Sunday, 28 November 2021

Donegal Visionary on the South Side of Chicago

 In the City of Chicago

As the evening shadows fall

There are people dreaming

Of the hills of Donegal…. Luka Bloom


It’s a rare piece of real estate on this planet that a Donegal person hasn’t strode over. My father told me he once heard a tenor from Letterkenny break into The Homes of Donegal in a Hong Kong saloon.

Still it was a surprise to run into Frank Bradley and his family when they came to see Paradise Square at Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre last Saturday night.

I hadn’t seen Frank since Black 47 disbanded seven years ago but I should have known he’d show up, for Donegal people are nothing if not loyal.

Frank was legendary in Irish music circles as the promoter of Irish Fest at Gaelic Park way down on the South Side of Chicago.

Black 47 first played Irish Fest in a snowstorm on Memorial Day Weekend 1991, I kid you not! We were outdoors too and despite the elements delivered a full 90-minute set.

I guess that got us the gig for we headlined the festival thereafter until 2014.

As we laughed and reminisced, I was reminded of how welcome I always felt on the South Side. For in neighborhoods like Beverly, Bridgeport, Mt. Greenwood and the suburbs of Oak Park the Irish heart still beats strongly.

The Irish have spread all over the city now but they gather together every Memorial Day Weekend in Gaelic Park.

During the Black 47 years it was not unusual to have 50,000 of all ages and classes gathered together to whoop it up during Irish Fest.

In our large tent there would be a mosh pit the like of which you wouldn’t see in CBGB’s. While down the field other tents would respectively feature old time waltzes and Traditional Music to beat the band.

But that was just one week of the year. Gaelic Park goes about its considerable business the other 51 weeks also.

It’s the home of the GAA in Chicago and sits on 62 acres with six full-size playing fields, and a main sports stadium.

And it all came about because Frank Bradley and a tightly knit board of strivers and achievers looked out on a field in Oak Forest back in 1979, and dreamed of creating a new home for Irish sport and culture.

The Chicago GAA itself was founded in 1890 and has had a distinguished history. It has, however, prospered or declined depending on Irish immigration.

The Great Depression and World War II delivered severe body blows, but the revered organization revived again courtesy of fresh waves of immigration in the 1950’s and 1980’s.

While there are many surviving football, hurling, and camogie teams, the great hope now comes from the juvenile clubs – children and grandchildren of immigrants who compete with other youth teams locally and around the mid-west.

An Irish cultural camp is held every August where children from 6 to 12 are introduced to our history and traditions through workshops in dance, drama, language, music, sport, and art.

With the resident Gaelic Park Players and Choir there’s no shortage of theatre and singing, and yet, as with the North Side Irish Heritage Center, you’ll be listening a long time before you hear anyone under 40 with an Irish accent.

It amazes me that given the power and clout the Irish have in both major political parties we consistently fail to use it to solve this existential conundrum.

A very simple question could be put to every political candidate in the country – What do you intend doing about legalized immigration into the USA?

I, for one, have had enough of the current smug Know-Nothing, xenophobic attitude towards immigration.

Walk down any main street and you’ll see signs in store windows seeking new employees. These jobs could be filled by immigrants with work visas or green cards and would help set the economy on a sound economic footing again. With an aging population this is more than a dream, it’s practical politics.

But just as important, there’ll come a time when we’ll need newly arrived visionaries from Donegal, the like of Frank Bradley and others, and we won’t have them because of a failure of will on our part to demand far sighted and meaningful immigration legislation.

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Chicago Irish!!

 I’ve been in Chicago for four weeks now rehearsing the musical, Paradise Square, for an opening at the legendary Nederlander Theater on Nov. 2nd.

It’s been a long haul since some of you saw Hard Times – from which Paradise Square evolved - in the infinitely less spacious Cell Theatre on 23rdStreet in Manhattan back in 2012.

But don’t worry, you will not have to trek out here, Paradise Square will open on Broadway at The Barrymore Theatre on March 20th.

Over the years I’ve played countless gigs in Chicago and have always enjoyed this bustling metropolis.

It’s really two cities - North and South, and the twain rarely meet. For instance, the North is Cubs mad, while the South adores the White Sox.

Chicago is far from integrated too and that makes it an excellent location for a pre-Broadway run; for Paradise Square deals with the amalgamation of the “Famine Irish” and African-Americans in New York’s Five Points before they were torn apart in the Draft Riots of July 1863.

It’s the story of two brutalized peoples: one fleeing enslavement, the other escaping the Great Hunger. Its subjects include the desire for freedom and the price of immigration.

The Irish are dispersed all over greater Chicago now, but their spiritual home is in the Bridgeport area where they flocked after An Gorta Mór to help build the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

But Chicago and every other city in the US now have something in common: You’re unlikely to hear an Irish accent on anyone below the age of 45.

I’ve been noticing this dearth of the brogue for over 20 years. At first it caused me little concern; the flow of Irish immigration had been cut off before – during the two world wars and after the passing of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.

Still, you felt that eventually matters would redress themselves, as they did in the 1970’s and ‘80s when many young Irish stayed beyond their visas and added greatly to Irish American culture.

But as the US became more conservative politically, Ireland became more liberal, and after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq many young Irish didn’t feel at home in this country anymore.

Both Canada and Australia were much more welcoming and suited them better both politically and socially.

Irish America won’t disintegrate without them. Many young Americans of Irish heritage now spend a university semester or two in Dublin, Galway and Cork.

They even learn to drink Guinness, which most young Irish have forsaken, and they bring back their experiences of modern Ireland and share them with families and friends.

Meanwhile Irish Americans visited the “homeland” in droves in pre-pandemic days and will likely do so soon again.

But it’s not the same is it? The young Irish who came here in the 70’s and 80’s shook up Irish America; they brought with them their politics, their music, their modern outlook, and most importantly, they settled here permanently.

Most of them have done well. They own the bars now, while others started small businesses and have assimilated into Irish America.

We need the current new breed of Irish to shake us up once again. They are well educated - few will mix cement or head straight from the building site to the pubs like we did.

No, they’re more likely to gaze into their laptops and create giant digital businesses like Stripe, the brainchild of the Collison brothers from Dromineer, Co. Tipperary.  


It’s time for Irish America to demand new and practical immigration laws. With national elections nail-bitingly close, and Republicans and Democrats in stalemate, there couldn’t be a better time to leverage our voting power.

And by looking out for ourselves we could help bring overall change to a fatigued country that’s slowly slipping back into bigotry and nativism.

As little as 50,000 new Irish accents legally entering the US every year would help energize not just Irish America but the country as a whole.

It’s too much to expect that like the19thCentury immigrant Irish in Paradise Square they’d help create new forms of culture like tap dancing, but let’s once more throw open these creaky Green Card gates and find out.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

McCourt, Heron & Hamill

 Emigration is a big step and yet many of us took it with little thought of the consequences. 

In my own case I was having a whale of a time leading a Ginger Man existence in Dublin when my brother and friends decided to give London a try.

Seemed like a good idea, but it was the early 1970’s, the North of Ireland was literally exploding, and I had no desire to bow the knee to the British government.

Instead I opted for a stint in New York. I guess you could say it was a political decision yet I also had a longing to see where the wind would blow me.

I had little money but much curiosity and New York was like an open book

The 1970’s tend to get a bad rap. Sure, the city was violent, law and order was optional, while President Ford was of the opinion that we should all drop dead.

On the other hand, rents were rock bottom, booze cheap and you got each third drink on the house, besides the people were stellar.

Everyone seemed political to some degree and everything possible, although it’s hard now to put your finger on what was actually achieved.

The “Famine Irish” had fought their way up and were now part of the establishment.

They were lawyers, politicians, movers and shakers, and they owned the bars.

Some were progressives, hard-bitten professional men and women who had been influenced by Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy – not to mention Mike Quill and Paul O’Dwyer.

There were poets, dreamers, and revolutionaries too. Voluble people who had ideas, vague and otherwise, that things could be made better for the regular person – even if the regular person had little faith and less interest, in any such notions.

Some had left Ireland in a hurry including Malachy McCourt who had been scarred by poverty and religious hypocrisy in Limerick.

Like many self-educated people he had a way with words and shared them freely. He was larger than life, furiously funny, and generous to everyone except bloviating conservatives and hypocritical liberals.

He had a great understanding of history and a burning faith that words, rather than guns, could create change. What that change might be was a little hard to quantify, but those of us who admired him felt it couldn’t be worse than the status quo.

Brian Herron was a piece of history in himself, for he was a grandson of James Connolly and that counted a lot with the New York Irish in the 1970’s.

Brian tore into a room like a hurricane on steroids – you were never quite the same after you met him.

He was an anarchist and one of the greatest persuaders I ever encountered. After he’d let fly a torrent of words, accompanied by much laughter, you’d find yourself standing on a street corner handing out flyers for some radical event where you’d also be providing music.

I wasn’t the only one seduced by his wayward charm! He was the influence behind John Lennon writing Luck of the Irish and Sunday Bloody Sunday.

Talk about being un-awed by celebrity or fame: he was like Joshua outside the City of Jericho – hand him a horn and he could blow down any walls.

The guy even learned to play the notoriously difficult uilleann pipes, get his law degree, and persuade the City of New York to give him a building on West 51stStreet that he named The Irish Arts Center.

Pete Hamill was no revolutionary, and he swore off politics after the death of his friend, Bobby Kennedy; yet, he influenced a generation of us immigrants with his columns in the NY Post.

I read his work mostly on the subway, perhaps one of the reasons I still have warm feelings for that mode of transport.

Pete didn’t start with any advantages. Like Malachy he never finished high school, but he was one of the best-read people I ever met.

Three characters with very different backgrounds and viewpoints - each of them cut a swathe through New York City in the 1970’s.  They opened doors, political and otherwise, and bade the rest of us to stroll right in. 

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Incident on East Third

Going back to your old neighborhood is like returning to a country of ghosts. You round a corner and see a Puerto Rican dandy who once strode by in platform heels, now he’s an elderly gentleman shuffling along with a bag of groceries.

The street is East Third between Avenues A and B deep in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village. You’ve come back to check out 179, your old tenement, for you’ve situated a new musical there, and you want to make sure your memory is not playing games with the facts.

The actual building hasn’t changed much, apart from a new door and a fancy system of intercom doorbells. Back in your day a visitor would holler out your name from the street and you’d toss down your front door key in an old sock.

You lived on the fourth floor and slept on a futon, most of the day the rooms were aglow with sunshine from the southern exposure and you were never happier.

A recent immigrant, you had the whole of your life ahead of you, and the vastness of New York to explore. Granted, the streets outside were dangerous and run by a heroin dealer named Jesus, but you were young and indestructible.

From your front window you could admire the full bloom of the magic garden. It had once been two rickety abandoned buildings. In your first year the city demolished them and carted off all the bricks and debris.

Some locals adopted the space and planted flowers, ferns, bushes and trees. They placed benches and a table within, and the city put railings without; now the magic garden belonged on East Third, but you no longer did.

The music hadn’t changed much. A mix of Salsa, Be-Bop, and Punk, it was like Tito Puente, Thelonious Monk and The Ramones were jamming in the same room. It shouldn’t have worked – but it did.

One way or another you got used to it, for you slept with open windows to catch the night breeze. The few air conditioners that functioned clattered along with the cacophony, the condensation dripping to pools in the cracked pavement below.

We didn’t need machines to be cool – we just were. For many of us hung out at CBGBs. If you were a player you paid no admission and could rub leather-jacketed shoulders with legends.

You saw The Ramones first gig there. Joey and Johnny were on speaking terms back then and used to consult mid-stage after each song. None of the 20 or so of us present could figure out if these guys from Queens were straight out of a cartoon or dead serious.

They’d soon show us! Who would have thought The Ramones would also create an enduring fashion statement by wearing ripped blue jeans because they couldn’t afford new ones?

The streets sparkled at night, though mostly with broken glass, and the full moons of Summer illuminated our East Side Story. When the heat got too much people slept on roofs and fire escapes.

Johnny Byrne slipped off my fire escape one parched July night and fell the four stories to the street below.  He sleeps peacefully now in Dublin’s Deans Grange Cemetery. Does he ever dream of East 3rdStreet so far away?

The winter nights could be brutal, especially when old furnaces faltered in the zero temperatures. We called them “bottle nights.” You bought a half-pint of liquor and took it to bed with you. Anytime you woke from the cold you took another nip for oblivion.

When things got bad you beat it up to Kingsbridge or Bainbridge; Phil at Nelly’s, Sean at The Archway or John at The Village were unlikely angels, but they could sense your need and provided many a gig.

You didn’t think much about money – rents were cheap, as were the six-packs at your bodega.

Alan Ginsburg winked at you, Debbie Harry once kissed you – though under false pretences, she thought you were a Boomtown Rat. What a life! 

Hemingway exulted about being “young and in Paris.” He didn’t have to go so far – the city of light had nothing on our New York – it was like living in a strobe-lit, street-smart fairy tale that you thought would never end.

Friday, 10 September 2021

Remember The Lost - Commemorate The Survivors

I was checking the Mets box score when the plane thundered overhead. I slammed my forehead onto the table, certain my building would be hit. Moments later there was a thud in the distance, not unlike a giant sledgehammer striking concrete.

Counting my blessings, I rushed up to the roof and beheld an unforgettable sight – an airliner jammed into the upper floors of the North Tower, with tongues of flame darting out of thick black plumes of smoke.

The world changed that morning and New York City went into a tailspin. The once throbbing streets of Midtown were deserted - who knew what skyscraper would be the next target?

There was a need for normalcy, but what was normal anymore?

Well, for the “house band of New York City” it was simple enough. If we weren’t on the road Black 47 played Saturday nights at Connolly’s of 45th Street.

Talk about intense gigs! I can still feel the early aching chill that in the course of the night would morph into emotional abandon.

Many in those full houses were first responders who had come up from the pit, eager for drink, company, and some manner of release. But not for a moment were any of us unaware of what we were trying to escape.

Many who had been in the vicinity of the Towers were still deemed “missing” – their pictures, accompanied by scrawled notes seeking information, littered the railings of St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway.

And every time Connolly’s door opened heads swung round and people rushed over to hug someone else who had survived.

And the talk would be, “John made it out,” or “Mary hadn’t gone into Cantor Fitzgerald that day.”

But after a month of such Saturdays it became obvious we’d never again see Michael, Michelle or the many others whose names we never knew.

That was the genesis of Rockaway Blue – to tell the story of the regular New Yorkers who hadn’t survived, and to commemorate those who had.

Even on those early blistering Saturdays their story was already being highjacked by the politicians, the media, and the barstool patriots who would lead us into their disastrous wars of choice.

Left behind in the dust and rubble of downtown were the stories of John and Mary, Michael and Michelle.

It should have been an easy enough task. I had the lives of friends like Richie Muldowney FDNY and Father Michael Judge OFM to draw on, and God knows there are so many broken hearts still desperately holding on to the fading essence of those they lost.

But for a long time the task was beyond me. Black 47 gave its all with the New York Town album, that contained Mychal and Orphan of the Storm, songs that captured some spark of those who didn’t make it out alive.

But that was only half the story. What of those who had no choice but to pick up the pieces and carry on?

And so I turned to playwriting. And in The Heart Has a Mind of its Own, I created the Murphys of Rockaway Beach who lost their son, Lt. Brian Murphy NYPD, on the fateful day.

But though audiences liked the play I knew I’d blown it – I hadn’t come to terms with the complexity of Brian’s father, Det. Sgt. Jimmy Murphy, and the difficult relationship he’d had with his son.

And so I let the story rest but the memory of those galvanic September Saturday nights wouldn’t let go.

Finally I set the story in novel form, and it began to work because I could delve deeper into the characters of the Murphys, their stoic heroism, but also their human flaws and fractured relationships.

Years of frustration followed, flinging one draft after another at the wall, until one dark night I discovered that the story wasn’t working because I had made Brian’s mother a victim.

Despite all she had gone through Maggie Murphy still needed to rekindle the faith and love that might save her marriage.

And with that, Rockaway Blue finally knit together and became what it was always meant to be – the story of the regular New Yorkers who sacrificed so much, yet came through the tragedy of 9/11.

Friday, 27 August 2021

A "What If" Presidency?

I’ve always been interested in political history, particularly when an interesting or controversial character is involved.


Michael Collins and Dr. Noel Browne jump to mind from an Irish perspective, Franklin Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy from an American one.


Browne and Roosevelt left indelible marks on their countries – one banished TB, the other gave hope and sustenance to millions during the Great Depression. 


Meanwhile, Collins and Kennedy still shine like beacons from the past, particularly because of the “what if” aspect to both their careers.


For better or for worse, Donald J. Trump has dominated our era of political affairs.


I never liked the man; still, back in the 70’s and 80’s he had a certain buffoonish cachet, courtesy of his self-promoting high jinks lovingly detailed by Page 6 of The Post.


But his true colors surfaced in 1989 during the brouhaha regarding capital punishment for the Central Park Five. These unjustly sentenced young African-American men were later released from prison, but Mr. Trump’s inflammatory newspaper advertisements showed the depths to which he would sink to promote himself.


His march to the presidency in 2016 was both uproarious and Napoleonic. He demolished the competing Republicans, and then defeated the accomplished Hillary Clinton – though not by popular vote. 


After four years of his “presidency by tweet” I was relieved when Joseph Biden beat him in both Electoral College and popular votes.


I had been prepared for Mr. Trump’s sore loser shtick; after all he had declared early on, “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election has been rigged.”  But I figured he would eventually fade away into the manicured golf links of Mar-a-Lago.


I reckoned that gigantic egos such as Cruz, Cotton, Rubio and DeSantis would chip away at his Republican Party hegemony.


Alas, the principled party of Lincoln and Eisenhower had long before been swept into the trashcan of history.


Even though Trump’s own election officials declared the 2020 presidential election the most secure in history, and every meaningful court challenge has been dismissed, the new Republican Party continues to hide behind such lame catch cries as “Stop the Steal.”


In short, Mr. Trump sought to interfere with the country’s electoral process.


His plea to Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” and his partisan interference with the Department of Justice were more becoming to some South American tin-pot dictator than the president of these United States.


Still, if his shenanigans had only ended there, then we might rest easy. 


Instead, after weeks of riling up his base with false charges of fraud, in a speech on the “Glorious 6th of January,” he exhorted his “great patriots” to march on the Capitol with these stirring words: “You’ll never take back this country with weakness; you have to show strength and you have to be strong.”


The pictures and videos of the ensuing carnage do not lie. We’ve all seen the sickening violence perpetrated by Mr. Trump’s patriotic legions in the Capitol grounds and buildings. 


Two instances stand out for me – the patriot roaming the halls of the Capitol with his Confederate flag, and the police officer crushed between doors while patriots tear at his facemask.


At least 4 police officers have died of suicide in connection with the Jan. 6th assault, while 140 officers were injured in this glorious uprising.


The insurrectionists were not tourists or members of the ghostly ANTIFA. They came to DC at the invitation of the president to subvert a lawful election and to prevent a legal transfer of power.


Our lives pass in a blur of 24/7 reportage, but we should not forget this assault on our democratic traditions. No doubt, Mr. Trump will continue to shrug off his attempted putsch, while his new Republican Party gazes on adoringly.


It’s easy to dismiss what happened on January 6th as a manifestation of white rage, but once opened those sluice gates of “patriotic dissent” are not easily closed. 


The sad part is – think of what Mr. Trump might have achieved if he had set his mind to the betterment of his country rather than the stoking of his insatiable ego. 


It’s unlikely he would have achieved the stature of a Collins or a Kennedy, but he could have become an interesting “what if.”

Saturday, 14 August 2021

A gig again

I did a gig last week. 18 months ago such a statement wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. But it’s been a long pandemic so this performance was indeed a cause for celebration.


It was held at the Salt Gastro Pub in Stanhope, NJ and was scheduled to be outdoors, but due to the threat of inclement weather the show was moved inside.


This change would have raised hackles only months ago and would have been unthinkable last year. The difference – vaccination!


So there we were, a full house and barely a mask in sight, though discreet social distancing was observed.


The owner, Bradley Boyle, runs a tight ship and kept a watchful eye on us all. The food was as good as ever, the booze even better, but to be part of a live music event again was nothing short of life affirming.


A bracing air of expectation rippled through the premises. The audience was so hyped up they cheered through the sound check.


I was a bit apprehensive. I had stayed musically busy during our “time of pause” writing songs for various theatre projects but I hadn’t actually performed a song since 2019.


Would my stamina hold up, would I remember words, chords, would my timing be at least somewhere “in the pocket?” 


I was playing with Deni Bonet, a superb violinist and performer. We had walked through the songs a few days previously. It was hardly a rehearsal, more like a marking of the way, and yet I’d been exhausted afterwards.


But the audience was a force unto itself. You could almost touch their need for music, for the songs, the stories, and the distinct community that’s only found at a live gig.


It took me back to the days I began playing at pubs and dancehalls in Wexford. The sheer joy as people forgot their cares and long workweeks, that first magic moment of union when band and punters came together as one.


People have missed music and performance this past 18 months, they’ve missed the spontaneity, and the spirit of improvisation that ricochets back and forth between performer and audience.


They cheered for old songs, new songs, the reading I did from Rockaway Blue, and it struck me that there’s now a great opportunity for musicians to go beyond themselves, because there’s no going back to normal – who knows what normal is anymore? 


This damned Covid has stripped us of experience; we’ve been living in a form of limbo for 18 months. It’s time for a new normal.


The experience reminded me of the days after 9/11. There was such a desire to come together and do something for our country. But nothing was asked of us. And so we regressed, became a fearful, divisive people; we even started a war of choice in Iraq under false pretences.


Now we have another chance to come together and really make this country “great again.” I was reminded of that as I signed books and CDs, hugged people and took selfies with them.


It was only then I wondered who had been vaccinated? There was no way of knowing and I experienced that flash of paranoia we’ve become so familiar with.


But by then my die had already been cast, it was too late to be cautious, so I had another drink and returned to the signing and general merriment.


I’ve had no symptoms and will get tested, but it’s not for myself I’m worried. I’ve been vaccinated and the worst I might expect is akin to some form of mild flu.


But what of those who won’t take the jab? The enemy is at the gates again in the form of the Delta variant. The unvaccinated continue to end up in hospital and death rates are rising.


It’s a race against time now, new and worse variants are likely on the way and may negate all our sacrifices.


I know my life changed when I took the double shot of Moderna. I had zero side effects. I merely went back to enjoying life, including dining and drinking in bars and restaurants, along with entertaining friends last Sunday in “sweet New Jersey.”


Join me, get the vaccine of your choice and allow those around you to go back to enjoying their lives again too.