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.