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.