Thursday 31 December 2020

Happy New Year's Eve

 What a year it’s been - so many people dead from a pandemic that at the least could have been handled in a better manner. Even as I write more Americans are dying daily from Covid-19 than perished during the attacks on 9/11.


But help is on the way from two vaccines, although the number of people who say they will refuse inoculation is staggeringly high.


That will change as they see family and friends take their shots and become immune to this highly contagious disease.


The same cannot be said for another malady that is gnawing away at a pillar of our democracy – the attack on the very concept of truth.


The phrase “fake news,” popularized by our soon to be ex-president, is top of the pops among other Trumpian truth-benders such as “alternative facts,” “Russian hoax,” “deep state,” et al. 


“Fake news” is the ultimate verbal weapon for it can be breezily tossed off to dismiss any fact or opinion that one disagrees with.


As an Irish Echo columnist my gig is to give opinions on various subjects. 


Simple as pie, you might think, but as pleasurable as it is I still have to check and validate every concrete statement I make or quote.


Take my opening homily on “fake news” a few lines back. Although Donald Trump claimed to have originated the phrase, it was actually coined by Craig Silverman in 2014 while he was running a research project at Columbia University.


Since Mr. Trump takes credit for so many innovations it behooved me to check out the truthfulness of his claim; accordingly, I was forced to change “originated” for “popularized.”


Luckily I have an editor who would likely have caught my error before “yer man from Pearl River” would have taken me to task with a scathing public letter and cost me a free drink at the Echo Christmas party.


Personally I read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for news. I’ve found that both esteemed newspapers invariably print the same informed facts.


Their opinion pieces, however, wildly differ. Yet you can tell even those have been given the factual once over by experienced editors. Besides, both papers have “apology” columns where factual mistakes and misstatements are corrected within days.


And yet so many people get their unfiltered news from Facebook, Twitter, and friendly Russian Bots.


That’s like hearing “facts” at Paddy Reilly’s at 4am with 6 or 7 pints aboard. 


Recently I was informed by a number of social media adherents that, “Joe Biden intends taxing our 401(ks) and IRAs.”


I reassured these troubled souls that they should rest easy – it’s unlikely that our future president would wish to commit political suicide before even being handed the keys of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


Upon looking into the matter I discovered that Mr. Biden had mentioned a desire to give more 401 (k) tax breaks to lower and middle income earners to bring them up to par with the relative breaks afforded upper income earners.


The truth, apparently, got skewered intentionally in the telling.  But without truth and a modicum of decency where will we be?


This year we’ve lost two journalists who are the epitome of truth and decency.


Mark Shields has retired after 33 years of giving opinions on PBS NewsHour. I haven’t always agreed with him but there’s something so utterly American and sensible about the man.


After the invasion of Iraq he stumped David Brooks, his conservative partner on the popular show, by inquiring if he really thought that an American Christian occupying force would succeed in subduing a Muslim country?


One of the measures of Shields’ influence is that Brooks has moderated his views over the years and become a thoughtful and very informative centrist.


Pete Hamill is another case in point. I happened to be in a group with him when someone ventured that given the catastrophe of 9/11 the practice of waterboarding terrorists was justified.


Pete didn’t even raise his voice when he replied, “We’re Americans, we don’t do torture.”


He didn’t need to elaborate for he had made a simple but profound statement.


Let’s hope in 2021 we’ll aspire to be more than we are again, and return to core American values, in particular, truth and decency.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Truth, Decency, and 2021

The recent six-weeks Irish National Lockdown designed to stop the gathering spread of Covid-19 was sold to a fatigued public as Save the Christmas.


What a compelling title and it resonated with this emigrant, though it’s been many years since I experienced an Irish Christmas. Still, the memories remain vivid.


Christmas, of course, is a cherished holiday in the US but its Irish equivalent exists on a different plane. 


Perhaps that’s because Thanksgiving occurs in late November over here and there’s no corresponding feast in the Irish autumn. Thus the long, dark Irish evenings seem endless in the chilly, damp weather.


But it’s more than that. In the Wexford of my youth Christmas began around December 20th and lasted until January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany or Women’s Christmas.


It always used to stun me when I first arrived in New York City that stores would gaily open for winter sales on Dec. 26th. as I lay hungover and homesick in my East Village bed.


In a way it was a relief. All guilt and grief about failing to make it home could be extinguished in the company of other subdued ex-pats at Malachy McCourt’s Bells of Hell.


Festive lights were already being taken down around the city. Commerce and capitalism were back in full swing.


How different back home! You couldn’t even buy a bottle of milk on December 26th or St. Stephen might have arisen in fury and smote you at this insult to his sacred lockdown.


He might also have thundered that Christmas in Ireland is about home and the desire of all Irish people to celebrate it there.


Thus, from Dec. 20th the streets of Wexford began to fill up with this annual homecoming pilgrimage.


Very few Wexicans ventured to these shores; no, it was all about the UK. Like most communities Wexford had suffered mightily from Éamon de Valera’s deflationary economic policies.


Simply put there were few jobs in our town and most families had someone over in London, Birmingham, or wherever they had roads to repair, buildings to construct, or cars to assemble.


Many fathers came home twice a year – a week in the summer and another week at Christmas.


My own father returned from sea every three or four months and usually managed to stretch his stay over Christmas.


There was an intensity to the Yuletide homecoming, for unlike in summer so many returned at the same time.


The streets would resound with shouts of welcome and recognition, and the pubs were stuffed. 


The music and gaiety within could only be imagined by flirtatious boys and girls traipsing by; is it any wonder we all turned to drinking at the earliest age possible?


The shenanigans would build to a climax on Christmas Eve and after last call hundreds of revelers would head for Midnight Mass at both Catholic and Protestant churches. Hymns and carols were sung with fiery gusto at cathedral and chapel.


Christmas Day was spent strictly at home, as was St. Stephen’s Day, although members of the extended family were welcome to visit.


December 26th was the big dancing night of the year. Ballrooms in the town and countryside were packed, for it was rumored that a romance struck up on St. Stephen’s night could very well lead to marriage.


December 27th was a day for getting out and about. Hundreds walked out to the Norman Castle at Ferrycarrig, others chased packs of Beagles through the fields, while those with means, or access to some manner of a nag, attended the Hunt.


The pubs steadily built to a roaring business that culminated in a farewell debauch on New Year’s Eve.


On New Year’s Day the boat train began to steadily empty the streets and by January 6th wives, mothers, girlfriends, and sisters had a free, if lonesome, day with all the émigrés well on their way to London’s Paddington Station and beyond.


I’m sure things have changed in Wexford; Zoom, FaceTime, and the Internet have diminished distance, if not dislocation.


Whatever, a very happy Irish-American Christmas to all of you and let’s meet safe and sound again in 2021.

Thursday 3 December 2020

Like A Rolling Stone

 Has a song ever really affected your life? 


I suspect it has since I get many emails about such matters at Celtic Crush on SiriusXM – especially in the month preceding Christmas.


Something about this time of year tends to stir the embers of memory. It’s usually to do with an old romance, instantly resurrected at the first notes of some musical “blast from the past.”


My song has no such romantic connotations; yet, I might still be living back in Ireland if I hadn’t heard it at a certain point in life.


I was an adolescent living with my widowed grandfather in a big barracks of a house in the heart of Wexford town. His once large family had dispersed leaving only his oldest son who spent most nights in the lounge bar of the County Hotel.


Since my grandfather was hard of hearing I could blast the old cloth-covered wireless in my bedroom to my hearts content.


I must have been much smarter back then for I could read Shakespeare and listen to ear-rattling music at the same time. Now I have trouble enough doing either.


Anyway, I was tuned into Radio Luxembourg – “the station of the stars” – and reading to my heart’s content when the first chunky chords of a Fender Stratocaster blasted forth, shaking the dust off the glowing tubes of the wireless on their exit.


Of course I didn’t know a Strat from a hole in the wall back then, possessing only an acoustic guitar of dubious vintage that I had purchased from “Jap” O’Brien’s furniture store on the never-never system.


Nor did I recognize the B6 Hammond Organ that swelled through my bedroom but I was in no doubt as to whose caustic voice declared:


“Once upon a time, you feel so fine

Threw the bums a dime, in your prime

Didn’t you?”


It was Bob Dylan at his sneering best, ripping apart the pretentions of whatever girlfriend was causing him problems back in 1965.


I cast my book aside and sat bolt upright - all ears in that frigid, damp bedroom.


By the time Mr. Dylan had reached the first chorus I was hooked forever, as he whined in outraged accusation: 


“How does it feel to be on your own?”


Up until then singers were either falling head over heels in virginal love or bemoaning the heartache visited upon them when they were inevitably dumped by the object of their affections.


Like A Rolling Stone, on the contrary, was like a Rock ‘n’ Roll Nuremburg Tribunal. The very skin was being flayed off Bobby’s offensive paramour.


And the seething lyrics only intensified over six glorious minutes and 11 seconds. Even back then, musically unlettered as I was, I could tell that this track had been recorded red-hot live as Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar and Al Kooper on Hammond organ struggled to keep time with Dylan’s impassioned performance.


No one in this crack band knew what was coming next as Bob spat out the words in fury while skidding around “the pocket” of the beat; by the same token I recognized that each musician was playing at their instinctive best.


And that, in a nutshell, is what great Rock ‘n’ Roll is all about – spark and spontaneity.


Finally it was over and some pop inanity followed. I switched off the wireless for fear the magic would dissipate.


Those six plus minutes had synthesized so many thoughts and dreams, and I knew I’d never experience any of them if I stayed in Wexford.


I followed that song to New York City and sang it in every band I’ve played with – always at night’s end when the whiskey is flowing and inhibitions are few.


Was it worth the journey? Well, there have been a lot of ups and downs, but never a dull moment.


I heard the song recently; it stirred all the same emotions, and I thought what a perfect song for this “time of pause.”


Give it a spin and sneer along with Mr. Dylan – it’s therapeutic and puts this damned pandemic in context. C’mon now, give it a shot, there’s no one listening, and so what if they are!


 “How does it feel
To be on your own
Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone.”

Sunday 22 November 2020

Winners & Losers 2020 Elections

Who are the winners and losers of the 2020 political campaigns?


Donald Trump is perhaps both. Love him or hate him he has changed the political landscape in four dizzying years.


His Republican Party has so far managed to hold on to Senate power and clipped Speaker Pelosi’s wings in the House, but Mr. Trump has been unceremoniously shown the door.


Yet watching him barnstorm the battleground states in the final week of the campaign I could only marvel at the man. He singlehandedly battled the entire Democratic Party to a standstill, and had the campaign lasted an extra week he would likely still be president.


God alone knows how much illness, and even death, he caused at his super-spreader events, but he still made Mr. Biden and his masked Democrats seem anemic and often self-righteous.


What a force for good he could have been if he wasn’t poisoned by his own toxic narcissism.


And so he conspires and tweets away his remaining days in the White House, unable to face any reality except his own.


And what of Joe Biden? Talk about a comeback! The Scranton Kid will become president on this his third attempt, hopefully restoring decency and competency to an office once universally admired.


For better or worse, the new American order will be comprised of Biden, McConnell and Pelosi – three pragmatists who worked their way to the top by sheer grit and resolution. 


An exhausted nation turns its eyes to them in hope that commonsense will reign again in Washington DC. 


And not a moment too soon, for the COVID-19 pandemic is surging across the country and will not be stopped until there is a unified Federal response.


Forget about Mr. Trump, with his head full of vengeful fantasies, and so much cable television to critique, he doesn’t even have time to support a badly needed economic stimulus. 


Meanwhile millions sink further into poverty, with one in eight households having less than enough to eat.


When we do finally come through this crisis there’ll be two inevitable consequences – Mr. McConnell’s new Republican party will have once again become fiscally hawkish, and financial inequality in the US will be even more pronounced. 


The former occurs every time a Democrat becomes president, the latter is just a fact of American life.


Apart from President-Elect Biden, who was the biggest winner in the recent election? 


Stacey Abrams, without a doubt. When she lost the gubernatorial contest in Georgia two years ago she set about organizing and registering voters. Last week she turned Georgia blue.


I wouldn’t use the term loser on Staten Island Congressman Max Rose. He was a rare bridge between blue and red, and like Ms. Abrams he will turn this defeat into victory and go on to bigger things in DC or NYC.


The big loser was the Democratic Party. It neglected the Latino vote and magnanimously ceded the white working class to a reactionary Republican party.


True, Democrats won Arizona and the presidency, but they suffered what may turn out to be debilitating losses in both the Senate and the House. They have yet to learn that raising money is no substitute for boots on the ground in a political campaign.


However, on January 5th they have a chance for redemption in Georgia’s two run-off Senate races where Stacey Abrams and her activists will once more go to bat for them.


Meanwhile Mr. Trump raves on, refusing to admit defeat until every obtuse legal option has been exhausted. With 9 weeks to go before he unwillingly vacates the White House, anxiety is rising that he may have some surprise up his sleeve for us.


And what of the next four years?  Will he play golf and write his memoirs, or become another Mussolini searching for his balcony?


Time will tell, but the real winners in the election were the American people. Despite a raging pandemic many stood on line for hours to exercise their democratic right to vote.


Here’s to the new triumvirate – Biden, McConnell, and Pelosi. We can only pray that they’ll overcome old rivalries and speedily enact a new stimulus bill that will both rid us of this pandemic, and begin to address the inequality that has dimmed the lights of this shining city on a hill.


Monday 9 November 2020

The Ospreys have flown

The ospreys are gone. They’ve been like friends through much of the pandemic. I knew they’d head south in the fall and yet I came to dread the day they’d leave.


As it turned out the parting was no big deal: I got preoccupied with some small crisis or other, and one morning realized I hadn’t seen them for a while.  


Since they can travel up to 170 miles a day, they’re probably already down in South Carolina replenishing themselves before taking off for Southern Florida.


From there it’s on to summer in South America, forsaking us in the chilly North East.


I’ve been attracted to hawks ever since my father pointed them out to me on the farm outside Wexford town.


They ruled the skies above those lush fields, swooping down on unsuspecting mice and unlucky rats. 


Ospreys, though from the hawk family, only eat fish and thus live close to the sea or inland lakes and lagoon.


About 20 years ago I began to take notice of hawks again. I was then traveling the roads of America with Black 47. The journeys were long and rambunctious, punctuated by long periods of silence when you became keenly aware of the passing countryside.


The hawk is hard to miss for it tends to hover on high before swooping down on its prey.


Over the years their numbers seemed to multiply and it was a rare journey when I wouldn’t catch multiple sightings.


When I mentioned this to an amateur ornithologist he said their numbers had increased since DDT was banned in 1972, at first slowly but in leaps and bounds since the 1990s.


What an effect we humans have on all species we share the planet with; and how odd that in our own season of pandemic and pause I should become more aware of the ospreys.


This year I was hell bent on finishing a novel that I had dithered over for a long time, and thus was rising in darkness and working through the dawn.


In ways it was idyllic for I have a view of a large bay. The darkness faded early and there was an hour or two of gorgeous muted light before the sun surfaced on the horizon.


It was in that time that I first noticed the ospreys.


Occasionally I would see two of them, but after the first month more often than not it was just the one. 


I took it that the female had finally laid her eggs and was guarding them while the male scouted from as high as 100 feet before diving spectacularly into the bay.


He moved so swiftly I thought he went head first into the water, but later I noticed that he pirouetted just before breaking the surface so that his talons could grab hold of the fish. 


As he rose back into the sky he methodically turned the fish head first to lessen air resistance on his journey back to the nest.


My ornithologist informed me that the chicks thrived on this diet of live sushi and can usually fly within 60 days of hatching.


Writing novels is a solitary business but never a lonely one – your head is full of characters and their ways; it throbs with the thwarted logic and inanities of the human condition until you want to cast the whole shebang away from you.


At such moments I would break away from the accursed laptop and gaze out the window. Soon enough the osprey would appear from the west.


What a majestic flyer with a wingspan approaching five feet! He could cover football fields in seconds before hovering gracefully, then plunging swiftly below the waves.


One morning in September five of them appeared, three young hawks learning to hunt under the watchful eye of the male and female. I almost cheered. They had raised three healthy offspring in the midst of our crisis.


They came every day and my spirit soared. By then I’d finished the novel. Cornell University Press will publish Rockaway Blue on March 15th.


I hope that you and I and all who read this column will be hale and hearty when the ospreys return a month or so later.  It’s something to look forward to.

Monday 26 October 2020

Elections Do Have - It's Time To Vote

 Now that the presidential election is at hand it’s important to consider what type of country we’ve become over the last four years.


Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Donald Trump has had a huge influence on the US; it’s getting difficult to remember what life was like during the Obama presidency.


We had come through one of the scariest time in US history. The capitalist system buckled in 2008 during the subprime mortgage crisis, many millions lost their homes and jobs, and upon taking office President Obama inherited the Great Recession. 


Shortly thereafter, on Feb. 17, 2009, he signed The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With Vice-President Biden spearheading their efforts, the economy began to improve in July 2009 and continued to grow until they left office in January 2017.


But the cost was great – the economy did not fully recover until 2014 - and the net effect has been ongoing extreme income inequality.


And yet there was some semblance of calm in those years and hope for the future.


We are now in a worse recession, but as Covid-19 stalks our citizens and strangles the economy there is no calm and even less hope, only the histrionic din of partisan division.


I don’t watch a lot of television or engage in much social media and yet I feel I’m being subjected to a constant stream of paranoia and negativity. 


Like many New Yorkers I’m used to Donald Trump. He came with the turf - another Crazy Eddie on steroids!


You could usually block him out of your consciousness, except when he strayed over the line as with his reckless demands for the death penalty during the framing of the innocent Central Park Five.


But then through a perfect political storm and an unpopular opponent he became president in 2016. Since then there has been no escape from his existential whining.


After four years of his victimhood the country is fatigued and riven by dissension, but the president too is on the ropes because of his gross incompetence and crass denial of science.


Unless he manages to hitch his star to another perfect storm he’ll be history come January 21st.


He’ll whine on, of course, but without his bully pulpit he’ll eventually fade back into Page 6 notoriety as he deals with the IRS and his debt-ridden, collapsing business empire.


But I fear he has done grave damage to the American psyche. It’s not that other presidents were saints; they all knew how to put the boot in, but they did so quietly and even with a smile.


“Don’t get mad – get even” used to be the standard political maxim. Unfortunately John Wayne and Paul Newman have ridden off into the sunset leaving us fearful, unsure of ourselves, and doubting basic American values. 


For President Trump has called into account our very idea of truth. “Alternative facts” and “fake news” are the currency of his White House.


It’s government by Twitter. The more outrageous and toxic the statement the more seriously it’s taken.


QAnon, Boogaloos, Proud Boys, and Charlottesville fascists, such is the world we’ve inherited from Donald Trump.


Meanwhile the pandemic rages on, with US deaths fast approaching 250,000 while the president’s people insist it’s somewhat of a hoax.


That the president himself is now the Super-Spreader in Chief beggars belief. But no matter what he declaims on his maskless closing campaign tour the economy will not recover until Covid-19 is brought to heel. 


And as the West burns and the southern Gulf States continue to suffer from “extreme weather” does anyone really believe Mr. Trump will solve the coming climate crisis, when he failed to marshal the resources of the Federal Government to combat the pandemic.


It breaks one’s heart to see the Home of the Brave reeling because one man prefers to trust his instincts over scientific facts and practices.


Joe Biden is no knight in shining armor but I believe he will usher in a short season of calmness that will allow us to take stock of our precarious national standing.


Hopefully he will then make some rational decisions that will get the country back on course much as he and President Obama did on Feb. 17, 2009.


And from then on let us never forget that elections do have consequences.

Wednesday 14 October 2020



The coming presidential election will be decided by many issues including health care, policing, protests, a raging pandemic, and now the infection of the president himself.


But it really boils down to whether we accept Donald Trump’s version of reality.


While one, of course, wishes the president a continued recovery, his personal conduct while canvassing without a mask before large crowds with little thought of social distancing is irresponsible.


You have only to look at the infection figures from Tulsa before his indoor campaign rally on June 20th and the current widespread contagion in Oklahoma to see the damage he has caused.


And now we wait in trepidation to determine how many have been infected in his Typhoid Mary tour of recent weeks. 


Although everything has been thrown in the air because of Mr. Trump’s cavalier behavior towards the virus there will be an election on Nov. 3rd.


So let’s assume that both Republican and Democratic candidates will still be standing.


Though he is currently appreciably behind Mr. Biden in both national and battleground polls Mr. Trump seems to be little worried, feeling that he under-performed in 2016 polls and is perennially favored by a “silent” majority.


Perhaps but I doubt this hidden strength will be as potent in the current polarized environment where all has been utterly changed by the president’s illness. 


Back in 2016 many middle-class male voters wouldn’t admit to their wives or partners that they were voting for the Access Hollywood tainted Trump.


But after four years of a relentless narcissistic bombardment uncommitted middle-class voters are as rare as Santa Claus on July 4th.


The working class never hid their antipathy to Mrs. Clinton and whenever I inquired from friends around the country about her prospects I got some variant of “Everyone around here is voting Trump.”


Those sources are less dogmatic four years later for I also hear variants of “Who the heck does this guy think he is?” - particularly since the president suggested he might not comply with the election result.


There appears to be little desire within any class for the Home of the Brave to morph into a banana republic - with or without paramilitary Proud Boy support.


However the president long ago realized that one step forward can always be followed with another step back.


Truth and consistency were never his strongest suits, but there has been one constant in his career - he does look out for number one.


He also practices a particular style of brow beating, the effect of which reminds me of the hangover that follows the downing of six pints and a couple of shots.


My gut feeling is that there’s a real “silent” majority that has grown tired of our daily national hangover.


It’s not as if the president is a ball of laughs. It’s like being out on the town with a caffeinated compulsive who never stops whining, despite his large fortune and beautiful wife.


Talk about being born on third base with a myopic pitcher on the mound! 


It’s important to remember that he inherited a booming economy. But his luck has finally run out. 


The deaths of over two hundred thousand from Covid-19 can no longer be brushed aside with “it would have been 2 million” if anyone else had been president.  Not even the most fervent of his base will buy that one.


The millions who lost their jobs because of the lack of a concerted federal response to the pandemic are another frightening consequence of Donald Trump’s reality.


Most of these unemployed have also lost their health insurance, but I’m sure they won’t begrudge their president the best care their tax dollars can buy.


Bluster and braggadocio have taken Mr. Trump on a remarkable journey from Queens to the White House. But all of a sudden things are falling apart and the center is no longer holding. 


Still, as a haberdasher from Missouri once remarked “the buck stops here.” President Harry Truman understood that when you make decisions you must also accept responsibility for them. 


I wish Donald Trump a continued recover and sincerely hope he’ll be in good enough health to face up to the price of his reality on Nov. 3rd.

Monday 28 September 2020

Thank you, Mr. Sweetman!

 The Ireland I grew up in was a strange, beautiful, but often brutal place.


It had been seared by emigration. It was a rare person who left Wexford for the USA but many departed for Canada, and even more for Australia courtesy of a subsidized 5 pounds voyage to Sydney.


The majority took the boat to less glamorous England to toil in factories or construction.


Everyone believed in God, His Blessed Mother, and a dizzying array of saints.


There was little money; even the wealthy seemed somewhat strapped. We blamed this on the English though down south we’d had independence for 40 years.


Still colonialism had undoubtedly bequeathed us a national inferiority complex that wouldn’t begin to dissipate until the era of self-driven superstars the like of Bono and Roy Keane.


And what of beauty? That came courtesy of our families – mostly large and nourished by love. The little you had you were ready to share. You didn’t expect much else from the Land of de Valera.


To paraphrase Brendan Behan: getting drunk was not a crime it was an achievement.


By the time you were old enough to take a drink, however, you had already experienced the brutality of Irish life courtesy of our schools.


After three years in the relative safety of convent run nurseries you “made your First Communion” and were transferred to the tender mercies of the Irish Christian Brothers.


Some of these educators and their government trained lay teachers were decent thoughtful men though often overwhelmed with classes of up to 50 boys from all social strata. Others, to put it mildly, were mere steps away from sadism.


Corporal punishment was the norm and the thick leather strap, pointer stick, and even fists were not spared.


By the time one transferred to Secondary (High) School, after being confirmed in the Catholic faith, your trust in any kind of teacher was strained.


It was then at the age of 13 that I had the good fortune to spend some years taking English, History, and Geography with Mr. William Sweetman.


Wexford CBS was his first posting and I believe he had spent some years in a religious seminary, not unusual for a young man in those days; whatever, he seemed somewhat unworldly and not totally at ease among our class of hard-bitten, teenaged cynics.


When he hadn’t beaten or even threatened anyone in his first week we began to relax around him.


I was well read by then, visiting the County Library twice weekly to borrow books for my grandfather and myself.


Still I was thrilled to be reading Shakespeare for the first time and having Mr. Sweetman explain the obtuse parts of Henry IV, Part 1, this great story of a harried monarch and his dissolute son who would later become King Henry V, victor at Agincourt.


So many worlds began to open up as our teacher explained the historical background and what was happening concurrently in Ireland.


He also expounded on the importance of Shakespeare, the lyrical depth of his sonnets, and the many words he had added to the written English language. 


Through a rigorous study of his characters we discovered that Shakespeare had helped create and introduce the concept of the modern thinking man.


He read aloud to us the poetry and essays that were on our national curriculum, lamented that Yeats only merited one poem and that Joyce was considered too subversive for a Catholic education.


He also encouraged us to give our own unvarnished views on the subjects we were studying; in essence he taught us that our opinions mattered.


The day we graduated from his classes he took me aside and quietly encouraged me to read Graham Greene – a daring move in those repressive days, for Greene questioned everything including himself.


Years later when I came to write plays I already knew the basics from my two years immersion in Henry IV. And whenever I need to introduce a moral conundrum in a lyric or a novel, I have only to draw on Greene.


William Sweetman went on to write a number of fine books on the Wexford Rebellion of 1798 – a subject dear to his heart.


He passed away last year and I have much to thank him for.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Takes a Lot More than Empathy, Joe!

Given that 190,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, there’s massive unemployment, and the streets are throbbing with violent protests over racial injustice, you might think that Donald Trump would be considering a nice golfing retirement at Mar-a-Lago.


But the president has an ace up his sleeve – the Democratic Party who gifted him the 2016 election.


Now I have nothing against identity politics. It’s the limited nature of the Democratic brand that’s troubling. You think they’d have learned from Hillary Clinton’s reliance on a huge African-American vote in the 2016 election. 


Joe Biden will undoubtedly improve on Mrs. Clinton’s listless turnout of that essential group, especially with Kamala Harris on the ticket; not to mention Senator Harris will appeal to another core Democratic identity group – suburban women.


But White Working Class and Latinos appear to be an afterthought. What’s that all about?


Now I admit that I dozed off during each night of the Democratic Convention; can you blame me – two hours of testimony to Joe Biden’s empathy is like watching Mister Rogers on Xanax. 


Empathy is comforting but it will not create new jobs for the millions of unemployed or prevent President Trump from fomenting racial turmoil on American streets.


So I’m praying that Senator Sherrod Brown was rallying white working class voters during my convention snoozes; and that Congressmen Tim Ryan and Conor Lamb were describing how they turned their Trump districts Democratic as I dreamed of a Twitterless future. 


Scranton Joe is going to need every iota of such grassroots working class advice.


Donald Trump may have consistently strong national disapproval ratings but the Democratic Party is currently not putting in the ground level work necessary to beat the president in Pennsylvania and the Rust Belt states.


Take Lackawanna County, PA where Republicans are out-registering Democrats 4 to 1, or Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton where his campaign hadn’t even opened an office toward the end of August.


How soon they forget James Carville’s observation, “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.”


Despite Donald Trump’s gross incompetence I’ve yet to meet one of his 2016 working-class voters who is switching sides. 


Later for Zoom, Joe, time to at least talk about jobs and reveal detailed infrastructure plans or risk losing your home state – and the election. 


And how about troubled Wisconsin, you didn’t even turn up in Milwaukee for your convention. On the campaign trail that’s called “pulling a Hillary!”


You’ve got your mask and your private jet – time for some rough and tumble and local media interaction.  With three grueling debates looming you need the practice!


The polls are favorable in Ohio, a win there is a stake through Trump’s heart; you should be camping out in Sherrod Brown’s guest bedroom not shunning him at the empathy convention.


The under-representation of Latino major speakers at the convention is even more puzzling now there’s a chance of turning Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and even Texas.


True, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham got a whooping 2 minutes of convention time, but what about the 90-second snub to a Latina superstar, our own Bronx born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 


And why no appearance from Julian Castro, and no bilingual rallying cry from Beto O’Rourke that could have put the fear of god in Republican Texas?


Senator “Tio Bernie” Sanders was the huge favorite of under-30 Latino primary voters, mostly due to the work of organizer Chuck Rocha. 


The Biden campaign has yet to hire Rocha for Latino outreach. Chances are they haven’t even read his excellent book, “Tio Bernie,” detailing how he sparked Latino interest in the progressive senator’s campaign.


Donald Trump may be the Divider in Chief but he is an energetic and often riveting campaigner who will stop at nothing to gain victory. To beat him Democrats must reach out to every identity – including Irish-American. You ever get the feeling you’re being taken for granted?


Seamus Heaney’s “hope and history rhyme” was an inspired choice for Biden’s convention speech, but it’s just a collection of pretty words without perspiration, preparation, and attention to grassroots detail.


This is not just an election - it’s a battle for America’s soul, and it won’t come easy.


Time to pick up your game, Joe! Losing this election is not an option.

Thursday 10 September 2020


        Anyone knocking around Manhattan in those days knew people who perished, but for me it all comes back to the priest and the fireman.


            Even all these years later I can look offstage and imagine where each would be – Father Michael Judge standing by the bar, impeccably coiffed, surrounded by friends; and Richie Muldowney NYFD, darting around the room bantering with all and sundry, crooked smile lighting up the joint.


            Though both are frozen in time they summon up the city as it used to be. For New York changed ineffably on 9/11when the spirits of so many unique people departed. They’ve been replaced, of course, great cities do that, but it’s not quite the same, is it?


            I often thought of Mychal as a mirror, he was so empathetic he seemed to reflect your own hopes and fears. I never knew anyone who helped so many people; he was always concerned, forever providing a shoulder. 


I guess he came to see Black 47 to let off a little steam. I’m not even sure he liked our music – his own taste ran towards the more conventional – but the rhythms, juxtapositions and overall message fascinated him and, anyway, he liked to be in the thick of the action. 


            Richie was hard-core Black 47. He knew all the words, the players, the other fans. He delighted to show up unexpectedly at out-of-town gigs; the moment you saw him you knew it would be a good night. To think such an irrepressible spark was extinguished so early.


            I remember jaywalking across Times Square the first September Saturday the band returned to Connolly’s. The “crossroads of the world” was so deserted in those immediate post-9/11 nights it felt like a scene from a cowboy movie where sagebrush is blowing down the street.


            But cops, firemen, emergency workers, the mad, the innocent and those who just couldn’t stay at home needed somewhere to go – to let the pressure off – and that was the band’s function. 


Those first gigs were searing. You couldn’t be certain who was missing, who had survived, who was on vacation, who just needed a break from it all. When a familiar face walked through the door the relief was palpable, someone else had made it. 


The atmosphere – though on the surface subdued - was charged with an underlying manic energy, a need to commemorate, celebrate, to show that life was going on. That would be some small revenge on the bastards who had caused all the heartbreak.


And yet, what an opportunity was missed in those first weeks. That smoldering pit down on Rector Street had galvanized the country. We were all so united; we would have done anything asked of us.


Republican, Democrat, Independent, we all came together as Americans. We would have reduced our dependence on foreign oil, rejuvenated poor neighborhoods, taught classes in disadvantaged schools. You name it - nothing would have been too big, too small either.


But no sacrifice was asked, much less demanded. Instead, 9/11 was used by cheap politicians to get re-elected; patriotism was swept aside by an unrelenting xenophobic nationalism that brooked no dissent and flourishes to this day. The US was converted into a fortress and the lights were dimmed in the once shining city on the hill. Worst of all, our leaders sought to use the tragedy as an excuse to invade Iraq.


Look at us now, dysfunctional, walled off from each other and the rest of the world. That began when the national will for a positive response was squandered in the aftermath of 9/11.


Though he was finally hunted down, sometimes it seems as though Osama Bin Laden won, for we’ve become a fearful, partisan people, unsure of ourselves, uncertain of our future.


But then I think of Mychal and Richie, their smiles beam across the years and I know that the current national malaise is just a patina that covers the soul of the country – it can be wiped away. It’s not permanent. We have greatness in us yet. 


That’s the hard-earned lesson of 9/11 and will always be the message of the priest and the fireman.

Saturday 29 August 2020

Pete Hamill - Seanchaí

 Everyone in Wexford read newspapers – often two a day. The Irish Independent and Evening Herald if your family supported the Free State in the Civil War, or the Irish Press and Evening Press if you favored the Republican side.


When I arrived in New York City in the early ‘70’s I was faced with new choices. There was The Times, of course, but I tended to read that in waiting rooms or the homes of friendly professionals. No, it all boiled down to the News or the Post.


I loved Jimmy Breslin’s Brueghel-like columns in The News, but Pete Hamill in The Post spoke to me. There was a hint of Bogie about him, but also a simmering outrage that the US was failing its people.


I was drinking in the Bells of Hell in those days with occasional pit stops at the Lion’s Head so I got to see him up close occasionally, though by then he had apparently given up the sauce.


He seemed formidable but not unfriendly and I enjoyed overhearing his remarks. He had an innate understanding of the political situation in the North of Ireland and was unapologetic about his sympathies. I should have guessed that he was only one generation removed from Belfast.


Around then the US was trying to blast Hanoi into submission and in one of his columns Pete graphically described the havoc and destruction if the same tonnage of bombs was dropped on Brooklyn for a day.


His detailed imagery brought the savagery of this onslaught screaming into our bars and kitchens in a way that the biased idiot box rarely did. 


I didn’t get to know him until Black 47 made a bit of a name and we were thrown together occasionally through a mutual interest in Irish and literary affairs. It was then I noticed he was more than a writer, he was a seanchaí – a custodian of the history and hopes of urban Irish-America..


He was not without a sense of humor. At a fundraiser sponsored by Irish American Writers & Artists to save St. Brigid’s Famine Church on Avenue B, after casting a jaundiced eye over our motley crew he began, “Never have I beheld a bigger crowd of atheists gathered to save a church…”


There was a sense of romance, and even danger, to many of the journalists of Hamill’s era, especially those who had covered foreign wars. It was as if they were cut from Hemingway’s cloth, they not only reported they also sought to influence events.


They could certainly stop an argument with a few caustic words. Soon after the Abu Ghraib scandal someone suggested at another IAW&A function that the US had to protect itself in whatever way necessary.


“We’re Americans. We don’t do torture.” Pete curtly replied dispatching us back to our drinks.


There was a decency to the man. He was far from judgmental but he expected those around him to share that decency. I never heard him mention Donald Trump. Why waste words? It would have been akin to discussing Crazy Eddie, especially since Pete had known and loved Bobby Kennedy.


I live downtown and sometimes ran into him strolling around Tribeca, his eyes alive with interest. After all the years he still took joy in his city and its huddled masses. He could summon up the ghosts of the Five Points in an instant and delighted that he lived within blocks of the fabled immigrant slum. 


We shared the same barber on Lispenard Street, Ilya from Uzbekistan who loved to talk about his friend Pete and the progress of his latest novel.


When did Pete get the time to even open the “cliff of books” that lined his loft? He seemed to have read everything. 


I once thought I might stump him with a mention of Lawrence Durrell and his Alexandrian Quartet, instead he regaled me with a summary of the intricate four volume story along with some choice lines from CP Cavafy, the poet of Alexandria.


Perhaps my best tribute is that I never walked away from a chat with Pete without feeling better about myself.


He was indeed a seanchaí and a towering Irish-American. I hope he knew just how much he meant to so many of us.

Saturday 15 August 2020

August 15th in another universe

 Is it my imagination or did Irish country people have more reverence for the Blessed Virgin than town or city folk?


Whatever the answer rural areas definitely celebrated the Feast of the Assumption on August 15th with more vigor.


Did that veneration hark back to the pre-Christian roots of the harvest? Perhaps, for on the Feast of the Assumption country people in their Sunday best cast aside their innate shyness and proudly promenaded along County Wexford’s many beaches.


My grandfather, Thomas Hughes, stonecutter and widower, went one better. After mass and an early lunch (which we called dinner) he would pack us grandkids into his blue Morris Minor and drive all the way to Tramore in Co. Waterford.


He had never quite mastered the relationship between clutch and accelerator and thus we would depart Wexford town with a mighty roar on this 45-mile odyssey.


What with the heat and anticipation I remember little of those journeys except the inevitable traffic jam on the quays of Waterford City as we joined a cavalcade of other small cars on our annual culchie pilgrimage


Onwards we crept with the excitement building until turning a bend we beheld the majestic sweep of Tramore beach. The name itself was an Anglicization of Trá Mór, or big strand and it was no exaggeration.


In my biased memory it was always sunny, and thousands sweltered and sweated as they strolled back and forth along the miles of pristine sand. 


The men wore dark suits and starched white shirts, those of a frisky nature removed their ties; some even discarded shoes and socks, rolled up their trouser legs, and frolicked in the foam and spray.


Likewise many country ladies skittishly gathered their flowery dresses up beyond their knees and waltzed out with their men folk into the waves.


Few adults swam in those days, perhaps due to the impropriety of disrobing in small cars, besides which many the rural priest on his constitutional would have looked askance at a woman displaying bare arms and legs on the Virgin’s feast day.


We pagan children had no such scruples. Even now I can taste the salt on my lips and the whip of the cold spray on my face as we raced into the frigid South Atlantic and dared the huge waves to bowl us over.


Meanwhile my grandfather would watch from the dry sand as his four charges cavorted for hours. But I could tell his mind was elsewhere for he had often mentioned that he and my grandmother made that same pilgrimage every August 15th


There was always a sadness about him when he thought of her. They had been very close and the whispered word around the kitchen was that “he was lost without her.”


But that was a grown-up matter and I had more immediate concerns, for Tramore was bursting with “amusements” such as swings and dodgems (which we called bumpers), and Thomas Hughes carried a pocketful of change to make sure that we had our fill of such entertainment.


Pop songs crackled from overdriven speakers as we meandered along avenues of vendors hawking ice cream, lemonade and toffee-apples.


While in many spaces between stalls buskers made their stand, attended by cardsharps, and other sleight-of-hand merchants enticing you to gamble away your hard-earned pennies and thrupenny bits.


This was the old hidden Ireland where I was first introduced to the like of Margaret Barry and Pecker Dunne who traveled the roads singing the lays and laments of our people that would soon be swept away by the electric onslaught of Beatles and Stones.


Then way too soon we would dig into our parting feast of greasy chips smothered in salt and vinegar and be on our way in our blue Morris Minor, our necks craned backwards for one last view of the magical beach.


And somewhere beyond the town of New Ross Thomas Hughes would lead us in the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary in honor of Mary, Queen of the Gael. 


My two younger brothers would doze off to the comforting drone of Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glorias, while my grandfathers’ eyes would grow soft as he recalled other times when he and his lost wife made the same journey home.

Monday 10 August 2020

Frank McCourt and the Feckin' eejit!

 As an immigrant engaged in the artistic world I’ve learned to look on the sunny side of life. And yet in these strange days even I have to battle the blahs and blues. 


Still, you learn some essential things from a life of uncertainty, the most important – you can’t make it on your own. 


It’s so easy to retreat into a cocoon of self–reliance. But that can often leave you alone – and, even worse, lonely.


At times like this you need company and with so many avenues to social contact closed down, it’s time to pick up that phone and get the flow going again.


You used to have so many friends but as you’ve gotten older the ranks have thinned. People have passed on or moved on. But whatever, don’t go through this alone. It may be hard to make the first call but you’ll soon find that there’s someone out there who is beyond thrilled to hear from you.


I’m not a big social media type but in this time of trial I notice that people are flocking to Facebook pages where they can interact with others who share the same interests.


One of those is Christopher Carroll’s Fans of Celtic Crush where people who enjoy my SiriusXM show gather. It’s like a family, occasionally rambunctious, but always welcoming. 


If you have an interest in Celtic Music, history or just things Irish it’s a safe and fulfilling haven. And there are so many others.


How about exercise? And I mean a little more than bending your elbow. Not that there’s anything wrong with a drink or two at the end of the day, it can definitely be a mood changer, and right now who can’t deal with a dose of that?


But I was actually talking about walking – the premier exercise, good for the heart and the soul. Besides, there’s so much to see in nature at this time of year.


Say what? You live in the bowels of the city? Well I lived on the Lower East Side for an eternity and could always find some scrap of green amidst the concrete and MacAdam.


Queen Anne’s Lace and Wild Cornflower are blooming and waving in whatever breeze is blowing right now.


I don’t know why but the birds are singing like there’s no tomorrow. My favorites are the belligerent Red-Winged Blackbirds, but for color and delight the Cardinals and Blue Jays are hard to beat. 


As for Ospreys they’ve been on a comeback over the last decades. Take the A train out to Rockaway, stroll up towards Breezy Point and glory at their spectacular dives for dinner in the Atlantic. 


Wear your mask as much as possible. Despite politicians, or because of them, this plague is not going away anytime soon so it’s important to emerge from it with your health intact and possessing as many marbles as possible.


For that I defer to Frank McCourt who once stated, “After what I’ve achieved anyone who’s not writing their memoirs is a feckin’ eejit.”


He was right. I made a few bob with Green Suede Shoes – An Irish-American Odyssey, but more importantly, writing this memoir enriched my life, for it sent me off on tangents and took me back to places and people I’d forgotten about.


How do you start? Simple – anywhere but at the beginning. Make a list of the people and events that have most influenced you. Then off with you for an extended walk.


Take a pencil and notebook or even better activate the voice memo on your cell phone.


Note every inconsequential thought – soon your brain will be zinging with memories.


Don’t worry about looking stupid. You’re an artist now and beyond caring what every manner of lesser gobshite thinks of you. But I promise, you’ll soon be knee deep in your memoir and you’ll never look back. 


It may never sell a copy but your family, friends and stray acquaintances will know exactly who you are, where you came from, and what you stand for.


You’ll be so consumed with yourself you won’t notice the time flying until you’re strolling into your doctor’s office and rolling up your sleeve for the vaccine.


Now get cracking, there’s a new Angela waiting and she’s only dying to arise from her ashes!

Wednesday 22 July 2020

The Axis of Incompetence

I call it the Axis of Incompetence – particularly when it comes to the spread of Covid-19.

In pride of place at the top of this triangle is our own dear President Donald Trump.

At the bottom, preening like two bantam cocks stand his two acolytes, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Long live nationalist populist leaders – they top the charts in Covid-19 deaths and infections!

One could toss in President Vladimir Putin but he’s at least a very competent musician, for according to John Bolton he can play President Trump like a fiddle.

Putin may not be having great success stomping out Covid-19 in Mother Russia but he’s nothing if not scientific, for to toss back a vodka with him one must get tested, and then sprayed while passing through a disinfection tunnel to his private quarters. 

Not so our president. Forget about science, he much prefers to trust his “instincts.” 

In January he stated that Covid-19 was “totally under control… it’s going to be just fine.”

In February “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

In March, “Just stay calm, it will go away.”

Had he been uttering these inanities while working behind the scenes all well and good, but we were left defenseless, barely any testing, little PPE for healthcare personnel, along with few masks and less gloves for citizens - just an ostrich-like refusal to take federal leadership or accept responsibility.

Meanwhile down Rio way Senhor Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics” has even less regard for science - or plain old reality.

He pulled the plug on several quarantine measures initiated by state governors, summoned his supporters to mass rallies, and declared that the big C was little more than a measly cold.

Then when the unimpressed virus ripped through his country he declared, “God is Brazilian, the cure is right here! Chloroquine is working everywhere.”

This “cure” didn’t do him much good for he recently tested positive. Not to worry though, he has converted to President Trump’s anti-malaria drug of choice, Hydroxychloroquine.

The best of luck to both of them though this “cure” - widely considered ineffective against Covid-19 - can do a number on your heart. Ah well, what’s a ticker or two between populists?

Meanwhile there are rumblings in Brazil of coups, revolutions, and attempted suppression of Covid casualty figures.

And what of Boris the Brexit Warrior? Well he also took one for the team and contracted the illness himself. 

Before that he refused to close schools long after neighboring France and Ireland, allowed the jam-packed Cheltenham Races to continue, and breezily shook hands with all and sundry until the Covid brought him to his knees.

With the virus untamed and up to 45K dead he’s recently reopened pubs and cut the social distancing down to 1 meter. Does he seriously believe that this highly contagious scourge can’t be passed on at 3 feet?

He’s had one lucky break. Despite all his Brexit posturing, UK citizens will not be banned from entry into EU countries until at least December when the UK bids a fond farewell to the EU.

Not so Brazil, Russia, and oh dear, the USA. Whatever happened to American exceptionalism? 

Have no fear – it’s still strong. The vast majority of Americans have risen to the task of fighting Covid-19. 

It’s just that the sheer lack of federal leadership has each state competing for resources as the virus continues to surge nationally.

That’s what happens when one man’s drive to be re-elected dictates federal policy.

Oklahoma’s infection rate has been spiking since the president visited Tulsa 3 weeks ago; better look out South Dakota and Washington DC after Mr. Trump’s July 4th weekend of maskless masquerades.

Covid-19 will not “disappear” no matter how much the president wishes it away.  This is real life – not a reality show. 

Without meaningful federal leadership many thousands more will die before a vaccine is made available nationally.

Hopefully by then President Trump will be perfecting his golf game 24/7 down in Mar-a-Lago.

President Bolsonaro will be recovering in exile, and Boris will be fully occupied feeding his Brexit chickens as they come home to roost.

In the meantime the axis of incompetence blunders on. Here’s to better days, to your health and mine.

Saturday 4 July 2020

University of the Streets

New York City has many fine universities, some more exclusive than others - yet the one to which I was accepted required neither superior SATs or a small fortune in tuition fees. 

In fact, it’s still free and only yards away – the University of the Streets!

It can be a challenging institution – I once had a bayonet tickle my Adam’s Apple in Tomkins Square, and was jumped on by 3 desperados near Gramercy Park; but despite these inconveniences I received my bachelors summa cum laude at NYC’s extensive classroom of taverns, saloons, and most importantly, its rigorous after-hours establishments.

I also studied abroad for the occasional semester. Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union I traveled to Lithuania with the free-form poet, Copernicus.

After our concert and reception in Vilnius I listened to my companion converse with our taxi driver in a scholarly mixture of French and German. Suddenly he shattered the Soviet silence with a Brooklyn bellow, “Are you kiddin’ me! Every city in the universe has an after-hours bar!”

When the taxi-driver reassured him that such was not the case under “these damned Russians,” I knew this would be a wasted semester. 

My favorite campus was the Kiwi Social Club on 9th Street and Avenue A, technically speaking it wasn’t even an after-hours as it operated 24/7 including Christmas Day.

 I had a “Road to Damascus” moment therein when I awoke to the genius of John Coltrane’s music.

My mentor, Jimmy Reece, an African-American academic and student of the night sensed my breakthrough and heartily congratulated me, “You got it, man.  You finally got it!”

And I had. From Trane I went on to specialize in Miles, Monk and a host of other Jazz innovators.

Consider just how much all those hours of delight would have cost me at Columbia or Fordham – not to mention that in those hallowed halls I’d have done so in scholarly sobriety.

On another occasion at a Mafia joint mere yards from NYU I took a class at dawn on William Butler Yeats from a well-oiled Lou Reed that forever opened my soul to the genius of the Irish poet. Talk about a “walk on the wild side!”

While at the renowned UK Club on 13th Street and 3rd Avenue I received an ominous lecture on behavioral science from that formidable Professor of Punk, Rockets Redglare, which made my hair stand on end and put me back on the scholarly straight and narrow. 

On another liquidy morning Frank McCourt gave me an intense private tutorial wherein he declared that any Irishman who wasn’t writing his memoirs was “a feckin’ eejit” after all the fame and fortune that he had achieved with Angela’s Ashes.

I soon after buckled down and wrote my own autobiographical thesis “Green Suede Shoes – an Irish-American Odyssey.”

I received no words of wisdom from Norman Mailer but deep gratitude for fixing his beloved but debilitated Porsche. This fluke came about through a chance meeting with a Puerto Rican technical scholar at Save The Robots an early morning educational establishment on Avenue B. 

I can still picture the glow of appreciation in Mr. Mailer’s amazing blue eyes when Professor Mendez and I parked his purring, souped-up vehicle outside his Brooklyn Heights apartment.

How much did all of this late night cavorting cost me, you might inquire. It’s hard to say but I did get at least a 40% discount on my fees, for back in the old New York late night academia one always received the 3rd drink on the house, and thereafter the 5th, 7th until class ended or the professor behind the stick dismissed you for the day.

To top it all, when I was finally awarded my PhD I was gloriously debt free. Now match that against the debilitating student loans that most scholars will have accrued in their pursuit of academic excellence.

Alas in these troubled times the hallowed institution of the after-hours appears to have been supplanted by the gym and the Internet.

And yet who knows what the future will bring in this looming recession. The thirst for knowledge will never be satisfied and there will always be those who seek it out in the University of the Streets.

Sunday 28 June 2020

An Irish Elvis and so much more!

I once remarked to Brendan Bowyer that he was responsible for the sexual revolution in Ireland.

He gazed back with that slightly worried look that creased his face whenever he feared he was being criticized.

I hastily reassured him that it had all to do with the packed floors of dancers who had no choice but to cling to each other whenever his Royal Showband appeared in the 1960’s.

And with that we both dissolved into laughter at the memory of jammed sweaty nights in Wexford’s Parish Hall.

Back then, The Royal were synonymous with excitement and glamour. The Miami, The Capitol and The Freshmen were as accomplished but the men from Waterford had Brendan Bowyer.

With that big voice and personality he- seemed to explode from the stage. He could rock like Elvis and yet could bring his classical instincts to bear on show-stopping versions of Love Thee Dearest and Jerusalem.

He had a special charisma that I recognized later in the young Springsteen – the ability to make you feel that he was singing just to you. All you had to do was gaze around at other audience members and you could tell they were under the same spell.

When I left Wexford for ultra-cool Dublin I stopped seeing showbands, and their long social and musical reign was coming to a close when I departed for New York.

Brendan and his new outfit The Big Eight missed this demise for they moved to Las Vegas around the same time and went on to even greater fame on the strip.

I never forgot Brendan nor the effect he had on me as a star-struck boy.

Fast forward to the 1990’s, I became friends with his two daughters, Clodagh, a New York based actress, and Aisling who sang with her father’s bands. And so I wrote him a fan letter.

He couldn’t have been more gracious and was fascinated that someone from left-of-center Black 47 would have an interest in him.

One night in Salt Lake City he showed up at a punk club to see Black 47. It was one of those rowdy mosh-pit affairs and Brendan was thrilled with the rawness of the scene and the band’s “performance.”

I don’t think he ever fully understood what it meant for me to have The Royal Showband’s renowned vocalist in the audience. It was a squaring of the circle, as it were.

We had something in common. I knew what it took for him to come from a small city like Waterford and make it in Vegas. Such things don’t come easy. You often lose as much as you gain on the way.

Brendan wasn’t one to blow his own horn so late one night I wrote his story. I called it Break Like Crystal - in reference to his Waterford roots. 

I wanted a fast-forgetting world to know what he had gone through – and accomplished. He loved the song and soon after he showed up in New York and we recorded it with members of Black 47. 

He fit in instantly with this motley crew for Brendan was a bandsman and came alive around other musicians.

He asked me as producer how I wanted him to treat the song. 

I just said, “Be yourself, Brendan. It’s your story, sing it from the heart like you always did in Wexford’s Parish Hall.”

He smiled, took control, and nailed the song on the first take. He also knocked off a heartfelt version of Black 47’s emigrant anthem, American Wake, both of which are available on YouTube.

And then he was gone, off to some gig in The Bronx or wherever. I sat there at the controls and mixed that great soulful voice - full of wonder and life - that I’d first heard as a chiseler back in Wexford.

Here’s to you, Brendan, you’ll always be a legend. Thanks for the memories, man, and for blazing a path that so many of us followed.

Then I heard Elvis and it changed everything
And I set off on at the age of 19
To follow a rock ‘n’ roll dream
I don’t break like crystal