Monday, 26 September 2022

So You Wanna Be An Irish Dancer

 Back where I came from few boys aspired to be Irish dancers. It would have been considered suicidal to trip daintily around the back streets of Wexford in black satin jacket, matching short pants, thick white socks, and buckled shiny shoes.

However, proficiency in the Irish language was compulsory, and to fail the subject in your final exam meant another year spent in high school.


Hence, along with some of my friends, I signed up for a month of total Gaelic immersion in Ballingeary Irish College, West Cork.


A kindly Christian Brother suggested we teenage clodhoppers take céilí dancing lessons before our departure, lest we turn the college ballroom into an emergency ward.


That month was wonderful. We spoke Irish all day, and at nights wowed the young ladies of Cork with our Walls of Limerick/Siege of Ennis steps; some of us even acquired Rebel County girlfriends, and returned to West Brit Wexford changed men.


We all handily passed our Leaving Cert Irish exams, but upon graduation we promptly ditched the dance steps.


Small wonder, The Walls of Limerick were scorned in Dublin dancehalls, while the Siege of Ennis never found a foothold in the moshpits of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.


But I never lost my fondness for our native music. So when Chris Byrne and I formed Black 47 we set Irish Trad to Hip-Hop, Reggae, and Funk beats. This unholy concoction rang a bell with young Irish-Americans, many of whom had been enrolled in Step Dancing schools by their native-born Irish parents.


We encouraged these dancers to join us onstage and link their steps with our beats. Dressed in the urban styles of the day, they were a sight to behold as they kicked high into the overhead lights.


The pace and general delirium onstage seemed to liberate the dancers, and I began to wonder if something similar had happened to the young Famine Irish in the dancehalls of The Five Points when they cut loose to the music of Irish fiddlers and African-American percussionists.


Fast forward to the musical Hard Times which dealt with the amalgamation of Irish and African-Americans in those downtown dancehalls amid the general social upheaval of New York in the Civil War era. Zestfully choreographed by Joe Barros and Niall O’Leary, this re-imagined 19thCentury dancing brought audiences to their feet.


Soon after the final Hard Times production in 2013, Bill T. Jones, the renowned American choreographer, joined the creative team of what eventually became Paradise Square.


Bill set out to get to the core of what was going on in both African and Irish dance in that turbulent time, and then interpret it through the prism of American social and political history.


And when we needed Irish choreography that would match Bill’s intensity and innovation, enter Hammerstep, Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman. Riverdance veterans both, they were also conversant with Break Dancing and Hip-Hop movement.


Being in the room while these three gentlemen birthed the Tony nominated choreography of Paradise Square was a creative experience I will always treasure.


Irish dancing across the US continues to amalgamate with other art forms, and I’m sure there will be many surprises in store. Speaking of which, it’s only fitting to give a word of appreciation to Trinity Irish Dance and Mark Howard who have pushed the Irish Dance envelope for decades.


And if you live within striking distance of New York’s Irish Arts Center, make sure you check out the upcoming collaboration between Seán Curran Company and Darrah Carr Dance.


Sean performed with Bill T. Jones for years and began his career as an Irish step-dancer in Boston, while Darrah, always on dance’s cutting edge, has never lost her affection for Irish dancing.


Céilí is the title of their Masters in Collaboration that will premiere at the beautiful and spacious new Irish Arts Center on 11thAvenue and 51stStreet.  Don’t miss this performance and the sparks these two companies will strike off each other.


With an original score by Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna, one can be sure that it will be a scintillating evening of tradition, spurred by an innovation scarcely imaginable by the tough skeptics on the back streets of Wexford all those years ago.

 

(For tickets and information, irishartscenter.org  Sep 29 – Oct 2, 2022)

Sunday, 18 September 2022

Rockin' The Catskills

 One of the interesting things about playing with Black 47 was that I became familiar with so many areas of the USA.  By extension, I got a unique insight into Irish-America.

The biggest reveal was that this vast country has had a very varied impact on Irish immigrants. 


Of course the Irish have exerted a major social and political influence on the USA, yet I never cease to marvel at the difference between, say, the Irish of South Boston and those of South Chicago, or the Irish of Tipperary Hill in Syracuse and their compatriots on Geary Street, San Francisco.


I often thought about such matters around Labor Day Weekend, no doubt because of the intense summer schedule of the band.


Black 47 usually played parts of Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends at The Blackthorne Resort in East Durham, NY.  If you’ve never been up to the Irish Alps (Catskills), you owe yourself a visit.


I actually began playing that area in Gerry O’Shea’s Irish Center in Leeds, NY before I even set foot in the dead center of Irish America, hallowed Bainbridge Avenue in The Bronx.


Talk about two contrasting areas of Irish settlement – one calm and rural, the other urban and turbulent.


No matter the person, the Catskill Mountains seem to have a soothing effect on the most riotous of Irish souls. The Irish who live up there are quite content with their surroundings, and for the most part have no particular desire to return home.


The weekends of Memorial Day and Labor Day in East Durham, however, are as different as chalk and cheese, hence Black 47’s obligations were different too.


On Memorial Day we were hired to get the season swinging with a bang. Our brief was to attract crowds from New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Springfield, and every burg in the Hudson Valley on Friday night, and keep them reeling and rocking through the weekend.


We would play the East Durham Irish Festival on Saturday evening and hurry back to The Blackthorne for a post-midnight 2-hour set.


We would then hop in the van – to hell with sleep – and head for NYC, catch an early flight for Chicago to headline the Gaelic Park Southside Festival on Sunday and Monday.


Though the audiences were equally vociferous and welcoming, yet there was no mistaking that the mosh pits of the Mid-West were more hospitable than those of the East.


That makes sense, for the Irish from Springfield, IL have been shaped by different circumstances than their brethren from Springfield, MA; likewise, the Irish from Ames, Iowa have little in common with those raised in Woodlawn.


By the time we arrived back in NYC on Tuesday morning my foggy brain would be awash in such sociological musings. But with a busy summer playing festivals and beach towns I often wouldn’t have time to make sense of what I’d experienced until we hit East Durham again on Labor Day Weekend.


This was a much more leisurely affair. Occasionally we might speed off for an afternoon gig in Cape Cod or Rhode Island, regardless we’d be back in time to play The Blackthorne at midnight.


Though people still came to East Durham from all over for Labor Day Weekend, less traveled up from the city. Take New York out of any equation and things move at a more leisurely pace.


You had time to talk, and observe the differences between people from Buffalo and Scranton, Albany and Yonkers, Pittsfield and Kingston, Cairo and Catskill.


And you had time to glory in the majesty of the mountains that were but a background blur on Memorial Day.


Most afternoons I’d head off down a different country road, and over the years I found quiet spots where, if you remained still, you could become one with the birds, rabbits, racoons, and the occasional fox who studied you from a distance.


In one abandoned field I used sit on a wall constructed of mossy flat stones built by someone from Mayo or Connemara in a previous century; and as the sun declined in the September sky, I could comprehend what attracted the Irish to these mountains in the first place, and just how much more the place we choose to live in shapes us than we will ever shape it.

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

I Miss David Bowie

 I miss David Bowie.

 “Sure, what would the likes of you be doin’ hobnobbin’ with a superstar?” You might counter.


Well, back in the late 1970’s he bought Pierce Turner and myself a large brandy each.


Turner & Kirwan of Wexford were debuting some tracks from a Science Fiction album, no less, in an uptown club called Hurrah when some yahoo roared out, “Play Suffragette City” – a Bowie song we were known to perform.


To which Turner snarkily replied, “We’ll play it when David buys us a double brandy.”


Lo and behold, at the end of the set we were presented with two large Rémy Martins in fancy tumblers, with a message from “Mr. Bowie” that while he loved our extra-terrestrial explorations, he would have been honored to hear our version of his ditty.


New York was a very different place back then. David probably hopped into a checker cab and dropped by Hurrah on a whim. He had no security detail with him and left as discreetly as he arrived.


Nowadays, Kim Kardashian wouldn’t check into the Ladies without a couple of beefy bodyguards in tow.


Celebrities were as common as cockroaches in the New York City of old. My brother, Jemmy, while plying his trade as a waterproofer on the face of the Carlyle Hotel once had Mick Jagger roar down, “Jesus on high, can’t a man get a decent night’s sleep in this kip?”


That was nothing compared to the profanity-laced tongue-lashing he received from Lauren Bacall when shoring up the Dakota.


One of his crew was so taken aback he was moved to whisper, “I wonder what Bogie ever saw in her?”


Lest you think this column is devoted to name dropping, I will refrain from mentioning my favorite Hendix story that concerned a window frame slicing a centimeter from one of Jimi’s divine fingers.


Andy Warhol called it correctly - everyone is a celebrity these days, however, instead of his projected 15 minutes of fame, better use your 15 seconds wisely.


I can barely walk down my block anymore for fear of losing an eye - there are so many wannabe Kardashians brandishing selfie-sticks while inanely mugging for their iPhones.


Will someone tell me what the Kardashians are famous for anyway? I’ve been out of the celebrity loop since the Murdochs quit flogging The Post in the subways. And don’t tell me to read it online – I’m already wasting so much time in the digital netherworld I can barely spare an hour for the pub.


Speaking of which – what’s the greatest cultural loss in New York City since the pandemic was visited upon us?


Dive bars! Remember that hole in the wall you used to frequent whenever your spouse or significant other questioned your authority or sanity? Yep, the venerable dive bar is gone with the wind - and the astronomical rents.


Next thing you know that bastion of nightlife Paddy Reilly’s will be shuttered, and Steve Duggan will be heading home to manage the Cavan Senior Football Team.


But then New York was always a changeable place. People laughed at Archbishop Dagger Hughes for building St. Patrick’s Cathedral up in the rural glades of Fifth and Fifty-First.


Who’d travel all the way up there to do the Stations of the Cross? For that matter, does anybody even remember, let alone attend, the Nine First Fridays anymore - although it wouldn’t surprise me if you could observe them through the Internet.


The city changes and we change with it. Am I mistaken or was New York at its peak in the years before 9/11? In some ways the city never seemed to recover, but I suppose that depends on your perspective.


I knock on wood as I say it, but just suppose we have weathered the curse of Covid. What kind of city will we be inheriting this time? One utterly divided by wealth – no doubt, but when was it ever any different?


And then you look at the bright side of things – most of us are still standing; although in one arena all is changed, utterly changed – the Mets now rule New York as we hurtle towards October.


And yet, I still miss the good old days when celebrities ranged freely around Manhattan and David Bowie bought me a double brandy.

Thursday, 11 August 2022

Is America Broken?

 Is America broken? It’s a question that is posed with increasing frequency.

I used to dismiss it out of hand. This country has come through so much – escape from British colonialism, a civil war to prevent the Southern slave-owning states from seceding, a Civil Rights campaign allied with national protests against a disastrous war of choice in Vietnam.


Yet so much divides us nowadays, you might say. Indeed it does, but that’s the nature of a democracy. Unlike Putin’s Russia, we debate our differences publicly, that’s a strength but also a burden.


In a healthy democracy there’s usually a center, often a majority to whom differing factions turn for validation of their arguments.


When that doesn’t work, elections are called, or regularly scheduled, where the people decide.


In a country of laws like the United States of America, a vast majority of people accepts that elections are sacred and that the winners will form the next government.


But what happens when the leader of the losing group refuses to accept the verdict and contests the result?

The courts decide, as ultimately happened in the Bush v. Gore election of 2000.


We currently find ourselves in a situation where the defeated president in 2020 not only refuses to accept the result, but he even attempted to influence election officials in his favor.


You would imagine that his wiser colleagues would intervene for fear their party would suffer even a greater rejection in the coming elections.


Yet, it would appear, that Mr. Trump has convinced the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan that he won the election of 2020 despite all evidence to the contrary.


Does the Republican Party actually believe this “great lie?” On the face of it, this hardly seems likely, yet there are people who are utterly convinced that voting machines were tampered with and other forms of election chicanery perpetrated, without even a whit of evidence.


What happens now? Well, voters have a chance to send a strong message to both the Republican Party and its leader in the November midterms, and again in the 2024 presidential election.


Democracy, however, is nothing if not gloriously messy, for we are currently afflicted by a rate of inflation unequaled since 1981, and, of late, it’s “the economy, stupid,” that has driven most people to the polls.


It will take time and much massaging for our US market economy to correct the surge in prices caused by a pandemic, rusty supply chains, and a war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine.


We should always bear in mind that part of the reason for the current soaring inflation rate is because workers are finally demanding and receiving higher wages.


However, as long as the Federal Reserve doesn’t cause a recession by randomly raising interest rates inflation will eventually return to a manageable level.


But if we succumb to economic alarmism we could throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that precious baby’s name is democracy.


We have a stark existential choice in the coming elections. Do we choose democracy or one man’s refusal to admit that he was beaten fairly and squarely in the 2020 presidential election?


Despite party labels, this is not a partisan issue; democracy, despite its flaws, is something to cherish, while Mr. Trump’s self-delusional dream of autocracy is not.


He’s already done grave damage to American democracy by causing many of his followers to doubt our election process.


We may differ on many issues, but in the end we can settle matters at the polls. Let’s vote rather than harangue each other on the platforms of an increasingly vicious and vacuous social media.


Had Mike Pence not done his job as Vice-President on January 6thand certified the election of Joe Biden who knows what the end result would have been. But, at the least, it seems likely more lives would have been lost while President Trump sat on his hands and allowed a mob of his followers to run amok in the Capitol Building.


We do have a very safe election system and should treasure it rather than allow one man to disparage it, and then hide behind inane conspiracy theories.


Is America broken – far from it! But democracy is under attack and it’s our turn to defend it.

Thursday, 28 July 2022

THE FORGOTTEN EMIGRANTS

 I was recently giving a talk to the Irish Business Organization and was asked by host Shelley Ann Quilty-Lake to describe my own emigration from Ireland to New York.

I began by describing life in the city in the 1970’s.


Though the era is usually painted as being dangerous and crime-ridden, it was also exciting and gloriously inexpensive.


Reggae pulsed through the city accompanied by the sweet pungency of marijuana, while Punk was reinvigorating staid rock music. A couple of gigs a week in The Bronx or Greenwich Village easily paid for my rent-stabilized apartment.


Then in the midst of my feel-good story a series of anguished faces flashed through my mind. All Irishmen, they ranged in age from early 20’s to late 70’s, faces I’d forgotten or stored in some cobwebbed mental attic.


They sat or stood at bars I’d played across the country from Bainbridge Avenue to Geary Street in San Francisco. 

 

Some wore leather jackets and torn blue jeans, but most were dressed in the Irish evening attire of sports coat and cavalry twill trousers; each had told me some variant of our common emigrant story.


Many had arrived in the late 1950’s fleeing lack of work and opportunity. More came in the 1980’s when people were exiting Ireland at such a clip the joke was “last one out, turn out the lights!”


They had ended up in some American city or other because there was no life for them at home.


They had never married, and had settled for some form of employment that guaranteed them a room, and enough money to spend most nights at a local Irish watering hole.


When they’d finally scraped up the fare to go home to a funeral or wedding, they found that their notion of Ireland had changed, they didn’t even fit in socially anymore, dashing all hope of a permanent return.


I ran into many of their ilk while traveling around America in the back of a van. They liked Black 47 – not the harder edged rock or funk music, but the unvarnished anthems about emigration and politics.


Songs like Livin’ in America and James Connolly would lead to post-gig conversations at the bar, and eventually to heartfelt revelations about the country of their birth. Shots of Jamesons, and the knowledge that I’d be leaving town in the morning with their secrets, often led to late night eloquence.


These people weren’t whiners or looking for sympathy, it’s just that they’d come to the hard won realization that their die had been cast at an early age.


The Irish system of education that they’d experienced was brutal. Class sizes were often above 40 and corporal punishment was the rule.


I knew what they were talking about, for in my own Christian Brothers Primary School boys were beaten unmercifully, not so much by the brothers themselves but by the young state-employed, lay teachers.

Words like dyslexia or autism were barely known, let alone that students might suffer from such conditions.


It was one size fits all – if you didn’t know an answer you were first humiliated and then beaten with a stick or a stiff leather strap until your hands were numb or raw. No wonder so many children abandoned school at the legal age of 14.


The unholy alliance between church and state didn’t help. Emigration kept the country subservient and manageable. Let them go – less to feed and educate on the island of saints and scholars!


There was never a suggestion that remedial classes be given to young emigrants to help them fit into a foreign industrial society. Why bother – didn’t they have their rosary beads to guide them?


Ireland is a much different country now. Young people receive a humane education and many never think of emigrating; while Irish consulates are aware of their responsibility to senior emigrants and regularly provide grants to organizations like the Aisling Irish Community Center, The New York Irish Center, the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, and other caring groups across the country.


But still I can’t forget the faces of those late night confidants who should never have had to leave their homes and native country.  


Their humble stories are as important as the successful ones we celebrate. Their courage and their lonely fortitude still inspire me.  

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

The Poetry of Granite

I was digging in the garden recently; not an activity I’m particularly fond of, but there’s something about a June afternoon that entices you to slice a shovel through earth.

The sun was high, a fresh breeze sighing through the new leaves of the old maple, and a finch of some denomination was chirping when I struck something hard and unforgiving.


It was granite in perfectly shaped bricks that at one time must have constituted a wall, or perhaps a small kiln.


Small seedlings of quartz still sparkled from the red stone, though it had been buried beneath the soil for many years.


I rested on my shovel, and in an instant was transported back to a graveyard in Co. Wexford on another June day.


I had just turned 17 and was, as usual, working summers for my grandfather in his headstone business.


It was dusty work, cutting, chiseling, and slicing the stone while fashioning it into monuments and kerbing, with the roar of pneumatic drills pulsing through his premises near Wexford Quay.


It was always a relief to escape into the quiet countryside and erect a finished monument in a local graveyard.


It never felt morbid, for death was democratic, and there was a sense of achievement when we gazed on a new headstone gleaming in the soft evening light where there had been none that morning.


We worked in three types of stone, limestone, the commonest (and least expensive), rugged granite, and aristocratic white marble.


The latter was my grandfather’s favorite, so much so that in the 1950’s he had traveled a number of times to Carrara in far off Italy to visit the quarries owned by his friend and supplier, Signor Bordese.


This hospitable and erudite gentleman had escorted Thomas Hughes to Florence and Rome, so he might gaze upon the majestic churches and statues carved from his favorite stone.


My grandfather had left school at 13 to be apprenticed to his own headstone-making father, but he had the soul of an artist and would spend hours studying exotic statues, longing for the chance to carve his own images onto white marble.


Alas, Wexford people were of a practical nature, and preferred their memorials to be inexpensive and to the point.


The traveling people were my grandfather’s allies in art, they alone, he confided, “appreciate the majesty of death and the hereafter” and encouraged him to transpose marble into images that captured their sorrow and loss.


For hours on end, in his dusty little office, they’d pore over pictures of ornate sculptures before deciding on a suitable memorial for a revered elder or a lost child.  


To top it all, they paid cash up front, unusual in those times, for it was considered poor form to ask a grieving family to pay anything but a token deposit until well after the headstone had been erected.


The world was simpler back then, there was a trust between people. Did that come from the fact that most Irish families got by on so little?


Did the Famine still impinge upon folk memories? On the rare occasion when a bill was written off as a bad debt, Thomas Hughes and my mother would share a doleful look, and one of them would quietly mutter, “what can you expect - the best left.”


Still, the business prospered, and every summer we erected headstones all over County Wexford, remembering to pay our respects to the parish priest and occasionally taking tea in the kitchen with his housekeeper, the most important person in the locality.


Everyone had his and her place in that world. Everyone knew everyone else and, to some degree or other, fit in.


My grandfather is long gone now and I’m not far from being the same age he was when I worked with him in those long ago summer months. How the years fly!


Then the wind suddenly gusted in the new leaves of the old maple, the finch ceased its song mid-verse, and I found myself back in my own garden in a different century.


I had three heavy bricks of granite to deal with, and I wondered what use that man of stone, Thomas Hughes, would have put them to.

Sunday, 3 July 2022

Rory Gallagher - A Man of Contradictions

 Rory Gallagher was a man of contradictions. Born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, he spoke with a soft Cork accent; the quietest man in the room, he was one of the great Blues belters. He lived for music, and in some ways he died for it.

It’s 50 years now since he released Live in Europe, arguably Rock’s greatest live album, and it’s 27 years to the month since he passed away.


Though a household name, most Irish people have never heard his music, for he was rarely played on popular radio lest he might singe the ears of god-fearing punters with his Blues based explorations. Yet he is one of the best known and revered Irish musicians and has sold over 30 million albums.


His peers were no less impressed by his raw talent, when asked what it was like to be the world’s greatest guitarist, Jimi Hendrix replied, “I wouldn’t know – ask Rory Gallagher.”


Meanwhile, Eric Clapton was so enamored of his playing he asked Rory’s band Taste to open for Cream at their legendary Royal Albert Hall final concert.


All heady stuff for a guy barely out of his teens who had grown up on the banks of the River Lee, far from the bluesy Mississippi Delta.


But then little Rory Gallagher, like wee Ivan Morrison, cut his musical teeth in a much-maligned Irish institution – the showband.


At the age of 15 Rory joined Cork’s Fontana Showband - the same age Van hooked up with The Monarchs from Belfast.


From personal experience I know that showband discipline tended to make or break musicians. Because of the presence of brass players you were expected to become adept in almost every key; and you played whatever was danceable in the Top Twenty, be it Pop, Rock, Ska, Country, Trad Jazz, you name it.


Rory came of age in The Fontana (later called The Impact), and learned about life while playing US army bases in Europe and the UK.


Two years later in Belfast he formed Taste, an explosive three-piece Blues Rock band managed by Eddie Kennedy who kept them on the road for four years in a battered Transit van, but blowing minds everywhere they went.


Their last major gig was at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival where before a massive crowd they gave Hendrix, The Who, and The Doors a run for their money, then promptly broke up.


The 22 year-old Corkman brought aboard Gerry McAvoy on bass, and Wilgar Campbell on drums, and with his brother Donal managing, Rory Gallagher set out to fulfill his dreams.


I went to see him whenever I could. Can you imagine what he meant to young Irish people still trapped in the dregs of Éamon de Valera’s dated dreams?


With the North of Ireland going up in the smoke, we had little to cheer for, but we had Rory, and he was the best Blues Rock guitarist/singer in the universe.


Every year he came home and played a Christmas tour. Those gigs were beyond belief.


Rory shredded his sweat-stained guitar for hours on end, and it wasn’t just for himself; he was exhorting us to go beyond ourselves, to dream big, and make sure you at least came within an ass’s roar of those dreams.


After emigrating, I saw his every New York gig, from the Bottom Line to opening for Rod Stewart in arenas and demolishing him.


Rory gave every iota of himself onstage. Rodney just seemed to be having a bad night after the young Corkman had scorched his stage.


To get to the heart of Rory’s demise would take more than a column, suffice it to say, the road is a monster, sooner or later it forces you to confront your demons, and no one escapes without scars.


You’ll never get a chance to see Ireland’s greatest musician now, but you can still experience him.


The next time you’re feeling a little low play Rory’s Live in Europe album – it might be 50 years old but it will shake the cobwebs from your soul and bring a huge smile to your face, with only the hint of a tear when you conside what might have been.