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.