Thursday 11 October 2018

The Best Left

“The best left” was a phrase I heard often as a boy. Usually it was muttered by my grandfather and not in the most charitable of tones.

Thomas Hughes was a headstone maker. This tough business demanded certain sensitivities. The “widow-woman,” - more often than not the customer - was usually still grieving on the first visit to his stone yard near Wexford’s Quay.

A headstone, kerbing, and a couple of bags of marble chippings would be chosen. Some down-payment would be agreed upon and a “rough date” for erection set.

The occasional customer would settle up in the graveyard when the last chipping had been spread – a furtive exchange of a sweaty roll of banknotes.  But more often than not there’d be a promise of imminent payment.

And so the dance would begin and could continue for years. Polite letters would be dispatched and a settlement usually occurred somewhere down the line.

When it didn’t and the debt was finally written off – that’s when the judgment “the best left” would be muttered.

Emigration ripped the heart out of Ireland. People had always left the country for better opportunities, but the Great Hunger that began in 1845 opened the floodgates.

With so many dead and a way of life destroyed, what was the point in staying? 

Those with the financial means boarded ferries for Liverpool where they would catch the great ocean going ships that transported them to America.

Others, less fortunate, left from ports around Ireland often on small “coffin” ships.

And when the first huge wave of emigration subsided around 1855 those who remained often commented on the silence that blanketed the countryside and the deserted streets of small towns.

We tend to dwell on those who left – their courage and how they eventually overcame the travails that awaited them in an unwelcoming, Know-Nothing foreign land.

But what of those who chose to remain in an atrophying society where a conservative Catholic Church was busy consolidating its power with the tacit agreement of the Anglo-Irish establishment. 

It would be another thirty years before Charles Stewart Parnell attempted to restore national Irish pride and dignity.

My grandfather like many of his generation often wondered aloud how his life would have turned out had he taken the emigrant boat?

His boyhood best friend, Will Cuddihy, had departed with his family for New York and never wrote.
Even in his late 80’s Thomas Hughes was often heard to say, “I wonder where Will ended up?”

Perhaps that’s why a song like Kilkelly can rip you apart. Based on a series of letters written by a father to his son in Maryland between 1858 and 1893 you learn painstakingly about the immense divide between those who left and those who stayed behind.

There were no winners, the heartbreak was shared, and yet you somehow feel that those who moved westward were at least entering a dynamic, changing society.

Even growing up in Ireland in the 1960’s you could sense the feeling of loss and stasis throughout the countryside. Something had fled leaving a dread loneliness, An uaigneas, the old people called it. 

I felt it often but in particular while visiting my paternal grandfather’s farm down in Rostoonstown within view of Carnsore Point, the actual southeast corner of Ireland.

It was wild and windswept country, and about a half a mile down a grassy lane stood the four walls of a long abandoned house.

There was an ache about the place that was almost palpable, though it didn’t bother my grandfather’s cattle who sheltered there from the bracing Atlantic breeze. 

But who had lived in the house? What was their story? Are their descendants living in New York City or Butte, Montana, even now wondering about their roots?

Did the best leave or was that just a way of rationalizing the despair of those left behind?

As Ireland and Irish-America drift even further apart because of today’s repressive immigration policies, it’s always good to remember that we all once came from the same small fields and little houses - we have much in common. 

If the best did leave Ireland then many of the same remained to pick up the pieces.

Beware of the Deep State, fake news, and novenas to St. Jude

Did you ever get the feeling that that you’ve become an extra in someone else's movie?

For almost two years now I’ve resisted that notion but it’s time to ‘fess up that like everyone else in these United States my life is being controlled by our obsessive-compulsive president.

I’ve consistently refused to take any responsibility for the everyday freak show that the country has morphed into. Why should I - I’d vote for Packie McCarthy’s jennet before President Trump.

I’m a New Yorker – we know Mr. Trump and have to the best of our abilities ignored his Fifth Avenue shenanigans. 

I’ve never experienced the wonders of The Apprentice, and would run a tabloid mile from Omarosa, Stormy, Ted Nugent and the other hapless minions who flock to the great man’s orbit.

I do however follow current affairs and am well aware of the swamp-dwellers, sycophants, and borderline psychopaths like Manafort, Flynn, Miller, Cohen, et al who “know a good thing when they see it coming” as my granny used to say.

But for the most part I’ve lived in my own cocoon with the volume turned way down so that I can ignore Mr. Trump’s egotistical braying.

About a year ago I even began to marvel at the man - for I’ve known his type in the music business, but even those bozos tended to eventually pass out after a night of blow and bluster.  

How does the president keep it up? Doesn’t he ever tire of his own narcissism? I’ve long since learned the answer.

Up until recently I was able to rationalize that at least he’s not as bad as George W. Bush, he hasn’t invaded Iraq and upended a whole region of this planet along with millions of lives.

And the economy is ticking along nicely, particularly for those invested in the stock market and those in the top 5%. 

However, the upcoming tax giveaways to corporations for the most part will not be reinvested in jobs or workers, but will be used to buy back stock and increase the already massive corporate wealth.  

Regardless, the piper must inevitably be paid and a deficit bill of one trillion dollars looms in the near future.

Guess who’ll be paying for it – Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid recipients.

Brace yourself, Bridget, the fix is in, and don’t expect any mercy from either Fifth or Pennsylvania Avenues. 

Compassion is not our president’s strongest suit - witness the ongoing separation of children from their asylum-seeking parents.

I’m apparently not the only one suffering Trump fatigue for the once deficit-fearing Republican Party is now firmly aboard the president’s good ship fiscal lollipop.

Mr. Trump himself does appear to be having a little buyer’s remorse for he has now turned his attention to the Fed. The “king of debt” knows that any meaningful rise in interest rates could send the trillion-dollar deficit ballooning even further into the stratosphere.

I almost feel churlish in bringing up such awkward realities. Far better to enjoy my own tax rebate crumbs – rock that swamp, President Trump, to hell with draining it!

Except that no matter what kind of earplugs I wear I can’t tune out the 24/7 braying. If only Melania would steal his phone, lock the bedroom door and throw away the key for a week!

Maybe I should just jump on board the outraged liberal impeachment express, except that – to the best of our knowledge - Mr. Trump was fairly elected, and you can’t impeach someone just because you don’t like the cut of his jib. 

That day may yet come, particularly if Russian money and meddling played a significant part in the 2016 election – the president did look like a scolded little boy during his press conference with Mr. Putin.

Until then there’s always Joe Hill’s advice, “Don’t mourn, organize!” The November elections are close and 23 or more judicious victories will ensure that some legal restraints can be put on our own would be Tsar.

In the meantime, check your sanity – and your earplugs – every morning, leave twittering to the birds, beware of deep state and fake news, and don’t forget your novena to St. Jude!

A Dream Grows in Brooklyn - BJP

Bobby Sands, MP, made many poetical statements while interned in Long Kesh. With apologies to Bobby this is the essence of my favorite quote  – “No one can do everything but everyone has their part to play.”

I thought of it recently when volunteering to do a benefit performance for Brooklyn Jesuit Prep.

I had been introduced to the school some years back by a friend, Fr. Vin Biagi, SJ. What a visit it turned out to be; for out in Crown Heights Brooklyn Jesuit Prep is striving to achieve an inspirational goal – break the cycle of poverty among the working-poor.

Each year roughly 30 students are accepted into 5th and 6th grades of this exemplary middle school. 

They are not “cherry-picked” by academic achievement. No, first and foremost Brooklyn Jesuit Prep chooses its students by family income level and is dedicated to those who cannot afford traditional Catholic school; even the modest monthly tuition of $75 can be a struggle for many BJP families.

In essence, both students and parents are fighting for a chance to succeed and to provide a new generation of well-rounded leaders for their communities.

50% of these strivers are African-American, while 36% are Caribbean-American. This is their shot to receive a first class Jesuit education, and the very walls of the old St. Theresa of Avila School on Sterling Place reverberate with purpose and determination.

You’re greeted by a student guide and spoken to in a welcoming but forthright manner. The guide is not only eager to talk about his or her own experience but to share their pride in the achievements of their peers. 

Almost 100% of BJP students eventually graduate from excellent high schools, while over 95% continue on to college or post-secondary education.

But this school is not just about academics. The goal in President Patricia J. Gauvey’s words is "to educate our students to be men and women for others so that by the end of their time at BJP, our graduates are open to growth, are intellectually competent, religious, loving and committed to doing justice."

You’ve only to sit in on one of the classes given by any of the excellent teachers to see how these goals are achieved. Each student receives dedicated individual attention, is challenged and expected to contribute to the class both intellectually and socially.

The school also fosters a distinct culture of mentorship where the older students work with the youngsters to help them find their own path to achievement.

This mentorship continues every summer when all rising 6th, 7th, and 8th graders attend the month-long BJP leadership program at Fairfield University.

But what’s most amazing is that BJP continues to support its graduates when they leave for high school, whether that’s providing financial assistance or counsel through the difficult teenage years.

The annual budget for all this is $1.5 million and less than $100K comes from tuition. The state kicks in almost $200K but the balance of $1.2 million is raised through donations with some help from the Jesuit Community. 

As you can imagine it’s an ongoing struggle to keep this dream solvent and alive. How can you help? 

Well, you could attend the “Ireland – A History in Song” benefit show that Andrew Sharp and I will perform at Manhattan’s Xavier High School on Friday, Sept. 21st at 7:30pm. Tickets at $25 can be purchased on line, (see below) and if still available at the door. Beverages will be served.

This is no dry history lesson, I can assure you. It will contain many of Black 47’s iconic songs including James Connolly, Fire of Freedom, Livin’ in America. 

You’ll discover how “Sex in Wexford” led to 800 years of English colonization, get a bracing eye witness account of An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger, and visit New York’s legendary Five Points where Irish Famine immigrants and African-Americans intermarried, and created tap-dancing to the re-imagined music of Stephen Foster.

If unable to attend, you might wish to contribute on line to Brooklyn Jesuit Prep, and I urge you to do so. 

You’ll be assisting the children of the working poor to break the cycle of poverty, rejuvenate their communities, and partake fully in the American dream.

Larry Kirwan & Andrew Sharp at Xavier High School, 39 West 15th St., NYC  Friday, Sept. 21, 7:30pm
For tickets, information, or to make a contribution