Tuesday 31 January 2023

Terry Hall - a special Special

 Terry Hall passed away recently.

“Terry who?” You might say.

Perhaps, it would ring a bell were I to say Terry Hall, singer with The Specials?

Terry was never a household name, but 40 years ago The Specials shook things up in the UK. Then again, put a dance floor and a crowd in front of them, and it was hard to top The Specials.

They were leaders of the 2-Tone movement: bands with black and white members who favored pork-pie hats, two-tone Tonik suits, and blasted out a danceable mix of Jamaican Ska and English Punk.

Many of these outfits hailed from Midlands’ cities like Birmingham, Coventry, and Wolverhampton.

This bleak area had once been part of the industrial backbone of the UK, and provided decent jobs for workers and considerable earnings for the investing classes.

Such blessings were far removed from the inhabitants of British Commonwealth islands such as Jamaica and Trinidad, where per capita income was low and unemployment high.

But there was a silver lining. Back in the days before their countries gained independence - natives of Jamaica and Trinidad could claim domicile in the UK on account of their British Commonwealth citizenship.

In the 1950’s many moved to the Midlands where there was promise of work in car assembly plants and other light engineering factories.

The empire, as it were, came home to roost. The Caribbean people brought with them their music, and eventually those Harry Belafonte type island songs morphed into Jamaican Ska and Trinidadian Soca.

By the time Terry Hall was a boy these harder edged rhythms had sunk deep roots in the immigrant streets of industrialized Britain.

Around the same time, a gentleman who would later make a name for himself in the annals of Ulster Unionism, made a speech in Birmingham in 1968 where he declared himself full of foreboding… “I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

In essence, Enoch Powell was warning of the consequences of mass Commonwealth immigration to the United Kingdom.

Though Powell was consequently sacked from the shadow cabinet of the Conservative Party, the cat was out of the bag. What before had been whispered in kitchens and pubs was now spoken freely. A certain section of the lily-white British population wanted no more part of black and brown immigration.

Rising rates of unemployment did not help the national mood, especially when accompanied by strikes and labor unrest.

And then came the Punk explosion of 1976 with The Sex Pistols declaring “anarchy in the UK” and bemoaning “no future” in England.

Bono would later declare that all one needed was” three chords and the truth,” but three chords were more than enough to stir things up on the grimy streets of the Midlands.

Despite Powell’s right wing rantings the black and white youth of the Midlands had grown up together and learned through neglect and lack of opportunity that color is only skin deep.

They loved the Ska and Calypso music favored by their parents. Why not rev it up to Punk tempos?

Before you knew it, 2-Tone music had arrived allied to a similarly named record company that was willing to put promotional muscle behind it.

The beat was still rock steady but there was now a frantic danceable edge to it, curried by a sense of racial community. Who was interested in confronting cops and Conservatives on the street when you could skank the night away in clubs with your black and white sisters and brothers?

Eventually even Enoch Powell got the message and slunk off to his spiritual homeland in reactionary Ulster; meanwhile The Specials had a solid run of top ten hits, including, Gangsters, Ghost Town, and the still affecting A Message To You, Rudy. They didn’t need to over-emphasize political songs, their colors were nailed to the mast by the mixed hues of the band’s members.

Terry Hall went on to have a long musical career, though he wasn’t interested in celebrity or fame. Rather than cavort with super models, he preferred a quiet night at home “looking at the telly.” 


But, at a time of potential upheaval and racial divide, he and his crew ran Enoch Powell out of town, and prevented rivers of blood flowing in 2-Tone Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton.

Sunday 15 January 2023

Alexis Mac Allister and the route to Argentina


Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe may have been the brightest stars of the 2022 World Cup Final, but BBC Sports readers rated Argentina’s Alexis Mac Allister man of the match.


Remember him – the red-bearded midfielder who seemed to be everywhere during arguably the best World Cup final ever?


How did a man with obvious Irish roots end up playing for Argentina? It’s no mystery around Westmeath and Wexford. Up to 50,000 had fled these and other Leinster counties for Buenos Aires between 1830 and 1890, and it was not uncommon for their Spanish speaking descendents to return home on Irish “grand tours.”


There’s even a ballad called The Kilrane Boys that celebrates 12 young men from South County Wexford who left for Argentina on April 13, 1844. One of them, John Murphy, did so well the town of Murphy was named in his honor in Santa Fe Province. 


“Foul British laws are the whole cause of our going far away;
From the fruits of our hard labour they defraud us here each day…” the ballad states.


One of the quirks of Irish emigration to Argentina is that most of those taking that long voyage south possessed some money, thus tending to do well once they reached their destination.


They were mostly from farming stock and well used to working with cattle and sheep. Long lonely hours out on the pampas posed no problems to these Irish gauchos, and as land was cheap and fertile, they soon bought ranches and prospered.


They had been encouraged to try Argentina by their parish priests who were not admirers of the No Nothing, Protestant ruling elite that Irish immigrants had to contend with in the US. 


The clergy also had a say in practically choking the flow of Irish to Argentina in 1889 on account of the “Dresden Affair.” Over 1700 less well-to-do Irish had been recruited to a fraudulent immigration scheme and were transported on the City of Dresden SS to Buenos Aires. 


Many died on the voyage and those who survived were often sent to undeveloped areas where they were expected to find work and shelter for themselves.


Thomas Croke, the fiery Archbishop of Cashel, warned those thinking of emigrating, “if they value their happiness to never set foot in the Republic of Argentina.”


And so the flow ended, but a trickle of Wexford men still traveled there, mostly as merchant marines, for Argentina in the early to mid-20th Century was a major meat exporter.


That’s how my father came to know this vast country and the Irish people who raised cattle and sheep out on the pampas. He loved those mighty plains and enjoyed the hospitality of the descendents of the Wexford emigrants.


At a time when Ireland’s major export was people, he wanted to move our family to Buenos Aires. My mother, however, felt that she needed to stay in Wexford and help her recently widowed father run his business. 


But my father never lost his love for Argentina. He often supplied fine Wexford ash hurleys to the Buenos Aires Hurling Club. This was to lead to an incident during the Troubles when British customs officers sought to confiscate his stash of camáns fearing they were arms.


Did Margaret Thatcher suspect they might be used to repel the British invasion of Las Malvinas (Falkland Islands)?


I got my own opportunity to visit Argentina on a Black 47 tour in 2000. To our amazement we were booked into the Buenos Aires Opera House and got to stride the same boards as Pavarotti and Caruso.


Our gig in the city of Rosario (birthplace of Che Guevara Lynch) coincided with a national Irish convention - replete with a thatched cottage bar, and there I got to meet and mingle with the progeny of the 19th Century immigrants.


Many did not speak English, but there was no mistaking their genes as we drank Guinness, danced and sweated, our faces red from the blazing sun, and talked about “home.”


Some of them fondly remembered my father – the hombre with the hurleys; and in an odd way I felt a kinship with Alexis Mac Allister as I watched him triumph at the World Cup Final. Viva Argentina!