Wednesday 28 December 2022

The Hidden Christmas Ireland


Whenever I go back home I always keep a weather eye open for the hidden Ireland. 


Alas, I rarely catch a glimpse of this roiling presence in the modern European Ireland. In my boyhood, however, I often stumbled upon it.


I was blessed by being close to two sets of grandparents. In fact I grew up in a draughty old house in Wexford town owned by my maternal grandfather.


Thomas Hughes, born in 1880, believed in ghosts, banshees, and all manner of púca, as did many of his friends who lived in the nearby countryside. These rural folk considered the veil that shielded the living from the dead to be very flimsy.


When we visited their remote farmhouses on Sunday afternoons, the talk was so spiked with references to hauntings and fairy abductions I rarely strayed far from the open-hearth fire. The shadows in those old kitchens seemed to throb with life, and you could almost touch the hidden Ireland lurking behind them.


My paternal grandfather, Lar Kirwan, was a prosperous cattle dealer with a substantial farm just outside Wexford town. A man of “scant imagination,” as my Granny put it, he had no truck with any kind of superstition. Maggie Kirwan, on the other hand, recognized that all living things had a soul, and was wary of upsetting the least of them.


Only fitting then that in the small yard outside her kitchen window the hidden Ireland sprang into view one overcast St. Stephen’s Day afternoon.


Coincidentally, the legendary Irish horse, Arkle, was contesting the King George VI Steeplechase at Kempton Park that same afternoon.


My grandfather was a racehorse enthusiast and this man of “scant imagination” liked nothing better than to wager “a few bob,” especially when his favorite jockey, Pat Taffe, was aboard the great Arkle.


And so we were all gathered in the kitchen after savoring the remains of the Christmas turkey. Even my normally saturnine grandfather was smiling at the prospect of watching this three-mile contest on his new television.


When, lo and behold, the sound of drums and cymbals erupted outside in the yard. 


“Are they mad,” Lar Kirwan hissed in fury, “at twenty minutes to bloody three on race day?”


He had no idea what this commotion signaled, but it would have to be dealt with forthwith, for the King George VI Stakes would be off and running at 3pm sharp.


At that moment a hatchet-faced man, bearing a marked resemblance to Eamon de Valera despite wearing a ladies bonnet and tartan shawl, peered speculatively in the window at us.


“’Tis the Wren Boys!”  My Granny announced in trepidation.


“Get them out of here now!” Her spouse ferociously muttered.


“How can we? Sure they’d put a curse on us and say we were the meanest family in County Wexford.”

“Where’s the gun?”


“Gun, how are you! Didn’t you order it out of the house in case they thought we were in the IRA?”


But neither armored cars, nor tanks, nor guns would have stopped these unruly mummers, one of whom was cavorting around with an oversized pair of ladies bloomers pulled tight over his cavalry twill trousers. 


Meanwhile, a third more soberly dressed gentleman rattled a cage containing a forlorn and frightened wren.


The Wren Boys hollered to the overcast skies that they were the descendents of Saint George and were about to slay the dragon that was threatening the many bullocks my grandfather was fattening on his farm.


It was like the earth had opened and the past poured forth before our eyes. I could make little sense of what else they were roaring about, but I could tell they expected to be rewarded for their efforts.


My grandfather squinted at his watch as Arkle cantered down to the starting line and the bloomered offspring of Saint George danced a jig in the kitchen yard. My grandmother burrowed desperately inside her purse. 


Suddenly the Wren Boys froze outside our window - their hands outstretched in demand. 


My Grandfather sank back in his armchair in relief as the flag went up and Arkle galloped into an early lead.


My grandmother handed over some pound notes in grateful supplication, and the Wren Boys melted back into the world they came from – the hidden Ireland.

Thursday 15 December 2022


 The Ghost of Christmas Past seems to be ever present this time of year – particularly for emigrants.

Think of it, do you fixate on home around St. Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, or any other such holiday? 

But every time I hear Jingle Bells, I’m swept back to Wexford’s Main Street where I’m seven years old again staring at a blinking Christmas tree, my face lit up with delight.

I may have need of that memory, for every third Sunday in December for the last 17 years I’ve improvised a three-hour Yuletide show on Celtic Crush/SiriusXM. Much of the show is devoted to music but the audience has come to expect a journey down my memory lane.

Oddly enough, I’ve found the best way to cater to all tastes is through poetry, and often the more obscure, the better.

I don’t know who wrote the traditional Kerry Carol, but I suspect it was a woman and what a way with words she had.

Scuab an t-urlár agus glan an teallach

‘s coimead na gríasaigh beo

Ar eagla go dtiocfhaidh siad anocht,

Agus an domhan ‘na chodladh go suan!

It no longer seems to matter that the poem is in Irish, since so many listeners are familiar with at least cúpla focail and love the sound of the old tongue. Still I usually offer the translation:

Brush the floor and clean the hearth,

And set the fire to keep,

For they might visit us tonight

When all the world’s asleep!

Patrick Kavanagh is another who can ferry you back in time to a long gone rural Irish childhood.

“My father played the melodion

Outside at our gate;

There were stars in the morning east,

And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called

To Lennons and Callans.

As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry

I knew some strange thing had happened.”

James Joyce too can summons up memories of Christmas, though to me he’s much more about sculling pints on Bloomsday outside Ulysses pub on Stone Street. Still, he always brings me face to face with that rarity, an Irish White Christmas.

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.”

Oh, to be able to conjure such an adjective for the broad majestic Shannon!

But it’s Dylan Thomas from Wales who really nails the poetry of Christmas for me. Those from New York can do a pilgrimage to The White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street in honor of the man.

For it’s there the poet departed none so gently into that good night after tossing back a multitude of whiskeys - his final words, “18! That’s a record.” Perhaps that why his “Child’s Christmas in Wales” always captures the innate tipsiness of the season.

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

He effortlessly summonses a carefree boyhood in Mrs. Prothero’s garden where he and her son Jim bombard “cold and callous cats” with snowballs.

“Wolves and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats” whisk by as Aunt Dosie downs 3 aspirin and Aunt Hannah hits the parsnip wine, before the boy finally turns the gas down, crawls into bed and “says some words to the holy darkness” before sinking into dreamless sleep.

Meanwhile, you can watch this wonderful poem spring to life on the magical stage of The Irish Repertory Theatre until December 31st. I’ll be there in my Santa hat, sipping mulled wine, do join me.

Happy Christmas!

Friday 2 December 2022

Chickie Donohue and The Greatest Beer Run Ever

 I have no idea when I first met John “Chickie” Donohue, but it was sometime back in the 20thCentury.

Where I met him should be easier, but again it could have been up in his native Inwood, in the wild and wooly Bronx, on the shores of Rockaway, or in any of the city’s teeming Irish bars where union members, immigration advocates, and those concerned with the struggle in Ireland congregated.

Even back then Chickie was an urban legend, and I never doubted that he had delivered cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon to his fellow Inwoodians serving in Vietnam.

It was, after all, an unusual war. Hadn’t my friend, Brian Heron, grandson of James Connolly, also shipped out as a merchant marine to check out first hand the scene in Saigon.

Indeed, didn’t Pierce Turner and myself receive a gilded offer to front a version of the 1910 Fruitgum Company and do a tour of American bases in that war-torn country? We only turned it down because we felt it would be beneath our artistic standards to perform Simon Says and other such bubblegum standards for cavorting troops.

But Chickie stood apart: in a time of gathering anti-war protest he was on a mission of honor to show his friends that the guys back home in Doc Fiddler’s bar supported them and their service.

Thus, in November 1967, did this ex-marine set out for Nam on board a vessel carrying arms from New York to Qui Nhon. Some months later, he delivered his first beer to MP Tom Collins, a childhood buddy, then serving in the conflict.

Stumbling through the fog of war, he soon thereafter handed over cans of Blue Ribbon to Rick Duggan and Kevin McLoone amidst the Battle of Khe Sanh. Then away with him to Saigon where he finished his sacred mission by offering some sorely needed suds to Bobby Pappas.

As luck would have it, he missed his plane back to the US because of a little Viet Cong diversion called the Tet Offensive, but eventually he made it home to Doc Fiddlers, mission accomplished.

These and many more adventures are documented in the film The Greatest Beer Run Ever that you have to see. Talk about a shaggy dog story!

But it’s so much more, for Chickie’s beer crusade caused this once hard-hat war supporter to reconsider his opinion and see the Vietnam War for what it really was – a brutal, ill-advised, American disaster.

By the time I met him Chickie was political director of Sandhogs Local 147, Laborers International Union of North America and a progressive force around NYC.

It may sound sacrilegious but he sometimes reminded me of another notable New Yorker – Father Michael Judge OFM. Each devoted total attention when conversing with you – a rare thing in the bustling barrooms we frequented. Both men could also see right through whatever psychological façades you had erected, plus when the occasion demanded they offered incisive and life-changing advice.

Whatever about Fr. Mychal, you could tell that Chickie’s counsel had come at a cost. I never gave it much thought at the time, but on reflection it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t confront many hard truths during his jaunt around Vietnam.  

Saint or psychiatrist, that’s Chickie for you, and thankfully he’s still out there  on our streets spreading his brand of casual joy and camaraderie with a weather-beaten smile.

I often wonder if New York City is losing some of its magic, as a generation of contrarian characters the like of Pete Hamill, Brian Herron, Frank McCourt, Brian Mór and so many others fades away.

But then you think of Chickie Donohue heading off to Vietnam with a sack full of Pabst Blue Ribbon under his arm, and you know that as long as there’s an Inwood, Rockaway, Woodlawn, Bay Ridge, or Tottenville, there’ll be unlikely heroes aplenty to take their place.

Here’s to Blue Ribbon, friendship, and The Greatest Beer Run Ever, a movie about one of us, and to hell with all the suits and psychotics down in DC dreaming up their wars of choice and misadventure that they’ll never serve in.

Thursday 17 November 2022

Ready For The Next Recession?


So, who is Jerome Hayden Powell? He’s the 16th Chair of the Federal Reserve and he holds your future in his hands.


Who elected him? No one, yet in his rise to the “most important financial position in the world” he’s been given the leg up by Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden. But perhaps Bloomberg News’ description of him as “Wall Street’s Head of State” hints at his true allegiance.


Barely a year ago this suave man for all season was quite certain we were experiencing a little “transitory inflation” brought on by the pandemic, pent-up consumer demand, and Putin’s war in Ukraine.


Of late, however, he’s morphed into Clint Eastwood galloping into town and informing us that he will continue to raise interest rates until inflation is tamed and “the job is done.”


He gives no estimate of just how high rates must climb, but he does caution that his actions may cause a recession.


He neglects to mention that his interest raising policies have already affected broad swathes of the populace who can no longer afford the American dream of home ownership because of high mortgage rates.


He often cites former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker as a role model. In the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, Mr. Volcker did stamp out inflation by raising interest rates to 19%. And yes, you guessed it, this brought on a recession that lasted years, and led to unemployment rates of over 10% and the loss of up to 4 million jobs.


Obviously neither of these gentlemen ever heard my stonecutting grandfather’s advice, “Never use a sledgehammer when a chisel and hammer will do.”


Living in the impecunious East Village, I barely recall the Volcker recession – I probably downsized from Heineken to Pabst Blue Ribbon - and soon enough along came President Reagan who drastically raised government spending and it was morning in America all over again.


But I remember vividly the Great Recession of 2008 - watching grown men cry in the corridors of a national music company as they studied their pink slips.


Predicting economic trends is both science and art. Certain indicators can reveal much, but you always have to factor in prevailing winds, human error and common sense.


And right now you can tell that “Clint” Powell has about as much of a clue as the rest of us – partly because he resides in the rarified upper echelons of the financial class and has forgotten what his mother - or more likely nanny - once told him, “When prices go up, they rarely come down.”


One of the prime reason prices are rising is because workers are finally getting the raises they have long been overdue.


Mr. Powell believes that such “labor costs” will need to come down before inflation does. But should “labor costs” come down – emphatically, no! 


Mr. Powell would do well instead to cast his jaundiced eye on Wall Street. So far a majority of S&P 500 companies are beating third quarter earnings expectations. 


With supply chain problems steadily improving, it’s unrealistic to think that profiteering and price gouging are not adding to current chronic inflation. 


Look at the recent record earnings of companies such as Exon and Chevron, and President Biden’s wish to tax them on windfall profits.


There is, however, definitely still a pent up demand for some services in our booming economy. Last Friday night every restaurant and bar in Soho was jammed to the gills with customers splurging on overpriced meals and drinks. How about imposing a temporary 10% inflation surtax on incomes over $100K?


Doubtless, this would be an unpopular move, but a targeted and temporary one that would cool off some of the spending that is stoking inflation.


Even a 90 day price freeze similar to President Nixon’s in 1971 might buy some time to consider other targeted measures.


But, please, no more loose talk about a “soft-landing” recession. Too many lives and futures are at stake, particularly those on the bottom half of the economic ladder. 


We have endured enough sledgehammer, shot-in-the-dark corrections that have caused long-term recessions.


With unemployment hovering around an all time low and 10 million jobs waiting to be filled, a recession is the last thing we need.

Monday 7 November 2022

A Recent Week in Ireland - Long Live The New Republic!

 I recently spent a week in Ireland. I usually take a group over annually on a historical/musical tour, but because of the pandemic this was my first time back in three years.

I enjoy this work-vacation as I get to see the country through the eyes of others.

From traveling with Black 47 I found that you’re much more invested in what’s happening around you when working rather than merely on vacation.

Thus while touring Argentina in the fall of 2000, because of our dealings with promoters and vendors we were never less than aware that both country and currency were on the verge of collapse.

Ireland was in no such straits on my recent visit, and yet the country has changed much in three years.

It’s more youthful, European, and multi-cultural. I’m sure there are many who miss the old Ireland, but that’s not hard to find – take a couple of steps off the beaten rural track and you could well imagine you’re in a scene from the Quiet Man, or at least The Snapper.

Ireland is still incredibly beautiful. Though I spent much of my youth in County Wexford I’m still astonished by the deepness of the green. Johnny Cash may have rhapsodized about 40 shades of the color, but he neglected to mention the myriad others.

And though the Dingle Peninsula is one of my favorite places on earth, I never saw it as beautiful as on this trip.

As for Galway City, even on a Monday night it was alive and kicking, with traditional music pumping out of bars, and buskers galore ripping it up on Shop Street.

And yet, there was a certain unease, though it was usually muttered rather than voiced aloud. Hospitable and socially aware though Ireland may be, there was a definite feeling that, given the shortage of housing, the government had welcomed too many Ukrainian refugees


This was not the xenophobic distaste for foreigners that you sometimes hear in the US, more a sense that the situation had been badly handled officially. Hopefully, time and patience will ease this situation, but with inflation rising rapidly, there could well be a backlash.

Oddly enough, the political situation in the UK helps take the pressure off, for having the basket case of Europe on your doorstep does provide comic relief.

Brexit is finally catching up with our noisy neighbors. Politicians as disingenuous and flatfooted as Boris, Liz, and Kwazi, help their Irish counterparts appear statesmanlike and even downright serene.

There’s also a discreet triumphalism wafting around the Republic over the recent census figures in the North. No one is dancing a victory jig, but the change in Protestant/Catholic demographics has been widely noted.

There’s little doubt that Sinn Féin will lead the next Irish government; even those of a West Brit persuasion seem resigned to this once terrifying prospect.

Not to mention, Sinn Féin will head the next Northern government whenever the DUP wakes up and realizes it’s the 21stCentury.

But even the backwoodsmen of the DUP, god love them, have never suggested that the voting system is mystically rigged against them as has happened here since 2020.

I have to say I find it somewhat jarring that Ireland is now a more rational country than the US. It just feels more grown-up over there.

It could be that once the Catholic Church lost power, people began measuring their lives by a more equable moral compass.

It’s not just that gay and other rights are now readily accepted in Ireland, but a live-and-let live atmosphere pervades the country. And nowhere is that more obvious than with women. Without any church or civil by-your-leave, they have assumed their social and political rights and the country is a lot better for it.

The lads seem to have had no trouble ceding their once legendary macho control. At least that was the impression I got as I watched the Irish Women’s Football team hold on to beat Scotland and qualify for the World Cup.

The only way that Irishmen beat Irishwomen that evening was in their roars of approval for their triumphant sisters in Hampden Park.

It’s been a long time coming. Long live the new Republic!

Sunday 23 October 2022

Turner & Kirwan of Wexford

 It’s not often you open your mailbox and find a picture of you taken 45 years ago, especially when it’s the cover of an album you’d recorded back in 1977 with your best friend.

It was like receiving a time capsule full to the brim with our attitudes, opinions, musical tastes, and so much more.

The album was Absolutely and Completely by Turner & Kirwan of Wexford.

It was the culmination of years of playing in dives, clubs, pubs, colleges, and even stadiums across the country.

To our surprise – and everyone else’s – Absolutely and Completely almost became a hit.

Back then radio wasn’t as strictly formatted as today. At many stations DJs could actually play what they liked; hence, a number of tracks from the LP became firm favorites on FM Radio.

Even in that bygone age of diversity Turner & Kirwan of Wexford was an unusual band – just two of us with our soundman, Neil Kempfer Stocker on Taurus bass pedals.

Pierce Turner doubled on clavinet and Moog synthesizer, all the while playing a high hat with his left foot. 


I played a heavily effected acoustic/electric guitar and hammered the hell out of a bass drum with my right foot.

We once got banned from New York City’s spacious Town Hall for being too loud, which says as much about our attitude as our volume levels.

Oddly enough, we were also banned from CBGB – an unheard of feat - though we were the first band to play the joint.

It was either feast or famine for T & K of W. Within a month of disembarking at JFK, a Radio City talent scout heard us at the nearby Pig and Whistle, and signed us for a weekly wage that made our eyes pop.

Alas, we never got to match steps with The Rockettes for we were unable to produce the requisite green cards.

Still, New York was our oyster - a paradise where you could rent an apartment in the East Village for 100 bucks a month.

Sure, it was a tad dangerous but who cared – there was so much happening musically, and we savored it all. Punk, Reggae, Folk, and Jazz blasted from club doorways, plus on summer evenings in Central Park you could thrill to Pavarotti and Bernstein.

Up in The Bronx, Durty Nelly’s, The Wagon Wheel, and The Village Pub hosted gigs 7 nights a week, while a couple of miles down the Concourse Grandmaster Flash was creating beats and anthems that would change the world.

It was a great scene and we were in the thick of it, mixing punk and classical riffs to tell stories about lonely priests, and traveling people, always with echoes of Wexford trailing behind.

In the DIY ethic of the times we made our own album. It was rockin’, psychedelic, orchestral folk, and very much us.

We thought we might pick up some random airplay, but lo and behold, WNEW, WLIR, and many other FM stations across the country added our songs.

The beat went on, the crowds got bigger, and our admirers ranged from Pete Seeger to David Bowie, Norman Mailer to Frank Herbert, Frank McCourt to Lester Bangs.

It didn’t hurt when Girl Next Door became the first rock song about lesbianism to get significant airplay – though when, Polydor, our Irish record company, listened to the lyrics, they promptly dumped our LPs into the garbage. The Island of Saints and Scholars apparently wasn’t ready for us.

In the meantime, our manager ordered us up to the Catskills to rehearse a 5-piece band that could capture the sound we’d created in the studio, but when we returned he had moved to the West Coast, and a promised US tour evaporated.

So we formed the new wave Major Thinkers, were signed to a major record deal and became the “next big thing” for a couple of months.

Eventually Pierce and I went our separate ways, and Absolutely and Completely became an LP collector’s item. But we never forgot it and its 1970’s uniqueness.

It’s just been re-released as a limited edition CD with lots of bonus tracks and can be purchased at

Though not for the faint of heart, it captures the spirit of 1970’s New York, and the dreams of two young men who did things their way - absolutely and completely.

Saturday 8 October 2022

A Not So Natural Disaster

 The ospreys were still diving in Long Island Sound in early October.  They’re usually long gone by now; it’s a hell of a journey to South America where many of them spend the winter months.

Then again, they arrived late this year, as did the piping plovers. I began to wonder if both species were victims of the extreme weather so common nowadays.

The egrets were a no show. Oh, there were sightings, but nothing like other years when the marshland would resound with their chatter around dawn.

Why does it matter? I guess I’ve come to rely on them. When all else is in turmoil, these birds provide constancy.

I’ve long ago given up on horseshoe crabs - though they’ve outlasted their dinosaur peer, their numbers in the Sound have dropped precipitously in the last decade.

Some say they’ve become victims of the pharmaceutical companies who use their blood to test the efficacy of various vaccines.

Perhaps, but I think the rise in temperature in local coastal waters has interfered with their mating process. 450 million years of courting come to an end – and on our watch too.

I can attest to the rise in temperature. When I first came to the Sound in 2000, I rarely even dipped a toe in the brine until mid-June and never felt totally comfortable until July 4th.

But for the last five or more years I’ve been taking the plunge in late May; at this rate I’ll soon be hopping in on May Day, fist in the air while humming a couple of bars of James Connolly.

I know what you’re thinking - another tree-hugger railing against rampant capitalism! And don’t you have enough to be worrying about already with the “fake news” daily harassing poor President Trump.

Sure isn’t the man frightened out of his wits with so many lefty lawyers serving suits on him down in Mar-a-Lago. He can’t even show his face in his beloved Trump Towers with bowsies the like of Malachy McCourt and John McDonagh ready to accost him, dare he step outside for a medium-rare cheeseburger.

President Trump makes no bones about it - climate change is a “hoax.” I wish to God he were right – I’d vote for him, and even wear one of his MAGA hats, if he could convince me that the polar caps are not melting to beat the band.

I know, no one you know has ever even seen a polar cap; besides The Jets are still a disaster, and hey, that last trip to the supermarket nearly bankrupted you!

But you do remember Hurricane Sandy, nearly 10 years ago? Sea levels have risen over an inch since then. Might sound like nothing  - until the next big wash comes surging into New York Harbor?

Global warming doesn’t stop just because we don’t give it the time of day. We’re burning fossil fuels like they’re going out of style. This produces large quantities of carbon dioxide that trap heat in the atmosphere leading to extreme and unstable weather.

But shouldn’t we be supporting the coal miners in West Virginia as Senator Manchin says? Of course, but there are only 11,000 left statewide in an industry that bequeathed its employees black lung among other illnesses.  

It would be far more economical in the long run to keep paying these hard working people their regular wage, while retraining them for positions in clean energy industries.

But let’s not be stingy: congratulations to all who helped pass the oddly named Inflation Reduction Bill, for it contained provisions that hopefully will reduce carbon emissions 40% by 2030. But is it too little too late?

The cost of cleaning up our current “natural” disasters is already huge. How many more will surface by 2030?

That’s why it’s important to note local changes and how they’re affecting the environment around us. Awareness may be the first step to both economic and social survival.

In the meantime, there’s much we can do: plant trees, use less heat and air conditioning, walk, bike, ride the subway and buses, reuse and recycle.

But most of all hold your politicians to account. Will they make the tough decisions needed to save the only world we know?

And hey, you Ospreys, shake a wing – it’s a long way to Venezuela and Brazil.

Monday 26 September 2022

So You Wanna Be An Irish Dancer

 Back where I came from few boys aspired to be Irish dancers. It would have been considered suicidal to trip daintily around the back streets of Wexford in black satin jacket, matching short pants, thick white socks, and buckled shiny shoes.

However, proficiency in the Irish language was compulsory, and to fail the subject in your final exam meant another year spent in high school.

Hence, along with some of my friends, I signed up for a month of total Gaelic immersion in Ballingeary Irish College, West Cork.

A kindly Christian Brother suggested we teenage clodhoppers take céilí dancing lessons before our departure, lest we turn the college ballroom into an emergency ward.

That month was wonderful. We spoke Irish all day, and at nights wowed the young ladies of Cork with our Walls of Limerick/Siege of Ennis steps; some of us even acquired Rebel County girlfriends, and returned to West Brit Wexford changed men.

We all handily passed our Leaving Cert Irish exams, but upon graduation we promptly ditched the dance steps.

Small wonder, The Walls of Limerick were scorned in Dublin dancehalls, while the Siege of Ennis never found a foothold in the moshpits of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.

But I never lost my fondness for our native music. So when Chris Byrne and I formed Black 47 we set Irish Trad to Hip-Hop, Reggae, and Funk beats. This unholy concoction rang a bell with young Irish-Americans, many of whom had been enrolled in Step Dancing schools by their native-born Irish parents.

We encouraged these dancers to join us onstage and link their steps with our beats. Dressed in the urban styles of the day, they were a sight to behold as they kicked high into the overhead lights.

The pace and general delirium onstage seemed to liberate the dancers, and I began to wonder if something similar had happened to the young Famine Irish in the dancehalls of The Five Points when they cut loose to the music of Irish fiddlers and African-American percussionists.

Fast forward to the musical Hard Times which dealt with the amalgamation of Irish and African-Americans in those downtown dancehalls amid the general social upheaval of New York in the Civil War era. Zestfully choreographed by Joe Barros and Niall O’Leary, this re-imagined 19thCentury dancing brought audiences to their feet.

Soon after the final Hard Times production in 2013, Bill T. Jones, the renowned American choreographer, joined the creative team of what eventually became Paradise Square.

Bill set out to get to the core of what was going on in both African and Irish dance in that turbulent time, and then interpret it through the prism of American social and political history.

And when we needed Irish choreography that would match Bill’s intensity and innovation, enter Hammerstep, Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman. Riverdance veterans both, they were also conversant with Break Dancing and Hip-Hop movement.

Being in the room while these three gentlemen birthed the Tony nominated choreography of Paradise Square was a creative experience I will always treasure.

Irish dancing across the US continues to amalgamate with other art forms, and I’m sure there will be many surprises in store. Speaking of which, it’s only fitting to give a word of appreciation to Trinity Irish Dance and Mark Howard who have pushed the Irish Dance envelope for decades.

And if you live within striking distance of New York’s Irish Arts Center, make sure you check out the upcoming collaboration between Seán Curran Company and Darrah Carr Dance.

Sean performed with Bill T. Jones for years and began his career as an Irish step-dancer in Boston, while Darrah, always on dance’s cutting edge, has never lost her affection for Irish dancing.

Céilí is the title of their Masters in Collaboration that will premiere at the beautiful and spacious new Irish Arts Center on 11thAvenue and 51stStreet.  Don’t miss this performance and the sparks these two companies will strike off each other.

With an original score by Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna, one can be sure that it will be a scintillating evening of tradition, spurred by an innovation scarcely imaginable by the tough skeptics on the back streets of Wexford all those years ago.


(For tickets and information,  Sep 29 – Oct 2, 2022)

Sunday 18 September 2022

Rockin' The Catskills

 One of the interesting things about playing with Black 47 was that I became familiar with so many areas of the USA.  By extension, I got a unique insight into Irish-America.

The biggest reveal was that this vast country has had a very varied impact on Irish immigrants. 

Of course the Irish have exerted a major social and political influence on the USA, yet I never cease to marvel at the difference between, say, the Irish of South Boston and those of South Chicago, or the Irish of Tipperary Hill in Syracuse and their compatriots on Geary Street, San Francisco.

I often thought about such matters around Labor Day Weekend, no doubt because of the intense summer schedule of the band.

Black 47 usually played parts of Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends at The Blackthorne Resort in East Durham, NY.  If you’ve never been up to the Irish Alps (Catskills), you owe yourself a visit.

I actually began playing that area in Gerry O’Shea’s Irish Center in Leeds, NY before I even set foot in the dead center of Irish America, hallowed Bainbridge Avenue in The Bronx.

Talk about two contrasting areas of Irish settlement – one calm and rural, the other urban and turbulent.

No matter the person, the Catskill Mountains seem to have a soothing effect on the most riotous of Irish souls. The Irish who live up there are quite content with their surroundings, and for the most part have no particular desire to return home.

The weekends of Memorial Day and Labor Day in East Durham, however, are as different as chalk and cheese, hence Black 47’s obligations were different too.

On Memorial Day we were hired to get the season swinging with a bang. Our brief was to attract crowds from New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Springfield, and every burg in the Hudson Valley on Friday night, and keep them reeling and rocking through the weekend.

We would play the East Durham Irish Festival on Saturday evening and hurry back to The Blackthorne for a post-midnight 2-hour set.

We would then hop in the van – to hell with sleep – and head for NYC, catch an early flight for Chicago to headline the Gaelic Park Southside Festival on Sunday and Monday.

Though the audiences were equally vociferous and welcoming, yet there was no mistaking that the mosh pits of the Mid-West were more hospitable than those of the East.

That makes sense, for the Irish from Springfield, IL have been shaped by different circumstances than their brethren from Springfield, MA; likewise, the Irish from Ames, Iowa have little in common with those raised in Woodlawn.

By the time we arrived back in NYC on Tuesday morning my foggy brain would be awash in such sociological musings. But with a busy summer playing festivals and beach towns I often wouldn’t have time to make sense of what I’d experienced until we hit East Durham again on Labor Day Weekend.

This was a much more leisurely affair. Occasionally we might speed off for an afternoon gig in Cape Cod or Rhode Island, regardless we’d be back in time to play The Blackthorne at midnight.

Though people still came to East Durham from all over for Labor Day Weekend, less traveled up from the city. Take New York out of any equation and things move at a more leisurely pace.

You had time to talk, and observe the differences between people from Buffalo and Scranton, Albany and Yonkers, Pittsfield and Kingston, Cairo and Catskill.

And you had time to glory in the majesty of the mountains that were but a background blur on Memorial Day.

Most afternoons I’d head off down a different country road, and over the years I found quiet spots where, if you remained still, you could become one with the birds, rabbits, racoons, and the occasional fox who studied you from a distance.

In one abandoned field I used sit on a wall constructed of mossy flat stones built by someone from Mayo or Connemara in a previous century; and as the sun declined in the September sky, I could comprehend what attracted the Irish to these mountains in the first place, and just how much more the place we choose to live in shapes us than we will ever shape it.

Wednesday 24 August 2022

I Miss David Bowie

 I miss David Bowie.

 “Sure, what would the likes of you be doin’ hobnobbin’ with a superstar?” You might counter.

Well, back in the late 1970’s he bought Pierce Turner and myself a large brandy each.

Turner & Kirwan of Wexford were debuting some tracks from a Science Fiction album, no less, in an uptown club called Hurrah when some yahoo roared out, “Play Suffragette City” – a Bowie song we were known to perform.

To which Turner snarkily replied, “We’ll play it when David buys us a double brandy.”

Lo and behold, at the end of the set we were presented with two large Rémy Martins in fancy tumblers, with a message from “Mr. Bowie” that while he loved our extra-terrestrial explorations, he would have been honored to hear our version of his ditty.

New York was a very different place back then. David probably hopped into a checker cab and dropped by Hurrah on a whim. He had no security detail with him and left as discreetly as he arrived.

Nowadays, Kim Kardashian wouldn’t check into the Ladies without a couple of beefy bodyguards in tow.

Celebrities were as common as cockroaches in the New York City of old. My brother, Jemmy, while plying his trade as a waterproofer on the face of the Carlyle Hotel once had Mick Jagger roar down, “Jesus on high, can’t a man get a decent night’s sleep in this kip?”

That was nothing compared to the profanity-laced tongue-lashing he received from Lauren Bacall when shoring up the Dakota.

One of his crew was so taken aback he was moved to whisper, “I wonder what Bogie ever saw in her?”

Lest you think this column is devoted to name dropping, I will refrain from mentioning my favorite Hendix story that concerned a window frame slicing a centimeter from one of Jimi’s divine fingers.

Andy Warhol called it correctly - everyone is a celebrity these days, however, instead of his projected 15 minutes of fame, better use your 15 seconds wisely.

I can barely walk down my block anymore for fear of losing an eye - there are so many wannabe Kardashians brandishing selfie-sticks while inanely mugging for their iPhones.

Will someone tell me what the Kardashians are famous for anyway? I’ve been out of the celebrity loop since the Murdochs quit flogging The Post in the subways. And don’t tell me to read it online – I’m already wasting so much time in the digital netherworld I can barely spare an hour for the pub.

Speaking of which – what’s the greatest cultural loss in New York City since the pandemic was visited upon us?

Dive bars! Remember that hole in the wall you used to frequent whenever your spouse or significant other questioned your authority or sanity? Yep, the venerable dive bar is gone with the wind - and the astronomical rents.

Next thing you know that bastion of nightlife Paddy Reilly’s will be shuttered, and Steve Duggan will be heading home to manage the Cavan Senior Football Team.

But then New York was always a changeable place. People laughed at Archbishop Dagger Hughes for building St. Patrick’s Cathedral up in the rural glades of Fifth and Fifty-First.

Who’d travel all the way up there to do the Stations of the Cross? For that matter, does anybody even remember, let alone attend, the Nine First Fridays anymore - although it wouldn’t surprise me if you could observe them through the Internet.

The city changes and we change with it. Am I mistaken or was New York at its peak in the years before 9/11? In some ways the city never seemed to recover, but I suppose that depends on your perspective.

I knock on wood as I say it, but just suppose we have weathered the curse of Covid. What kind of city will we be inheriting this time? One utterly divided by wealth – no doubt, but when was it ever any different?

And then you look at the bright side of things – most of us are still standing; although in one arena all is changed, utterly changed – the Mets now rule New York as we hurtle towards October.

And yet, I still miss the good old days when celebrities ranged freely around Manhattan and David Bowie bought me a double brandy.

Thursday 11 August 2022

Is America Broken?

 Is America broken? It’s a question that is posed with increasing frequency.

I used to dismiss it out of hand. This country has come through so much – escape from British colonialism, a civil war to prevent the Southern slave-owning states from seceding, a Civil Rights campaign allied with national protests against a disastrous war of choice in Vietnam.

Yet so much divides us nowadays, you might say. Indeed it does, but that’s the nature of a democracy. Unlike Putin’s Russia, we debate our differences publicly, that’s a strength but also a burden.

In a healthy democracy there’s usually a center, often a majority to whom differing factions turn for validation of their arguments.

When that doesn’t work, elections are called, or regularly scheduled, where the people decide.

In a country of laws like the United States of America, a vast majority of people accepts that elections are sacred and that the winners will form the next government.

But what happens when the leader of the losing group refuses to accept the verdict and contests the result?

The courts decide, as ultimately happened in the Bush v. Gore election of 2000.

We currently find ourselves in a situation where the defeated president in 2020 not only refuses to accept the result, but he even attempted to influence election officials in his favor.

You would imagine that his wiser colleagues would intervene for fear their party would suffer even a greater rejection in the coming elections.

Yet, it would appear, that Mr. Trump has convinced the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan that he won the election of 2020 despite all evidence to the contrary.

Does the Republican Party actually believe this “great lie?” On the face of it, this hardly seems likely, yet there are people who are utterly convinced that voting machines were tampered with and other forms of election chicanery perpetrated, without even a whit of evidence.

What happens now? Well, voters have a chance to send a strong message to both the Republican Party and its leader in the November midterms, and again in the 2024 presidential election.

Democracy, however, is nothing if not gloriously messy, for we are currently afflicted by a rate of inflation unequaled since 1981, and, of late, it’s “the economy, stupid,” that has driven most people to the polls.

It will take time and much massaging for our US market economy to correct the surge in prices caused by a pandemic, rusty supply chains, and a war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine.

We should always bear in mind that part of the reason for the current soaring inflation rate is because workers are finally demanding and receiving higher wages.

However, as long as the Federal Reserve doesn’t cause a recession by randomly raising interest rates inflation will eventually return to a manageable level.

But if we succumb to economic alarmism we could throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that precious baby’s name is democracy.

We have a stark existential choice in the coming elections. Do we choose democracy or one man’s refusal to admit that he was beaten fairly and squarely in the 2020 presidential election?

Despite party labels, this is not a partisan issue; democracy, despite its flaws, is something to cherish, while Mr. Trump’s self-delusional dream of autocracy is not.

He’s already done grave damage to American democracy by causing many of his followers to doubt our election process.

We may differ on many issues, but in the end we can settle matters at the polls. Let’s vote rather than harangue each other on the platforms of an increasingly vicious and vacuous social media.

Had Mike Pence not done his job as Vice-President on January 6thand certified the election of Joe Biden who knows what the end result would have been. But, at the least, it seems likely more lives would have been lost while President Trump sat on his hands and allowed a mob of his followers to run amok in the Capitol Building.

We do have a very safe election system and should treasure it rather than allow one man to disparage it, and then hide behind inane conspiracy theories.

Is America broken – far from it! But democracy is under attack and it’s our turn to defend it.

Thursday 28 July 2022


 I was recently giving a talk to the Irish Business Organization and was asked by host Shelley Ann Quilty-Lake to describe my own emigration from Ireland to New York.

I began by describing life in the city in the 1970’s.

Though the era is usually painted as being dangerous and crime-ridden, it was also exciting and gloriously inexpensive.

Reggae pulsed through the city accompanied by the sweet pungency of marijuana, while Punk was reinvigorating staid rock music. A couple of gigs a week in The Bronx or Greenwich Village easily paid for my rent-stabilized apartment.

Then in the midst of my feel-good story a series of anguished faces flashed through my mind. All Irishmen, they ranged in age from early 20’s to late 70’s, faces I’d forgotten or stored in some cobwebbed mental attic.

They sat or stood at bars I’d played across the country from Bainbridge Avenue to Geary Street in San Francisco. 


Some wore leather jackets and torn blue jeans, but most were dressed in the Irish evening attire of sports coat and cavalry twill trousers; each had told me some variant of our common emigrant story.

Many had arrived in the late 1950’s fleeing lack of work and opportunity. More came in the 1980’s when people were exiting Ireland at such a clip the joke was “last one out, turn out the lights!”

They had ended up in some American city or other because there was no life for them at home.

They had never married, and had settled for some form of employment that guaranteed them a room, and enough money to spend most nights at a local Irish watering hole.

When they’d finally scraped up the fare to go home to a funeral or wedding, they found that their notion of Ireland had changed, they didn’t even fit in socially anymore, dashing all hope of a permanent return.

I ran into many of their ilk while traveling around America in the back of a van. They liked Black 47 – not the harder edged rock or funk music, but the unvarnished anthems about emigration and politics.

Songs like Livin’ in America and James Connolly would lead to post-gig conversations at the bar, and eventually to heartfelt revelations about the country of their birth. Shots of Jamesons, and the knowledge that I’d be leaving town in the morning with their secrets, often led to late night eloquence.

These people weren’t whiners or looking for sympathy, it’s just that they’d come to the hard won realization that their die had been cast at an early age.

The Irish system of education that they’d experienced was brutal. Class sizes were often above 40 and corporal punishment was the rule.

I knew what they were talking about, for in my own Christian Brothers Primary School boys were beaten unmercifully, not so much by the brothers themselves but by the young state-employed, lay teachers.

Words like dyslexia or autism were barely known, let alone that students might suffer from such conditions.

It was one size fits all – if you didn’t know an answer you were first humiliated and then beaten with a stick or a stiff leather strap until your hands were numb or raw. No wonder so many children abandoned school at the legal age of 14.

The unholy alliance between church and state didn’t help. Emigration kept the country subservient and manageable. Let them go – less to feed and educate on the island of saints and scholars!

There was never a suggestion that remedial classes be given to young emigrants to help them fit into a foreign industrial society. Why bother – didn’t they have their rosary beads to guide them?

Ireland is a much different country now. Young people receive a humane education and many never think of emigrating; while Irish consulates are aware of their responsibility to senior emigrants and regularly provide grants to organizations like the Aisling Irish Community Center, The New York Irish Center, the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, and other caring groups across the country.

But still I can’t forget the faces of those late night confidants who should never have had to leave their homes and native country.  

Their humble stories are as important as the successful ones we celebrate. Their courage and their lonely fortitude still inspire me.  

Wednesday 13 July 2022

The Poetry of Granite

I was digging in the garden recently; not an activity I’m particularly fond of, but there’s something about a June afternoon that entices you to slice a shovel through earth.

The sun was high, a fresh breeze sighing through the new leaves of the old maple, and a finch of some denomination was chirping when I struck something hard and unforgiving.

It was granite in perfectly shaped bricks that at one time must have constituted a wall, or perhaps a small kiln.

Small seedlings of quartz still sparkled from the red stone, though it had been buried beneath the soil for many years.

I rested on my shovel, and in an instant was transported back to a graveyard in Co. Wexford on another June day.

I had just turned 17 and was, as usual, working summers for my grandfather in his headstone business.

It was dusty work, cutting, chiseling, and slicing the stone while fashioning it into monuments and kerbing, with the roar of pneumatic drills pulsing through his premises near Wexford Quay.

It was always a relief to escape into the quiet countryside and erect a finished monument in a local graveyard.

It never felt morbid, for death was democratic, and there was a sense of achievement when we gazed on a new headstone gleaming in the soft evening light where there had been none that morning.

We worked in three types of stone, limestone, the commonest (and least expensive), rugged granite, and aristocratic white marble.

The latter was my grandfather’s favorite, so much so that in the 1950’s he had traveled a number of times to Carrara in far off Italy to visit the quarries owned by his friend and supplier, Signor Bordese.

This hospitable and erudite gentleman had escorted Thomas Hughes to Florence and Rome, so he might gaze upon the majestic churches and statues carved from his favorite stone.

My grandfather had left school at 13 to be apprenticed to his own headstone-making father, but he had the soul of an artist and would spend hours studying exotic statues, longing for the chance to carve his own images onto white marble.

Alas, Wexford people were of a practical nature, and preferred their memorials to be inexpensive and to the point.

The traveling people were my grandfather’s allies in art, they alone, he confided, “appreciate the majesty of death and the hereafter” and encouraged him to transpose marble into images that captured their sorrow and loss.

For hours on end, in his dusty little office, they’d pore over pictures of ornate sculptures before deciding on a suitable memorial for a revered elder or a lost child.  

To top it all, they paid cash up front, unusual in those times, for it was considered poor form to ask a grieving family to pay anything but a token deposit until well after the headstone had been erected.

The world was simpler back then, there was a trust between people. Did that come from the fact that most Irish families got by on so little?

Did the Famine still impinge upon folk memories? On the rare occasion when a bill was written off as a bad debt, Thomas Hughes and my mother would share a doleful look, and one of them would quietly mutter, “what can you expect - the best left.”

Still, the business prospered, and every summer we erected headstones all over County Wexford, remembering to pay our respects to the parish priest and occasionally taking tea in the kitchen with his housekeeper, the most important person in the locality.

Everyone had his and her place in that world. Everyone knew everyone else and, to some degree or other, fit in.

My grandfather is long gone now and I’m not far from being the same age he was when I worked with him in those long ago summer months. How the years fly!

Then the wind suddenly gusted in the new leaves of the old maple, the finch ceased its song mid-verse, and I found myself back in my own garden in a different century.

I had three heavy bricks of granite to deal with, and I wondered what use that man of stone, Thomas Hughes, would have put them to.