Friday 19 June 2009

Ryan Commission

The interesting thing about the Ryan Commission’s disclosures on child abuse is not the outrage - well merited – but the shock proclaimed by so many people from President McAleese to the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Martin.
Were they truly living in the same country that I grew up in? My surprise is that only 1700 people testified about their mistreatment in the various institutions. I can only surmise that many chose not to reopen old wounds.
How can anyone who attended Irish primary schools up to the mid 1970’s ever forget the rampant debilitating corporal punishment? To believe that such abuse was not taken to a higher level behind the cloistered walls of industrial schools, reformatories and orphanages is surely disingenuous.
Perhaps one should exempt President McAleese, raised in the North of Ireland where Stormont, for all its faults, apparently did not tolerate this level of physical and sexual abuse. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the Republic where successive governments ceded control of most schools to the Catholic Church.
That being said the current brush of retribution is too heavily tarred, what with everyone and their mother now scurrying for the higher ground of inflated shock and moral indignation. I was educated by the Christian Brothers for ten years and though I did encounter the occasional termagant, for the most part they were decent, humane men who did their best to impart a sound education under difficult circumstances.
Most of the sadistic beatings that I personally witnessed were meted out by young lay primary teachers, trained and certified by the Department of Education whose roving inspectors, at the least, tolerated extreme corporal punishment. Almost every teacher possessed a “leather” – a thick supple strap designed to raise blisters on juvenile hands; yet even that instrument of torture was preferable to the ubiquitous 36” wooden ruler, with which I once saw a boy’s head “split.”
Of course, there were many fine lay teachers too, compassionate men who gave their all to the students. The brutalization I speak of, incidentally, was not in general doled out for disciplinary problems but for failure to memorize facts and figures. Children with dyslexia, or what we now call attention deficit disorder, were particular targets.
The fact is we are all responsible for what went on in the few perverted reformatories and industrial schools, for as a society we chose to tolerate extreme and unwarranted corporate punishment while ignoring the rumors of abuse that periodically circulated regarding certain institutions.
But could you blame us? These industrial schools and orphanages were under the domain of the all powerful Church and we had been brought up to unequivocally obey its dictates, as had politicians, teachers, officials of the Department of Education and the clergy themselves.
The bishops issued edicts from their “palaces,” and for the most part individual priests like my uncle, a Columban Father, were foot soldiers who danced to their tune.
The bishop set the tone for his dioceses. Some were good and wise men, but their cardinal dictate was that Holy Mother Church be proved infallible and spared any scandal. Predators were discreetly transferred, rarely disciplined and never exposed.
In the end modernity caught up with Ireland, courageous people finally spoke out, and the clerical sex abuse scandals of the last twenty years were uncovered. People may have been shocked at the sheer extent of cover-up and criminal Episcopal negligence, but the truth is that this conduct was an open sore that could have been viewed at any time, if the blinkers had been lifted.
The damage is horrendous, beyond all rationale, and unfortunately it can never be undone. Yet, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve known many priests, nuns and brothers, who have sacrificed much and done wonders for the world. In this rush to “shocked” judgment, it would be the cruelest blow if these outstanding people were to be tarred by the same brush as the small minority of termagants and perverts.
I, for one, received a sound education from the Christian Brothers, and good counsel in tough times from many the priest, brother and sister. In their time of trouble we should take care to look out for them, for they were there for us when we had sore need of them.

Thursday 11 June 2009

The Five Points

“Do you remember back in the Five Points
When the fire was in the air
The streets were hot as the hob of hell
The bodies was everywhere
Old Johnny jumped up on a burnin’ plank
And roared out to the sky
I didn’t come here to America to give up the ghost and die…”

The Five Points was the original melting pot – the first claw grip on the new world for many Irish immigrants. Already a force in downtown Manhattan by the 1830’s, they poured into its dismal streets during the years of the Great Hunger.
Set in the heart of the “Ould Sixth Ward,” the Five Points got its name from a confluence of three streets and five corners. You can even stand on the exact site at the intersection of Worth and Baxter but it would be hard to summon up the old throbbing vitality of life, for most of its seedy lanes and alleys are now covered by the courthouses of Foley Square and Chinatown’s Columbus Park.
But the spirit and influence of the Five Points live on. One could argue that the area spawned the election of our first black president, for it was in the Five Points that the newly arrived Irish cohabited with the entrenched African-American population - the first voluntary large-scale racial integration in American history.
Common law marriages between Africans and Irish were far from a rarity in the Points. This, allied with the general squalor, alcoholism and poverty greatly appalled Charles Dickens on his visit to the “world’s most dangerous slum.”
The great novelist and reformer, however, was enchanted by the music and dancing that he encountered in Pete William’s saloon where he witnessed the precursor of tap dancing as Irish jiggers competed with African shufflers. In fact, Master Juba, the first internationally recognized tap-dancer honed his chops in the Points during “challenge dances” with Irish John Diamond. Eventually, each man would receive the astronomical fee of $500 for their contests at the nearby Bowery and Chatham Theatres.
The music created by African and Irish players who performed for integrated audiences in Five Points’ saloons has been cited as a root of Jazz and Rock & Roll. That doesn’t surprise me for while forming Black 47 we were aware of Dickens’ account of Irish/African music collaboration – one of the reasons we set jigs and reels to hip-hop rhythms. Songs like Funky Ceili and Rockin’ The Bronx were echoes of those dancing days and carousing Five Points’ nights.
Dickens made much of the area’s poverty and turmoil, yet he overlooked the industriousness of its inhabitants. From child match-sellers and corn-on-the-cob hawkers, to mothers taking in washing and sowing, and fathers day jobbing, the Irish dragged themselves up from near destitution. One only has to check the records of The Emigrant Savings Bank to find that recently arrived Five Pointers saved diligently for eventual escape and a better life for their children.
As in every group there were good and bad, and the rioting that spread from the Points during the anti-Draft Riots of 1863 will always be a stain on our heritage. History however, is rarely black and white, and one should always factor in the prevailing conditions that led to such outbursts.
Within a generation, the Irish had organized and taken political control of the Sixth Ward and in 1880 they helped elect the first Irish Catholic Mayor of New York, William R. Grace.
There is no particular monument to the Five Points or its inhabitants, but on this coming Friday, June 12th in a night that will be “more Paddy than Patrick,” Shilelagh Law and Black 47 will celebrate these forgotten people during the Five Points FĂ©ile at the Knitting Factory on nearby Leonard Street ( Amidst a raucous hooley, if you listen closely enough you may hear this echo from across the years:

“I didn’t come here to America across the raging foam
To die like a slave in a pigsty, I came here to find a home
Where I could live in dignity, hold me head up high
So don’t go messin’ with me or me family
Or I’ll blow these Five Points to the sky.”

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Remember The Alamo

“A hundred and eighty were challenged by Travis to die
By a line that he drew with his sword as the battle drew nigh
A man that crossed over the line was for freedom
And he that was left better fly
Then over the line crossed a hundred and seventy nine
Hey up Santa Anna, they’re killing your soldiers below
So the rest of Texas may know
And remember the Alamo.”

I was singing that song the night we blazed down Route 66 past the exit to Shamrock, Texas; I still wonder how my life would have turned out if we’d pulled off.
That was back in a more fluid time when solid citizens trusted agencies to deliver their cars to the far reaches of the country. Just go to a bustling little office in Times Square, brandish a driver’s license, and they’d toss you the keys of a Caddy, or in this case, a brand new Audi.
And so, along with a friend, who for discretion’s sake we’ll call the Taxi driver, I set off for San Francisco one frigid December evening. So what, you might inquire, were we doing way down on Route 66? Suffice it to say that the motoring skills of NYC taxi drivers do not translate well to interstate highways.
We hadn’t even made it past the Poconos before we skidded on black ice and jack-knifed into a tractor-trailer. The Audi, as you might imagine, fared badly in this encounter, and to add insult to injury, we were detained for reckless driving. After our release, we hit a blizzard in Indiana and, upon consideration of our luck thus far, thought better of crossing the Rockies in a battered jalopy that was losing more oil than an Iraqi pipeline.
And so we headed south on an alternate route through the Lone Star State, although, to be honest, I needed little excuse to visit Texas - mythical country for a kid who haunted Wexford’s Abbey Cinema. In short, I wanted to see the Alamo; not to mention that a spin down Route 66 was as important to a rock & roller as a visit to the Vatican by a country curate.
Besides, my seafaring father had shipped out of Texas City to work the oilrigs in the Gulf of Mexico and intimated in no uncertain terms that Texans were the friendliest and most generous people in the world. He slyly winked at me when my mother wasn’t looking, leading me to believe that Texan ladies were not without their charms either.
Well, we never made it to the Alamo though we were greeted with open arms everywhere, particularly when the taxi driver let it be known that I was a long lost kinsman of Hugo O’Connor, the first governor of Texas. A little exaggeration, perhaps, but this discreetly dropped nugget literally and figurative raised spirits in the grandest of saloons and the humblest of cantinas.
Now maybe Shamrock is no great shakes but on that wintry night as the taxi driver was putting pedal to metal, the very name summoned up visions of big flowing pints and plates of corn-beef and cabbage. Who knows, if we had stopped I might still be ensconced there - the proprietor of my own saloon. The taxi driver, no doubt, would be operating his own car service, we’d both have accents the like of JR, and be living in bliss with a couple of beautiful cowgirls.
Fantasy or not, it would have been far preferable to our immediate fate. For some miles down the pike, the taxi driver flipped a lit cigarette out into the frigid night. Unbeknownst to us, it reentered our opened back window. Soon thereafter the back seat went up in flames, putting the final nail in the Audi’s coffin.
Let’s just say that I did not grace Texas with my presence for some time after this fiasco. Nonetheless, I never lost my fascination for the Lone Star State and someday I hope to hit the stage at the North Texas Irish Festival where I’m told over 60,000 Celts whoop it up every March.
I’m sure there’ll be some Shamrockers amongst them, maybe even a cowgirl or two denied me by fate and a New York City taxi driver on a frigid December night. Until then…Remember the Alamo!