Friday 24 March 2023

The She-Trinity of Irish-American Radicalism

 Back in 1969 when Bernadette Devlin outraged conservative Irish-America with her socialist views and support for African-American civil rights, did she inspire memories of three women with similar convictions?


I often think of them as the she-trinity of Irish-American radicalism: Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (The Rebel Girl), and Margaret Sanger.


Though allies and sometimes friends, each ploughed their own furrow. Two things did unite them – a bedrock belief in the dignity of humanity, and membership of the Wobblies (International Workers of the World).


Mary G. Harris (Jones) emigrated from Cork to Canada in her early teens. She became a schoolteacher and took up a position in Michigan, but chafed under religious authority and quit.


In Memphis she married George Jones, an ironworker and union official, and raised a family with him. 


We would probably have heard no more of her if yellow fever hadn’t struck Memphis, killing Mr. Jones and their four young children.


Never speaking about her loss, she moved to Chicago where she started a successful dressmaking firm. But in 1871 the Great Fire destroyed much of her business.


This galvanized her and she threw herself into union activities; because of her militancy and courage when facing down bosses, militias, and strikebreaking thugs, she became known as “the most dangerous woman in America.”


When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was taken as a child to one of Mother Jones’ rallies she was overcome by the power and presence of this diminutive Cork woman. 


Flynn was born in Concord, NH to an Irish-speaking mother from Co. Galway and an Irish-American father with Mayo roots.


They moved to the South Bronx in 1900, and when she was fifteen the Rebel Girl gave her first public speech on “What Socialism Will Do For Women.”


She would become one of the greatest orators of her time and a tireless fighter for workers rights and freedom of expression.


A close friend of both James Connolly and Big Jim Larkin, she rallied thousands of immigrant workers and their sweatshop-employed children in Lawrence MA during the successful Bread and Roses campaign for better wages and conditions.


Margaret Louise Higgins (Sanger) was born in Corning NY in 1879 to Irish immigrant parents. Not unusual for those days, her mother, Anne Purcell-Higgins, conceived 18 times, with only 11 children surviving before she died at age 49.


Margaret became a nurse practitioner at White Plains Hospital. Though she suffered from recurring tuberculosis she worked as a visiting nurse in Lower East Side slums and became active in the Socialist Party and the Wobblies.


Along with Gurley Flynn during the Bread and Roses campaign, she organized the evacuation of immigrant children from Lawrence to homes in New York and Philadelphia where they would be fed and cared for by sympathetic families. 


On Feb. 24th, 1912 at Lawrence railway station, mothers and children were bludgeoned by police and state militia. This led to a national outcry and the eventual settlement of the strike on favorable terms to the workers.


Inspired by her mother’s experience Margaret Sanger had great sympathy for women who underwent frequent childbirth that often led to miscarriage.


The Comstock Act of 1873 and other anti-obscenity laws forbade access to contraceptive information, and Sanger realized that fundamental social change could never occur until women were freed from the burden of unwanted pregnancies.


In 1914 she published The Woman Rebel, a newsletter that promoted contraception, and challenged the federal anti-obscenity laws that forbade the spreading of information about “birth control,” a term she and her associates coined.


She was indicted and, rather than risk jail, she fled the US for Britain.


She returned unrepentant in 1916 and, with her sister Ethel Byrne, opened the first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. They were arrested for breaking a law that forbade the distribution of contraceptives.


While imprisoned, Byrne went on hunger strike and was the first American woman to be force-fed. There would be many battles before contraception was finally legalized in the US through the 1965 Griswold v Connecticut Supreme Court Case. Her work finally completed, Margaret Louise Higgins Sanger died a year later.


The she-trinity is largely forgotten now, at a time when immigrant children are still being unlawfully employed, and reproductive rights are again under threat in the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free.

Wednesday 8 March 2023

CBGB and the first band to play there

For years I couldn’t bear to pass by the John Varvatos store on The Bowery. My psychic alarm bells would go off when I was within a couple of blocks of this high-end clothing emporium.

It wasn’t that I disliked his threads, but Mr. Varvatos had set up shop on sacred ground – CBGB.

I’m told he has done a decent job of preserving the original inner fa├žade, but there’s something way too dichotomous about the pairing for me.

CBGB was a dark, cavernous hole-in-the-wall. It originally had a pool table down the back, around which lay a couple of hairy dogs from the greater greyhound family that the owner, Hilly Crystal, claimed to be Egyptian Temple Hounds.

On a number of occasions while humping in our gear, I trod on these sleeping sentinels who scared the bejaysus out of me with their aggrieved yelping.

You see Turner & Kirwan of Wexford was the first band to play CBGB – a little known fact in music history.

Don’t even bother disputing me, for we played opening night. This occurred because the original CBGB (Country, Bluegrass, and Blues) sat opposite The Bells of Hell in the West Village.

Though barely a year in the country, T&K were drawing big crowds to the back room of the Bells.

Hilly and his wife Karen often caught our jam-packed last sets, after long lonely nights bemoaning their own empty seats.

On one such occasion Hilly informed me that he was closing the original CBGB and transferring the moniker to his ramshackle Hells Angels hangout on The Bowery; and would we be kind enough to play for the grand opening and bring along our following?

This we did and it was a hell of a night for everyone, except the two Egyptian Temple Hounds. So, Hilly proposed a weeknight residency. I informed him that we were having great success in The Bronx with “Bartender Night;” hence, it was arranged we would try that tack on Mondays at CB’s.

Alas, after some trouble from the residents of the skid row hotel upstairs, bartenders - and our following - stayed away, until the only ones in attendance were our girlfriends, the Temple Hounds, and Hilly.

When our girlfriends finally declined to show, we “fibbed” to Hilly that we were returning to Ireland for an extended vacation, and thus ended our residency.

Lo and behold, soon thereafter, Patti Smith, Television, and other local bands began residencies, punk was born, and Turner & Kirwan of Wexford had made another bad career decision.

Hilly eventually forgave us and we played there sporadically, but we’d missed the punk express, and our only success in CB’s is that we seem to have been the only band banned, for an incident better forgotten.

But oh what memories! Hilly was a somewhat odd and taciturn man but a good friend. Being in his company was akin to meditating. We rarely spoke, just stood there, watching the great and awful without passing comment.

Hilly felt that every band deserved a shot, as long as they played original music. I don’t think he really liked punk music, but what talent he uncovered.

Television was by far the best band to grace that hallowed stage. Tom Verlaine, who recently passed away, was a brilliant guitarist, and most of us aspiring superstars were influenced by his unique vocal style.

The initially awkward Talking Heads got better each night. While standing at a urinal next to David Byrne in the most graffitied bathroom on this planet, I once inquired, “What kind of music are you guys playing?”

To which he replied, “We’re trying to sound like everyone else, we’re just not very good.”

I could write a book on The Ramones, while Debbie Harry of Blondie was our Marilyn.

On closing night Oct. 15, 2006, Hilly told me he was moving the joint lock, stock, barrel and toilets to Vegas.

He didn’t look well, but we settled into our usual meditative trance while watching Patti Smith weave her magic onstage.

“Why did I ban you, Larry?” He inquired out of nowhere.

“Long story, Hilly, I’ll tell you another time.”

He nodded that this might not be a bad idea.

He died the following year. I miss his unique taciturnity, and I do everything possible to avoid walking past his divine palace of punk.