Friday, 20 May 2022

Is Dundalk the new Liverpool?

All right! Hands up – who has been to Dundalk in the Wee County Louth?


Not many, I’d suggest? I’ve only been there once and that was for a much needed whiskey cure at Mark’s Bar, after a hair-raising encounter with the British Army just across the border.


I have, however, known many people from Dundalk, and an independent, spirited bunch they are.

The question is – could Dundalk be the next Liverpool?


What are you laughing at? Wasn’t Liverpool a disdained backwater with a woeful accent before The Beatles turned the world on its ear?


Talk about accents! I don’t even know how to do justice to the Dundalk “shpake.”


Best take a listen to Jinx Lennon – a musician as original and flinty as John Winston Lennon himself.


I came upon Jinx by accident. I’m always looking for good songs for Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM show, and was advised to listen to Dundalk’s Mary Wallopers.


This quaintly named band is the real deal – and in an interview with The Irish Times, no less, they mentioned that Jinx is both an influence and inspiration.


So, I went to the fountainhead and there on Jinx’s iTunes page I found “Proud to be a Nobody from County Louth.”


Just repeat that title a couple of times – are you catching all the internal rhymes? Willie Yeats, move over – it’s time for the mighty Jinx Lennon!


Now I know Tommy Smyth, broadcaster and County Louth nationalist, would rate Jinx’s song title as oxymoronic, since there’s no such thing as a nobody in the wee county.


But the song itself is touching, defiant, original, and totally unforgettable. Not to mention it has already swamped the few brain cells I have left, and won’t depart until I banish it with a hefty dose of Daniel O’Donnell.


And get a load of the saxophone work on this sparse recording – obviously played by a musician steeped in the backstreet Blues and Soul of downtown Dundalk.


Now, Mr. Lennon’s language on other songs of his oeuvre may leave something to be desired, but don’t let that turn you off.


For when you listen to the bould Jinx, you’re not only hearing an authentic local Irish accent, you’re also clueing into the shrouded psyche of modern Ireland.


This is not your imitation Dublin 4 intonation that has steamrolled the life out of Ireland’s unique linguistics; no it’s an in-your-face culchie sensibility that would blowtorch the paint off the sacred walls of the Shelbourne Hotel.


Not that Jinx would ever be invited into such an establishment. They wouldn’t allow the like of this fellow into Stephen’s Green for fear the very flowers might droop in horror.


In other words this border schizo is like a welcome, but bracing, blast of fresh air.


But on to the Mary Wallopers! Not only are they the most interesting ballad group since The Dubliners, the brothers Charles and Andrew Hendy are also the driving force behind the Culchie Rap group, TPM (Tax Payer’s Money)

.

That’s the genius of these siblings. They allow one to see that the only real difference between Ballads and Rap is sensibility.


Dundalk and The South Bronx may be distant geographically, but the issues of 19thCentury ballads and 21st Century rap are much the same - poverty, dispossession, and a desire to speak out about such things in your own accent and delivery. 


The brothers Hendy and their musical associate Seán McKenna have chosen to live in Dundalk rather than try their luck in far flung London or Manchester.


Why go anywhere else when you’ve got the Internet? After all, that’s how I found them, and now through SiriusXM they’re available all across the US and Canada.


Try their version of Hamish Imlach’s “Codliver Oil and Orange Juice.”


And for a short, if corrosive, blast of Culchie Rap listen to TPM’s paean to “The Boys on the Dole,” but far from the earshot of your up-market granny or know-it-all nephew.


This is the modern Ireland you won’t hear on RTE. It’s hilarious, outrageous, ribald, and in your face, but familiar to those of us raised in country pubs and discos.


And now for the first time it has spokesmen who don’t give a fiddler’s about sounding cool.

Long live Jinx and The Wallopers, and three cheers for Dundalk – the new Liverpool! 

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Mother Jones - Working Class Hero

 She was known as “the most dangerous woman in the world,” and reveled in the title. The poor and the dispossessed adored her - the rich and the powerful were less impressed.

You can tell why with statements such as: “Some day we will have the courage to rise up and strike back at these great 'giants' of industry, and we will see that they weren't 'giant' after all—they only seemed so because we were on our knees and they towered above us.”


She was known as Mother Jones but was baptized Mary G. Harris on August 1st, 1837 on the north side of Cork City.


No one knows exactly when she was born and she was loath to tell.


Her parents were tenant farmers who left for Canada during the Great Hunger. She experienced the usual discrimination and sectarianism meted out to Irish Catholic immigrants. But she did receive a good education that would stand to her throughout her long life.


She became a schoolteacher, moved to Michigan but chafed under convent rules, and lit out first for Chicago and then Memphis where she met her husband George Jones, a molder by trade and militant union man.


They had four children and we’d probably never have heard of Mary Jones if Yellow Fever hadn’t taken the lives of her husband and children.


Alone and devastated, she moved back to Chicago. It’s hard to know how she carried on, but not unreasonable to speculate that her loss led to a fierce desire for privacy.


She rarely mentioned the loss of her family, or spoke of her parents, brothers and sisters. It was as if she wished for a clean slate – but at what cost?


She opened a dress shop and with her singular drive and ambition gained a wealthy clientele. But she never forgot her husband’s trade union principles.


She began to attend union meetings and listened to the great radical orators of the day. Then tragedy struck again – she lost her home and business in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.


She devoted herself to the task of rebuilding Chicago, and couldn’t help but notice that through boom and bust the rich did well, while workers of all creeds and colors failed to prosper.


“I belong to a class that has been robbed, plundered, murdered, maligned, vilified, jailed, persecuted all down the ages. The earth was not made for a few, but for all God’s people.”


A class warrior had been born, and over the years her reputation grew for she shirked no fight. She is often associated with the United Mine Workers, particularly in “medieval West Virginia,” where she organized, and confronted the brutal security forces of the mine owners.


Like contemporaries Joe Hill and the Rebel Girl, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, she believed in the concept of the OBU – One Big Union for all workers.


The fame of this demure, but fierce, widow with the white hair and outdated black dresses spread, and she began to exaggerate her age to further her legend.


An individualist, she made many enemies for she had little regard for pompous politicians, priests, suffragettes, and socialists, unless they stooped to help the struggling lower classes.


She organized a children’s crusade that marched from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay Long Island to confront President Theodore Roosevelt.


The children’s banners demanded that they be sent to school rather than the mills and coalmines where so many of them put in full working weeks.


Though she kept up a frenetic pace her health deteriorated and at the age of 75 while serving a prison sentence she suffered a severe bout of pneumonia.


Nonetheless, she never stopped fighting for workers’ rights and celebrated her 100thbirthday in 1930 some months before her death, although she was probably 93. 


She may have played a little loose with facts in the course of her dynamic life, but there’s no denying that she shone a big light on the atrocious conditions immigrants, African-Americans, and children worked under.


The young woman from Cork changed many lives for the better. A riveting orator, her rallying cry was, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”


I wonder what she’d think of our Amazon/Starbucks, union-free universe?

Monday, 25 April 2022

WEXFORD - A QUARE AULD PLACE

 It was a strange town but everywhere in Ireland was a bit strange in those days.  I’m talking about the 60’s and 70’s when I knew Wexford best.

Then again, I had a bit of an odd upbringing. My parents lived in one part of town and I lived in another with my grandfather.


Common enough in those days – for if a grandfather lost his spouse, the eldest grandson went to live with him for “company.” Hence, I grew up in a big barracks of a house almost in the shadow of medieval Selskar Abbey.


One cannot imagine such a thing happening nowadays when children are supervised so closely, whereas we roamed the narrow streets of Wexford and the surrounding countryside as free as the wind – and the rain.


I still have a fondness for rain. There was no shortage of it in my childhood, though Wexford in the “Sunny Southeast” was dry as the Sahara compared to the rest of the country where Noah in his ark was rumored to be regularly seen floating by.


Wexford was nothing if not historical. It was often trumpeted in the pubs that way back in the 2ndCentury Ptolemy had reported our burgh’s existence under the name Menapia. 


The Vikings didn’t give a fiddler’s and, on their arrival, hastily changed the name to Weissfjord; ‘twas they bequeathed many of us with red hair and freckles, or so the story goes.


The Normans arrived without invitation in 1169 and never left. They built Selkskar Abbey a year later.


Soon thereafter King Henry II came to do penance in the Abbey for suggesting to some ne’er-do-well nobles that they permanently shut the mouth of St. Thomas a’Becket.


Wexfordians took their religion seriously; in my day we had three large Catholic houses of worship, two Churches of Ireland, a Presbyterian kirk, a Methodist hall, a Quaker meeting house, and all manner of other spiritual establishments including Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of whom got soundly thrashed by a Catholic priest for infringing upon the good father’s franchise.


I myself was a saintly Franciscan altar boy until I stumbled upon the teachings of Marx and Lennon - Groucho and John.


Wexford had declared itself a Free French Republic in 1798 and had little time for Dublin, unless the county hurling team made it to the All Ireland final, which was rare enough.


The rest of the country tearfully emigrated. We, unsentimental Free French Republicans, accepted the reality that Ireland was a failed state and could not support its people


Although many people voted Fianna Fáil, Mr de Valera was not popular. People switched to the BBC when he spoke on Radio Eireann; and when television was introduced they preferred Mister Ed, and headed for the pub when Dev made an appearance.


Everyone had relatives in England. Aidan Ffrench, lead singer of the local Visitors Showband was a cousin of Liverpool’s George Harrison, though he preferred the sweet tones of Hoboken’s Frank Sinatra.


Music pulsed through the streets of Wexford. My father, a merchant seaman, played his Tango 78’s, my grandfather loved Gilbert & Sullivan, while a couple of doors down from us, Dr. Tom Walsh made a fair fist of Verdi’s arias and founded the Wexford Opera Festival.


Delinquent Teddyboys chanted Buddy Holly’s Rockabilly while fierce skinheads toasted Prince Buster’s Ska, either of these communities would rearrange your features for merely gazing at them.


Still it was a very pleasant place to call home. You just had to be diplomatic, keep your eyes peeled, and think before you spoke for dentists were expensive.


Local traveler Pecker Dunne played his banjo and sang on the Main Street every Saturday afternoon. He looked like a pirate and never acknowledged the pittance I tossed in his hat.


My grandfather and I walked along the quayside most summer evenings when the fishing boats docked. His hand would shoot up like a piston to raise his hat for every lady of his acquaintance.


I often caught him studying me as I gazed out at the Irish Sea. No doubt, he recognized I’d been born with Wexford wanderlust and would eventually leave.


He was right; still I sometimes think of the life I might have lived if I’d stayed home and never roamed far from the banks of the Slaney.

Wednesday, 6 April 2022

PUNK IS BACK - SHAKE A LEG!

 “All I got is three chords and the truth,” Bono famously sang.

The rest of us settled for the bare three chords. The truth was a bit cumbersome to lug around to gigs“ especially at the “lig after the gig” – the post-show party.


Although there were rumblings ahead of its release in 1976, Anarchy in the UK by The Sex Pistols was the first call to arms of Punk Rock.


I can still recall Johnny Lydon’s sneering voice as it blasted from the vaunted Bells of Hell jukebox. Peter Myers, owner of this West Village saloon had just arrived back from London with the single.


Rock music had become tedious. The Pistols put the Roll back in it. Of course, Punk Rock had originated over here in CBGB on the Bowery, but there was a militant strain to the Pistols single that spoke of disgust with high unemployment, a stultifying class system, and the general malaise of the UK in the 1970’s.


Damn near anyone could play three chords on an overdriven electric guitar; stick a drummer and bass player in the mix, along with some psycho yelling a few provocative phrases, and you had your own Punk band.


You didn’t have to go to music school or practice for years to sound like Pink Floyd or Genesis. You just got up onstage, turned up to eleven, and let her rip.


John Peel, the champion of new music on BBC Radio, heard the call and dumped his Gentle Giant meanderings and twee folk confessions.


Liberation was in the air, the Punk craze spread like wildfire and some of the sparks lit up the polarized streets of Belfast.


To say that Belfast was at a bleak moment would be an understatement. There was a war going on between militant nationalists, unionists, and the British Army.


But Punk made perfect sense to both Protestant and Catholic youth, and bands sprung up overnight behind barricades and spat out more truth than even Bono could swallow.


With Belfast literally booming, bar business was at a low. You had to be a serious drinker to risk life and limb for your pint, with pubs considered legitimate paramilitary targets.


Patsy Lennon of the Harp Bar on Hill Street saw an opportunity and booked local punk outfits. And for the first time since the late 60’s Protestant and Catholic youth began to mingle.


Four bands stood out: Rudi, Stiff Little Fingers, The Outcasts, and The Undertones from faraway Derry.


I play all four of them on Celtic Crush, my weekly show on SiriusXM and their music still stands up. I’ve only experienced SLF and The Undertones live and they were phenomenal, full of you-know-what and vinegar.


Terri Hooley opened Good Vibrations, a record store on Great Victoria Street, “the most bombed half-mile in Europe.” Talk about irony!


Between The Harp and the Vibe, Belfast punks now had two non-sectarian centers to glower at each other.


Terri, a visionary, saw no reason why he shouldn’t record local bands, and soon singles were surfacing and being reviewed in NME and Melody Maker. 


John Peel was so floored on hearing The Undertones he played Teenage Kicks twice in a row on his legendary BBC show. Don’t listen to this song if you don’t want to feel seventeen again!


For that matter, beware of Alternative Ulster by Stiff Little Fingers, and don’t you dare spin Big Time by Rudi.  Margaret Thatcher might come pogoing into your bedroom.


Rockers to the end, both The Undertones and SLF will be hitting the road again this summer – 45 years after they first discovered feedback. It’s only a matter of time before they hit New York.


I’ll be there in my ripped leather jacket and skinny black jeans. I might even dust off my green suede shoes and dip my head in a bucket of Brylcreem.


Punk is back – for many it never went away. In our remote digital world everyone needs three snarling, barbed-wire chords in their life – Bono can keep the truth!


Teenage kicks will erupt again in the midst of Alternative Ulster on the banks of the Hudson. I’ll keep you posted of the dates.


The only thing we’ll be missing is the British Army. But there’ll be few tears shed for them!

Monday, 28 March 2022

Backstage at Paradise Square

About 20 minutes into the musical Paradise Square, a piece of unscripted magic occurs on the dance floor of a bar in New York City’s Five Points. 

The stage is throbbing to the steps of Irish immigrants and African-Americans when the characters played by Garret Coleman of Hammerstep and the vivacious Chloe Davis come face to face.


They smile in recognition of each other’s talent and allure, before launching into a riveting dance-off.


Without a word being uttered we understand how amalgamation between Irish and African-Americans became such a factor in mid-19thCentury New York until it was swept away by the fury of the 1863 Draft Riots.


Another non-verbal revelation occurs when the two communities are being torn apart by the first Federal Army Draft that targeted immigrants but purposely ignored African-Americans.


At the height of an argument word arrives that a popular Irishman has lost his life while serving in Virginia with the Fighting 69thRegiment.


A silence descends on the bar, broken only by the sobs of the deceased’s African-American wife. Her people are grieved by the news, but an ineffable pain spreads across the faces of the Irish.


Every immigrant will recognize it – the sorrow you feel when you realize a friend will never see Ireland again, and will be laid to rest far from home.


Paradise Square embraces such unscripted moments, and this is a look at some of them from the intimacy of backstage.


I give much of the credit to an amazing cast, many of whom have put years of detailed work into building their characters.


Paradise Square began back in 2012 as Hard Times at the Cell theatre on 23rdStreet, and morphed into a large scale musical at workshops in Toronto, and productions in Berkeley and Chicago. This New York story has finally arrived home and can be seen in preview at The Barrymore on 47thStreet before opening on April 3rd.


In the course of its odyssey many people gave so much to this project. And yet, the spine of the piece remains the same: that two brutalized peoples, Black and Irish, met in a downtown slum, and for a brief moment created a new idea of what America could be.


Little was written about them, for history has little interest in the poor; suffice it to say these interracial couples and their children were despised and given the name amalgamationists by the uptown establishment.


Even a social reformer like Charles Dickens was horrified - though he marveled at the steps and music they created in their raucous dancehalls, where American Tap Dancing emerged from the fiery competitions between African Juba and Irish step champions.


These are not the streets of the sepia-toned American dream beloved of Hollywood and television; both Black and Irish have trouble negotiating the ladder to acceptance in a racist and sectarian land.


Two women drive the action. African-American Nelly O’Brien manages her saloon and awaits the return of her Irish husband from war; while her sister-in-law Annie covertly aids Rev. Samuel Lewis, her Black husband, in transporting escaped slaves to freedom in Canada.


Actors Joaquino Kalukango and Chilina Kennedy bring our heroines to life. Both are descended from immigrants, Angolan and Irish. They light up the stage with their talent, imagination, and humanity. And, oh, what voices!


Paradise Square opens a window to a brutal American past where slavery was a fact of life, and Irish immigrants were despised for their religion and their refusal to fit into a sectarian society.


These circumstances could have turned Nelly O’Brien and her feisty sister-in-law against each other, but the bonds of family hold them together.


In their unscripted moments this cast is often at their best, just like the Irish and African-Americans must have been when confronting bigotry and discrimination in the Points.


The Draft Riots utterly changed their neighborhood, the inter-racial dancehalls closed, and “everyone went back to their own.” Yet, 160 years later we now have a Black mayor running our city and an Irish-American governor presiding over our state.


Our two communities have so much in common – music, dance, partying, a thirst for justice, and a love of family. Perhaps, the cast of Paradise Square can show us a way back together - in our own unscripted moments.

Friday, 11 March 2022

Come for the Craic - New York is back!

 Do you feel like the sun has begun to shine again – that after a long winter the dawns now arrive earlier and seem more hopeful?

What a change in a matter of weeks! Was it only January that Omicron swept through these streets and sent people scurrying back home after an optimistic Advent?


But we soon found that this variant’s bark was worse than its bite, and after some days of discomfort most people recovered fairly quickly. There were exceptions: we lost a popular and accomplished musician, Brian O’Neill, a Tyrone boy who will never be forgotten on these shores.


But the infection figures are now at a very manageable level, and New York City is open for business again.


Hey, why not come see us – St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner and you know what a blast that can be. The Parade will be back in full force – the streets will be ours again.


You couldn’t pick a better time. Hotels have plenty of vacancies and there are deals to be had.


If Broadway is your thing, why wait? Even tickets for Hamilton can be had, not to mention that your daughter will be in your coolness debt forever for taking her to Wicked on the Great White Way.


A host of new shows are opening including Paradise Square, one that I conceived and co-wrote. And let me fill you in on a secret: preview shows on Broadway are rarely any different than post-opening shows – except for the reduced prices. In fact, they often sizzle with excitement because of the thrill of the new.


And on no account forget that in New York City we have two Irish themed Off-Broadway theatres that are among the best in the world.


Recently, I saw Boucicault’s Streets of New York turned into a vibrant musical by director, Charlotte Moore, while Ciarán O’Reilly, one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Eugene O’Neill, is now stewarding A Touch of the Poet at the Irish Repertory Theatre.


And get thee to the new Irish Arts Center building in Hells Kitchen where Martin Flynn, and Paul Muldoon recently played, and Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical from Belfast will soon shake the rafters.


Congratulations to Aidan Connolly, Pauline Turley, Rachael Gilkey, and the welcoming staff on the opening of this state of the art cultural facility.


It’s good to see yellow taxis again, but I like to walk these streets. That’s where you catch the pulse of the city. And don’t let the doomsayers scare you off the subways – that’s how New Yorkers get around.


One mode of transport that’s often forgotten is the ferry services. Take a walk down the West Side and, near the Irish Famine Memorial, you can hop on a boat that will take you across the Hudson to Jersey City or Hoboken.


Or stroll further down river to The Battery and catch the Staten Island Ferry – won’t cost you a dime and you can get up-close views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.


When you land at St. George Terminal take a taxi or Shanks’ Mare to Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. Drop by the Noble Maritime Collection and say hello to my friend, Dawn Daniels, who’ll fill you in on the history of this remarkable New York treasure.


It’s hard to beat the ferry to Rockaway Beach from Wall Street. Yeah, you’ve heard the song by The Ramones, but there’s nothing quite like seeing Bay Ridge, the Verrazano Bridge and Coney Island from the water before you arrive in the Republic of Rockaway.


You might not need a passport but you definitely enter a different dimension when you hit the Irish Riviera.


To top it all, Rockaway has become cool with surfers and hipsters in the last 20 years. You might even run into resident poet-rocker Patti Smith as she goes about her business.


Do drop by Rogers Pub on Beach 116thStreet, meet the old guard and say hello to my brother, Jimmy Kirwan, who holds court there on Tuesday afternoons.


There’s so much else to see in our city. Come back to us. We’re open for business again, and as Frankie says, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Neil Young V Joe Rogan

 Neil Young had the biggest head of any musician I’d ever met. I’m talking literally, of course, not figuratively.


He came to see Black 47 in Paddy Reilly’s back in the early 90’s. During a break we sat together, but every time I glanced around to check out the size of the crowd, Neil’s head blocked my view.


We shared the same manager, the legendary Elliot Roberts. Elliot could talk the hind-legs off Delaney’s donkey but Neil drank his beer in relative silence.


Oddly enough I still remember the two morsels of information he shared with me that night.


In between deep slugs of Steve Duggan’s best-poured pint of Guinness, Neil casually mentioned that his father, a Canadian sportswriter had retired to Howth in Co. Dublin.


When I inquired what guitar effects he used to get such an array of sounds, he was quite adamant that he employed none. He must have caught the look of disbelief on my face for he added, “Turn the guitar up loud enough and you’ll get any sound you want.”


After that piece of sonic wisdom we returned to studying the creamy bubbles of Guinness settle at the bottom of our glasses.


I mention this to iterate that Neil Young is a man of few, but consequential, words.


Now I don’t follow pop culture so I don’t know Joe Rogan from a hole in the wall. But I know his type – having been interviewed at hundreds of radio stations across these vast United States.


Joe is descended from the shock jocks of the last 50 years, most of whom were pretty harmless. If you didn’t like them, you just flipped the dial, and they faded off into the ether.


Mr. Rogan, however, has a huge national audience for his podcast; rumor has it the lucky man has received $100 million from Spotify for his services.


Good for you, Joe! At least someone is making money from Spotify. The vast majority of musicians make pennies from this all-powerful lease-a-song outfit.


Neil Young’s recent beef with Joe Rogan and Spotify is that both podcaster and platform are allowing false information to be spread about the efficacy of vaccines that are saving thousands of lives every day.


Well over 900,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 in the last two years and more than 2000 continue to die daily from this curse.


Mr. Rogan has the most popular podcast in the universe right now. You’d think in these trying times he’d use it to save lives? With Omicron infection declining by the day, we may soon have an opportunity to get back on our feet and prepare for what comes next. 


Vaccines and booster shots may not be our only saviors from any future variants, but for now they are undoubtedly the best options.


Which brings me back to Neil. Some months after our quiet interaction at Reilly’s, Black 47 played Farm Aid at his request, along with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and a host of legends.


It was a very democratic concert at the Iowa State football stadium. Each act was allotted time enough for three songs.


As you might imagine Black 47 performed in the afternoon; it was night before Neil Young closed the show.


John Mellencamp was the penultimate act and he almost blew that packed stadium apart with his kinetic brand of hinterland rock. Standing amidst Elliot’s entourage at the side of the stage I wondered how Neil could top that.


He strolled on with just an acoustic guitar and stood before the microphone, before walking offstage again to where his young son, Ben, who suffered from cerebral palsy, sat in his wheelchair.


He took some seconds to establish eye contact with Ben. Then Neil ambled back onstage and sang After The Gold Rush, a lament about our heedless destruction of the environment.


The sheer artistry of the song and the depth of its message caused a powerful hush to descend on the multitude in that vast football stadium.


It was a major lesson in both music and life - volume is not important in getting your message across, but the truth most definitely is.


Think about it, Joe, ratings and vapid notoriety only count for so much. There are lives to be saved out there.