Monday 23 December 2013

Christmas Eve in Wexford

It’s unlikely that I’ll spend another Christmas in Wexford. When I first arrived in America that would have been a doomsday pronouncement but, with time, you come to accept it as the emigrant’s lot. You weave together your own traditions or, as likely as not, adopt and adapt someone else’s.

            And yet the memories draw you back. Wexford’s medieval Main Street was a thrilling place for a child. For weeks before the big day the lights would illuminate the many shop windows, flickering, dancing, and heightening the allure of the finery and toys that would soon find their way to lucky homes.

            No one had much in the way of money and few got more than one Christmas gift, but it would be something you had requested and anticipated since autumn. Things have changed in Wexford; children get more than one gift, while the shops on the once bustling Main Street must now compete with outlying supermarkets and chain stores.

            Wexford was a great place to grow up in. You knew thousands by name or sight, but there were always new people to discover, clubs to join and some festival or event just around the corner. Though it reeked of history and had no little regard for itself, the old town throbbed with an innate sense of excitement.

            When I first moved to Dublin, I lived in Rathmines, then the heart of culchie-land. The craic was mighty, the music and the girls the finest; still on many the Friday evening I could be found out near Bray with my thumb in the air, anxious to hitch a lift home before the weekend revelries got into full swing.

            Back then I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing a Wexford Yuletide. Basically, the town closed down from Christmas Day until January 2nd while the citizens dedicated themselves to feasting, fraternizing and ripping it up in pubs and dancehalls.

            It was a rare family that hadn’t relatives in London, Birmingham, or some other industrial center of the UK. Many returned home in mid-December and the narrow streets would ring with shouts of welcome and recognition. Not many ventured across the Atlantic. I mightn’t have either but for a distaste for British policies in the North of Ireland.

            I spent my first two Christmases in New York in a gentle state of inebriation, as did most homesick illegal immigrants. If you risked a visit home, you might not make it back safely through Kennedy. I feel for those currently undocumented – many with children who rarely see grandparents. When I finally got my papers in order I vowed never to miss another Christmas at home. And I didn’t – for many years.

            But things change with the passing of parents. It’s not that you don’t care for sisters and brothers but with the house gone, there’s an odd lack of center, and anyway isn’t it easier go back in the summer for the good weather!!

            And yet I miss Christmas Eve in Wexford. It would begin in some pub in the early afternoon; there you’d meet friends and friends of friends until the room would be rocking with laughter, joy and music. Still, no matter what the craic, one had to be home for 6 o’clock tea with your mother. She would want to know whom you’d seen, were many out, did you run into this one or that?

Then back to the pub for another marathon. Oddly enough, the evening would be topped off with midnight mass in the Friary. Even to those with less than strident faith there was something magical and reflective about that service.
            The hard chaws stood in the back by the holy water font, and there was always room and nodded acceptance amongst them. We didn’t beat our breasts with the pious; like the poet, Patrick Kavanagh, we were transients, present only to be blessed by a “white rose pinned on the Virgin Mary’s blouse.”

            For Christmas transforms everyone and in the end, it doesn’t really matter if you celebrate it in Wexford or New York. A very happy Christmas to you and yours!

Merry Christmas, Baby... A Lower East Side Serenade

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; along with 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 seemed to have “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-picket-fenced clan to twenty out on Rykers.

“But what about my parents?” I countered. 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 ten 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 shades and spoke Polish. Still, the place was packed and we reverently stood in the transept in close proximity to 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 sweating and 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 at me through 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 afternoon. 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 descending 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 White Christmas was leaking from doorways 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, angrier 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, held a sprig of mistletoe over my head and kissed me as if for the first time. And when she whispered, “Merry Christmas, baby,” all the fight fled out of me and young love in all its passion returned.

Friday 20 December 2013

From Dingle to the Stars - Walking on Cars!

I don’t know who first turned me on to Walking On Cars. You never heard of them? They’re the rage of the Dingle Peninsula and all points east in County Kerry!

            I get a lot of tips on bands from listeners to Celtic Crush, my show on SiriusXM. Most come to nothing: though the band may be dynamite on stage, they often lack great or distinctive songs; and for radio it’s all about the magic that unfolds in those three for four broadcast minutes.

            I was intrigued that Walking On Cars hails from Dingle. That part of the world may boast the finest traditional players; yet, it has made less than a dent in the international pop charts.

            The first thing that struck me about the band was that Patrick Sheehy sings with his natural Kerry accent. In an odd way it was like hearing The Dubliners for the first time and realizing that the inner city Dublin burr is head and shoulders above any generic mid-Atlantic accent. It’s real, in your face, and reeks of the ancient streets that have nurtured it.

            Two Stones from Walking On Cars first EP, doesn’t immediately jump out at you – most songs that leave a lasting impression don’t – the rule of thumb being: if you like it instantly it’s derivative. But on a second listen I was hooked within minutes.

            Walking On Cars synthesizes so much of the fine pop music of the last 50 years, beginning with The Beatles and ending with the current 17 year old New Zealand wunderkind, Lorde. And yet, Two Stones is its own distinct universe, full of lovely harmonies, simple but affecting piano chords, a driving rhythm section, melodic guitar, and impassioned vocals – all wrapped together with a Dingle sensibility.

            I played the track a number of times on Celtic Crush and was impressed by the reception. One person even pulled his car off the highway just to savor the song.

There’s a deep emotional pull to the music, something you just can’t put your finger on, and yet you know that it’s coming from the singer not the song - the band not the notes they’re playing.

            I was in Dingle for a night in October and met Patrick, Sorcha Dunham (keyboards) and Paul Flannery (bass). I was a bit stunned by Patrick at first, for he bears an odd resemblance to our own late lamented singer, Ray Kelly. Their personalities were not unlike either – friendly, thoughtful, intense, a little shy. Sorcha and Paul, the heartbeats of the band, were more outgoing.

            They invited me to see Walking On Cars the following night in Killarney. I thought it might be a local pub gig; instead it was sold out concert and I had to fight my way to the front through a mob of screaming teenage girls.

And what poise this young band has. They already behave like seasoned professionals. Each has found his/her own place in the spectrum of sound and presence – Paul, chatty and rock solid on bass; Sorcha, appealing and quietly assertive on keyboards; Dan Devane, melodic - even symphonic on guitar; Evan Hadnett propelling the whole thing on drums. And all coalesced around, but not dominated by, a sensitive Kerry heartthrob, Patrick.

            Backstage after I mentioned some of the echoes I’d heard – The Cars, Phil Manzanera; but they’d never heard of Ric Ocasek, though Roxy Music rang a bell. Good for them! Who needs the past when they’ll soon become their own icons.

            Will they make it? In a way they already have – attracting a big following without a hit on the radio – much like Black 47 did in New York City.

            Will they become big stars? Luck, perseverance, and the right connections will be of paramount importance. And so much can go wrong so quickly.

            But I think they’ll be fine. They’re infused with a can-do spirit and are united against the world; and while they posses that great Kerry exuberance, they’re not without a dollop of Kingdom reserve and common sense.

It’s a long way from Slea Head to superstardom, but how great it will be to hear a Dingle accent pealing out from Number one!

Thursday 5 December 2013

You Can't Beat A Good Franciscan!

            I’m a sucker for churches. I can feel at home in a chapel or kirk of any faith. Part of this comes from being raised by a grandfather who was a monumental sculptor - a rather grand term he employed for his craft as headstone maker.

            Most Sunday afternoons would find us pottering around some graveyard in County Wexford. Bored to the teeth I would often retreat to the adjoining church for some shelter from the wind. He would eventually join me and comment on the lines of a statue, the granite in a pillar, the marble on an altar, and more circumspectly: the eccentricities of the parish priest and the prospects of his curate.

            I was influenced too by my love of Wexford’s Friary where I served as an altar boy for five years.

            The Franciscans arrived in Wexford in 1255 and have never left, although they were forced into hiding during the worst days of the Reformation. Enraged by the town’s resistance to siege, Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads slaughtered seven friars before trotting their horses across the high altar of the medieval church.

            The powerful bond between the friars and Wexford people was rarely spoken about; they were just part of the fabric of the town. This union handily survived a wave of anti-clericalism during the Lockout of 1911-12 when the Catholic hierarchy was presumed to support the factory owners rather than the workers. Through all this unrest the Franciscans never stinted in their support for the working poor and were hailed for it.

            Like many I felt more comfortable in the Friary than in the two majestic twin churches whose steeples seemed to egotistically stab at the sky. Even as a boy I found them pompous and they offered little in the way of artistry, apart from their pipe organs that thundered beneath the massed choirs that gathered in both houses of worship.

            But even that show of hymnal firepower paled in comparison to the hushed beauty of the shrine to St. Anthony where I regularly served 7 o’clock mass on Tuesday mornings. There I’d minister to the saintly Father Ignatius as he presided over his congregation of dotty, elderly ladies. One morning I fainted on the altar steps and regained consciousness untended – neither priest nor congregation had noticed such was their devotion to this 12th Century Franciscan.

            I never witnessed a man so consumed with God as Fr. Ignatius until encountering a blind Muslim mystic in Southern Turkey. Nor have I ever met a priest as jolly as Fr. Justin, OFM. He was like a rolling ball of laughs as he traversed the narrow streets and back lanes of Wexford town. He was also a first-rate confessor. Every sin from an anemic fib to fornicating with a thousand naked Cossacks earned the same penance of three Hail Marys.

            When I related this observation to Fr. Mychal Judge OFM one riotous night in Connolly’s he pondered for some moments before murmuring, “three Hail Marys straight from the heart can cure a world of heartbreak.”

            It was in the Friary too that I made my last confession, largely because Fr. Justin had been temporarily replaced by some lunatic cleric who roared to the rafters that I had polluted my eternal soul – and this while I was in the preliminary venial sin stage of my disclosures. I thought it better to spare the poor man a heart attack, and me everlasting Wexford notoriety, and so I fled for the door and years of agnosticism.

            The Grey Friars have taken over the old church now – no doubt they’re a good outfit, although I miss my men in brown. Father Mychal once did some detective work for me and related that Ignatius had become well known as a mystic within the order, while Justin went to his eternal reward with a smile on his face.

            Mychal’s gone now too and what a loss he is to the many who turned to him in times of trial. Yet, no matter how far one strays from the old faith, it’s always a comforting feeling to know that an ancient church continues to stir so many warm and treasured memories.