Wednesday 23 May 2012

A Nun's Story

I’ve always had a soft spot for nuns. I can still remember Sister Aloysius beaming when I read my first full sentence, and if Sister Anthony of the same Presentation community occasionally rapped my knuckles didn’t my mother say, “ah sure you probably deserved it.”

I taught Sister Angela of the Mercy Convent to play the guitar though she hadn’t a note in her head, God bless her; while who can forget the many righteous sisters over the years who have been to the forefront of humanitarian and social causes.

All have been marked by a can-do attitude, a steely optimism and a quiet determination to get on with the job.

So why didn’t I pick up on the fact that Maura Mulligan had been a Franciscan sister?

That’s New York for you. We get caught up in our own private dramas and rarely see the forest before crashing into the trees.

And what a forest Maura guides us through in her autobiography, Call of the Lark. Not only does she paint a joyous picture of what it’s like to be part of a religious community, she also gives a sense of the costs of such a commitment.

This is a nun’s story that we can all relate to for it springs from the bedrock of family and human experience; it is also richly colored by a rural Irish childhood.

Maura recalls a vanished world that you can now only catch echoes of when you stumble upon an abandoned farmhouse - weeds and nettles sprouting from the kitchen where once there was so much bustle and laughter.

Call of the Lark brings back to life all the warmth, love and innocence of an era before television coarsened and dulled the senses; when the kitchen was the center of the universe and each person had their anointed place within it.

It was even then a very old way of life galloping to an end; few of us fortunate enough to have experienced it had any idea of that at the time.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that it provided little room for personal or economic growth; still, would we have left if we’d known we’d never quite fit back in again?

Maura takes us through that familiar but always gripping dilemma. In her case, the pain of leaving behind a mother and five younger siblings – her father literally unable to say goodbye from the crushing sorrow of losing the daughter he adores.

All that is balanced against the sheer excitement and seemingly unending possibilities of New York City. We follow Maura as she cuts a swathe through immigrant circles, displaying her dance skills, allowing her personality to blossom and living life to the fullest.

Still, though there was laughter, romance and much friendship it was never quite enough. Something was missing and she eventually found it in a Franciscan novitiate in Peekskill. “You won’t have a care in the world if you marry the Lord.” Her mother’s words ring through her head.

I won’t spoil the story by listing the various ups and downs of her sixteen years of religious commitment, but it’s a very relevant one compounded by the current “rúile búile” going on between the Vatican and the vibrant women who many feel are holding the modern church together.

She takes us through the changes that follow Vatican II and her own personal doubts about the place of women in an authoritarian male dominated church, but the human element is never far from the surface including the heartbreak that comes with the realization that she’ll never have children of her own.

Emigration is a central theme as is the emigrant’s perennial nagging thought – “would things have worked out better for other family members if I hadn’t left."

Parts of this memoir are searing but in the end Maura’s religious training and sparkling character stand to her and, in her practical dry-eyed manner, she gets on with life.

Call of the Lark is a treat. You’ll laugh, shed the occasional tear and understand a little more about life by the time you regretfully turn the last page.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Gunfight At Rosie's Corral

What a thrill to meet one’s critics for lunch, especially if they’re charming, mysterious, and you don’t have to pick up the bill.

Some months back a finely worded letter was published in these pages regarding a column of mine on Iran; while magnanimously allowing that I was entitled to my political leanings, the writer pointedly questioned my grasp of the facts and general sanity.

Since I too have often been concerned for the latter I was not without empathy for this scribe, Mr. John McEnroe, noted lawyer and father of the tennis great.

Soon thereafter, that mover and shaker in Democratic circles and counsel to the mighty, Mr. John Connorton, let me know that Mr. McEnroe would welcome an opportunity to make my acquaintance. Whereupon Mr. Ray O’Hanlon, our inestimable editor, offered to attend as my second, and a date was set for lunch at Rosie O’Grady’s midtown saloon.

Mr. McEnroe, no doubt aware of the value of a grand entrance, appeared wearing a ten-gallon hat that would have not looked out of fashion at the OK Corral.

He eyed me speculatively from behind shades. I must admit I’m often nervous in the company of lawyers, especially with the clock ticking. Thus, much of the early banter went over my head as I wrestled with the cost of a consultation with these two legal titans. An hour of their combined time could surely cost as much as an evening with a top-class courtesan.

Mr. O’Hanlon was in top form as he recounted the Echo’s covert strategy in endorsing Senator Obama in the last presidential election; until Mr. Connorton inquired innocently enough who the Echo might favor this coming November.

As the smile drained from Mr. O’Hanlon’s face, I ventured to suggest that the Echo’s readership was not as conservative as was generally imagined and that many nuns, radical and otherwise, were avid readers of my column.

To which Mr. McEnroe baldly stated that he would vote for anyone but Barack Obama – with a toss of his leonine head he seemed to suggest that even a commie, such as I, would be preferable.

I voiced my concern that a Romney presidency could be fraught with peril since this economic genius had stated that on no account would he have bailed out the American car industry. Such inaction, I postulated, could have wiped out the states of Michigan and Ohio.

Mr. McEnroe gazed at me in steely silence until I began to wonder if he was familiar with the areas in question or merely employing a lawyerly stratagem.

I forget his precise answer, engaged as I was in calculating that sixty seconds of this eyeballing could cost a client eight or more dollars.

Ever the provocateur, Mr. Connorton tossed in the occasional acerbic aside to keep the discourse lively, and after he had polished off a giant Turkey Club murmured that a good dessert had healed many political wounds.

As they tucked in with gusto to Rosie’s concoctions I marveled at these three gentlemen and their lack of any cholesterol problems and wondered how many bowls of oatmeal I’d need to consume to counter my own whipped cream transgression.

Buoyed by this sugar rush Mr. McEnroe was tossing off jokes, salty and otherwise, when Mr. Connorton confided that the bill had already been settled and he must hasten to “a board meeting”. All three of us smiled knowingly and watched this éminence grise glide off, no doubt to sort out the Secret Service’s brothel problems or the transfer of Madam Clinton from State to the Vice-Presidency.

There was nothing for it - I girded my loins and inquired just what I had written about Iran that had so upset Mr. McEnroe, to which he breezily replied – “Everything. It was all wrong!”

Thereupon, Mr. McEnroe strode off into the sunset, his ten-gallon hat cocked jauntily while Mr. O’Hanlon comforted himself with the thought that he had five months grace before hazarding a presidential endorsement.

I, however, had been struck by an epiphany - with a free lunch a month, I could silence five critics before November while lessening my living expenses. Does anyone know Your Man From Pearl River’s phone number?

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Alexander Hamilton

“Oh Burr, Oh Burr, what have you done
You’ve killed the great Lord Hamilton”

He’s mostly renowned now for getting whacked in Jersey but Alexander Hamilton was a giant who strode many stages in the early days of this republic.

His achievements almost beggar belief: an intellectual giant he dashed off many of the Federalist Papers while running the US Treasury and guiding a nascent political movement, he was in the thick of every public debate and, oh by the way, he founded The New York Post

His personal bravery was beyond doubt – while still a student he publicly burned the British flag in New York City, he was General Washington’s most trusted aide and led a company of cavalry in the Revolutionary War; while at various times he was the darling or villain of the mobs that controlled the streets of America’s cities.

Though adored by his wife and family his private life was notorious – he was blackmailed and publicly humiliated by a femme fatale, while for sheer drama it would be hard to beat his bloody exit from this mortal coil.

A novelist wouldn’t dare come up with his story for he began life illegitimate and with little means on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Yet both current political parties have appropriated aspects of his legacy and claim him for their own.

He is the founding father of American corporate capitalism; but he wouldn’t be caught dead interfering with the politics of other nations, let alone fighting wars of choice half way around the globe.

Unlike Washington, Jefferson and the other slave-holding Virginian grandees, Hamilton foresaw that garrulous melting pot New York City with its eye for commerce would be the nexus of the new America.

His finest hour, however, was his insistence that the US assume and honor all state debts in the wake of the Revolutionary War - an extremely unpopular proposition in its day.
Hamilton’s belief was that a country that did not pay its way could be starved of credit, and he knew from his penurious days as a teenage bookkeeper on St. Kitts that credit greases the wheels of commerce.

The thirteen ravaged and rivalrous American states foresaw that the federal government’s accelerated repayment of debt would mean higher taxes and had little appetite for such hoists.

Hamilton had his way, however, even though it meant promising the Virginians – who had already retired most of their debt - that the US capital would be built amidst the swamps of the Potomac.

Remarkably, the crippling national debt was reduced far quicker than the naysayers had expected, and to add insult to injury Hamilton tossed in the seeds of the modern Fed with his creation of the First Bank of the United States.

Jefferson and Madison claimed that such an entity was unconstitutional and would benefit merchants and investors at the expense of the population – and so it goes.

It’s intriguing to imagine what the great Lord Hamilton would have recommended to us in our present financial crisis. You can be sure that anyone who bartered away the national capital to a swamp in DC would have encouraged, nay demanded, compromise.

My guess is that he would have taken a horse-whip to both Speaker Boehner and President Obama on their failure to close the 2011 deal for the great 3.4 trillion tradeoff on federal cuts and higher taxes.

Although a conservative at heart, he knew that commerce cannot flourish unless a strong federal government provides and maintains a stable currency, consistent business laws and an extensive and well-maintained infrastructure. He feared neither debt nor taxes feeling that in a thriving economic environment debt could be paid down gradually by rising government revenues.

This master of the possible must be turning in his grave at the current health care crisis. Costs are not only hobbling US citizenry, they continue to make many American industries non-competitive overseas. The conservative Hamilton would have had few scruples in harnessing the federal government to deliver economical health care and to hell with labels and ideology!

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

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Brian Mór - A Man You Don't Meet Every Day

To say that an era passed when Bernie Boyle died would be a cliché, and yet…
Bernie, aka, Brian Mór, was a Republican activist, an artist and a veritable force of nature.

I first met him in The Bronx in a pub called Durty Nelly’s, though I’d been aware of him for some time. The guy was hard to ignore. A big hulking presence he kept his cards close to his chest until you passed some unspoken test.

I was playing in a duo called Turner & Kirwan of Wexford back then. Bernie used to take in a set occasionally.Coming of age in the 60’s he knew his music and his taste was broad. Turner & Kirwan’s particular sound and fury, however, seemed to confound him – Irish acid rock tended to do that.

Bernie must have finally judged that it was not without merit for one night he nodded at me and we began to talk. Once you had passed his litmus test he took you totally into his confidence. In that one conversation I learned his political views, ideas on art, and his rock-ribbed abhorrence of any compromise, pomp or shallowness.

There was something about the man that made you want to be better than yourself in order to live up to his expectations. Once you were one of “his people” you could change your point of view, disagree with him, but on no account could you let yourself down.

Later that night he took me down the street to The Bunratty. That pub opened my callow brain to the wonders of traditional Irish music. Back in Wexford jigs and reels were nailed to the floor and drained of their vigor by very nice and proper musicians; in the wild North West of the Bronx traditional music was unhinged and unfettered, mad as the mist and snow.

Bernie’s often-hooded eyes gleamed as he watched characters and players the like of Johnny Cronin, Banjo and Accordion Burke knock my socks off. That was a gift he gave me and I still owe him big-time for it.

There were few stauncher Republicans. He was from the breed that initiated the Border Campaign of the 1950’s and he remained uncompromising until the very end. He aspired to a 32 County Republic and would settle for nothing less. All gains and losses were measured against this golden grail.

He never seemed to have any doubts that unification could be achieved, whereas I was full of them. I think that was where his calling as an artist stood to him - when things were at their worst he could lose himself in the fine strokes of some painting and emerge renewed and even more ready for combat.

The great sadness of being part of the broad New York coalition against British intransigence and entrenched Ulster unionism was that when the peace process began former comrades turned against each other. It was inevitable, I suppose, for as one wise old Republican stated, “it’s a lot easier be against something than for it.”

Bernie knew exactly where he stood and he could be harsh in his judgments of others, suspicious too of their motives. But as long as he felt you weren’t letting yourself down he wouldn’t turn his back on you.

At an award dinner in Queens some years back he presented me with a painting that stunned me. There in his fine hand and lovely brush work he had composed the story of my life as he knew it, from my love of James Connolly back in Wexford to the madness of the Lower East Side, from forming Black 47 with Chris Byrne on Bainbridge on down through the obvious successes and attendant failures.

It hangs on my wall and I treasure it; but I’ll take it down and bring it to Connolly’s on May 4th just as so many others will bring theirs when we commemorate a towering man and a great Irish-American during his month’s mind.

Clichés be damned! There’s no way we’ll never see the like of Brian Mór Ó’Baoighill again.