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.