Thursday 30 December 2010

New Year's Eve in Olde Tymes Square

Tickets on sale at until 6pm tonight and all day at Connolly’s, 121 W. 45th St., NYC 212-597-5126

What a long strange trip over the last decade or so. We began 2000 with Trouble in the Land – pretty prophetic when all is said and done, and this year we released Bankers and Gangsters - the title says it all.

For Mychal, Richie and the other cherished fans who departed back in 2001; for Strummer, Danno Laursen, Johnny Byrne, Big John Murphy and all those who worked with the band; for the many who have celebrated New Year’s Eve with us over the last 21 years; and, of course, for new friends who’ve come aboard in this decade, thanks to all of you for your support and friendship.

We only perform this song once a year and as far as I know it's only available on the Connolly’s Live in Times Square DVD. But tonight it’s just for you, so feel free to come along and video or audio tape it at midnight.

New Year’s Eve in Olde Tymes Square

It was always that way at the end of the year
We’d end up down in olde Tymes Square
Holdin’ each other while the pints flowed free
That was the way it always would be
But things fell apart one weird September
Before I knew it was the 31st of December
With my arms wrapped around your memory
That old crystal ball came crashin’ down on me

But you will never be forgot
Or ever left behind
And so I raise my glass to you
For the sake of Auld Lang Syne

And even though you’re far away
You’re always close to mind
Your memory still haunts me, dear
For the sake of Auld lang Syne

For Auld Lang Syne, my dear
For Auld Lang Syne
We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet
For the sake of Auld Lang Syne

Remember the night with the frost in your hair
And the sparks in your eyes when you told me you cared
And the cop on the horse laughed when he said
“Motel time, kids, why don’t yez save it for bed?”
But time and a river stopped dead in September
And I’m back in Connolly’s the 31st of December
Dancing with shadows and might have beens
With that old crystal ball crashin’ down on me

But you will never be forgot
Or ever left behind
And so I raise my glass to you
For the sake of Auld Lang Syne

And even though you’re far away
You’re always close to mind
Your memory still haunts me, dear
For the sake of Auld lang Syne

For Auld Lang Syne, my dear
For Auld Lang Syne
We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet
For the sake of Auld Lang Syne...

Friday 24 December 2010

Christmas and the Irish American Princess (IAP)

She was my first IAP (Irish-American Princess). Well the first that I lived with at any rate. Tara had somehow made her way down to the Lower East Side from the leafy, lace-curtain environs of Westchester, although she was anything but stuck up.

Back then I had a regular Sunday gig in the less than ritzy Archway up the Bronx and she fit in there like a fist in a glove. Of course, she was quite a looker so that didn’t hurt with the lovesick Paddies. She had beautiful grayish green eyes that would mist over in any kind of conflict or passion; there was much of both in our relationship. The boys said that she could twist me around her little finger. They were right, but oh that twisting could be so sweet.

Things came easy to Tara. She had succeeded at everything she’d turned her hand to. But she wished to become a successful singer, the rock that many have foundered upon. I must have seemed like a good step up the ladder; besides gigs in the Archway and John’s Flynn’s Village Pub, I regularly strutted my stuff at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. It was to be a match made in purgatory for both of us. Whatever, as they say, I was in need of some stability and moved into her apartment on First Avenue.

I always “just missed” her parents on their visits to the city. That should have set the bells ringing but I guess when you’re in love… Actually, our first major disagreement was over my parents - when I announced I’d be spending Christmas with them in Wexford.

“Our first Christmas together?” She shuddered.

“Well, you can come too.” Although I broke into a cold sweat at the thought of telling the Mammy that we’d be bunking together in the ancestral homestead.

“I couldn’t desert my parents,” she countered as though I was sentencing her whole white-picketed clan to twenty out on Rykers.

“But what about my parents?” And on it went as lovers’ quarrels do until her eyes were so misty and beautiful I feared that her heart might indeed break

Well, I wrote my Mother a particularly tear-stained letter full of half-truths (God rest her soul, I suppose she knows the full story now). I didn’t dare telephone; I wasn’t man enough to bear two loads of womanly angst. In truth though, the part that really hurt was that I would miss the traditional Wexford boys’ night out on Christmas Eve. And so I extracted a promise from Tara that we’d at least tie on a decent substitute.

“No problem,” she said and was good to her word. She was fairly abstemious for those times but when called upon could drink like a fish with little ill effect. We bought a tree, decorated it, and strung flashing lights all around the apartment. I almost felt like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Almost! For around 7pm I slipped on my black leather jacket, she dressed up to the nines and off we strutted up First Avenue to get well and truly shellacked.

God knows how many bars we hit, I certainly don’t; but I was feeling no pain by the time we reached Max’s Kansas City. Why Max’s on Christmas Eve? Well Tara liked to make the scene, besides I knew the doorman and got in free. I was also familiar with the bartender who slid many the shot of watered-down whiskey towards us. And then, through the shroud of smoky darkness, I heard the London accent.

“Roight!” The spiky-haired ghost in black leather wearily exclaimed.

The platinum blonde next to him droned on as junkies do.

“Roight.” Sid Vicious reiterated whenever a response was expected.

I casually whispered his name to Tara.

“Oh my God!” She shrieked as though Jesus had just hopped down off the cross and offered to buy a round.

Sid looked up blearily, whereupon Tara flashed him a smile that would have done justice to Marilyn Monroe on steroids.

“The blonde looks like a piece of all right,” I countered and winked at Nancy Spungen.

“From a bottle!” Tara sniffed just as Sid laboriously hauled himself off his stool and stumbled towards the restrooms; whereupon Ms. Spungen laid her head down on the counter for a wee snooze. We were still awaiting Sid’s return when Tara looked at her watch and gasped. “It’s two minutes to twelve.”

“Expecting to turn into a pumpkin?”

“No,” she moaned, “we won’t get into St. Patrick’s!”

“What for?”

“Midnight mass, of course. What do you think?”

Was she kidding - from Max’s to matins?

When we arrived at the church off Avenue A, I could tell it wasn’t exactly what Ms. Westchester had in mind. For one thing, the priests all wore dark shades and spoke Polish. Still, the place was packed and we reverently stood in the transept beside an ornate candelabra, wax dripping from its many branches.

Perhaps, it was the heat, though it could have been Max’s watery whiskey; for one moment I was swaying, the next I was writhing on the marble floor painfully disengaging myself from a myriad of hot waxy candles. There was immediate uproar with many Eastern European ladies screaming at me, and Tara, no doubt, wishing she was safely home in leafy suburbia.

When I awoke on Christmas morning much of her extensive wardrobe was laying atop me. She was modeling a matronly gray jacket and skirt, the hem inches below her knees, damn near a foot down from its usual height. I leaped from the bed and grabbed my Doc Martens, pink shirt, and black leather tie and jacket. Unlike my dearest, I had long before settled on an outfit appropriate for my first appearance in Westchester.

“You don’t look well, baby,” she laid a cool hand on my brow and cooed, “You’re just burning up.”

I did feel as though one of those monsters from Alien was ready to hop out of my stomach but I had much experience of that condition. “No, it’s okay. I want to do this for you.”

She hemmed and hawed before blurting out the truth, “It’s my mother…she wouldn’t like you.”

“What’s there not to like?”

“Well, your clothes, for one thing. I mean, are you serious?”

And with that, the fight fled from me. I could just picture the whole clan dressed in Kelly green singing Danny Boy around a turf fire - her auld one, no doubt, peering out through her lace curtains.

Tara took me in her arms whispered that I should go back to sleep, and hinted that on her return Santa might provide some x-rated delights. But I wasn’t that easily mollified and delivered one last parting shot as the door closed behind her, “So what am I supposed to do, have Christmas dinner in an Indian restaurant?”

Well, I didn’t fall back asleep and the hangover was of the galloping nature, gaining ground all evening. But the hunger was no joke either and when I eventually sauntered up First Avenue the only places open were of the Indian persuasion. A dusting of snow was coming down as I stormed into The Taj Mahal. The lone customer didn’t even bother to look up from his book; I sat there glaring at him, cursing all cruel-hearted IAPs and wishing I was home with my Mammy in Wexford.

The snow was swirling around First Avenue and I could hear White Christmas playing as I headed back to the apartment. I turned on the blinking Christmas lights and took a couple of fierce slugs of Jameson’s whiskey, turned the Clash up to eleven and rehearsed ever more vicious and vengeful ways of breaking up with Ms. Westchester.

She must have forgotten her keys for, at first, I didn’t hear her knock above Strummer’s bawling. I strode over to the door, more fired up than any Old Testament prophet. She stood there, face flushed from the cold, snow in her hair; she was expecting my fury and accepted it with grace. She smiled gently, her grayish green eyes misting over, and I barely heard her murmur, “I missed you so much.”

She reached up and held a sprig of mistletoe over my head and kissed me as if for the first time. Then she whispered, “Merry Christmas, baby.”

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Dear President Obama

Dear President Obama,

Did you happen to get the gift I sent? I know it’s not very polite to ask and my mother, God rest her soul, is even now fuming up in heaven at my lack of manners.

It’s actually a double whammy – The Quiet American written by Graham Greene, along with a DVD of the movie inspired by the book.

I sent both because I think Michelle might like the movie; it contains “a bit of auld romance,” as they used to say in Ireland, coupled with an important message for you.

What with Wikileaks, though, I’m afraid you’ll discover that I sent the exact same present to President Bush some years back. However, some things never change.

I still think you’re doing a hell of a job on the home front - saving both the car industry and the financial system, along with making sure we can all get health insurance.

Now I don’t know whether you’ve ever read this column but I was very opposed to the war in Iraq. To tell you the truth, I’ve come to feel much the same way about the conflict in Afghanistan? I’d like to know if you honestly think that there’s a prayer of winning in this “graveyard of empire?”

What is “winning” anyway? Keeping in power a government that stole over a million votes in the last presidential elections - whose officials daily loot the treasury and are in cahoots with heroin dealers in the second most corrupt country in the world?

Many of us voted for you on strength of your commitment that troops would be drawn down in 2011 and although there are still murmurings on that score, we now find that for all intents and purposes this goalpost has been arbitrarily shifted to 2014.

Amazingly this ten-year war didn’t even raise a feather during the recent mid-term elections. Since Fox TV didn’t deem it worthy to be an issue politicians of both your party and the party of No followed suit. The tail continues to wag the dog!

And I’m more than aware that “it’s the economy, stupid!” But bad as things are, no one is getting killed over the economy. While in Afghanistan our young men and women are sacrificing their lives over meaningless piles of rubble. We are once again enmeshed in a hostile country fighting with few achievable goals.

I know you’re in a tricky situation and don’t want to be labeled “the man who lost Afghanistan.” Your upcoming presidential rivals would lambast you; but what’s a little shellacking when measured against the lives you could save?

Besides, we’ll be leaving Afghanistan as soon as it has drained us of our blood, money and idealism. Not to mention that instead of making the US safer, we’re actually doing the opposite by allowing our troops to become target practice in another civil war long after Qaeda has shifted its operations to more hospitable countries.

My final breaking point with this war came when Ahmed Zia Massoud, former Vice- President of Afghanistan and brother of Ahmed Shah Massoud, assassinated leader of the Northern Alliance, was discovered with $52 million in his possession while visiting the United Arab Emirates.

That says it all to me - there will be no Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban this time round, far better leave that unprofitable task to the innocent Yanks.

I wish you the best, Mr. President. I think you’re a decent man doing a credible job jump-starting a troubled US economy at a terrible time. But you’re dead wrong in pursuing this hopeless war in Afghanistan and those of us who railed against President Bush in Iraq make hypocrites of ourselves by turning a blind eye to your folly.

Graham Greene warned against this kind of involvement in The Quiet American. Take a read and, for God’s sake, leave a copy of the book or DVD for your successor so we can eventually break this unnecessary cycle of wars and return this country to its rightful position as the shining city on the hill.

Yours in protest, happy Christmas and all the best to you, the Missus and the girls!

Thursday 16 December 2010

Dominic & Brendan Behan

The two brothers left school at the age of thirteen to become house painters. Both ended up Irish republicans, socialists, playwrights, songwriters, memoirists, troublemakers, drinkers and many other things besides.

Brendan became a world-renowned playwright, though few today have seen his work; he is better known as an Irish boozer who lived life to the scandalous fullest.

Dominic, when recognized at all, is known best for his battle with Bob Dylan over the comparative merits of their songs, The Patriot Game and With God On Our Side.

Brendan’s star has always shone brighter but there is a case to be made that Dominic may now be the more influential.

I first became aware of this when I noticed how many versions of his songs I was playing on my SiriusXM radio show. I was long aware that he had written Patriot Game, arguably the greatest protest song. Take a listen to Liam Clancy’s mesmerizing version from Carnegie Hall in 1962.

Yet, in a testament to his tetchiness, Dominic found fault with the fact that Liam had pragmatically omitted the verse that spoke about killing policemen – small wonder when performing before an Irish-American audience.

Dominic had a reputation for being a mean drunk and could be his own worst enemy; yet one can sympathize with him over Bob Dylan lifting the tone and character of Patriot Game and recasting it as God On Our Side. We, of course, are the winners, for now we have two magnificent songs, where once there was one.

Try telling Dominic that! For years he publicly insulted Dylan with the hope of luring him into court.

But to get back to the brothers Behan, I had always assumed that The Auld Triangle from Brendan’s powerful play, The Quare Fellah, was his own song. But, lo and behold, Dominic wrote it.

The Auld Triangle continues to improve with age – take a listen to recent versions by Swell Season and Dropkick Murphys. Dominic, indeed, etched his songs in granite. His best stand up effortlessly to time and fashion, and are the equal of anything written by the great Ewan McColl, his friend and rival.

Now you may not be overly impressed with some of his other creations, The Merry Ploughboy, Come Out Ye Black & Tans, or Take it Down From the Mast, but I had always assumed these doughty standards predated him.

Still, there are few lyrics that sum up the hardship and casual heroism of the Irish emigrant experience better than McAlpine’s Fusiliers. I would go so far to say that without that song The Pogues, and Paddy Rock in general, would have been far less authentic.

And what of Brendan? Well, if you’ve never read Borstal Boy, you have a treat in store. As a very erudite gentleman once said to me, “after reading that memoir, I felt that I had missed out on an important part of my education.”

I haven’t seen his other great play, The Hostage, since Jim Sheridan directed it at the Irish Arts Center in the 80’s. Likewise, I haven’t heard of a recent production of The Quare Fellah, one of the most damning indictments of capital punishment. I wonder how both plays are standing up to the test of time.

Writers, however, wax and wane in public estimation and it often takes a director from a different generation to discover the play’s original impetus, shake it loose from the accrued calcification, and then reinterpret it in the cool light of modernity. Hopefully, that will happen to Brendan’s work soon.

Meanwhile Dominic’s star continues to ascend. Nightly, around the world, singers raise their voices in testament to his humanity, politics, biting humor, and sheer productivity. The guy wrote more than 450 songs including, it is rumored, the beautiful middle verse of Carrickfergus that begins with “They say of life and it has been written…”

Whatever their current ranking, those Behan boys didn’t do too bad for a couple of Dubs who quit school at thirteen. True, they shamed and offended many Irish people by their outlandish behavior, but in the end they affected the very way we perceive ourselves.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Connolly & the Irish Financial Crisis

Whenever I think of the current financial crisis in Ireland I’m reminded of James Connolly. The taciturn Irishman born in Scotland rarely came to mind in the giddy, gauche years of the Celtic Tiger except as a vaguely disapproving figure whose economic theories had been shown to be not only wrong but ridiculous.

And yet, the “Irish Rebell” - as the song calls him - is back with a bang.

Connolly has often been misinterpreted; then again, he was a man for many seasons. Though often characterized as a nationalist martyr who was shot in a chair, he was in fact a self-educated union leader and theorist. His overriding fear was that the bosses or cartels would unite internationally to the detriment of the workers of each country.

Though he believed in a fair shake for business owners, he mistrusted human nature when spurred on by the acquisition of profit.

He was quite prescient in foreseeing the current Irish crisis and would have been appalled at its outcome and proposed solution.

Connolly, like many trade unionists of the early 20th Century, had a great love for humanity but was wary of its grasping nature. He agreed with his comrade, Big Jim Larkin, “that the great are only great because we are on our knees.” What worried him was what would happen when we arose and began to look out for number one.

The hunger for profit, rampant consumerism and abandonment of community in modern Ireland would have been his worst nightmare, topped only by the arrival of the international bosses dictating the terms of the country’s survival and very sovereignty.

We can ill afford to tut-tut here in the US for we came within an ace of allowing our own economic system to be destroyed by a rapacious financial community.

The only difference between us is the sheer size and scale of the US economy and, unlike Ireland, our banking system is not so intricately enmeshed in all our economic dealings. Thus, though we still have the stealth bombs of failed real estate loans locked within our system, we’re buying time for our banks, and insurance and mortgage companies to make more money so that they can ultimately swallow their losses. At least, that’s the hype, and perhaps the hope.

The sheer scale of the Irish banking system’s collusion in the creation of a real estate bubble is astounding.

Property prices escalated at a ridiculous rate – shacks in Wexford were being sold for a half-million Euros – and big money flooded the country in the ceaseless drive for profit. As over here, many families only got into the hunt late in the game when prices were already inflated.

When the bubble did burst they were left stranded, along with many speculators; the wise money, of course, saw it coming, took the profit and is now betting on the Euro depreciating. Connolly’s fear has come to pass.

Sean Citizen is left holding the baby and change is on the way. Mighty Fianna Fail will be decimated. No great loss in the grand scheme of things - it had long ago cast off its green cloak of nationalism and populism for the navy pinstripes of speculators and gombeen men.

But, as my granny used to say, “things could be worse, no one got kilt!” Feathers, however, financial and otherwise, have been ruffled. Still, community is back – if only that of suffering. And a great questioning of values has begun.

The Irish will bring their banking system to heel, learn and go on from this. We, on the other hand, will do Wall Street’s bidding and further dilute our recently enacted anemic financial reform bill. The cycle of bubble and bust will continue.

The captains and the kings will call the tune, we the pawns shall dance, and Connolly will shake his baffled and disapproving head.

Monday 22 November 2010

Runrig and my father

My father never cared much for rock & roll.

He was a big band man, loved Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, that type of thing. Tango and calypso were also favorites and our house used to swing to those grooves. I daresay they reminded him of the various South American ports that he was so familiar with for he spent much of his life as a merchant marine on the London to Buenos Aires run.

We had a strange family life by most standards, much coming and going, lots of goodbyes and much expectant waiting. But children are adaptable and my father’s tipsy returns inevitably brought gifts.

Yet I was surprised when, on one such occasion, from out of his battered suitcase he handed me an LP, and muttered, “all the highland lads love this band.”

He was working on the oil rigs up in the North Sea by this time and I had left home.

The LP was by a band called Runrig, some of it sung in Scottish Gaelic. I liked the music but neglected to take the LP back to New York and over the years I forgot about the band and its music.

In one of my other gigs I host Celtic Crush for SiriusXM Satellite Radio and often encourage people to send me their favorite CDs.

Thus you could have knocked me over with a feather when a thirty-year compilation of Runrig arrived in the mail. All the memories of my father’s hellos and goodbyes came flooding back. It was like a letter from the past.

I didn’t dare play the CD at first for fear the music wouldn’t hold up. Where had Runrig been, what had they been up to? I hadn’t heard of them since that long ago day back in Wexford.

I could almost smell the old leather of my father’s suitcase, the neatly packed clothes of the sailor, the LP stored safely between them. How strange that a digital disc should bring back such strong memories of an analog era when my parents were both alive.

I need have had no worries about Runrig. The music was powerful, sophisticated, full of longing, it spoke of history and struggle, and as with all good songwriting it swept you away to a time and place of its own evoking.

It was calm and unhurried and yet the passions ran deep. The music had a certainty about itself; although the composers were masters of their craft, they had obviously made a decision early on that they would plough their own furrow, dance to their own different drummer.

The music was not unlike a mixture of Pink Floyd and The Waterboys, but that fails to do it justice for Runrig posses a unique Celtic depth.

The band has managed to infuse modern music with the soul of Scotland - not its more obvious manifestations of pipes and kilts, but the highlands that have seen the displacement of the cotters - the glens and valleys once alive with people now inhabited only by ghosts.

In five magical minutes, their song Empty Glens summonses up the pain of a displaced people; while Abhainn an t-Sluaigh speaks of a visit to London and being almost swept away by a “river of people,” all the while longing for the western islands where a man might breathe.

On their live version of Loch Lomond they’re joined by 50,000 people in Hamden Park. Sound hokey? Not at all, for eighth exhilarating minutes they take you deep into the recesses of the Celtic soul. This excursion never fails to move me - and the listeners, judging by the volume of emails.

My father never used the word - soul. It was too highfalutin and anyway he didn’t believe in such things. Yet when I listen to Runrig I find a connection to him that we often didn’t share when he was alive.

How strange that a Celtic Rock band from the Isle of Skye should furnish that link for as I said, my father never cared much for rock & roll.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Republocrats and Elvis

Though there were winners and losers in the recent election, one thing for certain, the next two years should be a blast.

Why so? Well, the Republican Party of No will now have to pull a nice plump white rabbit from its magic hat in the form of how to balance the budget and reduce the deficit while cutting everyone’s taxes and not laying a finger on defense spending or entitlements. Rock on!

Not to mention that they want to ditch the Health Insurance Bill which will actually reduce the deficit over the next ten years.

These magicians however need not hold their breath for support from the health insurance industry that, despite the occasional self-righteous squawk, is quite happy to accept the fifty million new customers the government will be consigning to its tender mercies.

Welcome to DC, you Tea-Partying Republicans, you are about to provide a valuable public service; for in your misguided attempts to eviscerate this decent piece of legislation you will actually highlight its many beneficial provisions and banish some of the lies and innuendo created by your corporate and media sponsors.

Your concern for giving a tax break to those clearing a quarter of million a year, however, is really touching especially when matched up against your unwillingness to pony up a couple of hundred bucks a week for the many unemployed who will be cut off from benefits next month.

Now I ask you who’s more likely to put their money back in the economy, a mother of four living on pasta and hope, or the Lexus owner who just might order Yankee season tickets or a Kate Spade pocketbook?

And what about the party of Bobby Kennedy and FDR? If the Democrats’ sole ambition is to become Republican Lite, you’ve hit the jackpot, guys! Few even deign to mention, let alone defend, a health insurance bill that offers broad protection to the consumer.

And how about their other accomplishments that Democrats ran from faster than any of Steve Duggan’s tips out in Belmont - the stimulus that helped avert a depression; and the bailout of banks and the car industry that not only succeeded but will eventually turn a profit for the country?

“Don’t get me started,” as Elvis warned when speaking about Lisa Marie marrying Michael Jackson.

But let’s talk about the real winners - Big Money, in its various permutations and combinations. As if it wasn’t already calling the shots in this republic, the gutting of the Feingold-McCain Act by the recent Supreme Court ruling put it firmly in the driver’s seat. With no legal need to claim credit for the ads that flooded television, the lies and negativity unleashed were positively eye-popping.

The biggest target – Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin! This decent man who bucked Democrats and Republicans alike, in league with the old John McCain – remember him - had the temerity to pass reasonable legislation on campaign donations. Well he may have got the heave ho but we’re the big losers, for Feingold was a true champion of the republic and its citizens.

Some people in the business community feel that the upcoming gridlock will be good for the country; and in the short term they may be right. Company profits are up, cash reserves high, why bother to hire new people when your current overworked employees can carry the load?

Besides, there’s bound to be a couple of scared Democrats who’ll help eviscerate the Finance Reform Bill, especially that pesky little provision that demands that derivative trading be done publicly.

Are you kidding me? The whiz kids down on Wall Street almost pulled off what Lenin and Mao never came close to doing – the destruction of American capitalism – with their unethical and irresponsible creation and trading of stealth bomb derivatives for short term gain.

The president and his party would do well to recall the mid-term elections of 1946. Had Harry Truman buckled under that defeat and dismantled the New Deal, where would we be?

Ah well, where’s my remote, time to check out Rachel Maddow’s hairstyle. The blood sport of politics is about to become interesting again.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Amram and Kerouac

The Bells of Hell was the best saloon I ever drank in.

“And that’s saying something,” nods your man up in Pearl River.

It was opened by Malachy McCourt, noted raconteur, author, scourge of Bush, Giuliani and anyone with a kind word for conservatism.

Malachy may have been long on charm and good fellowship but he definitely never gained an MBA from Harvard. In fact such were the number of slates, buybacks and general dispensing of free drinks to the needy, it’s a tribute to capitalism that the Bells was able to limp through the swinging 70’s before finally expiring in Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America 80’s.

The joint boasted only three rules: all fisticuffs to be conducted on the sidewalk, fornication and drug use confined to bathrooms and basement; and, most importantly, boring your neighbor was strictly prohibited.

This den of literary iniquity was frequented by journalists, poets, musicians, communists, noblemen, libertarians, urban farmers, refugees from the Bronx, defrocked priests and Christian brothers, an occasional bishop, many the radical nun and a healthy sprinkling of young ladies from the nearby Evangeline Residence, along with hard-bitten nurses from St. Vincent’s emergency room who took the occasional lucky young Irishman under their experienced wing.

Thus you could sit between a Clancy Brother and a Hamill, Lester Bangs and a Tipperary carpenter, a politician in drag and a lady of a certain age looking for a husband but willing to settle for the next best thing. To top it all, money, as I’ve said, was no object.

Many of the clientele dwelt in the uncertain past or the unfocused present, few gave much thought to the future. One visionary, however, jumps to mind. And what a past he’s had, not to mention a future that’s so stuffed with goals and ambitions it would turn a teenager off texting.

David Amram will be celebrating his first 80 years tomorrow night in New York’s Symphony Space.

“Who the hell is he when he’s at home,” mutters your man up in Pearl River.

Well, Mr. Amram was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to be the first composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, he has written over 100 symphonies and choral pieces, mastered an array of instruments exotic and otherwise, but more amazingly, he and his bosom buddy, Jack Kerouac, invented the modern jazz-poetry reading.

And neither of them even wore berets that first night in Greenwich Village back in 1957 when David improvised on French Horn behind the author of On The Road. Then again, David Amram was a fully paid up Karmic member of the Beat Generation himself, along with Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti and Neal Cassady.

But fast forward to the back room of the Bells where Liam Clancy, Turner & Kirwan of Wexford, King Rude, Flying Cloud, Lester Bangs, Mike OBrien & Chris King and a host of others were wont to do their thing.

David never heard a piece of music that he couldn’t add some wonder to. In fact, he may have invented the term World Music; at least he was the first person I ever heard use it and, more to the point, demonstrate that all music is interconnected and will fit together provided you have the pertinent chops and taste.

Take a look at what’s in store tomorrow night. In The Fox Hunt From Cork Meets The Blues From New York, for instance, Joseph Mulvanerty from Black 47 and I will be collaborating with Malachy, John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Amram's Latin/Jazz Ensemble and dancers from the Stella Adler School of Acting.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’ll be diverse musical and lyrical communal explorations conducted by a man who has collaborated with everyone from Dizzy Gillsepie to Johnny Depp, Willie Nelson to Arthur Miller; it will all be filmed and you never know who will show up. That’s the Amram magic.

But more than anything, the evening will serve as a springboard to David’s next 80 years, and I ain’t kidding.

The Bells, the Beats and Bohemian New York City will live for one more evening in Symphony Space. Be there or be square, man!

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Election - Where Have You Gone Mister Hamilton...

Has anything changed after yesterday’s election? Probably not, but the current national malaise has come more into perspective.

Answers, as usual, are scarce on the ground, but one question continues to rear its head. Why is it so hard for us to talk to each other?

Of course, it was ever so. Take a swing back through American history and you’ll find it brimming over with political argument spiced by plain old partisan politics.

The Revolutionary period, however, does provide insight into how the country once overcame this divisiveness when a conservative giant insisted on doing the right thing.

Alexander Hamilton’s life reads like a novel - born illegitimately into modest circumstances in the West Indies. A merchant’s clerk, he was sent to New York to further his studies. There he became a street instigator against British rule, aide-de-camp to George Washington and after the war a very rich lawyer; he was blackmailed by a femme fatale, and eventually killed in a duel.

In his spare moments, as first Secretary of the US Treasury, he insisted that all loans made to the revolutionary movement should be honored by the federal government, this, at a time, when the country was financially destitute and weakened by rivalry between states.

There were universal howls of rage against Hamilton’s suggestion but through sheer force of personality, arm-twisting and favor pulling, he succeeded; the country never looked back and the dollar, despite many buffetings, has been the favorite international currency for almost a century.

What would Hamilton think of us today? Everyone is angry about deficits, although many only since the financial crisis or, dare I say it, the election of a Democratic administration.

And yet our deficits are intrinsically bipartisan and caused by a refusal to pay for social services, the prosecution of ongoing foreign wars, and a diminution of the tax base due to the economic downturn.

While there are cyclical and structural reasons for the latter, it would be hard to argue that the current recession was not accelerated by an unregulated financial industry that put profit before public trust.

With the introduction of the recent Finance Reform Bill, there is hope that the financial system of the country is now on a sounder footing. Company profits are high, credit is cheap, if US capitalism works in its normal cyclic manner, the economy should expand leading to a higher tax base and a reduction of the deficit, much as happened in the Clinton years.

That won’t really bring long term relief though if we keep bleeding the country’s wealth with unnecessary foreign wars. Leaving aside any moral issues, we are being held hostage by small, driven nationalist movements half way around the world similar to the way that our revolutionaries bled the British Empire.

It’s time to make whatever dignified departures possible from Iraq and Afghanistan and then really debate the reasons we’re still in Germany, Korea and Japan while those countries have thriving democratic societies and economies.

The real deficit inducer, however, is that we refuse to pay for our social services. In fact, we can’t even have a meaningful discussion about their funding. Apart from a couple of wealthy libertarians and some Yuppies who have yet to feel the cold finger of ill-health, no one I know wants to privatize social security and most people are just dying to get to sixty-five and Medicare so that they can be somewhat shielded from a rapacious health insurance industry.

In fact, everyone I’ve lobbied would gladly sacrifice a couple of bucks extra a week in taxes to ensure that they have a meaningful safety net in their golden years.

So why do we allow blow-dried politicians and smarmy lobbyists to impose their will on us by muddying the debate?

Well we don’t vote in sufficient numbers. We get our news from television sound-bite messiahs who deal in fiction rather than fact. And we’d sooner howl to the heavens rather than grapple with thorny and weighty matters.

One way or another, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of solving any of the above issues until we can engage in sane, substantive and non-partisan discussions.

“Where have you gone, Mister Hamilton, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you…”

Friday 29 October 2010


The response to the Black 47 recording of Big Fellah on Sons of Anarchy has been amazing and has come from all quarters. And yet it sets off the old controversy about the song and its view of Michael Collins.

As stated in The Story Behind Big Fellah (available on Black 47 Facebook page) I adored Collins as a boy and always wanted to write a song about him. I could never capture him through my own eyes, however, and it wasn't until I read those letters in the museum in Clonakilty from young men about to be executed because of Collins' killing that I found the way to do so - through their eyes. It’s an old literary device – show a hero from the perspective of someone not enthralled by him and you can often get a clearer picture of the person. It might have been best to explain that at the time, but hindsight is wonderful – in hindsight - and who was thinking back then.

I suppose it was only natural - because I've written so many semi-autobiographical songs - that people would assume words like "betray the republic like Arthur Griffith and you..." would be definitively my view of the man. In fact, my own feelings are much more ambivalent, and not particularly relevant in the grand scheme of things. However, such hard line sentiments were common to people like my grandfather – although he too loved Collins – and, if one studies the situation around the Treaty, then one can at least understand the Republican stance, if not always embrace it.

Oddly enough, the Civil War was not fought over the Six Counties but over the Oath of Allegiance taken by Collins and Griffith, et al - a fact long obscured in the glare of ensuing events. The Civil War and its aftermath was a bitterly tragic period in Irish history and I grew up with its echoes and repercussions all around. That war wiped out a so many idealistic young people on both sides and in many ways left the country leaderless and lacking in direction. I still hold the view that Ireland would have been a far different place if people like Mick Collins, Liam Mellows, Arthur Griffith, Liam Lynch and Rory O’Connor had survived. They didn’t, however, and the Free State of Ireland became a deflated social and economic backwater under the leadership of W.T. Cosgrove and later, Eamonn DeValera.

I suppose one should always take into account the words one uses, but in truth, I was so excited to have finally captured Collins in song that I let the matter slip, back in those heady days of 1993-94. Such is the way with songs - you use whatever inspiration that comes to mind. Collins, nowadays, has become an unassailable knight in shining armor to so many – probably more so because of Neil Jordan's film than wonderful biographies by Tim Pat Coogan and others. It makes little difference, Mick Collins was a giant, no matter his flaws, and will always be so to me.

All water under the bridge now, I suppose. Still, I'm immensely proud of the song and Black 47's treatment of it; and I believe we've captured the essence of the man. What an odd world though to think that a television show about a renegade band of bikers could summon up the spirit of the Big Fellah so well. My hat is off to Kurt Sutter and all on Sons of Anarchy. They've helped re-introduce a great and very complicated man to a new generation – not necessarily of Irish descent either.

History is never black and white and if I’ve offended some lovers of Collins by use of certain phrases, then so be it, but it was unintentional. Perhaps it’s more important that his legacy – or lack thereof – is being re-examined. Unfortunately, Collins great promise ended up in tragedy, as did the lives of three other great people whom I admire, Charles Stewart Parnell, Countess Markievicz and James Connolly. But what inspiration we can all draw from them.

One other small note – the opening “sean-nós” piece, before the guitars on Big Fellah, is not traditional as some have ascribed it. The piece contains some lines from the poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire or Lament for Art O'Leary written by his wife Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (Black haired Eileen O’Connell) after O’Leary’s shooting in the late 18th Century. I wrote the music and the amazing Mary Martello sang it. If you like drama, tragedy, humanity and a woman’s struggle with desolation, then this powerful, evocative lament is for you.

Now if we could only get EMI Records to make Big Fellah – and the rest of the Home of the Brave CD – accessible to the public, what a small triumph that would be. And then people wonder why the music industry has collapsed!

The unavailability of the EMI recording of Big Fellah is a miniscule tragedy next to that of Collins, no doubt, but one that greatly hinders a progressive working band that continues to plough its own furrow.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

No Bloody Buybacks

“If the Democratic Party is not prepared to protect the rights of its natural constituents then it should step aside and let others take over the task.” So said Connie The Commie in my local saloon on a recent evening.

“Ah now, that’s going a bit too far, wouldn’t you think,” replied Franklin Roosevelt, known thus because he’d vote Democrat if Lindsay Lohan threw her hat in the ring.

“The Democratic Party has only one ambition and that’s to become Republican Lite.” Connie sneered and stared reassuringly into his foaming pint of plain.

“Here we go again,” said the Irish bartender who swore I’d never get another buyback if I mentioned his name since the whole of Country Yonkers reads the Echo.

“Didn’t we save this country from going down the tubes after Bush and his bullyboys ran it into the ground.”

“Yeah, but how come you’re not shouting that from the rooftops? Afraid you’ll upset the lobbyists or those clowns on Fox TV?”

“You know the problem around here?” The Irish bartender snorted. We listened in rapt attention since he owed us all a buyback. “We don’t get any Republicans because youse run them all out with your anti-war this and your stimulus that. And as for lobbyists, they might add a bit of tone to the establishment and I bet they’d settle their slates on time.”

With that he turned on his heel and switched on Fox TV. He hadn’t really been himself since losing a packet when Tipperary whipped Kilkenny in the All Ireland.

Connie the Commie raised his eyebrows to the good god in heaven, however he made no objection since he’d only recently been 86ed for duking it out with a cowboy from Tuscon over illegal immigrants.

“What really bothers me,” he said sotto voce, “is that the old, the poor, the sick, and the last few screeds of the middle class are caput if their rights are not stood up for.”

“But most of them are voting Republican anyway, if the polls are correct,” I interjected for devilment.

“That’s because they’re all watching Snooki on The Jersey Shore and that traitorous narrowback, Hannity, up there,” Roosevelt sneered at the TV, then nodded at the barman. “And what’s the matter with him anyway?”

“He’s always in bad form once the GAA season ends.” I tried to make a case for my countryman.

“He should follow the Jets.” Connie said. “A working man’s team!”

The barman’s eyes narrowed. “If I were going to follow a crowd of grown men chasing an oval ball, it would be an Irish rugby team, not a pack of sissies in helmets and padded spandex.”

The room froze, all that could be heard was the traitorous narrowback on Fox ripping into the poor president who everyone agreed had his hands full putting up with a wife and two growing daughters.

“If it hadn’t been for that bloody stimulus.” Roosevelt moaned.

“The goddamn stimulus worked.” Connie roared. “We’d be above 11% unemployment without it; there’d be cops, teachers, nurses and firemen by the thousands on the bread lines.”

“Yeah, but you don’t get reelected by telling people that things would suck twice as bad if the other crowd were in.”

Some tourists popped their heads in the door and gazed at us as though we were a pack of Orangutans up the Bronx Zoo.

“So what are you going to do?” Connie screeched in a manner not unlike Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. “Elect these bloody Tea Partiers?”

The tourists beat a hasty retreat.

““Out, out, the whole bloody crowd of yez!” The barman pointed at the door. “My nerves can’t take another two weeks of this electioneering! And to top it all not one of yez had a kind word to say for poor Henry Shefflin laid flat on his back by a Tipperary Stonethrower.”

“What the hell’s he talking about?” Connie murmured as we shuffled out on to the street.

“He’s still upset about the hurling final,” I muttered.

“No bloody buyback.” Roosevelt moaned. “You know something, that bartender takes life way too seriously.”

Thursday 14 October 2010


His face always stood out. It was so Irish. It had that weather-beaten, lived in look even when he was a younger man. Back then you usually caught him doing walk-ons for such shows as Kojak or Dynasty. But, no matter the role, it was hard to ignore Brian Dennehy.

He worked hard and his roles got better, for he possessed that certain something that helped him stand out in the wasteland of television. Even when he wasn’t the star or the hero you found yourself plugging for him.

No one ever accused him of being pretty but he inspired a lot of guys to give acting a shot – if Dennehy can do it, why not me?

I wasn’t surprised to find he was born in Bridgeport. He didn’t stay long but the city left its mark on him. Home of P.T. Barnum, Bridgeport was one rowdy burgh in the 70’s when I first hit it. Areas of it were rougher then than even Belfast or the Lower East Side, it’s great to see the old industrial city on the Sound resurrect itself and come roaring back.

Dennehy, on the other hand, never went anywhere. It seems like he’s always been with us. Perennial tough guy on the silver screen or the idiot box, he took on the greatest challenge in American theatre, the interpretation of Eugene O’Neill.

Why is O’Neill so difficult – simply because he’s the Man. Shakespeare is more facile, poetic, and has all the gifts that every writer aspires to, but when it comes to dealing with the sheer terror and joy of living, Irish Gene O’Neill wrote the book. And Brian Dennehy wades through it with a primal force informed by a rare sensitivity and an unstinting love for the characters he inhabits.

Barely more than a boy I stumbled into a production of A Touch of the Poet starring Jason Robards. I was floored by the intensity and truth of this great actor’s performance. I never thought anyone could match it until I saw Dennehy - and Gabriel Byrne - take O’Neill in other, but no less thrilling, directions.

That’s the magic of theatre, isn’t it? You can be obsessed with a titan like O’Neill, think you know it all, and then some actor comes along, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and opens your eyes to shadows and depths that you were breezily unaware of.

Unfortunately, Robards won’t be around to raise a glass on October 18th at Rosie O’Grady’s. But Gabriel Byrne will salute Dennehy when he receives the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish American Writers and Artists. It will be a banner night, for Albany’s William Kennedy - perhaps the greatest living American novelist - will make the presentation.

A note of disclosure, I must admit that I’m connected to this IAW&A posse. We set out less than two years ago to “highlight, energize and encourage Irish Americans working in the arts.”

There have been some notable successes including a fundraiser at Connolly’s in March for victims of the Haitian earthquake that netted over $100,000.

In general the organization is populist with a progressive slant, but looking around the table at board meetings in a midtown law office I see many shades of political opinion. And on Oct. 18th we might even provide a Tea Party table; however, we would seat Malachy McCourt at its head for balance and, no doubt, a “robust exchange of opinions.”

Seriously though, our goal is to help promote Irish American writers, musicians, actors and all other artists no matter what their politics, and to that end we’ll be honoring ex-Marine, hard man and O’Neill explorer, Brian Dennehy.

As ever our events are lively, informal and open to the public. You can rub shoulders with the famous, shake hands with various devils or just sit at the open bar and take the whole thing in. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Eugene O’Neill was born in a hotel room a couple of blocks from Rosie’s. It’s hard to imagine that his ghost won’t be present in some corner gruffly approving of Brian Dennehy, a man who has not only carried on his spirit but helped reinvigorate it.

For information go to or call 212-213-1166.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Blackthorne Reunion & Benefit

The buyback is a sacred gesture in most saloons in the greater New York area. Only question is – do you strike gold on the third or fourth drink?

“Now you’re talkin’!” Whoops your man up in Pearl River. “Steer clear of them bloody politics and stick to the things that matter!”

Good old Pearl River, sure isn’t it only a hop, skip and a jump up to East Durham.

“What have buybacks and E. Durham to do with the price of turnips or each other?” Queries your man. “Sure even me granny knows that up the mountains buybacks are as common as rain in Cultimagh?”

My point exactly and that’s why we’re having a Blackthorne Reunion up in East Durham on the weekend of October 22nd.”

As many of you know the Blackthorne dining room/bar/office building burned to the ground on September 18th. Luckily no one was hurt and the rooms and remainder of the resort were untouched by fire. With their legendary hard working, no-use-crying-over-spilt-milk mentality, the Handel family converted the large pavilion out by the swimming pool into a functioning dining room/bar and the resort has remained open.

As happens, though, the old building was under insured. Regardless, a new dining hall/bar/office will rise atop the old site and be ready for the 2011season.

In the meantime, some of us feel that the Blackthorne deserves a very special buyback of its own.

And so we’ve chosen one of the most beautiful weekends of the year to fill the resort, and give the Handels a boost in their time of trouble. The leaves will still be beautiful, the mountains ablaze with color, the bar bustling, the haunted cottage open and no doubt that accursed rooster will still be crowing at six in the morning.

It will be a time for those who have enjoyed this unique and friendly resort down the years to renew acquaintances and cherish old friends – I’ve heard that people from afar as California, Florida and Illinois will be flying in for the event.

What history and memories the Blackthorne has for many of us, and indeed for other generations, stretching back to the days when it was Mullans. Marriages were made, honeymoons spent, aye and many an elbow raised in good company.

For the Blackthorne and the whole E. Durham area are part and parcel of Irish-American history. Some even call that neck of the woods the 33rd county. With that in mind, we’re encouraging people to bring along pictures and mementoes of Mullans and the Thorne so that these items can be included in the decoration of the new building. Keep the spirit alive!

Many musicians will be dropping by to do a set, including Black 47 – you don’t need an invite just let us know you’re coming and we’ll make room for you. Suffice it to say that there’ll be music heard like never before as jam sessions and musical mixes & matches will be the theme of the weekend.

I’ll even toss in a reading from Rockin’ the Bronx, and I’d be surprised if Pat Floody and his cohorts are not knocking out the old beloved tunes by the bar.

And if there’s a resort where you’re more used to hanging your hat, all well and good – East Durham can use the business – feel free to drop by our event for a drink and buy one of the specially designed Phoenix From The Flames T-shirts.

On a personal note, with the exception of Connolly’s and Paddy Reilly’s, no establishment has supported and nourished Black 47 more than the Blackthorne. In an ever-changing world, come Memorial Day and Labor Day Weekends, I always know where my green suede shoes will be.

For hardy veterans or those who’ve never been up the mountains before, there’ll be off-season room rates. But even more to the point there’ll be memories to rekindle and we can all help ensure that the Blackthorne rises from the ashes and goes on to create good old days for coming generations.

Friday 24 September 2010

The Great Mistake

There was a pub in Wexford that wives called the “honey pot” – for once in the door husbands were reluctant to leave.

Such may well prove to be the case with Iraq but with combat operations finally over, let us examine this dismal chapter of American history before the inevitable tide of revisionism rolls in.

Can there be any doubt now that the invasion was a grievous mistake, one whose price will be paid for generations to come? And why do I mention revisionism? Surely, that comes much later – as in Vietnam when it took decades to soften the image of US helicopters lifting off roofs during the fall of Saigon.

But already we have “the surge.” Yet, despite how well the 30,000 US troops performed, they would have made little difference if 100,000 Sons of Iraq had not already been placed on the US payroll.

Money well spent. I say, as it saved American lives; though one could argue that this federal handout could have been better used for Americans ravaged by an economic downturn partly caused by huge government borrowing to finance the Iraq adventure.

But let us stick to cold figures. Over 4400 Americans died for a neo-conservative notion that if we created a Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq we could change that region’s balance of power. These think-tank boys were only slightly off the mark. We dismantled a horrid secular dictatorship that had been a bulwark against the mullahs in Iran and handed them a theocratic democracy on a plate. Well we did shake up the status quo, there’s no denying that.

But at what a cost! 35,000 Americans were seriously injured – not counting perhaps 100,000 more afflicted with post-traumatic stress.

Over two million Iraqis have fled the country; while millions more were displaced because of sectarian violence unleashed as a result of the invasion.

At least one hundred thousand Iraqis have been killed – though the figure is more likely two or even three times higher.

The infrastructure of the country was destroyed – open sewers are common, electricity is rarely guaranteed for more than four hours daily despite billions of US aid. Of course, much of this “stimulus” has gone to the coffers of various security firms and civilian providers who “won” no-bid contracts. And that’s before the remains trickled down to corrupt Iraqi officials.

There is a democracy, however, although six months after the last election a government has yet to be formed. Not surprising, since if the Allawi led Sunni coalition is not included, then the insurgency is likely to flare up again. Yet who can blame the Shite parties for wanting their day in the sun after a century of Sunni dominance? What a nest of hornets we stirred up.

And what of us? We were never asked to pay for this war – it was charged to the Chinese credit card that we’re still paying interest on. Most of us were never asked to do anything but wave flags and spout jingoistic sound bites. Most shameful of all, the bodies of our fallen were smuggled in at night so that our delicate sensibilities might not be offended.

The really sad part is that the idealism and blood of a generation inspired by 9/11 has been wasted in the sands of Fallujah and the alleyways of Sadr City.

Could the invasion have been stopped – certainly, had there even been a remote possibility of a draft; or if Hilary Clinton and Colin Powell had acted with their hearts rather than their heads. In such an unlikely scenario one or the other might well be president.

We have planted bitter seeds. The fruit will be with us a long time in the shape of huge deficits, a distrust of government, and thousands of young veterans with broken bodies and damaged spirits returning to a country and economy unable or unwilling to provide for them.

The only upside is that we can learn from this colossal mistake and resolve never again to embark on any more such foreign adventures or wars of choice.

Friday 10 September 2010

Mother and Son

I often watch PBS Newshour. It’s unadorned news followed by comments from a conservative and progressive of the non-braying genre.

Once a week the show pauses and, in silence, pictures of those in the armed forces killed overseas are shown. It’s a sobering couple of minutes as you stare at young faces, read their names, rank, ages and the small towns from whence they came.

To those of us from whom no sacrifice has been demanded it brings home the real cost of our ongoing wars. Women like Eileen Daly don’t need reminders. They live the loss 24 hours of every day.

Some of you may know Eileen. She’s first generation Irish. Her mother Bridie Keating Daly hails from Ballylanders, Co. Limerick, her father Dan was from Cahirciveen in the Kingdom of Kerry. They lived on Heath Avenue in St. John’s Parish, The Bronx before moving to Rockaway where Eileen attended Stella Maris High School while living on 114th Street.

She married Ron Kubik and moved down the Jersey Shore. She’s a sister of Chief Dan Daly, NYFD, of 9/11 fame and Dennis, a Green Beret injured in the Vietnam War.

Eileen raised three children as a single mother on a nurse’s pay. The youngest Sergeant Ronald Kubik, Company D, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment was killed while on active duty in Logar Province, Afghanistan on April 23rd. He was 21 years of age.

Run a search on this stellar young man – he’s all over the Internet, and rightly so. But although she would demur, you can easily tell from whom the son got his character, for Eileen is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever spoken to.

Although her family has deep roots in the military, Eileen didn’t want her son to enlist at such an early age; in fact she has little time for recruiters who entice high school students with well-rehearsed sales pitches. That being said, once Ronnie joined up she gave him unqualified support in his tours of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sgt. Kubik was an achiever who discovered a thirst for life and adventure at an early age. On the Honor Roll at Manasquan High School he was a varsity running back, wrestled, acted, wrote a column for the paper - you name it, Ronnie did it.

The guy even played guitar in a metal band, A Void Within. In fact he sported a mohawk and when cautioned about it brought a case to the Manasquan Board of Education and won – felt it was important to protect every kid’s right of self-expression.

I finally had to stop Eileen dead and ask the question many of you are wondering, “How do you do it, girl, how do you go on?”

“I had to make a choice – for life or…”

She didn’t finish. And then it came pouring out. For the first months she was paralyzed by grief. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t move - and this from a nurse who could put in four straight 12-hour shifts at Kimball Medical Center in Lakewood.

But she had family and friends – the backbone of Irish-American life. Her brother Dennis who faced his own problems after Vietnam told her “if the current is pulling you down, you have to swim.”

Chief Daly, in his practical kindly way, suggested she set her alarm and go back to the gym. While her friend, Mary McCloskey told her to put on her sneakers and come walking with the girls. Eventually she made the decision to live and, one step at a time, that urge to carry on and turn the pain into something worthwhile returned

She did it for herself but, more than anything, she did it for her son. ”I know Ronnie is watching and I want him to be proud of me.”

This is a story that’s being played out all across the country in homes and barracks. Most of us are insulated from it.
Ronnie Kubik was a great American who asked not what his country could do for him. Eileeen Daly is no less a hero for choosing life in the midst of pain.

We, as citizens in a participatory democracy, must remain eternally vigilant that such sacrifices are absolutely necessary. Stay strong, Eileen.

Tuesday 7 September 2010


I have always been wary of describing Black 47’s music as Celtic Rock especially since Horslips and Fairport Convention wrote the book on that genre forty years ago.

On another occasion I’ll deal with the tragic magic of Fairport but their album, Liege & Lief, will add luster to any collection.

My connections to the roots of Horlips go back to the churning ‘70’s Wexford Rock scene. Christy Moore’s brilliant guitarist Declan Sinnott – amazingly, I introduced him to his first minor chords – informed me that he had joined a Dublin outfit that played “revved up jigs and reels.”

As often happened with the mercurial Deckie, as we then knew him, he stayed barely long enough to leave an indelible mark on the band. But the Horslips legend had begun.

Not only did they create their own particular myth, they were at their best when dealing with legends and concepts - from The Táin to Book of Invasions, and now they’re exploring Rotha Mór an tSaoil.

It was this latter project that caused my path to once more cross with Jim Lockhart and Barry Devlin. They were recently over to film a four part series for TG4 based around Rotha Mór an tSaoil or The Big Wheel of Life - the autobiography of Micí Mac Gabhann who left Donegal and trekked across the US in the late 19th Century to find gold in the Yukon.

Ambitious as ever, Jim and Barry are using the book as an analogy for Horslips’ own musical travels - and travails - from Ireland to a fabled America. What a blast then to introduce them to Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, the dead center of Irish-American music in the latter decades of the 20th century.

Horslips recently reformed but despite a hiatus of almost 30 years band members have never stopped searching for connection. That quest has been their strength. They’ve always been fascinated by the American experience particularly pertaining to Irish immigration.

Jim and Barry are also two of the funniest and most self-deprecating characters in rock & roll. Not surprisingly, a gleeful sense of irony has always permeated their work and kept it from veering towards the precious or lugubrious.

We almost rolled around 204th Street as they recalled the horror of having a soon to be monster Van Halen open for them at New York’s Palladium. When I confessed that Pierce Turner and I were mightily ill after hijacking the champagne they’d abandoned in their dressing room, Barry wryly noted, “at least some good came from that bloody night.”

I hear echoes of Horslips in so much of today’s Irish-American music. Bands who may never have heard Dearg Doom or King of the Fairies casually stroll through arrangements where once Horslips kicked down doors by injecting Les Paul power into Irish Trad.

“It was the times.” Jim casually explained. “Everyone was into fusion - we were inventing it as we went along.”

And what a job they did. Listening to the haunting introduction to Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore I was transported back to a coldwater flat in Rathmines where I listened to that recording while making the decision to get the hell out of Ireland.

Marvel at the power of Dearg Doom as Eamonn Carr and Johnny Fean respectfully put the boot into Sean O’Riada. Or listen to Charles O’Connor nail a Scots-Gaelic weaving song to a Rocksteady beat on the mesmerizing An Bratach Bán. Horslips been there and done that!

It’s their fearless melding of old and new – along with a willingness to fall on their faces – that has always kept Horslips a step ahead.

And one recent summer’s evening I was lucky enough to be given a chance to add infinitesimally to the Horslips legend when Jim and Barry joined Black 47 onstage for a frenetic version of their classic Wrath of the Rain.

The Great Wheel of Life has done many the spin since Deckie Sinnott first told me about these guys back in Wexford. In an age where banal retreads are the norm, it was pure pleasure to help a couple of originals knock the dust off the ceiling for what will surely be a riveting television series.

Tuesday 31 August 2010

These Are My Mountains

Almost without noticing it Labor Day Weekend is on us again. I always console myself by noting that September is invariably a beautiful month but who am I kidding? My summer plays out between Memorial Day and Labor Day and I spend both those weekends in County East Durham.

I can’t pretend that I’m not a booster of the Irish Catskills, though hailing from South Wexford - where the wild Atlantic hits the quarrelsome Irish Sea - I tend to gravitate towards the coastline.

Perhaps that’s why I identified with Bruce Springsteen’s early albums. Those dusty little seaside towns he salutes on Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Suffle were familiar turf for someone who played every pub and marquee from Courtown to Tramore.

The mountains were more an acquired taste, in fact my first summer spent up in Leeds could as well have been in Katmandu such was the craic at the Irish Center – then owned by Gerry O’Shea, now in the capable hands of impresario Gertie Byrne’s family.

Despite the ongoing bacchanal I did gather that people came up from the city to banish their misfortunes and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to do so. Many things have changed but the sense of homeliness and community spiced by good value has endured.

Talk about a land that time forgot – you can stroll into any resort in the region, run into people you haven’t seen in 10 years and it’s as if you’d only bid them farewell the previous dawn.

Time moves at a different pace in the Irish Alps and whatever is troubling you melts away and seems somehow less threatening. Maybe it’s the realization that those mountains will be there a long time after you’ve kicked the bucket so you better make the most of the brief time that’s granted you.

There’s a certain coltishness in the air on Memorial Day Weekend. Tom McGoldrick’s festival at the Michael J. Quill Cultural Center is rocking all evening, Gavin’s, Furlongs, The Shamrock and the Blackthorne are throbbing through the night and the summer stretches ahead of you endless as Derek Jeter’s optimism.

Labor Day Weekend has more to do with the old Gaelic feast of Samhain. Already some of the leaves are turning and there’s a lovely chill in the air at nights but, even so, there’s also a chance for one last blast, one final kicking up of the heels before the responsibilities of the fall descend upon you.

East Durham reminds me of the old Ireland where all ages gathered together – not today’s fractured country where a pounding techno beat rattles the glasses in the younger lounges while kids wouldn’t be caught dead in the quieter pubs.

In East Durham it’s still a glorious mix. The seventy-year old gentleman thinks nothing of sweeping the beautiful college sophomore around the dance- floor. His legs may ache the next day, but what the hell, the night is forever young in the mountains especially when the Jameson’s is flowing.

And when I stroll into the Blackthorne bar on Friday evening, Pat Floody will be knocking sparks out of his accordion as if he were still playing in the El Dorado Showband back in Drogheda in the ‘50’s. The mountains do that to you – everyone relives their youth for one last fleeting summer weekend.

Pat’s always been a chap at heart and he cuts through the Catskills like Yeats’ Fiddler of Dooney making the merry dance like a wave of the sea. Check out his myspace page – it won’t be long ‘til he’s twittering.

There are definitely more fashionable – and more expensive – places to go but a piece of the old Ireland is alive and kicking in the Catskills. Come on up this weekend, we’ll be dancing and carousing long after Snooki has passed out down the Shore.

East Durham has got all the musical bases covered from Andy Cooney to Black 47, King Peter McKiernan to Prince Tommy Flynn. There are rooms to suit every pocket, camping sites galore and a spare spud in every pot for the unexpected guest.

It’s magic up in the mountains on Labor Day Weekend, it’s time you kicked up your heels again.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

For Kevin Wherever You Are - 40 Shades of Blue

Kevin passed away last month. By the time Billy Roche, the playwright, wrote I’d already heard it twice over the Wexford-Manhattan bush telegraph. Still Billy had an important piece of news, a bleeding ulcer had finally knackered our old mate. It could have been worse.
Kevin was the inspiration for one of Black 47’s most popular songs – Forty Shades of Blue (For Kevin wherever you are). The sub-title captured him best, for with Kev you never knew.
In a certain way he summed up Ireland’s mass emigration of the 70’s and 80’s – remember, “Last one leaving, turn out the lights!” A generation took the ferry to England or the 747 to the US out of economic necessity or sheer boredom.
Kevin would have been just another Wexford cut-up if it hadn’t been for the ever-present twinkle in his eyes and his considerable grace under pressure. He was the “oldest” of a set of twins - the outgoing one and protector - while his brother was shyer and introverted.
In working-class Wexford where skinheads ruled you had to be tough and Kevin was, but he preferred to use his innate charm.
He came from a large, very respectable and loving family in an age when children did a lot of their own raising. At the Christian Brothers where 40 plus classes were not unusual, boys with little interest in book learning were routinely overlooked; small wonder that Kevin dropped out early on.
Before he was 20 he was well known around the pubs of Wexford for he was a killer darts player. Tall, gangly and handsome he cut quite a figure in the discos too where he threw shapes that left Rod and Jagger in the ha’penny place.
But Wexford was nowhere so one Saturday night the twins took the boat train to London. I had lost track of them by the time disaster struck – one night Kevin returned to their “squat” to find his brother’s body. The kid just couldn’t take the slurs anymore.
You could have knocked me down with a feather the night on St. Mark’s Place when I heard my name roared out in a Wexford accent. You guessed it - Kevin - in the company of a beautiful young wife, an American student he’d met in London.
Being married to Kev must have been akin to living in the teeth of a storm, every time our paths crossed he had a new job or was talking up a new scheme, but the old hurt from London was never far from the surface.
And then Kevin was single again, drinking and spiraling downwards. I’d hear of his dart-shark exploits – he’d play badly, entice some Irish wannabe into a game, “almost lose” three or four times while doubling the bet on each game. Led to a number of beatings, one of them bad.
But there were good times too, like the day on St. Mark’s I saw him striding westwards; when I inquired whereto, he breezily declared, “The Holland Tunnel, man, I’m hitching to San Diego.”
He had six bucks to his name; I spotted him a twenty. Three weeks later, a letter arrived with the twenty enclosed. Kev was on a roll – living the high life down by the Mexican border.
He came back skint and, one nasty winter after a cab struck him, he took to living in the Spring Street Subway station. My brother and I intervened - his sister sent the plane ticket.
I often wonder if we did the right thing. Returning broke to Wexford can’t have been easy after the buzz of New York, but chances are he wouldn’t have made it through that winter. Besides, by all accounts, he eventually pulled himself together back home.
Kevin may be an extreme case but he is emblematic of so many young Irish of the 70’s – bright and talented, spewed out undereducated with little option but to emigrate. Coming of age now, he’d likely be a director of marketing at some start-up, for when he set his mind to it the man could sell pints to Arthur Guinness.
As Roche the playwright wrote, “Kevin lived the life.” He sure did and now I’ll never have to wonder where he is.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Brooklyn and Enniscorthy

One upon a time I was in a teenage band. The drummer, not fancying our prospects, got married and moved to his wife’s hometown fourteen miles up the Slaney River. A rather laconic type, when next I met him he growled uncharacteristically, “You think Wexford is bad, it’s got nothin’ on Enniscorthy.”
I wonder if he’s read Colm Toibín’s wonderful novel, Brooklyn. It opened the eyes of this Wexford man – opened the heart too for I’m haunted by its heroine.
This is hardly surprising since Toibín, like Australian Thomas Keneally, is that rarity: a male novelist who brings women to life on the page.
Though I’ve long admired his writing, I picked up Brooklyn because it’s situated in two very disparate areas I’m familiar with – the borough of the title and Colm’s hometown of Enniscorthy. Oddly enough, I have more affinity for the former though I grew up a figurative stone’s throw from the latter whose inhabitants we called “scalders.”
Back then Enniscorthy seemed never less than gloomy and claustrophobic, perhaps because it doesn’t gaze out onto the sea as Wexford does. I suppose I just didn’t understand the place.
I do now. For Toibín casts light into the dark corners of this small Irish town in the 1950’s, allowing us to experience both a womb-like familiarity along with the class-consciousness and innate nosiness that paralyze such places.
Colm’s genius is that he contrasts this brooding parochialism with the turmoil of immigrant Brooklyn where cultures collide indiscriminately and the recently arrived are forced to shed whole layers of identity in order to fit into a complex and self-assured new world.
And then there is Eilis Lacey, the book’s central character. I know her. Well, not specifically but she’s a dead ringer for the older sisters of a number of my childhood friends, though instead of returning from New York City, these ladies took the boat train from Paddington for their fortnight’s holidays home from London.
Nurses or secretaries with money to burn, they were glamorous in their Cricklewood fashions as they shattered hearts in Wexford pubs and hotel dancehalls. But after a couple of Babychams, you could almost touch the longing in them to be what they once were but could never be again.
You’re on Eilis’ side from the first page of Brooklyn and you’re still there at the bittersweet ending. For like the sisters of my friends, she is loyal, lovely, and brave and will ultimately do the right thing, even if it means hurting herself and others.
In some ways, this is a tale of two cities, for Enniscorthy is a metropolis when you’ve never been anywhere else - while in Brooklyn the best of times and the worst are always close to hand.
As you might imagine, there’s a love interest in both locations and they couldn’t be more different. Each is viewed unsparingly through the prism of class-consciousness. One promises a rise in stature, reassuring but ultimately suffocating; while the other is “beneath” Eilis, and yet in such a union she might one day reach beyond herself.
I wonder do we root for her because we feel she could “do better?” Or perhaps the book leads us to question some of the choices we ourselves have made?
In real life Eilis would probably be a grandmother now, either living in one of those McBungalows that bruise the stalwart Wexford countryside, or presiding over a large, fractious Italian-Irish family in Long Island.
During the final pages she must make her choice and your heart is in your mouth for her.
I’ll never look at Enniscorthy in quite the same way again. The town seems brighter to me now, the gloom is gone and with it the claustrophobia; even the Slaney jigs to a different beat as it rushes under the new bridge on its way to Wexford and the sea.
Or have I changed and am seeing the old town through different eyes. Who knows? Great books do that to you.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

A New Ireland

I was in Ireland for six days recently. It rained so hard I half expected Noah to come floating by on his ark. However, on the fourth day I awoke in the Talbot Hotel to gaze out across a sun-drenched Wexford Harbor that I thought existed only in memory.
A hotel room in your hometown - the emigrant’s comeuppance when parents have passed on and the house is gone.
Ah well, I have to admit that I’ve felt more at home on recent visits. The casual arrogance of the Celtic Tiger era is so over you begin to wonder was it just your imagination; until friends assure you that it was indeed real but generational – those who had experienced Ireland “in the rare old times” knew the score, while those who came of age in the last fifteen years were finally seeing the flip side of the coin.
There’s a rage sweeping the country, somewhat similar to what we feel towards Wall Street and our own political establishment but much more focused.
How many of us even know the names of the politicians who deregulated the US financial industry or the identities of the gamblers and bankers who almost brought the whole economic system crashing down around our ears?
But Ireland is a small country where no one is more than a couple of people removed from the “captains and the kings.” It also has a very vibrant, in-your-face press with a keen nose for scandal, and a coiled contempt for those who have “lost the run of themselves.”
It was open season on Sean Fitzpatrick, former chairman of the once highflying, but now nationalized, Anglo-Irish Bank, and rightly so. And yet you had to wonder at the ferocity of the hunt, for the world will always be well stocked with snake-oil salesmen.
It begs the question though: how did so many people suspend judgment on Fitzpatrick and his ilk? What happened to good old Irish common sense?
Many of us over here have loved and lost in various US stock market and property bubbles? But the sheer amount of borrowing and speculation in Ireland is staggering. Shacks were selling for over half a million Euros. Did they really believe that property and stock values would always appreciate?
My own memories of Ireland are of a people deathly afraid to go into any kind of debt. My father’s visit to a bank manager to negotiate a small overdraft was an unhappy day; while I could never bring myself to ask my grandfather to explain “bailiff,” such was the dread he invested in that muttered word.
Obviously, the psyche of the country changed radically over a couple of decades.
Still, even though Ireland’s immediate economic situation may be worse than ours, their citizens are better prepared to weather it. The most leveraged of the big banks have been nationalized, while all financial institutions are “encouraged” to show leniency when faced with unpaid mortgages and foreclosures.
Meanwhile those who have lost their jobs are cushioned by a substantial safety net; university education is free and health-care is guaranteed by the state.
For the most part, Irish rage is self-directed. Though there is much bluster against Fitzpatrick and the rest of “the boys,” you get the distinct impression that the nation is aware it turned away from native values and is now grudgingly prepared to pay the price.
Sure, you hear Sarah Palin equivalents on call-in radio shows but no one is misguided enough to vote for them. There’s bitterness in the air but it smacks of “never again,” rather than let’s hold hands and jump off a cliff together.
People are disgusted with politicians but rather than “throw out all de bums,” they’re fiercely determined not to elect anyone even worse.
You can feel a political realignment coming though it’s anyone’s guess what form it will take. One thing for certain, it will reflect old values rather than the beg-borrow-and-spend notions of the last fifteen years.

Saturday 24 July 2010

Mother and Child Reunion

I’ve been writing a play about Dr. Noel Browne, the controversial Minister for Health who brought down the Irish government back in 1951.
A strange subject, you might say, and hardly relevant. Oddly enough, the era is redolent with familiar catch cries such as “socialized medicine,” “powerful health lobbies,” and “separation of church and state.”
Ireland, to some degree, has come to terms with these issues but it’s a rare day they don’t make the news in this country.
However, let’s skip such thorny issues and deal with a more mercurial subject – playwriting; and, in particular, how do you write a play?
It’s a question that arises frequently, for it’s a rare person who doesn’t think they’ve got at least one play in them. And they’re probably right.
“Sure isn’t it all about words?”
Actually it’s more about cutting words and retaining only as many as will allow the actors to tell the story. That story, however, better be universal and deal in some substantive manner with the complexities of the human condition.
One more small item - you’ve got to furnish your actors with distinct and meaningful characters that stay true to the subject matter and times of the play.
So some sixty years later how am I supposed to portray Noel Browne and his era? Well, there are many books on the subject, and contemporaries of the good doctor still living. Yet you can read and ingest information until the cows come home but in the end you must be able to state the “spine” of any play in one active sentence.
In this case, “Noel Browne brought down the Irish government because his family suffered from Tuberculosis.” In essence, he was haunted by their deaths and vowed to eradicate a blight on the nation long accepted by church and state.
There are other resources one can turn to. Images are always helpful in coming to terms with time and place. Black and white photos from 1951 can instantly place you back amongst characters in belted overcoats, felt hats, and Brylcreamed “short back and sides.” Clothes indeed make the man – not to mention the woman.
But family is your trump card when it comes to playwriting. My mother, like many women of the time, had a great affection and respect for Noel Browne despite the invective hurled at him by political, religious and medical establishments.
He was handsome, of course, despite his own battles with tuberculosis, and a courtly man with impeccable manners. But their loyalty to him ran much deeper – he cared about the women of Ireland and was outraged by their second-class status in society. But most importantly, he was determined to reduce the shockingly high infant mortality rate.
There was so little money in Ireland back then; some of my more senior immigrant readers will knowingly nod their heads when recalling just how hard it was for small farmers to eke out a subsistence living. How fathers held on to farms to the bitter end reducing older sons to poverty while younger brothers and their sisters were forced to emigrate.
Such was the case with my own father, working long hours for my grandfather, a cattle dealer – never sure just how much he’d be doled out at the end of the week.
Noel Browne must have seemed like a savior to my mother. His Mother and Child Scheme promised free maternity care for all mothers and free healthcare for all children up to the age of sixteen, regardless of income.
It was not to be – the church and medical profession resented Browne’s encroachment on their territory; they opposed the scheme, it was withdrawn and Noel Browne resigned.
The books I’ve read on the subject are valuable in providing the facts of the matter; but the pictures of the protagonists in their belted coats or ecclesiastical finery, combined with the memory of a woman whose life could have been made so much easier, sustain me every day I face a blank page.
You do have your own play within you and similar resources to bring it to life. Get started now. You have all sorts of memories lying dormant and colorful characters only awaiting the call to strut across your stage.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Nancy of the Smiling Eyes

I am always amazed at the lack of commitment of liberals, left-wingers, commies or whatever you call them nowadays.
You know the scene: a group of people are discussing current affairs when into their midst barges Paddy MacGasbag gorged to the eyebrows on the half-truths, innuendoes and general balderdash spouted on confrontational talk-radio and television.
Whereupon, this apostle of Know-Nothingness proclaims, “Government sucks and the liar in the White House is wasting my taxes on bailouts. Guy ain’t even born in this country!”
Instead of lacerating this Limbaugh wannabe with a litany on the lines of, “Pardon me, Pádraig, but much the same was said about Alexander Hamilton. However government will eventually keep your sorry butt off the street with a guaranteed social security check, and I don’t give a fiddler’s if the President hails from Ballydehob, the dude just soaked 20 billion out of BP and guaranteed every child in this country proper health care.”
Alas, rarely is such a riposte offered – usually an embarrassed silence descends as sundry liberals, left-wingers or plain old commies shuffle off with their tails between their legs.
Nancy Benedict-Murphy would have stood her ground. She’d have been a good deal more polite and factual, but Mister MacGasbag would think twice before ever again making such a grand entrance.
Then again Nancy never backed off from any challenge be it the crippling effects of Parkinson’s Disease, or her ongoing fight for the rights of the poor and disadvantaged.
She passed away last month but this community activist and union organizer will long be remembered the length and breadth of Connecticut and further afield too.
I have particular reason to be grateful to Nancy. Back in the glory days of the Bush imperium when the country allowed itself to be steamrolled into the Iraq War, Nancy would roll her wheelchair up to the stage at various Black 47 concerts.
We had written some songs – mostly from the troops’ point of view - about the waste of lives and energy caused by this unnecessary foreign adventure. The barstool patriots were outraged and not shy about venting their feelings. Liberals, left-wingers and commies, for the most part, chose the high ground and waited for better weather.
Not Nancy of the smiling eyes. Wherever the battle was, you could be sure she was in the thick of it. Though the Parkinson’s may have taken its toll, it never dimmed those eyes and their commitment to support the causes dear to her heart.
To my regret I knew little about the others aspects of her life – her intense love of nature and her delight in her gardens in the Connecticut countryside – but I could tell from those eyes that she had a wicked sense of humor and an inner peace despite the physical hardships visited upon her.
There are two powerful strands in the American character – the rugged individualist and the lover of community. The country suffers when these are out of whack, usually the case whenever the patriot game is shamelessly manipulated by politicians, or when greed is glorified as the be all and end all.
Nancy was a person truly in balance. She believed implicitly in the rights of the individual but, like James Connolly and Bobby Kennedy, she also felt that democracy was more than just about having a vote – it implies the right to economic and social justice, and above all that everyone is entitled to decent and affordable health care.
Many feel likewise but not everyone takes the time and trouble to ensure that the less fortunate get a hand up the first rungs of the ladder of opportunity. That was Nancy’s mission and she went about it with such dignity.
And how she inspired those around her – particularly the many idealistic young women who seek to make our society a more equal and compassionate place. They will be her ongoing testament as they introduce the Paddy MacGasbags of the world to logic – and manners.
As for me, I’ll always have the memory of that woman in the wheelchair edging up to the front of the stage back in those unsettling days when it was considered unpatriotic to raise your voice about the misdirection of the country.
But most of all, I’ll remember Nancy’s eyes and the sheer joy they gave to all those lucky enough to have known her.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

At last an apology

They finally apologized. You had to wonder why it took so bloody long? After all the years of stonewalling the young prime minister stood up and, with grace and humility, admitted the obvious - that the murdered in Derry on Bloody Sunday had been guilty of nothing more than exercising their basic right to protest a shameful sectarian government.
“When England remembers and Ireland forgets,” my grandfather used to murmur, “that’s when the problems up North will be settled.”
Cameron’s statement was a momentous event, though in many ways bittersweet, for the grainy images of the murdered summoned up not only that horrible day in 1972 but the tumultuous years that followed.
Oddly enough, a line from Scripture came to mind, “If the foundation be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” I had first noticed it on a cassette tape of sermons by Rev. Ian Paisley – and had pirated the preacher’s voice for an instrumental coda to Black 47’s Fanatic Heart.
How strange to think that this bigot has been a backdrop to so much of my life. And yet he is now a conciliatory force; indeed, many are nostalgic for the days when he and Martin McGuinness, a one-time leader of the Provisional IRA, jointly led a power sharing government.
Who would have even imagined such a coupling on January 30, 1972? But things do change, if glacially. Yeats, as ever, nailed it: “peace comes dropping slow.”
The British had so many opportunities to initiate a just settlement in the North of Ireland. What held their hand?
Was it that empire must never be proved wrong? Having changed the ground rules in 1921 and set up an artificial statelet, did they feel they would lose face by admitting that they had sacrificed a half million nationalists to the jack-booted mercies of their unionist masters?
Those innocent people back in Derry were protesting a cesspool of gerrymandered sectarianism - easy enough to forget now. When the smoke cleared that day the non-violent Northern Ireland civil rights movement had been swept aside. Terrible things would be done in the next sixteen years. Thousands died or were maimed.
It need not have happened had Prime Minister Ted Heath the moral courage to state the obvious. But better late than never and this apology may provide mortar to bind the bricks of the new foundation laid at the signing of the Peace Settlement of 1998.
Many Irish-American activists have backed off since then. Some were fatigued, others confident that those on the ground in the North finally had a democratic framework to work within. I was never less than amazed at their commitment down all those violent years.
They were often laughed at and despised by media and establishment but what matter – they had seen the grainy images from 1972 and resolved that a better Ireland could be created where freedom and justice went hand in hand.
They had few victories and many defeats - the death of Bobby Sands MP and the deportation of Joe Doherty spring to mind – but there was little despair, just a stubborn resolve to keep eyes on the prize.
It was often sad to see old comrades turn on each other after the Peace Settlement – of course it’s always easier be unified on what you’re against than what you’re for. Movements – and, indeed, life itself – tend to balance on an uneasy fulcrum of pragmatism and idealism. Perhaps this apology will help heal some wounds and enable old comrades to explore friendship again.
One way or the other, on June 15, 2010, Britain finally remembered. Given time Ireland will forget and that new foundation will strengthen and hold.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

January 2001 - Plastic People

Milan Hlavsa died last week. Milan who? You might ask. Well, he was from
Czechoslovakia - and no he wasn't related to Gerty. He was bass player and writer for the band
Pulnoc and the founder member of the the legendary Plastic People of the Universe. It might sound
a corny name now - redolent of the 60's. But make no mistake about it, Milan was the ultimate rock & roll
rebel. He even went to jail for his right to make music! For his troubles, he lost his right to make a living
and was under constant pressure from the Stalinist Czech authorities. Now line up your idea of the
rockin' rebel, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison, Joe Strummer, Ronan Keating?......Forget about it!

I had heard of the Plastic People in the 80's. There was a strong contingent of Czechs and Poles in
the East Village but I never imagined I would ever get to play with them. But fate has strange ways
about her. Hammy, Fred and I had played the downtown scene with the poet,
Copernicus, since God knows when. We were amongst a loose association of musicians who would
get up on stage and perform free form music behind his various rants. Sometimes, when we hit our stride and
the substance mix was kind, such music could be majestic, on other occasions it was ragged to the

Nonetheless, it came to pass that Copernicus organized a tour of the
Germanys, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania and other parts of the USSR which ended up in
Moscow on July 4th , 1989. He contacted various dissident groups in these countries and somehow or other got
visas, etc together.

Fred didn't make the trip but Hammy, Dave Conrad, Mike Fazio (two other
Black 47 alumni) and I set out with the Poet. As you might imagine, the adventures were mighty but
eventually we hit the sacred soil of Czechoslovakia and got promptly lost. It was the middle of the
night, out in the wilds of the country, pitch black (the comrades didn't believe in lighting the roads), no
legible signs and we're thirsty as all hell and looking for Prague when, lo and behold, we came upon
what looked like a 17th century inn. Aha, where there's inns, there's liquor! The scene inside was like something
out of the Van Gogh painting of the Potato Eaters. An old crone dominating a wooden table laden
down with black beer bottles surrounded by some simian-like rubes. No notice was taken of us until I produced
that universal passport to earthly paradise, the great American ten-spot. This had a magical effect.
The crone was instantly in my arms offering herself and all the customers but we settled for some cases
of beer and the reassurance that, yes, we were on the right road to Praha (Prague).

When we finally made the wondrous city of Prague around dawn we were
informed that the location of our gig had been changed from a boys club to the Ice Hockey Stadium
and that we would be the headliners with the newly formed Pulnoc (containing the remains of the
Plastics). The promoters also casually observed that this would be the first unofficial concert, that
we would be challenging the Stalinist Government and that all the freaks in Czechoslovakia would be
there to support us.

Whatever! We were well used to the bullshit of promoters. But this was
our first time dealing with the obduracy, commitment and sheer dogged spirituality of the Czech
dissident movement. The next day we arrived at the equivalent of Madison Square Garden in the
middle of downtown Prague and realised that these guys weren't kidding. 13,000 people were gathered inside
and as many surrounded the stadium. But, ominously, the top tiers were occupied by the Czech Militia with
guns drawn and pointed at the stage. I naively inquired of Ivo Pospisil (one of the organizers)
whether we might be in any danger - to which he replied with that Central European swagger and
broken English - "no probalem, bastards vill not kill us all!" With that stolid reassurance, we played before the best
audience of my life - so appreciative, so altogether, so happy that their American brothers were there
to support them. The Gods smiled on us (the substances too) and we played a blinder. Follow that, I
thought as we left the stage.

Then I watched Pulnoc and my jaw dropped. The music was dense,
dissonant, melodic, strident, totally unselfconscious and oddly romantic. It was like The Velvet
Underground meets Schonberg on acid. I didn't understand a word of it but I knew everything they were saying.
It was the soul of Czechoslovakia being hammered off the anvil of pure unfettered rock & roll. And
yet it had none of the ridiculous characteristics that rock music has come to personify. No preening, no
attitude, just pure idealized music uncontaminated by any false excess; and yet, it was as excessive,
in itself, as a volcano. I had to get on stage with these guys. I couldn't let this moment pass me by. So,
with a pint of Armenian Brandy in me, (at least that's what they said it was) I took over one of the mikes
and added my own howling harmonies. I was sure they would throw me off but instead they just smiled
and welcomed me. It may have been the only time I saw any of them smiling.

I couldn't get enough of these guys and after the show we got in serious
conversation. I was also fascinated by their accents. There was something so familiar about them.
And then it hit me - they all sounded like Lou Reed. In fact, they had all learned their English from
Velvet Underground records, so there was a lot of valkin' on the vild side vith sveet Jane. I told them

I was a big fan of the playwright Vaclav Havel and they offered to take me to his apartment. Just
like that? But Tony (the lead singer) was a theatre designer and said it would be no problem. So, off we
went. Milan, Tony, their wives or girlfriends and yours truly. Everyone knew them. It was their town.
Still, occasionally, we would be stopped by the militia and our papers demanded. This was a constant
irritant to them. But to me it was no different than the streets of the North.

Being a thirsty lot, they suggested we stop in a bar. Now this place was like something out of Dracula movie.
It must have been there for four or five hundred years. It was amazing. At any moment, you expected Mario Lanza
to come trotting out and sing The Student Prince.

We were having a great old time. Czech beer is magnificent. But after
about an hour a hush came over the crowd, a television set was turned on and I'm expecting to see
some dark Czech masterpiece. But to my horror, it's a special broadcast from MTV Out pops Michael Jackson,
Duran Duran and whatever else drivel that was popular in 1989. There was a glow in the eyes of the
watchers. I looked nervously at Milan and Tony. Were these two great musicians actually being
taken in by this shite? To this day I don't know. Perhaps, MTV was banned (for once, the comrades might
have got something right) and this was Pulnoc's dazed and silent protest.

I often think of that night. We never got to see Havel. We lingered too long in that wonderful pub
talking about life and music that was far divorced from reality as I then knew it (oh by the way, they did turn
off the tv after an hour or so). The Berlin Wall came down some months later
and Czechoslovakia and all the other soviet satellites have been transformed into modern western
democracies. And what of Milan, Tony, Pulnoc and the Plastics? I don't know. Pulnoc got a deal
with Arista Records and were dropped almost instantly - I guess, they weren't radio friendly. Look for their
magnificent cd, City of Hysteria. I'm sure you can get Plastic People's songs to download.

I often wonder about Milan and Tony. They weren't essentially political
people but they personified the soul of Czechoslovakia in a way that I've never seen another group of
musicians do. They refused to give up their right to play music the way they heard it and thus
confronted the power of Stalinist Communism and its banality of evil. How then did they face up to the terrible
deluge of advertising, fast buck entrepreneurs, MTV and the awful evil of banality that permeates
our modern western life? Hopefully, Milan didn't die disillusioned and kept on fighting to the end. And if
you ever read this, Tony, I'm still trying to keep that promise I made to you. Milan Hlavsa died last
week - a true rock & roll rebel.

Larry Kirwan

This is a short extract from Vaclav Havel's lengthy and incisive observations on the Plastics written in 1984:

"I have often wondered about the remarkable "trick" the Plastics used to achieve their unsettling magic.
It can't be explained simply by their unusual combination of instruments (that unnerving buzz of viola and violin
is typical of their music). Nor is it merely the god-given originality of Milan Hlavsa's musical talent. Nor the
long years of working together that created and shaped the group's style, as a whole that is greater than the sum
of the musical parts brought by each member.....they are unique, and faithful to themselves, and if their music
speaks to young people today more than ever, it's because they've refused to make concessions to taste, because they
have remained themselves, still expressing, after all those years, feelings and experiences which are now felt and
expressed generally."