Thursday 25 April 2019

Take me home, mon, to the Irish Caribbean!

Every year immediately after St. Patrick floats off on an ocean of beer I head for the Caribbean.

It doesn’t cost much as long as you book ahead and don’t fly on weekends.  The price of living down there is also reasonable especially if you stay away from tourist traps and the playgrounds of the 1%.

Right-wingers can even savor the considerable fruits of socialism in Cuba. At one of the top Afro-Jazz Club in Havana when paying for a couple of Mojitos I was informed that my admission charge of $10 had covered my tab.

But there’s another reason to go down the islands – they’re so Irish.

For those who arrived voluntarily down the centuries what a paradise it must have seemed – balmy waters, silver sands, with exotic fruits and vegetables there for the picking. Oh yeah, mon, there’s nothing quite like island living!

Vitamin starved Northern Europeans were convinced that limes and lemons were miracle fruits for they cured so many diseases. The wonders of Vitamin C!

Unfortunately, many Irish arrived in chains to work the sugarcane fields of Barbados and other island hellholes.

Their fate was terrible and, given the working and living conditions, inevitable. Many died in the first years of servitude. And yet there are inspirational stories of escape from this human bondage. 

I was reminded of these recently while at a post-St. Patrick’s Day party on a floating bar off the island of Bequia. The green was flying, the rum was flowing, and the color of your skin unimportant – we were all Irish. 

The talk soon turned to the nearby island of St. Vincent’s, a legendary safe haven for pirates.

Roughly 100 miles from Barbados across a stretch of beautiful, but often turbulent, water St. Vincent’s was a magnet for both black and white slaves. 

However, while visiting Barbados some years back I learned about some of the obstacles to escape. 

The sheer heat - while toiling from dawn to dusk in the sugarcane fields - sapped the spirit of so many.

Even as a relatively pampered visitor this heat could be debilitating – you quickly learn the value of a siesta. Rise at 6am, go about your business, nap from 1 to 3pm then take to the streets or beach again in the cool of the evening.

Irish slaves soon gained the name Red Legs - plantation owners did not provide sunscreen.

Nor was there much chance of stealing or building a boat for escape; the shores were so well patrolled. 

The only hope was to find discarded planks or malleable branches from trees, hide them in caves or bury them in the sand. Then steal rope, paddles and material for a rudimentary sail; water also had to be stored and some small portion of one’s daily food allotment. 

Wait for a moonless night with calm waters. Lash together a raft then row quietly, but with determination, for it was essential to be beyond the horizon by dawn.

At sea, the problems of sun, thirst, sudden squalls, and interception by unfriendly craft were ever present.

Who knows how many escapees died on those voyages? But some did make it to the pirate camps where they were welcomed – probably because of their legendary bravery when attacking English vessels. Revenge, no doubt, played a part.

Back at the party on the floating bar I recalled my visit to Barbados. It’s a beautiful island but there’s a brooding quality to the countryside – not unlike the feeling you get when you look up at a Mayo mountain and see the remains of abandoned cabins.

It’s only then that you grasp in some superficial way the fate of the people who dealt with The Great Hunger.

Likewise a visit to the undeveloped East coast of Barbados provides some understanding of the savagery of Caribbean slavery.

I have to say I identified far more with the pirate islands of St. Vincent and Bequia where our people found acceptance and blended in with the oppressed Afro-Caribbean culture.

And so I bellied up to the swaying bar, melded in with these island folk proudly wearing their green. I had found my people and ordered another rum punch.

Sunday 7 April 2019

Johnny Reck & the Great Wexford Showband Blackmail

“There are only two rules for being in a band, Kirwan, get paid and get out alive – not necessarily in that order!”

Thus did Johnny Reck induct me into his showband. I’m not sure I was even shaving yet but I had joined the august ranks of professional musicians.

Johnny had managed and played in a band around Wexford for much of his life. He kept an eye on local talent and either felt my star was on the rise or, more likely, he needed a live body to play bass. 

Whatever, he couched his offer thus: “Seeing you’re not bad on six strings, young fellah, there’ll be no stopping you on four!”

Problem was I had never even held a bass before and couldn’t get over the weight of it, or the thickness of its four strings.

Johnny felt that time would sort out these issues, and advised me to practice scales, and show up at the CYMS Hall the following Friday night.

At this notorious bucket of blood the other band members wouldn’t speak to me, and refused to tell me what keys we were playing in. 

To add to my anxiety, a major gang fight broke out during which a drunken teddyboy got his head split open and for some reason blamed me.

After four hours of trying to stay in tune and ignore the teddyboy’s threats, Johnny gave me a bottle of Harp (although I was a Pioneer), and slipped a ten-shilling note in my breast pocket.

He also advised me to pay no heed to “the other gobshites in the band,” that given time they’d recognize my genius.  More importantly, I should smile at the girls – “you never know your luck!”

Johnny was wrong about the gobshites, a couple of them quit in protest the next week. And so I brought along my friend, Pierce Turner who played piano and saxophone. 

Pierce’s debut was a lot more civilized, for our next gig was at Wexford Boat Club and boasted a decidedly more up-market clientele.

There I smiled at the girls until my face ached though my luck didn’t change, but at least there were no teddyboy threats.

Pierce smiled too. He was delighted to be allowed play music for a full four hours, and on our walk home he marveled, “and you get paid too.”

Johnny was thrilled with his two newest members. We were far from musical prodigies, but neither of us complained and we gave 120% every night.

The gigs started rolling in – probably because we had many names: The Johnny Reck Showband, The Palladium, and The Liars are three that spring to mind. If we hadn’t impressed a promoter  – usually the case unless he was deaf – we merely showed up for the next gig at his dancehall with a different name.

Then Johnny pulled off his major coup. He enrolled us in the Musicians Union of Ireland and demanded that we fill the opening slot for every union showband that played County Wexford.

And so we opened for fabled giants like The Royal, The Miami, Joe Dolan & The Drifters. Didn’t matter if they liked or despised us – Johnny threatened to bring the whole of County Wexford out on strike should they replace us with a non-union band.

This all worked like a charm until Turner and I neglected to attend the annual high mass for departed members in Dublin, whereupon we were summarily dismissed from the Musicians Union – I kid you not – and thus did Johnny’s socialist blackmail scheme come screeching to a halt.

But through thick and thin Mr. Reck stood by us as the gigs diminished and promoters gained their revenge.

Pierce and I eventually moved to New York where we scandalized staid audiences as Turner & Kirwan of Wexford.

After a long eventful life Johnny passed away some years back. His last words to me were, “Oh to be 80 again, Kirwan!” 

Bob Dylan, Luke Kelly, and Jimi Hendrix may have been major influences, but no one shaped me like Johnny Reck.

I think of him and his two rules every time I get paid after a gig - while pinching myself to make sure I’m alive. 

Here’s to you up in Rock & Roll heaven, Johnny, long may you boogie!

A Nation Once Again

Seeing a Sean O’Casey play recently, with its implicit criticism of conservative nationalism, has led me to wonder how should one rate the Irish Free State and its successor, the Republic of Ireland?

Neither was exactly a disaster, but it’s hard to argue that the country didn’t really mature socially or economically until at least the mid-1960’s.

There are many reasons for this slow start, including the war of independence, an even more brutal civil war, the violent early deaths of so many visionaries such as Michael Collins, Liam Lynch, Arthur Griffith, and Liam Mellows, a lack of capital after British withdrawal, and worldwide depression in the 1930’s. 

And yet, let me suggest three main reasons for over forty years of spiritual and economic poverty: emigration, √Čamon de Valera, and the Catholic Church.

Emigration was just assumed to be a fact of life. If you weren’t “connected” and the beneficiary of the “jobs for the boys” club, then it behooved you to get lost, pronto - and we’d prefer if you didn’t make too big a fuss about it! 

London, Birmingham, New York, Boston, Sydney, Toronto await you, but please make sure to send money home regularly.

Odd as it may seem, emigration turned Christmas into a magical time in Wexford. So many fathers, brothers and sisters returned from the UK, but oh the heartbreak as the boat train pulled out in late December, the night echoing with teary promises to return for a full week in the summer. 

But at least we saw our relatives for two weeks a year. What about those who lost kith and kin to North America, many of whom didn’t make it home until old age – if at all?

Emigration has left a scar across much of rural Ireland – you can still witness its devastation in the ruins of long abandoned cottages. 

What’s less apparent is the pain of separation that so many suffered down through all the years of official nonchalance.

√Čamon de Valera had one great achievement for which we can never thank him enough. Though he suffered great scorn from Winston Churchill and his ilk, the “Long Fellow” did keep Ireland out of World War Two.

However, roughly 250,000 out of our population of 3,000,000 either worked in the UK or served in the British forces during that conflict, including my father, a merchant marine.

Despite this mass migration Mr. deValera still managed to do great damage to the country’s economy with his deflationary tariff-ridden policies; while his puritanical and xenophobic views did little for a society still trying to define itself after independence.

And what of the Irish Catholic Church? Well, we’re finally seeing the hidden fruits of its malfeasance in the lurid tales of child molestation, Magdalene laundries, and medieval attitudes towards women.

And these thoughts come from no enemy of the church. I was raised in a clerical family with an uncle a priest, served as a Franciscan altar boy, and am blessed to have many friends in the religious community.

But even to a teenager it was obvious that there were deep problems within the Irish Catholic Church - that ultimately the “corporation” was far more important than the temporal or spiritual lives of its members.

Take the debacle with the first coalition government that came to power in 1948.  While the Catholic Hierarchy rarely publicly opposed the Minister for Health Dr. Noel Browne’s crusade against TB, they did little to help. 

But then in 1951 the bishops brought down the government over Browne’s proposed plan for free health care for women, and their children up to the age of sixteen. 

Unfortunately, when we got rid of the English it would seem we replaced them with a new set of homegrown masters.

One can disagree with the politics and policies of current Irish politicians, but there is at least official concern now for those who must emigrate; the long shadow of Mr. de Valera is merely a memory, and the Catholic Church is in the process of finding its proper place in a modern secular society.

There are many problems in modern Ireland but those Irish who live there have a right to be proud of their nation. 

Still, every now and again it’s only fitting that we remember the many blighted lives that were unceremoniously sacrificed on the journey. 

President Trump Reads My Column in the Echo

Want to have a humdinger battle over the relative merits of capitalism and socialism?

I thought not! So how about something more akin to – “Is the present US economic system working for you?”

Well, it’s certainly rocking for the top 1% of American households who own more wealth than the bottom 90%.

Meanwhile, real wages (adjusted for inflation) have barely increased since the 1970’s, despite negligible unemployment and a booming job market?

This last detail troubles me greatly, for despite all my roaring good times in that blessed decade, I was poorer than any church mouse. 

In fact, once when soliciting an apartment on Avenue B, the landlord advised me to “go on Welfare, bud! That way I’ll definitely get my rent.”

I got the apartment – without Welfare – but life would have been a lot simpler if I’d been in the 1% these last 40 years.

I doubt many of that financial class read the Echo; although apparently President Trump always begins his Wednesday staff meetings with, “What’s Kirwan writing about me today?”

Flattery indeed, but nowadays we’re being duped by politicians right across the spectrum. And while we support them in their ideological bloodletting, large corporation are printing money, as they say in Canarsie.

Didn’t President Obama rescue the banks during the Great Recession and how about President Trump giving away the shop to big business courtesy of his 2017 Tax Relief Act?

It can be argued that President Obama had little choice, with the whole financial system collapsing around his ears. But who ended up paying for it?

You got it - Joe and Josie Blow the taxpayer!

They’ll continue to shell out for President Trump’s deficit ballooning 40% cut in corporate taxes - particularly if interest rates rise as expected.

And what so far have the corporations done with their $1.5 trillion windfall? Well instead of investing in jobs and long-term capital improvements they’ve bought back their stock to the tune of $900 billon – further enriching the 1%.

Does anyone honestly expect Joe and Josie’s real wages to rise in the next 40 years, particularly with the “gig” economy gathering steam?

So, the one shot we have is to curtail rising costs. 

I know, you’re blue in the face hearing that US health care is absurdly expensive compared to the Canadian model. 

Having experienced emergency rooms in both countries, I can honestly say there was little difference in the quality of care either side of the border.

But wait there’s an admirable movement afoot to introduce Medicare for All that would bring us closer to the Canadian system.

The problem is that many people down here are satisfied with the health coverage provided by their employers. However, with costs continuing to rise, most corporations would be only thrilled to pass on this expensive obligation to the government.

Health care companies, as you might imagine, want no part of such a change. But why should we give a fiddler’s about them and their profits?

With Medicare for All the US government could also dictate fairer prices from the drug companies, as happens in many industrial countries.

Everything I’ve just proposed however is just a pipe dream. We can barely keep the L train running, let alone reform a complicated health care system.  

But a compromise might be possible if politicians would drop their catcalls of “capitalism” and “socialism,” drink a few pints together and cut a deal that for once might benefit the 90% – for instance, allowing those over the age of 50 to choose between Medicare and private coverage.

Given this choice, corporations would shovel their eligible employees into less expensive Medicare. 

But even this is unlikely to happen since health insurance and drug companies are already furiously greasing their politicians’ palms.    

Meanwhile, the deficit balloons, the 1% grows wealthier, and poor Joe and Josie continue to take their partisan cues from Fox TV and MSNBC blowhards.

I’ve been wasting my time this past 40 years so I’m finally joining the 1%!  Where’s my cell phone?

“Hello, Mr. President, Kirwan from The Echo here… I have this killer idea – how about you, me, and the Russians go into business and develop the Lower East Side into a five star Golf Course? I have connections with this landlord down on Avenue B…”