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 BuĂ­ 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 CĂșchulainn?


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!