Thursday 25 February 2016

Miracle on Avenue B

           Miracles do happen - particularly on Avenue B. That’s where St. Brigid’s stands, just east of Tompkins Square Park.

            I have been involved in many the lost cause down the years but none, seemingly, as hopeless as the battle to restore and reopen the old “Famine church.”

            Our ranks were broad - Conservative and Marxist, Jansenist and Liberationist, Puerto Rican and Irish, among many others opposed the demolition of this treasured landmark.

            My own connection to St. Bridie’s was far from religious. Following nights spent carousing in The Kiwi, an after-hours establishment on 9th Street, I often watched the sun rise from a park bench in Tomkins Square. 

            I noticed the Irish name and took a stroll in during early mass one morning, and to my amazement learned that the church had been built by survivors of An Gorta Mór.

            I did not become a parishioner but grew fond of the place and occasionally took refuge in a shady pew on blazing summer days. 

            When demolition seemed likely back in 2006, along with other members of the Irish American Writers & Artists I assisted in running some benefits. To be honest I felt we needed a miracle, for I come from a clerical family and know that victories are scarce when you oppose the judgment of prelates and princes.

            Then lo and behold, when we activists were on our last legs in 2008, an anonymous donor gave $20 million with the express wish that St. Brigid’s be restored and returned to the community.

            The church reopened on Jan. 29, 2013 and some weeks ago I found myself passing my old-after hours Tomkins Square park bench on my way to a much delayed celebration.

            There was another reason I hadn’t been back in the old neighborhood for some time and it weighed on my mind as I entered the church basement. But I was soon overwhelmed by the warmth and friendship of comrades and parishioners.

            Peter Quinn was there; he had been president of IAWA when we ran our benefits. Ed Torres, the dynamic leader of the parishioners, was as ever gracious and inspiring. I sat with his lovely wife, Dolly, as she showed me the pictures of her grandchildren and, not for the first time, was made to feel like a member of her extended family.

            My colleague at The Echo, Peter McDermott, was in attendance, his finger as ever on the pulse of Irish New York?  I sat with my old musical friends, Joe Hurley and Kirk Kelly while we demolished pulled pork, barbecued chicken, corn beef and cabbage and talked of old times playing The Pyramid, 8BC, and other iconic neighborhood clubs.

            Joe was still shattered over the death of David Bowie. As we traded stories about our encounters with this mutual hero, I remembered why I’d stayed away for so long but chose not to mention it.

After all, we were at a celebration and the talk of Mr. Bowie had put us both in a melancholic mood. To add fat to the fire, Brian Monaghan’s relatives were in attendance and the talk had turned to this sorely missed entertainer.

            Eventually it was time to go and I left with many a hug and fond word. I thought of cutting back across the park but instead I headed down Avenue B and around the corner to my old apartment building on 3rd Street.

            Once more I stood on the pavement that had been stained with blood on that August morning 20 years ago. Black 47 had played the Dublin Ohio Irish Festival the pervious night and I’d caught the first plane back.

            Johnny Byrne, soundman and recording engineer, the best friend of so many Irish musicians, had fallen off the fire escape. I gazed up at my old windows - one was shuttered, while a large air-conditioner blocked the other. The current residents would never pull a mattress onto the fire escape on a hot night.

            The old sadness resurfaced but it was no match for the warmth I had felt at St. Brigid’s party. Then it struck me that it was time to let the past go – that miracles do indeed happen, especially on Avenue B.

Monday 15 February 2016

Music and Society

            It’s interesting how music and the manner in which it is presented is so closely related to the politics and social mores of the times.

            Take a look at Ireland in the 1950’s through the late 1960’s. Showbands dominated popular culture and large halls sprung up all over the country to accommodate dancing. People flocked in their thousands to these venues and danced the nights away, always three fast songs in a set followed by three slow smooches.

            Up on stage showbands – all boasting roughly the same instrumentation: three horns, a rhythm section and a lead singer - played songs from Radio Luxembourg’s Top Twenty along with country staples from the likes of Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash.

            Should the venue be a parish hall then the local priest trained an eagle eye on his parishioners thereby monitoring their conduct. Everything was controlled and conservative, and it seemed as though this state of affairs would last forever.

            But by the mid-60’s times were indeed a’changing. With longstanding Taoiseach, Éamon deValera, kicked upstairs into the presidency, the economic reforms initiated by Seán Lemass, his successor, began to bear fruit. With more jobs available emigrants returned from the UK bringing with them new ideas - one being that alcohol should be available with entertainment.

            This innovation coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and a renewed sense of national identity. Traditional folk groups like The Dubliners became popular and large new lounges were constructed wherein they might entertain their followers. Women were welcomed into pubs for the first time and abandoned their Babychams for vodka, gin, and the Lord save us, pints of porter and lager.

            With more money flowing social mores adapted. Suits and ties were relegated to the wardrobe, and anyone who could strum a guitar or possessed half a voice joined the Ballad Boom. Luke Kelly and his socialist anthems replaced Dickie Rock and his Top Twenty imitations, dancehalls were abandoned, showbands faded away, and the parish priest retreated to his Sunday morning pulpit.

            Meanwhile up North a generation of young Catholics who had benefited from the British free university system began to question their role as second-class citizens.

This led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and in response the spiked fist of Unionism, unprepared to cede ground or equality, struck back. Armed revolt soon followed and led to the splintering of an entrenched sectarian system.

Music echoed and reflected the political sound and fury as Rory Gallagher, Horslips and Thin Lizzy came storming into prominence. All three bands contained Northern and Southern members and each outfit, to its credit, insisted on playing Belfast through the worst of the Troubles.

Though this era was marred by horrific violence it was a golden age for Irish music. Even traditional music was affected with The Bothy Band stretching boundaries by creating impassioned and adventurous ensemble pieces that still sound fresh to the ear.

The arts and creativity in general seem to flourish in unsettled and even violent times. Let’s take a quick detour to New York City. Was there ever a more creative scene than the Lower East Side - and particularly CBGB - in the late 1970’s while the area was dangerous and anarchistic? 

One could even cite the music scene in Paddy Reilly’s during the recession of the early 1990’s when a host of new bands emerged from the collision of Celtic music and urban rhythms.

And what of U2? Well, ever since I first saw Bono performing to a paltry crowd in The Ritz circa 1980 I felt he epitomized the new Ireland that was finally shedding its dowdy uniform of inferiority. 

The band’s music was not as yet innovative or particularly original, but a Rock & Roll Irish Napoleon strode that stage, and I had little doubt but that U2 would one day conquer the world of popular music.

Ireland’s inferiority complex is a thing of the past; the crassness and consumerism of the Celtic Tiger gave it the final boot. Irish arts are in the ascendancy. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another recession and further mass emigration to keep the scene flourishing.