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.

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Normans Invasions - Wexford & Sicily

 The Christian Brothers in Wexford were not fans of the Normans. They regarded these conquerors who arrived from Wales in 1169 as some sub-species of the hated English, enough said!

I was less convinced, but then I grew up in the shadow of towering Selskar Abbey, a Norman edifice that stands to this day. King Henry II arrived there soon after the Norman invaders to do penance for the murder of Thomas a’Beckett in Westminster Cathedral.

It would appear, however, that he really came to keep an eye on the conquering Norman barons lest they set up a kingdom of their own.

The Normans seemed to have no trouble intermarrying with the Irish and their names are still popular locally. In fact it would be hard to travel throughout Ireland without tripping over a Burke, Fitzgerald, Butler, Roche, Power, Redmond, Sinnott, or even Rice, one of whom, Edmund, founded the Irish Christian Brothers.

Oddly enough, these invaders were descended from the Norsemen who had already founded Wexford (Weissfjord) centuries earlier. It was as if they were coming home, except that they now spoke French from their sojourn in Normandy.

They were skilled builders. No sooner had they conquered an area than they set about fortifying it, and building a castle that might also serve as an administrative and religious center. Hence Selskar Abbey in the heart of old Wexford town!

You can see their footprints in many parts of Europe. Imagine my surprise when I came upon a Norman castle while traveling down the coast of Eastern Turkey some years back.

There it stood, gaunt, and deserted, but still dominating a hill over the sparkling blue Mediterranean. Although much more majestic, it reminded me of Ferrycarrig Castle a few miles up the Slaney from Wexford town.

Sure enough, I discovered that Norman Crusaders built it on their way to create a kingdom in Palestine.

I had heard of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily but was unaware of its breadth and power. They first arrived in Southern Italy in 999AD as mercenaries and over the next 200 years ruled not only the island of Sicily but also the southern third of the Italian Peninsula, and parts of North Africa.

They have left their mark all over this lovely island and I was constantly reminded of Norman Wexford while on a recent visit.

It’s fascinating how effortlessly Norman architecture blends in with exotic Sicily, yet that seems to have been a trait of these people – move in, take over, but allow the natives to carry on their local business, as long as they keep the peace and pay their taxes.

That’s not to say they didn’t commit barbarous acts in medieval Ireland, but such was the case all over our fractious country in the unending disputes between the clans.

And if affairs were unsettled in Ireland, then Sicily was a real hotbed of religious and civil disorder with Muslim, Byzantine, Calabrian, and various other castes and creeds vying for influence, not to mention sundry Holy Fathers seeking to extend their power from the nearby Papal States.

Back in Wexford one had to use one’s imagination to visualize our conquerors – not so in Palermo. Norman mosaics abounded, particularly in the well-maintained churches.

King Roger II of Sicily personified the Norman desire to integrate with their subjects and surroundings; thus, in a mosaic at the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (St. Mary of the Admiral) he made a statement with his coronation fresco.

Abandoning his warrior attire he dressed in flowing Byzantine robes and instead of receiving his crown from the aggressive Pope Innocent II, he instead opted to have an Eastern version of Jesus coronate him.

On that day too, he declared that Muslim and all other local religions should have the same rights as Christians.

Roger II (Ruggero II) is still celebrated around Sicily but after his death in 1154 his golden age of tolerance began to fade. Eventually a Holy Roman Emperor succeeded him and affairs reverted to their normal sectarian barbarism.

And yet in a quiet church in the bustling city of Palermo, while admiring a beautiful mosaic, I was reunited with the town of my youth and gained some insight into our stormy Norman Irish history.