Tuesday 17 May 2016

Sunday Afternoons in the old Morris Minor

   I miss the old Ireland – especially Sunday afternoons when I’d head off with my grandfather in his old, and battered, blue Morris Minor. Amazingly I can still recall its license plate, ZR 5486.

   We would be dolled up in our Sunday best: suits, ties, and crisply-ironed white shirts. He never announced where we were headed but the first stop was inevitably a country graveyard. 

   He was a headstone maker, although he preferred to be called a monumental sculptor. He’d putter around those old cemeteries for a couple of hours in rain, hail, sun, or sleet, selectively perusing ornate Celtic crosses or moss-covered brooding limestone slabs, most of which he had carved himself.

   He never spoke during these inspections and I wonder now what was he thinking? I never asked though I inquired about many other things. I suppose we had come to some unspoken agreement that this was the time for his own thoughts.

   He had a great sense of history and one day mentioned that he had met Padraig Pearse’s English father - another monumental sculptor. He was full of little jewels of that nature; such details are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to me now – they give you inklings of what life was like before the founding of the modern state of Ireland.

   Eventually, he would head back to the old Morris Minor and sit there until he had decided upon which old friend or relative we should visit. He was a very popular man among his own circle and we would receive a hearty welcome in the farmhouse of his choice.

   Tea would be made and scones or other delicacies served as we settled in around the fireplace for a chat that would encompass history, politics, gossip, and scandal that would stretch far beyond nightfall.  Whereupon another tea would be served with slices of chicken, ham, turkey or occasionally some gamey pheasant. 

   By then natives from far and near would have gathered - courtesy of the culchie telegraph - to marvel at this visit from two sophisticated denizens of the metropolis of Wexford. After many goodbyes and promises of return we’d head out into the cool starry night.

   My grandfather always soldiered through the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary on the way home. Did he not know the Joyous or Glorious equivalents or had he by this time in life come to the conclusion that sorrow was more appropriate to his lot?

   I don’t know but I learned much from him on those long Sunday afternoons. He told me how his own father had watched thousands of silent, starving people shuffle by in the dark and deadly days of 1847. My grandfather made me promise to give voice to those voiceless wraiths and to “never forget!”

   People like him expected little from life. They learned how to entertain themselves, and it was a rare person who didn’t have a party piece – be it singing, reciting, whistling, dancing or, in his case, telling long and involved stories.

   They were viscerally connected to the past and believed we were only separated from the supernatural by the thinnest of veils. One of the old ladies we used visit on Sundays was adamant that the electric light had done much damage to “our friends from the other side,” for they no longer had shadows to dwell in.

   Time passed slowly in those days and it seemed as though boyhood would last forever. Oddly enough, I last saw my grandfather on a Sunday afternoon. I was living in Dublin then and had hitched the many miles to the home for the elderly in which he dwelled.

   I was moving to New York the next day and told him I’d see him at Christmas. He nodded briskly at my optimism. People of his generation were familiar with the trials of emigration.  

   Alas the naturalization process was slow and my lawyer advised me not to risk going home until my case was settled. It was three Christmases later before I made it back. I was almost in time for he had only just passed away.

   I often think of him on Sunday afternoons heading off for some country graveyard. His Ireland is long gone. Whatever would he think of it now?

Monday 2 May 2016

Celtic Crush 11 Years On

   Eleven years ago I was standing in a corridor of Sirius Satellite Radio’s headquarters laughing and joking with legendary host Meg Griffin. She had just interviewed me on the release of a Black 47 CD, and we were reminiscing about late nights spent in CBGB’s.

   Upon noticing my accent a passing executive inquired if I might be interested in hosting a weekly Celtic Music show. As ever, being in the right place at the right is the name of the game.

   Meg sat in the first couple of weeks and suggested that I play three songs, then say whatever came to mind; thus was the template for the three hour show conceived.

   She warned that unlike terrestrial radio I would be speaking to people the length and breadth of the US and Canada so act accordingly. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” says I to myself, “I hope I have something to say.”

   As I soon discovered, if you’re producing the show and choosing the songs you’ll find plenty to talk about - assuming you have an interest in music, half a brain, and a regard for your own opinion. 

   It has from time to time been suggested that I possess only two of these characteristics – a thick skin, as you might imagine, is required for this gig. 

   I decided upon three rules: I would only play great songs; that Celtic would include the eight recognized nations and their diasporas; and that I would not disqualify musicians because of jealousy, revenge or plain old personal distaste.

   The last rule was the most difficult, having spent years on the road with the greatest collection of alcoholics, cardsharps, sheep-shaggers, petrol-siphoners, prima donnas, bad check artists, and others even less reputable. 

   Celtic Crush has become very popular both in the US and Canada, probably because it’s the only Celtic show on all platforms of SiriusXM. Ah yes, there’s nothing quite like a monopoly for boosting business! 

   SiriusXM has now over 30 million subscribers so you’re playing to a very broad demographic. That’s why Celtic Crush is song - rather than musician - oriented. With over 150 channels to choose from, if you play something merely average, or god forbid, banal, it really stands out, and subscribers are only too willing to move on to another channel.

   That doesn’t mean that I only play accepted standards. Far from it! I’m always searching for what I call “future classics.” There’s nothing quite like finding a great song by a new band and introducing both to a large new appreciative audience. 

   One such band is Lynched who may one day fill the big shoes of The Dubliners. And yet, I could never have helped them if they hadn’t written the haunting, enigmatic Cold Old Fire. 

   It’s amazing how little exposed North Americans have been to The Dubliners, and the twin magic of Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew. But it’s also great to turn the world on to Corner Boy, a band from Wexford not unlike Mumford & Sons, but perhaps a little better. Try their rousing, Morning Morning.

   For Scottish music, give a listen to Peatbog Faeries or the best band you’ve never heard, Runrig. But Celtic music travels far afield nowadays, so experience Alan Stivell’s collaboration with one of the world’s great singers, Senegal’s Youssou n’Dour on A United Earth.

   Of course, I play all the recognized Celtic greats from Sean O’Riada through Van Morrison to Dropkick Murphys but it’s always about the song – not the singer, and the more original the better.

   Celtic Crush is not without social and political content. In fact it’s a direct retort to Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s dastardly Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act that did so much damage to Irish culture and tradition. For on SiriusXM one is encouraged to say what one pleases without fear of censure.

   The show has spawned a number of Facebook pages including Fans of Celtic Crush where discussions and arguments break out frequently on musical, political and social topics.

   It’s been an eleven-year old joy to introduce so much great music and place it in a relevant context where it can be even more appreciated. I hope you’ll join me some Sunday morning.

   Celtic Crush can be heard on SiriusXM The Loft, Ch. 30, Sunday 9amET, Tuesday 9pmET, Wednesday Midnight ET.