Friday 28 December 2012

Christmas in Wexford

My father always made it home for Christmas. I don’t know what finagling he went through with the Blue Star Line but he spent the holidays with us.

He was a merchant marine on the South American run - from London down to Buenos Aires and back - but wherever he roamed he spent Christmas in Wexford.

He would arrive back his case bulging with presents – stacks of American comics for the boys, suede jackets for the ladies. One year he brought a beautifully plumed parrot. God knows how he got it through customs but sailors were good at that type of thing.

His crewmates had taught this hyper-intelligent creature to swear like a trooper and offer graphic sexual advice to any female who passed within hailing distance. Alas, this tropical pornographer was unable to handle the harsh Irish winter. One frigid February morning we found him head down in his cage, dead of the flu.

My father was not uncommon in his desire to be with his family for Christmas; most Wexford men returned, though usually from London or Birmingham.

Work was scarce in Wexford and many local men were forced to work in the UK. They would carefully divvy up their annual two weeks holidays, a couple of days over Christmas and the rest in the summer when the children would be out of school.

Around mid-December the narrow streets and laneways of the old town would throb with anticipation for the return of fathers flush with extra money gained from time-and-a-half weekend pay.

Amidst this excitement the wives would ice the Christmas cake and store away sumptuous plum puddings in muslin bags. The house would be cleaned and aired; families would soon be reunited and, for a couple of days, cling to the normality of everyday life that others took for granted.

My father enjoyed this mass return – he had much in common with these emigrants. He’d been leaving home since he was fourteen – spent his fifteenth birthday in Russia apprenticed on a ship out of Cardiff.

The pubs would do a roaring trade as men stood rounds for each other. It was their time to be expansive: they’d slaved the previous fifty weeks in British factories, returning at nights to lonely lodging houses, their weekly pay mailed home on Saturday mornings to anxious wives.

My father would be in the midst of all this frantic merriment for he loved pubs and good company. Back then women didn’t frequent these establishments; in fact most ladies rarely took a drink, apart from a sherry or two at a wedding or wake.

The pubs would be boisterous and ring with innocent swearwords, particularly on Christmas Eve, for the hour wouldn’t be long in coming until these breadwinners would be forced to take the boat-train again.

Most men would head up to midnight mass. My father didn’t go with them. He thought all religion was humbug; truth be told, he employed a more scathing term when he had drink taken.

He didn’t care much for the clergy either although he had much time for his brother-in-law, Father Jim Hughes, who had spent most of his life on the missions in the Far East and, more importantly, was a dab hand at picking winners at race meets and point-to-points.

My father rarely made a big deal about his disinterest in religion for back then Ireland was run tight as a fist by the hierarchy; I suppose, it wasn’t worth the hassle. Occasionally he even dropped to his knees during the recitation of the rosary, though he always took care to position the racing page of the newspaper in front of him.

He usually left soon after New Year’s; the damp depressing days of an Irish January were not to his liking. Buenos Aires and the southern summer were calling.

By then over in England the emigrant Wexford men would already have clocked in a week on factory floors dreaming of the faraway summer holidays.

My father never gave much thought to summer for he enjoyed tropical sunshine most of the year. Still, he always made it home for Christmas.

Monday 24 December 2012

Christmas & The Irish-American Princess

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.”

Friday 21 December 2012

Playwriting, Procrastinating & Cyndi Lauper

There’s an old saying, “everyone has at least one good play in them.” Probably true, but how to write one?

I get asked that question frequently and often wonder why? It must be the pure lure of the stage, for one may make a killing in the theatre, but rarely a living.

I’ve been writing plays for almost thirty years – I’m sure of the time frame for I turned down a small part in Cyndi Lauper’s video, Girls Just Want To Have Fun, in my blind desire to finish my first opus, Liverpool Fantasy. Of course I’d no notion the song would prove so successful – another great career move!

Since then I’ve written thirteen more plays and musicals; a couple have even achieved minor success, but my total earnings wouldn’t keep me in a decent year’s beer money. Despite that woeful admission I have any number of new blockbusters rattling around in my head, so I well understand the compulsion to write.

First things first though, playwriting is a craft, not unlike carpentry; hence the appellation – playwright, and one must serve ones time. However, the few masters are rarely willing to take on an apprentice.

Many beginners feel that playwriting is about words: their beauty and flow, instead it’s more concerned with chiseling and carving sentences until they reflect an essential idea; indeed, if an actor can deliver that essence with just a wink or a knowing smile then the words themselves become superfluous.

Unfortunately the apprentice playwright – the master too, apparently - must wade through reams of slush and verbiage to discover what the hell he or she is trying to say in the first place.

There’s one truism that you neglect at your peril: every play must have a spine: in other words, you should be able to sum up the work’s essence in one short active sentence.

The hunt for these pithy words can drive you to distraction - or more likely, drink. Every character you create must also have a purpose and you had better be able to explain this very succinctly to your director who, hopefully, will convey it to the actors in some coherent form.

Ah, the actors! The bane of every playwright – and yet where would we be without them? After years of wrestling with words, spines and looming poverty, you must hand over your birth-panged characters to those who will portray them on stage.

It’s a rarity that the actor will speak the lines as you hear them in your head – and unless you’re Jim Sheridan you shouldn’t dare try mouthing them. Jim has that rare talent of instantly morphing into your characters – men and women – and brining them to life just as you imagined them.

Despite all the torment you’ll go through with overwrought thespians, one of them will eventually turn you into a decent playwright. I had the great fortune to both write for and direct that titan of the theatre, Patrick Bedford.

By that point I had learned enough about directing to just keep the hell out of his way. He was playing Capt. Willie O’Shea in my play, Mister Parnell. Utilizing pure skill and not a little genius he brought that blackguard to life as I’d imagined him, thus gifting me the confidence to trust my instincts ever after.

That’s the most important lesson in theatre – perhaps, life too: once you’ve set your compass, stick to it, you’ll then learn from every failure as well as from the occasional success.

What are the pluses in this game? Well, you don’t have to pass any tests to get started. Get yourself a couple of good actors and, if you can’t find a decent director, do it yourself - remember Jim Sheridan had to start somewhere too.

There’s nothing quite like the high of seeing a random idea leap out of your brain onto a page, and later manifest itself onstage.

So, go for it! What do you have to lose – well the occasional sight of Cyndi Lauper cavorting in her video and knowing that you too could be up there having fun with her.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Sandy, Overheating, and Frank Herbert's Whiskey

I suppose in the light of the death, disaster and loss of property that accompanied the recent super storm, we must face the reality that global warming may not be just a figment of your average tree-hugger’s imagination.

Not that the appropriately named Sandy was necessarily triggered by man-made causes, nonetheless it’s impossible to ignore that three of the ten highest floods in the Battery Park area over the last century have occurred in the last three years.

We are continually warned by politicians about the danger of handing over an unsupportable national debt to future generations, but what if we’re also passing on an unsupportable planet?

The mind boggles at the prospect, given that we may have already set events in motion that will be difficult to reverse. But stop them we must – either now at a very expensive price, or later when that cost and effort may be beyond both our pockets and capabilities.

“Balderdash!” You might say and you could be right; but what if you’re wrong? There was a time when I enjoyed reading Science Fiction and attended that genre’s various conventions. At one such affair I even “appropriated” a bottle of whiskey belonging to Frank Herbert, the writer of Dune, but that’s a story for another day.

While Dune is still a terrific read, there’s little to be gained in tackling most of this geeky literature since much of the fiction I enjoyed is fast becoming fact.

A painting from one of these long-ago conventions haunted me in the last weeks. It showed the island of Manhattan surrounded by large Gothic battlements built to withstand a swollen ocean caused by an overheated earth – a fantastical notion back then.

It reminded me that we seem to have lost the will – or the foresight - to confront only the most immediate of problems. But those of you who grew up in rural areas know that the land must be treated with respect; farmers inherently understand the wisdom of rotating crops and allowing arable fields to lie fallow every so often.

Our continuing reliance on oil and natural gas is madness. These resources are finite and will run out. Besides, we’re still essentially utilizing the same technology as Henry Ford with his Model T, still spewing the same gasoline fumes into the atmosphere and at the same ridiculously low mileage to the gallon.

President Obama boasts about upping these rates to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Did he ever hear of Europe? They’ve been getting this mpg on some cars ever since the Carter administration. In fact the US was on the fast track to similar rates back when bell-bottoms and disco were all the rage. What happened?

Well, we decided that the poor oil companies and auto-manufacturers needed time to update; then soon thereafter gas prices went through the floor, so who gave a damn anymore.

Thirty-five years later gas is expensive again and now we’re supposed to wait until 2025 for what Europe already has?

But it’s more than that - China and India want their shot at gluttonous excess, and self-righteous sermons from our politicians will likely fall on deaf ears.

Not to worry! We now have fracking - so drill baby drill, burn baby burn! What a break, just when oil reserves were beginning to show the inevitable signs of decline, we came up with a new technology to fracture shale and release the natural gas inside.

Great stuff! But in some areas fracking is affecting the water supply. We’re already damaging the very air we breathe with gas emissions; whatever we do, let us bequeath clean water to our descendants.

No one is even suggesting that we not utilize the vast new reserves of natural gas that have already brought prosperity to previously low income states like North Dakota, but easy does it when messing with the water supply.

If we gain only one thing from the aftermath of the Sandy tragedy, let it be that we become aware of the fragility of the world around us; let us be sure to hand over this beautiful planet to the next generation in at least the health it was handed to us.

Sunday 9 December 2012

dem damned behans

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 28 November 2012

America the changeable

The most important lesson learned from the recent elections is that the US is no longer the country many of us assumed it to be.

Was it ever? Probably not, just when the pious Pilgrims thought they had found their “shining city upon a hill” they had to deal with the rambunctious merchant Dutch.

These New Amsterdamers, however, were a heavenly host compared with the hordes of Papist Paddies who swept through the Eastern Seaboard followed by waves of Germans, Jews, Italians, Hispanics and Asians – not to mention resentful Africans in chains.

These United States are in constant flux. All the more amazing then that a political party would choose to actively alienate more recent arrivals along with other entrenched minorities. Indeed, it often appears that the modern GOP is the spiritual heir of the 19th Century Know-Nothing Party.

My own poor observations of the recent election campaign led me to believe that President Obama would win between 300 and 330 electoral votes. The bedrock of that assumption was that Gov. Romney could not win Ohio, or any other Mid-Western industrialized state, after stating that he would not have intervened to save the iconic American automobile industry.

I also felt that by coming out against the Dream Act the governor would lose both Colorado and Florida, states with large Hispanic voting blocks.

Although most polls correctly predicted the president’s re-election, my sense is that African-Americans, Hispanics and youth have traditionally been under-represented - particularly in landline calls – thus leading to a greater Obama margin of victory.

Why then did Gov. Romney schedule a fireworks victory extravaganza over Boston Harbor for election night? Probably because his pollsters were looking at a country they imagined rather than the real one in front of their eyes. They believed their own hype.

As did most of the media, and that’s one of the problems with modern society. The media jumps on an idea, expounds on it endlessly until it seems to become a reality – “seems” being the operative word.

In the recent election the “reality” was the First Debate “knockout.” Actually, I thought the president shaded the debate in substance, if not style. The governor argued very well but said little of any consequence – his mistake through the whole campaign. He ran against the president’s record but was unable to specify or - more importantly – quantify his own plans.

He did get a solid boost in the polls immediately after the first debate but that was likely Republicans and “independents” coming home. Then again, I’ve always felt that that a majority of white independents (are there any others?) naturally lean more Republican than Democrat.

Did the much-vaunted Obama ground team win the election? They definitely helped but only by enfranchising mostly minority voters and bringing them into the system.

In the end, the victory didn’t hinge on unemployment figures or the economy – most voters felt that the president was a decent enough man who had taken on an almost impossible job. They agreed with him that saving the automobile industry and stabilizing an errant financial industry by judicious big government intervention were necessary moves. After all, what were the alternatives?

Four social truths were learned and they tipped the vote decisively in the president’s favor: Young people are open to gay rights and marriage, women resent politicians who call for the abolition of Planned Parenthood, Hispanics don’t care for the notion of self-deportation, and African-Americans sense inherent racism in the more lurid opposition to this black president (voting patterns among whites in the eleven states of the Confederacy would seem to support their suspicions).

I, for one, am an admirer of certain core Republican principles; this is after all the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower; and there is need for a true conservative party – but one that looks to figures rather than fantasies.

In Texas a majority of schoolchildren are now Hispanic – in twelve years the Lone Star will be a swing state. This is an ever-changing country – any party that ignores that fact does so at its peril.

It’s time for a return of common sense to politics. Chickens always come home to roost.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

The People Have Spoken

So, the election is all over bar the shoutin’! And if you’re from a “swing” state, I’m sure you’re beyond relieved. The rest of us could have slept through the whole affair - says a lot for the Electoral College take on democracy.

How did this election ever end up so competitive – in popular votes, at least? Why would 49% of the country be willing to invest their hopes in a candidate whose only economic policy was “trust me I’m a businessman?”

Oh well, in the end sanity prevailed. But it was a close call and, perhaps, when all is said and done, Gov. Romney would have made a decent president. We’ll never know, given that his views changed more often than Westport weather.

The important question now is will President Obama waste the next two years, as he did his first two, fantasizing that Congressional Republicans will make any meaningful compromise to promote both economic growth and deficit reduction.

He’s got less than seven weeks to come up with a plan that will prevent the “fiscal cliff” can from being booted into next year. What’s so difficult? Cuts will have to be made in entitlements and taxes raised on those earning above $250,000.

There is no lack of credible plans, including the Simpson-Bowles Report; it’s political courage that’s in short supply.

The President should be bold – what has he got to lose? His next race will probably be the 2017 New York Marathon. And he shouldn’t waste his time smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis with Republican House Leader, John Boehner – that man will have enough on his plate dodging his backstabbing second in command, Rep. Eric Cantor.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will be of even less help: with the Tea Party threatening a primary challenge, look for him to be veering somewhere to right of Attila The Hun over the next two years.

The President should put a reasonable offer on the table; then take his case to the country. Many Republican seats will be up for election in 2014 and blatant obstructionism will not be a popular platform on which to run. The people want a meaningful political compromise that will keep them off the bread lines while paying down the Chinese credit card.

One thing we will get is emigration reform and mucho pronto. In fact it will be a rare Republican who will not be sporting a sombrero and munching on tacos over the next four years. Gov. Romney would be packing for the Oval Office now if he hadn’t advised “self-deportation” to a politically astute and growing Latino population.

No matter what Fox TV says - there has to be a pathway for decent, hard-working people to gain legal status while continuing to contribute to the growth of the country.

One of the highlights of election night was witnessing how democracy is nurtured by the forging of coalitions. President Obama was re-elected by a wide-ranging alliance not limited to women, young people, Latinos, African-Americans, union-members, entrepreneurs, gays, and people from all across the political spectrum who see strength in diversity and community.

The country is evolving and changing – not just in the urban areas but out in the heartland too. American’s greatest resource has always been its vast melting pot that encourages people to reach out beyond their own ethnic and socio-economic confines. Historically, any political party that turns its back on changing demographics does so at its peril.

There will be changes in the ranks of power down in DC. Look for Senator Elizabeth Warren to protect the rights of the consumer and to help a lightly regulated financial industry understand that there’s more to this country than just making a buck.

But perhaps most importantly - two misguided little men will not pervert the corridors of DC with their antediluvian notions that rape is ever “legitimate” or the “will of God.”

The election is indeed over – the people have spoken. It’s time for both sides to give up the petty party politics and work together to restore the country to a sound social and economic footing.

Thursday 15 November 2012

colony records and the sound of silence

You may have noticed Colony Records as you strolled down Broadway – a relic from another era on the corner of 49th. Come to think of it Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant used to be just up the block; in days gone by the old mauler would shake your hand and inquire how things were in Glocca Morra should you mention you were Irish.

Though Colony Records didn’t quite have Dempsey’s pedigree I meant to make one last visit before its recent demise.

Colony did sell records, CDs too, but sheet music was their bag! The store was a Mecca for musicologists - from the highbrow on the hunt for archaic symphonies or barely remembered Broadway flops, to the more humble of us who couldn’t figure out some chord or other.

There was a dusty feel to the place, in keeping with the mounds of sheet music that straddled the store; in fact, part of the charm of a visit was watching the very knowledgeable clerks locate some manuscript from amidst the seeming chaos.

This hunt was often preceded by the customer humming or hollering some bars to the clerk who would cock his ears in empathetic concentration before leaping into action.

On the rare occasion he was flummoxed a colleague would be summoned and the customer instructed to have another belt at the melody; by this time a crowd would have gathered, for customers were often as well versed as the clerks.

It was in Colony one day that I realized I was standing within kissing distance of Paul Simon. I may have had a minor heart attack before embracing the compulsory New York cool. For a kid from Wexford to be sharing the same rarified oxygen with the writer of Bridge Over Troubled Waters was indeed an occasion.

I was later to meet Mr. Simon in the Irish Repertory Theatre when he attended a children’s musical, Rafferty Rescues The Moon, for which I had written the songs. While lounging in the foyer after a particularly spirited performance he approached me.

“Can I tell you something, man?” He inquired.

As I awaited his inevitable benediction of approval, I remembered our first “encounter” at Colony and marveled at how far I’d traveled.

“The piano was out of tune,” he murmured as I fought back the urge to introduce him to the wonders of a Ringsend Uppercut.

But now Colony is gone and with it the warren of studios, rehearsal rooms and agents’ offices that cluttered the upstairs floors of the Brill Building.
Talk about Broadway Danny Rose! Singers, comedians, bands and just the plain crazy flocked to that building, and if you had the required chutzpah you could stroll in on the highest of the mighty, particularly around lunch hour when the receptionists abandoned ship.

Many of these managers, agents and owners of small record companies tended to be squat, no-nonsense Jewish men who liked to chew on large cigars. They were always sympathetic, however, when you informed them you were “just off the boat from Ireland.”

One of them later explained that this arose “because Paul O’Dwyer smuggled guns into Israel for the Haganah.” Probably another Tin Pan Alley rumor, but as ever politics and music make for the oddest of bedfellows.

I liked those old Jewish gentlemen. Some of them may have ripped off the occasional musician but at least they could be appealed to. The new magnates now just appropriate us without even showing their faces.

A case in point: Who the hell is Spotify and what law or deity allows them to hijack my music without even a by-your-leave? In the old days I could have strolled up to the Brill Building, admired a gorgeous receptionist while she attended to her nails, and eventually gained an audience with my tormentor.

Ah, the good old days when one could rub shoulders with the Sound of Silence himself in Colony Records. And by the way, I think you were full of it, Paul - that Irish Rep piano still sounds in tune to me.

Saturday 3 November 2012

I'm Voting Conservative

Since my Irish Echo colleague, Gerry Adams, will supply next week’s column, this will be my final missive about the presidential election. Hooray for Sinn Fein, says your man from Pearl River!

What a long strange trip this election season has been; and the oddest part of it for me: despite the acres of words written about him, I still have little sense of Gov. Romney.

Part of this stems from his unwillingness to speak openly about his core religious beliefs. In fairness, Mormonism has been viewed suspiciously, and even persecuted, since its foundation in upstate New York almost 200 years ago.

Despite this, it’s a credit to the country that the Governor’s religion has played little role in this election. But I would venture to suggest that Mormon turnout in Nevada and Colorado could swing those two pivotal states into the Republican column.

Now, I’m of the opinion that a president’s private beliefs should remain his own. And yet, I have no idea how a President Romney would react to a major international crisis. And that’s scary – given our alliance with Israel and the lines in the sand that are being drawn with regard to Iran and its nuclear program.

The US suffered much from the melding of President Bush’s biblical fantasies and his obsession with fictional weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And who could have guessed that the supposedly agnostic British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, shared many of these beliefs and delusions until he revealed them in his memoirs.

Now hopefully Gov. Romney is the ultra-pragmatic venture capitalist of his memoir but that’s hard to be certain of for his positions seem to change by the day – probably because he must appease the many factions of a deeply divided Republican party that range from an apocalyptic Christian Right through neo-conservative Iraq War apologists to deficit hawks.

In contrast the once-turbulent Democrat Party seem more like a Saturday afternoon knitting circle. Though often labeled a socialist, so staid and centrist are President Obama’s views he might not even gain membership of the Wexford Labour Party, not exactly a fire-breathing Trotskyite cell.

The much derided Obamacare, though a step in the right direction, is essentially a patching together of existing systems that will do little to bring down overall medical costs; in fact, it used to be the Republican alternative to the Clintons’ much more efficient version of a single-payer system.

Odd as it may seem, “no drama” Obama is the real conservative in this election. We know his policies and their likely effect; should lady luck favor him the economy will improve steadily over the next four years - though the middle class will continue to shrink because of the lack of any major restraints on corporate power.

Contrast that with the Republican ticket. Slash taxes 20% in a Hail Mary pass that will hopefully shock-start the economy! But what if it doesn’t? The deficit will surely balloon unless you cut defense, entitlements or mortgage interest tax deductions. Given the saber-rattling about Iran, my guess is that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and homeowner relief will all take a big hit.

That’s the problem with current Republican fiscal policy – it’s of the wing and prayer variety with little reality basis, except that it was tried by the last Bush administration and led to the evisceration of the Clinton surplus.

Likewise the mad urge to eliminate Obamacare – and replace it with what? As it stands even the insurance companies don’t want to go back to the old broken system – and why should they with so many new clients arriving courtesy of Obamacare mandatory coverage.

All that being said, I’m coming to agree with a friend who believes that this election will be decided less on economic matters than the reluctance of women to trust Romney/Ryan on social issues. She feels that with a couple of Supreme Court justices likely to be replaced in the next four years women are leery of upsetting the current somewhat reasonable balance of power.

So there you have it, faced with a choice between a radical Romney and a conservative Obama – I guess I’ll be voting conservative this year.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Democracy and the Zen of Voting

So you’re sick of the whole political process? A pity about you! The real question is – are you going to vote?

I sure as hell am, if only because I don’t want my long-interred grandfather hovering over my bed the night of November 6th.

“People died for your right to cast a vote,” he used to say. “If you hate them all equally, then vote for the most harmless.”

Not bad advice in the current political environment.

Amazingly only 57% of the voting age population exercised this sacred right in the 2008 presidential election but, at least, that trumped the 49% of 1996. The highest modern turnout was in 1960, not coincidentally the year of the first televised debate, when 63% chose between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The greatest turnout was a staggering 81% in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln defeated Douglas, Breckenridge and Bell. But as my granny would say, “Sure where would you get another Lincoln?”

Nor does the future look so promising. Despite all the ballyhoo in 2008 when 18-24 year olds were supposed to have swamped the polls, only 49% of those eligible actually cast a vote, compared to 47% in 2004.

They did, however, vote in large numbers for Barack Obama which might not augur well for the president since he’s generating much less enthusiasm among Generation Y of late. Of course, if voting could be done by text or tweet Gov. Romney might as well stay home in San Diego and design a couple of new garage elevators.

On the face of it adapting social media tools to vote might seem like a crazy idea but democracy is ever evolving: the 1860 election was one of the first where ownership of property wasn’t an essential qualification for voting.

Women didn’t even get a vote until 1920; while there have been repeated attempts of late to deny the poor and uneducated the right to vote - all in the name of protection against voter fraud. If only people were lining up to vote twice – hardly the case since voting once seems to be beyond so many Americans.

Then again, democracy is about much more than just having a vote. To stay healthy and vibrant it should also provide an avenue for economic advancement. With the rich getting richer the great American middle class is being squeezed ever tighter. The figures say it all: 1% of the population now owns over 40% of the country’s wealth compared to the 33% they controlled in 1987.

Is there a solution? Sure, vote for candidates eager to change the tax code’s preferential treatment of income from investments – that would help level the economic playing field. Such candidates, however, tend to be hard to identify in election years when they’re busy shaking down well-heeled donors.

Oh my, democracy can be exhausting – especially in a sound-bite age where you can pop on your television and get all the news that’s fit to yell in tasty little morsels.

Voting against candidates who wish to scrap the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act would be a shot in the arm for both democracy and economic equilibrium. This pesky piece of legislation gives nightmares to those in the financial industry who almost drove the country into the ground four years ago – and will do so again unless stringently regulated.

The greatest threat to US economic democracy, however, may have already arrived in the form of High Frequency Trading (HFT). Upwards of 60% of all transactions on the US stock markets are now being made by unregulated HFT cowboys who trade stocks amongst themselves at warp speed and reap billions annually.

Nice work if you can get it, says you! Unfortunately, your 401(k), pension funds and savings are being buffeted by this ongoing gale-force financial onslaught. Can a crisis of major proportions be far away?

Democracy must grapple with such issues on a daily basis. That’s why it’s so important that you vote, especially for the odd visionary who might help the system adapt so that it can deal with the many obvious threats and, just as importantly, those we’ve yet to imagine.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Judy Blue Eyes

Stephen Stills called her Judy Blue Eyes. The color is still vivid but the first thing you notice is the fierce intelligence that informs those eyes.

There’s a wariness too, common to those who have spent long years in the public eye. But that dissipates at the first mention of her father, Charles Collins, a legendary radio host in Denver where Judy spent much of her formative years.

Chuck Collins was a larger than life figure – he never let the fact that he was blind hold him back from anything, including, apparently, driving a car. However, it was his identification with his Irish roots and his love of music that was to give Ms. Collins a foundation that would stand to her through a vaunted career.

As likely to burst into song around the house as in the radio studio, he gave her Danny Boy, Kerry Dancers and countless other ballads – all of them a link to a homeland he never visited though its soul was ever restless within him.

He provided her with the DNA of the song that would introduce me to her back in McCullough Pigott’s music store in Dublin. In those days you could take a private listen in a booth before buying an album.

The voice that emerged from the muffled speakers was clear and cool as a mountain stream flush with melted snow. Her delivery may have been calm and controlled but there was no doubting the deep well of feeling from which it sprang.

My father always promised us that we would live in France
We’d go boating on the Seine and I would learn to dance
We lived in Ohio then, he worked in the mines
On his dreams like boats we knew we would sail in time…

Amazingly it was only the fourth song she ever wrote. Pain, regret, hope, optimism, and many other high and low water marks of the human condition surfaced in those magical five minutes.

Her father never heard it. She finished it four days before his death. She didn’t make a big deal of this; in a life of tumult and creativity such things happen. Mark them and move on, for as much as she’s experienced, there’s always a new song to write, a new performance to be given.

That’s why the Irish American Writers & Artists bestowed the fourth annual Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award on Judy Collins on October 15. It was given as much in recognition of the promise that lies ahead as for the trailblazing life of achievement she’s led.

As befits the honoree of an organization set up to pursue progressive goals shortly before the 2008 Presidential election, Judy Collins has long stood for civil rights and an ongoing insistence that every woman, man and child on this planet deserves to be treated with human dignity.

Perhaps her finest quality is her generosity to other artists – despite being a master songwriter she has never stopped championing the talents of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jacques Brel, Randy Newman and perhaps, most famously, Leonard Cohen.

Had she not persuaded a reluctant Mr. Cohen to perform for the first time at Town Hall in 1967 and then insisted that he return after he fled the spotlight with an extreme bout of stage fright, we would all have been the poorer.

But that’s Judy Collins for you. The tales of her intuitive kindness are legendary. No doubt her friend, Tom Paxton, will expound on this and others of her sterling qualities on Monday night. Or he could just play us her version of his classic, The Last Thing On My Mind.

Dry-eyed and cool as a prairie winter she breathes new life into this tale of regret and sends the turbulent years reeling away. At such moments you can trace the graceful woman back to the girl in the Colorado kitchen listening to her Irish father sing the songs of a country he never set foot in but knew so well.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Here We Go Again

Well, we’ve hit the final furlong and, as a Mets fan, I ain’t talking baseball! We’ve entered the rundown for the Presidential, and just as importantly, the congressional elections.

I’ve been keeping my powder dry, partly because of the degeneration of the race into a money-grubbing disgrace, but also on account of the abject failure of Gov. Romney to come up with any credible economic platform. His old company, Bain Capital, wouldn’t give his national business plan a second look.

According to a friend none of that matters. She feels that this election will be settled on social matters – that women will think long and hard before handing over power to a party that’s being fueled by a misogynist Christian Right.

I wonder? Personally, I think that two numbers will decide the election – should the national average for gas remain under $4 a gallon and the Dow above 13,000, President Obama will be entertaining Malia’s high school boyfriends in the White House over the next four years.

Awful though it may seem, Americans have become somewhat inured to the 8% unemployment figure. Not that they’re being heartless but most are just plain relieved that they’re not on the bread line themselves.

If the unemployed were to feel that they would get a better deal under Gov. Romney, then the president would soon be updating his resume; but given some of his recent “victim” statements one gathers the Republican candidate is not a fan of unemployment insurance.

Gov. Romney talks about creating 12 million jobs. Where did he get the figure from – the 12 apostles? Might as well have said 47 million and given Black 47 the credit.

He’s obviously pulling figures from a hat – a common Republican economic practice ever since President Bush, in his wisdom, cut taxes while fighting two wars.

Now despite his bellicose tirades about Iran, Gov. Romney is hardly crazy enough to bomb the ayatollahs, yet he’s reciting the same old failed Bush economic cant – lower taxes and abolish regulations.

Oddly enough, over the last 25 years economic growth has closely followed tax increases, while there’s been a corresponding economic decline in the wake of tax cuts. Go figure!

Amazingly, bad as things have been, more private sector jobs have been created in the three plus years of the Obama regime than in either term of the George W. Bush administration. And yet we’re being asked to place our faith in Gov. Romney, a man who hails from the world of venture capitalism where the lure of profit usually trumps any thought of job creation.

As for his running mate, I wonder if he’s using a pseudonym? I’ve known many Ryans and, to a person, they all call it as they see it. The gentleman from Janesville, WI has no problem doing the calling, but is either not very good at arithmetic or is a born optimist.

He wishes to redraw income taxes into two brackets 25% and 10% and slash corporate taxes. This would, of course, knock the bottom out of government revenues; quite conveniently, he neglects to mention the spending cuts necessary to make up the shortfall.

The most obvious cut is the mortgage-interest deduction. Try explaining that to homeowners, not to mention that it could really put the boot into a housing market that is finally showing signs of revival. No wonder the Republican ticket tiptoes through the tulips whenever this sensitive subject is broached.

What else could be pared down? Defense, hell no! And have all those poor arms contractors go belly-up? It’s far more likely that infrastructure renewal, education, medical and scientific research would get a severe haircut; whereas investment in each of these sectors is far more likely to spur economic growth than tax cuts. So where does that leave us?

One could quote Democratic president, William Jefferson Clinton and complain of Gov. Romney’s grasp of basic arithmetic, but in the interests of bipartisanship, I defer to that most revered Republican president, Ronald Wilson Reagan, and instead declaim, “there you go again!”

Monday 1 October 2012

Working Class Hero

One can always tell the economic, if not spiritual, health of Ireland by the regard in which James Connolly is held.

Had he sprung from his quicklimed grave during the Celtic Tiger he would barely have raised an eyebrow. In the current economic malaise, however, his policies and warnings have been gaining renewed traction.

American Labor has no such influential theoretician, even giants the like of Big Bill Haywood and Mother Jones barely merit footnotes nowadays. Indeed, if Americans even think of labor leaders, Jimmy Hoffa is probably the first to spring to mind.

Connolly continues to have influence because of his prescience. Over 100 years ago he warned of the threat international big business would pose to the financial wellbeing of workers and their families. Between outsourcing, union busting, and a well-financed media assault, oh Mr. Connolly, how right you were!

One has only to look at that darling of corporate America, Apple Inc. On the face of it, I’m an admirer. I’m typing this column on a Mac Book Pro, my iPhone is within grasp; chances are, if Apple got into the booze business, I’d probably jettison my beloved Sierra Nevada for iPaleAle.

And yet this titan of innovation that turned a profit of $26 billion last year pays its iGenius staff just over 11 bucks an hour. Why? Because it doesn’t allow unionization! In fact store managers undergo “union awareness” training.

It seems those awfully outdated institutions, labor unions, tend to put a dent in corporate profits with such petty demands as a decent living wage. Unions even go so far as to frown on exporting jobs to Chinese sweatshops.

Come to think of it, Apple’s investors could use a union of their own since this fabulously profitable company has only paid one dividend in the last 17 years. Talk about corporate dictatorship!

Now there is no denying that in the past unions have made bull-headed calls that have led to the closure of businesses; but this has hardly been the case of late. Even the mighty UAW compromised and settled for an entry-level $14 per hour last year - hardly a wage that promises a white picket fence, let alone a house within.

Add to that the fact that jobs in the $12-$21 per hour class are fast disappearing and being replaced by those in the $7-11 field. You will be happy to learn that jobs in the $22-50 per hour stratum are holding steady.

This trend will eventually lead to a vast underclass with little hope of social mobility; relatively speaking, the same situation that James Connolly faced a century ago. My, oh my, what progress we’ve made.

To make matters worse most of this new peon class has little or no representation and thus barely any political clout. Of course, there is the possibility that through hard work some can leapfrog to the $20 plus per hour club. However, because of inequality of educational opportunity that chasm is increasingly hard to bridge.

Labor and professional unions are the only hope now – not only for a decent wage but for any kind of job security. Look around you! Someone you know has been afraid to ask for a raise of late even as their standard of living is plummeting in this era of zooming corporate profits.

With a few exceptions corporate loyalty, a.k.a. job security is now a joke. In fact, the recent recession has provided a smoke screen that allows corporations to make a naked grab for power; this has led to a re-alignment in the balance between board room/management and both white/blue-collar workers.

Not only has boardroom/management won the battle of public perception – unions are now seen as the root of the problem rather than as an active partner in protecting the rights of workers who want a decent standard of living and an eventual dignified retirement.

It’s time to turn the tide and salute our labor unions rather than to continue vilifying and humiliating them. You may feel you don’t need them now but, chances are, you will in the near future.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Hard Times

Talk about 40 Shades of Grey! History’s tints are legion and encompass every color in the spectrum.

And yet we often speak of the past as though etched in black and white, untouched by humanity’s imperfect fingers, with the result that inconvenient facts and attitudes are often swept aside.

Take the great mid-19th Century migration of Irish to the US. At such a great remove the ultimate triumph seems inevitable. But oh what suffering these despised immigrants endured to gain a foothold on the slippery and unwelcoming “shores of Amerikay.”

Sick, hungry and baffled by this new bustling, indifferent world many were ripped off at shipside by scurrilous agents (often Irish) promising them safe lodgings. Some, indeed, saw more people on their first day in the US than they had encountered in whole lives spent back in their native countryside.

The sights, sounds, expectations and obligations were unfamiliar and frightening. Unable to support their families, some men cracked under the strain, retreating to shebeens; others fled to more familiar and welcoming rural areas never to return.

This left a surplus of Irish women, some of whom partnered with more affluent African-Americans who held good jobs as waiters, sailors and stevedores. These couples were called “amalgamationists;” for the most part they lived in their own streets and alleys of New York City’s notorious Five Points.

That all changed on July 13, 1863, when the Civil War Draft Riots broke out. These disturbances were sparked by a provision that allowed draftees to buy their way out of the Union Army for a sum of $300.

The tension had been mounting since January when Abraham “Africanus” Lincon had proclaimed the emancipation of slaves in the Confederate states. Unscrupulous Democratic politicians fanned the “unease” by suggesting that the New York City labor market would be flooded by an influx of newly freed slaves.

This is the volatile world I explore in Hard Times, a dramatic musical that opens tomorrow night at The Cell Theatre. For a score I chose mostly Stephen Foster songs since he was present in the Five Points during the riots and writing some of his best, though underappreciated, music.

Foster would die six months later at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket. Some think his death was caused by suicide – his family claimed he fell on a jug and cut his throat in a Bowery rooming house.

I first became attracted to Foster’s music as a teenage guitarist accompanying customers in Wexford pubs. I used to marvel at the latent sadness of Old Folks At Home when delivered by a burly sailor, while a refined old man left dents in my heart from his melancholic delivery of Gentle Annie.

The old Five Points neighborhood is now interred beneath the Foley Square courthouses. Charles Dickens immortalized the area in his American Journals though he disapproved of the fraternization between Irish and African-Americans; nor was he particularly fond of the music they hammered out together, although he did admire their dance steps – these would later morph into Tap dancing.

While creating Hard Times I often walked down the same flagstones of the Bowery that Foster tread upon and wondered about this singular composer. What drove him to live out his days in a pulsing, melting-pot New York slum when he could have enjoyed a comfortable life with his wife and child back in Pittsburgh?

Supposedly he was by then a down and out alcoholic. But drunks don’t churn out 30 songs in a year – especially of the quality of Beautiful Dreamer, one of his last, or the even more haunting Why No One To Love.

The accepted portrait of Foster is that of a self-destructive artist, wan and pensive; but what then to make of a photograph taken of him, hale and hearty weeks before his death with his friend and collaborator, George Cooper?

What was Stephen Foster doing in the Five Points during the riots? Obviously writing – but was he also waiting for someone? We’ll never know for certain but some answers are suggested in Hard Times at The Cell Theatre, 338 W. 23rd St. NYC until Sept. 30th.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Open The Doors

I spent a couple of weeks in Australia last November working on a musical with Tom Keneally of Schindler’s List fame, an experience in and of itself.

What with jet lag and dealing with a new creative team, I was in Sydney some days before I even noticed the general buoyancy of mood. It was hard to put your finger on it, but this bustling city resembled New York of the Clinton years. It hit home for me just how oppressive our own current recession has become.

There was a can-do attitude in the Sydney summer air that you used to be able to cut with a knife across the length and breadth of the US. This general Australian optimism was spiced by the buoyant voices of young foreigners – many of them Irish.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, the voices of a previous generation of young Irish were ricocheting around the pubs of Bainbridge Avenue, and on the construction sites and playgrounds of Manhattan.

What a loss! The best-educated generation of Irish people no longer sees the US as a viable emigration option. Now they bestow their talents on European nations, Australia and even Arab emirates; if they think of North America at all, Canada makes more sense.

Are we crazy? The United States is a nation founded by emigrants and nourished by them in successive waves. Now granted we had the tragedy of 9/11and the erection of Fortress America in the Bush years; but even President George W. himself made a sincere effort to enact an Immigration Reform Act before being stymied by his own party.

Although timid and pragmatic to an extreme, the current administration has made some concessions to common sense. President Obama did back the Dream Act and, in a small way, circumvented Congress’s veto thereof by ordering deportation deferral and a two-year work permit for children of undocumented immigrants.

Whatever about their parents, these young people are Americans; they’ve grown up in this country and were educated here. Why waste that investment in some Know-Nothing scheme to “repatriate” them?

In a time of little good news it did the heart good to see the pictures of 13,000 hopeful under-30’s lined up on Navy Pier in Chicago recently to receive help in filling out their immigration papers.

Finally, a dim ray of rationality in a ludicrous situation! The lunacy cuts right across the immigrant board. Where, after all, is the sanity in subsidizing and spending scarce resources to put foreign students through US colleges and then sending them back to their countries the moment they graduate? Give them all green cards, I say! They’ll more than pay their way.

The high-tech boom of the 80’s and 90’s was fueled by foreign STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) graduates. Because of a feckless system of high school education not enough Americans venture into these fields in college, so what’s the solution? Send the foreigners home, even though US industry is crying out for graduates in such fields? Google, Intel, Yahoo and eBay, among others, were founded in part by foreign-born graduates.

Besides, a recent economic survey showed that immigrants are more than twice as likely as American born to start businesses. Stands to reason; if you have the gumption to sell up in your own country and make a new start in the US you’re going to do your damnedest to succeed.

As most Irish born immigrants will testify, when you arrive here you either sink or swim, and even if you have someone at home to call for help, you wouldn’t dream of it because of pride.

Which pretty much puts paid to the whole Nativist idea of the lazy immigrant leeching from generous hosts. I’ve known immigrants from all over the world but never a one that wasn’t hard-working with an eye to making life better for their children.

Apart from Native-Americans we’re all descended from foreigners but US history is strewn with those who as soon as they’ve established themselves wish to pull the ladder up behind them.

It’s time to throw open the doors of Fortress America again, let in some fresh air, and drop the ladder one more time.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Legal Menace

After the murder of 12 people and the wounding of 58 by a seriously deranged shooter in Aurora, CO I decided to let the dust settle before broaching gun control - or lack thereof.

But with the country awash in upwards of 300 million guns it’s hardly surprising that the carnage continues unabated. A white skinhead supremacist, so stupid that he couldn’t tell the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim, took out 6 more people in their house of worship scarcely a week later.

How can a criminally insane person manage to acquire an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 12-gauge 870 shotgun, two 40-caliber Glock handguns and 6000 rounds of ammunition?

A simple answer – without breaking a sweat; James Holmes, the Colorado suspect, was perfectly within his rights. Guy could have bought 60,000 rounds through the Internet with little more hassle than ordering a dozen albums from his favorite bands.

Just as Wade Michael Page could legally purchase a 9-millimeter handgun at a local gun store, despite the fact that he had a criminal record, a long and storied history of involvement in the white supremacist movement, and was dismissed from the US Army “without an honorable discharge.”

Ever met a white supremacist skinhead bigot? Well, let’s just say they’re not exactly the type you’d take home to Mom. But what’s a gun store employee to do. This creep had the law on his side – no matter how crazy, hateful and ignorant he may have been.

When will this madness end - this craven bending of the knee to the National Rifle Association? Well, not while we have the current brace of politicians running in the presidential elections.

One could hardly have expected any principled stand from Mr. Romney – while Governor of Massachusetts he supported an assault weapon ban and embraced strong anti-gun laws. However, as soon as he departed Red Sox Nation he joined the NRA and now boasts of his skill at blowing the hell out of “small varmints.”

President Obama, on the other hand, supposedly supports a renewed ban on assault rifles along with background checks on those purchasing weapons at gun shows. But, hey, a guy’s got to get elected in the fall. So mum’s the word on requiring the like of Holmes and Page to prove that they’re sane enough to be entrusted with the death-dealing sophistication of modern firepower.

In fairness to Mr. Obama, he’d have plenty of time come November to pen a new memoir if he did speak out. Or would he?

Hillary Clinton would now be president if she’d had the courage to speak out against the soon-to-be disastrous invasion of Iraq back in 2003. A week can be a long time in politics, nine years an eternity.

Why so? The Internet – where ideas of taste, manners and opinion can be swept away in a manner unthinkable a decade ago. A lone gunman with an AR-15 in rush hour Grand Central Station could trigger some first class national soul searching.

The ban on the sale of such weapons of mass-destruction was let slip into abeyance in 2004 by a cowardly congress afraid to speak up for fear of provoking NRA financial and organizational muscle.

The Second Amendment is now seen as untouchable, though its original conceit was that citizen militias bearing their own weapons could be quickly summoned, thus negating the need for an expensive standing army.

The truth is, the mania for gun ownership is of pretty recent vintage. For instance, there are few mentions of gunfire during New York’s 1863 Draft Riots.
Despite Hollywood fantasies, guns were not that prevalent on the Western frontier and cowboys were required to check theirs in with local sheriffs on their occasional visits to towns.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) estimates that 1.5 million guns were produced in the US in 1950, while this figure had shot up to over 5 million by 2010.

Those figures speak for themselves; just as the murder and general mayhem will continue until the myth of the gun and the invincibility of the NRA are challenged by ordinary citizens willing to confront a legal menace that threatens us all.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

My Heart Is in the Highlands

Isn’t it odd how the stray dream of another person can so influence our lives?

My niece had a yearning to get married in a Scottish castle; she mentioned if often but since the man of her dreams took his time about showing up, we didn’t have to confront the consequences.

Then one frigid December the family found itself strolling down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and soon thereafter heading out to the countryside to fulfill a little girl’s dream.
I had never been to Scotland before. God only knows why, for I love the music, the people, the very thought of the place. In the rush and joy of a weekend wedding, however, it’s hard to take a sounding of a whole country. But I resolved to return and last month I did.

It was like coming home. It’s not just that Scotland is like Ireland – for there are many differences; it’s just that there’s a sense of – dare I say it – a spiritual familiarity.

Once more I was back on the Royal Mile. What a remarkable setting, it stretches up steep cobblestone streets to a perfectly preserved medieval castle as notable for its fairytale setting as for a lingering grimness.

Perhaps that dichotomy is a metaphor for Scotland and its history. The story of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, played out within Edinburgh castle. She gave birth there to her baby, James who would later unite the crowns of England and Scotland. You can even visit the carefully preserved room where she delivered the wee spindly prince who would go on to commission the King James Bible and, and unlike his mother, keep his own head.

Down “the mile” stands the house of John Knox, a founder of Presbyterianism, who made life a hell for Catholic Mary. But you’d be wise to step carefully around the many adjoining alleyway for the ghosts of writers like Robert Louis Stephenson and Robbie Burns careen and carouse past still searching for that perfect word or rhyme.

Still, the Highlands were calling. Weeks later I’m still transfixed by mountains and glens, rivers and mist, heather and cloudy peaks, all shrouded with a deep sense of mystery and even foreboding.

If you’ve never been to the Isle of Skye, go! The beauty is staggering, and it boasts two of the best bands in the world, the Celtic trance dance Peatbog Faeries, and Runrig, now in its 40th year (think of U2 with less Bono and more content.)

But the wellspring of Scotland can be found on the barren, boggy, bloodstained fields of Culloden where Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated and the Jacobite cause finally squashed by the Hanoverian kings of England.

This battlefield evokes the same tragic loneliness as Gettysburg; but the defeat at Culloden had even more consequences. England and a reluctant Scotland were united, the clearances of the highlands began, and the brutally evicted crofters went on to seed Canada and the American states.

Ireland was no less affected. Without the repeal of the penal laws by the longed for Catholic Jacobite king, the vast majority of people had to endure another hundred years of tyranny that culminated in the Potato Famine of 1845-47.

Would there have even been an independent United States of America had a Stewart ruled rather than mad King George III?

Mere grist for the mill now but the Jacobite flame never went out in Scotland. It often flickered but remained alive in the music, the poetry, and the desire of a people to speak for themselves. The Scottish Nationalist Party – once a joke – is now the majority political party in a self-governing national parliament.

In 2014 there will be a referendum on independence from London. Who knows the outcome, but one thing for sure – the slaughter at Culloden has not been forgotten. The wheel turns and the “what if” of the Jacobite defeat of 266 years ago has come full cycle.

There’s a rough magic astir in the glens again. Go over and experience it. I guarantee you’ll feel very much at home.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Waterloo Sunset

It was one of those warm Irish summers. Or do all teenage summers seem warm in the rear mirror?

I spent much of that August in Rosslare Strand hanging around my Aunt’s seaside café while the jukebox pumped out future classics from scratchy 45’s.

Wexford was mad about music and moved to the inexorable beat of Luxembourg, Caroline, and the BBC. No one would be caught dead listening to Radio Éireann, except when the county hurling team made it to the All-Ireland Final, and that was rare enough.

You can still catch echoes of those long-ago radio hits in the lanes and backstreets of Wexford town. Teddyboys on the cusp of 70 saunter by whistling Buddy Holly tunes; while skinheads who have long since hung up their bovver boots strut past in Ska unison.

I guess that’s why my Aunt Elsie’s jukebox was so eclectic for she encouraged the local aficionados to stock the machine, even while bemoaning the fact that they’d all “go deaf from the bloody volume!”

On hot days she hauled that jukebox out on the desiccated lawn that skirted the cafe. The teds, skinners, country chaps in their Sunday best, and townie girls abrim with peroxide curls followed, and soon that lawn throbbed and bopped to a host of different drummers. That’s where I first noticed the girl from Kelly’s Hotel.

She was so obviously from Dublin, down for a fortnight with her sisters and drawn to my Aunt’s by the magic of the music and the teenage compulsion to be as far away from her parents as possible.

You had to be of a certain class to stay in hotels back then, particularly luxurious Kelly’s. Through discreet inquiries I found out she was from Foxrock, for nothing moved on Rosslare Strand without my aunt’s knowledge.

Had it not been for the music I would have left it at that – after all there was a huge divide between the leafy avenues of Dublin’s stockbroker belt and the graveled back-lanes of Wexford town. But I loved everything that girl played on the battered jukebox. It was as if we were twins of taste separated by birth.

Twins we might have been but not in appearance. She had long dark hair, sea-green eyes, and moved with the ineffable confidence of a girl soon to be a woman. I, on the other hand, was a jumbled mass of red hair, freckles and every manner of doubt and insecurity known to a teenage boy.

All such concerns evaporated the day she played Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks. Noticing my fevered approval she smiled at me; I was so taken aback that I turned a shade more vivid than a ripe beetroot.

What matter, I now had a plan! From that day on, the moment she set foot on my aunt’s lawn I played “our song.”

Her sisters soon caught on and teased her unmercifully, but it never stymied her sweet smile of appreciation. Many times I thought of speaking to her but I just couldn’t summon the nerve. Anyway, I figured I’d run into her at some teenage hop – where hopefully I’d be strutting my stuff in the coolest of cool beat-groups.

If music threw us together, it also kept us apart. As luck would have it I was hired to play bass in a professional band. It was a tough, exhilarating gig playing mostly to teds and skinners all hepped up on cider and testosterone.

By the time I got back to Rosslare, the girl with the sea-green eyes had gone home. The years passed in a blur, music took me to Dublin and eventually New York. Once, while home on vacation, I asked my Aunt what had become of the girl.

“She married young, a medical student; he’s a doctor now and they still come to Kelly’s every summer with their two children.”

She’s probably a granny now but I wonder if the girl with sea-green eyes ever thinks of a long-ago teenaged summer whenever she hears Waterloo Sunset? I know I do.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Bloomberg, Jefferson & Supersizing

Where do you stand on Mayor Bloomberg’s desire to impose 16-ounce limits on sugared drinks? As ever opinions are likely to split on one’s political views or, even more likely, on whether you lean towards the rights of the individual or the community.

In any case the argument is probably hypothetical, as most people tend to agree that enforcing such a law would be difficult.

And yet, Hizzoner has definitely succeeded in placing the prickly issues of health, obesity, and cost to the community full square in the public eye. Besides, one can never underestimate the clout of an extremely rich man – who would have imagined ten years ago that you could get ossified in your local saloon without smelling like an ashtray the next day.

But should government get involved in these matters? Shouldn’t one be allowed to choose one’s own poison? Such valid thoughts surely flit through the mind of any self-respecting individualist.

These opinions hold less appeal for the community-minded citizen concerned with national health, not to mention footing the bill for a country’s fast-food nutritional misadventures.

To add fat to the fire – no pun intended - Type 2 Diabetes, the fastest rising health issue in the US, is caused primarily by a diet high in sugar and fat intake.

And since a certain percentage of people suffering from obesity do not have health insurance and are treated for little or no charge in hospital emergency rooms - thus driving up health insurance premiums - we find ourselves back in the realm of health care policy.

Oh dear, how did an innocuous 20-ounce container of Pepsi or Sprite land us head first back in the thorny fields of the Affordable Health Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare?

Perhaps because health care as a percentage of the federal budget is rivaled only by defense costs, and since we seem to have finally come to a national consensus that we can’t afford to invade any other countries, health – or lack thereof – has become a huge political football.

Now few politicians with an eye to the future will mess with Medicare, since all of us feel that if we can somehow make it to 65 we’re entitled to our lawfully earned benefits. So where does that leave us?

Ah yes, in the evil empire of Medicaid where welfare queens drink daiquiris and do the boogie-woogie all night with others of the subsidized indolent.

Medicaid, for all its detractors however, also underwrites the health care of disadvantaged children and the disabled; for the most part it does not cover single people without a disability. But in order to provide some form of universal health insurance, Obamacare would add 20 million of the working poor - single and otherwise - to Medicaid.

This is a move heartily endorsed by hospital administrators, long tired of caring for the uninsured in their emergency rooms. Many others in health and government circles also feel that, despite hefty early expenditure, this move will eventually bring down long-term costs, as the health of the uninsured will improve through preventive care and education.

Still, is this the responsibility of the federal government? It would not appear that the founding fathers had any such intention when framing the constitution.

On the other hand, should we eternally look to these revolutionary icons for inspiration; Republican freethinker that he was, Thomas Jefferson would surely seem less than politically correct today by his advocacy of castration for homosexuals. Times change, as do solutions to problems - real and perceived.

And to think we began with Mayor Bloomberg’s distaste for the super-sized! With the presidential election approaching much hay will be made of the battle between individual rights and community wellbeing; but in the end such questions will ultimately give way to the real bottom line in any democracy – how much does it all cost and how few people can be offended in the process?

A sensible compromise might be that people are indeed free to poison themselves in whatever way they see fit – but only if they’re prepared to foot the cost of doing so.

Tuesday 24 July 2012


“Always the heart,” Finbar Furey wrote next to his autograph. It had been his father’s saying, hardly surprising since the ghost of the legendary Ted Furey had flitted around the studio during our recent interview at SiriusXM.

Family, music and an existential sense of Irishness are at the core of Finbar’s character. Descended from Traveler folk he is fiercely proud of his heritage yet sees it as a well that all can drink from.

After his success with The Lonesome Boatman, Ted laid down the law in no uncertain terms. “That’s not your tune, young fellah, you were given a gift of it – now it belongs to everyone.”

There’s a wildness to that melody; I never hear it without sensing the wind, the waves, the mountains and many other things I don’t have a name for.

During his studio performance he lashed right into the Boatman and I feared that he’d started at too intense a level, too quick a pace. Where would he have left to go?

I needn’t have worried; by the second verse, like a skilled horseman astride a wild stallion, he had pulled the tune into order before giving it its head again long before the thrilling finish.

“You never play anything the same, do you, Finbar?” I said, more a statement than a question.

“No,” he replied, still wild-eyed from his communion with the Low Whistle. “Every time I play that song I see the boatman rowing me towards shore. The wind and the waves are changeable, and he always has something different on his mind. So, what chance of it ever being the same?”

The Spanish poet, Frederico García Lorca wrote a book about Duende - the moment when the music and the musician, the dancer and the dance, fuse into one all-consuming force.

I don’t know if Finbar is familiar with the term but he seems to enter that realm every time he lays hand on an instrument or delivers a song. For him, I suspect, it’s a union with the soul-tradition that his Traveler forebears shared around campfires in an Ireland far different than the one we know today.

Most of us lost that connection to our heritage when the edge was taken off Irish music in an effort to make it more palatable to Victorian parlors and recital halls.

Music is an essential part of Finbar’s DNA; it’s the lifeblood that flows through him. Whenever its purity or power is threatened he walks away, as he did from membership with the Clancy Brothers in the 1970’s. He walked away again from his own Furey Brothers at the height of their success.

At the age of 66, the current is flowing like a Spring flood once more. His new CD, Colors, is available everywhere on Valley Entertainment. And a fine one it is, full of life, passion, and a rare sensitivity that bleeds from your speakers.

“Walkin’ With My Love” is a sparkling duet with Mary Black that tells the story of his parents’ courtship. Back in 1932 Ted was smitten when he saw Nora playing the banjo at Puck Fair. He followed her back to her parents’ campsite and they were married three days later.

She taught her son how to play the banjo, Finbar’s main instrument now. But most of us associate him with the uilleann pipes. We’d heard them played before in the SiriusXM studios, but not with the same relationship to life and death.

The tune, Na Connaries, was mournful, defiant, and mainlined right into the heart of the Irish psyche. It was one of the first he learned as a boy and was traditionally played at the funeral of a chieftain.

There was silence in the studio after the last note faded. What was there to say? This wasn’t just music, more like the ache of a people echoing down the centuries.

That’s the type of thing Finbar carries around with him. He has no need of a cell phone, has never sent an email. Facebook is just another word to him – not an addiction. He has the music of his people pulsing though his veins, what matter about anything else?

Always the heart!

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Voodoo Economics?

In the midst of Memorial Day Weekend up in County East Durham, a gentleman, while allowing that he enjoyed this column, wondered if I might not “be a little kinder to Republicans?”

I think I’ve been fairly respectful of all shades of political opinion, even if I often do hold Republicans to the standards of such party icons as Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower.

Truth be told, though, I have problems with both parties and how they’ve become beholden to big money; in fact, the current hat-in-hand begging by both presidential candidates not only lacks dignity but could ultimately prove toxic for democracy.

That being said, I can’t toss my hat in with any party that refuses to deal with economic reality.

Those who read these columns will recall that I consistently warned about budget deficits way before such concerns gained traction during the Obama administration.

Apart from voices in the wilderness like Ron Paul, most Republicans backed President Bush’s notion that you could cut taxes and simultaneously fight two wars of choice. “Starve the beast”, a.k.a. the Federal Government, was the battle cry even if it meant evaporating the Clinton budget surplus.

But credit where it’s due – President Bush did take initial steps to shore up a financial system on the brink of collapse in 2008 and along with President Obama prevented a meltdown of modern capitalism. Does anyone actually remember that the Dow nose-dived to 6500 from 14,000 taking with it many the dream and 401(K)?

Some form of huge federal investment in the economy was obviously called for. The problem was that in order to get it past congress the Obama stimulus had to be loaded with almost 40% in tax cuts.

Tax cuts, however, by their nature rarely tend to jump-start an economy. Why? Because in tough times the prudent do not rush out to buy a new plasma TV at the sight of a few more bucks more in their paycheck or at the prospect of a less frightening tax bill the following April.

Which is why Governor Romney’s promise to cut taxes if elected will have one surefire effect – balloon the current federal deficit.

One could argue that this shrinking of tax receipts will be balanced by stringent cuts - which of themselves will lead to more job losses. But the real problem with such a strategy is that defense and health costs must be shaved for any kind of meaningful deficit reduction.

Governor Romney’s proposal to peg defense spending to 20% of the federal budget removes option one; while his proposed gutting of Obamacare will not only increase health costs and budget deficits but reduce coverage, thereby undermining the general health of the citizenry.

The real problem with Obamacare is not that it’s intrusive but that, like the system it replaces and Republican free-market based proposals, it will not curb rising costs.

The medical Fee for Service system will see to that – if someone else is paying why not employ a brain scan to diagnose that pain in your big toe. You never know, it might help...

The second major plank in the Republican platform is cutting regulations. Fair enough, businesses do have to deal with too much red tape. But if that means allowing banks to return to their Wild West casino days, then fuggedaboutit!

Witness the recent wholesale sycophantic treatment of “President Obama’s favorite banker,” JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, by both Republican and Democratic senators, even though it now turns out that his firm may have blown 7 or more billion in speculative derivative trading rather than the 2 billion he suggested. And you want to loosen regulations and give guys like that their head again?

It’s way past time for the GOP to be specific and provide real figures to back up their proposals. The last thing this country needs right now is a reprise of President George W Bush’s failed policies.

We deserve a viable alternative to an increasingly toothless Democratic Party. But to paraphrase President George H. Bush – voodoo economics are not the solution.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

The Price of a Soul

I took a trip down to Louisiana recently. I’ve been working on a theatrical project about the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 and was in need of some background.

Even the well-documented past can be inscrutable until you get to its roots; besides, I love the South - just scratch the surface and you’re in a different country.

New Orleans was as ever welcoming but I wished to spend some time on one of the old antebellum plantations. I found just the place upstate on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River.

Great Oaks sits on 1200 acres of farmland to die for. Imagine the rich grassy fields around Mullingar stewing in a semi-tropical climate.

No bullocks graze this demesne, however, sugar cane rules! With the tall green shoots quivering in the humid breeze a stately sense of order pervades the vast fields, just as it must have done 150 years ago before the world of the Confederacy was turned upside down.

Great Oaks is beautiful. 28 great Live Oak trees frame a stately avenue - all planted 300 years ago.

With your back to the Mississippi you gaze upon a perfectly proportioned white-pillared mansion – the actual setting for Interview With A Vampire by Neil Jordan.

You’re greeted by young ladies in period costumes, accents dripping with honey; two of them smiled and joked with the familiarity of sisters – one black as the night, the other with the pale skin of her Irish ancestors.

They narrated the story of the great house and those who owned it – a Catholic family of French descent. What rich and powerful lives they led, their portraits lined the halls next to the pictures of familiar saints.

And yet one could almost taste the sadness – of six children, three had died of Yellow Fever and Tuberculosis; the father too had succumbed to the latter.

This tragedy paled in comparison, however, with the inhumanity caused by the economic system that made all the luxury possible – slavery. Even more troubling - how snugly this heinous crime was accommodated by the various shades of local Christianity.

History, indeed, makes for strange bedfellows; money is usually the aphrodisiac. For on my second day I came upon the Great Oaks property assessment for 1848; it baldly listed the individual values of the plantation’s 113 slaves – neatly divided into “house” and “field.”

A carpenter topped the list at $1500, followed by a blacksmith and mason at $1300. A seamstress headed the women’s ranks at $900; in general women were valued less than men, unless they possessed children. From the age of 30 the value of both sexes dropped, until in their 50’s those still alive were barely worth appraising at $25 a head.

Christianity did have one leavening effect – it was not permitted to work slaves on the Sabbath, no doubt they would need the day to attend to the salvation of their souls.

That night an eerie silence hung over the land. It was hard to sleep and I arose early. An old black man was already at work, grouting a brick fireplace of the soon-to-be-restored slave quarters. He didn’t appear to catch the irony; in this economy a gig is a gig.

Why is any of this of interest in an Irish-American newspaper? Well, January 1st will mark the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves. Six months later – days after the Battle of Gettysburg - the Irish in New York City, among others, would erupt against the unfairness of the Draft Laws and the threat of a tide of cheap Black labor arriving from the South.

Terrible things happened; Irish and African-Americans who up until then had lived in relative harmony went their separate ways.

Time has healed many of the wounds – the Draft Riots are barely remembered. How far we’ve come, what rivers we’ve crossed. 150 years later we have a black president – love him or hate him.

On this Fourth of July that’s a credit to the US and something the 113 slaves in Oak Alley could never have even dreamed of.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Irish Echo Column 7/16/08 - How much has Changed?

Wexford was a small town in my youth, scarcely 12,000 people, but it had a cultural richness that belied its size. Not, mind you, that anyone had much money: any differences between the wealthy and the poor were based more on a rigid class distinction than the size of one’s bank balance.

Indeed, few people possessed bank accounts, but everyone saved, be it in post office, credit union, or various charitable associations where one stashed the occasional spare shilling to defray the costs of Christmas.

Then again, Wexford was a place unto itself with its own accent, tradition and, more than anything else, a sense of history. Henry II had done penance in Selskar Abbey for the murder of Thomas Becket, Cromwell’s cavalry had galloped through the Franciscan Priory after slaughtering women and children in the Bull Ring, and the Pikemen of ‘98 were hung on the Slaney Bridge after almost sweeping the redcoats from the country.

The town was both geographically and culturally isolated from the hinterland and would have been claustrophobic had it not been for its seafaring tradition. It was not uncommon to hear men in pubs talk about New York, Cape Town and Sydney, the way others spoke of Carlow, Kilkenny or Portlaoise.

Perhaps, that was why there was a tolerance for differing political beliefs despite the ongoing turbulence of local history. My father’s father had a brother killed while serving with the British Army on the Somne, while my mother’s father's sympathies tended more towards the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Yet, they always raised their hats to each other when passing.

Wexford men even fought on opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War and yet all - be they Marxist, Fascist, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein, Labor Party, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan, and a host of pesky independents - maintained a basic civility in their mutual dealings.

How odd then to witness the fractious, nay even poisonous, relations between members of the Republican and Democratic parties. In a European context both would be regarded as right of center. They may have some differences of opinion on policy, yet their main theatre of battle appears to be in coaxing funds from donors.

When the chips are down and the flags waving neither party has much of a problem with displacing governments halfway around the globe. Perhaps that explains why both believe in crippling defense budgets – a considerable part of which goes to special interests - though in the Republicans favor, one of their presidents, General Eisenhower, warned about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. He also managed to end the Korean War. I wonder if there’s any chance of cloning this remarkable man and posting him to Baghdad?

Oh, and did I mention that neither party has the courage to come up with something as rudimentary as an economically sound system of universal health coverage?

So why then the level of vitriol between partisans on both sides? It is puzzling and, alas, would take a satirist with the skills of Jonathan Swift to highlight the absurdity of the current political process. Despite 24/7 media coverage of the fray, no such genius appears to have materialized; then again, Swift’s comments could hardly be encompassed in 30-second sound bites.

Nonetheless, there are some encouraging signs. Senator Obama, despite the flaccidity of his health insurance plan, does seem to be invigorating the democratic process by registering new voters and persuading many of them to donate small amounts to his campaign.

I don’t know about you but personally I’ve never really understood why taxpayers should subsidize politicians in their pursuit of elected office. If their message has sufficient resonance, voters will pony up their hard earned bucks in much the same way sports fans buy their teams’ paraphernalia. All that is needed is a sensible cap on donations so that the rich and powerful do not subjugate the process.

But it is on the Republican side that the greater ray of hope gleams. Partisans – including such conservative warriors as David Brooks of the New York Times - are seeking to resuscitate the GOP and redeem it from its ignominy as the Grand Oil Party of the Bush years.

For the two-party system to work, we need a vibrant, inclusive Republican Party, one that looks to the traditions of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower, and not only cares about reducing taxes but is responsible for the deficits accrued on its watch.

We need a party that has as much concern for community as the individual, because as a nation we are only as strong, educated and healthy as those of our brothers and sisters who are less fortunate than us.

We had no Lincolns back in Wexford – such people come rarely; but there were Teddy Roosevelts who could balance rugged individualism with concern for the common good. There were Eisenhowers too: people who went to war reluctantly and never forgot the value of peace – who intrinsically knew that building roads, rather than rattling sabers, made a country stronger and safer.

I wish the Republican party nothing but the best. There are surely amongst its adherents Roosevelts and Eisenhowers itching to restore traditional GOP values. And perhaps even now there is a Lincoln shuttering the windows of his law office and taking the first faltering steps that will eventually land him in DC.