Thursday, November 22, 2012

The State of it All

Don't rock the boat it may capsize
don't think, don't imagine, don't analyse-
the myriad of routes that might be
that stretch out before our eyes.

Let's dig a hole in the shifting sand,
dig down, hold tough, there! sight of land-
a mirage of desert is all you'll see
If you can't deduce a plan.

Govern countries from cliff bottom,
how to begin? With a seed that's rotten-
like a dark seed, to sea, on the wind
Rise, then fall, 'til all's forgotten.

I wrote this poem after hearing a radio piece about the death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway Hospital, last month. Savita died after three times requesting (and not receiving) an abortion-due to severe back pain and the onset of miscarriage. The radio segment I was listening to (from the Sean Moncrieff show on Newstalk), interviewed people who were protesting Savita's death at the hands of the State. One aspect of the radio piece that struck me, was the fact that many of the middle-aged women who were protesting also protested the same backward and convoluted laws back in the 80's.  The only difference being that now they came with their own daughters, thirty years on. The poem doesn't deal with the senseless and tragic death of Savita, but rather, the myriad of wrong turns and dead ends this country has been led down since the State was created-often due to fear of change, fear of collapse, and perhaps fear of our own power to make our own choices. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

To Noble Marcus Garvey and Paddies Ever More!

Exploring the Irish connection to the Caribbean you can traverse a myriad of avenues. From the O' Neill's of Puerto Rico, to the Irish of Monteserrat, from the Red legs of Barbados, to Killarney Avenue in Kingston-the paths of exploration are endless. It is in Jamaica that one of the more interesting connections (at least for me) is to be found. First, I'll take a divergent path-the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) of the early 20th century, though worldwide in its scope, found its feet in the U.S.  Having spent a good share of time in the U.S. myself, the relations between African-Americans and Irish-Americans really interests me, most especially, because of the seemingly great chasm between both groups in our own time.  We forget that in the 19th century, on the lowest rung of American society, the melting pot of cultures was overflowing with diversity, and Irish for many decades were as likely to marry black people as any other group of people.  To many, the Irishman was the "white negro," conversely, an African-American was often known as a "smoked Irishman."

Harper's Weekly, 1899.

Cartoon from 1889, notice the Irishman upsetting the melting pot!
Harpers Weekly, 1876.
Many's a foreign political movement was nurtured in the U.S.  From the 19th century Cuban drive for independence, to the Irish Fenian movement, from the Pan-African movement, to the Zionists and their promised land-all found a cradle in the U.S.  To get an idea of the influence of the Pan-African movement and the UNIA, imagine, almost half the flags of African countries today are based on the UNIA flag.

Pan-African/UNIA Flag

Marcus Garvey, Pan-African nationalist, Jamaican icon, and prophet to the Rastafarians, was a great admirer of the Irish nationalist movement. He was also a leading and founding member of the UNIA. Garvey stated that in the far-famed Pan-African flag (which he created) the green symbolised the struggle of the Irish to free themselves from the colonial oppression of Britain. Garvey too, was involved in Afro-Irish-Zionist Alliance-an organisation promoting the rising up of oppressed peoples worldwide, most namely: the Irish, Jews, and blacks of the world. In 1919 (just one week after the third annual "Irish Race Convention") Garvey called for an "International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World." The "Irish Race Convention" was an amalgam of varied interests in the Irish-American community calling for official recognition and support for the Irish Republic. Garvey was very much influenced by Irish sedition and rebellion, in our fight, he saw a blueprint for what needed to be done for his own people in the Americas and Africa.
The principal informant of the MID (Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. government) on "negro subversion," maintained that the UNIA and the "Friends of Irish Freedom" (sponsors of the Irish race convention) were linked.  Indeed, Garvey himself, in the inaugural convention of the UNIA, in August 1920, in New York, begun his oration- "I have in my hand . . . a telegram to be sent to the Hon. Edmund De Valera, President of the Irish Republic: "25,000 Negro delegates assembled in Madison Square Garden in mass convention, representing 400,000,000 Negroes of the world, send you greetings as President of the Irish Republic. Please accept the sympathy of the Negroes of the world for your cause. We believe Ireland should be free even as Africa shall be free for the Negroes of the world. Keep up the fight for a free Ireland. Marcus Garvey, President-General of the Universal Negro Improvement Association."

"Liberty Hall"-the headquarters of the UNIA, was named after "Liberty Hall" in Dublin- the home of the Irish Citizens Army during the rebellion of 1916. It was at the formal dedication of the UNIA's "Liberty Hall" that Marcus Garvey, in 1919, stated-"the time has come for the Negro race to offer up its martyrs upon the altar of liberty even as the Irish have given a long list from Robert Emmet to Roger Casement."
Citizen's Army members, the roof of Liberty Hall, Dublin, 1916.
To Garvey, the cause of Irish freedom was the cause of African freedom. As the convention of UNIA in New York was winding down, a meeting was called where 14 member of the "Friends of Irish Freedom" attended. Meanwhile, Terence MacSweeney (the Lord Mayor of Cork) was dying in a prison in London, Brixton. MacSweeney was on hunger strike having been interned without trial. The aim of the "Friends of Irish Freedom," was to plead with Garvey to have the African-American longshoremen of New York's docks to join with their Irish-American counterparts in boycott of British vessels. Garvey quickly dispatched one Rev. Selkridge down to the docks to "urge all negro longshore men not to load British ships, which act pleased the Irish strikers who learned that Garvey had sent him down to aid them." A strike was called and out came the longshoremen-Irish, Black, Italian, French and many others. In a few hours every British ship was tied up. At the same time, outside the British consulate in Manhattan the chant went up- "and shall MacSweeney die? and shall MacSweeney die? There's twenty million Irishmen who'll know the reason why." The protest was organised by Gertrude b. Kelly and "The Women's Picket." Gertrude was a well known Irish Republican in New York. When the strike was called they sent this cable to Lloyd George (the British Prime Minister) - "The sound of death in the throat of Terence MacSweeney is the death knell of your adventures in Ireland. We hear the bells tolling, the people are gathering, oil your tanks, polish up your guns." 
As "The Second International Convention of Negros" was beginning, MacSweeney died. This is the telegram Marcus Garvey sent to DeValera-President of the Provisional Republic of Ireland- "We the representatives of 400,000,000,000 negros of the world, send greeting and pray that you and your fellow countrymen will receive from the hands of the British your merited freedom, on principal nothing would please the negros of the world more, except the freedom of Africa, than the granting of freedom to the four and a half million people of Ireland." Garvey also declared- "Hundreds and thousands of Irishmen died for the cause of Irish freedom, they compelled the attention of the world, and I believe the death MacSweeney today did more for Irish freedom than anything they did in the previous 500 years prior to his death."
MacSweeney's Funeral in Cork
In America, cooperation between Blacks and Irish is often a moot point, and the country can often seem polarised in its ideas of race and color. For instance, the fact that Mohammad Ali's great-great-grandfather Abe O' Grady was born in County Clare, and married a freed slave named Morehead, for some, seems mad, or even irrelevant. Indeed, for many years Ali maintained that his white blood was on account of a slave master taking a fondness for his slave, this has been shown to be untrue. 
In 2009, Ali and his wife visited Clare (Turn Pike Road in Ennis) where distant relatives of Ali's still live. He was given the freedom of the town, the first man it was ever conferred upon! Even Marcus Garvey himself, had some very surprising opinions on race, he once stated that- "we who believe in race purity.... we believe that the White race should protect itself against racial contamination, and the Negro should do the same.” It is unfortunate that Garvey thought to play "the white man" at his own game, and perhaps he vehemently believed in such a creed, but that's a thought for another day. 
In modern America, if a man's skin is black, the idea that he might have Irish blood (or indeed any other) is by many, not considered, and if he is white he is usually considered to have only white blood. If he is black and he has an Irish second name-it is automatically presumed to be a "slave name." The Irish that came in such great numbers during, and after, the potato famine were no more slave owners than the man on the moon-most arrived completely destitute, many didn't arrive at all, and died aboard "coffin ships" where mortality rates of 30% were considered reasonable.  Even if they survived disease and starvation, the coffin ships they travelled on were sinking by the bucketload on the open sea. British maritime law allowed for any sort of a wreck to be set afloat, and many's the ship master made a "killing" during the famine. The famous abolitionist-Fredrick Douglass-visited Ireland at this time, and witnessed first hand the degradation of the people (even before they made their hellish journey across the Atlantic). He noted, "here you have an Irish hut or cabin, such as millions of the people of Ireland live in, in much the same degradation as the American slaves. I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others."  To make matters worse, Irish were the first large group of Catholics to descend upon the staunchly Protestant U.S-a fact which led to deep mistrust, and boiled over into the likes of the Philadelphia Anti-Irish Riots. 
As regards slavery and slave-owners in the States, an important distinction should be made between Scotch-Irish and Catholic-Irish. Within the Scotch-Irish community, there certainly were slave owners- Scotch-Irish being the bulwark of the white pioneer population in the South.  Scotch-Irish themselves were part of the colonisation of the province of Ulster in Ireland, from which they fled. This was mainly due to religious persecution under "The Penal Laws" and ethnic tensions with the native/Catholic Irish. The plantation of Ulster, interestingly, was concurrent with the plantation of the State of Virginia.  
If you dig deep you will find Irish-Catholic slave owners too (as you will black slave owners), but common sense dictates that relationships between Catholic-Irish and blacks were much, much, more likely to be on an even, all be it rocky keel, down at the bottom of the social ladder. In 1860, only 1.4% of the white population of the States were slave-owners, owing to the fact that Irish immigrants were at bottom of the social pile, the likelihood of them being slave-owners is quite slim. Of course, if they got the chance many of them would have probably lorded it over whoever may be, but they generally never got that chance. The very nature of colonialism is divide and conquer. For instance, it's many the Native-American that stood by the side of the British. I visited the grave in Savannah, Georgia, of Tomo-Chi-Chi (chief of the Yamacraw Indians)-he asked to be buried there to be near his British friends. Many's the Irishman too fought with the British, and many were handsomely rewarded. To some, this lessens the gravity of colonialism, to me, it doesn't detract from the horrors perpetrated by the colonisers, rather it further shines a light on the insidious nature of colonialism.  

Draft Riots, New York, 1863.

Most everyone has heard of the Draft Riots of New York, Scots-Irish slave owners, lynchings, and the KKK, but what of the reams and streams of blacks and Irish that flowed and raced together, under the great tides of politics and power?  From the Five Points of New York, to the Wards of New Orleans, from Savannah to Atlanta, these people lived together, married together, worked together, fought together and against each other. They shared a common bond of sufferance. They converged on the lowest rung, they are the losers of history, and their history is mostly silent. Though their lives have faded from memory, there is no doubt in my mind that they, and their likes, are the likes that forged the America that exists today, and that is their legacy. They dug the canals, hauled the anchors, raised the buildings, they blew the bugles, they eked a living anyway they could. Often they were pitted against each other-as with the Draft Riots of New York, as with Irishman against Irishman in the American Civil War. They should be remembered. They were swept up in the tides of history while just trying to stay afloat. When we think of Marcus Garvey and the green fields of Jamaica, let's think of the green fields of Ireland too. Let's drink a health galore-to noble Marcus Garvey and Paddies ever more!

The title of this post is a wry reference to a song called "Morrissey and the Russian Sailor"- where-in appears the line-"drink a health galore, to noble Johnny Morrissey and Paddies ever more."

Monday, September 24, 2012

From Mexico to the MacGillycuddy Reeks

Last weekend, I organized a series of gigs for the traditional Mexican band-Tacumba son Jaracho. The band came over to Ireland from Vera Cruz, Mexico, and were playing a series of gigs up in Galway for the "San Patricio Commemoration" up in Clifden. They played three Jarana guitars, all three sang, and Alfonzo the man on the left below, danced a style of dance quite similar to our own sean nós dancing tradition.  Alfonzo bought some clogs up in Galway for flaking the floor before coming down to Kerry! Their first gig down south was (appropriately!) in a Mexican restaurant in Killarney town-Casita Mexicana. Their next port of call was Courtney's Bar-a hop, skip, and a jump, down the lane from the restaurant.
Tacumba Son Jaracho, live at Courtney's Bar, Killarney
I had a late gig myself in the Pay As You Please restaurant, so, I had to leave for that half way through the concert in Courtney's. In the end we all reunited for an almighty session, in the Pay as You Please, which lasted until the early morning.

The next day took the band to Killorglan, and the Sol y Sombra, which has been lovingly converted from a protestant church to a bar, restaurant, and music venue. The series of gigs was a great success, and I, for one, enjoyed them thoroughly. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

St Mary's well in Killarney is (as far as I can decipher) the oldest man made structure in Killarney town. The obligatory sign which accompanies the landmark states-

The well itself, has seen better days. Today it is entombed in a dark nest of concrete-ensconced on all sides by that hardy old substance.  On one side of the well is the Plaza hotel-a giant travesty of a thing, on the other, the Town Hall-a much more benign edifice. When I walk by the well, I like to imagine what it was like in the early days of human settlement here in Killarney. The whole country was once covered in oak forest, and Killarney National Park still boasts the last old growth forest of same. When I imagine the well in those days, I imagine forest on all sides, and  a little sylvan path leading up to the church which gave our town its name, that being-Cill Áirne.
Cill Áirne - The church of the sloes, or perhaps, the Church of Áirne-Áirne being a saint of antiquity. The church itself, is about 30 metres uphill from the well, it is also called St. Mary's. St. Mary's has been a protestant church for centuries; on the church's site was the original town church from before English settlement. I also like to imagine all the baptisms that took place over the centuries at that well.  I often wonder when the last one occurred. Maybe if I have a child myself, I'll resurrect that old venerable tradition, presuming, the lady in question will be in concurrence with my notions!

One of the more bizarre stories associated with St Mary's Church's is the tragic suicide of the church's architect. The story goes that he hung himself from the top of the church because of a mistake he made in his measurements. The three arches in the middle of the church are more like 2 and three quarter arches. If the architects during the celtic tiger years had the same morals, we'd be having funerals galore- mourning them en masse.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Patterns and Black Butte Porter

The past few weeks I've been travelling from the nest gigging. The first of these musical excursions was to Allihies and the "Michael Dwyer Festival"-an annual Irish music gathering in memory of the late Michael Dwyer. The festival takes place in Michael's native Beara peninsula; Beara is situated in West Cork. Michael was a whistle player from Beara who spent many years in London. The history of the community in Allihies is long intertwined with copper mining.  As the mines eventually gave up their store, much of the community upped and left for Butte, Montana, in the USA. Butte was, and still is to some extent, the most Irish city in the U.S.  I remember drinking Black Butte Porter in a bar in Jacksonville, Oregon (coincidentally another old mining town). Being from the southwest of Ireland (and vaguely familiar with Butte Montana), I knew how to pronounce the beer's name-black beaut-like the Aussie expression-"you beaut." My American drinking companion (from the Georgia in the U.S.), on the other hand, pronounced the beer-black butt-much to my own amusement.

Another musical jaunt I took recently, was a hop, skip, and a jump over the road to Inch, County Kerry, and Foley's Pub.  The occasion of this excursion was for the annual Pattern there. Pattern's are Irish religious festivals, with their origin's in pre-Christian Ireland. We were scheduled to play the night before the Pattern, in mild preparation for the festivities. The Pattern stems from the Aenach, or assembly of the old Gaelic order. Patterns were popular throughout Ireland until the middle of the 19th century; now they have sorely dwindled but are still to be found scattered here, and there, in overlooked corners of the land.  At their height, patterns were raucous, rollicking, free for alls. In the aftermath of the famine an increasingly conservative element took hold (its arms being the church and state), eventually that element had a strangle hold on the populous, which silenced the great, riotous, din of the people. The few patterns that remain are more likely to be quiet affairs-kept going by elder, religious, members of the community.  In Inch the pattern includes both modern and ancient traditions-it being intertwined with a vintage rally for old tractors!

Foley's Bar, Inch

Monday, January 30, 2012

Pa' Los Del San Patricio

years ago I was up in Clifden, Connemara, for their annual commemoration of the San Patricio Battalion. The leader of the San Patricio's hailed from the town, his name was John Riely. As part of the commemoration I sang "Pa' Los Del San Patricio."  That song formed part of a documentary which I presented for TG4 entitled-"Saol Riely."  The documentary was shot in Ireland, and Mexico, in 2009, and 2010. The song was written by myself in Glenbeigh, County Kerry, around 2001. It's mad to think how writing that song brought me all the way from South Kerry to Central Mexico, the butterfly flaps his wings and all that malarky!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Leap of Faith (into the great blue yonder)

Philip Petit's, 45 minute tightrope walk between the twin towers in 1974, for me, is one of the most sublime, simple, and subversive things I've heard of or seen. Petit's dance; 1368ft up in thin air, is a perfect paean to the crushing beauty and fragility of creation. Bear in mind, the feat was done completely unbeknownst to the powers that be... until people started to point in wonder from the pavement below. Can you imagine that same gesture; pointing fingers, skyward, on September 11th 2001. When you compare Philip Petit's tightrope walk to the utter destruction of the twin towers attack, it's a sore indictment of how polar opposite humans can be. Picture a man: in one hand; a sublime beauty. In the other; an intransigent evil.
Envision a man, dancing, a quarter mile from the ground, on a tightrope cable between two monoliths. It's like some sublime dream. At one point, Petit has a conversation with a seagull circling round his head! Petit's tightrope feats, were said to be responsible for the softening of public opinion in relation to the garish architecture of the twin towers. Until he stepped out onto that cable, the towers were considered to be garishly large and unfeeling; two behemoths of concrete and commerce. Often, I like to imagine what two similar towers might be like if they were populated by the likes of Philip Petit; an army of people marching to their own drum, together. Can you imagine the mad diversity, the beautiful creations that might come; if only the leap was taken?

I can highly recommend the film documentary based on Petit's life - "Man On Wire."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

That Langer is Baloobas!

The Irish have a long history of service in the British Army. For centuries, in a country full of strife and upheaval, it was the one job you could count on-you could always count on her Majesty's Few bob.... if you lived long enough to benefit from it. One famous regiment of the British Army were "The Munster Fusiliers." Under that moniker, they were active for forty years, from 1881 to 1922. They had many run-ins with many foes, from German Kaisers to Ottoman Kings. While stationed in India the Munster Fusiliers faced one of their most unusual enemies, that being: the Langur Monkey.  The Langurs were so unpopular with the Munster Fusiliers, that they were the inspiration for the most famous of Cork slang words - Langer.

Langer - A fool, a really drunk person, or a penis. The etymology of Langer derives from the time of the Munster Fusiliers. When they were stationed out in India the Fusiliers were probably pestered to distraction by langur monkeys; soon enough they began using Langer as a term of insult amongst each other - "feck off you langer,"  "yer some langer,"  and so on. The term quickly spread back home to Ireland and eventually became the quintessential Cork slang term it is today.

A Young Langur Monkey
The Irish State, since its formation in the early 1920's, has been a neutral state; the only active service Irish soldiers see is on peace keeping missions with the U.N.  One of the most infamous missions of the Irish Army was when they were stationed out in the Congo in the late 1950's/early 1960's. It was during an engagement there that another colorful Hiberno-English word took flower-Baloobas.

Baloobas - A fool or a really drunk person. For example - "Yer man was baloobas altogether" or "He's some balooba."
The Baloobas are an African tribe of the Congo.  On Nov 8th 1960, although the Baloobas fought with bow and arrow, they almost wiped out one whole Irish Platoon.