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.”