Friday 31 December 2021

St. Stephen's Day in the Model County

 One of the glories of the extended Irish Christmas season of my youth was St. Stephen’s Day. The British called it Boxing Day, but that’s another story.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr and there was a vague echo of violence to the day around the “Model County” of Wexford.

Christmas Day itself was devoted to family, stuffing oneself, and generally lazing around in front of the fireplace.

On occasion in my teens I played a semi-legal and frowned upon Christmas Night dance in the Town Hall. These were promoted by Johnny Reck, a legendary Wexford character, and tended towards violence due to an excess of drink and lack of security.

After one particular tumultuous Yuletide evening Johnny washed his hands of such promotions declaring, “it’s not worth a visit to the dentist on Stephen’s Day!”

He was right on that score for it definitely would not have been seemly to arrive at the Co. Wexford Hunt on the morning of the 26th with your jaw in a sling.

My family was split politically. My father’s people were “big Fine Gael farmers” while my mother’s were hard core Fianna Fail with deep roots in pre-Troubles Sinn Fein.

Suffice it to say this faction wouldn’t be caught dead at the West Brit sport of harassing decent Irish foxes.

Though connected to the horsey set, my father’s people were more likely to bet on the ponies than ride them. Still, my father religiously escorted us to the hunt taking care to be there well in time for the handing out of the  “stirrup cup.”

This was usually some form of hot whiskey, the smell of which wafted amidst the ordure of fresh horse manure outside some rural pub. With the hounds baying, the steeds whinnying, at the blare of a loud bugle, all would set forth in pursuit of the wily Wexford fox.

A gate to some big field would be thrown open and off the hounds would tear followed by the riders charging towards some huge ditch or hedgerow. There, the inexperienced met their Waterloo, ending up nose deep in Wexford muck, the unlucky ones being mortifyingly dragged by the stirrup.

We proletariat, on foot, would gallop past these fallen gentry, trying to conceal our laughter, and save energy for the long morning ahead of racing up and down hill, glade, and ploughed field. I never saw a fox being apprehended, much less killed, but it wasn’t for want of effort.

Eventually, we’d make it back to my Fine Gael grandfather’s for Stephen’s Day dinner at 1pm sharp.

A reserved and silent man, he did occasionally crack a smile at the tale of some horsey friend or neighbor who had come a cropper in a thorny ditch.

After one such dinner I had my only experience of mumming. The custom has long since died out around Co. Wexford and was probably in its final throes when I witnessed it.

I knew something was amiss when my Granny moaned, “Sweet Jesus protect us!” and blessed herself in unison. This was her all-purpose shield from misfortune that ranged from the death of a family member to the sighting of a lone magpie.

“The mummers have arrived,” said she to a reciprocal sigh from my grandfather.

And there they were bold as brass – four men in dresses, their faces slathered in everything from damp soot to their wives make up. One was brandishing a wooden sword, another waving a small birdcage that housed a wren, while their comrades danced a hybrid jig-tango, as they parodied a tale of St. George slaying the dragon.

At the end of the performance there was an unspoken, but vaguely threatening demand, for refreshments and payment, to which my Granny produced four large dusty bottles of Guinness while my grandfather meekly counted out an equal number of ten-shilling notes.

With the dragon safely slain, the mummers uncorked their large bottles, pocketed the legal tender and departed, while my Granny’s warm old kitchen descended once again into silence.

Meanwhile, up in the County Hospital, a mud-spattered Fine Gael horseman had a bone set, and at the dentist’s Johnny Reck spent some of the takings from his semi-legal Christmas Night dance, as another St. Stephen’s Day limped to a martyr’s close.

Tuesday 21 December 2021

An Emigrant Christmas

 Christmas!  The very sound of the word can set the heart thumping, and yet there’s a vague unease associated with the word too, especially for the emigrant.

Christmas was a magic time in the Wexford of my boyhood. Festive lights hung above the Main Street causing the December frost to sparkle on the pavement below.

Even the poor – and there were many – walked with a strut, their heads held higher than usual, for fathers, daughters, and sons would soon be returning home from London, Birmingham, Liverpool, and God-knows-where-else.

My father was one of those, though he wasn’t restricted to a frantic Christmas week vacation; no, being a merchant seaman with some seniority, he could take whatever time off he liked, as long as his money held out.

Still, there was always the childhood fear that if he didn’t make it home because of weather or other emergency we’d have no Christmas at all. I guess that was where my Yuletide unease began.

When Pierce Turner and I left for New York on a freezing January morning it was fully understood that we would return home the following Christmas. We gave little thought to visas or international treaties, we were musicians off to the Big Applet to “make it,” whatever that meant.

And we did well early on – recorded a single and got a big spread written about us in the Sunday News - little money, of course, but enough of a stake in the music biz to want to stay.

So, we hired an immigration lawyer and thus did our Christmas troubles begin. This gentleman unequivocally stated that if we went home we would likely not get back because we’d overstayed our visitor’s visa.

He repeated this mantra the next Christmas, and it wasn’t until our third December in the US that we achieved legal status.

What a Christmas we had that year in Wexford! We were like returning heroes. The streets sparkled like diamonds for us.

But something had changed – at least for me – the streets of New York had grabbed a hold of me. I had achieved that nebulous emigrant status – caught between two worlds, I was neither here nor there.

There would be many more crazy Christmas returns. Do you remember them? Drinking and bidding fond farewell to the crew in your local pub, then getting dropped off in someone’s truck or van at Kennedy Airport, more whooping it up in the departure lounge with a host of other returnees, then stumble aboard the Aer Lingus jet, where the party continued unabated in the smoke-filled cabin until breakfast was served an hour from Shannon.

The festivities rarely ceased at home as you basked in the delight of your family; but by the Feast of the Epiphany, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens or the East Village was whispering in your ear and it was time to get on with your real life.

There were Christmases too when I didn’t go home and felt like a traitor – once I took a Kerouac road trip across the country to San Francisco, another time I headed south to the sun and Hemingway’s Key West.

I haven’t had a Wexford Christmas in over 30 years. I began my own family, and two little boys waiting for Santa to arrive - the light of anticipation sparkling in their eyes - helped ease the loss.

In American fashion, we celebrate the feast on Christmas Eve now. It’s joyful but far more sedate than the manic celebrations I remember in the pubs of Wexford.

Christmas Day itself can be difficult. The memories of parents and grandparents “hidden in death’s dateless night” can occasionally be overwhelming, but nothing a hot whiskey can’t handle.

And by St. Stephen’s Day, the Christmas season is pretty much over in New York – the sales have begun, a buck has to be made. It’s easy to forget that the Wexford Christmas will continue unabated until at least the New Year has been ushered in.

Here’s to a very happy Christmas to all of you wherever you celebrate it. And to those undocumented who once upon a time made the choice to stay here, and have not celebrated an Irish Christmas in many years – we haven’t forgotten you.  Your day will come.

Wednesday 8 December 2021

Oliver Cromwell, Reggae Mon

 Isn’t it a terrible thing to open the New York Times and read the obituary of a friend, especially one you haven’t thought about in donkey’s years?

But then, as Malachy McCourt has been heard to say, “Sure there are people dying nowadays who never died before.”

Leaving aside Limerick logic, I recently stumbled upon a half-page of the “fake news” Times devoted to Terence “Astro” Wilson.

Now you might say to yourself, who in God’s name is that – but you’ve probably hummed along with him as he toasted “Red red wine, you make me feel so fine; you keep me rockin’ all of the time” in a thick Jamaican accent with his band UB40.

However, the minute Astro left the stage he reverted to his normal Birmingham accent. Ah that Reggae magic, how did it ever become so popular?

Well, some of its roots are Irish. Blame it on the divil himself, Oliver Cromwell!

After Old Ironsides grew tired of exterminating Catholics during his Irish campaign, he decided there was a buck to be made out of sending them to Barbados to cut the sugar cane.

Around that time, the King of Spain was thinking of recapturing the island of Jamaica from the Brits, whereupon Cromwell hit upon the notion of offering Barbados Paddies freedom and some Jamaican acres in the hope that they might defend their new homeland.

It all came to naught, for the King of Spain figured that Jamaica would breed more trouble than it was worth.

But the Irish had already arrived with their songs and stories and intermarried with African slaves and indigenous locals, and many generations later their descendents began skanking to up-tempo Ska that eventually morphed into stately Reggae.

But what is this Reggae and how did it become a worldwide phenomenon?

Well, if you take the four beats in a bar you’ll find that most types of popular music put the emphasis on the 2ndor 4thbeats. Reggae, on the other hand favors the 3rd beat

This tends to give the music an offbeat feel with lots of space, though when I picked up the guitar to make sure this was the case I found myself “scratching.” This has nothing to do with an itch. It’s more that you dampen the strings with your left hand and play double time until you hit the third beat with a more resounding upstroke.

Try it - you’ll soon be skanking with the best, addressing your boss as “Mon,” and shaking your dreadlocks to beat the band!

I took to this music like a duck to water, probably because my father used to listen to Calypso records while cooking up his beef curry.

But Wexford also embraced Ska Music in the 1960’s, in particular our local skinheads who adored Prince Buster, one of the genre’s originators.

This never made sense to me - for skinners in general didn’t like Black people, but given their propensity for violence I never argued this subtle point with these bovver-booted, denim clad, aggressive young gentlemen.

Catching Bob Marley in his legendary Central Park concert was a spiritual experience. The clouds of ganja that enveloped the whole affair no doubt helped.

The Wailers were the tightest band I’d ever heard and for the first time I really understood the magic of Reggae. I also noticed that the sparse rhythm was a perfect vehicle upon which to hitch a story.

But then Marley was a shaman who enticed you into his orbit with his addictive call and response. As he wailed his pithy tales of love and liberation the whole city seemed to change gears and move to a reggae groove.

This was not lost on me, and years later with Black 47 we would employ the same beats and grooves to propel message songs like Fire of Freedom and Change. We even dared to offer tributes to the master with versions of his Three Little Birds and Get Up, Stand Up.

How odd that Oliver Cromwell, that arch-fundamentalist Christian who introduced ethnic cleansing to Wexford may have scattered seeds in the Caribbean that would one day lead to Reggae music in Jamaica.

So in the words of the poet, Robert Nesta Marley:

“Lively up yourself, and don’t be no drag

Lively up yourself, for Reggae is another bag.”

Sunday 28 November 2021

Donegal Visionary on the South Side of Chicago

 In the City of Chicago

As the evening shadows fall

There are people dreaming

Of the hills of Donegal…. Luka Bloom


It’s a rare piece of real estate on this planet that a Donegal person hasn’t strode over. My father told me he once heard a tenor from Letterkenny break into The Homes of Donegal in a Hong Kong saloon.

Still it was a surprise to run into Frank Bradley and his family when they came to see Paradise Square at Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre last Saturday night.

I hadn’t seen Frank since Black 47 disbanded seven years ago but I should have known he’d show up, for Donegal people are nothing if not loyal.

Frank was legendary in Irish music circles as the promoter of Irish Fest at Gaelic Park way down on the South Side of Chicago.

Black 47 first played Irish Fest in a snowstorm on Memorial Day Weekend 1991, I kid you not! We were outdoors too and despite the elements delivered a full 90-minute set.

I guess that got us the gig for we headlined the festival thereafter until 2014.

As we laughed and reminisced, I was reminded of how welcome I always felt on the South Side. For in neighborhoods like Beverly, Bridgeport, Mt. Greenwood and the suburbs of Oak Park the Irish heart still beats strongly.

The Irish have spread all over the city now but they gather together every Memorial Day Weekend in Gaelic Park.

During the Black 47 years it was not unusual to have 50,000 of all ages and classes gathered together to whoop it up during Irish Fest.

In our large tent there would be a mosh pit the like of which you wouldn’t see in CBGB’s. While down the field other tents would respectively feature old time waltzes and Traditional Music to beat the band.

But that was just one week of the year. Gaelic Park goes about its considerable business the other 51 weeks also.

It’s the home of the GAA in Chicago and sits on 62 acres with six full-size playing fields, and a main sports stadium.

And it all came about because Frank Bradley and a tightly knit board of strivers and achievers looked out on a field in Oak Forest back in 1979, and dreamed of creating a new home for Irish sport and culture.

The Chicago GAA itself was founded in 1890 and has had a distinguished history. It has, however, prospered or declined depending on Irish immigration.

The Great Depression and World War II delivered severe body blows, but the revered organization revived again courtesy of fresh waves of immigration in the 1950’s and 1980’s.

While there are many surviving football, hurling, and camogie teams, the great hope now comes from the juvenile clubs – children and grandchildren of immigrants who compete with other youth teams locally and around the mid-west.

An Irish cultural camp is held every August where children from 6 to 12 are introduced to our history and traditions through workshops in dance, drama, language, music, sport, and art.

With the resident Gaelic Park Players and Choir there’s no shortage of theatre and singing, and yet, as with the North Side Irish Heritage Center, you’ll be listening a long time before you hear anyone under 40 with an Irish accent.

It amazes me that given the power and clout the Irish have in both major political parties we consistently fail to use it to solve this existential conundrum.

A very simple question could be put to every political candidate in the country – What do you intend doing about legalized immigration into the USA?

I, for one, have had enough of the current smug Know-Nothing, xenophobic attitude towards immigration.

Walk down any main street and you’ll see signs in store windows seeking new employees. These jobs could be filled by immigrants with work visas or green cards and would help set the economy on a sound economic footing again. With an aging population this is more than a dream, it’s practical politics.

But just as important, there’ll come a time when we’ll need newly arrived visionaries from Donegal, the like of Frank Bradley and others, and we won’t have them because of a failure of will on our part to demand far sighted and meaningful immigration legislation.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Chicago Irish!!

 I’ve been in Chicago for four weeks now rehearsing the musical, Paradise Square, for an opening at the legendary Nederlander Theater on Nov. 2nd.

It’s been a long haul since some of you saw Hard Times – from which Paradise Square evolved - in the infinitely less spacious Cell Theatre on 23rdStreet in Manhattan back in 2012.

But don’t worry, you will not have to trek out here, Paradise Square will open on Broadway at The Barrymore Theatre on March 20th.

Over the years I’ve played countless gigs in Chicago and have always enjoyed this bustling metropolis.

It’s really two cities - North and South, and the twain rarely meet. For instance, the North is Cubs mad, while the South adores the White Sox.

Chicago is far from integrated too and that makes it an excellent location for a pre-Broadway run; for Paradise Square deals with the amalgamation of the “Famine Irish” and African-Americans in New York’s Five Points before they were torn apart in the Draft Riots of July 1863.

It’s the story of two brutalized peoples: one fleeing enslavement, the other escaping the Great Hunger. Its subjects include the desire for freedom and the price of immigration.

The Irish are dispersed all over greater Chicago now, but their spiritual home is in the Bridgeport area where they flocked after An Gorta Mór to help build the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

But Chicago and every other city in the US now have something in common: You’re unlikely to hear an Irish accent on anyone below the age of 45.

I’ve been noticing this dearth of the brogue for over 20 years. At first it caused me little concern; the flow of Irish immigration had been cut off before – during the two world wars and after the passing of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.

Still, you felt that eventually matters would redress themselves, as they did in the 1970’s and ‘80s when many young Irish stayed beyond their visas and added greatly to Irish American culture.

But as the US became more conservative politically, Ireland became more liberal, and after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq many young Irish didn’t feel at home in this country anymore.

Both Canada and Australia were much more welcoming and suited them better both politically and socially.

Irish America won’t disintegrate without them. Many young Americans of Irish heritage now spend a university semester or two in Dublin, Galway and Cork.

They even learn to drink Guinness, which most young Irish have forsaken, and they bring back their experiences of modern Ireland and share them with families and friends.

Meanwhile Irish Americans visited the “homeland” in droves in pre-pandemic days and will likely do so soon again.

But it’s not the same is it? The young Irish who came here in the 70’s and 80’s shook up Irish America; they brought with them their politics, their music, their modern outlook, and most importantly, they settled here permanently.

Most of them have done well. They own the bars now, while others started small businesses and have assimilated into Irish America.

We need the current new breed of Irish to shake us up once again. They are well educated - few will mix cement or head straight from the building site to the pubs like we did.

No, they’re more likely to gaze into their laptops and create giant digital businesses like Stripe, the brainchild of the Collison brothers from Dromineer, Co. Tipperary.  


It’s time for Irish America to demand new and practical immigration laws. With national elections nail-bitingly close, and Republicans and Democrats in stalemate, there couldn’t be a better time to leverage our voting power.

And by looking out for ourselves we could help bring overall change to a fatigued country that’s slowly slipping back into bigotry and nativism.

As little as 50,000 new Irish accents legally entering the US every year would help energize not just Irish America but the country as a whole.

It’s too much to expect that like the19thCentury immigrant Irish in Paradise Square they’d help create new forms of culture like tap dancing, but let’s once more throw open these creaky Green Card gates and find out.

Wednesday 13 October 2021

McCourt, Heron & Hamill

 Emigration is a big step and yet many of us took it with little thought of the consequences. 

In my own case I was having a whale of a time leading a Ginger Man existence in Dublin when my brother and friends decided to give London a try.

Seemed like a good idea, but it was the early 1970’s, the North of Ireland was literally exploding, and I had no desire to bow the knee to the British government.

Instead I opted for a stint in New York. I guess you could say it was a political decision yet I also had a longing to see where the wind would blow me.

I had little money but much curiosity and New York was like an open book

The 1970’s tend to get a bad rap. Sure, the city was violent, law and order was optional, while President Ford was of the opinion that we should all drop dead.

On the other hand, rents were rock bottom, booze cheap and you got each third drink on the house, besides the people were stellar.

Everyone seemed political to some degree and everything possible, although it’s hard now to put your finger on what was actually achieved.

The “Famine Irish” had fought their way up and were now part of the establishment.

They were lawyers, politicians, movers and shakers, and they owned the bars.

Some were progressives, hard-bitten professional men and women who had been influenced by Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy – not to mention Mike Quill and Paul O’Dwyer.

There were poets, dreamers, and revolutionaries too. Voluble people who had ideas, vague and otherwise, that things could be made better for the regular person – even if the regular person had little faith and less interest, in any such notions.

Some had left Ireland in a hurry including Malachy McCourt who had been scarred by poverty and religious hypocrisy in Limerick.

Like many self-educated people he had a way with words and shared them freely. He was larger than life, furiously funny, and generous to everyone except bloviating conservatives and hypocritical liberals.

He had a great understanding of history and a burning faith that words, rather than guns, could create change. What that change might be was a little hard to quantify, but those of us who admired him felt it couldn’t be worse than the status quo.

Brian Herron was a piece of history in himself, for he was a grandson of James Connolly and that counted a lot with the New York Irish in the 1970’s.

Brian tore into a room like a hurricane on steroids – you were never quite the same after you met him.

He was an anarchist and one of the greatest persuaders I ever encountered. After he’d let fly a torrent of words, accompanied by much laughter, you’d find yourself standing on a street corner handing out flyers for some radical event where you’d also be providing music.

I wasn’t the only one seduced by his wayward charm! He was the influence behind John Lennon writing Luck of the Irish and Sunday Bloody Sunday.

Talk about being un-awed by celebrity or fame: he was like Joshua outside the City of Jericho – hand him a horn and he could blow down any walls.

The guy even learned to play the notoriously difficult uilleann pipes, get his law degree, and persuade the City of New York to give him a building on West 51stStreet that he named The Irish Arts Center.

Pete Hamill was no revolutionary, and he swore off politics after the death of his friend, Bobby Kennedy; yet, he influenced a generation of us immigrants with his columns in the NY Post.

I read his work mostly on the subway, perhaps one of the reasons I still have warm feelings for that mode of transport.

Pete didn’t start with any advantages. Like Malachy he never finished high school, but he was one of the best-read people I ever met.

Three characters with very different backgrounds and viewpoints - each of them cut a swathe through New York City in the 1970’s.  They opened doors, political and otherwise, and bade the rest of us to stroll right in. 

Thursday 30 September 2021

Incident on East Third

Going back to your old neighborhood is like returning to a country of ghosts. You round a corner and see a Puerto Rican dandy who once strode by in platform heels, now he’s an elderly gentleman shuffling along with a bag of groceries.

The street is East Third between Avenues A and B deep in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village. You’ve come back to check out 179, your old tenement, for you’ve situated a new musical there, and you want to make sure your memory is not playing games with the facts.

The actual building hasn’t changed much, apart from a new door and a fancy system of intercom doorbells. Back in your day a visitor would holler out your name from the street and you’d toss down your front door key in an old sock.

You lived on the fourth floor and slept on a futon, most of the day the rooms were aglow with sunshine from the southern exposure and you were never happier.

A recent immigrant, you had the whole of your life ahead of you, and the vastness of New York to explore. Granted, the streets outside were dangerous and run by a heroin dealer named Jesus, but you were young and indestructible.

From your front window you could admire the full bloom of the magic garden. It had once been two rickety abandoned buildings. In your first year the city demolished them and carted off all the bricks and debris.

Some locals adopted the space and planted flowers, ferns, bushes and trees. They placed benches and a table within, and the city put railings without; now the magic garden belonged on East Third, but you no longer did.

The music hadn’t changed much. A mix of Salsa, Be-Bop, and Punk, it was like Tito Puente, Thelonious Monk and The Ramones were jamming in the same room. It shouldn’t have worked – but it did.

One way or another you got used to it, for you slept with open windows to catch the night breeze. The few air conditioners that functioned clattered along with the cacophony, the condensation dripping to pools in the cracked pavement below.

We didn’t need machines to be cool – we just were. For many of us hung out at CBGBs. If you were a player you paid no admission and could rub leather-jacketed shoulders with legends.

You saw The Ramones first gig there. Joey and Johnny were on speaking terms back then and used to consult mid-stage after each song. None of the 20 or so of us present could figure out if these guys from Queens were straight out of a cartoon or dead serious.

They’d soon show us! Who would have thought The Ramones would also create an enduring fashion statement by wearing ripped blue jeans because they couldn’t afford new ones?

The streets sparkled at night, though mostly with broken glass, and the full moons of Summer illuminated our East Side Story. When the heat got too much people slept on roofs and fire escapes.

Johnny Byrne slipped off my fire escape one parched July night and fell the four stories to the street below.  He sleeps peacefully now in Dublin’s Deans Grange Cemetery. Does he ever dream of East 3rdStreet so far away?

The winter nights could be brutal, especially when old furnaces faltered in the zero temperatures. We called them “bottle nights.” You bought a half-pint of liquor and took it to bed with you. Anytime you woke from the cold you took another nip for oblivion.

When things got bad you beat it up to Kingsbridge or Bainbridge; Phil at Nelly’s, Sean at The Archway or John at The Village were unlikely angels, but they could sense your need and provided many a gig.

You didn’t think much about money – rents were cheap, as were the six-packs at your bodega.

Alan Ginsburg winked at you, Debbie Harry once kissed you – though under false pretences, she thought you were a Boomtown Rat. What a life! 

Hemingway exulted about being “young and in Paris.” He didn’t have to go so far – the city of light had nothing on our New York – it was like living in a strobe-lit, street-smart fairy tale that you thought would never end.

Friday 10 September 2021

Remember The Lost - Commemorate The Survivors

I was checking the Mets box score when the plane thundered overhead. I slammed my forehead onto the table, certain my building would be hit. Moments later there was a thud in the distance, not unlike a giant sledgehammer striking concrete.

Counting my blessings, I rushed up to the roof and beheld an unforgettable sight – an airliner jammed into the upper floors of the North Tower, with tongues of flame darting out of thick black plumes of smoke.

The world changed that morning and New York City went into a tailspin. The once throbbing streets of Midtown were deserted - who knew what skyscraper would be the next target?

There was a need for normalcy, but what was normal anymore?

Well, for the “house band of New York City” it was simple enough. If we weren’t on the road Black 47 played Saturday nights at Connolly’s of 45th Street.

Talk about intense gigs! I can still feel the early aching chill that in the course of the night would morph into emotional abandon.

Many in those full houses were first responders who had come up from the pit, eager for drink, company, and some manner of release. But not for a moment were any of us unaware of what we were trying to escape.

Many who had been in the vicinity of the Towers were still deemed “missing” – their pictures, accompanied by scrawled notes seeking information, littered the railings of St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway.

And every time Connolly’s door opened heads swung round and people rushed over to hug someone else who had survived.

And the talk would be, “John made it out,” or “Mary hadn’t gone into Cantor Fitzgerald that day.”

But after a month of such Saturdays it became obvious we’d never again see Michael, Michelle or the many others whose names we never knew.

That was the genesis of Rockaway Blue – to tell the story of the regular New Yorkers who hadn’t survived, and to commemorate those who had.

Even on those early blistering Saturdays their story was already being highjacked by the politicians, the media, and the barstool patriots who would lead us into their disastrous wars of choice.

Left behind in the dust and rubble of downtown were the stories of John and Mary, Michael and Michelle.

It should have been an easy enough task. I had the lives of friends like Richie Muldowney FDNY and Father Michael Judge OFM to draw on, and God knows there are so many broken hearts still desperately holding on to the fading essence of those they lost.

But for a long time the task was beyond me. Black 47 gave its all with the New York Town album, that contained Mychal and Orphan of the Storm, songs that captured some spark of those who didn’t make it out alive.

But that was only half the story. What of those who had no choice but to pick up the pieces and carry on?

And so I turned to playwriting. And in The Heart Has a Mind of its Own, I created the Murphys of Rockaway Beach who lost their son, Lt. Brian Murphy NYPD, on the fateful day.

But though audiences liked the play I knew I’d blown it – I hadn’t come to terms with the complexity of Brian’s father, Det. Sgt. Jimmy Murphy, and the difficult relationship he’d had with his son.

And so I let the story rest but the memory of those galvanic September Saturday nights wouldn’t let go.

Finally I set the story in novel form, and it began to work because I could delve deeper into the characters of the Murphys, their stoic heroism, but also their human flaws and fractured relationships.

Years of frustration followed, flinging one draft after another at the wall, until one dark night I discovered that the story wasn’t working because I had made Brian’s mother a victim.

Despite all she had gone through Maggie Murphy still needed to rekindle the faith and love that might save her marriage.

And with that, Rockaway Blue finally knit together and became what it was always meant to be – the story of the regular New Yorkers who sacrificed so much, yet came through the tragedy of 9/11.

Friday 27 August 2021

A "What If" Presidency?

I’ve always been interested in political history, particularly when an interesting or controversial character is involved.


Michael Collins and Dr. Noel Browne jump to mind from an Irish perspective, Franklin Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy from an American one.


Browne and Roosevelt left indelible marks on their countries – one banished TB, the other gave hope and sustenance to millions during the Great Depression. 


Meanwhile, Collins and Kennedy still shine like beacons from the past, particularly because of the “what if” aspect to both their careers.


For better or for worse, Donald J. Trump has dominated our era of political affairs.


I never liked the man; still, back in the 70’s and 80’s he had a certain buffoonish cachet, courtesy of his self-promoting high jinks lovingly detailed by Page 6 of The Post.


But his true colors surfaced in 1989 during the brouhaha regarding capital punishment for the Central Park Five. These unjustly sentenced young African-American men were later released from prison, but Mr. Trump’s inflammatory newspaper advertisements showed the depths to which he would sink to promote himself.


His march to the presidency in 2016 was both uproarious and Napoleonic. He demolished the competing Republicans, and then defeated the accomplished Hillary Clinton – though not by popular vote. 


After four years of his “presidency by tweet” I was relieved when Joseph Biden beat him in both Electoral College and popular votes.


I had been prepared for Mr. Trump’s sore loser shtick; after all he had declared early on, “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election has been rigged.”  But I figured he would eventually fade away into the manicured golf links of Mar-a-Lago.


I reckoned that gigantic egos such as Cruz, Cotton, Rubio and DeSantis would chip away at his Republican Party hegemony.


Alas, the principled party of Lincoln and Eisenhower had long before been swept into the trashcan of history.


Even though Trump’s own election officials declared the 2020 presidential election the most secure in history, and every meaningful court challenge has been dismissed, the new Republican Party continues to hide behind such lame catch cries as “Stop the Steal.”


In short, Mr. Trump sought to interfere with the country’s electoral process.


His plea to Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” and his partisan interference with the Department of Justice were more becoming to some South American tin-pot dictator than the president of these United States.


Still, if his shenanigans had only ended there, then we might rest easy. 


Instead, after weeks of riling up his base with false charges of fraud, in a speech on the “Glorious 6th of January,” he exhorted his “great patriots” to march on the Capitol with these stirring words: “You’ll never take back this country with weakness; you have to show strength and you have to be strong.”


The pictures and videos of the ensuing carnage do not lie. We’ve all seen the sickening violence perpetrated by Mr. Trump’s patriotic legions in the Capitol grounds and buildings. 


Two instances stand out for me – the patriot roaming the halls of the Capitol with his Confederate flag, and the police officer crushed between doors while patriots tear at his facemask.


At least 4 police officers have died of suicide in connection with the Jan. 6th assault, while 140 officers were injured in this glorious uprising.


The insurrectionists were not tourists or members of the ghostly ANTIFA. They came to DC at the invitation of the president to subvert a lawful election and to prevent a legal transfer of power.


Our lives pass in a blur of 24/7 reportage, but we should not forget this assault on our democratic traditions. No doubt, Mr. Trump will continue to shrug off his attempted putsch, while his new Republican Party gazes on adoringly.


It’s easy to dismiss what happened on January 6th as a manifestation of white rage, but once opened those sluice gates of “patriotic dissent” are not easily closed. 


The sad part is – think of what Mr. Trump might have achieved if he had set his mind to the betterment of his country rather than the stoking of his insatiable ego. 


It’s unlikely he would have achieved the stature of a Collins or a Kennedy, but he could have become an interesting “what if.”

Saturday 14 August 2021

A gig again

I did a gig last week. 18 months ago such a statement wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. But it’s been a long pandemic so this performance was indeed a cause for celebration.


It was held at the Salt Gastro Pub in Stanhope, NJ and was scheduled to be outdoors, but due to the threat of inclement weather the show was moved inside.


This change would have raised hackles only months ago and would have been unthinkable last year. The difference – vaccination!


So there we were, a full house and barely a mask in sight, though discreet social distancing was observed.


The owner, Bradley Boyle, runs a tight ship and kept a watchful eye on us all. The food was as good as ever, the booze even better, but to be part of a live music event again was nothing short of life affirming.


A bracing air of expectation rippled through the premises. The audience was so hyped up they cheered through the sound check.


I was a bit apprehensive. I had stayed musically busy during our “time of pause” writing songs for various theatre projects but I hadn’t actually performed a song since 2019.


Would my stamina hold up, would I remember words, chords, would my timing be at least somewhere “in the pocket?” 


I was playing with Deni Bonet, a superb violinist and performer. We had walked through the songs a few days previously. It was hardly a rehearsal, more like a marking of the way, and yet I’d been exhausted afterwards.


But the audience was a force unto itself. You could almost touch their need for music, for the songs, the stories, and the distinct community that’s only found at a live gig.


It took me back to the days I began playing at pubs and dancehalls in Wexford. The sheer joy as people forgot their cares and long workweeks, that first magic moment of union when band and punters came together as one.


People have missed music and performance this past 18 months, they’ve missed the spontaneity, and the spirit of improvisation that ricochets back and forth between performer and audience.


They cheered for old songs, new songs, the reading I did from Rockaway Blue, and it struck me that there’s now a great opportunity for musicians to go beyond themselves, because there’s no going back to normal – who knows what normal is anymore? 


This damned Covid has stripped us of experience; we’ve been living in a form of limbo for 18 months. It’s time for a new normal.


The experience reminded me of the days after 9/11. There was such a desire to come together and do something for our country. But nothing was asked of us. And so we regressed, became a fearful, divisive people; we even started a war of choice in Iraq under false pretences.


Now we have another chance to come together and really make this country “great again.” I was reminded of that as I signed books and CDs, hugged people and took selfies with them.


It was only then I wondered who had been vaccinated? There was no way of knowing and I experienced that flash of paranoia we’ve become so familiar with.


But by then my die had already been cast, it was too late to be cautious, so I had another drink and returned to the signing and general merriment.


I’ve had no symptoms and will get tested, but it’s not for myself I’m worried. I’ve been vaccinated and the worst I might expect is akin to some form of mild flu.


But what of those who won’t take the jab? The enemy is at the gates again in the form of the Delta variant. The unvaccinated continue to end up in hospital and death rates are rising.


It’s a race against time now, new and worse variants are likely on the way and may negate all our sacrifices.


I know my life changed when I took the double shot of Moderna. I had zero side effects. I merely went back to enjoying life, including dining and drinking in bars and restaurants, along with entertaining friends last Sunday in “sweet New Jersey.”


Join me, get the vaccine of your choice and allow those around you to go back to enjoying their lives again too.

Monday 2 August 2021

Have You Ever Been Down Argentina Way?

 Have you ever been down Argentina way? Talk about the 8 Celtic nations - I’ve often felt that Argentina could claim number 9 with its strong Irish, Welsh & Galician populations.


I went down with Black 47 in 2000, but I already had deep connections through my father, a merchant marine, who had been sailing there since his teenage years.


In fact, he almost moved our family to the mysterious land of the Pampas when I was a boy. I could now be writing for the Southern Cross rather than the Irish Echo.


My father was a bit of a mystery himself: he had gone to sea as a cadet and celebrated his 15th birthday in Russia.


That much I knew from my grandmother, but like many of his generation, he spoke little about his past. We only found out close to his death that he had been torpedoed twice during World War II.


When questioned on this he said, “Sure, the first time wasn’t worth speaking about, we were only in the water minutes before being hauled out.”


The second instance we knew about for he and his crewmates were lost for a considerable time before being rescued off the coast of Sierra Leone.


However we were very familiar with his side-hustle of smuggling goods both into and out of Buenos Aires – we were well fitted out for Wexford winters in leather, suede and sheepskin coats.


Perhaps, his most noted feat was bringing 20 hurleys from Wexford for the Buenos Aires GAA team. During the height of the Troubles British authorities threatened to charge him with transporting lethal weapons.


“Microfilm is much less hassle and far more profitable,” I once heard him murmur to another sailor in a Brooklyn bar. He was, indeed, a man of few words but many connections.


It was a dream come true when Black 47 was asked to tour Argentina. Not only could we expand our musical horizons but I might learn more about this mysterious father of mine who was by then spending his waning years in Wexford courtesy of Parkinson’s.


We arrived into the teeth of an economic and political crisis – not that we had much notion of what was happening given our limited knowledge of Spanish. 


Still jet lagged we topped the bill at the prestigious Buenos Aires Opera House. The black-tied gentlemen applauded politely while their beautiful be-gowned ladies rattled their jewelry to anthems like James Connolly and Bobby Sands MP. The Black 47 faithful danced in the far off balconies.


Talk about surreal! But there was a jittery feeling around town with people lined up outside banks attempting to withdraw their savings.


We did a couple of promo gigs in recently opened Irish pubs. The bartenders and waiters all spoke flawless English. Most had advanced college degrees. With unemployment skyrocketing these were prestigious jobs.


And everywhere the older Irish smiled and remembered my father fondly - the “contrabandista Irelandis” who had smuggled in the hurls.


We drove up the country to the city of Rosario, birthplace of Che Guevara Lynch, for a performance at their Opera House. Was I being confused with John McCormack?


Before the show I was a guest of honor at an Irish convention where I got into an argument with a drunken cleric from Limerick over the McCourts, and was then misidentified as a member of Riverdance. I’ll spare you the humiliation of my turn on the dance floor.


The gig at the opera house was tense – rumors abounded about the army taking control of the country so I never got to see the birthplace of Che.


On our last day in Buenos Aires the peso collapsed, but our farewell party was rip-roaring and continued at the airport.


I had made many friends and intended staying an extra week. Buenos Aires was unlike any other city and I was beginning to make sense of my father, but discretion proved the better part of valor.


My father smiled coyly when I told him about my trip and accelerated departure. He’d take his secrets with him. 


Twenty years later I wish I’d stayed that extra week. Hopefully I’ll get back someday to the 9th Celtic nation. Maybe I’ll bring some hurleys with me.

Tuesday 20 July 2021

The Sound of Silence and the days of Answering Machines

 Remember last year in the thick of the pandemic when everyone was talking about how loud the birds were singing?


Guess what? They’re still at it. I was recently awakened before dawn by a finch kicking up a hullabaloo, while later that evening a clapper rail hoarsely serenaded the full moon.


This begs two questions: were we all speaking in hushed tones last year because Donald Trump was making enough noise for all of us? Or has the pandemic caused us to finally appreciate the sublime qualities of silence?


Whatever your politics, things do seem quieter of late.


I can’t say I miss Mr. Trump’s bracing presence but he did unwittingly cause me to alter my lifestyle. Soon after the 2016 presidential election, I de-pinged my iPhone.


This was not, I hasten to add, a political gesture, more an effort to lower the general volume.


This action did bring me some measure of peace, although I still occasionally miss my late night texts from a Nigerian prince informing me of an inheritance I had overlooked.


Some years back I even turned off my ring tone and have not suffered greatly from this loss. I mean, when was the last time you got good news by phone? 


My sons were aghast at my rationale. One was even heard to moan, “Supposing I needed you in an emergency?”


I thought about this for a couple of days before replying out of context, “I lived wild on the streets of the Lower East Side when I was your age and never even considered calling my father.”


Forgetting his earlier emergency plea, this particular son merely rolled his eyes, assuming I was having “an old dude” moment.


This exchange reminded me of a time when the humble answering machine was the highest tech device in most households; that being said, many people ignored its blinking light for we had yet to hear about thoughtful Nigerian princes.


Back then I only pressed the “listen” button when the humor was on me – there was even an occasion when a lady had already terminated our relationship for three days before I chanced upon her “dear John” message.


For you see, I’ve always enjoyed silence – a strange admission for a rock musician. Or perhaps I just don’t like total surprises. 


This is a common Wexford trait. There’s an odd diffidence in the air down in the sunny South East. 


“Manana,” “We’ll circle back to that,” and “Are you coddin’ me?” are phrases readily bandied about.


 Passion rarely raises its mangled head on our narrow streets until at least 6 pints have been consumed. 


Maybe that’s why I like President Biden – even though I know President Trump leaves him in the ha’penny seats when it comes to drama or excitement. In fact, I can almost sense the little wheels and springs ticking away inside Uncle Joe’s brain, as he laboriously comes to terms with a problem.


He’s not a man for sudden pronouncements which is why I got alarmed when he declared that US troops would be history in Afghanistan by this coming September 11th.


Now I’m all on for doing away with foreign wars, but to quote Yogi Berra, this seemed like déjà vu all over again.


After all we’d shamelessly walked away from wars in Vietnam and Iraq and left our interpreters, translators, and other civilian allies to the fond embraces of commies, cranks, and religious fanatics; and, God knows, the Taliban are not exactly fans of Elvis Costello’s “Peace, Love, and Understanding” ditty.


However, Sleepy Joe finally roused himself and put forth a plan to evacuate our endangered Afghan allies, thus minimizing another moral debacle and leaving one less thing to worry about in this oddly quiet summer.


It’s true, economists, capitalists, and the few surviving Mom & Pop proprietors are worried about the proletariat refusing to return to dead end jobs.


My guess is that all of these salary shirkers have de-pinged their smart phones and purchased antique answering machines.


They sit at home drinking cold beer and smirking at the blinking light as The Mets steadily advance towards the World Series, all the while luxuriating in Simon & Garfunkel’s soothing Sound of Silence.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

The Sad Saga of Bertrand Russell Bernstein and Sir Ivan Morrison

 Talk about odd couples, they didn’t come much stranger than the Russian Jew from The Bronx and the surly genius from East Belfast. I’m talking about Bertrand Russell Bernstein and Sir Ivan Morrison.


I’m sure you know Van Morrison. However, Bert Berns died young, yet in a short life he was very influential in the world of music production and songwriting.


I’m still astounded at the list of his hits: Twist and Shout, Piece of My Heart, Hang on Sloopy, Here Comes The Night, and so many more. In fact Bert’s whole life is like a dizzying movie – and what a soundtrack!


His parents were Russian immigrants, obviously well read, given that he was named after Britain’s premier philosopher; they founded a successful clothing business in midtown Manhattan.


Born in 1929, Bert early on contracted rheumatic fever that damaged his heart. In an age before organized child care his parents left him at home to be checked upon by friendly neighbors.


The Bronx, then as now, throbbed to the music of immigrants, and Bert fell for the Samba music of the Cubans who lived next door. 


The Blues and Gospel music of African-Americans only added to the cultural riches of the sick little boy consigned to his bed.


But Bertrand Russell Bernstein had a will of iron and as a teenager sought out music and dance lessons; soon he was taking the subway down to Manhattan.


Rebellious and driven, he eventually made his way to Cuba where he faked his way into Samba dance groups and worked in Havana’s casinos. Was that where he first came in contact with the mob? 


Probably, though Cosa Nostra was always a presence in his native Bronx.


When Castro closed the casinos Bert returned home and began his songwriting career in the Brill Building next to Carol King, Phil Spector, and Neil Diamond. 


Right from the start he had the ability to turn three chord tricks like Twist and Shout and Hang on Sloopy into pulsing teenage anthems. 


But Bert was also adventurous. From the moment he heard British Invasion songs, he recognized that groups like the Beatles and Stones were using his same musical building blocks of R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll.


Already an accomplished producer with tracks like Under The Boardwalk by The Drifters, he took his skills to London and there in a recording studio he heard a teenage Van Morrison.


Bert had always wanted to discover a white singer with a voice to match Sam Cook’s and he struck gold with Van.


Them, Morrison’s group, was struggling in the studio until Bert put some shape on their first single, the Blues standard Baby Please Don’t Go, and wrote Here Comes The Night for the boys from East Belfast.


Them had a legendary two-year run until they imploded, returned to Belfast and anonymity. But Bert was haunted by Van’s voice, invited him to New York City, and put his three-chord production stamp on Brown Eyed Girl, Van’s first single.


He also signed Morrison to Bang Records and a rapacious music publishing deal. 


Did I mention that Tommy Eboli, boss of the Genovese crime family, was rumored to be Bert’s protector and silent business partner, and it was nigh impossible to walk away from Bang Records. Ask Neil Diamond.


Things appear to have come to a head in 1967. Van wished to go Jazzy with songs that would later feature on his iconic Astral Weeks album, while Bert and shadowy others wished for more Brown Eyed Girls.


Following a tempestuous phone call between the two quarreling friends, Bert died of heart failure leaving Van on shaky terms with Bert’s widow and the other owners of Bang Records.


Van went to ground in Boston and it would be some time before he would sign a deal with Warner Brothers Records, courtesy of a brown paper bag full of cash delivered, it is rumored, to some characters in a parking lot.


Would Van have ever risen to his successful artistic heights without the influence of Bertrand Russell Bernstein? 


Van’s social skills were never the best, and in their early partnership Bert did all the “moving and shaking.”


It’s a question that will never be answered, and therein lies the legend of Bert, Van, and the big Bang!

Saturday 19 June 2021

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!! Or What's Normal Anymore?

 So, it looks like widespread vaccination has stopped the pandemic in its tracks and our time of pause may be coming to an end.


Are you ready to go back to normal or, like Bob Dylan are you unsure what normal is anymore?


Like many you may be rejecting the old order and refusing to return to work for dead end wages.


While economists scratch their heads about this state of affairs, why rush back when wages will rise - if raw capitalism is allowed to have its way? 


Employers have held the whip hand since union membership and middle class income began shrinking over 50 years ago. Meanwhile the Great Recession of 2008 only reinforced that great corporate adage – don’t ask for a raise, be grateful you have a job!


And still employers wonder why so many people have opted out of the workforce? 


It’s simple. Some can’t afford to return because of low pay and the lack of affordable childcare. To add fuel to this fire, many seniors of working age now look after grandchildren, thereby allowing their daughters to work.


And then there are those who are rethinking their priorities and considering a change in their lives. There’s no better time than when things are really in a state of flux.


Take the music business.  It changed irrevocably in the years following 9/11 but such was the competition for gigs very few musicians even noticed.


However, two far-seeing Irish-Americans, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, had just founded Napster, whose credo was that all music should be free and available.


This revolutionary concept was perfected by Spotify and other streaming platforms on a two-tier basis.


For a small monthly fee you may now lease all the music in the world, and even get it free if you don’t mind being interrupted by advertisements.


This has resulted in the .01% of the world’s top recording artists taking the lion’s share of streaming income, leaving an infinity of lesser-known artists to share the remaining income between them.


Of course, this roughly mirrors what has happened in broader society where the top .01% controls much of the world’s wealth.


The end result for musicians has been the shrinking sales of CDs – the one really profitable item of merchandise that helped subsidize their performance fees. 


The lesson is – worlds change after cataclysms. You’ll never figure it all out, but if you’re thinking of making a change, now is the hour.


And yet, I can think of only one instance when I made the correct choice during a life crisis. Back in the 1980s, Pierce Turner and I founded a New Wave band called Major Thinkers (not a great name to dangle in front of hard-bitten music critics).


Nonetheless, we scored a big record deal with Epic Records and toured the country with Cyndi Lauper and UB40 – glory days, indeed.


We had a radio/dance hit with Avenue B is the Place to Be and recorded Terrible Beauty, an album still to see the light of day. To make a long story short, we were summarily dropped by Epic, who knows why, who cares anymore? 


Hardly a cataclysm, though it seemed like one at the time. We returned to Ireland for Christmas and one night in my parents’ house I had what Graham Greene might call a “dark night of the soul.”


No matter how I looked at it, I could see no future in the music business.


As a grey, rainy dawn broke over the grim spires of Wexford town I resolved to chuck it all in and become a playwright. 


Out of the frying pan, into the fire, you might think, but I wrote, directed, and produced every day thereafter, and eventually cleared my head of the music business. Four years later, Chris Byrne and I formed Black 47 and that kept me busy for the next 25 years.


Still, I continued to hone my playwriting craft and last week I got word that Paradise Square, a musical I conceived and co-wrote, will open on Broadway next year.


I guess you could say that dark night back in Wexford finally paid off. 


Whatever, in these post-pandemic times, the world is changing faster than you can imagine.  If you’re thinking of making a change – do it now, there’ll be no better time.