Thursday, 21 September 2023


 The ospreys are gone. They left in the weeks after Labor Day. 

When they get the call – genetic or atmospheric - they don’t delay, it’s a long way to Central America.

The male goes first, soon after the female follows, sometimes accompanied by her grown chicks, although the young ospreys seem to know the route and destination regardless.

Ospreys mate for life but they travel separately. The male arrives in Connecticut coastal areas soon after St. Patrick’s Day.

Having secured last year’s nest, he will fish just enough for personal sustenance. Mamma will arrive in a week or so, and dictate just how she wants the nest to look and feel; she doesn’t hesitate to discard any twig or other building material the male may offer, if not to her liking.

After mating she will take to the nest and lay up to 3 eggs. Poppa’s hard slog then begins. He must feed her, and himself, and as soon as the eggs are hatched, he is the main provider for roughly 50 days until the young can hunt successfully.

July and August are a treat for those who pay close attention. Where once the male dived alone, now the full family of 5 (if they’ve survived predators or illness) display their skills, swooping down on unsuspecting fish.

The first days of hunting for the young provide moments of hilarity, as a swift, seemingly confident dive may lead to an ungainly belly flop. But they learn quickly, out on the placid Long Island Sound.

There’s a clock ticking down to Labor Day. The young have a flight of thousands of miles ahead. Do they have any notion of this, or is it something genetic that drives them on to their winter home in Central America.

I’ve been watching ospreys for some time. I began soon after 9/11 – I guess that event caused many people to take stock of their surroundings. At first, sightings were rare, but around 2015 - the first summer after Black 47 disbanded - I noticed a jump in their numbers.

I was working on a novel then and making slow progress. Novels are hard to write and the work is draining. I began rising at 6am, and took solace in looking up from my laptop every few minutes for sight of the male as he circled the bay, pausing as hawks do in mid-air to scan the waters below.

I began to synchronize with him. If he dove and succeeded in clawing a fish, then I’d get a rush of adrenalin and finish a difficult sentence or paragraph. He failed often that first month, as did I. But as the summer wore on we both improved.

It took 3 summers of synchronizing with the male before I finished Rockaway Blue.

He returned the following spring in those first awful weeks of the pandemic. He seemed unfazed by all our fears and paranoia.

I wouldn’t say ospreys are methodical, they’re far too skillful and opportunistic, but there was work to be done, and my old friend set about it in his usual driven manner.

I followed his example, as best I could, and began All The Rage, a musical about the Rock ‘n’ Roll life in the East Village, the score of which I finally recorded last week.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t make it back this year, the male who now rules the roost in these waters has stripes on his belly, whereas my co-worker’s under-plumage was white as snow.

I mourned him for a while, but then rationalized that the new male is the son of my old friend, and life must go on.

I had been saving a project called Rebel Girl for the return of the ospreys in late March. It’s the story of the firebrand labor activist, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She was from The Bronx and gave her first public speech for workers rights when she was 15.

So, when mourning was over, I dove in. Stripe Belly has more energy than my old friend. I hadn’t noticed that he’d gotten slower with age.

Anyway, my young associate suits the drama and drive of Ms. Flynn, the songs and story already have an odd vibrancy. Hopefully, I’ll have the project ready for the long final polishing by the time my new friend returns in the spring.

Wednesday, 6 September 2023


I often take a train to New Haven nowadays, and since I find trains very relaxing I invariably feel drowsy as we pull out of Grand Central Station.

Nonetheless, I always awaken as we chug by Woodlawn Cemetery. Miles Davis lies within and I fantasize that the “coolest man in the universe,” gently rouses me with a toot of his golden horn.

Truth be told though, I feel very at home around graveyards. And why wouldn’t I? My grandfather, Thomas Hughes, was a monumental sculptor.

He was a quiet man who had left school at 14 to be apprenticed to his father. When he was 18, Thomas left his native Carlow with a horse and car, a load of limestone, and drove the 50 miles to Wexford town where he set up shop.

Life was far from easy, but he married, raised a large family, and prospered. Some years after my grandmother died, I moved in “to keep him company.”

Parents would never part with their darlings nowadays, but Ireland was a different country back then.

I probably still have limestone dust in my lungs for I spent much time in his yard near Wexford Quay.

On Sunday afternoons, however, we usually took a leisurely drive through the countryside. We would always stop at a graveyard, and he would potter around until some statue or headstone caught his eye, and there he would stand riveted, for what seemed like hours.

It took many years before I realized that he was either figuring out how to create or improve on such a work. For he was an artist, though he had never taken a lesson. Whatever he knew he’d learned through observation and hands-on experience.

His allies were the traveling people who loved sumptuous memorials. He would stand in his draughty office surrounded by heartbroken families as they pored over pictures of ornate headstones and statues.

They always paid cash up front, but he willingly offered big discounts for the chance to carve something original.

When I was 15, I began working for him during summer vacations. Patron Days in cemeteries were held all through those weekends. Families wished their ancestral graves to be brought up-to-date and spruced to their best, with the names of recently deceased added, old headstones cleaned, and new ones erected.

My job was to mix cement, scour stones and kerbing, and make the tea. There was little rush, you could dream as you toiled; but most of all I loved the peace and quiet that came with the terrain.

I also loved my workmates. Tom Fortune was from “out the country,” while John Redmond was a townie from nearby Monck Street. Between them they had accrued much native wisdom, and when pushed would share it.

They were kind men who treated me as an adult, and I learned much from them about life, including how to maneuver a stick-shift truck. They were both at ease with the world and content with their occupation, for it saved them from the scourge of loneliness in emigrant London.

One memory still causes a chuckle. We were sent to erect a headstone in a small overgrown graveyard up near Gorey. The person who had ordered the job failed to show.

However, there was a fairly recently dug grave situated in the general area where we had been instructed to put up the headstone.

It was a routine job and we took our time, savoring the lovely August day. In the late afternoon we departed for home with the contented feeling of another job well done.

All hell, however, broke loose the following morning for we had raised the headstone over the wrong grave, and to add insult to injury there had been bad blood of long standing between the two aggrieved families.

We rushed back out into a local cold war, and with much difficulty dislodged the headstone and kerbing; we then cleaned up the ravaged grave area as best we could under the stony gaze of the offended family.

The sun was going down as we erected the headstone over the proper grave, amid the muttered taunts and criticisms of the other hostile clan.

It made for a long, difficult day, but such is life, death, and bad blood in a country graveyard. We could have used a couple of soothing toots from Miles Davis’s golden horn. 

Monday, 28 August 2023

The Curse of the Subways

At an out-of-state wedding recently, I fell into conversation with a cheerful gentleman whom I didn’t know from Adam, or Eve for that matter.

Upon hearing that I was from New York City he inquired if the subways were as bad as ever.

I replied that they were quite pleasant nowadays, and compared to the 1970’s the experience was comparable to traveling first class on the Orient Express.

 “That’s hardly likely.” He declared.

“Why not?” I rose to the challenge.

“Because on the news every night, it’s one thing after another, murders, robberies, all manner of mayhem.”

“What channel do you watch?”

“Fox,” he smiled, “like any sane person!”

I began to look for an exit, but it was four deep at the bar, besides my drink was barely dented.

“Listen,” said I, cornered but unbowed, “I’ve never seen as many cops on the trains or in the stations since this new mayor got in.”

“You support that lunatic?”

I wasn’t sure if I did, but Hizzoner Eric Adams had made a promise to make the subways safer, and in my book, at least, he’d kept it.

From there the conversation degenerated, culminating in an exchange of views on a certain Republican presidential candidate.  Who knows what would have transpired if the bride and groom hadn’t been called upon to hit the boards for their first wedded dance.

And there we left it, after shaking hands graciously, but this chance clash of opinions got me thinking.

I occasionally take a taxi or an Uber, but like most New Yorkers I’m a subway rider.

Why?  Because they run frequently, 24/7, pretty much on time, are relatively inexpensive and safe. 

With a 0 .0001% chance of any violence being visited upon you, you’re more likely to get hit by a cyclist or car on the city’s streets.

That being said, there are certain rules to be followed, including always keep your eyes peeled – although you’re not in Columbus, OH where violent crime per capita is higher, there is always a need to be vigilant in New York.

Stand with your back to a wall, if possible, and do not approach the yellow border next to the tracks – the train won’t come any quicker because you lean over to check its progress.

Don’t stand in clumps - keep the walkway open. And above all, be courteous. New Yorkers value manners.

There are still some homeless people who ride the subways, although the numbers have greatly decreased. Respect them. There go you but for good fortune.

As always, New York is in flux, rents are high, the poor are finding it harder to get by, and there is great income disparity.

Still, for the most part, our citizenry coexists peacefully, it’s hard to find a more friendly city, and I’ve been way lonelier in many a small town.

The curse of the NYC subways - and the city in general - is the rise of ear-buds, earphones, and the like.

We live in a very violent country that boasts more guns than people.  And although shootings are down 26% in our city in the last year, you still should be aware of anyone approaching you from behind, and that’s unlikely with Taylor Swift massaging your eardrums.

Why anyone would want to program their own soundtrack is baffling anyway. There’s a rhythm and a beat to New York unique to the city. It’s why Bob Dylan, Henry Miller, Miles Davis, Edward Hopper, Joey Ramone, Walt Whitman, LL Cool J, and so many others lived and worked here.

None of them wore ear-buds above or below ground. They moved to the tempo of Gotham like millions of the rest of us. They watched, listened, and sidestepped to let their fellow citizens hurry past.

They avoided becoming part of that almost non-existent 0.001% that have been victimized on our streets or subways; of course, you’d never know this from watching, listening to or reading the sensationalist media outlets that exult in misfortune in order to sell advertisements or mold political views.

Brendan Behan hit the nail on the head with his observation that New York City “is a place where you’re least likely to be bitten by a wild goat.”

Should I ever run into my wedding acquaintance again I’ll mention this to him. Perhaps, he’ll come visit.

Wednesday, 9 August 2023


 Maggie Higgins may have been the most consequential American woman. When it comes to the change she wrought, they don’t come much more important than Margaret Louise Higgins.

She was born in Corning, NY in 1879 to Irish immigrant parents. Her father, Michael Higgins, a free thinker and atheist, was a headstone maker who specialized in sculpting angels.

Maggie’s mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, married Michael in 1869. Both parents had an enormous influence on their daughter – Anne in particular, for in 22 years she conceived 18 times with 11 children surviving.

After a married life of almost constant pregnancy and near poverty, Anne passed away at the age of 49 from tuberculosis.

For some years after, Maggie tended to her brothers and sisters, and domestic duties in the Higgins household. But eventually she rebelled and set out to do her life’s work as a birth control activist. We know her now as Margaret Sanger.

She became a nurse probationer at White Plains Hospital. At that time, according to Maggie, doctors tended to keep business hours at hospitals, so during the night nurses were forced to make vital decisions about the health of their patients.

She specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. Women’s lack of knowledge of their own bodies due to church teaching and social convention astounded her.

Precocious and independent, her midwifery skills became well known and she was often asked by grateful patients how they could delay further pregnancies.

Doctors rarely gave such advice, for the Comstock Law of 1873 defined contraception as obscene and illicit; besides most Christian churches railed against it.

Maggie might have continued her nursing career to quiet and local acclaim, but two events set her on a different track. She contracted tuberculosis, the curse of the Higgins family, and she came to the attention of William Sanger, an aspiring architect and artist.

With her auburn hair and vivacious personality Maggie would remain attractive to men all her long life. Sanger was no exception and he fell head over heels in love with this young Irish nurse.

Jewish-Irish marriages were rare in those days but Maggie had long before rebelled against the dictates of the Catholic Church. The two settled in their dream house that Sanger designed and constructed in Hastings-on-Hudson.

Despite her tuberculosis Margaret Sanger had 3 children with her husband.

William Sanger was an active member of the Socialist Party and Margaret threw herself into political activity.

One cold winter’s night, a fire from an overheated stove burned down their home. Sanger rebuilt the house but Margaret’s suburban dream was over; she moved her family to an apartment in Manhattan and began socializing in Greenwich Village with such characters as Jack Reed, the subject of Reds, and Emma Goldman.

In a city jammed with immigrants she found much work as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side and was horrified by the poverty, lack of any sex education, and the drastically high death rate among the newborn.

She became a member of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) and along with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn led the successful Bread & Roses campaign for a living wage and better conditions for the textile workers in Lawrence, MA.

But she never lost sight of the fact that working families could not prosper unless pregnancy could be regulated. She did not believe in abortion (except in a medical emergency).

In 1916 she and her sister, Ethel Byrne, opened the first family planning and birth control clinic in Brooklyn. When they were arrested Ethel went on hunger strike and became the first woman striker to be force fed in the US.

Due to the ongoing publicity and notoriety engendered by the case, Judge Frederick Crane in 1918 issued a ruling that allowed doctors to prescribe contraception.

Margaret Sanger overcame many obstacles in her life’s mission to make contraception available to all women, and in 1960 the FDA approved the sale of Enovid – the first hormonal birth control pill.

She died in 1966, a year after the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision to legalize birth control for married couples in the US.

On July 13th,2023 the FDA approved the first over-the-counter birth control pill that will allow all women and girls to buy contraceptives. Maggie Higgins’ impossible dream back in Corning is about to come true.

Monday, 31 July 2023


 One night, while departing the stage in the late, lamented Village Pub in The Bronx, I was approached by a gentleman who remarked: “When all is said and done, Kirwan, you’re nothing more than a trumped up Wexford Teddy Boy.”

Since slagging was one of the main forms of communication in Irish immigrant circles, and my admirer was about a foot taller than me, I didn’t dwell on the matter.

This would have been back in the late 1980’s. I was between bands and had taken to singing old rock ‘n’ roll songs for my bread and butter.

I was wearing a skinny black leather tie, pointed red shoes, with a dab of Brylcreem to grease back my hair. In truth, the slagger wasn’t far off the mark - I was attempting a bit of a Ted look.

Who were these Teddy Boys and how had their influence spread to the wilds of the North Bronx 30 years after their European heyday?

They first came to prominence in London in the 1950’s when working-class youth, tired of post-World War II rationing and deprivation, adopted long Edwardian style suit jackets, commonly known as drapes.

Sick of the all-pervasive, dowdy black suits, they wore these drapes in rich red or blue colors, over drainpipe trousers, bright shirts, skinny ties, suede shoes, and lime-green socks.

In those gloomy days Ireland’s greatest export was, as ever, its people, and it was a rare Wexford teenager who didn’t spend a year or two knocking London down and rebuilding it.

The more stylish of these emigrants were known to strut their Teddy Boy threads on Wexford’s Main Street during Christmas and summer vacations.

Sensing an opportunity, the enterprising Nolan family, introduced Wexford’s first jukebox to their recently opened ice cream parlor; the Teds stocked this magic machine with their favorite Rockabilly music, turned the volume up to 11, and a scene was born.

Their favorites were Elvis, Bill Haley, and Eddie Cochran – all three, oddly enough, with Irish roots. Added to these hell raisers were Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a rake of others, mostly Southern White boys ripping up and ripping off Black R&B music.

The local Garda Síochána were leery of these teenage rebels and their exaggerated jive dancing, but as long as they kept it within the confines of Nolan’s small premises and didn’t engage in any of the new-fangled juvenile delinquency, how bad could it be.

The only serious incident occurred when Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock film played at the local Capitol Cinema, where some ancient seats were demolished, and the audience took to jiving in the aisles.

Teds seem to have been a mostly East Coast phenomenon with sightings also in Dublin, Belfast and Ballymena, though it’s hard to believe that Cork, Limerick and Galway didn’t also have their stylish rebels.

The Teddy Boy era faded in the 1960’s when mass marketing began to dictate teen dress styles.

There was a moment when The Beatles might have stemmed the tide of banal commerciality. Take a look at their early pictures, John and George show their unmistakable Ted influences. Then Brian Epstein became manager and insisted upon those silly collarless suits.

What’s interesting about the Teds is that they designed a style all their own with the help of local tailors. They insisted upon individuality – at least at nights and weekends when free from their factory jobs. For once, men outshone ladies in the couture department.

I still see remnants of the look in Ireland, the drapes have long gone but tight black trousers persevere, albeit with a healthy paunch drooping over an exaggerated belt buckle.

Don’t look too closely though, the wearer, often in his 70’s, may give you the hairy eyeball from behind a fabulously greased grey quiff!

Such characters tend to stand at the bar with a faraway look in their eyes until Elvis, Eddie Cochran or Bill Haley sweep away whatever modern dross is polluting the radio or juke box.

Then all at once they jerk to attention, suck in their beer-bellies, and they’re ready to jive and kick out the jams again, just like they did in Nolan’s ice cream parlor all those Rockabilly, Teddy Boy years ago.

Wednesday, 12 July 2023

Normans Invasions - Wexford & Sicily

 The Christian Brothers in Wexford were not fans of the Normans. They regarded these conquerors who arrived from Wales in 1169 as some sub-species of the hated English, enough said!

I was less convinced, but then I grew up in the shadow of towering Selskar Abbey, a Norman edifice that stands to this day. King Henry II arrived there soon after the Norman invaders to do penance for the murder of Thomas a’Beckett in Westminster Cathedral.

It would appear, however, that he really came to keep an eye on the conquering Norman barons lest they set up a kingdom of their own.

The Normans seemed to have no trouble intermarrying with the Irish and their names are still popular locally. In fact it would be hard to travel throughout Ireland without tripping over a Burke, Fitzgerald, Butler, Roche, Power, Redmond, Sinnott, or even Rice, one of whom, Edmund, founded the Irish Christian Brothers.

Oddly enough, these invaders were descended from the Norsemen who had already founded Wexford (Weissfjord) centuries earlier. It was as if they were coming home, except that they now spoke French from their sojourn in Normandy.

They were skilled builders. No sooner had they conquered an area than they set about fortifying it, and building a castle that might also serve as an administrative and religious center. Hence Selskar Abbey in the heart of old Wexford town!

You can see their footprints in many parts of Europe. Imagine my surprise when I came upon a Norman castle while traveling down the coast of Eastern Turkey some years back.

There it stood, gaunt, and deserted, but still dominating a hill over the sparkling blue Mediterranean. Although much more majestic, it reminded me of Ferrycarrig Castle a few miles up the Slaney from Wexford town.

Sure enough, I discovered that Norman Crusaders built it on their way to create a kingdom in Palestine.

I had heard of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily but was unaware of its breadth and power. They first arrived in Southern Italy in 999AD as mercenaries and over the next 200 years ruled not only the island of Sicily but also the southern third of the Italian Peninsula, and parts of North Africa.

They have left their mark all over this lovely island and I was constantly reminded of Norman Wexford while on a recent visit.

It’s fascinating how effortlessly Norman architecture blends in with exotic Sicily, yet that seems to have been a trait of these people – move in, take over, but allow the natives to carry on their local business, as long as they keep the peace and pay their taxes.

That’s not to say they didn’t commit barbarous acts in medieval Ireland, but such was the case all over our fractious country in the unending disputes between the clans.

And if affairs were unsettled in Ireland, then Sicily was a real hotbed of religious and civil disorder with Muslim, Byzantine, Calabrian, and various other castes and creeds vying for influence, not to mention sundry Holy Fathers seeking to extend their power from the nearby Papal States.

Back in Wexford one had to use one’s imagination to visualize our conquerors – not so in Palermo. Norman mosaics abounded, particularly in the well-maintained churches.

King Roger II of Sicily personified the Norman desire to integrate with their subjects and surroundings; thus, in a mosaic at the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (St. Mary of the Admiral) he made a statement with his coronation fresco.

Abandoning his warrior attire he dressed in flowing Byzantine robes and instead of receiving his crown from the aggressive Pope Innocent II, he instead opted to have an Eastern version of Jesus coronate him.

On that day too, he declared that Muslim and all other local religions should have the same rights as Christians.

Roger II (Ruggero II) is still celebrated around Sicily but after his death in 1154 his golden age of tolerance began to fade. Eventually a Holy Roman Emperor succeeded him and affairs reverted to their normal sectarian barbarism.

And yet in a quiet church in the bustling city of Palermo, while admiring a beautiful mosaic, I was reunited with the town of my youth and gained some insight into our stormy Norman Irish history.

Thursday, 29 June 2023

Welcome Back Paddy Reilly's!

So Paddy Reilly’s has reopened.  Welcome back - though your absence was short, you were missed.

It’s not just that New York City is daily becoming less of an Irish town and any pub is a loss; no, it’s that Reilly’s stood for something – original Irish music that had something to say.

You may not have noticed it but live music is on the ropes right now. Sure you’ve got Taylor Swift packing them in, fair play to her; but that’s American Express music, it costs an arm and a leg, and is designed to keep you purring and never to offend.

When was the last time you strolled into a pub and were blown away by some band singing songs that you never even imagined before, all the while challenging you with their opinions?

In the early days, that’s what Reilly’s was about. Chris Byrne and I formed Black 47 in there. We figured that with Bob Marley dead and The Clash disbanded there was an opening for a political band playing original music.

We didn’t have any songs but we did have gigs, as Chris’s band, Beyond The Pale, broke up that night and he had a scattering of engagements to fulfill in The Bronx.

We knocked off some originals that week, compiled a list of interesting songs we could jam on, and the following Friday we hit The Bronx.

Or rather, The Bronx hit us. Let’s just say each of those early gigs was a battle that ended up in a no-decision - basically speaking, we got out alive.

But it was late 1989, a recession was raging, bands were needed on Bainbridge, and we were no sooner fired by one joint than hired by another.

Months later when we returned to Reilly’s we had many original songs, a growing following and an “independent” reputation. When someone demanded a Pogues song, a typical riposte was, “When was the last time you heard The Pogues do a Black 47 song?”

Steve Duggan, manager and eventually owner of Paddy Reilly’s, saw our potential, and why not? The place was jammed, the pints were flowing, enough said!

But it wasn’t just Black 47. Though we established a residency on Wednesdays and Saturdays, a scene began - soon Spéir Mór were playing Fridays, Rogue’s March Sundays, Paddy A-Go-Go Mondays, Eileen Ivers & Seamus Egan Tuesdays, with a top of the line Seisiún every Thursday. The Prodigals eventually took over Fridays and continue to play there to this day.

All of these bands made an impact nationally, along with many others who packed this small Second Avenue venue. The key was originality. Everyone was writing their own songs and creating their own style.

There’s nothing wrong with playing standards, but that ground has already been well covered; there comes a time when you’ve got to put your best foot forward and reach for the stars.

Black 47 eventually performed everywhere from stadiums to Leno, Letterman, and O’Brien, but a night in Reilly’s stands out.

We were introducing a new song, it was long, involved, and barely rehearsed, but as we played something happened that became bigger than all of us; the audience stood rapt in attention and the silence continued for a long moment after we’d finished. The song was James Connolly and it’s gone on to become a civil rights anthem.

It’s almost impossible for musicians to make a living now, streaming killed CDs, a vital revenue stream for most touring bands, while the pandemic has put the kibosh on so many live venues.

Oddly enough, the humble Irish pub could be the savior. Unlike many celebrated rock venues, pub owners know their business and are willing to take chances. It’s the musicians responsibility to draw the crowds.

Connolly’s on 47thStreet has a great sound system and a tradition of packed houses, Ulysses on Stone Street has a new state of the art Music Room.  

So welcome back, Paddy Reilly’s! It’s the best of times and the worst of times, but people will always love live music. It’s just got to be original, and say something to the young people of today, much like it did in the Paddy Reilly’s of yesterday.