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 GarcĂ­a 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.