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.”