Sunday, 15 January 2023

Alexis Mac Allister and the route to Argentina

 

Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe may have been the brightest stars of the 2022 World Cup Final, but BBC Sports readers rated Argentina’s Alexis Mac Allister man of the match.

 

Remember him – the red-bearded midfielder who seemed to be everywhere during arguably the best World Cup final ever?

 

How did a man with obvious Irish roots end up playing for Argentina? It’s no mystery around Westmeath and Wexford. Up to 50,000 had fled these and other Leinster counties for Buenos Aires between 1830 and 1890, and it was not uncommon for their Spanish speaking descendents to return home on Irish “grand tours.”

 

There’s even a ballad called The Kilrane Boys that celebrates 12 young men from South County Wexford who left for Argentina on April 13, 1844. One of them, John Murphy, did so well the town of Murphy was named in his honor in Santa Fe Province. 

 

“Foul British laws are the whole cause of our going far away;
From the fruits of our hard labour they defraud us here each day…” the ballad states.

 

One of the quirks of Irish emigration to Argentina is that most of those taking that long voyage south possessed some money, thus tending to do well once they reached their destination.

 

They were mostly from farming stock and well used to working with cattle and sheep. Long lonely hours out on the pampas posed no problems to these Irish gauchos, and as land was cheap and fertile, they soon bought ranches and prospered.

 

They had been encouraged to try Argentina by their parish priests who were not admirers of the No Nothing, Protestant ruling elite that Irish immigrants had to contend with in the US. 

 

The clergy also had a say in practically choking the flow of Irish to Argentina in 1889 on account of the “Dresden Affair.” Over 1700 less well-to-do Irish had been recruited to a fraudulent immigration scheme and were transported on the City of Dresden SS to Buenos Aires. 

 

Many died on the voyage and those who survived were often sent to undeveloped areas where they were expected to find work and shelter for themselves.

 

Thomas Croke, the fiery Archbishop of Cashel, warned those thinking of emigrating, “if they value their happiness to never set foot in the Republic of Argentina.”

 

And so the flow ended, but a trickle of Wexford men still traveled there, mostly as merchant marines, for Argentina in the early to mid-20th Century was a major meat exporter.

 

That’s how my father came to know this vast country and the Irish people who raised cattle and sheep out on the pampas. He loved those mighty plains and enjoyed the hospitality of the descendents of the Wexford emigrants.

 

At a time when Ireland’s major export was people, he wanted to move our family to Buenos Aires. My mother, however, felt that she needed to stay in Wexford and help her recently widowed father run his business. 

 

But my father never lost his love for Argentina. He often supplied fine Wexford ash hurleys to the Buenos Aires Hurling Club. This was to lead to an incident during the Troubles when British customs officers sought to confiscate his stash of camáns fearing they were arms.

 

Did Margaret Thatcher suspect they might be used to repel the British invasion of Las Malvinas (Falkland Islands)?

 

I got my own opportunity to visit Argentina on a Black 47 tour in 2000. To our amazement we were booked into the Buenos Aires Opera House and got to stride the same boards as Pavarotti and Caruso.

 

Our gig in the city of Rosario (birthplace of Che Guevara Lynch) coincided with a national Irish convention - replete with a thatched cottage bar, and there I got to meet and mingle with the progeny of the 19th Century immigrants.

 

Many did not speak English, but there was no mistaking their genes as we drank Guinness, danced and sweated, our faces red from the blazing sun, and talked about “home.”

 

Some of them fondly remembered my father – the hombre with the hurleys; and in an odd way I felt a kinship with Alexis Mac Allister as I watched him triumph at the World Cup Final. Viva Argentina!

Wednesday, 28 December 2022

The Hidden Christmas Ireland

 

Whenever I go back home I always keep a weather eye open for the hidden Ireland. 

 

Alas, I rarely catch a glimpse of this roiling presence in the modern European Ireland. In my boyhood, however, I often stumbled upon it.

 

I was blessed by being close to two sets of grandparents. In fact I grew up in a draughty old house in Wexford town owned by my maternal grandfather.

 

Thomas Hughes, born in 1880, believed in ghosts, banshees, and all manner of púca, as did many of his friends who lived in the nearby countryside. These rural folk considered the veil that shielded the living from the dead to be very flimsy.

 

When we visited their remote farmhouses on Sunday afternoons, the talk was so spiked with references to hauntings and fairy abductions I rarely strayed far from the open-hearth fire. The shadows in those old kitchens seemed to throb with life, and you could almost touch the hidden Ireland lurking behind them.

 

My paternal grandfather, Lar Kirwan, was a prosperous cattle dealer with a substantial farm just outside Wexford town. A man of “scant imagination,” as my Granny put it, he had no truck with any kind of superstition. Maggie Kirwan, on the other hand, recognized that all living things had a soul, and was wary of upsetting the least of them.

 

Only fitting then that in the small yard outside her kitchen window the hidden Ireland sprang into view one overcast St. Stephen’s Day afternoon.

 

Coincidentally, the legendary Irish horse, Arkle, was contesting the King George VI Steeplechase at Kempton Park that same afternoon.

 

My grandfather was a racehorse enthusiast and this man of “scant imagination” liked nothing better than to wager “a few bob,” especially when his favorite jockey, Pat Taffe, was aboard the great Arkle.

 

And so we were all gathered in the kitchen after savoring the remains of the Christmas turkey. Even my normally saturnine grandfather was smiling at the prospect of watching this three-mile contest on his new television.

 

When, lo and behold, the sound of drums and cymbals erupted outside in the yard. 

 

“Are they mad,” Lar Kirwan hissed in fury, “at twenty minutes to bloody three on race day?”

 

He had no idea what this commotion signaled, but it would have to be dealt with forthwith, for the King George VI Stakes would be off and running at 3pm sharp.

 

At that moment a hatchet-faced man, bearing a marked resemblance to Eamon de Valera despite wearing a ladies bonnet and tartan shawl, peered speculatively in the window at us.

 

“’Tis the Wren Boys!”  My Granny announced in trepidation.

 

“Get them out of here now!” Her spouse ferociously muttered.

 

“How can we? Sure they’d put a curse on us and say we were the meanest family in County Wexford.”

“Where’s the gun?”

 

“Gun, how are you! Didn’t you order it out of the house in case they thought we were in the IRA?”

 

But neither armored cars, nor tanks, nor guns would have stopped these unruly mummers, one of whom was cavorting around with an oversized pair of ladies bloomers pulled tight over his cavalry twill trousers. 

 

Meanwhile, a third more soberly dressed gentleman rattled a cage containing a forlorn and frightened wren.

 

The Wren Boys hollered to the overcast skies that they were the descendents of Saint George and were about to slay the dragon that was threatening the many bullocks my grandfather was fattening on his farm.

 

It was like the earth had opened and the past poured forth before our eyes. I could make little sense of what else they were roaring about, but I could tell they expected to be rewarded for their efforts.

 

My grandfather squinted at his watch as Arkle cantered down to the starting line and the bloomered offspring of Saint George danced a jig in the kitchen yard. My grandmother burrowed desperately inside her purse. 

 

Suddenly the Wren Boys froze outside our window - their hands outstretched in demand. 

 

My Grandfather sank back in his armchair in relief as the flag went up and Arkle galloped into an early lead.

 

My grandmother handed over some pound notes in grateful supplication, and the Wren Boys melted back into the world they came from – the hidden Ireland.

Thursday, 15 December 2022

THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST/A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN WALES

 The Ghost of Christmas Past seems to be ever present this time of year – particularly for emigrants.

Think of it, do you fixate on home around St. Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, or any other such holiday? 


But every time I hear Jingle Bells, I’m swept back to Wexford’s Main Street where I’m seven years old again staring at a blinking Christmas tree, my face lit up with delight.


I may have need of that memory, for every third Sunday in December for the last 17 years I’ve improvised a three-hour Yuletide show on Celtic Crush/SiriusXM. Much of the show is devoted to music but the audience has come to expect a journey down my memory lane.


Oddly enough, I’ve found the best way to cater to all tastes is through poetry, and often the more obscure, the better.


I don’t know who wrote the traditional Kerry Carol, but I suspect it was a woman and what a way with words she had.


Scuab an t-urlár agus glan an teallach

‘s coimead na gríasaigh beo

Ar eagla go dtiocfhaidh siad anocht,

Agus an domhan ‘na chodladh go suan!


It no longer seems to matter that the poem is in Irish, since so many listeners are familiar with at least cúpla focail and love the sound of the old tongue. Still I usually offer the translation:


Brush the floor and clean the hearth,

And set the fire to keep,

For they might visit us tonight

When all the world’s asleep!


Patrick Kavanagh is another who can ferry you back in time to a long gone rural Irish childhood.


“My father played the melodion

Outside at our gate;

There were stars in the morning east,

And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called

To Lennons and Callans.

As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry

I knew some strange thing had happened.”


James Joyce too can summons up memories of Christmas, though to me he’s much more about sculling pints on Bloomsday outside Ulysses pub on Stone Street. Still, he always brings me face to face with that rarity, an Irish White Christmas.


“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.”


Oh, to be able to conjure such an adjective for the broad majestic Shannon!


But it’s Dylan Thomas from Wales who really nails the poetry of Christmas for me. Those from New York can do a pilgrimage to The White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street in honor of the man.


For it’s there the poet departed none so gently into that good night after tossing back a multitude of whiskeys - his final words, “18! That’s a record.” Perhaps that why his “Child’s Christmas in Wales” always captures the innate tipsiness of the season.


“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”


He effortlessly summonses a carefree boyhood in Mrs. Prothero’s garden where he and her son Jim bombard “cold and callous cats” with snowballs.


“Wolves and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats” whisk by as Aunt Dosie downs 3 aspirin and Aunt Hannah hits the parsnip wine, before the boy finally turns the gas down, crawls into bed and “says some words to the holy darkness” before sinking into dreamless sleep.


Meanwhile, you can watch this wonderful poem spring to life on the magical stage of The Irish Repertory Theatre until December 31st. I’ll be there in my Santa hat, sipping mulled wine, do join me.


Happy Christmas!

Friday, 2 December 2022

Chickie Donohue and The Greatest Beer Run Ever

 I have no idea when I first met John “Chickie” Donohue, but it was sometime back in the 20thCentury.

Where I met him should be easier, but again it could have been up in his native Inwood, in the wild and wooly Bronx, on the shores of Rockaway, or in any of the city’s teeming Irish bars where union members, immigration advocates, and those concerned with the struggle in Ireland congregated.


Even back then Chickie was an urban legend, and I never doubted that he had delivered cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon to his fellow Inwoodians serving in Vietnam.


It was, after all, an unusual war. Hadn’t my friend, Brian Heron, grandson of James Connolly, also shipped out as a merchant marine to check out first hand the scene in Saigon.


Indeed, didn’t Pierce Turner and myself receive a gilded offer to front a version of the 1910 Fruitgum Company and do a tour of American bases in that war-torn country? We only turned it down because we felt it would be beneath our artistic standards to perform Simon Says and other such bubblegum standards for cavorting troops.


But Chickie stood apart: in a time of gathering anti-war protest he was on a mission of honor to show his friends that the guys back home in Doc Fiddler’s bar supported them and their service.


Thus, in November 1967, did this ex-marine set out for Nam on board a vessel carrying arms from New York to Qui Nhon. Some months later, he delivered his first beer to MP Tom Collins, a childhood buddy, then serving in the conflict.


Stumbling through the fog of war, he soon thereafter handed over cans of Blue Ribbon to Rick Duggan and Kevin McLoone amidst the Battle of Khe Sanh. Then away with him to Saigon where he finished his sacred mission by offering some sorely needed suds to Bobby Pappas.


As luck would have it, he missed his plane back to the US because of a little Viet Cong diversion called the Tet Offensive, but eventually he made it home to Doc Fiddlers, mission accomplished.


These and many more adventures are documented in the film The Greatest Beer Run Ever that you have to see. Talk about a shaggy dog story!


But it’s so much more, for Chickie’s beer crusade caused this once hard-hat war supporter to reconsider his opinion and see the Vietnam War for what it really was – a brutal, ill-advised, American disaster.


By the time I met him Chickie was political director of Sandhogs Local 147, Laborers International Union of North America and a progressive force around NYC.


It may sound sacrilegious but he sometimes reminded me of another notable New Yorker – Father Michael Judge OFM. Each devoted total attention when conversing with you – a rare thing in the bustling barrooms we frequented. Both men could also see right through whatever psychological façades you had erected, plus when the occasion demanded they offered incisive and life-changing advice.


Whatever about Fr. Mychal, you could tell that Chickie’s counsel had come at a cost. I never gave it much thought at the time, but on reflection it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t confront many hard truths during his jaunt around Vietnam.  


Saint or psychiatrist, that’s Chickie for you, and thankfully he’s still out there  on our streets spreading his brand of casual joy and camaraderie with a weather-beaten smile.


I often wonder if New York City is losing some of its magic, as a generation of contrarian characters the like of Pete Hamill, Brian Herron, Frank McCourt, Brian Mór and so many others fades away.


But then you think of Chickie Donohue heading off to Vietnam with a sack full of Pabst Blue Ribbon under his arm, and you know that as long as there’s an Inwood, Rockaway, Woodlawn, Bay Ridge, or Tottenville, there’ll be unlikely heroes aplenty to take their place.


Here’s to Blue Ribbon, friendship, and The Greatest Beer Run Ever, a movie about one of us, and to hell with all the suits and psychotics down in DC dreaming up their wars of choice and misadventure that they’ll never serve in.

Thursday, 17 November 2022

Ready For The Next Recession?

 

So, who is Jerome Hayden Powell? He’s the 16th Chair of the Federal Reserve and he holds your future in his hands.

 

Who elected him? No one, yet in his rise to the “most important financial position in the world” he’s been given the leg up by Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden. But perhaps Bloomberg News’ description of him as “Wall Street’s Head of State” hints at his true allegiance.

 

Barely a year ago this suave man for all season was quite certain we were experiencing a little “transitory inflation” brought on by the pandemic, pent-up consumer demand, and Putin’s war in Ukraine.

 

Of late, however, he’s morphed into Clint Eastwood galloping into town and informing us that he will continue to raise interest rates until inflation is tamed and “the job is done.”

 

He gives no estimate of just how high rates must climb, but he does caution that his actions may cause a recession.

 

He neglects to mention that his interest raising policies have already affected broad swathes of the populace who can no longer afford the American dream of home ownership because of high mortgage rates.

 

He often cites former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker as a role model. In the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, Mr. Volcker did stamp out inflation by raising interest rates to 19%. And yes, you guessed it, this brought on a recession that lasted years, and led to unemployment rates of over 10% and the loss of up to 4 million jobs.

 

Obviously neither of these gentlemen ever heard my stonecutting grandfather’s advice, “Never use a sledgehammer when a chisel and hammer will do.”

 

Living in the impecunious East Village, I barely recall the Volcker recession – I probably downsized from Heineken to Pabst Blue Ribbon - and soon enough along came President Reagan who drastically raised government spending and it was morning in America all over again.

 

But I remember vividly the Great Recession of 2008 - watching grown men cry in the corridors of a national music company as they studied their pink slips.

 

Predicting economic trends is both science and art. Certain indicators can reveal much, but you always have to factor in prevailing winds, human error and common sense.

 

And right now you can tell that “Clint” Powell has about as much of a clue as the rest of us – partly because he resides in the rarified upper echelons of the financial class and has forgotten what his mother - or more likely nanny - once told him, “When prices go up, they rarely come down.”

 

One of the prime reason prices are rising is because workers are finally getting the raises they have long been overdue.

 

Mr. Powell believes that such “labor costs” will need to come down before inflation does. But should “labor costs” come down – emphatically, no! 

 

Mr. Powell would do well instead to cast his jaundiced eye on Wall Street. So far a majority of S&P 500 companies are beating third quarter earnings expectations. 

 

With supply chain problems steadily improving, it’s unrealistic to think that profiteering and price gouging are not adding to current chronic inflation. 

 

Look at the recent record earnings of companies such as Exon and Chevron, and President Biden’s wish to tax them on windfall profits.

 

There is, however, definitely still a pent up demand for some services in our booming economy. Last Friday night every restaurant and bar in Soho was jammed to the gills with customers splurging on overpriced meals and drinks. How about imposing a temporary 10% inflation surtax on incomes over $100K?

 

Doubtless, this would be an unpopular move, but a targeted and temporary one that would cool off some of the spending that is stoking inflation.

 

Even a 90 day price freeze similar to President Nixon’s in 1971 might buy some time to consider other targeted measures.

 

But, please, no more loose talk about a “soft-landing” recession. Too many lives and futures are at stake, particularly those on the bottom half of the economic ladder. 

 

We have endured enough sledgehammer, shot-in-the-dark corrections that have caused long-term recessions.

 

With unemployment hovering around an all time low and 10 million jobs waiting to be filled, a recession is the last thing we need.

Monday, 7 November 2022

A Recent Week in Ireland - Long Live The New Republic!

 I recently spent a week in Ireland. I usually take a group over annually on a historical/musical tour, but because of the pandemic this was my first time back in three years.

I enjoy this work-vacation as I get to see the country through the eyes of others.


From traveling with Black 47 I found that you’re much more invested in what’s happening around you when working rather than merely on vacation.


Thus while touring Argentina in the fall of 2000, because of our dealings with promoters and vendors we were never less than aware that both country and currency were on the verge of collapse.


Ireland was in no such straits on my recent visit, and yet the country has changed much in three years.


It’s more youthful, European, and multi-cultural. I’m sure there are many who miss the old Ireland, but that’s not hard to find – take a couple of steps off the beaten rural track and you could well imagine you’re in a scene from the Quiet Man, or at least The Snapper.


Ireland is still incredibly beautiful. Though I spent much of my youth in County Wexford I’m still astonished by the deepness of the green. Johnny Cash may have rhapsodized about 40 shades of the color, but he neglected to mention the myriad others.


And though the Dingle Peninsula is one of my favorite places on earth, I never saw it as beautiful as on this trip.


As for Galway City, even on a Monday night it was alive and kicking, with traditional music pumping out of bars, and buskers galore ripping it up on Shop Street.


And yet, there was a certain unease, though it was usually muttered rather than voiced aloud. Hospitable and socially aware though Ireland may be, there was a definite feeling that, given the shortage of housing, the government had welcomed too many Ukrainian refugees

.

This was not the xenophobic distaste for foreigners that you sometimes hear in the US, more a sense that the situation had been badly handled officially. Hopefully, time and patience will ease this situation, but with inflation rising rapidly, there could well be a backlash.


Oddly enough, the political situation in the UK helps take the pressure off, for having the basket case of Europe on your doorstep does provide comic relief.


Brexit is finally catching up with our noisy neighbors. Politicians as disingenuous and flatfooted as Boris, Liz, and Kwazi, help their Irish counterparts appear statesmanlike and even downright serene.


There’s also a discreet triumphalism wafting around the Republic over the recent census figures in the North. No one is dancing a victory jig, but the change in Protestant/Catholic demographics has been widely noted.


There’s little doubt that Sinn Féin will lead the next Irish government; even those of a West Brit persuasion seem resigned to this once terrifying prospect.


Not to mention, Sinn Féin will head the next Northern government whenever the DUP wakes up and realizes it’s the 21stCentury.


But even the backwoodsmen of the DUP, god love them, have never suggested that the voting system is mystically rigged against them as has happened here since 2020.


I have to say I find it somewhat jarring that Ireland is now a more rational country than the US. It just feels more grown-up over there.


It could be that once the Catholic Church lost power, people began measuring their lives by a more equable moral compass.


It’s not just that gay and other rights are now readily accepted in Ireland, but a live-and-let live atmosphere pervades the country. And nowhere is that more obvious than with women. Without any church or civil by-your-leave, they have assumed their social and political rights and the country is a lot better for it.


The lads seem to have had no trouble ceding their once legendary macho control. At least that was the impression I got as I watched the Irish Women’s Football team hold on to beat Scotland and qualify for the World Cup.


The only way that Irishmen beat Irishwomen that evening was in their roars of approval for their triumphant sisters in Hampden Park.


It’s been a long time coming. Long live the new Republic!

Sunday, 23 October 2022

Turner & Kirwan of Wexford

 It’s not often you open your mailbox and find a picture of you taken 45 years ago, especially when it’s the cover of an album you’d recorded back in 1977 with your best friend.

It was like receiving a time capsule full to the brim with our attitudes, opinions, musical tastes, and so much more.


The album was Absolutely and Completely by Turner & Kirwan of Wexford.


It was the culmination of years of playing in dives, clubs, pubs, colleges, and even stadiums across the country.


To our surprise – and everyone else’s – Absolutely and Completely almost became a hit.


Back then radio wasn’t as strictly formatted as today. At many stations DJs could actually play what they liked; hence, a number of tracks from the LP became firm favorites on FM Radio.


Even in that bygone age of diversity Turner & Kirwan of Wexford was an unusual band – just two of us with our soundman, Neil Kempfer Stocker on Taurus bass pedals.


Pierce Turner doubled on clavinet and Moog synthesizer, all the while playing a high hat with his left foot. 

 

I played a heavily effected acoustic/electric guitar and hammered the hell out of a bass drum with my right foot.


We once got banned from New York City’s spacious Town Hall for being too loud, which says as much about our attitude as our volume levels.


Oddly enough, we were also banned from CBGB – an unheard of feat - though we were the first band to play the joint.


It was either feast or famine for T & K of W. Within a month of disembarking at JFK, a Radio City talent scout heard us at the nearby Pig and Whistle, and signed us for a weekly wage that made our eyes pop.


Alas, we never got to match steps with The Rockettes for we were unable to produce the requisite green cards.


Still, New York was our oyster - a paradise where you could rent an apartment in the East Village for 100 bucks a month.


Sure, it was a tad dangerous but who cared – there was so much happening musically, and we savored it all. Punk, Reggae, Folk, and Jazz blasted from club doorways, plus on summer evenings in Central Park you could thrill to Pavarotti and Bernstein.


Up in The Bronx, Durty Nelly’s, The Wagon Wheel, and The Village Pub hosted gigs 7 nights a week, while a couple of miles down the Concourse Grandmaster Flash was creating beats and anthems that would change the world.


It was a great scene and we were in the thick of it, mixing punk and classical riffs to tell stories about lonely priests, and traveling people, always with echoes of Wexford trailing behind.


In the DIY ethic of the times we made our own album. It was rockin’, psychedelic, orchestral folk, and very much us.


We thought we might pick up some random airplay, but lo and behold, WNEW, WLIR, and many other FM stations across the country added our songs.


The beat went on, the crowds got bigger, and our admirers ranged from Pete Seeger to David Bowie, Norman Mailer to Frank Herbert, Frank McCourt to Lester Bangs.


It didn’t hurt when Girl Next Door became the first rock song about lesbianism to get significant airplay – though when, Polydor, our Irish record company, listened to the lyrics, they promptly dumped our LPs into the garbage. The Island of Saints and Scholars apparently wasn’t ready for us.


In the meantime, our manager ordered us up to the Catskills to rehearse a 5-piece band that could capture the sound we’d created in the studio, but when we returned he had moved to the West Coast, and a promised US tour evaporated.


So we formed the new wave Major Thinkers, were signed to a major record deal and became the “next big thing” for a couple of months.


Eventually Pierce and I went our separate ways, and Absolutely and Completely became an LP collector’s item. But we never forgot it and its 1970’s uniqueness.


It’s just been re-released as a limited edition CD with lots of bonus tracks and can be purchased at https://shop.bandwear.com/turnerandkirwan


Though not for the faint of heart, it captures the spirit of 1970’s New York, and the dreams of two young men who did things their way - absolutely and completely.