Monday, 22 May 2023

Inishowen Peninsula and Memories of a Rathmines Landlady

 Pierce Turner and I used to share a flat in an old town house in Rathmines, Dublin. Once very upscale, the area had fallen on hard times and was disparagingly known as Culchieland.


On a recent visit I found Rathmines had more or less reverted to its original patrician state. Our house at 15 Belgrave Square, once a warren of rooms teeming with refugees from Wexford, Kerry, and Kiltimagh was once again a one-family home.


I wondered what had become of the communal bathroom, dominated by a large gas meter into which you inserted shillings in the foreboding presence of the landlady, before taking your allotted weekly bath. Let me hasten to assure all prudes that this virtuous senior citizen departed before one disrobed.


All gone now, even our local, the Hideaway Pub, where my friends and I murdered copious pints of foaming Smithwicks.


Our set was entirely composed of bogmen, though we did tolerate a number of nihilistic young ladies who risked reputation and much else by associating with us.


We were a rambunctious crowd and banned from many establishments, though we were far from aggressive. The only one who had ever engaged in fisticuffs was my brother, Jimmy, who had his nose rearranged in an argument with a rickshaw driver in Singapore during his short-lived nautical career. 


He resides in Breezy Point now, and as far as I can gather is more than welcome in all saloons on that sedate, gated Rockaway community.


Lest I digress further, I’m writing this particular column because I had a eureka moment in bed one recent morning. I might add that the moment, such as it was, had nothing to do with my ex-landlady who supervised the heating of my bathwater back in Rathmines.


It did, however, pertain to a song written by Mr. Turner and myself in those heady days of the early 70’s.

This lost classic was called Inishowen Peninsula and was inspired by a gig Pierce did in Culdaff while a member of the Arrows Showband – remember showbands? You played “six nights and every Sunday” as Brush Shields once declared, which at a wage of 30 pounds per week came out to roughly 4 quid a gig.


No wonder we emigrated and hit the big time at Durty Nelly’s on Kingsbridge Road and the Bells of Hell in Greenwich Village.


Turner and I could recall the melody of Inishowen Peninsula – even the chords - but the words escaped us.


Hence, the recent eureka moment! I bolted up in bed, heart pounding, the fog of half a century and the damage done by thousands of pints had dissipated; I was suddenly back in Rathmines gazing at Turner, his long brown hair cascading down his shoulders as we recorded the song into a gleaming new Grundig tape recorder.


I sprinted to my laptop as the forgotten words poured forth. Acres of undisturbed memory seemed to be available at my fingertips? Would this be a whole new beginning or might I die of shame? 


Alas it was but a fleeting moment, but Turner & Kirwan of Wexford, once described as “the hottest thing since Cain and Abel,” may do a reunion gig in New York City in 2024 to support the re-release of our meisterwork, Absolutely & Completely. 


In the meantime, here’s to Culdaff, Rathmines, spinster landladies who oversaw weekly baths, and all the things young emigrants leave behind.


On the Inishowen Peninsula

There is a man who doesn’t know who I am

Or how I plan to go there on my honeymoon

With the sun of June

And Paulie’s collie doggie who we normally call Moon

Will come soon,

Will come thatchers

In from the pastures

On a sunny kind of winter’s day


I saw him stroll across the bog

Separating fog and calling out the name of his dog

Who must be soggy and so wet

Where have our souls met

On a sunny kind of winter’s day


Birds sing in the treetops on a sunny kind of winter’s day

And life was so priceless before he went away


He fell off the edge of Ireland so the papers say

Someone saw a something floating out to sea

Or could it be he in Culdaff

Who’ll have the last laugh

On a sunny kind of winter’s day


Birds sing in the treetops on a sunny kind of winter’s day

And life was so priceless before he went away...

Saturday, 6 May 2023

Linked Forever Rory and Phil

They are often linked together by nationality, era, and musical intensity, yet it would be hard to think of two personalities less alike than Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynott.

Rory was shy and retiring, and often seemed uncomfortable even at parties thrown in his honor.

That’s how I first met him in Dublin.  I was a teenage fan and could barely believe he was standing 20 feet away from me.

I could tell he was checking me out too, which was mindboggling as in those days I was at least as shy as he was.

He walked hesitantly towards me and inquired in his gentle Cork accent if I was driving home that night.  When my jaw dropped he realized he had the wrong person.

Almost stuttering, he informed me that I looked like someone from Cork City, and he had been hoping I might give him a lift home.

And with that he was gone, off to bum a lift from someone else, leaving me with the notion that I should steal a car, drive him to Cork, and to hell with the consequences.

I was much more familiar with Phil Lynott, but then so was everyone who lived in Dublin in the early 1970’s.

Phil was the most charismatic person I’ve ever met, and perhaps the most ambulatory, for he always seemed to be walking, this mixed-race, handsome young man with the Crumlin accent that could rip paint off the walls.

Everyone on the music scene shared his ups and down: we rejoiced when he was hired by Skid Row and despaired when he was fired soon thereafter. I was on chatting acquaintance with him for years, which didn’t make me special, because Philo would have talked to the wall - and probably did.

You’ve no idea of the impact Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey in the Jar had on Irish youth. That wonderful trio of Phil on bass, Eric Bell on guitar, and Brian Downey on drums, shook the living daylights out of the old traditional song, ripped up BBC’s Top of the Pops, and changed Ireland forever.

Rory made it big before Lizzy, of course, and had already been hailed by Hendrix as the greatest living guitarist. But Rory didn’t give a fiddler’s about stardom. He would have been thrilled to be called the greatest Delta Bluesman; but that wasn’t likely unless he’d have settled for the River Lee Delta.

Rory had made his own pact with the devil, much like the great Robert Johnston 50 years earlier at a Mississippi crossroads.

And it showed! When he hit the stage it was probably the closest I’ve experienced to real religion; the man from Cork, by way of Ballyshannon, had that rare power to make you feel totally alive, out of your head, and spiritually uplifted, all at the same time.

Mr. Lynott’s elixir was of a different kind. He too believed in the redemptive power of rock ‘n’ roll, but he was also totally aware of everything going on around him. Let one of his players drop the intensity for a millisecond and you could hear him berating the offender over the din. Phil demanded 120%, and for the most part he got it.

I never totally bought into the Thin Lizzy dual-guitar playing spectacle, it always seemed a bit contrived, and though Gary Moore was a six-string wizard, nothing compared to the raw Irish passion of the early Phil/Eric/Brian trio.

How did it all fall apart? That comes with the intensity of the music game – you have to live it to totally understand the pressure. Booze is always free, substances are rarely far behind, and prescribed medications complicate everything.

You’re living life at hyper-speed, often far from home, and though there’s always company and acclaim, you can be achingly lonely and stretched to the limit.

Rory lived longer than Phil, but he began drinking later in life.  So many years have passed but I wish they were both alive and garnering some of the joy they still give the rest of us.

Still, they left behind a tremendous musical legacy, and right now I could use a shot of Whiskey in the Jar followed by a chaser of Messin’ With The Kid.

Turn the volume up to 11 and take a taste yourself!

Wednesday, 19 April 2023

It's Never Too Late For Iraq - and so much else

How will history judge us, I wondered while listening to Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration, as he looked back on the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq?


Wolfowitz had learned few lessons; in his closeted view, Saddam Hussein was a dangerous man, and the universe was better off without him.


At best you could say Wolfowitz, a noted American political scientist and diplomat, was guilty of only viewing the world through a prism of his own choosing.


We continue to be haunted by his ilk, those who seek to foist their own particular reality upon the rest of us. Our guilt is that we allow them to do so.


Why do I single out Wolfowitz from the other three architects of America’s greatest foreign policy debacle? Well, I have little doubt that Donald Rumsfeld is still arguing his case with St. Peter at the gates of heaven, having departed this mortal coil back in 2021.


Can you ever forget his smarmy self-satisfaction as he guided us through nights of “shock and awe,” exulting over the precision bombing of Baghdad – never mentioning that innocent civilians were dying in this obscene, videogame-like barrage.


Not a word did we hear from Vice-President Richard Cheney, the main architect of this “war on terror.” 


Unlike Rumsfeld, Mr. Cheney always knew when to duck back into the shadows and let retired military experts whitewash the carnage.


As for President Bush, nowadays he paints pictures down in Texas and apparently sleeps like a log at night, no second thoughts needed.


After all, barely 4500 American service people died in this useless war, roughly 10% of those who perished in that other noble overseas crusade, Vietnam.


There have been many public mea culpas since the end of the Vietnam disaster, but on the 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion not a word of apology was to be heard, though the official cause of the war - Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction - has long ago been disproved.


Needless to say there was little mention of the estimated 400,000 Iraqis killed, and the many millions displaced.


What of the damage done to our own people who served over there? Well, hey thanks for your service, guys, and what a shame those ungrateful Iraqis never appreciated all you went through on their behalf! 


But it’s way deeper than that. Our institutions have suffered, there’s now a general mistrust of government, we loathe our politicians, and much of it dates back to our Iraqi misadventure.


This, by the way, is not a partisan screed. President Biden and Senator Clinton both voted to authorize the invasion. In fact, I believe Mrs. Clinton would have been president by now if she’d made a stand against the invasion. 


I have little doubt either that Donald Trump would still be a reality TV star had we allowed United Nations sanctions to successfully continue restraining Saddam Hussein.


Contrary to his usual revisionism, Mr. Trump did not immediately come out against the war; still he was yards ahead of Mr. Biden and Mrs. Clinton.


But talk about foisting his unique reality upon us, President Trump has since unleashed a base of distorted prism gazers to whom even he must serve. Uncharacteristically, the man rarely demands credit for his greatest achievement, Operation Warp Speed that facilitated the creation of the Covid-19 vaccine. 


Why ever won’t you take a bow, Mr. President, afraid it might rattle your base?


Unfortunately, the furor over Mr. Trump’s NYC arraignment may allow Jerome Powell and the other Federal Reserve commissioners to turn a booming economy, with historically low unemployment rates, into a recession.


This unelected body of patrician bankers and academics refuses to even consider other methods of taming inflation except by upping interest rates.


Temporary wage/price controls, sales and income tax increases, and other economic restraints are not even given an airing.


Accordingly, your job – but not theirs – may soon be on the line, for you have had the temerity to gain wage increases that impinge upon corporate profits, the sole barometer of wellbeing in this economy.


A bleak view of the world, perhaps, but it’s never too late to apologize for a gross military misadventure 20 years ago, or to prevent an undemocratic stampede into an unnecessary recession.

Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Fading Whispers of 1847

 Have you ever been down to the Irish Hunger Memorial on Vesey and North End Avenue in New York City? It’s a place unto itself. 


I live within walking distance and often drop by. It’s a little piece of home: an overgrown garden, as it were, seeded from grasses and plants particular to Ireland. 


It’s a way of measuring and taking stock of the seasons, plus you get a sense of how things are looking in Kerry or Antrim, Wexford or Donegal. To someone who makes a home in the concrete canyons of Manhattan, even the weeds look good down there.


The stones too are from Ireland, some of them fashioned into a symbolic deserted cottage, abandoned by the millions who exited a ruined country back in the mid 19th Century.


“The best left,” my mother and grandfather used to sarcastically mutter about some skinflint local customer, when they’d finally written off a debt unpaid for one of their headstones.


The most desperate - or enterprising - did emigrate, and from atop this site, in the shadow of the Freedom Tower, you can see where many of them landed in bustling New York City.


What hopes they must have had after their storm-tossed voyages on tiny coffin ships from the west coast of Ireland, or in the steerage of more stately vessels from the port of Liverpool.


Though I visit this memorial to summon memories of the fields and hills of Ireland, it’s only a matter of time before I hear their dispossessed voices.


At first I ignore their gathering whispers and gaze out at the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the pristine towers of Jersey City. 


The huge cranes of Bayonne are mere specks in the distance, but occasionally a cruise liner will pass by carrying thousands of revelers on well-earned vacations. They wave anonymously, cocktails in hand, brave people willing to be cooped up with each other so soon after the ravages of Covid.


But the dispossessed voices continue to have their say: when they landed 175 years ago, drained from sea-sickness, and listless from a diet of moldy bread and brackish water, they were suspect too.


Fever, typhus, and smallpox, as much as hunger, had killed their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers back in Ireland. Were they still infected, these unwelcome immigrants, would they pass on their hidden diseases to god-fearing, decent Americans?


The wind is ever shifting on the banks of the Hudson; sometimes, you get a whiff of the ocean from out beyond the Verrazano Bridge, or the tempting fragrance of fried food from a vendor on Vesey Street.


What smells the “Famine Irish” must have experienced in their first minutes in America.


There was nothing pristine about the Manhattan dockland where sailing vessels from Europe, New England, the cotton-growing South, and the Caribbean jostled for space.


Ship chandlers and various suppliers called out their wares, and thousands offered themselves for hire - you sank or swam in this haven of fetid America.


What a shock it must have been to the senses! Pete Hamill once told me that the average Irish immigrant saw more people in their first hour in New York than they had encountered in their whole lives back in Ireland.


How did they handle the noise, the hustle, and the hassle, a rural people with little or no education, beaten down by landlords, and finally betrayed by the very earth they depended on for their diet of precious potatoes?


To say they were hated and despised by American nativists and Know-Nothings would be an understatement. And in an awful way it’s understandable, for modern America has lost patience with the hordes of refugees arriving from other broken countries.


In 20 years, hundreds of thousands of Irish swarmed across the small city of New York, begging, striving, and willing to do practically anything to feed themselves and their families.


Somehow or other they survived and eventually thrived, and there’s barely a trace left of the hardship and misery these desperate people experienced back in those disastrous days of Black ’47. 


But if you listen closely, you’ll catch the fading whisper of their voices as you wind your way out through the familiar plants and grasses, and deserted stones of the Irish Hunger Memorial down on Vesey Street and North End Avenue.

Friday, 24 March 2023

The She-Trinity of Irish-American Radicalism

 Back in 1969 when Bernadette Devlin outraged conservative Irish-America with her socialist views and support for African-American civil rights, did she inspire memories of three women with similar convictions?


I often think of them as the she-trinity of Irish-American radicalism: Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (The Rebel Girl), and Margaret Sanger.


Though allies and sometimes friends, each ploughed their own furrow. Two things did unite them – a bedrock belief in the dignity of humanity, and membership of the Wobblies (International Workers of the World).


Mary G. Harris (Jones) emigrated from Cork to Canada in her early teens. She became a schoolteacher and took up a position in Michigan, but chafed under religious authority and quit.


In Memphis she married George Jones, an ironworker and union official, and raised a family with him. 


We would probably have heard no more of her if yellow fever hadn’t struck Memphis, killing Mr. Jones and their four young children.


Never speaking about her loss, she moved to Chicago where she started a successful dressmaking firm. But in 1871 the Great Fire destroyed much of her business.


This galvanized her and she threw herself into union activities; because of her militancy and courage when facing down bosses, militias, and strikebreaking thugs, she became known as “the most dangerous woman in America.”


When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was taken as a child to one of Mother Jones’ rallies she was overcome by the power and presence of this diminutive Cork woman. 


Flynn was born in Concord, NH to an Irish-speaking mother from Co. Galway and an Irish-American father with Mayo roots.


They moved to the South Bronx in 1900, and when she was fifteen the Rebel Girl gave her first public speech on “What Socialism Will Do For Women.”


She would become one of the greatest orators of her time and a tireless fighter for workers rights and freedom of expression.


A close friend of both James Connolly and Big Jim Larkin, she rallied thousands of immigrant workers and their sweatshop-employed children in Lawrence MA during the successful Bread and Roses campaign for better wages and conditions.


Margaret Louise Higgins (Sanger) was born in Corning NY in 1879 to Irish immigrant parents. Not unusual for those days, her mother, Anne Purcell-Higgins, conceived 18 times, with only 11 children surviving before she died at age 49.


Margaret became a nurse practitioner at White Plains Hospital. Though she suffered from recurring tuberculosis she worked as a visiting nurse in Lower East Side slums and became active in the Socialist Party and the Wobblies.


Along with Gurley Flynn during the Bread and Roses campaign, she organized the evacuation of immigrant children from Lawrence to homes in New York and Philadelphia where they would be fed and cared for by sympathetic families. 


On Feb. 24th, 1912 at Lawrence railway station, mothers and children were bludgeoned by police and state militia. This led to a national outcry and the eventual settlement of the strike on favorable terms to the workers.


Inspired by her mother’s experience Margaret Sanger had great sympathy for women who underwent frequent childbirth that often led to miscarriage.


The Comstock Act of 1873 and other anti-obscenity laws forbade access to contraceptive information, and Sanger realized that fundamental social change could never occur until women were freed from the burden of unwanted pregnancies.


In 1914 she published The Woman Rebel, a newsletter that promoted contraception, and challenged the federal anti-obscenity laws that forbade the spreading of information about “birth control,” a term she and her associates coined.


She was indicted and, rather than risk jail, she fled the US for Britain.


She returned unrepentant in 1916 and, with her sister Ethel Byrne, opened the first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. They were arrested for breaking a law that forbade the distribution of contraceptives.


While imprisoned, Byrne went on hunger strike and was the first American woman to be force-fed. There would be many battles before contraception was finally legalized in the US through the 1965 Griswold v Connecticut Supreme Court Case. Her work finally completed, Margaret Louise Higgins Sanger died a year later.


The she-trinity is largely forgotten now, at a time when immigrant children are still being unlawfully employed, and reproductive rights are again under threat in the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free.

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

CBGB and the first band to play there

For years I couldn’t bear to pass by the John Varvatos store on The Bowery. My psychic alarm bells would go off when I was within a couple of blocks of this high-end clothing emporium.

It wasn’t that I disliked his threads, but Mr. Varvatos had set up shop on sacred ground – CBGB.

I’m told he has done a decent job of preserving the original inner faƧade, but there’s something way too dichotomous about the pairing for me.

CBGB was a dark, cavernous hole-in-the-wall. It originally had a pool table down the back, around which lay a couple of hairy dogs from the greater greyhound family that the owner, Hilly Crystal, claimed to be Egyptian Temple Hounds.

On a number of occasions while humping in our gear, I trod on these sleeping sentinels who scared the bejaysus out of me with their aggrieved yelping.

You see Turner & Kirwan of Wexford was the first band to play CBGB – a little known fact in music history.

Don’t even bother disputing me, for we played opening night. This occurred because the original CBGB (Country, Bluegrass, and Blues) sat opposite The Bells of Hell in the West Village.

Though barely a year in the country, T&K were drawing big crowds to the back room of the Bells.

Hilly and his wife Karen often caught our jam-packed last sets, after long lonely nights bemoaning their own empty seats.

On one such occasion Hilly informed me that he was closing the original CBGB and transferring the moniker to his ramshackle Hells Angels hangout on The Bowery; and would we be kind enough to play for the grand opening and bring along our following?

This we did and it was a hell of a night for everyone, except the two Egyptian Temple Hounds. So, Hilly proposed a weeknight residency. I informed him that we were having great success in The Bronx with “Bartender Night;” hence, it was arranged we would try that tack on Mondays at CB’s.

Alas, after some trouble from the residents of the skid row hotel upstairs, bartenders - and our following - stayed away, until the only ones in attendance were our girlfriends, the Temple Hounds, and Hilly.

When our girlfriends finally declined to show, we “fibbed” to Hilly that we were returning to Ireland for an extended vacation, and thus ended our residency.

Lo and behold, soon thereafter, Patti Smith, Television, and other local bands began residencies, punk was born, and Turner & Kirwan of Wexford had made another bad career decision.

Hilly eventually forgave us and we played there sporadically, but we’d missed the punk express, and our only success in CB’s is that we seem to have been the only band banned, for an incident better forgotten.

But oh what memories! Hilly was a somewhat odd and taciturn man but a good friend. Being in his company was akin to meditating. We rarely spoke, just stood there, watching the great and awful without passing comment.

Hilly felt that every band deserved a shot, as long as they played original music. I don’t think he really liked punk music, but what talent he uncovered.

Television was by far the best band to grace that hallowed stage. Tom Verlaine, who recently passed away, was a brilliant guitarist, and most of us aspiring superstars were influenced by his unique vocal style.

The initially awkward Talking Heads got better each night. While standing at a urinal next to David Byrne in the most graffitied bathroom on this planet, I once inquired, “What kind of music are you guys playing?”

To which he replied, “We’re trying to sound like everyone else, we’re just not very good.”

I could write a book on The Ramones, while Debbie Harry of Blondie was our Marilyn.

On closing night Oct. 15, 2006, Hilly told me he was moving the joint lock, stock, barrel and toilets to Vegas.

He didn’t look well, but we settled into our usual meditative trance while watching Patti Smith weave her magic onstage.

“Why did I ban you, Larry?” He inquired out of nowhere.

“Long story, Hilly, I’ll tell you another time.”

He nodded that this might not be a bad idea.

He died the following year. I miss his unique taciturnity, and I do everything possible to avoid walking past his divine palace of punk.

Saturday, 25 February 2023

Brendan Behan Revisited


Brendan Behan would have celebrated his 100th birthday a couple of weeks back if he’d stayed alive. But that was hardly on the cards for a hell-raising, working class writer from Dublin with a drinking problem.


Rarely has legend so obscured an artist; you have to wonder why? Well, Behan was larger than life, and in the incestuous, competitive world of Dublin letters he was considered to have jumped the queue. 


The fact that he had left school at 14 to become a house painter didn’t help, for Ireland in the 1950s was more class conscious than Calcutta, and Brendan was most definitely from the wrong side of town.


From this distance it’s often hard to distinguish the man from the fumes of alcohol that seem to swirl around him.


Drinker he was, but one who dealt with undiagnosed diabetes for much of his life. It’s also conveniently unmentioned that he often went “on the dry” for long stretches. 


But make no mistake Brendan Behan was a first class writer who turned out two successful Broadway plays and one of the best coming of age memoirs in literature. Try achieving what he did in his 41 years either on or off the bottle – it’s close to impossible. 


Oddly enough, Mr. Behan is now far more appreciated in the world of music than theatre. He was an authentic rebel in word and deed, and that counts for a lot in the realm of Celtic Rock - not to mention he wrote The Auld Triangle.


While Shane MacGowan never aped Behan, the Dubliner’s influence informed the Pogues singer. And why not, North Side Brendan learned his Gaeilge in jail and delved deep into the “hidden Ireland” of seanchaĆ­ and bard long before Shane.


It’s hard to understand the man without an appreciation of his Republican roots and beliefs. Behan was an actual rebel who longed for a 32-County Gaelic Republic, hence his attempt to blow up the Liverpool docks during World War II. 


He spent 7 years of his short life in British jails and Irish internment camps for his troubles. Those lost years undoubtedly damaged the man and his psyche. 


I first heard of him while listening to the BBC news with my grandparents. Brendan had been arrested for outrageous behavior in Toronto. To which my granny muttered, “That fellah should be ashamed of himself, making a show of the country abroad.”


Though I wasn’t even a teenager I took note of his name. Anyone who could shake up a calcified Ireland ruled by the church and de Valera was fine by me.


His two successful plays, though enormously influential in their day, are rarely performed now. Though there can be a slap-dash quality to them, yet a mighty heart beats within. Set in Mountjoy Jail, The Quare Fellow played a major part in the banning of capital punishment in Ireland and the UK.


While The Hostage (adapted from his own An Giall) was way ahead of its time, as was Behan. In those puritan days of the 1950s Behan dealt openly with homosexuality - his flamboyant Princess Grace in The Hostage was undoubtedly the first black queer character to grace Irish theatre.


Although barely a footnote in Broadway history now, Brendan was a friend and rival of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Norman Mailer. He is often credited with introducing the hip Alan Ginsberg to uptown audiences, and a young Bob Dylan was so enamored he trailed the Irishman around Greenwich Village hoping for a word.


Though drink and diabetes delivered the fatal blow, fame killed Brendan Behan. His need for it was deep-seated and originated in a deprived working class Dublin background. Anything to stand out from the crowd was acceptable to Behan; the fact that critics wrote about him was more important than what they said.


A proud man, and the voice of his class and political faction, he was never less than aware that in his later years his talent for writing was slipping away, yet he still longed to be the center of attention.


Now that we have passed the centenary of his birth, perhaps we’ll be able to re-evaluate this ever-popular poet of the people, and excavate the man and writer from the shambles of his myth and legend.