Saturday, 24 June 2017

Russian Roulette


Elections have consequences! Think how different the world would have been if George W Bush had lost that presidential squeaker in 2000. No invasion of Iraq – no lost American lives and treasure, and a Middle East in much less turmoil.

As for the 2016 election, it’s hard to fathom President Trump’s reluctance to deal with the ongoing crisis of climate change. The man owns – or leases – much waterfront property including some of County Clare’s finest. 

Has he never waded the streets of Miami in his wellies during a high tide? Of course, maybe he’s invested in Pocono real estate and is already marketing it as oceanfront.

You have to grant the man one thing – he has not only changed the country but the conversation.

Can you imagine President Bush, “W” or “H,” allowing the Russians to unleash a cyber-attack against the US without an appropriate response? And I’m not talking about some adolescent assault on Facebook, Putin’s hackers were going after the US electoral process - with the likely intention of hindering the Clinton campaign?

Now it can be argued that the Kremlin would sooner deal with a president who ran beauty queen contests than a boring policy wonk like Mrs. Clinton; still and all Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB thug and cares little for Democrats or Republicans.

Don’t get me wrong. Russians are a generous people. While touring there you couldn't admire a picture on an apartment wall – the owner would simply unhook it and present it to you with a large glass of vodka.

Putin and his hackers, though, are a whole different kettle of fish.   

Yonkers Jim Comey, erstwhile FBI Director, says it best: "The reason this is such a big deal is that we have a big, messy, wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time, but nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except for other Americans… But we're talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion and lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act."

What Mr. Comey doesn’t understand is that this country is now so full of hatred that many would sooner the Russians mess up our whole electoral system rather than live under President Hillary Clinton. 

Just as there are those who would prefer the Dalai Lama became dictator rather than respect the fairly elected 45th president.

What’s become of us that we’re not up in arms over a foreign government interfering with our democratic system? Have we become so accustomed to partisan discord that we can accept this heavy-fisted intrusion?

While our president remains silent, the Senate is threatening new sanctions against Russia; a more meaningful action might be to expose the hidden financial assets of Putin and his cronies.

This would be of great aid to the Russian democratic opposition that has been trying to draw attention to the widespread corruption under Mr. Putin’s rule.

Of course if President Trump was to toss in his own tax returns for inspection our own swamp would be drained a little. Vladimir could then fly over for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago, the boys could settle any differences with a little arm wrestling, and we’d all be as happy as Ukrainians and Syrians.

President Trump has much to offer in foreign affairs. In one fell swoop he has swept aside the perennial knee-jerk US/Russian rivalry dating back to the rupturing of the successful alliance that won the Second World War.

But ground rules must be established. Keep out of our election process and we’ll keep out of yours!

President Trump might want to take note that the Republican Party has had an anti-Russian bias for over 70 years. Thus, it would not be surprising if some ambitious young bucks within the party are already weighing an insurgent run in 2020, a la Reagan against Ford in 1976 over detente.

Keep an eye on Senators Sasse and Lankford, both smart, conservative, and from states so ruby red they are unlikely to lose their seats should they misread the wind in 2020. 

But hey, there’s always 2024 and you'll never go wrong in this country betting against the Russians.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

News and Views from my local


President Trump should be catnip for a columnist with an interest in politics. Problem is – I write for a weekly and with the current administration you risk being old news a long time before The Echo hits the stands on a Wednesday morning.

So, one is resigned to writing about Trumpian trends, feelings, prejudices - anything that steers clear of hard news or predictions. 

With presidents Obama and Bush what you saw is what you got - apart from turning grey they basically didn’t change much.

One could spend a column wondering if President Trump will ever turn grey, but such speculations are better left to the National Enquirer; the Irish Echo has bigger fish to fry.

Still and all, I predict that anyone above the level of janitor in the Trump administration has by now “lawyered up.”  

Oh, how I love that term! It makes me feel like Jimmy Breslin when I casually murmur it across the bar of my local. Though I may not wear a trench coat, or speak with a Queens accent, the clientele pricks up its ears and definitely looks at me in a different light.

Lest you think I do my drinking in some trendy liberal environment, I’ll have you know that my local has been serving booze since 1847 and all manner of views are bandied about therein by civil servants, construction workers, yuppies, feminists, old punks, and the general detritus and riff-raff of Lower Manhattan.

One opinion offered recently by a retired postal worker is that the 45th president has begun to remind him of Homer Simpson. While this caused initial gales of laughter, the discussion that followed was deep and insightful.

I have to say that I was a little upset at first, as Homer is one of my favorite TV characters. However, the retired postal worker – a Trump voter – made some cogent points until finally silenced by a grizzled punk I’d once seen fall off the stage in CBGB’s. 

“No way!” He snarled a la Johnny Rotten. “Trump don’t imbibe, Homer downs Duff Beer!”

Whereupon, an inebriated Goldman Sachs employee bet $100 that Duff Beer was really Miller Light in disguise since Homer never seemed to gain weight. 

With much dark mutterings about “him and his $100 bill” and vows to drain our local swamp we passed on to graver concerns - such as who would be the first member of the Trump administration to go up the river.

The smart money appeared to be on Lt. General Mike Flynn. 

Speculation then broke out as to why so many Irish names are dominating the political news? Comey from Yonkers, Pence from Tubbercurry, Kelly-Anne from Looney Tunes, not to mention Paul Ryan whose budgetary projections are so out to lunch, a New York City detective opined, “That guy couldn’t balance his check book.” 

The waitress took a dim view of the remark made on Ms. Conway’s origins, and the guilty chauvinist blushed – his long hoped for chance of a date finally crushed. 

But really, what was President Trump thinking? Flynn was already in trouble for taking money from Turkey, he had retweeted the suspicion that Mrs. Clinton was a child sex trafficker; and even more damning, President Obama had already pink-slipped him and warned the president-elect to keep his distance.

A bitter Rangers supporter, still wearing the same vintage shirt on his two-week-bender, suggested, “Flynn got the gig ‘cause he’d heard something about Trump in Russia. The whole Garden was talkin’ about it!”

The retired postal worker countered that the president’s only mistake was leaving New York for the swamps of DC where a man couldn’t tell his posterior from his elbow.

“To make matters worse,” the grizzled Punk snarled, “With all the fake-news flyin’ around, we’ll never know the truth?”

“Truth is relative,” the NYC Detective groaned as his wife, a Serbian Melania lookalike swept in, and we hastily changed the subject.

Still, my money is on Mike Flynn to throw light on the whole Russian imbroglio – he just doesn’t look like the type who’ll go quietly into that dark night. 

I just hope his people didn’t come from Wexford! It would put a fierce dent in the celebrations when we win this year’s All-Ireland Hurling Final! 

Fake news, how are you!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Memorial Day Weekend


For twenty years I knew exactly where I was going to be on Memorial Day Weekend.  This was highly unusual for Black 47 – though our schedule was always full, it was rarely predictable.

Still the six musicians and two technicians of the band had much need of stamina for we usually spent Friday and Saturday among the green hills of East Durham, while Sunday and Monday took us to the deep Southside of Chicago.

Old dogs for the hard road we departed New York City early Friday for two reasons – to miss traffic and secure the best musicians’ rooms in The Blackthorne Resort.

 I always enjoyed the drive up the Thruway, for these would be our last easeful hours until Tuesday.

Once we were given our room keys by the ever welcoming Rita, I’d begin my rounds.  Hellos to Bob Handel and his two sons, Dale and Roy, then I’d make my most important call – into the kitchen for a visit to the late, lamented Ginger, Bob’s wife. 

With one warm appraising glance she could tell me exactly how the last year had treated me better than any doctor, wife or mother. 

For that matter, it was not unusual to find various members of the hardboiled Black 47 crew in deep conversation with her around the kitchen table at all hours of day and night.

The large bar/dancehall of The Blackthorn would be full on Friday night. Our job was to keep that audience totally engaged for the cream of Irish bands would be playing in the many other excellent resorts. 

As we only played original music this called for maintaining a sustained sense of drama – easier than you might think since we never played the same set twice. If we didn’t know what was coming next – then how could the expectant revelers?

I always spent Saturday afternoon trekking around the local back roads, inevitably visiting the ruins of an overgrown cottage flanked by a stone wall that could have been transported direct from the Aran Islands. Had the original inhabitants moved west or cut their losses and returned home?

Such musings vanished at 9pm when we’d take the stage at the East Durham Irish Festival. As headliner you’re expected to draw crowds from NYC to Albany – not just for vanity but for admission receipts, and to provide customers for the many vendors, the lifeblood of any festival.

We were now in the thick of the weekend – strutting our stuff on the big stage. However, there would be barely time for pictures, autographs, hugs and kisses before we’d again hit the packed Blackthorne for an in-your-face audience more akin to CBGB’s in the 70’s than the gently rolling Catskills. 

I loved those second gigs. New songs, new energy, all thought gone, back to basics, the reason you got into Rock & Roll in the first place.

But we would already be in a rush against time for our flight to Chicago would leave at 8am from LaGuardia. Our tech crew would go into high gear. Pack the van, round us up, get on the Thruway, speed down to our West Side storage, load off amps, drums, and out to the airport, bleary-eyed, but full of cranky attitude.

If possible then, pass out on the plane, hopefully get picked up at Midway and be whisked off to the Holiday Inn; but sleep was dangerous, better retain last night’s intensity, for by the time we hit Gaelic Park that evening, what seemed like the whole South Side of Chicago would be expecting the show of their lives.

And what a sight - a moshing, propulsive crowd, teetering on the edge of alcoholic anarchy hurling themselves over the barricades beyond eager to join us onstage.

No sleep yet though for the party would be raging back at the Holiday Inn with fans from all over the Mid-West who had traveled far to greet us. What did we talk about? Who knows – who cares!  It’s all a blur now. One year bleeding into an abandoned other! 

And yet, a happy Memorial Day Weekend to my many friends in the green hills of East Durham and in the concrete fields of South Side Chicago, I haven’t forgotten you. You’re still the best!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Surgical Strike Shopping


I have a confession to make. I’m a reluctant shopper. I know this is very unpatriotic since 70% of US GDP comes from us spending money on ourselves or each other. My reluctance has nothing to do with cheapness, I hasten to add, for I vigorously compensate in various saloons and hostelries around the country.

Christmas is a time of trial for me. I begin to get nervous around Thanksgiving and the first onslaught of carols. But I have the perfect antidote for the following month-long orgy of consumerism. I become a surgical-strike shopper!

However, I do procrastinate until Christmas Eve, and this has led to panic-filled moments of elbowing one’s way through crowded stores, while imploring surly employees to descend into basements to locate a particular size or color.

All changed, utterly changed. Last December 24th such was the paucity of shoppers I could have demanded that I be carried like a pasha through the deserted racks; and talk about the smiles I received, surliness is indeed a thing of the past in retail. Not to mention that everything had been marked down 20-40%.

I was home within hours - gifts wrapped and hidden under the bed - confident that I had aided President Obama boost his paltry 2% annual growth, soon to be measured against President-Elect Trump’s promised gargantuan 4%. 

Unfortunately, two of the three stores I visited on Christmas Eve have closed, while the staff looked particularly glum in the empty third the last time I sauntered by.

Nor is this retail cataclysm limited to my neck of the woods. Malls are in trouble everywhere, American Apparel is closing down, JC Penney and the mighty Sears are scaling back and may not survive the full frontal assault of online shopping. 

There is no doubt that many jobs in warehousing and transportation have been created by the mighty Amazon and other online retailers. But what happens to cities if you take away the great downtown flagship stores? 

Will they be replaced by mom and pop stores, as one might hope? No way, Jose! If the big chains cannot do battle with online retailers, who can?

Amazon is finally turning a profit. Hurray, but Twitter, Uber and so many other online behemoths are not. The common online formula seems to be – drive competitors out of business by slashing prices, survive on Wall Street investment, and eventually take the company public and make a killing. 

Spotify’s annual revenue crests 2 billion dollars and yet it still has not turned a dime in profit. But it has obliterated the livelihood of a generation of musicians and destroyed their entrepreneurial dream of someday making back the money they’ve invested in recording an album. That dream still exists for the vaunted .001% of megastars; but for your meat and potatoes musician – fuggedaboutit!

It’s the same disturbing trend that we see in life in general – the world belongs to the super-rich, with an ever-dwindling share of profits accruing to everyone else!

Candidate Trump used to trumpet a cruel world where $25 per hour miners and manufacturing employees were being swindled of their jobs by crafty foreign governments, elite liberals, and criminal Mexicans. These dispossessed workers were being forced to downgrade to service jobs in the $8-12 per hour range. 

However, what happens if many of these service jobs are also disappearing. And don’t tell me that warehouse workers won’t soon be replaced by robots that don’t even need a lunch break, let alone a couple of hours of anxious sleep.

If there’s a solution it will come in the form of education and skill attainment. After all, someone’s going to have to oil the bloody robots and keep them from rusting.

Education costs money, however, and such expenditure is hardly on the books in President Trump’s New Deal. Ah yes, we’re back to good old-time voodoo economics – cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy and eventually the bucks will trickle down to the rest of us peons. 

Oh dear, I’m already fretting about Christmas. Excuse me while I click on Amazon – I’m sure they’ve already got some good December deals on tap. No more surgical strike shopping for me!

Friday, 28 April 2017

Dev - The Boy From Bruree


In a recent interview I was asked why I didn’t include Éamon de Valera in my play, Rebel In The Soul, now running at The Irish Rep.

I had to pause a moment before not owning up to the truthful answer – I don’t care much for this most preeminent of Irish politicians. 

Truth be told, though, Dev was far too canny to ever get mired in a fight between church and state as happened to Dr. Noel Browne. He instinctively knew that battling the Catholic Church in the Ireland of 1951 was akin to “dancing jigs on quicksand.”

Even his enemies were in awe of Éamon de Valera, for he stood apart, cultivated an air of aloofness, and had no trouble sticking a knife between a rival’s ribs. This consummate Irish politician was born in New York City.

His mother sent him back to Bruree, County Limerick at the age of two, soon after the death of his father, a Spanish music teacher. His grandmother, Elizabeth Coll, raised young Éamon in a laborer’s cottage. Too poor to afford a bicycle he walked seven miles to and from the Christian Brothers School at Charleville before winning a scholarship to Blackrock College.

Blackrock would have a huge influence on the Boy from Bruree. He taught mathematics there and later in life befriended a president of the college, Dr. John Charles McQuaid with whom he would craft the Irish Constitution of 1937. 

He became a national figure when he was one of the last leaders left standing after the 1916 Uprising - spared execution because of his American birth.

The first great question mark about de Valera arose when he refused to attend the treaty negotiations in London in 1921. Many feel that he sent Michael Collins in his place to reap the blame, for he knew that gaining a united Ireland was impossible.

Dev’s reputation has suffered as Collins’ star has ascended. For good reason - Ireland would have been a far different place if the charismatic, outgoing Collins had lived to lead the country.

It’s hard to argue that de Valera’s conservative vision did not stifle the country socially and economically thereby contributing to the ongoing curse of emigration. However, he did keep Ireland neutral and out of World War II; and yet one of the great strikes against him is that he officially offered condolences to the German minister in Dublin on the suicide of Adolf Hitler.

Whatever way you weigh it, the Boy from Bruree is a play unto himself – though Machiavellian and judgmental, he had a burning love for Ireland, its language, customs, and people. But was this love perverted by his overweening ego and sheer sense of entitlement?

If he doesn’t play an actual part in Rebel in the Soul, he is the elephant in the room that influences the other three characters.

Sean MacBride may have outgrown his position as de Valera’s secretary but he never lost his awe of the man. And in 1948 when MacBride’s star was rising as leader of the nascent Clann na Poblachta party, Dev called a surprise election knowing that he might lose but that his former secretary had not as yet developed the organization to win. My guess is he also figured that MacBride would not thrive in a coalition with the conservative Fine Gael party - “men I had been shooting at 25 years ago.”

Soon after his expulsion from Clann na Poblachta, Dr. Browne joined the Fianna Fail party. De Valera had little time for iconoclastic reformers, however, and showed him the door some years later.

Perhaps, John Charles McQuaid suffered the cruelest fate for he and Dev were close friends. Yet the Limerick man stymied McQuaid’s ambition of becoming Cardinal by putting in a word with the Vatican on behalf of the more mild-mannered, and easily managed, Archbishop D'Alton of Armagh.

For when push came to shove Éamon de Valera brooked no competition – a fact that each of the three major characters in Rebel in the Soul eventually had to come to terms with.

His star may be on the wane but it would be the height of folly to ever ignore the towering, tireless Boy from Bruree.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Rebel in the Soul


On April 11th, 1951, Dr. Noel Browne, Minister for Health, resigned from the first coalition government, and a new Ireland was born. 

His decision had far reaching consequences. The most important was that church and state would begin to separate and the nascent Republic of Ireland would set out on a long painful journey that would eventually lead to an independent civil society.

Within weeks the coalition government fell and in the subsequent election Éamonn de Valera and his Fianna Fail party were returned to power. Sean MacBride’s Clann na Poblachta party was decimated, and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, de facto leader of the Irish Catholic Church, would soon be seen in a new light.

Hopefully, you can find out how this all came to pass at The Irish Repertory Theatre when my play, Rebel in the Soul, begins previews April 12th with opening night April 18th.

The story has always fascinated me, probably because the three main characters, Browne, MacBride, and McQuaid were such interesting figures; it’s hardly surprising that each gave a somewhat different account of how the events in question came to pass.

It’s been a thrill to watch Patrick Fitzgerald, Sean Gormley, and John Keating bring these characters back to life. In many ways we see the events unfold through the eyes of Browne’s wife, Phyllis, played by Sarah Street; Mrs. Browne was a singular person herself for she knowingly married a man with Tuberculosis. Talk about love and commitment!

I hasten to add that this is a play, not a documentary. Playwrights can go places that the narrators of mere facts cannot. We can explore character and act on strong supposition, or even hunches. 

And what characters! You couldn’t invent Browne’s life and trajectory. His parents both died of Tuberculosis, the dreaded “silent death” leaving him orphaned and penniless on the streets of London at the age of 10. 

From out of the blue he was granted a full scholarship to a prestigious Catholic Prep school, and eventually returned to Ireland as a member of a wealthy Anglo-Irish family. He became a medical doctor with the one goal of eradicating Tuberculosis; elected to parliament, on his first day he was made Minister for Health.

Sean MacBride was the son of Maude Gonne - muse of Yeats - and Capt. John MacBride - 1916 martyr. At his birth, his mother declared him “a man of destiny.” And he surely was. A confidant of Michael Collins in his mid-teens, he became IRA Chief of Staff, founded Clann na Poblachta, arguably the most promising Irish political party; and after his political career imploded he helped found Amnesty International and introduced the MacBride Principles that did so much to outlaw sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

And what of John Charles – so powerful and ubiquitous was he in Irish life that he had little need of a surname or title. Nowadays it’s often hard to appreciate the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland up until the 1970’s or just how completely this complicated man micro-managed the country’s political, social, and cultural affairs.

Volumes have been written about Archbishop McQuaid and, yet, he usually emerges as an ecclesiastical ogre, instead of a solitary man of his times and position. An obsessive-compulsive, he had a deep love of poetry and, indeed, was an unlikely patron of the hard-drinking, obstreperous poet, Patrick Kavanagh.

Did anyone ever know Sean MacBride? Such an extraordinary and admirable man, and an Irish-American icon, he was not at his best during the 1951 crisis. Then again, which of us is in the eternal battle between principle and pragmatism. There’s a haunted quality to MacBride’s gaze that’s hard to ignore in most portraits.

And Browne? He eradicated the scourge of Tuberculosis from Ireland and demanded free comprehensive health coverage for pregnant women and children up to the age of 16. But was ever a man so unsuited to the game of politics.

The US is still wrestling with the issue of decent health care for all its citizens. Perhaps, we’re in need of an iconoclastic Noel Browne who was willing to risk all for his goals back in 1951.   

Rebel in the Soul, written by Larry Kirwan, directed by Charlotte Moore, at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC 10011, April 12-May 21, irishrep.org – 212.727.2737
$20 off preview performances April 12-17 with Code PREVIEW
$10 off all performances using Code EARLY (expires 4/18/2017)

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Dispossessed Generation


I’ve travelled this country for many years in awe of its beauty and sheer size. 

I admire its self-sufficiency, the way it picked itself up after the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and the attack on 9/11. 

There’s a resiliency and a willingness to roll up the sleeves at the worst of times, and an openness and generosity of spirit that emerges when things get better. 

But there’s a new element swirling about in the hinterland – despair. I see it in the faces of the many opioid abusers. They were a mystery to me at first – I could tell they were junkies, but they differed from the fevered smack heads of the East Village.

Opioid users tend to be more passive, perhaps because they have much more access to their drugs of choice, many of which are prescription painkillers. Debilitating these drugs may be but they seem to be keeping a lid on the almost existential pain that you sense in so many economically depressed areas. 

This despair has become more pointed over the years. I first noticed it soon after the attack on the World Trade Center. Did the sudden loss of American invincibility cause the change? 

Still, New York City suffered more than anywhere else and yet I don’t sense the same debilitating angst in the five boroughs. But head 75 miles in any direction out into the country and it begins to hit you. Despite longstanding urban poverty, I suppose cities breed more opportunities.

I have little doubt but that the Great Recession of 2008 opened the floodgates of despair. People who had always treasured job security were shocked by the fragility of the American economic system. It suddenly became crystal clear just how much more their corporate superiors cared about the financial bottom line than the loyalty of employees.

But the collapse of 2008 only hastened what was already afoot. Out in the Rust and Coal Belts, 21st Century technology had for years been replacing jobs that paid $25 per hour. Meanwhile, standbys like the great service employers, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, rarely pay more than an entry level $9.   
   
Is there any wonder there’s a curdling despair rampant across the country? And now instead of getting people to face up to the fact that we are in a time of great and inexorable economic change, we have a president who is promising a return to the good old days.

What’s staggering is that many people believe him, even as his party is busy trying to demolish the Affordable Care Act one of the few meaningful safety nets for this dispossessed generation. 

Many others are convinced that the president hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of turning things around, but at least he’s “shaking things up” and “draining the swamp” – even as Goldman Sachs dominates his cabinet. 

What unifies these people is that they have no faith in the Democratic Party, once the defender of the working class.

Nor do they trust the federal government to do anything for them. And yet who else is there? Surely not their erstwhile corporate masters who have little interest in anything but the bottom line.

And yet the federal government is the only entity with enough power – or interest - to form a coalition with corporations and begin to educate workers for the new economy, as has been happening in Germany for years. 

This won’t solve the whole problem. But it could help current high school graduates gain work-study apprenticeships in the new 21st Century factories that are rapidly becoming the norm.  Unfortunately, these modern work sites will be mostly automated and employ few - though pay will be good. 

And what of the rest? Many will be forced to work in service industries, which is why it’s vital that a national minimum wage provides a livable income.

It all sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but it beats the dishonest promises of bringing back jobs that have gone forever.

And what of the opioid users? Well, Obamacare, for all its defects, offered rehabilitation opportunities for those who wished to kick the habit. Trumpcare - if it ever materializes - will provide none. 

And so, the president’s hollow promises will continue to echo in the shuttered factories of the hinterland as a despairing, hollow-eyed generation shuffles by.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Saint Patrick's Wild Stallion In Times Square


I’ve seen many a St. Patrick’s Day – mostly playing in a band atop a large stage, amidst a swirl of action but removed enough so that the forest can be clearly distinguished from the trees.

Where to begin?  I suppose in the metropolis of Wexford where St. Patrick’s Day was at best an insipid dud. With not much else going on in March we’d line up on the Quayside and watch the Confraternity men and Legion of Mary ladies parade by in a murmur of rosaries, accompanied by the local FCA (Army Reserve) who at least marched in time. 

My favorites were the Foresters – they wore green and white Robert Emmet type uniforms, knee-high black leather boots, and plumed hats. 

The lack of alcohol, however, weighed heavily on both marchers and observers, as pubs back then closed for our national feast day.

At my first New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade I felt I had stepped into Caligula’s Rome. Though quite early in the morning the bacchanal was already in full swing – not just booze either, but weed wafted gently by on the cool breezes of Fifth Avenue. Sex, too, was in the air as leggy drum majorettes kicked for the skies and suburban high school kids made out with vigor in fashionable retail doorways.

Later that night in Tomorrow’s Lounge, Bay Ridge, I had one of the best gigs of my life as Turner & Kirwan of Wexford shook the considerable dust off the rafters. In truth we could have played Enya-on-Ambien dirges and the packed house would have roared along with gusto. To top it all we got paid double!

It was then I realized that on St. Patrick’s Night a band mounts a wild stallion. All you have to do is hold on to its mane, dig in the spurs, and off you go with the flow! 

The following year, however in our innocence, Turner & Kirwan played ten 40-minute sets in Manchester, NH and received sweet damn all bonus. Somewhat miffed we invited the friskier looking part of our audience back to a party in a house that had been lent to us. 

I will not bore you with the salacious details; suffice it to say we left Manchester in somewhat of a cloud. So much so that when I returned many years later with Black 47 I had to put forth that the Kirwan playing with the disgraced duo from Wexford had been my Uncle Larry.

There was never a need for such white lies in New York City on March 17th. For one thing, no one would be crazy enough to give Black 47 a loan of their house on that sainted liquid evening.

Not that there weren’t hiccups. One night in a shadowy corridor of the Letterman Show, fatigued and overwhelmed, I thought I had lost my mind when assaulted by a battery of little people dressed as leprechauns who were merely seeking autographs. 

Another year on the Conan O’Brien Show I almost had a heart attack when I forgot a line from our song James Connolly on national TV.

But there were triumphs too. I can still feel the crowd and band meld together into one tightly clenched fist when I hear our Live in New York City CD recorded on St. Patrick’s Day in the late lamented Wetlands club.

I thought I might give the whole thing a break when Black 47 disbanded, but BB King’s on 42nd Street wanted the real rockin’ New York Irish music experience again, so I’m back in the game with a new kick-arse band for a night. 

Cáit O’Riordan of The Pogues and Chris Byrne of Black 47 will join us for some songs. Lia Fail Pipes and Drums from Mercer County will kick off the evening. Pat McGuire, our old comrade from Spéir Mor and Paddy Reilly’s days will team up with Geoff Blythe of Black 47 to do a set; and my son, Rory K, the hip-hop artist, will jam the grooves with Celtic themes like Fresh Off The Boat – dear God how did I beget a rapper – perhaps it’s karma for Uncle Larry’s long-ago wild night in Manchester?

Whatever! See you at BB’s in Times Square when we mount that St. Patrick’s Night wild stallion one more time. Bring your spurs!

Larry Kirwan & Friends, BB King’s, 237 W. 42nd St. NYC  (212)997-4144     
Doors 6pm/Show7pm
Tickets: http://bit.ly/2iK94Xl or at the door

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Fanatic Ladies


It’s odd to see yourself in a movie, especially when you have no idea what’s coming next. Such was the case when watching a rough cut of Fanatic Heart recently.

In the course of 25 years with Black 47 I’d acted the clown in a number of MTV videos – hardly a great experience, since that pathetic medium emasculated Rock & Roll and left it the flaccid force it is today.

Still, I’ll be there with my popcorn tomorrow night March 2nd when Fanatic Heart (the Black 47 movie) premieres at Cinépolis Chelsea for Craic Fest’s Gala opening.

The directors, Vic Zimet and Stephanie Silber really captured the arc of the band. It is far from the usual musical puff piece as our only directive when they began filming 17 years ago was to “show it like it is.”

They didn’t stint on that – the passage of time is well commemorated in lined faces and graying hair – but who gives a goddamn considering the alternative? We all got out alive - more than can be said for many around us.

It was interesting to watch from the outside. From my perspective at the center of the cyclone it was all one big swirl of passion, fatigue, dissonance and delight in a continual battle to do exactly what we wanted.

One of the most interesting people interviewed was my sister from another mother, Mary Courtney. She was the woman’s voice on Livin’ in America, one of the band’s signature songs. 

I guess the reason she fit so perfectly is because we all came from the same Bronx music cauldron and shared many political views.

Watching her made me realize how interesting it would have been to feature the other women members of Black 47. What a cast of characters!

I first met Mary Martello while setting Caoineadh Airt Uí’ Laoghaire (The Lament For Art O’Leary) to music for a dance-theatre piece by June Anderson. Mary had never heard the Irish language or the great epic poem and yet she sang as though raised in a Munster Gaeltacht.

I used part of that performance for the intro to Big Fellah, our song about Michael Collins. Kurt Sutter, Sons of Anarchy creator, was so taken with Mary’s vocal he featured the track on the Lochan Mór episode gaining the band a worldwide audience. Mary continues to act and sing in the Philadelphia area.

I don’t know where I met Christine Ohlman. A Rock & Roll legend and singer with the Saturday Night Live Band, she’s often called The Beehive Lady on account of her spectacular bouffant! And what a voice – somewhere between Ronnie Spector and Janis Joplin! Take a listen to her on Black 47’s Blood Wedding where she channels the pain of Carlita, a Lower East Side woman caught in a crime of passion.

Some of you already know Celtic princess, Ashley Davis. I met her on her first night in NYC after a stint as sean-nós singer in a Michael Flatley extravaganza. A collector of rare songs when she’s not writing her own classics, her solo career is booming and, to top it all, she had the good fortune to marry a Bronx boy. She adds her haunting voice to Fatima, a young Muslim woman with a decision to make, on Black 47’s New York Town album.

Nora Shanahan showed up at our recording studio after a night on the town. She was one of the singers in New York’s great lost band, The Táin. Totally distinctive, she reminded me of a peroxide punked-out Bridie Gallagher. She was accompanied that morning by an entourage as well oiled as herself. But, man, when she lit into Bodhráns on the Brain, the room lit up. 

Bodharns is a rip-roaring fare-thee-well-sucker song about an Irish girl ditching her cool New York boyfriend for an “auld alcoholic bodhhrán maker.” I still laugh whenever I hear Norah ripping me apart and am delighted she found happiness back home in Ireland.

There were other ladies - just as distinguished - who sang with Black 47, God bless them. Perhaps they’ll show up at Cinépolis Chelsea tomorrow night. If not, see you there.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Alternative Facts


Like many I’m saddened by the finger-wagging and brow-beating the media is taking nowadays.

For I wholeheartedly subscribe to the Thomas Jefferson dictum, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

But with newspapers under attack from all angles in these digital days, we are now all part of the media. One only has to crack one’s Facebook page to be exposed to a host of views – temperate and otherwise.

It was a much more efficient world when you bought your Times, News, or Post, and read the considered words of giants like Breslin, Hamill, Kempton et al.

They didn’t just keep their opinions for their columns - I once overheard Pete Hamill discussing the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. 

“We’re Americans, we don’t do torture.” He said quietly, and no one dissented. 

I wonder what Pete is saying about President Trump right now? For after a month of almost constant mistruths, one has to question the president’s judgment, at the very least.

These erroneous statements range from crowd size at his inauguration, to the rising murder rate, onto the number of people affected by his immigration executive order. And I’m only skimming the most obvious.  

Almost equally questionable are the president’s diversionary attacks on the media in phrases such as “dishonest press,” and “lying media;” neither does he stint on reporters and columnists labeling them “lying disgusting people.”

Now I’m not, as you might gather, a Trump supporter, but I’m far from a nihilistic hater. He did win the Electoral College vote, so unless he abdicates or Tubbercurry’s Mike Pence locks him up in the Oval Office and throws away the key, we’ve got four more years to get through with this man. 

And not to beat around the bush, if he were to bring millions of manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt and Coal Country, I might even vote for him in 2020. But that’s highly unlikely given the tides of history and technology.

Donald Trump is not the first president to lie. In fact when faced with the choice of a lunatic or a liar with his finger on the nuclear button, I’d go with the latter any old day of the week. After all we survived Nixon and Clinton.

But we’re faced with something different here. What will four years of constant “alternative facts” do to us?

Every journalist and columnist I know double checks their facts – the most embarrassing thing is to be called out on some “misstatement.” Opinions are one thing – we’re hired to offer those – but playing loose with the truth is quite another.

Now like the president I come from the world of entertainment where massaging facts is rarely frowned upon. It’s not life or death, after all. And reality television is about tied with professional wrestling at the bottom of the entertainment totem pole.

But c’mon, Mr. President, that was then; you’re now leader of the free world. People take what you’re saying seriously. They’re working hard paying off mortgages or bookies, they don’t have time or energy to come up with an answer to, “why is the president lying, Mom?”

There are boundaries to taste, discretion, and above all truth, and 99% of politicians pay lip service to them. Most of these pillars of probity are familiar with the name, George Orwell, even if they’ve never opened their high school copy of 1984. 

Take a read of it, sir, the next time your cable goes on the blink. It’s actually somewhat calming compared to your first month in office. It’s also becoming a best seller again, thanks to you. 

The message in this classic book is clear. A constant diet of “alternate facts” is anathema for a healthy and sane society. A journalist’s job is to point this out.

Besides those of us with half a brain can already predict your endgame – “the dishonest media has sabotaged my agenda.”

Well, so be it, you’re the one calling the shots. Did it never occur to you that running a country was always going to be harder than strutting around reality TV?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Wexford


                          WEXFORD
I remember a town by the mouth of a river
Its mossy-backed gloom can still cause shivers
The moon peering down through a foggy midnight
While redundant sailors pine for Pacific starlight.

I remember a love that was just about over
Red sails in her sunset past the silting harbor
Storm clouds in the North but down South we were cautious
When you’re all of nineteen you can be so oblivious.

The old man on a sofa in tie and starched collar
His back poker stiff, he’s wearing the scapular
Of our dear St. Francis and his divine Third Order
He can’t understand why I don’t head for the border.

It’s five in the morning the old man is up reading
One last glance at your loveliness as you lie sleeping
The ghosts in the Abbey snap to attention
The mossy-backed streets thrum with apprehension
A young man has slipped past the sentries in Selskar
And abandoned the past to escape his own future.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Bainbridge and Kingsbridge Forever


Though Bainbridge Avenue seems far away now, it was once the dead center of Irish America. 

Not that it got much love from Manhattan’s Irish elite. I might never have discovered the place myself if Phil Delaney hadn’t stumbled upon Turner & Kirwan of Wexford ripping up East Durham and booked us for Durty Nelly’s.

Yeah, I know, Nelly’s was on Kingsbridge Road – hardly crawling distance from Braindamage (as Bainbridge was often called) - but the two areas are forever linked for me, living as I was in the wilds of the East Village. 

My life would have been much poorer if I hadn’t ventured north frequently. It wasn’t that you couldn’t have fun in Manhattan’s Irish bars, Fleming’s on 86th St. was a riot, Eamonn Doran’s rarely closed, and The Pig & Whistle gave me my first New York gig; but there was a raw majesty to the Bainbridge/Kingsbridge joints that will never be replicated.

Part of their appeal was that there was no concession to America. It was as if Cultimagh, Cahirciveen and Carrickmacross had been uprooted and beamed down upon The Bronx. Within a couple of pints I’d have shed my Alphabet City veneer, be jiving to the showbands, and wondering how many goals Tony Doran had netted against near-invincible Kilkenny.

Although some of the pubs could be on the rough side and a bartender might have occasional need of a camán or baseball bat, yet there was a rare magic astir in those sheet-rocked saloons.

I experienced much warmth and acceptance too from the many excellent musicians who played the scene. I can still see the smiling faces of Dermie Mac, Gerry Finlay, Tommy Mulvihill, Paddy Higgins, John Morrison, Gabriel Donohoe, Joe Nellany and a host of others. The laughs we had as we tried to outdo each other with the “the most disastrous gig I ever played” stories.

The owners and managers were a breed apart also. Phil Delaney was a smiling rogue from central casting, Sean Lynch used to hire us just to annoy his more conservative customers, and John Flynn - with a well-timed gig and bonus - paid many of my overdue rent bills.

I also met one of the best friends a man could have in Brian Mór, aka Bernie O’Boyle. He was the doorman (among other duties) at the fabled Bunratty. If you read my novel Rockin’ The Bronx he’s easily recognizable as the implacable Benny, keeper of the faith on Kingsbridge. A wonderful artist, Brian lived by a set of hard-won principles; but oh what a twinkle he had in his eye. 
         
It was in the Bunratty that I first heard real traditional music – unhinged and unfettered - as played by Johnny Cronin, Andy McGann, Accordion Joe Burke, and Banjo Joe Burke. I’ve never heard the beatings of it since. Of course eight hours of straight drinking could, and did work wonders. The Bronx in those days, as you might imagine, was not a place for the sober or fastidious.

It did throw all types together, however, in that many young Irish from the Republic were introduced to their counterparts from British occupied Ireland. That rarely happened at home. Few of my Wexford contemporaries had ever been to Belfast or Derry, and why would they? It was a different country and in many ways we in the south had turned our backs on our people in the north.

For the first time many of us got to experience the effect of state-backed religious and political discrimination on our Irish brothers and sisters, and it changed our lives.

I had no idea when I returned in the early 90’s with Black 47 that the minutes were counting down for Bainbridge. Nelly’s, The Archway, and The Bunratty were already shuttered. There would be no more old time waltzes or Kerry slides heard on Kingsbridge.

But Bainbridge seemed solid – after all it was as much of a way of life as a geographical area by then. But immigration was tightening, the nascent Celtic Tiger beckoning, and one night the lights went dark on the avenue.

That’s New York for you – a city of change – but the warmth and memories of Braindamage and Kingsbridge will never fade.

Monday, 23 January 2017

USA 2017 Selfie


It’s a good time to take a “selfie” of the US. Remember the salad days of January 2001 during the transfer of power between Presidents Clinton and Bush. There was a budget surplus, no foreign wars of any consequence, low unemployment; I even recall a debate about whether surpluses might be bad for the country’s  economic long-term health. Ah yes, dream on!

There are many similarities today. We have an unemployment rate of 4.7%, and miniscule US forces remain in Iraq and Afghanistan; the deficit, however, is now at an unseemly $552 billon (still, many economists feel that while borrowing rates remain low the US economy can handily sustain this deficit level.)

Given the economic Armageddon that President Obama inherited in 2009, he’s done an amazing job. Stock markets are zooming, housing values have recovered, and gas prices continue to be low.

Let’s paste this selfie on our refrigerator door - we may need cheery memories in the coming years.

On the other hand, who knows what wonders await us under the incoming Trump Administration? I, for one back in 2009, never imagined that the tanking American car industry would be booming today. If you remember, 600,000 jobs were lost in that awful January President Obama took office.

Still unless President-elect Trump’s plans change, one can safely predict that “huge” tax cuts, allied with increased infrastructure and defense spending, will lead to even “huger” deficits. The consequential higher inflation and interest rates will pose severe threats for the present healthy economy.

But from what I’m hearing, the first Trumpian priorities will be to kill Obama Care and cut regulations. 

Although the Affordable Care Act has led to some costlier individual premiums it is saving many billions in overall US health costs. And in the rush to kill this flawed but helpful scheme, Republicans and the Trump Administration have yet to propose a meaningful alternative. The resulting chaos suggests millions left without coverage and a return to the staggering cost increases of the pre-Obama days.

As for regulations: some can undoubtedly be done without, but those that affect climate control are there for a reason, and without them a price will be paid in terms of rising sea levels, breathable air and other such niceties.

President-Elect Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp” is admirable, especially his threat to ban administration officials from becoming lobbyists for five years after their term of duty.

As distasteful as these crony capitalist enablers may be they are minnows compared to the real swamp alligators – the “huge” corporations that have increasingly been calling the shots in this country. 

Despite Mr. Trump’s populist campaign rhetoric, notice how effortlessly wealthy veterans of Exxon, Goldman Sachs and other members of the swamp elite have glided into his cabinet. They share one overriding concern - the amassing of corporate profit. 

Corporate taxes will definitely be cut. Will this help in the creation of well paying, non-service jobs? I doubt it. 

Corporate profit rates have been growing for the last 30 years while investment in factories and the work place has not kept pace, apart from a drive for more automation that inevitably leads to less jobs. 

In a major publicity move, Mr. Trump recently saved 800 Carrier jobs from moving to Mexico at a cost to the state of Indiana of 7million in tax rebates. The problem is - many of these jobs will eventually be lost to automation. Is there a solution?

There are over 5 million jobs nationwide that cannot be filled because Americans lack the necessary skills. Wouldn’t it be better for federal and local governments to collaborate with unions and employers, and train workers for these positions? 

Such an investment would engender less headlines and 4am tweets, but would provide many families with a path to the middle-class.

And while we’re at it - Fortune 500 companies have stashed more than $2.1 trillion in profits offshore to avoid taxes. What are the chances of those trillions being repatriated? Slim to none I’d say - without a sweetheart deal for the corporate alligators.

So there you have it – things could be better as President Obama leaves office; but they could get a whole lot worse. Don’t forget to check that selfie on your refrigerator door!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Rockabilly Wexford-oh


Americans definitely liked Buddy Holly. Many could even hum a bar or two of his songs. But they didn’t revere him like we did. In the narrow streets and back lanes of Wexford the man from Lubbock was right up there with Saint Anthony – he had a large and devoted following.

Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were only a couple of notches behind. No two ways about it - our town was Rockabilly mad.

Wexford has always been musically hip - partly because of its proximity to London. A fellah could go out for a couple of pints on a Saturday afternoon, get soused, throw some shirts in a battered suitcase, and wake up with a vicious hangover in Paddington train station the following morning.

Whatever sounds were au courant in Piccadilly soon pounded forth from Nolans’ jukebox on Wexford’s Main Street. Ska, Blues, Reggae, Glam, and Punk had their moment in local musical history but it all began with Rockabilly.

Nolans was a smoky ice-cream parlor frequented by would-be juvenile delinquents and London-hardened Teddyboys, but it was so much more. It may have been the coolest place I ever hung out. 

With its polished tiled floor and darkened windows it boasted a riveting natural reverb. I’ve tried to replicate that effect in the most sophisticated recording studios but have never come close.

Could it have had something to do with the volume? I often wondered if the proprietors - the mild-mannered, Mr. & Mrs. Nolan - were deaf, for ice cream bowls and coffee cups literally hopped on the tables when the Teds grooved to their favorite 45’s.

And guess what sounded best? You got it – Buddy, with Eddie and Blue Gene in close contention. I mean Elvis was no slouch and Irish-American Bill Haley could rock, but they lacked a certain ineffable coolness and that whiff of rebellion so central to Rockabilly.

Eddie Cochran even made fun of the mighty Presley – “Guy can barely play guitar, where’s that at?” Eddie himself could sure as hell play - Hendrix copped his first licks from Cochran 45’s, and Pete Townsend never even came close to “the man” on his version of “Summertime Blues.”

Of course, Eddie Cochran never got old and bloated like Elvis. A dumb Brit driver killed him at the age of 21 while recklessly speeding through the pitch dark English countryside; to top it all he half-crippled Eddie’s amigo, Gene Vincent. 

And you know what happened to Buddy Holly – he did a nose dive into the fields of Iowa courtesy of a pilot who should never have been let near a plane. And with the three of them gone, Rock & Roll died.

But not in Wexford! It lived on in the grooves of scratched 45’s and CD reissues. If you were an aspiring musician and wanted to play beyond your bedroom walls you had to at least learn the rudimentary fingerings and beats.

Rockabilly culture survived in grubby dancehalls and working class pubs, and many of us gravitated to it. It was more than the music: when you played that scene you were cool by association, for Teddygirls were sumptuous, and violence rarely more than an errant glance away.

One summer our band played Friday nights in the local CYMS. Catholics we might have been but there was little Christianity in that packed sweating hall. With no security fights ricocheted around the dance floor until they petered out from a surfeit of spouting blood or sheer fatigue. 

Didn’t matter! We played on for there was a promise of redemption in Rock & Roll; you went home exhilarated, and dreaming of the day when you too might become a Buddy or an Eddie or, the Lord forbid, a half-crippled Blue Gene.

Times and tastes change but on my last trip home I saw a vaguely familiar figure from those CYMS nights strutting down the Main Street. His hair had long ago turned grey but it was still coiffed in the old greased-back Ted fashion. 

His pants tight, his socks white, his progressive lenses encased in Buddy’s black signature frames, he winked his recognition as he sauntered by whistling “Rave On.”

Oh yeah, Rockabilly lives and Wexford Town still pulses to it!