Thursday 31 March 2016

St. Patrick's Day

   On my first St. Patrick’s Day in New York, Turner & Kirwan of Wexford played four sets in the Pig & Whistle on 48th Street before hopping the RR Train to Bay Ridge and knocking off another four sets in Tomorrow’s Lounge.

   Endurance and Southern Comfort were the name of the game. Hey, if that sweet sticky liquid gave Janis Joplin a boost, it might put the power of god in two hayseeds from Wexford!

   I played a number of St. Patrick’s Days on the road – once at some god-forsaken college in West Virginia where we were warned not to leave the grounds with long hair, as we would definitely not return with it – such was the hostility of the local rednecks.

   Another March 17th we were prevailed upon to play ten sets in a New Hampshire establishment. To protest this injustice we threw a huge party afterwards in our lodgings. Next morning the owner returned unexpectedly to a scene out of a Paddy Fellini movie. It was not my happiest March 18th.

   New York City is unequivocally the place to be on St. Patrick’s Day. There’s a wildness in the air. I trace it back to the “Famine Irish” who on that one day of the year defiantly stepped out from their urban hovels to the beat of: “we have survived, we have arrived!”

   Back in the 1970’s with a struggle against discrimination  going on in the North of Ireland one dug deep and summoned up the many rebel songs that were part of our DNA. 

   With his tightening of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act in 1976, Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien blockaded that rebel musical avenue on Irish radio and television, and Ireland lost a vital link to its heritage.

   When we formed Black 47 Chris Byrne and I set out to renew the link by writing our own contemporary rebel music with the help of Reggae, Hip-Hop, and Rock beats. Thus came James Connolly, Time To Go, Fire of Freedom and other songs that challenged the political status quo.

   Our mantra was to use the beats from the street but always keep the link – and the faith - with the past. 

   Saint Patrick’s Days were a riotous blur for twenty-five years with Black 47. We’d arrive back in the city from some late night gig, do an early morning TV show, then load in for Conan, Letterman or Fallon. With fatigue and adrenaline battling it out, I once forgot a line of James Connolly on national television. Few noticed but I died a hundred deaths.

   We insisted that our St. Patrick’s Night gigs be open to all ages – it was important that the youth be introduced to the old Irish political traditions. And, oh those nights were full of life, and the triumph and tragedy that attend it.

   When BB King’s called and asked me to put together a band for March 17th, I hesitated; I’ve been enjoying playing solo since Black 47 disbanded, exploring the lyrical side of the band’s anthems. 

   But there was a need for a big midtown gig on St. Patrick’s night in this centenary year of 2016. 
Besides I had written a new song about Sean MacDiarmada, the spark plug of the Rising. 

   And so I reached out to some unique musician friends to form a band for the night. My old comrade, David Amram, who pioneered the Poetry/Jazz fusion with his friend Jack Kerouac, will even sit in.

   Chris Byrne will join us after his set with Lost Tribe of Donegal. John McDonagh from Radio Free Eireann will MC and present a piece from his successful Cabtivist show. My son, Rory K, a hip-hop artist will play – the next generation deserves its night also.

   But the link to the past will as ever be bone-deep. We’ll tackle some of the score of my musical, Hard Times, set in The Five Points in 1863 when the “Famine Irish” were beginning their ascent up the social and political ladder.

   The unruly spirits of Sean MacDiarmada, Stephen Foster, James Connolly, Michael Collins - and god knows who else - will collide on 42nd Street this St. Patrick’s night.  See you at BB King’s!

Thursday 10 March 2016

The "Famine Irish"

   Emigration has never exactly been a walk on the beach. First of all there’s the long “should I stay or should I go” question; quite often a niggling career or love disappointment influences the final decision – sometimes rashly taken in a pub with too many pints aboard.

   Next comes the countdown that culminates in the bittersweet American wake and then the pain of farewell at Dublin or Shannon airports.

   Even in my day of leaving in the 1970’s there was a sudden severance of ties with loved ones, unless you were a regular letter writer – which most of us weren’t. Of course, separation still hurts nowadays even with email, Facebook, Skype, and any other manner of digital communication.

   But imagine what it was like for those dislocated by An Gorta Mór back in the 1840’s. The problem is – most of us cannot put ourselves in the shoes of those desperate people. At best we identify with the hapless immigrant of “The Streets of New York.”

   But that song was set some generations later when the Irish had gained a foothold in the cities of the American East Coast. The Famine Irish arrived in teeming, deprived multitudes and were universally despised.

   Most of their money had been spent for berths on overcrowded coffin ships where they were expected to feed themselves over the long and brutal voyage. Many were already worn down by fever and disease not to mention endemic seasickness. 

   Those who passed the often stringent medical examination were instantly overwhelmed by the bustle of dockland Manhattan; they were easy targets for the “guides” and thieves who preyed on them. Pete Hamill once noted that the average rural Irish immigrant saw more people in the first hour in New York than in a lifetime in Ireland.

   To add to the sense of dislocation, many were native Gaelic speakers with only a smattering of English.

   How did they fit in – how did they even begin to find work in this alien environment? Daniel O’Connell had prepared them. His Repeal (of the Union) Association had recruited and organized them in every parish and townsland in Ireland. 

   The Famine Irish used these networks of contacts from home when they arrived in New York City. Thus we find Sligo and Galway houses in Lower Manhattan’s notorious Five Points slum. With neighbors and relatives close at hand there was the chance of finding “the shtart” (the first job) - even if it was only shoveling manure from the streets.

   Gaelic, unfortunately, was quickly abandoned in a drive to gain better employment; but O’Connell’s training proved invaluable as the Famine Irish learned to manipulate the political system and move up the social ladder, despite the sectarianism and discrimination they experienced from Nativist and Know-Nothing Americans.

   We tend to hear only of the success stories but let’s spare a thought for those who were psychologically unsuited to the extreme stress of this new urban life. Many cracked, retreating to the shebeens; others left for the Californian Gold Rush and never returned. 

   Let’s also remember the many Irish women who had to take to the streets to provide for themselves and their children. It’s an uncomfortable, even jarring, thought now but an economic fact of life for many at that time. 

   Speaking of Daniel O’Connell and the gift of ward organizing that he bequeathed Irish-Americans – it would behoove us to honor him this year by using our clout to influence the immigration policies of the two major political parties. 

   Irish immigration has been stymied since 1965 by the Hart-Celler Act. In a tight primary season and perhaps an even closer general election, we can exert pressure on candidates from both parties.  

   It’s way past time to open the door - even slightly - and allow a new generation of Irish to join us. The old neighborhoods could use them and Irish-America could profit from some youthful native Irish invigoration.

   With their free university education many young Irish immigrants would likely find work with high-tech companies.  Few would have to shovel manure like our brave and desperate Famine Irish who despite all odds eventually triumphed – no matter what the cost.