Friday 24 May 2013

These Are My Mountains, and I'm Going Home

“For these are my mountains, and I’m going home.”

I didn’t always feel that way about the Catskills. After all l was born near where the South Atlantic and the Irish Sea collide. In a twist of fate, I landed in the East Durham-Leeds area after being fired from a gig on glorious Cape Cod.

As luck would have it another band had been given the heave-ho at O’Shea’s in Leeds, as a result Pierce Turner and I got the job of keeping the punters “thick on the floor” at the Irish Center.

Old Gerry and Mrs. O’Shea weren’t too sure what to make of the “Wexford Hippies” as the locals called us, but Kerry people are renowned for their hospitality and, boy, did we make those patrons dance! It’s no secret that there’s been an epidemic of hip and knee replacements for all who jived and quickstepped to Turner & Kirwan that glorious summer.

I had my first shot at writing a novel down by the “waterfall” at the back of O’Shea’s but, alas, with a bevy of beautiful Bronx ladies working on their tans on those long hot hungover afternoons I never made it beyond the first fifty pages.

This weekend will, I believe, mark my 20th Memorial Day Weekend at The Blackthorne. The uncertainty arises because, like many others, time tends to come careening to a halt the moment I cross the border into the Republic of East Durham. And it’s not just because of the fatigue that follows the wild nights; no, it’s more of a general mountain dazzle that doesn’t dissipate until you hit the thruway on the way home.

I’m always amazed at the number of Irish-Americans who have never experienced the “Irish Alps.” What’s keeping you? Sure, you can fry yourself silly in the Caribbean, but what’s that compared to stretching out on the grass at resorts the like of Gavin’s, The Shamrock House, Michael Dee’s, McGrath’s, The Ferncliff, Hogan’s and a host of others as the wind whispers sweet nothings from among the leaves overhead.

My own favorite activity is strolling the back hilly roads on a sunny afternoon. There’s an old wall within an overgrown field that I like to sit upon. It’s made from the same flat stones and fashioned like those at home in County Wexford.

I often try to picture the people who built this little divide and wonder what became of their hopes and dreams – all long gone now. If you sit still long enough you’ll hear the birds in concert while small things slither by amidst the grass. Sometimes, if you’re on the right side of the wind a deer will amble past and pay you no mind.

There are few frills up in the mountains but the homespun comfort is stitched together with warmth and an easy hospitality; and if you’ve any problems with the head, the heart or the soul – and nowadays, who hasn’t - East Durham will slow the world down to a manageable pace so you can find your place in it again.

If it’s excitement you want you’ll find it this coming Saturday and Sunday at the East Durham Irish Festival. It’s a family affair with many children’s programs and a host of theatre, music and dance workshops. I’ll be doing a reading in the cultural tent at 4pm Saturday afternoon and answering questions for those who wish to know more about the worlds of music, memoir, playwriting and the price of turnips!

All through the afternoon and evening there’ll be the finest of Irish-American music with Shilelagh Law (keep away from my Green Suede shoes this year, you bowsies!), Celtic Cross, Andy Cooney, Hair of the Dog, The Narrowbacks, Band of Rogues, Dicey Riley, Erin's Og, and so many others. Black 47 will close the show at 8:45 Saturday night – then a short break and we’ll play a midnight set at the ever-popular Blackthorne.

It’s all just as it should be – madness in the mountains! Book your rooms now or dust off that old tent in the basement. Life is short! I’ll see you up in the Irish Alps.

Saturday 18 May 2013

John Leary changed the course of Irish history.

“Who?” Says Your Man up in Pearl River?

Not much is known about Mr. Leary except that he had stepped out to buy a “pack of fags” in Wexford town in 1911 and literally ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Not them Yellowbellies again!” Fumes Pearl River. “They never let well enough alone.”

Indeed, the citizens of my hometown are renowned for stirring up trouble: in 1798 they seceded from the British Empire and proclaimed Wexford a free French Republic. The comrades barely had time to learn the words of Le Marseillaise before the forces of the crown counter-attacked and hung many of them from the rickety bridge that spans the Slaney.

The Wexford proletariat were no less riled up in 1911 when the owners of the two largest local manufacturing firms, Pierces and the Star, forbade their employees to join the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.

James Connolly hastened down from Dublin and led the outraged citizenry through the streets in a series of torch-lit processions. The factory owners, un-amused by such shenanigans, complained to the Royal Irish Constabulary, whereupon the RIC baton-charged and that’s when the unfortunate Mr. Leary threw a spanner in the works of Irish history. He took a severe blow to the noggin and soon thereafter departed this earthly coil.

Now Wexford people take their annual drubbing by Kilkenny hurlers with a certain sang-froid but they draw the line at the cracking of innocent skulls. Battle lines were drawn: the strike and subsequent lockout dragged on for many cruel and hungry months before the workers capitulated and reluctantly promised they would forswear any further notion of collective bargaining and other such communist carryon.

Bitter seeds were sown and, even in my boyhood over fifty years later, class resentment still lingered in the narrow streets and back lanes of the old town.

Leary’s death, however, was to have other implications. James Connolly concluded that factory owners could always summon the RIC in times of industrial strife. He decided that workers had need of protection in their ongoing struggle for decent conditions and a living wage – hence, the formation of the Irish Citizen Army.

The ICA became a factor in the great Dublin lockout of 1913 by neutralizing the gangs of hired thugs who terrorized the strikers. Alas, this strike too was broken leading Connolly to decide that the only way to change the system was by armed revolt. In 1916 he commanded the uprising from the General Post Office – which event, for better or worse, spawned the Irish Free State in 1922.

There are no statues to John Leary in Wexford. Few even remember his name. However, the town is seething once again. The manufacturing plants have long gone -replaced by supermarkets or abandoned hulks of stone and girding.

The factory owners long ago took their profits and repaired to the leafy groves of Dublin or London leaving only resentment in their wake. That hereditary bitterness is now directed at the banks, property developers and politicians who recently crippled the country, its credit, and even worse its sense of confidence and identity.

The young are tripping over themselves to flee a mortgaged state that was thriving only seven or so years ago. What went wrong?

The same deadbeat litany as over here – cheap credit, speculation that bordered on gambling, and a punctured housing bubble, but also, rather uniquely, a political class too stupid to even run the figures before they financially guaranteed a bunch of latter day gombeen bankers.

Meanwhile, the ghost of James Connolly peers down from atop the GPO shaking his head in disbelief: how many times had he warned about such an eventuality. And by his side the fractured shade of John Leary grieves for the vast majority of Irish people who had nothing to do with any of the excess but just like him happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so it goes...

Happy May Day, comrades!