Thursday, 28 July 2022

THE FORGOTTEN EMIGRANTS

 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.

Sunday, 3 July 2022

Rory Gallagher - A Man of Contradictions

 Rory Gallagher was a man of contradictions. Born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, he spoke with a soft Cork accent; the quietest man in the room, he was one of the great Blues belters. He lived for music, and in some ways he died for it.

It’s 50 years now since he released Live in Europe, arguably Rock’s greatest live album, and it’s 27 years to the month since he passed away.


Though a household name, most Irish people have never heard his music, for he was rarely played on popular radio lest he might singe the ears of god-fearing punters with his Blues based explorations. Yet he is one of the best known and revered Irish musicians and has sold over 30 million albums.


His peers were no less impressed by his raw talent, when asked what it was like to be the world’s greatest guitarist, Jimi Hendrix replied, “I wouldn’t know – ask Rory Gallagher.”


Meanwhile, Eric Clapton was so enamored of his playing he asked Rory’s band Taste to open for Cream at their legendary Royal Albert Hall final concert.


All heady stuff for a guy barely out of his teens who had grown up on the banks of the River Lee, far from the bluesy Mississippi Delta.


But then little Rory Gallagher, like wee Ivan Morrison, cut his musical teeth in a much-maligned Irish institution – the showband.


At the age of 15 Rory joined Cork’s Fontana Showband - the same age Van hooked up with The Monarchs from Belfast.


From personal experience I know that showband discipline tended to make or break musicians. Because of the presence of brass players you were expected to become adept in almost every key; and you played whatever was danceable in the Top Twenty, be it Pop, Rock, Ska, Country, Trad Jazz, you name it.


Rory came of age in The Fontana (later called The Impact), and learned about life while playing US army bases in Europe and the UK.


Two years later in Belfast he formed Taste, an explosive three-piece Blues Rock band managed by Eddie Kennedy who kept them on the road for four years in a battered Transit van, but blowing minds everywhere they went.


Their last major gig was at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival where before a massive crowd they gave Hendrix, The Who, and The Doors a run for their money, then promptly broke up.


The 22 year-old Corkman brought aboard Gerry McAvoy on bass, and Wilgar Campbell on drums, and with his brother Donal managing, Rory Gallagher set out to fulfill his dreams.


I went to see him whenever I could. Can you imagine what he meant to young Irish people still trapped in the dregs of √Čamon de Valera’s dated dreams?


With the North of Ireland going up in the smoke, we had little to cheer for, but we had Rory, and he was the best Blues Rock guitarist/singer in the universe.


Every year he came home and played a Christmas tour. Those gigs were beyond belief.


Rory shredded his sweat-stained guitar for hours on end, and it wasn’t just for himself; he was exhorting us to go beyond ourselves, to dream big, and make sure you at least came within an ass’s roar of those dreams.


After emigrating, I saw his every New York gig, from the Bottom Line to opening for Rod Stewart in arenas and demolishing him.


Rory gave every iota of himself onstage. Rodney just seemed to be having a bad night after the young Corkman had scorched his stage.


To get to the heart of Rory’s demise would take more than a column, suffice it to say, the road is a monster, sooner or later it forces you to confront your demons, and no one escapes without scars.


You’ll never get a chance to see Ireland’s greatest musician now, but you can still experience him.


The next time you’re feeling a little low play Rory’s Live in Europe album – it might be 50 years old but it will shake the cobwebs from your soul and bring a huge smile to your face, with only the hint of a tear when you conside what might have been.