Sunday 30 June 2013

Support Your Irish Festival!!!

They’re everywhere now. Increasing and expanding by the year, Irish festivals have outgrown their natural roots on the East Coast and the Rust Belt of the Midwest. Now they flourish in Kansas City, Savannah, Manheim, and places you’ve never even heard of. Every month I get a call from some savvy All-American wondering about his or her chances of pulling off an Irish Festival.

And why not? Get yourself a fenced-in space, a stage, a workable PA, a headlining band, beer company support, a volunteer staff, some fine weather and you could be on your way to being the next Milwaukee Irish Fest.

Where did it all start? Well, that’s a bit like the Ray’s Pizza conundrum, isn’t it? But my gut instinct is that it all began back in the New York Irish community of the 50’s. Okay! South Side Chicago and Boston, you’ve got documented proof that your festivals were celebrating their centenaries when wide-trousered Galway men and their petticoated dates from Leitrim, Mayo and Tyrone were chastely cheek-to-cheeking to Micky Carton’s Orchestra at the Jaeger House on Lexington Avenue.

My theory, though, is that when these young immigrant Irish trooped out to the Rockaways on pre-air-conditioned summer weekend and danced and drank in the haunts along the Irish Mile, that the seeds were sown for the modern Irish Festival.

With time, those dancers married, had children and didn’t get out as much. Besides, the urban decay of the 60’s hit the Rockaways hard. Most of Irish Town was demolished and the streets were no longer as safe; but the couples still wished to meet, reminisce and show off their kids. So, they unfolded their beach chairs, bought a keg, finagled a couple of hungover musicians into playing and before you knew it, they had a rip-roaring block party on their hands.

The Rockaway Festival that grew out of those innocent Sunday afternoons was one of my favorites – although, one year I was almost brained by a beer cooler thrown by an appreciative fan. Alas, the festival is no more – our national savior, Mr. Giuliani, put his Puritan kibosh on it by barring the sale of alcohol. And who in their right mind would want to attend a dry Irish Festival?

But I digress. A number of veterans of the Rockaway bash who relocated to Southern Florida, Sheila Hynes and Rory O’Dwyer (son of the great Irish American Civil Rights activist, Paul O’Dwyer) amongst other longed for an authentic hooley around St. Patrick’s Day. They hired a park, a PA and engaged Adrian Flannelly to snare some top class musicians. A couple of decades later, their festivals in Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach are still setting the pace and, given the location, they almost always have good weather.

The first festival I performed at was the Catholic Charities event out in Coney Island. Chris Byrne and I were in the midst of a very earnest version of The Patriot Game” at the end of which, to the wail of the pipes, I would denounce every Taoiseach, Tanaiste and elected rat-catcher for betraying the Cause when, to my amazement, I glimpsed the sight of a nun in full habit sweeping past me. Figuring it was some kind of flashback, I returned to my denunciations but there she was again, this time fiddling with a boom-box from which emanated the heavenly sound of synthesized strings. After the set, I found out that we had overstayed our allotted time, the good sister had a second gig to get to, and it was “later for you, Black 47, whoever the hell you are!” Sister Mary Beata is a trooper who will be playing festivals a long time after more trendy musicians have hung up their guitar straps.

Speaking of divine intervention, ask Frank Bradley about weather. Frank is the visionary behind the great South Side Chicago Festival held every Memorial Day Weekend. Sounds balmy, right? On our first appearance in 1991, snow began falling as we hit the stage. We were contracted for a 90 minute set and, fearful of not being paid, we blazed on through a gathering blizzard to about 50 hardy souls who danced to our frantic pleas for James Connolly to rise up, initiate a proletarian revolution and liberate us from the frozen stage. When we shuffled off like six emasculated snowmen, Frank stood there, check in hand (plus bonus) silently marveling at the lunacy of certain New York musicians. The Festival now takes the precaution of erecting an enormous tent. You just can’t trust that Lakeside weather. But you can depend on the warmth and rowdy loyalty of the South Side Irish.

For my money, having a headlining act is a must for a successful festival. Ask Cavan man Steve Duggan, whose Belmont Family Festival had chugged along to respectable successes. Some years back he nailed down the Saw Doctors for his Saturday night extravaganza and hit the jackpot with a record-breaking attendance.

Of course, when you have built up a reputation like the Milwaukee Irish Fest, you don’t really need a headliner. Back in 1981, the goals of the organizers were modest, hoping in some small way to emulate the successful local Fest Italiano. Now over 100,000 pass through their turnstiles annually. Founded by Chuck and Ed Ward and a loyal, hard-working committee, Milwaukee has become the Mother of all Irish Festivals. One of the projects funded by the Festival is the Irish Music Archives; it now contains almost 50,000 pieces of Irish recordings and sheet music.

Festivals, of course, reflect the current dynamics of Irish American life. There is the eternal battle between those more attuned to the homeland who cringe at leprechauns, green beer, freckle-faced competitions, and those who see no harm or, indeed, make a buck from such shenanigans. Then there are the various political activists who consider it their right to set up a table on the big day versus those who feel that festivals should be apolitical or that Irish politics ended circa 1916. This has led to friction at many festivals. But now, with peace in the ascendancy in the North of Ireland this issue shows every sign of becoming a memory. Besides, a vast majority of people now feels that festivals are about celebrating Irishness in its myriad forms and the tent is big enough for all.

I’m forever impressed by the level of altruism at festivals. Practically all of the money raised goes to an array of charities and quite often of the construction or maintenance of Irish Community Centers. Volunteers spend many months prepping, primping and preparing for their big weekend. It’s a rare festival nowadays that does not have its headliner booked by November. Take for instance the Dublin Ohio Festival. Kay McGovern and the Dublin Irish Celebration Committee work with Sandra Puskarcik and the City of Dublin in apparent harmony to run this ever-evolving event.

When asked the secret of their success they cited the usual suspects: good location, great PA systems, over 1200 dedicated volunteers and draconian stage management – Kay personally has knocked on the hotel doors of tardy musicians and will not allow any act – no matter how big – to go beyond its allotted time. And where do the profits go? A very equitable split between Irish organizations such as Project Children, cultural and sporting activities in schools, theaters, social groups, with the balance going back into the City of Dublin to ensure that the festival is self-sufficient. Their parting advice to prospective promoters: organize, have some money to spare and be prepared for every possible disaster that might happen, because it eventually will.

But in the end festivals are about community. Whether this means a return to the old neighborhood of Rockaway, a celebration of being South Side Irish in Chicago or a uniting of the clans in Patchogue, North Haven, Hartford or Herkimer, the festival is a way of getting together and celebrating heritage. In a society that becoming ever more white bread and homogenized, it’s an affirmation of all the things that make us different.

So, you want to start your own Irish Festival? Just get a fenced off space, a stage, a PA, a good band, a Mussolini-like stage manager and everything Irish you can think of – except the weather. Maybe I’ll see you there this summer.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Caribbean Kesh

It’s hard to imagine that those who protested the mistreatment of Irish Republican prisoners over the last 45 years are not gravely concerned about the hunger strikes, forced feeding, and lack of due process at the US prison in Guantánamo.

Some, no doubt, are hesitant to speak out for fear of seeming to support the hard core Al Qaeda members interned, but all of these prisoners deserve their day in court if only to uphold American concepts of justice.

Many were swept up in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan – often by Pakistanis and Afghans eager to collect the $5000 bounty payments offered by the US. Most were low to mid-level Taliban supporters involved in a civil war against the Northern Alliance and others.

Although my sympathies were with the Northern Alliance and their leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, no one would have accused this charismatic man of being a Jeffersonian Democrat. Along with other warlords he was responsible for the destruction of large parts of Kabul. Nor was he a feminist; in fact odious as they eventually became, the Taliban was initially formed to protect village women from rape and to restore law and order in an anarchistic country.

Many of those interned in Guantánamo were not originally committed enemies of the USA; given their background and education they wouldn’t have been able to find New York on a map. You can bet your bottom dollar, however, that after 12 years of forced detention without a trial they’re not exactly whistling Yankee Doodle Dandy.

A sizeable number, including over fifty Yemenis, were given clearance for repatriation to their home countries by a committee of top national security officials, but because of congressional resistance and presidential apathy they’re being held in a legal limbo.

President Obama claims he would close down Guantánamo but House Republicans will not allow him to transfer the prisoners to mainland prisons. What are they afraid of? Contaminating the morals of the heartland? When was the last time anyone broke out of a US high-security prison?

The argument against either a civil or military trial of the top level Al Qaeda operatives is that self-incriminating evidence gained through torture may not be admissible. The Bush/Cheney chickens continue to come home to roost – this time in the form of waterboarding, a.k.a. simulated drowning.

That being said, I’m in no way convinced that, even given the torture issues, some of our keenest prosecutorial minds wouldn’t be able to lay a couple of lifetimes behind bars on Khalid Sheik Muhammed and his Qaeda killers.

The hunger strike was supposedly the last line of defense in ancient Irish life. “If your more powerful neighbor has denied you justice, go sit on his doorstep and starve yourself until he relents,” is the legend handed down.

Both the Red Cross and United Nations recognize that a prisoner of sound mind has a right to hunger strike as a last resource. Right now we have 104 ticking time bombs in Guantánamo, 41 of them being force-fed. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know where this will end up.

Shackling prisoners to special chairs with head restraints, while shoving tubes up their noses for over 30 minutes, is not only inhumane, it provides a publicity bonanza and a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. Forcibly administering them Raglan, an anti-nausea drug with serious side effects, may help keep these hunger strikers alive, but says little for us as a society.

Close down this Caribbean Long Kesh, repatriate the low level prisoners to their country of origin, disperse the actual Al Qaeda supporters to Federal high security mainland prisons and then afford them fair trials. Their day is over. It’s time for us to restore the US to its “shining city on the hill” status. Let’s put these last twelve years of un-American behavior once and for all in the rear mirror.

We, of all people, know the value of symbols. Let’s not create an Al Qaeda Bobby Sands. We’re better than that.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Welcome to New York - do's, don'ts and dangers

“Ah, the summer time has come
And the streets are thick with tourists…”

So what’s a regular New Yorker to do? Well, accentuate the positive: after all, out-of-towners keep the cash flowing; besides, most of us were once blow-ins too.

With that hippy-dippy sentiment safely put to bed, herewith a couple of practical do’s and don’ts for visitors that will lower the blood pressure of an already over-stressed city.

First and foremost - don’t walk two abreast down narrow city sidewalks, especially if you like to shuffle along at the pace of an exhausted rhinoceros. New Yorkers are all a day late, a dollar short and will be less than complimentary to you and the horse you rode in on if they can’t get past.

Despite our gruff exteriors, however, we’re romantic to a fault. That being said we have zero tolerance for couples – of any sex or preference – holding hands while dawdling along our busy thoroughfares.

We have no problem whatsoever with them hastening into darkened doorways and committing all manner of unspeakable acts from Fifty Shades of Grey. We might even applaud discreetly – for, at least, they’ll be keeping the sidewalks clear.

Ever wonder why New Yorkers charge at you loudly exclaiming, “Excuse me?” It’s because you’re daydreaming on a corner and blocking the bloody way while the pedestrian light is blinking “don’t walk” - which to any self-respecting New Yorker means, “run like hell!”

And, puh-leeze, don’t wear earphones in this city! Many New Yorkers do, you counter. That’s their problem, pal, and a whack on the head will eventually wise them up. It may not be the Fort Apache 70’s but this is still a tough town.

And besides, do you think Walt Whitman, Stephen Foster, Miles Davis or Bob Dylan wore headphones? No way, Jose, that’s because they gleaned their inspiration from the rhythm and beats of this insomniac city, not some wimpy personalized soundtrack that your Great-Aunt Gerty wouldn’t be caught dead listening to.

Open up to the glory of the city; its white noise will rip your staid perceptions to shreds and give your jaded synapses a first class tuning-up. Bet your bottom dollar you’ll see your old hometown in a new light when - or rather if - you ever decide to go home.

Not much of a museum or gallery attendee but you want it on public record that you have more than a passing acquaintance with these joints? Try the Frick Collection at 1 East 70th Street, just off Central Park. There you’ll find Rembrandts, Renoirs, Turners and a couple of Vermeers that will knock your socks off, all in the every serene setting of Henry Clay Frick’s graceful mansion.

The Museum of Natural History is anything but soothing, but it’s an essential place to drag unpleasant adolescents, if only to wear them out. Take my word for it, an afternoon spent tramping these blistering halls and they’ll run for the comfort of their video games, leaving you free to head off for a couple of well earned libations.

Remember, Manhattan is only one fifth of New York City. Check out the other four boroughs and find out what really makes this city tick. Catch the Ikea Ferry to Red Hook and make a beeline for Rocky Sullivan’s. You’ll meet the real Brooklyn there - not the recently arrived Willyburg poseurs. Ask for George - tell him I sent you.

Hop the A train to the Republic of Rockaway. The peninsula is fighting its way back, as it always does, and you can’t beat that Queens ocean breeze.

Take the B, D or 4 trains to Bedford Park and stroll down the Boulevard to the Bronx Botanical Gardens; it’s a wonderland only awaiting discovery.

And whatever you do, board the Staten Island Ferry. You’ll see the greatest city in the world as your forefathers first did – from the harbor – and guess what, it’s free.

One last piece of advice, always look like you know where you’re going, even when you don’t; that’s one sure way of staying safe – and keeping the sidewalks open for the rest of us.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Gerry Diver's Speech Project

Writing about music is like bottling the wind – difficult at the best of times. Then you hear something like Gerry Diver’s Speech Project and it opens not just your ears, but your eyes too, and other senses that you’d forgotten about.

At first I thought I’d received some kind of dud CD for on the opening track the voice appeared to repeat as on an old scratched record. Soon thereafter a fiddle entered tentatively, like a blind man homing in on the source of the voice and eventually caressing it; and with that the recording had my full attention.

This was obviously no high tech pop song where banality is frozen in place and stitched together perfectly to appeal to the broadest demographic. No, this was real music, more than a little unhinged, but touching me much as it did in childhood.

Gerry Diver’s conceit is to record a human voice while in conversation, find its key, isolate and loop a phrase or two, then add complementary lines of music.

It seems so obvious and yet I can’t recall any precedent; still, there’s no mistaking the album’s ultimate effect for I began to listen to the voices around me in a new way - not just for content but for inherent melody.

Gerry has chosen a number of familiar voices: Christy Moore, Shane McGowan, Damien Dempsey to name a few; they speak quietly but with conviction about matters of importance to them – emigration, the spirit of music, memory. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Manchester born but Irish bred Divers clothes these shards of speech with evocative melodies and rhythms that deepen the very nature of the words spoken.

My own favorite piece features Margaret Barry, a traveling street singer who performed at fairs and outside GAA grounds on big match days.

I’d long been fascinated by her, yet I only saw her once. My grandfather had taken me to see Wexford hurl against mighty Kilkenny in the town of Enniscorthy.

Some of you will recall the excitement of match days as diverse streams of people coalesced into a torrent heading for the park while all around hucksters hawked hats and rosettes emblazoned with the colors of the teams; suddenly we were halted by a big crowd, hushed and silent as they craned their necks to catch the clatter of a solitary banjo.

My grandfather reached down, placed me astride his shoulders and murmured almost reverentially, “That’ll be Maggie Barry.”

She stood within a semi-circle of people, her back to the wall of the park, and began to sing as if to herself. Yet her voice and banjo cut through the murmuring silence. She looked vaguely forbidding – a tooth or two missing – but there was an inherent kindness and wisdom about her.

I don’t even recall the song, but it spoke of a different time, one that was already fast disappearing, the old Ireland of glens and boreens that the English had barely touched. The song and its treatment were already old-fashioned, unscathed by the popular music of the day, and yet I can still recall its effect on me.

As if by magic Maggie’s voice again leaked out from Gerry’s CD, though this time it was relating the story of her mother’s passing rather than singing of a fading way of life. Still Gerry had captured her essence - not just her spirit but the times that inspired it. Some of the music he spun around that oddly comforting voice was as old as the hills, more of it was closer to the repeated rhythms and rippling arpeggios of a Philip Glass opera, yet it all meshed seamlessly.

You may need to search the CD for a particular voice that speaks to you, but I’m sure it’s there cloaked in its own exquisitively tailored music. That’s what makes Gerry Diver’s Speech Project an album for the ages. Be sure to pick up a copy, it will restore your faith in music; chances are you’ll remember something about yourself that you’ve either forgotten or misplaced, and you’ll be the better for its return.