Tuesday 28 June 2016

Ghosts in Snug Harbor

   The creative life of a playwright or novelist tends to be one long hard slog. Oh, there’s the initial inspiration for a project, and the occasional day when the gods favor you, but for the most part a career in the Sanitation Department makes a lot more sense.

   Songwriting is a whole different kettle of fish. Like play and novel writing it takes craft, but the art springs from that magic moment when your musical and lyrical sensibilities collide – hopefully in a hail of sparks.

   I had one such moment out in the Noble Maritime Museum in Staten Island last year. Now unlike certain MLB batters I can’t point at the sky claiming divine intervention, but I wonder if I didn’t get a little nudge from beyond the grave.

   I had been impressed with the gracious 19th Century building – once a home for aged sailors - when taken on a tour prior to the gig by Dawn Daniels, director of programming. While staring at a picture of an old sailing ship, a tragic piece of family history came to mind.

   My great-grandfather, Capt. Thomas Moran, was lost with all hands when his ship, City of Bristol, went down off Cornwall in 1898. Over the next six weeks his body floated 150 miles north towards his home in Wexford, but ultimately washed ashore directly across the Irish Sea in Pembrokeshire, Wales.

   As a boy my grandmother, Maggie Moran, often told me this story. She always finished with the words, “he loved us so much he was trying to get home.”

   Even back then I knew someday I’d capture the tragedy in a song. I failed a number of times – the words and melody were always decent but a certain spark was missing.   
   My father had little time for such romantic tales. In his view, Capt. Moran ran into a storm he couldn’t handle. Life at sea, as he put it, was not for the faint of heart – ships he had served on in WWII had been torpedoed twice by German U-Boats.

   After the second such incident, Jim Kirwan spent a couple of months in New York City, in no big hurry to renew his acquaintance with German submarines. He never talked much about his wartime experiences, but mentioned washing dishes on 42nd Street and that he occasionally found lodgings in an “old sailors’ home in Snug Harbor.”

   I had forgotten this last detail but it sprung to mind while onstage at the Noble Museum; I realized I was actually in the “old sailors home in Snug Harbor” my father had mentioned.  
   It was a riveting moment but I was totally unprepared for what happened next. 

   A window into the night of Capt. Moran’s shipwreck was suddenly thrown open and I experienced the terror, loss and longing of the man in a rush of words:

“Now the waves they are like mountains
And the wind’s a howling gale
And I know for surely certain
I’ll never kiss your mouth again.” 

   I might as well have been on board the City of Bristol with the captain as he came to terms with the fact that the ship was lost, all aboard would drown, and that his wife and three young children would go through life without him.

   On the trip back to Manhattan I was fearful I’d lose the vital spark that fused the lyrics and melody of “Floating.” But there was no problem. The song was like a gift - there for the taking.

   At my next gig in the Noble, Dawn Daniel’s brother, Dave Cook recorded my performance of “Floating” live and it can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon, and most digital platforms, with all proceeds going to The Noble.

   Snug Harbor is one of New York City’s treasures. It’s serene and beautiful, and the grounds and buildings pulse with the restrained sensibility of another era. 

   It’s a short bus or cab ride from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Take a trip someday and visit the Noble Maritime Collection – there’s magic in the air out there, maybe you’ll strike it lucky too.

  Noble Maritime Collections, 1000 Richmond Terrace # 8, Staten Island, NY 10301 (718) 447-6490 www.noblemaritime.org

Monday 13 June 2016

Joan of Arc from Chappaqua

            I’ve always loved elections. The polls, policies, and debates leading up to the final thrill of the count - you can almost see the wheels of democracy spin.

            Then why do I feel anxious about the upcoming presidential campaign? I suppose it’s the prospect of constant personal attacks, vilification, and half-truths, all curried with a disregard for any kind of factual accountability.

As usual, Mr. Yeats sums it up pithily: “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” But for once the master fails to capture the sheer boorishness and mean-spiritedness of this dogfight, at a time when there’s such a need for a cool and logical national discussion. 

The promises being bandied about are wishful thinking at best - the “good” jobs that have gone overseas are not coming back. This particular industrial flight has been gathering steam since the 1970’s.

Despite sermons on national decay, manufacturing output is at an all time high in the US; unfortunately less employees are needed in this new technological age. A modern factory that might have employed 1500 people 30 years ago can now make do with less than 500; with the expected advances in robotics things will only get worse.

Instead of rants and threats, steps could be taken to retrain discarded workers. With an actual shortage of skilled labor in many parts of the country vocational colleges could be created where firms enroll apprentices in work-study programs.

This would call for investment in a new economic model but if Germany can do it, why can’t we?

American corporations could help by repatriating the profits they are making and stashing overseas. That’s unlikely to happen until they’re made an offer they can’t refuse by an activist congress – all the more reason to cast your vote wisely in November.

There’s a lot of pain across the country because wages - adjusted for inflation - have actually diminished over the last 40 years. Blaming illegal immigrants and foreign governments might feel good but the solutions are closer at hand.

“Who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?” Mr. Trump demands? How about the 4 million plus American workers who would be laid off in a tariff battle with China and Mexico. In this interconnected world, both of those countries would likely head into recession, driving down stock markets, your 401(k) and the American economy for good measure.

Mr. Trump is long on quick-fix solutions but short of any actual details. Even his greatest illusion – the Great Wall of Mexico – is not worth considering since more Mexicans are presently leaving the US than arriving. 

Facts, however, have rarely been important to Mr. Trump – beginning with his inane “birther” assaults on President Obama.

Amazingly, Secretary Hillary Clinton is the last bulwark against a Trump presidency. Had she voted against the invasion of Iraq she would now likely be finishing out the final year of her second presidential term, while that seasoned Senator Barack Obama would be running against Mr. Trump.

What an awful campaign the Secretary has run so far! How could she not see that receiving exorbitant speaking fees from Goldman Sachs would be anathema to a country livid about banks and other high rollers? Likewise her decision to use a private server for her government emails defies logic.

The amazing decision not to contest the Indiana primary when Senator Sanders was on the ropes makes you wonder who’s running her campaign? Choosing small intimate meetings with supporters rather than Trump-Sanders barnstorming outdoor events in this age of spectacle is equally puzzling?

There are so many questions. Has President Bill Clinton totally lost his once acute political chops? Why have so many women deserted Secretary Clinton? Isn’t it time for a woman president – especially given the alternative?

African-Americans and Latinos know exactly what a Trump presidency will deliver. But the big question is - how will the rest of Americans react to the next five months of constant negativity?

Democracy is a messy business – it calls for a lot of scrubbing away at the grime and examining the facts underneath. 

I hope Madame Secretary is up to the task; come November the country will have a lot riding on this flawed, but steady, Joan of Arc from Chappaqua.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Those Berrigan Boys

            I recently attended the memorial service for Fr. Dan Berrigan SJ.  I’d never met the man but he was an inspiration.

            A familiar figure at anti-war protests he had the look of the true believer – someone who had come to terms with his mission in life and intended to prosecute it to the fullest.

            His brother, Fr. Philip Berrigan SSJ, was no less committed, and yet he had the eyes of a boxer, always alert for the jab or hook that would soon be coming.

            I remember an activist friend from Baltimore saying: “I always felt safer when Phil was at a protest for he was a formidable man if things got ugly. Dan was a quieter presence but equally fearless.”

            Things often got ugly for the Berrigan Brothers and the militant pacifists around them. They believed that war was immoral and that those who promoted it should be called to account.

            St. Francis Xavier Church was jam-packed despite a deluge of rain. Many familiar activist faces were sprinkled throughout the congregation.

            Father Dan had obviously touched everyone attending the service. The heartfelt grief was curried by a feeling that if things had not gotten worse, they had hardly improved much either.

            Dan Berrigan himself was no pie in the sky optimist; he was of the opinion that a dogged evil still held sway in worldly affairs – and yet, if good people stood up and did the right thing, that evil could be held at bay, if not defeated.

            Standing amidst the crowd of mourners at the back of the church, I idly wondered what this pacifist priest had thought of the upcoming presidential contenders – one a know-nothing, aggressive nationalist, the other a hawk whenever the chips are down, as they so often are in the US.

            One of the speakers stated that Dan would not wish to be placed upon a pedestal – for that merely allows the rest of us to shirk our social, moral, and political responsibilities.

            Dan Berrigan believed in building and fostering community through individual testament, and his contrarian spirit suffused the ornate church on that wet Friday morning.

            The service pulsed with commitment as speaker after speaker recalled the Berrigans and their shock tactics that included pouring blood on draft records or burning them with homemade napalm.  

            They and their comrades were no turn-your-cheek Christians but, for the most part, outraged Irish-American Catholics who took hammers to warships and missiles, and accused US presidents of war crimes. 

            They went to the wall for their beliefs and as Dan wrote for the Catonsville Nine Statement in 1968 – “The suppression of truth stops here. This war stops here!”

            The question posed to us at the service was the unlikely, “Are we prepared to wake from our day-to-day slumbers and confront the evils of poverty and militarism in these United States of Amnesia?”

            The Berrigan Brothers were not popular with many Irish-Americans for they repeatedly questioned US foreign policy. But time has proved them right about Vietnam, Iraq and the many other wars of choice. 

And yet they were grudgingly respected for they didn’t gloat, much less rest - there was always a battle to be fought - if not against militarism, then against the degradations of poverty in this land of plenty. 

            Dan Berrigan practiced what he preached. Midway through the service the children present were asked to gather around a well-used cardboard box. 

It contained Father Dan’s prize possessions: some well-worn books, photos, a banner or two, a worn shirt and a Ben & Jerry wool hat that he wore frequently. Each child brought a piece of the material side of this deeply spiritual, man up to the altar. 

            Despite all his principles and commitment, Dan Berrigan was deeply human, as a relative recounted. Inevitably at family gatherings one of the brothers would say “We’ve been good long enough;” whereupon a bottle of whiskey would be produced and the joking and laughter would continue late into the night.

Father Dan’s message remains – look around you and witness the defects in society, then go beyond yourself and don’t rest until you make the situation better.

            Irish-America should be proud of those Berrigan boys. They called it as they saw it and made a difference.