Wednesday 25 May 2011

East Durham Memorial Day Weekend

“The Summer time is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
Will you go, lassie, go…”

The lassies will indeed be going, many of the lads too, up to the Irish Alps for Memorial Day Weekend.

East Durham will soon be the dead center of the universe – not to mention Gertie Byrne’s Leeds, a mere stone’s throw down the road.

This will mark my own 18th or 19th consecutive Memorial Weekend spent up there. Pardon the uncertainty but the moment you exit the New York State Thruway you enter an alternate zone where memories and expectations collide and harsh reality doesn’t reassert itself until you fumble for the E-Z pass the following Monday evening.

I sometimes wonder who was the first Irish person to set eyes on the Catskill Mountains, or, more to the point, what Paddy first strode down the dusty lanes around E. Durham? He must have experienced a sense of homecoming.

It doesn’t really look like Ireland up there but the Irish have left their mark. I religiously take a ramble up the back roads beyond The Blackthorne every Memorial Saturday. It’s usually as quiet as the grave; an occasional deer will look up in wonder at the sight of a human.

There’s a wall dividing two small fields long ago constructed by some Clare or Connemara man for I’ve seen its double both on the Burren and around Carna. Overgrown now, wild lilac and dogwood sprouting through its moss, once it was designed to put some manners on the land. The fine fields once hacked from gorse and maple are now almost totally reclaimed by nature.

That’s the way up there. It’s a country for tough, resourceful people who never say die. Take the Handels! The Blackthorne was burnt to the ground last September, but they reopened in late April.

Mountainy men and women have that kind of spirit and they throw open their resorts, motels and hearts to the rest of us for the summer season. And, oh by God, are we ready after long city winters rooting around concrete canyons.

It will be all action up there this coming weekend. Gavin’s, The Shamrock, Erin’s Melody, Weldon House, McKenna’s, McGrath’s and the others will be pulsing, half the people beyond familiar, the others soon to be friends.

Down at the Michael J. Quill Center, Tom McGoldrick has put his usual fine Irish Family Festival together. He’s even persuaded The Whole Shabang to reform for the occasion. Black 47 will have its usual 9pm spot on Saturday night before rushing back to The Blackthorne for a midnight show. They better have the Jameson’s handy!

As ever, though the line up at the E. Durham Festival is stellar, there are no airs or graces and you can rub shoulders with the like of Shilelagh Law, Andy Cooney, The Prodigals, Celtic Cross, Kitty Kelly, Jameson’s Revenge, Brigid’s Cross and a host of others.

I wouldn’t want to omit London’s Bible Code Sundays, Derek Warfield & The Young Wolfe Tones, The Gobshites, Padraig Allen & McLean Avenue and the King of the Catskills, Peter McKiernan, stars in their own right, who won’t make the festival but will rumble the mountains with their powerful joyous din.

There are those who won’t make it. This will be our first Memorial Day without Ginger Handel, housemother to so many musicians. She was always ready for a chat over a cup of tea, a few well-chosen words of advice to lost souls at their wits end, and if none of that worked, then an assurance that an extra dessert or two would not be missed from the pantry.

Yeah, we’ll miss her almost as much as her immediate kin, for she made sure to make us all feel part of a larger family.

The mountains may not be trendy but they’re strong and constant, and their roots run bone deep. If you’re new to the scene, well you won’t be a stranger for long. That’s the way it is up in E. Durham on Memorial Day Weekend.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

autism spectrum disorder

My father always blamed it on an unacknowledged accident at a nuclear plant in Wales. He didn’t make a big deal about it, just occasionally muttered his suspicions into his pint.

He was referring to the upsurge in Down Syndrome births along the Irish coastline in the early 1960’s – my sister, Anne, among them.

All water under the bridge now, both father and daughter have passed on, but I was reminded of his suspicion recently when learning that the incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the US population is now at a rate of 1 in 110.

As some of you know only too well, when you grow up in a house with a special needs child you become sensitive
to anything of that nature; add that to the fact that some years back a friend’s daughter was diagnosed with autism.

Anyway, it’s a rare person nowadays who doesn’t know, or know of, someone with the condition.

My sister’s Down Syndrome changed the whole dynamics of our family life – my mother’s ongoing fear was that Anne would outlive her, then what?

But at least we all understood exactly what had caused her condition: she had been born with one chromosome too many.

While genetics and heritability appear to be the main causes for autism no one really knows the reason for the recent upsurge. Better testing, of course, has added to the numbers. And for a while there was speculation that the rise might be due to childhood inoculation against measles, mumps and rubella, but that seems to have been ruled out, although many still cite it as a possible cause.

Each case is different, ranging all the way from full-blown intellectual disablement to far milder forms often manifesting as behavioral rigidity or difficulty in dealing with social situations.

That being said, the most alarming feature is autism’s rising prevalence, up from 0.6% in the population in the US in 2007 to 0.9% in 2010. Only last week an exhaustive survey from a city in South Korea placed the figure at a staggering 2.6% of all children from 7 to 12.

Many fear that the environment may be suspect for the upsurge, and this at a time when various politicians would like to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Clean air, unfortunately, is not a given, and in our profit driven world this is one agency in need of more financing rather than less.

Some people worry that the food chain might be compromised and pesticides may be to blame.

Could our over-medicated society be at fault? I don’t know but take a look in your bathroom closet - pills for this, tablets for that. Doctors will now routinely write a prescription for Lipitor rather than tell you to wise up and stop eating the greasy foods that are killing you.

Have we in some way, shape or form managed to bring the heartbreak of autism on ourselves?

While every case is indeed different, you see the same strain in each family member’s eyes. Many are overwhelmed by the problems of delivering adequate care and education. At least last year’s Health Care Reform Act will help resolve some of the health insurance issues.

At the moment there is no cure, only treatment that is costly and time consuming; as a society we are in no way prepared for the increasing incidence that shows no sign of abating.

Nonetheless, there are many wonderful people working in the field both trying to identify the causes and dealing with the consequences of the condition. Hats off to them!

For the rest of us it’s time we faced up to the fact that we may share responsibility for this upsurge in autism. The answers may be a long time in coming but for the sake of these children and their families it’s important that we begin to ask the questions.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

John Spillane

There are singers like Liam Clancy who delight in exploring that magical country between the words of songs that often goes unnoticed. Just as there are writers like Nick Drake who can infuse the least amount of words with the most amount of meaning.

It’s a rare singer/songwriter, however, who melds both those gifts. John Spillane is a past master at the art.

I’m sure it doesn’t come easy. Every word and silence in his best songs is pregnant with meaning and defined by a distinctive sense of place. I’d never heard of the Lobby Bar in Cork and yet I can see, and even feel, it as vividly as if I had been a regular.

“There were magic nights in the lobby Bar
With Brendan Ring playing Madame Bonaparte’s
Every note that the piper would play
Would send me away, send me away
Away through the window, away through the rain
Away 'cross the city, away in the air
To a field by a river where the trees are so green
The deepest of green that you've ever seen…”

Then again Spillane’s songs inhabit their own private universe of memory, loss and longing; he finishes the above verse with the gentle advice that,

“You can go any time, you can go any time
‘Cos it’s only in your mind.”

I came upon John’s music through my ongoing search for unique songs to play on Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM show. Now one would think that with the proliferation of CDs nowadays this would be a simple task, but it’s far from the case.

In fact I’m staring guiltily at two daunting towers of unsolicited CDs. And I’m on the artist’s side - I actually delight in finding great new songs and like to think that Celtic Crush is one of the last bastions of originality where good writing is rewarded regardless of commerciality.

Then, in the midst of all the polished mediocrity you’re forced to plough through, you unearth a diamond the like of Spillane. My last discovery had been Shaz Oye, a gay Irish-Nigerian woman from Dublin’s docklands with a voice a cross between Joan Armatrading and Nina Simone.

These two original Irish performers’ only links are talent and a sense of place. Spillane’s is firmly centered in Co. Cork, a hallowed land he claims to be the center of the universe.

I first stumbled upon Spillane on a CD called The Gaelic Hit Factory - a collaboration with the Gaelic poet, Louis De Paor. The track, “Buile Mo Chroí,” The Beat of my Heart, became one of the twenty all time favorites on Celtic Crush.

Close behind it is another spellbinder called “Báisteach” or Rain.

“Do shiúl thar bráid sa tsráid aréir nóscumaliom mar bháisteach
(She) walked past on the street last night as couldn’t-care-less as rain
Comhartha broinne ar a rúitlín clé is lúba airgid ar a riostaí geanmnaí.
A birthmark on her left ankle and silver bracelets on her untouchable wrists.”

Oh man, I wish I’d come up with those lines - in either language! John has the ambition of many great writers – to single out his ordinary world and wrap it in the “cloths of heaven.” And he often succeeds.

His ode to the “Dunnes Store Girl” was a big hit in Ireland and has caused many of us to look a little closer when we visit these temples of commerce for there may be “rebel streets of our dreams” within.

But his song “Passage West” succeeds where others much more celebrated have notably failed – for he captures the reality of modern Ireland and fuses it with the past many of us strain to touch.

“We watched the ferry come and go

We watched the river ebb and flow

The tide breathe in, the tide breathe out

We watched the Passage flowers grow
The ghostly forms of the hungry years

In sad procession did appear

With hope and sorrow made their way

For their passage west to Amerikay”

In subtle ways, this modern man from Cork, John Spillane, touches the soul with the delicate power of a Yeats or Kavanagh.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Bobby Sands MP

“They came from all over the city, down by subway from Inwood and the Bronx, over the bridges and through the tunnels from Queens and Brooklyn, or by ferry in from Staten Island. They drove or took buses from Jersey, Connecticut, Upstate, Pennsylvania.

They came from far and wide to make their views known and their voices heard outside the British consulate on Third Avenue.

They were all part of the tribe, come to protest the imminent death through voluntary starvation of a young chieftain. And make no mistake Bobby Sands was a leader to these people with more moral authority than any trumped up Taoiseach back in Dublin…”

Thirty years ago today Bobby Sands was on the sixty-fifth day of his hunger strike. Many of us were changed by those strange, foreboding days. The tribe never changed, never forgot either nor forgave.

“Not a lace curtain to hang between them, they were the faithful who kept the flame of Irish Republicanism alive in the back rooms of smoky pubs at Sunday evening socials throbbing with the music of accordions, fiddles and banjos.

They were the hard core who gladly forked out crumpled twenty-dollar bills in the hope that one day a united Ireland might become a reality, and not just another pipe dream fueled by chasers of cheap beer and shots of Powers Whiskey.”

I called them the tribe because you always saw the same faces at protests, although they held widely varying views on the nature of their mythic united Ireland.

Accordingly, they were the first to show up outside the British Consulate when Sands went on hunger strike. They could have made it there blindfolded for many had been tramping up and down Third Avenue since the Troubles flared once more in1968.

“They were an odd bunch: serious and cerebral by times, chatty and cliquish at others, but I liked them and admired both their integrity and single-minded devotion to Irish unity. I suppose they reminded me of my grandfather. One in particular even looked like him: white haired, squat and muscular with a face set in granite, conviction cased in steel, all his instincts tuned to the force of his own moral compass.”

My grandfather had raised me in an old barracks of a house in Wexford. I had ingested his version of Irish history and, at an early age, could debate all the old arguments, though I disappointed him with my love for the “turncoat” Mick Collins.

He had been dead some years and I was now living on the Lower East Side, frequenting CBGBS and other temples of the cool. Long before his passing I had distanced myself from the old ideologies and the violence that attended them. Still every now and then in the back of my mind I’d hear his echo, “Every generation must do their part to solve the British problem in the North of Ireland.”

Bobby Sands had his own mantra, “No one can do everything, but everyone has their part to play.”

Both voices had begun to reassert themselves sixty-five days previously when Sands had invoked an ancient Irish tribal right, “when wronged by your more powerful neighbor go starve yourself on his doorstep until the shame causes him to relent.”

But now the minutes were ticking down and Bobby was sinking fast. The Iron Lady, Mrs. Thatcher, would prevail but it would be a hollow Pyrrhic victory, for a new generation had been politicized by Sands’ protest and would hand down its own folk memory.

There would be many dark and dangerous days before the ballot box would finally replace the Armalite but, oddly enough, the first seeds were scattered on poisoned soil thirty years ago.

“Still the tribe never faltered or lost faith. Right to the bitter end, they came in by subway from Inwood and the Bronx, over the bridges and through the tunnels from Queens and Brooklyn, or by ferry in from Staten Island. They drove or took buses from Jersey, Connecticut, Upstate, Pennsylvania. And I will never forget them.”

Excerpts from “Green Suede Shoes – An Irish-American Odyssey” published by Thunder’s Mouth Press/Avalon.