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.