Tuesday 26 December 2023


The first wave arrived home around December 15th and contained many seasoned “deep-sea” sailors. My father was often among them, suntanned from the long South American run down to Buenos Aires.

Wexford would immediately come alive, Christmas lights seemed to sparkle brighter, while laughter and shouted greetings ricocheted down the narrow streets.

And every day the excitement grew as the boat train from London deposited boisterous young emigrants from Cricklewood, Kilburn, and a host of other Irish enclaves.

They strutted around in the latest fashions, the men in their tailored suits, Windsor-knotted ties, and Brylcreemed hair, the women coiffed and radiant as Marilyn, Ava, or Sophia at the Saturday night pictures; everyone in a rush to make an impression, for in less than a week they’d be back in London “digs” at the mercy of landladies, and slaving in factories where the locals called them Paddy, no matter what their names.

Such was my childhood Christmas in the emigrant 1950’s and early 1960’s.


In many ways Wexford was an ideal sized town – around 12,000 people back then. You knew most people, at least by sight. Everyone nodded their recognition; older men still raised their hats to ladies, and it was a rare person who didn’t formally salute the clergy. 

The vast majority of us were Catholics, the churches crowded with daily communicants, while organizations like The Legion of Mary, The Third Order of St. Francis, and The Holy Family Confraternity flourished.

Our three large churches outdid themselves during Advent, with laurel and holly branches bringing life to altars, pulpits, pillars, and dusty stations of the cross.

One might think that the young emigrants, exiled 50 weeks of the year in heathen England, would sleep in of a morning, but no, they displayed the same universal faith, even arriving well-oiled from the pubs to the lustrous Christmas Eve midnight mass.

The Catholic Church may have had scandalous time-bombs ticking that would explode in the following 50 years, but it provided a regal unity for my childhood Christmases.

Each church boasted impressive choirs, and since we were all versed in Gregorian Chant the old buildings throbbed with a mystical fervor when hundreds of voices joined together in hymn and carol.

On Christmas Eve, Wexford’s long and winding Main Street would be jammed with crowds of all ages eager to see and be seen. In a rare break with class convention, black-faced John Wilson, the coal-delivery man was allowed to treat his big dray horse to a pint of Guinness in the exclusive bar of Whites Hotel.

We were blissfully unaware that this was the last gasp before television sucked much of the social life out of Irish towns. Nor was there an Amazon to provide gifts through the click of a computer; instead, we forked over hard-earned savings at family-owned shops, all the time praying that the presents we’d been eyeing for months would still be available.

The pubs were packed, and the happy hum of men’s voices could be heard from within. Few single women frequented licensed premises back then, reputations were valuable; while married women were already safely at home preparing for Santa’s annual visit.

Christmas Day was devoted to family, and after mass very few ventured outside. Christmas dinner began around 2pm and would stretch into the evening, with much reminiscence, a song or two, or a recitation in front of a drowsy fireplace.

St. Stephen’s Day, however, exploded with goodwill and welcome visits. Those with access to a car would travel into the countryside to witness the local hunts, when the remaining, red-coated gentry, and Fine Gael farmers with social aspirations, would ride off in search of the wily fox.

All single people attended the riotous St. Stephen’s night dances in parish halls and hotel ballrooms where mistletoe and romance hung in the air. There was a party or reunion to occupy every night up to New Year’s Eve.

But the emigrants were already packing their bags, and with tears flowing from drink taken, they jammed the railway station while awaiting the boat train.

Summer holidays seemed an eternity away, and London, landlady, and factory were calling, with only memories to help stave off the loneliness.

Those memories would eventually become my own reality, though I chose New York rather than London, as I look back on a child’s Christmas in Wexford.

Sunday 10 December 2023



It was one of those moments you remember forever. 


I was standing stage-side at London’s Brixton Academy with Frank Murray, manager of The Pogues, Steve Lillywhite, their producer, and Joe Strummer.


Black 47 had opened for The Pogues at their 1990 Christmas Show and now Lillywhite’s wife, Kirsty MacColl, was singing Fairytale of New York with Shane MacGowan.


The lights were low, just one spot on the couple as a mirror-ball cascaded above them. The lyrics weren’t as familiar then, and I followed the story intently.


On the heartfelt instrumental outro, Shane and Kirsty waltzed for a few bars, smiling tenderly at each other - they had scored a knockout. It’s not an easy song to perform, and they had been uncertain of the timing during the sound check.


It was the best I ever heard Shane sing – before or after. I wondered if my three companions felt the same, they were much more familiar with his performances. While Lillywhite rushed off to kiss his wife, Murray, Strummer, and I stood there silently, unwilling to allow the magic to fade away.


That moment flashed through my mind when I heard Shane had died. Strummer, Murray, and MacColl have long passed on. Rock ‘n’ Roll is an unforgiving business.


It might sound like heresy, but Shane MacGowan was never cut out for it. You need your wits about you and some modicum of balance to survive its crazy demands.


I was familiar with boys like Shane, many Wexford families had cousins sent home for the summer, their Irish-born parents afraid they’d run wild on the streets of London.


Meeting him was like a flashback – an Irish face masked by a thick working-class English accent. With one difference, Shane was a poet. His speech might have been slurred, but you only had to read his lyrics to realize that his line stretched back through James Clarence Mangan to Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna.


Shane might have seemed anarchistic – and he was in life and often in performance – but he polished his lyrics until they were smooth as old paving stones. That’s why they were often as concise and mellifluous as traditional songs. 


He was also an excellent melody writer, something often overlooked; sure, he sometimes strayed into traditional tunes, but you only do that when you’re confident your own lines won’t suffer in comparison.


He once told me he was a traditionalist and only wished to add to the tradition, not advance it, as others of us have sought to do.


He was well read, and one late night in a bar he elaborated on an idea he had for a story with roots in Ireland’s Civil War. He was very interested in Frank Ryan, the Irish Republican/Spanish Civil War veteran who died in Germany during WW2. 


How many people even heard of Frank Ryan before Shane included him in his classic Sick Bed of Cúchulainn?


But Shane was a punk too, with little respect for the music business, or its attendant media.


By the late 1980’s, the once Punky Pogues had, of necessity, become part of the music business; and as you get more successful and popular you need to be perennially on the road to make a living and stay ahead of the costs. It’s just the nature of the game.


In those last years with The Pogues Shane was a sick man. Too many people depended on him, and the road had worn him down, as it does everyone, except the cosseted and the cautious.


Booze is free, and everything else is available. Shane should have been at home by a turf fire in Tipperary, safeguarded by friends and family. There he could have wrestled contentedly with his poetry and emerged occasionally for live appearances. But truth be told, that’s just another fairytale – life in the fast lane is addictive and never that simple.


Shane was an original, a bit like Hendrix, Jim Morrison, or Brendan Behan; he had an idea, and he bludgeoned his way through dumb convention to achieve it. Getting his songs right meant the world to him; all else was incidental.


He’s gone now, his best creative years long behind him, but I’ll always treasure the gift he bestowed on me when he and Kirsty MacColl nailed Fairytale of New York at Brixton Academy all those years ago. Thanks, man, and farewell.

Friday 1 December 2023


 There were bars, and there were bars, and then there was The Village Pub. It perched atop Bainbridge Avenue in The Bronx. It was a small place owned by a big man, John Flynn, who passed away last month. The world is a smaller place without him.

I’m not sure when The Village opened but it was in business in the late 1970’s when Durty Nelly’s and The Wagon Wheel were still going strong, over in the Kingsbridge area.

As Kingsbridge faded, the Irish center of gravity shifted to the Bainbridge and 204thStreet area. Pubs sprang up like mushrooms. It was the era of the “new Irish” – so many people were fleeing the old country that the joke was “last one out turn off the lights.”

Same old story, Ireland could not support its population, but added to this new Diaspora from the Republic were thousands from the British Army occupied “North.”

Many of the new Irish were undocumented, they worked off-the-books on building sites and as nannies in Manhattan, they were flush in this cash economy, and they were all welcome on Braindamage Avenue, as it was often called.

The Village was part of that scene, and yet it stood apart too, mainly because John was Irish-American to the core, born in The Bronx.

I once heard that his family was the last Irish to move from their block in the South Bronx. It made sense, for John was like an old time hero out of a Western movie, a man onto himself.

And yet he had a twinkle in his eye. When John was in the house and in good form, which was almost always, the room rocked with good times.

The Village was not an easy place to leave, no matter what time of night or morning – you always had the feeling that you might be missing something – someone might arrive that would raise the craic even beyond its normal fever-pitch level.

John was different than most bar proprietors, he actually liked music and was choosy about who he booked. He had a firm belief in his own taste – if he liked it, he felt that anyone with half a brain would too.

He didn’t care for background music. He wanted his clientele to get caught up in the songs and the performance.

It was a treat to play for him. In the middle of the third set he would approach Pierce Turner and myself, his eyes flashing, and exhort us to “now really let it rip!”

One night we came up with a 12-minute rock deconstruction of The Foggy Dew replete with synthesizer and slide guitar solos. I heard a taped version of it recently and wondered how we got away with something so extreme in an Irish bar. Then I remembered it was because of Mr. Flynn pushing the envelope on another wild night in the Village.

John had a unique love for musicians. I remember one night seeing Morning Star play to a full house in the Village. John was beaming with pride and leading the audience in applause.

On another rapturous evening he confided in me that Gabriel Donohue, then onstage, was “the best pound-for-pound musician in The Bronx.” The guy should have been a rock critic.

It was common knowledge that he was always good for a loan, even to people who had let him down previously. I know he shifted bookings a number of times to help Pierce Turner & me pay back rent.

I thought the Bainbridge scene would last forever, but a recession turned the early 90’s upside down; soon after the Celtic Tiger boomed and the New Irish returned home in droves.

The lights dimmed on the avenue, and John reluctantly had to let Black 47 go. There were no hard feelings, I would have done the same – we were upsetting the remains of his diminishing clientele.

I lost touch with John, as happens when a venue closes, but I never forgot the man or the scene he created. I think I can speak for many musicians: John Flynn made a difference, for he encouraged us all to be the best we could be.

“One o’clock, two o’clock give us a chance

All we wanta do is be rockin’ the Bronx!”

John gave us a stage. And, night after night, we rocked that joint!

Tuesday 14 November 2023


 Because I host Celtic Crush on SiriusXM, I’m occasionally asked about the state of the arts nowadays.

Well, Broadway has yet to fully recover from the Covid crisis – it’s a rare night, tickets are not available for the “big” shows, while many new productions are failing to gain traction.

Most likely this is because the theatre demographic tends to be older, and many are still steering clear of enclosed spaces.

As for live music, let’s put it this way, a band like Black 47 couldn’t exist today. While the audience might still be there, many venues are gone, making touring an unprofitable venture.

Another reason is that people now stream songs (a financial disaster for practically all musicians) rather than buy CDs (a band’s biggest profit maker).

Much the same conditions exist in Ireland, except that the government provided some financial support to professional musicians during lockdown. Perhaps, this helped the local music industry to get back on its feet quicker.

It could also be the pub culture, the booming economy, or the simple need to get out of overcrowded, expensive apartments, but many venues are doing decently; not to mention, there’s a lot of distinctive, original music emerging from Ireland in these recently roaring 20’s.

It’s a rare week that I don’t get a couple of excellent new Irish tracks pinging their way on to my laptop – much of it from women. Let me tell you about a few of them.

Lisa O’Neill comes instantly to mind. Now some might say that this talented lady has lifted her voice and persona from the late great Margaret Barry, but it didn’t do Bob Dylan any harm that he co-opted Woody Guthrie.

There’s something eerily beautiful about the Cavan woman’s songs. Try Goodnight World from her latest All of This Is Chance album. I have to admit that I cried the first time I heard this lovely song – I don’t know why. Give it the tears test yourself.

For something totally different, how about Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson, also known as CMAT. This Dublin native, by way of County Meath, is a knockout.

I don’t even know how to describe her music except that her first single Another Day (KFC) might fit a campy Country scene - how about a cross between Patsy Cline and the B52’s? And yes, you’re correct, KFC stands for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Suffice it to say that CMAT recognizes few boundaries on her recently released CD, Crazymad For Me. She writes about lost love, abusive relationships and longed-for weight loss, and I have little doubt she’ll be an international star someday soon.

Two powerful and innovative bands rooted in tradition are Lankum and Jiggy. (By the way, Dan Neely’s weekly Irish Echo column is an outstanding resource for those interested in new and classic Traditional Irish Music).

Radie Peat fronts Lankum, originally known as Lynched. She’s a mesmerizing and authoritative singer and multi-instrumentalist; then again, Lankum may be the premier Irish band of the last 10 years, they continue to impress and progress with every recording. Listen to their majestic The Young People – it will transport you to places forgotten but achingly familiar.

Jiggy’s roots may be in traditional music but their mix is spiced with world beats and modern dance grooves. More a collective than a band, they are often a savior when I’m assembling Celtic Crush sets; though utterly distinctive, their tracks mix and meld easily with any other music of quality.

Aoife Kelly’s haunting voice and fiddle permeate Jiggy’s addictive sound.  Do yourself a favor, and savor Silent Place on YouTube, with over 35 million views it has become an international phenomenon. 

I hate to leave The Mary Wallopers until last. Perhaps the most invigorating Irish band since Shane’s Pogue Mahones, with their County Louth accents to the fore, they are Culchie Rock at its finest.

The terror of all fey folksingers, try standing still to The Frost Is All Over. Politically correct the Wallopers are not, their humor knows few bounds, and yet they’re subtly indicative of a newfound Irish self-confidence.

But do all these artists a favor. They make at best $0.005 per stream on Spotify, however, if you download a track (which you’ll then own) they can clear $0.80.

Do the math. Support musicians. Wall Street will survive without you!

Saturday 4 November 2023


If you don’t know Belfast, you don’t really know Ireland.

That thought always strikes me as I’m departing from Ireland’s second largest city. Through thick and thin, I’ve never lost my fascination with the place.

With the exception of the border counties, few people from the Republic of Ireland visited “The North” in my youth.

It was the odd diversity of the city that fired my imagination. In Wexford pretty much everyone was Catholic. In Belfast I couldn’t even begin to count the number of sects, churches, kirks, and Pentecostal meeting halls that dotted the city.

Then again, I was just a visitor with little experience of the brooding sectarianism that periodically erupted in the state of Northern Ireland. Still, Yeats’ line  “Great hatred, little room, maimed us at the start” often resonated when one crossed over the border.

But I also instinctively recognized that if there were ever to be a united Ireland the seed would spring from Belfast’s stony streets.

Though it’s unlikely to happen in my lifetime, yet I often wonder what such a union would be like?

While in the Crown Bar on Great Victoria Street some weeks back, I felt I finally got a glimpse of it: a full pub rocking to a hundred conversations – some even political - and little evidence of any divide between the revelers.

There’s an overall sophistication and a to-hell-with-it attitude in Belfast nowadays. I suppose it comes from foreign travel, Internet access, and the passage of 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

People just don’t have a lot of time for division anymore. Life has accelerated, especially on the red brick, back streets where friction and memories of past hurts used to fester on damp and rainy nights.

There are still problems, an ongoing lack of a representative government, along with a Legacy Bill passed by an out-of-touch Conservative British government that outrages both communities.

The clientele of The Crown seemed more consumed with rugby and romance, with occasional gripes heard about better health care, education and economic opportunity – much the same as in every other country.

I accompany a tour group around Ireland annually - with a visit to Belfast every second year.

Before we even check into the ever-welcoming Europa (once Europe’s most bombed hotel) we make a stop for lunch at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, an Irish language community center in the heart of the Belfast Gaeltacht.

It’s a unique cultural establishment and it tends to ground our North American visitors before we undertake a political tour escorted by ex-combatants from each community.

As you might imagine, these gentlemen give their unvarnished opinions about the origins of the conflict, their parts in it, and their hopes and fears for the future.

No book I’ve read, or speech I’ve heard, compares to the raw impact of their thoughts. These tours around West Belfast, and in particular the Falls and Shankill Roads are provided by Coiste www.coiste.ieand are not to be missed if you want to get to the heart of Ireland and its troubled history.

Politics aside, Belfast is about the people, their humor, grace, and ability to pick themselves up and bounce back – no matter all the sledgehammer blows they’ve received.

That goes for their musicians too. From the first time I heard Them, with a teenage Van Morrison singing the Blues like he came from Mississippi rather than Hyndford Street, I was hooked.

How wonderful then to meet the legendary Terri Hooley once again. He’s the subject of the must-see film Good Vibrations, and the musical of the same name that originated at the Lyric Theatre and recently played New York’s Irish Arts Center.

Terri, the effervescent Greg Cowan of The Outcasts, my old friend Aidan Murtagh of Protex, and Stuart Bailie whose book Trouble Songs is a classic, not only charmed my group of 90, they allowed them an X-Ray view into Belfast’s lyrical, if stormy, soul.

20thCentury Punk – its ideals and foibles - was resurrected in the Piano Lounge of the Europa that night. But then, it had never really died, had it? Long life to you Belfast and your devotion to music!

Make sure you visit - if you really want to know Ireland. 

Friday 20 October 2023


 I had seen him at a number of gigs in The Bronx. He always sat at the bar, up by the stage, where he could take in everything, but not necessarily be associated with us.

I was playing with Turner & Kirwan of Wexford back then, it must have been the late 1970’s.

We had a regular Sunday afternoon gig at the Archway, courtesy of Manager Sean Lynch, where we could cut loose and play lengthy tracks like Traveling People and Father Reilly Says Goodbye from our album Absolutely and Completely.

We drew our own crowd to those gigs. But this was different. We were playing a midweek night, filling in for Dermie Mac, Gerry Finlay, or one of the other accomplished showband-like groups that the Archway clientele longed for.

To be blunt, we weren’t cutting it. The crowd that remained after enduring a couple of our sets had long stopped dancing.

It wasn’t that we didn’t try, we gave it our best - three jives, three slows, with some old time waltzes tossed in - but our hearts weren’t in it.  

We’d crossed over to the dark side - playing all original music down in the Village. Besides Alison Steele on WNEW-FM was raving about us, and wondering what part of heaven we’d dropped down from?

Still, there was only one set to go when I sat down next to the guy who had been eyeing us.

He ordered a Heineken and Jameson’s and shoved them in my direction.

“I bought your album last week and must have played it 10 times by now.” He stated, without the least enthusiasm.

I stole a look at him to make sure he wasn’t a total lunatic. He seemed harmless enough, so I shrugged as if such praise was common.

“Yez have got a lot better,” he added. “Jaysus, yez were fierce bad at first.”

Such observations are hard to put a spin on, so I held my peace and took a slug of the Heineken. Late sets could be dispiriting, so I saved the Jameson’s for fortification.

“How long are you over here now, about seven years, right?”

He had hit the nail on the head, but after his earlier “fierce bad” remark, I didn’t want to give him any satisfaction.

“You know that means you’re never going back,” he took a sip from his Budweiser.

“How so?” He had piqued my interest.

“No one goes back after seven years, unless you have a young wan waiting for you. And that’s hardly the case, is it?”

When I didn’t answer he looked me in the face for the first time and nodded. “You and me are the exact same.”

To my mind we had sweet damn all in common, but he barged ahead. “You and me are neither here nor there. We don’t fit in here and we’ll never fit in at home again.”

At that point Pierce Turner coughed into his microphone to signal that our third set was about to begin.

“I’ll remember that,” I called back to him as I mounted the stage, taking care not to spill the Jameson’s.

“I know you will.” He said. And he was right.

I never saw him again, but I can summon him up at will, though The Archway and Turner & Kirwan of Wexford have long gone.

He was talking about the emigrant’s curse. After 7 years you’ve replaced Manchester United with the Mets. It’s not that you don’t still support the red devils, it’s just that you don’t know the new players, and unless you’re a fanatic you don’t go down the pub early on weekend mornings to get soused and watch the games.

Meanwhile, the “young wan” you left behind has married someone else. And you’ve been talking to your American girlfriend about saving for a house and a family.

Oh, you still cause a great commotion when you do go home, but you don’t go for Christmas anymore; besides, there comes that day when both parents have passed on, and the house or farm has been sold.

You’ve settled down, made all the right decisions and, for the most part, you’re contented with life; but you notice that you often slip beyond the thread of friendly conversation to that solitary place where you are indeed - neither here nor there.

Wednesday 4 October 2023


 In a recent Irish poll, Luke Kelly was voted “the best representative of Irish heritage.” 

What a distinction for this son of inner city Dublin who left school at 13, and eventually took the emigrant boat to England in the dismal 1950’s.

But then Luke, by his early 20’s, was a local legend long before he gained fame internationally as singer/banjoist with The Dubliners.

I had the good fortune to come under his influence early on. As a callow youth, I came second in a talent competition held during the Wexford Opera Festival. The Dubliners were playing a week’s residency at the same venue, so I got to watch them nightly from side stage.

Luke and Ronnie Drew shared lead vocals during these stunning gigs. Every act that visited Wexford in those days “performed.” The Dubliners, instead, straggled onstage and captivated the audience with their songs and naked charisma. They left an indelible mark on the town.

In 1967 the Fleadh Cheoil was held in nearby Enniscorthy. On the closing Sunday evening thousands gathered in the old Town Square.

Traditional heads were hammering out jigs and reels to beat the band when a hush descended on the square as whispered word was passed around that Luke Kelly was about to sing. There was a silent surge forward and some sturdy GAA men took it upon themselves to act as stewards.

From out of nowhere Luke appeared, his head of red curls flashing in the sunset. He carefully removed his banjo from its case, and a bottle of Baby Powers from his back pocket. Then he was hoisted up on the roof of a car and stood there swaying until he gained his balance.

He took a healthy swig of the whiskey and passed the bottle down to a friend with a nod and a wink.

Some idiot broke the silence and was immediately shushed by a multitude of angry listeners. Luke didn’t even seem to notice. Then he began to sing to the accompaniment of his banjo, and his voice ricocheted across the sacred square where Pikemen had routed the English 169 years previously.

His first song was The Leaving of Liverpool. But when the chorus arrived, no one joined him on “So fare thee well, my own true love, and when I return united we will be…”

We had no wish to hear ourselves; we wanted to drink in this redheaded seanchaíwho had packed so much living into his 27 years.

He seemed surprised but seized the moment and sang another half-dozen songs, one as revealing as the other. On that evening he was the working class hero that John Lennon longed all his life to be.

What was so striking about Luke? Well, he was the man for that moment in the “summer of love.” The gangly Dublin kid who had endured the hard knocks of class-conscious Catholic Ireland came into his own in the heathen pubs and folk clubs of Northern England.

He came under the influence of proletarian intellectuals like Ewan McColl and Dominic Behan. They raised his political consciousness and taught him how to sing songs without frills or adornment, songs with a message that would soon pierce the hearts of a generation.

For Luke had that rare gift that I’ve only experienced from two other performers, Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen – no matter the size of his audience, he was singing to just you alone.

The Dubliners were a groundbreaking band. They liberated their audiences by sweeping away the vestiges of British colonialism and Irish conservatism in a wave of innovation, braggadocio, and musicality.

As time went on, however, the moments of silence became rarer and Luke seemed to retreat into himself. He’d no sooner begin one of his gems than the crowd would join him in full throat. There were times he appeared disconnected, almost disinterested.

Booze, late nights, and constant travel wear everyone down unless there’s something to look forward to. His health suffered and eventually collapsed. He was only 43 when Dublin came to a standstill for his funeral.

His music lives on though, his clear rugged voice still cuts through speakers and AirPods, and I’ll never forget that evening in Enniscorthy Town Square when he silenced every whisper and set the heather blazing.

Thursday 21 September 2023


 The ospreys are gone. They left in the weeks after Labor Day. 

When they get the call – genetic or atmospheric - they don’t delay, it’s a long way to Central America.

The male goes first, soon after the female follows, sometimes accompanied by her grown chicks, although the young ospreys seem to know the route and destination regardless.

Ospreys mate for life but they travel separately. The male arrives in Connecticut coastal areas soon after St. Patrick’s Day.

Having secured last year’s nest, he will fish just enough for personal sustenance. Mamma will arrive in a week or so, and dictate just how she wants the nest to look and feel; she doesn’t hesitate to discard any twig or other building material the male may offer, if not to her liking.

After mating she will take to the nest and lay up to 3 eggs. Poppa’s hard slog then begins. He must feed her, and himself, and as soon as the eggs are hatched, he is the main provider for roughly 50 days until the young can hunt successfully.

July and August are a treat for those who pay close attention. Where once the male dived alone, now the full family of 5 (if they’ve survived predators or illness) display their skills, swooping down on unsuspecting fish.

The first days of hunting for the young provide moments of hilarity, as a swift, seemingly confident dive may lead to an ungainly belly flop. But they learn quickly, out on the placid Long Island Sound.

There’s a clock ticking down to Labor Day. The young have a flight of thousands of miles ahead. Do they have any notion of this, or is it something genetic that drives them on to their winter home in Central America.

I’ve been watching ospreys for some time. I began soon after 9/11 – I guess that event caused many people to take stock of their surroundings. At first, sightings were rare, but around 2015 - the first summer after Black 47 disbanded - I noticed a jump in their numbers.

I was working on a novel then and making slow progress. Novels are hard to write and the work is draining. I began rising at 6am, and took solace in looking up from my laptop every few minutes for sight of the male as he circled the bay, pausing as hawks do in mid-air to scan the waters below.

I began to synchronize with him. If he dove and succeeded in clawing a fish, then I’d get a rush of adrenalin and finish a difficult sentence or paragraph. He failed often that first month, as did I. But as the summer wore on we both improved.

It took 3 summers of synchronizing with the male before I finished Rockaway Blue.

He returned the following spring in those first awful weeks of the pandemic. He seemed unfazed by all our fears and paranoia.

I wouldn’t say ospreys are methodical, they’re far too skillful and opportunistic, but there was work to be done, and my old friend set about it in his usual driven manner.

I followed his example, as best I could, and began All The Rage, a musical about the Rock ‘n’ Roll life in the East Village, the score of which I finally recorded last week.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t make it back this year, the male who now rules the roost in these waters has stripes on his belly, whereas my co-worker’s under-plumage was white as snow.

I mourned him for a while, but then rationalized that the new male is the son of my old friend, and life must go on.

I had been saving a project called Rebel Girl for the return of the ospreys in late March. It’s the story of the firebrand labor activist, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She was from The Bronx and gave her first public speech for workers rights when she was 15.

So, when mourning was over, I dove in. Stripe Belly has more energy than my old friend. I hadn’t noticed that he’d gotten slower with age.

Anyway, my young associate suits the drama and drive of Ms. Flynn, the songs and story already have an odd vibrancy. Hopefully, I’ll have the project ready for the long final polishing by the time my new friend returns in the spring.

Wednesday 6 September 2023


I often take a train to New Haven nowadays, and since I find trains very relaxing I invariably feel drowsy as we pull out of Grand Central Station.

Nonetheless, I always awaken as we chug by Woodlawn Cemetery. Miles Davis lies within and I fantasize that the “coolest man in the universe,” gently rouses me with a toot of his golden horn.

Truth be told though, I feel very at home around graveyards. And why wouldn’t I? My grandfather, Thomas Hughes, was a monumental sculptor.

He was a quiet man who had left school at 14 to be apprenticed to his father. When he was 18, Thomas left his native Carlow with a horse and car, a load of limestone, and drove the 50 miles to Wexford town where he set up shop.

Life was far from easy, but he married, raised a large family, and prospered. Some years after my grandmother died, I moved in “to keep him company.”

Parents would never part with their darlings nowadays, but Ireland was a different country back then.

I probably still have limestone dust in my lungs for I spent much time in his yard near Wexford Quay.

On Sunday afternoons, however, we usually took a leisurely drive through the countryside. We would always stop at a graveyard, and he would potter around until some statue or headstone caught his eye, and there he would stand riveted, for what seemed like hours.

It took many years before I realized that he was either figuring out how to create or improve on such a work. For he was an artist, though he had never taken a lesson. Whatever he knew he’d learned through observation and hands-on experience.

His allies were the traveling people who loved sumptuous memorials. He would stand in his draughty office surrounded by heartbroken families as they pored over pictures of ornate headstones and statues.

They always paid cash up front, but he willingly offered big discounts for the chance to carve something original.

When I was 15, I began working for him during summer vacations. Patron Days in cemeteries were held all through those weekends. Families wished their ancestral graves to be brought up-to-date and spruced to their best, with the names of recently deceased added, old headstones cleaned, and new ones erected.

My job was to mix cement, scour stones and kerbing, and make the tea. There was little rush, you could dream as you toiled; but most of all I loved the peace and quiet that came with the terrain.

I also loved my workmates. Tom Fortune was from “out the country,” while John Redmond was a townie from nearby Monck Street. Between them they had accrued much native wisdom, and when pushed would share it.

They were kind men who treated me as an adult, and I learned much from them about life, including how to maneuver a stick-shift truck. They were both at ease with the world and content with their occupation, for it saved them from the scourge of loneliness in emigrant London.

One memory still causes a chuckle. We were sent to erect a headstone in a small overgrown graveyard up near Gorey. The person who had ordered the job failed to show.

However, there was a fairly recently dug grave situated in the general area where we had been instructed to put up the headstone.

It was a routine job and we took our time, savoring the lovely August day. In the late afternoon we departed for home with the contented feeling of another job well done.

All hell, however, broke loose the following morning for we had raised the headstone over the wrong grave, and to add insult to injury there had been bad blood of long standing between the two aggrieved families.

We rushed back out into a local cold war, and with much difficulty dislodged the headstone and kerbing; we then cleaned up the ravaged grave area as best we could under the stony gaze of the offended family.

The sun was going down as we erected the headstone over the proper grave, amid the muttered taunts and criticisms of the other hostile clan.

It made for a long, difficult day, but such is life, death, and bad blood in a country graveyard. We could have used a couple of soothing toots from Miles Davis’s golden horn. 

Monday 28 August 2023

The Curse of the Subways

At an out-of-state wedding recently, I fell into conversation with a cheerful gentleman whom I didn’t know from Adam, or Eve for that matter.

Upon hearing that I was from New York City he inquired if the subways were as bad as ever.

I replied that they were quite pleasant nowadays, and compared to the 1970’s the experience was comparable to traveling first class on the Orient Express.

 “That’s hardly likely.” He declared.

“Why not?” I rose to the challenge.

“Because on the news every night, it’s one thing after another, murders, robberies, all manner of mayhem.”

“What channel do you watch?”

“Fox,” he smiled, “like any sane person!”

I began to look for an exit, but it was four deep at the bar, besides my drink was barely dented.

“Listen,” said I, cornered but unbowed, “I’ve never seen as many cops on the trains or in the stations since this new mayor got in.”

“You support that lunatic?”

I wasn’t sure if I did, but Hizzoner Eric Adams had made a promise to make the subways safer, and in my book, at least, he’d kept it.

From there the conversation degenerated, culminating in an exchange of views on a certain Republican presidential candidate.  Who knows what would have transpired if the bride and groom hadn’t been called upon to hit the boards for their first wedded dance.

And there we left it, after shaking hands graciously, but this chance clash of opinions got me thinking.

I occasionally take a taxi or an Uber, but like most New Yorkers I’m a subway rider.

Why?  Because they run frequently, 24/7, pretty much on time, are relatively inexpensive and safe. 

With a 0 .0001% chance of any violence being visited upon you, you’re more likely to get hit by a cyclist or car on the city’s streets.

That being said, there are certain rules to be followed, including always keep your eyes peeled – although you’re not in Columbus, OH where violent crime per capita is higher, there is always a need to be vigilant in New York.

Stand with your back to a wall, if possible, and do not approach the yellow border next to the tracks – the train won’t come any quicker because you lean over to check its progress.

Don’t stand in clumps - keep the walkway open. And above all, be courteous. New Yorkers value manners.

There are still some homeless people who ride the subways, although the numbers have greatly decreased. Respect them. There go you but for good fortune.

As always, New York is in flux, rents are high, the poor are finding it harder to get by, and there is great income disparity.

Still, for the most part, our citizenry coexists peacefully, it’s hard to find a more friendly city, and I’ve been way lonelier in many a small town.

The curse of the NYC subways - and the city in general - is the rise of ear-buds, earphones, and the like.

We live in a very violent country that boasts more guns than people.  And although shootings are down 26% in our city in the last year, you still should be aware of anyone approaching you from behind, and that’s unlikely with Taylor Swift massaging your eardrums.

Why anyone would want to program their own soundtrack is baffling anyway. There’s a rhythm and a beat to New York unique to the city. It’s why Bob Dylan, Henry Miller, Miles Davis, Edward Hopper, Joey Ramone, Walt Whitman, LL Cool J, and so many others lived and worked here.

None of them wore ear-buds above or below ground. They moved to the tempo of Gotham like millions of the rest of us. They watched, listened, and sidestepped to let their fellow citizens hurry past.

They avoided becoming part of that almost non-existent 0.001% that have been victimized on our streets or subways; of course, you’d never know this from watching, listening to or reading the sensationalist media outlets that exult in misfortune in order to sell advertisements or mold political views.

Brendan Behan hit the nail on the head with his observation that New York City “is a place where you’re least likely to be bitten by a wild goat.”

Should I ever run into my wedding acquaintance again I’ll mention this to him. Perhaps, he’ll come visit.

Wednesday 9 August 2023


 Maggie Higgins may have been the most consequential American woman. When it comes to the change she wrought, they don’t come much more important than Margaret Louise Higgins.

She was born in Corning, NY in 1879 to Irish immigrant parents. Her father, Michael Higgins, a free thinker and atheist, was a headstone maker who specialized in sculpting angels.

Maggie’s mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, married Michael in 1869. Both parents had an enormous influence on their daughter – Anne in particular, for in 22 years she conceived 18 times with 11 children surviving.

After a married life of almost constant pregnancy and near poverty, Anne passed away at the age of 49 from tuberculosis.

For some years after, Maggie tended to her brothers and sisters, and domestic duties in the Higgins household. But eventually she rebelled and set out to do her life’s work as a birth control activist. We know her now as Margaret Sanger.

She became a nurse probationer at White Plains Hospital. At that time, according to Maggie, doctors tended to keep business hours at hospitals, so during the night nurses were forced to make vital decisions about the health of their patients.

She specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. Women’s lack of knowledge of their own bodies due to church teaching and social convention astounded her.

Precocious and independent, her midwifery skills became well known and she was often asked by grateful patients how they could delay further pregnancies.

Doctors rarely gave such advice, for the Comstock Law of 1873 defined contraception as obscene and illicit; besides most Christian churches railed against it.

Maggie might have continued her nursing career to quiet and local acclaim, but two events set her on a different track. She contracted tuberculosis, the curse of the Higgins family, and she came to the attention of William Sanger, an aspiring architect and artist.

With her auburn hair and vivacious personality Maggie would remain attractive to men all her long life. Sanger was no exception and he fell head over heels in love with this young Irish nurse.

Jewish-Irish marriages were rare in those days but Maggie had long before rebelled against the dictates of the Catholic Church. The two settled in their dream house that Sanger designed and constructed in Hastings-on-Hudson.

Despite her tuberculosis Margaret Sanger had 3 children with her husband.

William Sanger was an active member of the Socialist Party and Margaret threw herself into political activity.

One cold winter’s night, a fire from an overheated stove burned down their home. Sanger rebuilt the house but Margaret’s suburban dream was over; she moved her family to an apartment in Manhattan and began socializing in Greenwich Village with such characters as Jack Reed, the subject of Reds, and Emma Goldman.

In a city jammed with immigrants she found much work as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side and was horrified by the poverty, lack of any sex education, and the drastically high death rate among the newborn.

She became a member of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) and along with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn led the successful Bread & Roses campaign for a living wage and better conditions for the textile workers in Lawrence, MA.

But she never lost sight of the fact that working families could not prosper unless pregnancy could be regulated. She did not believe in abortion (except in a medical emergency).

In 1916 she and her sister, Ethel Byrne, opened the first family planning and birth control clinic in Brooklyn. When they were arrested Ethel went on hunger strike and became the first woman striker to be force fed in the US.

Due to the ongoing publicity and notoriety engendered by the case, Judge Frederick Crane in 1918 issued a ruling that allowed doctors to prescribe contraception.

Margaret Sanger overcame many obstacles in her life’s mission to make contraception available to all women, and in 1960 the FDA approved the sale of Enovid – the first hormonal birth control pill.

She died in 1966, a year after the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision to legalize birth control for married couples in the US.

On July 13th,2023 the FDA approved the first over-the-counter birth control pill that will allow all women and girls to buy contraceptives. Maggie Higgins’ impossible dream back in Corning is about to come true.

Monday 31 July 2023


 One night, while departing the stage in the late, lamented Village Pub in The Bronx, I was approached by a gentleman who remarked: “When all is said and done, Kirwan, you’re nothing more than a trumped up Wexford Teddy Boy.”

Since slagging was one of the main forms of communication in Irish immigrant circles, and my admirer was about a foot taller than me, I didn’t dwell on the matter.

This would have been back in the late 1980’s. I was between bands and had taken to singing old rock ‘n’ roll songs for my bread and butter.

I was wearing a skinny black leather tie, pointed red shoes, with a dab of Brylcreem to grease back my hair. In truth, the slagger wasn’t far off the mark - I was attempting a bit of a Ted look.

Who were these Teddy Boys and how had their influence spread to the wilds of the North Bronx 30 years after their European heyday?

They first came to prominence in London in the 1950’s when working-class youth, tired of post-World War II rationing and deprivation, adopted long Edwardian style suit jackets, commonly known as drapes.

Sick of the all-pervasive, dowdy black suits, they wore these drapes in rich red or blue colors, over drainpipe trousers, bright shirts, skinny ties, suede shoes, and lime-green socks.

In those gloomy days Ireland’s greatest export was, as ever, its people, and it was a rare Wexford teenager who didn’t spend a year or two knocking London down and rebuilding it.

The more stylish of these emigrants were known to strut their Teddy Boy threads on Wexford’s Main Street during Christmas and summer vacations.

Sensing an opportunity, the enterprising Nolan family, introduced Wexford’s first jukebox to their recently opened ice cream parlor; the Teds stocked this magic machine with their favorite Rockabilly music, turned the volume up to 11, and a scene was born.

Their favorites were Elvis, Bill Haley, and Eddie Cochran – all three, oddly enough, with Irish roots. Added to these hell raisers were Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a rake of others, mostly Southern White boys ripping up and ripping off Black R&B music.

The local Garda Síochána were leery of these teenage rebels and their exaggerated jive dancing, but as long as they kept it within the confines of Nolan’s small premises and didn’t engage in any of the new-fangled juvenile delinquency, how bad could it be.

The only serious incident occurred when Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock film played at the local Capitol Cinema, where some ancient seats were demolished, and the audience took to jiving in the aisles.

Teds seem to have been a mostly East Coast phenomenon with sightings also in Dublin, Belfast and Ballymena, though it’s hard to believe that Cork, Limerick and Galway didn’t also have their stylish rebels.

The Teddy Boy era faded in the 1960’s when mass marketing began to dictate teen dress styles.

There was a moment when The Beatles might have stemmed the tide of banal commerciality. Take a look at their early pictures, John and George show their unmistakable Ted influences. Then Brian Epstein became manager and insisted upon those silly collarless suits.

What’s interesting about the Teds is that they designed a style all their own with the help of local tailors. They insisted upon individuality – at least at nights and weekends when free from their factory jobs. For once, men outshone ladies in the couture department.

I still see remnants of the look in Ireland, the drapes have long gone but tight black trousers persevere, albeit with a healthy paunch drooping over an exaggerated belt buckle.

Don’t look too closely though, the wearer, often in his 70’s, may give you the hairy eyeball from behind a fabulously greased grey quiff!

Such characters tend to stand at the bar with a faraway look in their eyes until Elvis, Eddie Cochran or Bill Haley sweep away whatever modern dross is polluting the radio or juke box.

Then all at once they jerk to attention, suck in their beer-bellies, and they’re ready to jive and kick out the jams again, just like they did in Nolan’s ice cream parlor all those Rockabilly, Teddy Boy years ago.