fortune that he had achieved with Angela’s Ashes.

I soon after buckled down and wrote my own autobiographical thesis “Green Suede Shoes – an Irish-American Odyssey.”

I received no words of wisdom from Norman Mailer but deep gratitude for fixing his beloved but debilitated Porsche. This fluke came about through a chance meeting with a Puerto Rican technical scholar at Save The Robots an early morning educational establishment on Avenue B. 

I can still picture the glow of appreciation in Mr. Mailer’s amazing blue eyes when Professor Mendez and I parked his purring, souped-up vehicle outside his Brooklyn Heights apartment.

How much did all of this late night cavorting cost me, you might inquire. It’s hard to say but I did get at least a 40% discount on my fees, for back in the old New York late night academia one always received the 3rd drink on the house, and thereafter the 5th, 7th until class ended or the professor behind the stick dismissed you for the day.

To top it all, when I was finally awarded my PhD I was gloriously debt free. Now match that against the debilitating student loans that most scholars will have accrued in their pursuit of academic excellence.

Alas in these troubled times the hallowed institution of the after-hours appears to have been supplanted by the gym and the Internet.

And yet who knows what the future will bring in this looming recession. The thirst for knowledge will never be satisfied and there will always be those who seek it out in the University of the Streets.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

An Irish Elvis and so much more!


I once remarked to Brendan Bowyer that he was responsible for the sexual revolution in Ireland.

He gazed back with that slightly worried look that creased his face whenever he feared he was being criticized.

I hastily reassured him that it had all to do with the packed floors of dancers who had no choice but to cling to each other whenever his Royal Showband appeared in the 1960’s.

And with that we both dissolved into laughter at the memory of jammed sweaty nights in Wexford’s Parish Hall.

Back then, The Royal were synonymous with excitement and glamour. The Miami, The Capitol and The Freshmen were as accomplished but the men from Waterford had Brendan Bowyer.

With that big voice and personality he- seemed to explode from the stage. He could rock like Elvis and yet could bring his classical instincts to bear on show-stopping versions of Love Thee Dearest and Jerusalem.

He had a special charisma that I recognized later in the young Springsteen – the ability to make you feel that he was singing just to you. All you had to do was gaze around at other audience members and you could tell they were under the same spell.

When I left Wexford for ultra-cool Dublin I stopped seeing showbands, and their long social and musical reign was coming to a close when I departed for New York.

Brendan and his new outfit The Big Eight missed this demise for they moved to Las Vegas around the same time and went on to even greater fame on the strip.

I never forgot Brendan nor the effect he had on me as a star-struck boy.

Fast forward to the 1990’s, I became friends with his two daughters, Clodagh, a New York based actress, and Aisling who sang with her father’s bands. And so I wrote him a fan letter.

He couldn’t have been more gracious and was fascinated that someone from left-of-center Black 47 would have an interest in him.

One night in Salt Lake City he showed up at a punk club to see Black 47. It was one of those rowdy mosh-pit affairs and Brendan was thrilled with the rawness of the scene and the band’s “performance.”

I don’t think he ever fully understood what it meant for me to have The Royal Showband’s renowned vocalist in the audience. It was a squaring of the circle, as it were.

We had something in common. I knew what it took for him to come from a small city like Waterford and make it in Vegas. Such things don’t come easy. You often lose as much as you gain on the way.

Brendan wasn’t one to blow his own horn so late one night I wrote his story. I called it Break Like Crystal - in reference to his Waterford roots. 

I wanted a fast-forgetting world to know what he had gone through – and accomplished. He loved the song and soon after he showed up in New York and we recorded it with members of Black 47. 

He fit in instantly with this motley crew for Brendan was a bandsman and came alive around other musicians.

He asked me as producer how I wanted him to treat the song. 

I just said, “Be yourself, Brendan. It’s your story, sing it from the heart like you always did in Wexford’s Parish Hall.”

He smiled, took control, and nailed the song on the first take. He also knocked off a heartfelt version of Black 47’s emigrant anthem, American Wake, both of which are available on YouTube.

And then he was gone, off to some gig in The Bronx or wherever. I sat there at the controls and mixed that great soulful voice - full of wonder and life - that I’d first heard as a chiseler back in Wexford.

Here’s to you, Brendan, you’ll always be a legend. Thanks for the memories, man, and for blazing a path that so many of us followed.

Then I heard Elvis and it changed everything
And I set off on at the age of 19
To follow a rock ‘n’ roll dream
I don’t break like crystal

Monday, 22 June 2020

Our Most Important Election


There are lots of things we don’t know yet about November’s presidential election.

Still, I have little doubt this will be the most brutal confrontation since the 1828 battle between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

In that sordid rematch accusations of murder, adultery, bribery, and prostitution were tossed around like confetti.

Like many New Yorkers I’ve often found it hard to take President Trump seriously. 

How bad could his reign of chaos be - he inherited a dynamic economy, unemployment was down, the stock market up, and despite his bellicosity, veiled racism and xenophobia he had no plans to invade Canada, or marry Madonna. 

There was always the niggling fear that eventually he would face a major crisis. Unfortunately, that’s what has happened. His luck - and ours - ran out.

His reliance on his own “instincts” and refusal to takeCovid-19 seriously has cost a multitude of lives and our economic health. Time and history will show that he was just not up to the job. Whose fault is it?  Ours – we elected him!

However, with a burgeoning deficit and trillions more needed to salvage the economy, the time for amateurs is over. President Trump has neither the skills nor the temperament to lead us in 2021.

By then we’ll be in debt up to our eyebrows. Any kind of meaningful jump in interest rates could wreck our economic system once and for all.

The one thing we can be certain of when we do emerge from this crisis – income inequality will have increased - the rich will be much richer and the poor infinitely poorer.

How did we get into this situation? Well, who could have foretold that Hillary Clinton would make such a spectacularly bad candidate?

Not I! And yet I voted for her even after I swore I’d never vote for anyone who voted for the War in Iraq.

And now I’m about to vote for another candidate who made a similar deal with the devil, Vice President Joseph Biden. But I’ll do it gladly because I don’t want to give President Trump the opportunity to use his considerable expertise in bankruptcy laws on behalf of our great nation.

Joe Biden is a decent man but I tremble at the thought of him going mano a mano with Donald Trump in a presidential debate.  Not that the president is such a good debater but he is deft communicator and reality star who knows that elections often swing on a glib phrase. 

Remember, “Where’s the beef.” Walter Mondale never forgot it. Let’s not even talk about, “Lock her up!”

Mr. Biden needs your vote if you want this country to in any way still resemble that shining city upon a hill that the Pilgrims rhapsodized and so many of us admired.

He also needs an African-American running mate who can really turn out her people – the backbone of the Democratic Party - to vote despite their ongoing oppression and the disproportionate pain they have suffered from Covid-19.

Mr. Biden also needs to fully employ his Democratic primary opponents in the coming brutal campaign.  
 
Bernie, Buttigieg, Warren, Klobuchar, et al are all people of talent and drive – each with their own particular constituencies.

There’s not one of them who couldn’t excel in a cabinet position in the manner of President Lincoln‘s “team of rivals.”

But most of all he needs a platform that will strengthen our economic system so that we’re not subject to economic upheaval every decade. At the very least access to a Medicare-like Public Option, and an end to corporate stock buybacks allied with some form of worker representation on corporate boards.

President Trump will not go gently into that good night. He will not be above contesting November’s results in the courts, while on the streets he has those “very fine” people who paraded through Charlottesville to raise hell.

This cannot be a close election. Mr. Trump needs a substantial electoral defeat that will send him home to Mar-a-Lago where he can write his memoirs in pithy Twitter installments.

Vice President Biden is far from a dream candidate but we need his steady hand to guide us through the greatest challenge the country has faced since the Civil War.

Monday, 25 May 2020

The Man in the Wardrobe


My Uncle Paddy was a strange bird, even in the town of Wexford where there were many such characters.

I grew up with him in a big draughty barracks of a house within shouting distance of Selskar Abbey where King Henry II did penance for the murder of St. Thomas Beckett.

Perhaps the bitter ghost of auld Beckett affected us for Paddy and I were in constant warfare.

My grandfather, Thomas Hughes, ruled supreme in our household, likewise in the yard where he and Paddy made headstones. 

Miss Codd, a spinster, was our housekeeper; for most of her life she had performed the same duties for a saintly parish priest and was keenly aware of her precipitous drop in social status.

It was an uneasy household to say the least. My grandfather and Paddy didn’t speak because of some longstanding grievance. 

Add to that the many times Miss Codd wasn’t on speaking terms with any of us either. 

I was my grandfather’s confidant and his go-between to Paddy which gave me a certain amount of power, if not gravitas.

Paddy was a creature of habit and in his leisure time a sharp dresser. He left the house on the stroke of 9 every night for Joe Hearn’s pub where he drank four large bottles of Guinness; most nights he arrived home moments before midnight.

He wore his oldest suit to the yard, sometimes with loose patches on the seat of his pants. This bothered me greatly for as he lolled in front of the fire after work I often bore witness to the flesh of his rump.

One night, wholly as an experiment, I barely touched this unexposed flesh with the tip of the red-hot poker.

Paddy arose from his armchair in the manner of a Disney cartoon character. He turned in mid-air and sought to strangle me but I held him off with the poker – the smell of singed flesh wafting between us.

This, as you might imagine, did little for our relationship. But my story has more to do with Paddy’s momentous brush with the local constabulary over a licensing infringement in Joe Hearn’s.

Joe was a decent man who ran a good house. He was abstemious during regular hours but occasionally invited favored customers to “stay behind” while he locked up.

However, he lost the run of himself and began to hold these soirees more frequently, even worse he boasted about it and word got back to both the guards and the clergy that women too were known to “stay behind.”

It all came to a boil one Easter Sunday morning. The guards raided at the ungodly hour of 2am. Joe being three sheets to the wind refused them entry.

The guards waited patiently and Joe surrendered at 6:32am.

The People newspaper gave a detailed account of the court proceedings. Two of the women represented by legal counsel were “married,” Miss Codd noted, scandalized by such carryon in Catholic Wexford. 

Paddy too had his fifteen minutes of fame. As the revelers streamed out into the street roughly around the same time on Easter Sunday morning that Jesus had arisen from the dead, my uncle crept upstairs to Joe’s living quarters and hid in a wardrobe where he was eventually apprehended large bottle in hand.

The judge at the end of his tirade against the offenders demanded, “what about this man in the wardrobe?”

Paddy declared a truce with me over the poker incident and I was enlisted to apprehend the edition of the People that carried the court proceedings for fear my grandfather would disinherit him.

But Wexford was a small gossipy town and some weeks later my grandfather accosted Paddy behind closed doors; Miss Codd and I overheard bitter roars concerning “married women, “the priests AND the guards,” and “change your ways or take the emigrant boat to London!”

Paddy brooded by the fire for weeks for weeks after but he did change – at least his pub, from Joe Hearn’s to the more up-market lounge of the County Hotel where he continued to down his four large bottles nightly.

He did gain a certain notoriety in our town without pity, for I often heard people remark as he strode along the narrow streets, “There goes The Man in the Wardrobe.”

Monday, 11 May 2020

Live Music in the wake of Covid-19


What kind of world will we inherit when Covid-19 is finally brought to heel? I’ve been asked this a number of times recently – in particular in relation to music, both its performance and the business.

Because those who look at a musician’s world from the outside often see it as vaguely glamorous and self-contained, they often miss how frequently it is impacted by world events.

Within a year of arrival in New York City Turner & Kirwan of Wexford had secured an album deal with Audio Fidelity Records and was enjoying considerable radio play with our first single, Neck & Neck.

Alas after the 1970’s Oil Embargo vinyl was rationed, whereupon our record company suspended operations and our dreams of stardom were put on ice.

Some years later Pierce Turner and I became the nucleus of the New Wave band, Major Thinkers. Our timing left much to be desired for in 1981 we began an Irish Tour in the midst of the Hunger Strikes, most gigs were cancelled and we limped back to New York penniless.

In our absence, however, a track of ours called Avenue B (is the place to be) had become a radio hit and we were signed to Epic Records.

We were on the pig’s back for the next few years touring the country with Cyndi Lauper and UB40; but unbeknownst to us large corporations were busy consolidating independent record companies and radio stations.

Progressive Radio died, and Major Thinkers became a minor casualty of this corporate takeover. 

The rise of Black 47 in the 1990’s has been well chronicled, however in retrospect much of it was fueled by our constant presence in the music and gossip columns of a thriving independent press. 

But this mighty industry was already being supplanted by the Internet and within 10 years few newspapers could turn a profit because of the availability of free news.

9/11 changed the world of music irrevocably. By the time New York City recovered 3 years later most Americans had curtailed their partying to weekends.

This wreaked havoc on national touring as a band driving from NYC to LA had to play at a loss on weekdays and hope to balance the budget with well paying weekend gigs.

Oddly enough Black 47 did well in the immediate post-9/11 years as we were regarded as “New York City’s house band” and greeted everywhere with open arms. This changed quickly in 2003 when we came out against the Iraq War. 

You get the picture – your simple rock & roller is forever at the mercy of world events.

So how will Covid-19 affect music and musicians?

Badly, I’m afraid. The very essence of live music is challenged. Social distancing will kill any kind of gig profitability, while band and audience must now consider the threat of mutual contagion.

Even with a vaccine we’re talking years until people feel safe again in confined spaces. But music is like water – it always finds its own level, and musicians are nothing if not innovative.

If you can’t go to the musician, then the musician must come to you. Take the large numbers who tuned into the recent Irish-American Heavy Meitheal Watch Party In Support Of Healthcare Workers.

Now I know none of the artists participating got into this business to perform for a camera lens. It’s a cold, distant medium but I enjoyed watching my New York peers, and I got to try out a new song for a large, if socially absent, audience.

If I were a young hopeful I’d be setting up a video studio, forming a band called Mask 47 and creating a sight and sound tailored for these dark days. Think Devo with a brogue!

But I have enough irons in the fire. A heads up for pub owners though – unlikely as it seems the humble seisiún is made for our strange new world. 

Point a camera at whatever corner Tony DeMarco, Mary Courtney, Chris Byrne or Margie Mulvihill are playing in, broadcast the session and I’ll be at home watching, pint in hand, enjoying the craic and slyly commenting on the “rare shtyle” of masks being flaunted nowadays. And the message? 

“We will come through this together
We will come through this stronger and better.”

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Henry VIII & Donald Trump in a time of pause...


Feel like your life is on pause right now? It’s a stressful, anxious time – fearful too, especially if you wake at 3am with little hope of sleep.

I don’t have a cure but I do have a suggestion – a good book or two or three.

I’m reading two at the moment – wildly different but both engrossing. One, I’d been waiting for a long time, and the other I came upon by accident, more or less.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel was worth the wait. If by chance you haven’t read the first two books of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, I envy you.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies were mesmerizing accounts of commoner Cromwell’s rise through the perfidious court of Henry VIII.

It’s hardly letting the cat out of the bag to reveal that we witness his comeuppance in the final book. 

It’s a rare person, indeed, who fared well in Henry’s narcissistic presence – the parallels with the present White House are startling.

Henry is better spoken than our current president and more interesting, perhaps because in his autocracy the Tudor king need only lie to himself.

Whatever your political persuasion you will find yourself rereading paragraphs both for the power of the prose and the sheer thrill of comparison.

You’ll emerge from an hour or so of this book steeped in the fascinating lore and the machinations of Henry’s world; alas when you switch on Fox or CNN you will be catapulted back into a comparable litany of delusion without the buffer of history for protection.

Ask Again, Yes: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane is on more familiar ground – the Irish-American family – but it is no less gripping. 

From the first page you’re enmeshed in the net of this finely honed story and instantly rooting for the well-drawn characters even as you sense their flaws and fear for them.

Then just when you believe you’ve arrived at the core of this interlocking drama of the Gleeson and Stanhope families another twist is introduced and you’re once again skating on dramatic thin ice.

For me this is a story of heredity and what happens to the good and bad we Irish bring with us when dropped into the far larger pool of Irish America. Mary Beth Keane suggests various possibilities all of which are believable - many riveting.

Although as different as chalk and cheese she sometimes reminds me of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. Each has the capacity of ensnaring you within a couple of paragraphs.

Might I suggest any collection of Ms. Wharton’s short stories for these difficult times? You’ll meet a cast of characters well suited to these troubled times. 

I’d recommend Age of Innocence, perhaps her best known novel, but while I love the two women characters May Welland and Countess Ellen Olenska, I’m always disappointed with Newland Archer’s practical but bloodless decision in the final chapter. But then who knows what that says about myself?

I’ve read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls three times now and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s a terrific story of the Spanish Civil War. It’s also about the power of idealism and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause.

Hemingway’s genius is that you never fully understand protagonist Robert Jordan or why he persists on his mission. In some circles Hemingway has fallen from favor because of his macho reputation, and yet there’s a tender, if fragile, romance at the heart of this book that is very compelling.

Two slim books from the backwaters of different continents will have you in stitches – An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) by Flann O’Brien and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; they will also provide limitless stories and quotes with which you can regale your friends when the pubs finally reopen.

And if plays be your thing read the exquisite Girl From The North Country, the collaboration between Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan.

And for fans of Nobel Prizewinner Bobby, listen to his aural treatise on the Kennedy Assassination, Murder Most Foul. At 17 minutes it will either put you soundly asleep on some dark night of the soul or confirm that he is the greatest living artist. Your call!

Monday, 13 April 2020

Wexford Quare Fellahs and the Price of Bullocks


Toddy Kirwan was a quare fellah back in Wexford, a town that boasted many such characters.

He was a first cousin of my grandfather, Lar Kirwan, a renowned cattle dealer. Lar was reputed to be capable of estimating the weight of any sized bullock to the nearest pound.

Toddy was a cattle dealer too but no one ever made such a boast about his bullock-estimating capabilities.

My grandfather was very successful in his chosen field and owned two big farms full of bullocks fattening up before being shipped to the slaughterhouses of England; while Toddy resided with his two sisters in Carrigeen in the heart of Wexford town. 

Both men drank at The Wren’s Nest on Wexford Quay in the cordial company of others engaged in the cattle trade.

My grandfather was a severe man who rarely loosened up before his first glass of Powers. 

Toddy, on the other hand, though quiet and kindly, never seemed to let his hair down – or what was left of it. Perhaps, my grandfather’s success and bullock-estimating ability cowed him. It’s hard to tell. 

Back in those simple times I hadn’t as yet delved into Freud or Jung – or as my grandfather would have called them, Fraud and Junk. 

Apart from estimating the weight of bullocks and the form of racehorses my grandfather was not greatly interested in the subconscious.

Between the jigs and the reels Toddy got into some manner of financial scrape – a not unheard of occurrence in the boisterous world of cattle dealing.

I never heard a figure mentioned, but the affair had something to do with a miscommunication with my grandfather. 

It was all very mysterious but my grandfather, a man of few words, was heard to comment, “You might as well be talking to the bloody wall!” 

There was rash mention of solicitors and a day in court to sort matters out.

Then drama! Toddy’s elder sister announced that her beloved brother had disappeared. He had last been seen on the boat train to Rosslare Harbour on his way to London.

There was much headshaking at my grandfather’s house that led to his cryptic question, “What the hell is that fellah going to do in London?”

The years passed but matters did not rest. There was occasional word of Toddy sightings around Cricklewood, and eventually a rumor that he had met his Waterloo over a game of cards.

Then very late one stormy night a carouser while heading up Summer Hill had the wits frightened out of him by Toddy’s ghost flitting across the road between St. Peter’s College and the Bishop’s residence.

And soon thereafter a motorist nearly crashed into the Bishop’s ornate gates when Toddy’s ghostly head peered out from a crack in the wall.

A priest from St. Peter’s blessed the haunted wall and we were all warned to give up the drink and choose another route home after midnight. 

Then one day out of the blue Toddy resurrected in the flesh on Wexford’s Main Street. Women fainted, hard chaws fell to their knees, even John Wilson’s placid dray horse neighed in terror at the sight of this walking cadaver.

But it was merely the bould Toddy jauntily heading down to the Wren’s Nest for his first glass of Powers in years. 

It is one of the regrets of my life that I wasn’t present for the reunion of these cattle-dealing first cousins. But I was in the kitchen when my grandfather proclaimed, “He’s made a holy show of us! Sure wouldn’t I have forgiven him the bloody money if he’d asked!”

It would appear that Toddy, rather than face his day in court, had hatched a plot whereby he retired to his room and never stepped out except for an occasional stroll up nearby Summer Hill in the dead of the night.

I met Toddy soon after and he greeted me in his usual affable manner, but not a word about his lengthy disappearance.

When I inquired of my father – another man of few words - why Toddy had re-emerged he merely shrugged, “He probably got a pain in his arse staring at the same four walls day in day out.”

That’s Wexford for you, a town of masterful understatement and a cast of characters to beat the band.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Bob Marley, Ska, Skinheads and Sir Charles Comer


I always instinctively knew how to play Reggae. Part of that, no doubt, came from listening to my father’s Calypso and Tango records. 

But Wexford also had a very informed music scene, probably because so many locals spent time working in London; whatever was happening over in the “big smoke” was soon rocking our pubs and dancehalls.

Thus did Ska - Reggae’s forebear - gain a foothold with Wexford’s aggressive Skinhead community.

This puzzled me since Skinners weren’t known for their love of Black people; yet they would have died for Prince Buster, the Jamaican King of Ska.

However, I was to discover later that Wexford’s affinity for Reggae and Ska ran much deeper, Ireland being a major source of Jamaica’s DNA. 

That came about through the longstanding rivalry between England and Spain. The English, in their magnanimity, offered freedom to certain Irish slaves and indentured servants if they would move from Barbados to Jamaica and protect the island from an expected invasion.

The Spanish invasion never materialized but Irish and Africans intermarried leading to the lilt of Jamaican patois and the music of this beautiful but troubled island.

Fast forward to New York in the 1970’s. The era tends to get a bad rap nowadays because of the crime rate, but for young musicians the city was a paradise. 

You could live for practically nothing down in the East Village. And that’s where Pierce Turner and I ended up among poets, painters, musicians, and the general dispossessed.

Philip Glass, then a taxi driver, lived upstairs from us for a time and we could hear him rehearse his meisterwork, Einstein on the Beach.

We also used to trek uptown to attend the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park. Before shows we often dropped into The Irish Pavilion on E. 57th Street where manager Joe Ruane would always buy us a round in his ongoing efforts to support Irish musicians.

‘Twas there we met Sir Charles Comer, Publicity Manager for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.

Charlie – one of life’s great characters - had come over from Liverpool as a “go-fer” for The Beatles and worked his way up to knighthood in the adrenalized world of Rock & Roll publicity where he also represented Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Chieftains.

Charlie loved Turner & Kirwan of Wexford and was thrilled that we not only knew the names of his clients on Island Records but would also go to their New York shows.

Thus did we attend Bob Marley and The Wailers first concert in New York City. This event changed my life and a decade later I experimented with Reggae by way of such Black 47 standards as Fire of Freedom and Johnny Comes a Courtin’.

It was a hot steamy New York summer night. A thick haze of marijuana hung in the air as Turner and I worked our way up to the stage. 

The audience was mostly Jamaican with a generous sprinkling of music cognescenti attracted by the paltry $3 admission.

What a bargain to see Bob Marley at his prime. Even now I marvel that his music is still so fresh and vibrant though he long ago achieved universal legendary acclaim.

The Wailers were one of the great live bands: their earthy groove shook Central Park, and I-Three, the backing singers led by Marley’s wife Rita heightened the expectation with their hummed harmonies.

Then Bob seemed to float out from the wings. He began with the exhortation to “Lively Up Yourself “and well over 10,000 people proceeded to do just that.

Sometimes he played a golden Gibson Les Paul, more often than not he danced himself into a chanted trance, and we joined him there for the next two hours. 

At one point he descended from this ethereal high to sing “No Woman No Cry”, and you felt like you were back in the Jamaica of his youth eating “oatmeal porridge in a government yard in Trenchtown.”

Pierce and I eventually floated back to the Irish Pavilion, our lives forever changed by this Rastaman wizard. 

Joe Ruane bought us another round and, along with Sir Charles Comer, we toasted Bob Marley and how he had reunited the African and Irish diasporas on a magical evening in the New York City of the unruly 1970’s.