Sunday 22 November 2015

Luke Kelly - Troubled and Triumphant - Still The Man

I first saw him at a Fleadh Cheoil in the packed town square of Enniscorthy, the very walls throbbing with music, good fellowship and liquor.  As a wild-looking, red-headed man - banjo in fist – climbed to the roof of a car, whispers swept the square, “It’s Luke Kelly.”

For a long moment, he stood still as a statue and stared out at us. A hush swelled and spread outwards. I was stunned by the power of any man to still that unruly crowd.

And then Luke began to sing Kelly The Boy From Killane and his words ricocheted across the same square that Father Murphy and his Pikemen had stormed through in the rebellion of 1798.

It was one of those moments of revelation, and I knew I’d never be happy if I didn’t at least try to do the same myself some day.

When he finished the last thrilling chorus he laughed heartily at the thunderous applause; with a shrug of his shoulders he took a slug from a bottle handed up to him, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

His point made, he continued with The Leaving of Liverpool. This sailors’ work song gave us the freedom to join in and we did with gusto on the choruses – our voices reverberating off the walls until you could almost see the beautiful girl on the banks of the Mersey that we were all leaving behind.

I prefer to think of Luke at that moment – young and in control of his destiny. I suppose it had something to do with the times: there was an air of possibility abroad, a sense that things were changing.

Still, Luke’s vision was rooted in the past, for he had that innate power of the seanchaĆ­ to summon back to life a revolutionary spirit that had lain dormant in Enniscorthy for almost 170 years.

He summoned something achingly familiar that had been kept at arm’s length from us - our own sense of Irishness – something fierce and untrammeled that one never heard on the radio, a dissident spirit that did not sit easy in the musty, lace-curtain parlors of that time.

Luke had sensed its presence in Enniscorthy Town Square and harnessed it to further his performance.

There were other occasions when I saw him torn and almost hesitant to get on stage. As the years passed, the venues he performed in with The Dubliners were often very rowdy – people were more interested in hearing their own voices than creating the space and silence he needed to delve into the heart of some lyric and find its truth.

In the course of the night he always silenced them once, or even twice, but in the end what was the point in trying to contain a Niagara of noisy banality fueled by flashfloods of Guinness.

And so, with a shrug of his shoulders, he’d belt into some up-tempo sing-a-long, but you could almost touch a thin shroud of despair that cloaked him no matter how much he beamed.

My other favorite performance of this galvanic talent was at the Television Club on Dublin’s Harcourt Street. Cahir O’Doherty and The Gentry was the featured band.

Now a renowned balladeer in Florida, Cahir had a tremendous soulful voice while The Gentry were very hip and cutting edge.

In the midst of the dancing, Cahir announced that he had a special guest. Everyone assumed it would be some other showband luminary, instead out strode Luke, resplendent in a flower-power shirt and matching turquoise velvet pants.

This caused consternation for Luke was after all a folk-singer and tended to dress in puritanical blue denim.

The shock did not stop there, for he launched into a bluesy, boozy, version of With a Little Help From My Friends replete with Rockette kicks. And, oh my God, was he good – hilarious and having the time of his life. 

That was Luke Kelly – troubled and triumphant – a rebel in the soul unafraid to question tradition or himself.  

He’s still the man and a whole host of us influenced by him will always be boys in his shadow.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Immigrant dreams

           You really have to wonder about Donald Trump and his views on immigration. I’m not even talking about his scabrous, hate-filled opinion of Mexican immigrants. (Like most who have worked in the bar/entertainment business I admire and respect Mexicans – in particular their work ethic and generosity of spirit.)

            No I’m talking about the economic boon that immigrants (both legal and otherwise) provide to the US.

            And by the way, a very hearty farewell to Governor Walker of Wisconsin! I can’t say he’ll be missed – anyone who builds his resume on eviscerating labor unions has little interest in preserving a very challenged American middle-class.

However, the good governor did provide one of the great comic moments of this campaign by suggesting that a wall be built the length of the Canadian border. I was never quite sure who we were keeping out – ISIS or the Blue Jays?

Mr. Trump may be a very successful entertainer, and I’m told the golf courses that bear his name are top class, but doesn’t he understand that with the US population rapidly aging and work force participation tumbling, immigrants are essential to help expand the economy.

Right now there’s a shortage of workers in the building trades – particularly in Arizona and Southern California. Many Mexican workers went home during the Great Recession and show little sign of returning.

A healthy housing market is synonymous with a thriving economy and lack of skilled labor in this important field is contributing to the sluggish recovery. Like it or lump it, we’re dependent on foreign labor.

Should there be a general immigration amnesty. From a purely economic point of view – yes! Imagine the benefits of adding over 11 million undocumented people to the tax rolls.

Most credible schemes for legalizing the undocumented also demand that back taxes be paid; imagine the enormous benefit to the country’s finances on both a state and federal level.

I know there’s a pervasive fear that the undocumented are putting huge pressure on schools and social services. This does happen. But we are a civilized nation that strives to educate and care for all children. The alternative is a huge permanent uneducated lower class that would be even a worse drain on society and the economy.

And what of our own undocumented Irish people? Having been one myself I know what it’s like to fear a telephone call in the night informing you of the illness or death of a relative. To know you can’t risk returning home and offering support is a cruel thing.

It’s always stunning to hear a person of Irish descent rave on in a Know-Nothing manner about “these people” who should be repatriated, when only generations ago their own forebears were derided and insulted by nativist politicians.

And what of the Republican Party and its near paranoiac fear of “big government? Has the GOP forgotten that its greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, won the Civil War and abolished slavery only by harnessing and expanding the might of the Federal Government to suppress “states rights?”

            The GOP’s patrician leader, Teddy Roosevelt considered it his patriotic duty to trust-bust the railroads and other monopolies with the help of the federal government. While its war hero, General Dwight Eisenhower, built a system of national highways and bridges that not only unified the country but led to a generation of economic expansion.

            One need hardly mention that the same highways and bridges are slowly falling apart because of the reluctance of many Republican legislators to borrow money at current minimal rates, not to mention that this common sense action would create jobs and speed up economic recovery.

            It’s time for Republican voters to demand credible economic plans from their remaining candidates.

Of course many have enjoyed the previous two xenophobic, militaristic reality shows also known as Republican debates; but many more tremble at the thought of any of these participants getting elected and implementing their corporate trickle down economic policies.

            As for Mr. Trump, since he seems short of ideas on how to implement his nativist policies, how about marching the eleven million undocumented north instead of south – there’s a lot of empty space up there in Canada.