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.

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