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.