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!