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A Gentle Anarchy – The Asmara Book Club

published in Natural Bridge Review, University of Missouri.

Array-book-club-webThis evening, we meet around eight o’clock, at a rambling old colonial villa in the heart of Eritrea’s sleepy capital, Asmara. Bougainvillea and Clematis crawl along the old stone walls, Italianate stucco designs frame the peeling storm shutters, the hallway has that 1930s feel of space and marble that disappeared after the Second World War. The equally spacious living room is hung with paintings, lined with books and evinces the peripatetic essence of the international worker: wood carvings from Indonesia, wall hangings from Afghanistan, carved wooden footstools from Kenya and batik prints from Benin. On the coffee table, a beautifully crafted Eritrean bread basket.

Apart from this hodge-podge of domestic style, the most fascinating sight to behold here tonight is a massive collection of books, arrayed on the dining table, tumbling over onto the sideboard, piled on chairs and on the windowsill, arranged without rhyme or reason.   Their authors range from Shakespeare to Michael Herr, from Jane Austin to Zadie Smith, but their random placement is all part of the charm and glory of what is simply known in Asmara as “The Book Club”.

The Book Club is an anarchic entity. Its library of around 700 tomes has no geographical resting place. People meet, discuss books, drink wine, and at the end of the night, somebody just volunteers to host the next Book Club.   It’s like ‘Fight Club’ without Brad Pitt. There is no treasurer, no fee, no headquarters, no membership requirements. The books travel, each month, in an assortment of cardboard boxes, from the location of the last Book Club, to the location the next Book Club, and are then simply stacked in any suitable space in the host/hostess’s living room for all to peruse. (more…)

From the Archive: “This Is My Father” review

This-is-my-father-pic
Senator Tom Hayden once pointed out that one of the reasons why traditional Irish American culture tends towards the light and aery sentimentalism of chuckling leprechauns and rustic simplicity, is not because our history is cheery and uncomplicated, but rather the opposite.

The original stories of many who reached the New World from Ireland have been simply too full of horror to tell. Their sadness and hardship was quickly replaced by a selective memory process that eventually led to the quaint, cute or rambunctious stage and screen Irish images we have come to know.

This resulting mythology is often more interesting for what it conceals than what it shows. As with the old John Cleese joke, “don’t talk about the war”, the true experience of immigrants was frequently silenced for the following generations, and it often takes a long time for realities to be faced, or even discovered.

This is My Father is about such a discovery, and is simply one of the best Irish American films ever. Its powerful exploration of the kind of social and religious constraints that often drove people away from Ireland, its heartfelt portrayal of real Irish people in an accurate, unsentimentalized setting, and its capacity for humor as well as pathos, make it an exceptional work. It’s story will be especially poignant for Irish American viewers, but is universal enough in its theme and treatment to appeal to any movie goer.

While the film is a striking directorial debut from Paul Quinn, its also somewhat of a family collaboration. The lead is played by Paul’s brother, the actor Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall, Benny & Joon, Michael Collins), his sister Marion (I Shot Andy Warhol, 2×4), features in a smaller role, and the cinematographer Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas, The Ballad of Little Jo). Its strong cast includes such distinguished actors as Donal Donnally, James Caan, Moira Deady, John Cusack, Stephen Rea, Gina Moxley, Colm Meaney and Brendan Gleeson (recently seen in The General), and the film boasts a memorable soundtrack from Master Irish musician Donal Lunny.

The story begins in Chicago, when Kieran Jr. (James Caan), finds himself in a genuine crisis of identity. His mother Fiona, who arrived in America pregnant just before the outbreak of World War II, never told him who his father was. Having now suffered a stroke, she is unable to communicate any longer with her family. Kieran is a schoolteacher in a modest suburban school, whose life lacks context and purpose. When a homework task he assigns his students coincides with the unearthing of an old family photo revealing a man who might possibly be his father, he heads back to Ireland with his nephew, Jack (Jacob Tierney), in search of the truth.

When Jack and Kieran arrive in Ireland, their B&B is run by Seamus (Colm Meaney in a truly flamboyant role!) and his mother, Mrs Kearney. Initially faced with a blank wall from locals in the village, Kieran can only learn the tale under the auspices of Mrs. Kearney’s “fortune telling” sessions. It is through these that we learn the tale of young Fiona and her first love, Kieran.

Fiona (Moya Farrelly) is a bright, gorgeous girl with a lust for life that burns brightly despite the odds. Her mother is a domineering, bitter and snobbish widow – the only woman in the village with a car. Having taken to the drink after her husband’s death, she is determined that no romance will blossom between her daughter and the lowly Kieran, played by Aidan Quinn.

Quinn gives a stunning performance. Fiona’s unlikely suitor is a “poor house bastard” who cuts turf for his stepparents and is regarded generally in the locality as the village idiot. He is deeply religious, but his love for her is unquenchable – even in the face of opposition from the widow (Gina Moxley) and the all-powerful local parish priest (Eamonn Morrissey). Quinn put on thirty pounds for the role, and his metamorphosis into a painfully shy, rural batchelor who is overwhelmed at Fiona’s attentions, is nothing short of brilliant. He manages to evince the gentle soul inside the “outsider” and gives such a touching performance, that many of the audience (including the male contingent) were moved to quiet tears by the end of the film.

Moya Farrelly also gives a splendid performance.   Finally – we see a strong Irish woman on the big screen that does not fit into the “feisty redhead” stereotype. She is a naturally sexy and outspoken girl whose place in society prohibits a passion as strong as her love for Kieran, and her departure for America at the end of the film is no surprise.

It is to director/writer Paul Quinn’s credit that a film entitled This Is My Father is as much about the mother in the family as well as the father.   Notable too, is that while the film flashbacks are set at the end of the 1930s, the contemporary scenes really are contemporary Ireland – not just more Hollywood-Irish romanticism.   Quinn, as an Irish American who has spent two separate sojourns in Ireland as a child, is well able to address the past, but has his feet planted firmly in the present.   One looks forward to his future work, and hopefully we’ll see more Irish and Irish American films of this calibre gracing our screens over the next couple of years.

Having celebrated its East Coast premiere at the First Annual New York Film Fleadh last month, This Is My Father opens in May at theaters around the U.S.

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* Posted on what would have been the 57th birthday of the director of the film director, Paul Quinn, RIP

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From the archives: original “Trainspotting” review …

Trawling through my hard drive in search of an errant fiction file, I came across my original “Trainspotting” review, done this month 21 years ago for one or other of the New York publications at the time … 

Currently not so much a film as a phenomenon, “Trainspotting” has been preceded by a blast of mega-hype reaching all the way across the Atlantic. Do you have to see it? Do you really? Well, read on…

Based on the novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh (who also wrote “The Acid House”), the book meanders in and around of the lives of the post-punk, no-future generation of unemployed Edinburgh youths enmeshed in heroine addiction, not unlike many in our other favourite post-colonial city, Dublin.

For all the hype, though, it grossed $15 million, more than any other Scottish film. Made by director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew McDonald (who made “Shallow Grave”, released last year), it deals with heroine addiction, AIDS, unemployment and poverty. But it also delivers a full-blast infusion of the lust for life that any gang of twenty-somethings will have in any city.

Taking no prisoners, it’s an honest, brilliant and devastating take on a very real part of urban life, managing to deliver that world faithfully – with all its gallows humor and its highs and lows.

If the book is one of the best ever penned about about heroine addiction, the film follows suit. Because while anybody watching the film will work out that heroine is an evil that consumes its victims continuously and relentlessly, you see that the characters, to put it in their own words, “aren’t stupid” – they do it because of the sheer pleasure. They have fun, they are rebels, they care nothing for the society that has provided them with nothing, they run around committing small-time robberies, organizing scams and petty deals to fund their habits, and they do their drugs. Addiction is set out on the screen with no frills, no excuses. It’s comparable in grit to Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy”, although for sheer scatological detail “Trainspotting” is more harrowing.

Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Begby and the others know no pain when they are on smack, they have no everyday worries, no bills, no problems, no rent, no emotional hassles – everything in their lives is solved and sugared by this incredible substance. And yet everything in their lives is at the same time reduced to a vile lowest common denominator, as when one squat mate’s baby dies of neglect in its cot, and all the mother can think of doing is banging up another hit of smack. Or when Tommy, the only one in the crowd who remained outside the game, finally joins in and falls faster than any of them.

The controversy surrounding “Trainspotting” in England and Ireland is centred on whether this film “glorifies” drugs. This is fairly typical of the Irish and British authorities, who seem to get more worked up about peripherals than actually getting down and dealing with the everyday challenges of their gang-strangled streets. Recently the Irish government sent 500 of their policemen up to the Northern Ireland border to save the Republic from the illegal crossings of potentially “mad” cows, while journalist Veronica Guerin was gunned to bits in Dublin city by drug lords. With an estimated 10,000 heroine addicts in Dublin alone, how worrying can one film about drugs be?

Take “Trainspotting” as you like. See it to get a bloody hard look at a problem that is widespread in Irish and Scottish society today. See it for its spectacularly stylish cinematic qualities or its fabulous soundtrack. See it for Ewan McGregor’s grin, for Spud’s glasses, for Kelly McDonald’s demented school uniform, see it to have a good laugh – or see it and weep. But see it.

Helena Mulkerns

 

 

Interview with David Bowie

Published in Hot Press Magazine, 1995

 

Bowie Cover-blog-docSo, at the request of friends, I’m uploading my one and only David Bowie interview for posterity, published in Hot Press – hard to believe – 20 years ago. (Click on the image to the left for immediate access).  In 1995, I’d long been a Bowie freak and back again, having first seen him as a vision in white satin hot-pants screaming “Jean Jeanie”, but not catching him live for the first time in Paris during the Serious Moonlight tour. 

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was the first album I ever bought, followed by every Bowie album ever after that until a certain dodgy period from the early eighties to mid-nineties, but say no more.

There was a heat wave in New York when Hot Press Editor, Niall Stokes phoned me and said, “I’m calling you because I know you’d come home and shoot me if I didn’t … ”

It had been a strange year, kicking off with twelve people dead in a weird chemical warfare attack in the Tokyo subway;  Timothy MacVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 Americans in Oklahoma City.  While an historic peace accord was signed between Israel and the PLO, in Srebrenica, Bosnian Serbs massacred an estimated 7,000 Muslim men, raping thousands of women, in probably the worst European war crime since World War II.

In the art world, a sort of misguided, pre-millennial rococo was everywhere. Body modification through self mutilation and even plastic surgery was at its height. The previous year’s Nine Inch Nails’ album, The Downward Spiral, with its themes of self-harm, addiction and despair had spawned a follow-up album in June.  Damien Hirst was suspending dead sheep and cows in formaldehyde and French performance artist Orlan was rearranging her face to resemble iconic works of Art.

It’s hard to believe that just two years previously, Bowie had produced the unspeakably bland Black Tie White Noise.  As a massive contrast, Outside was dark in the extreme, offering a musical reflection that sought to capture the prevailing fin de siecle angst.  Bowie had been graduating more towards fine art, and had begun to work with Brian Eno.  They even visited the Psychiatric unit of a hospital in Vienna to interview artists who had gone to the extreme end of Outsider art. Based on a short story written by Bowie, which is in the sleeve notes, it was filled with deeply disturbing imagery.  (more…)

The Lost Weekend: St Patrick’s Day 1991, New York City

5th avenue and Empire State building by night under the rain, New York

St. Patrick’s Day is often regarded with a deal of scorn by the New Irish in this city, for the obvious reasons. It’s an occasion when the Irish American “Leprechauns and shillelaghs” brigade become rampant, and full grown people stagger around with shamrocks falling out of kelly green hats that say “Kiss Me, I’m Irish”. That St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday this year was a bonus – no work the next day – but the fact that The Pogues would be playing the Palladium on Friday and highjacking ‘Saturday Night Live’ the following night made it even better. We wanted The Pogues for St. Paddy’s for years (they kill all known Leprechauns dead) and this year we got them.

Between the Academy Awards and The Boys From The County Hell, the celebrations started early on in the week, and continued throughout, kicking off with a riotous star-studded hooley at the Irish Consulate honoring Celluloid Men of the Week, Sheridan and Pearson of “My Left Foot”. The Musical Men Of The Week made their first appearance en masse at a launch held for the author T.J. English to celebrate the publication of his new book, “The Westies”.

Here The Pogues jam with New York band, “Morning Star” and mingle with Gerard Conlon and Paul Hill of the Guildford Four (Conlon having recently testified in U.S. Congress on the plight of the Birmingham Six), Nicky Kelly and various elements from the Irish American Hierarchy.

Later Terry Woods turned up at the second launch of the evening, in the Rodeo Bar on Third Avenue where Pat Kilbride celebrated the release of his new album “More Rock and Roses” on Flying Fish Records. Originally from Kildare, Kilbride swopped continents about two years ago after much success in Europe, and has since been a regular on the music scene here. He has recently assembled “The Kips Bay Ceili Band, which features some of the most talented musicians on the East Coast, like Eileen Ivers on electric fiddle, Joanie Madden on flute, John Whelan (uileann pipes) and Jerry O’Sullivan (accordian). Their rowdy polished blend of trad rock and folk was delivered in a spectacular performance that continued into the early hours.

On Friday, too, which suddenly became “St. Patrick’s Eve, you could step out with The New Irish of an “upwardly mobile” persuasion in the Roseland Ballroom, at what has become known as the Yuppie Ball. (Officially: “The Annual Saint Patrick’s Day Charity Ball”.) The carefully exclusive affair is run by a young, first generation “all-graduate” Ball Committee who aspire to the kind of heights described by organiser Daniel O’Leary in The Irish Times recently: “most of us are on an upward spiral in our careers. This is where we can take our place among the best”. Right, Daniel.

The one thing about The Pogues, however, is that you don’t have to wear a tuxedo. At the packed gig, T-shirts saying “Italia 1990” are popular, as is the chic, skinny white torso favoured by young Irishmen. Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 01.03.35Kicking off early, the first band, “Black47”, a new combo headed by Wexford musician Larry Kirwan provided a suitably post modern Irish intro. The band, comprised of Kirwan, Chris Byrne on uileann pipes, with an extended line up of African percussion, trombone and tin whistle among other sounds, has an eclectic blend of trad and rock with Latin and even Hip hop flavors. Their original material recently provided music for the off Broadway theatre hit, “Away Alone”, and their final song, “Paddy’s Got a Brand New Reel”, from the play’s soundtrack, brought the audience up to the right pitch of high doh to welcome The Pogues onstage with a deafening roar that was surpassed only seconds later as the Great McGowan balanced a ball on his forehead, tossed it up over the stage and then caught it, before belting into the first track.

And they’re off. The punters as well as The Pogues. My dastardly plan – since I refuse to be anywhere but right in front of the stage at a Pogue’s gig (otherwise it’s cheating) – is to grab hold of some huge young man whose knightly valour will generally save me from being crushed to bits and then, to use a slightly outmoded phrase, pogo for my life. The band are in flying form, their musicianship grows more excellent each year, and their style is expanding. Nothing too polished, mind (nothing featuring the distinctive McGowan vocal could sound too polished), retaining all the rage of Celtic soul gone wild, and yet belting out jazz (“Gridlock”) and pure pop (“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” etc) as easily as old favorites like “Streams of Whiskey” and “Irish Rover”. “Streets of Sorrow” is dedicated to The Guildford Four and Nicky Kelly (looking on from backstage) and in the middle, a genius stroke with the lighting has spots-turned searchlights crawling all over the crowd full blast like prison yard security lamps. “It’s about time the Birmingham Six were released” spits Shane.

McGowanGod knows how many passionate Irish accents are singing along to the Phil Chevron’s pertinent “Thousands Are Sailing”, hands in the air, celebrating the land that made them refugees, reluctantly or not. Destined to become a classic. As usual “Dirty Auld Town” is sung as loudly by the audience as by the band, and even has a couple of girls beside me in tears. Back then to “Cotton Fields” and “Fiesta!” madness, and Connor O’Mahoney (sans Happens!) nearly gets lost to the world as he discovers that the dancefloor is a steep three foot drop below the rest of the ground level, and that once you’re down in the crush of dancers, it’s almost impossible to get out.

After the end of the fouth encore (no, I don’t remember what it was, but it was brilliant), The Pogues are gone, the floor of the Palladium is littered with green scraps, spilled beer and one forlorn, crumpled white shirt. People are being kicked out by the management to clear the place for the club’s late night attraction: Lambada dancing (much to Spider Stacey’s amusement). The official post gig bash took place in Ron Wood’s nightclub, but the unfortunate choice of a heavy metal live band led many to head elsewhere, including The Pogues. This happened again the following night when Sean Penn, Debra Winger, Rob Lowe and Michael Douglas among others turn up to to lig at Wood’s, only to find a mysterious and contrary absence of most Pogues!

The following morning, the official St. Patrick’s Day began with orgy-style “breakfasts” in most of the Irish bars on Third Avenue. The hair of the dog was never so sweet. And this was your day if you ever harboured the pervy desire to get an eyeful of either Miss Ireland, Maureen O’Hara or New York’s dreaded Cardinal O’Connor (who, last week, in a startlingly original revelation, pronounced that “Rock’n’Roll is the Devil’s music”).

After the usual parade madness, you could get drunk with many more drunks on almost any block on any street in any section of Manhattan, where all drinking establishments have mysteriously acquired barmen called “Paddy” for the day. Then again, you might consider getting drunk. Or you could just forget consideration and get drunk anyway.

In the East Village’s Cave Canem, Wexford musician Pearse Turner gave an as-ever brilliant performance around 7:30 pm. Despite a venue which was a little too small to hold the kind of crowd Turner draws at any gig these days, he put over a great set, which included a spectacular cymbal clashing solo during “Mayhem” and involved Pearse climbing all over the pristine white linen covered tables of the cafe, much to the delight of the punters.

Another interesting alternative to the more traditional boozing sessions was to head over to the new Irish cafe on Avenue A, Sin é. Run by Shane Doyle, the cafe opened up a few months ago and quickly gathered an interesting clientele of Irish and East Villagers. The place used to be one of the area’s many art galleries, but now the walls are pastel blankness “so that people will just be able to talk to each other, not be distracted by ever changing exhibits” explains Shane. Music, however, is ever present, varying from Davy Spillane to Sinead O’Connor or The Dixons. In a sort of “coffee house” folk capacity, live music from local performers can be heard on several evenings. This scribe even hijacks a mic to deliver the “Clumsy Cabaret” an East Village Blue Jayzus of sorts most Saturday nights in the company of Elizabeth Logun, Deanna Kirk and Paul Hond.  Sin-é is an easy-going estalishment that over the St. Patrick’s weekend attracts several Pogues, East Village “anti folk” originator Kirk Kelly and a folk outfit from Maine called “The East Coast Rovers”.

Heading on towards midnight, the triumphant height of the festivities was arguably the sight of The Pogues going out nationwide across America on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”. They belted out “White City” and “Free Born Man”, shaking the live studio audience right out of their seats. From the first time they arrived in New York, hailed as Brendan Behan’s bastard sons, whiskey bottle and Player’s non filter in hand, to that day’s half-page article in The New York Times, what they’ve gained in respect here has meant no loss of passion. They successfully conveyed a riveting, rollicking sense of Poguetry at its best, capable playing with just the right hint of debauchery that characterized the holiday. A great wind down to a celebratory week, without a plastic shamrock in sight.

Helena-portrait-shot-JF-web

 

Helena Mulkerns,
New York, March 1991
Written for
Hot Press Magazine

When the “New Irish” were fighting for the right to vote, 1991

Published in The Irish Times twenty-four years ago almost to the day, this article dates from the time when “New Irish” referred to native-born Irish emigrants based in the United States. I think it encapsulates some of the community spirit and idealism of the 80s and 90s emigrant generation. Unable to vote in Irish national elections as a result of their non-residency in Ireland – the piece highlights how people came together to address the injustice.  A recent Irish Times article  reported how emigrants still haven’t got the vote, indicating how utterly this country refuses to change in some of the most significant ways.  What would have happened if people hadn’t made the effort to travel home to vote in 2015’s landmark Same-sex Marriage Referendum?  It’s like some perverse Irish joke!

Christmas-Vote-Article

TO READ THE FULL TEXT OF THIS ARTICLE, CLICK HERE: (more…)

Irishwoman’s Diary, July 1992: New Music Seminar

From The Irish Times – July 1992

By Helena Mulkerns

Sinead cameo

Sinead O’Connor
Pic: John Francis Bourke

Last week, as Uncle Boris Yeltsin posed for happy snaps on the lawn with George and Barbara at the Whitehouse, and Sarajevo shuddered under Serbian mortar fire, a whole microcosm of Western youth culture carried on regardless, at the popular music industry’s annual “New Music Seminar” in New York City.

Emerging from the subway in Manhattan’s Times Square, the brief stretch from the underground exit to the hotel hosting the seminar exposes the walker to the buzz of New York’s glitz and grime. To the backdrop of expensive Broadway theatres and department stores, yellow cabs jostle whizzing messenger-cyclists, teenage homeless pan-handle sullenly on corners and street hawkers flash fake Rolex watches at passers-by.

Once inside the Mariott Marquis, however, umbrage is assured. It is a standard-issue American luxury hotel, futuristic in form, efficient in its operation and designed to accomodate the comfort requisites of both tourist and convention-goer. Normally, family vacationers in pastel-casuals ride the elevator with gray-suited businessmen carrying briefcases. The latter might wear a badge that says “John Doe – National Insurance Representatives Convention”. For the week of the music seminar however, the Insurance reps are upstaged flamboyantly by Babylon’s most shameless upstart, Rock’n’roll. The seminar effectively provides a forum for the big business side of the music scene, becoming the hunting grounds of managers, publishers, promoters, lawyers and other sharks. But it is also an annual chance for performers of all shapes and hues to party and to be seen, as a brief stint of people-watching will prove. Post-punk Japanese Divas in day-glo mini-skirts and platform shoes ride the escalators. Pale Rock’n’roll animals from America’s East Coast contrast starkly with suntanned, muscular surf-babies from Northern California. Rap brothers in spandex and gold jewellery flank slick latino-beat masters from Miami or Seville.

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77 Lucious Babes

The most interesting thing about the “New Music Seminar” is that its very concept is essentially a contradiction in terms: it is a Rock’n’roll Convention. While traditionally Rock’n’Roll claims to be the voice of youthful rebellion, and an alternative artistic force, it is also big business, so you have the rather hilarious situation where hip and trendy managers or members of bands like “The Toiling Midgets”, “Goober And The Peas” or “77 Lucious Babes” have to walk around the lobby of this conservative hotel (complete with Chanel/Waterford glass gift shops) wearing name-tagged convention badges!

The some 50 Irish delagates and musicians, coordinated by The Irish Export Board, convened on a stand among the hundreds of business “boothes” in a main exhibition hall. Most adopted a healthy attitude that combined the seminar’s business challenge with the more easy-going pace of the rock world. Deals would be initially instigated by a form of chat known as “schmoozing”, or initial contact-making, a process which has lead to a whole new vocabulary. For instance, the hotel’s lobby became the “schmoozatorium”, the bar was the “schmoozer”. A certain irrepressible band manager from Dublin earned the title “King Of Schmooze”, and since the field of operations was not confined to the convention hall, it was not unusual to hear one delegate ask another, at a late night rock gig, “will you have a drink or are you schmoozing?” The schmoozing, needless to say, got arguably better as the evenings went on, and indeed, it is not unheard of that a quick schmooze at the back of the hall has led to greater things. Like “doing lunch”, perhaps, another great New York convention.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 22.11.13If the seminar’s daylight ethic is taking care of business (as Elvis himself used to say), the night time idea  is slightly different. With literally thousands of acts from all over the world performing in clubs around the city, the idea is basically to see who can who can catch the most gigs, who can meet the most people, who can drink the most alcohol, and who can remain coherently vertical the longest in any of the after-hours bashes that inevitably follow the night of serious music. It’s a serious rock’n’roll challenge, and one which frequently leads to a sorry malady known unofficially as “schmoozeritis”.

Symptoms include extreme fatigue, involuntary exclamations of epithets such as “Jayzus, I’m wrecked. Musicians suffer temporary lapses of memory: as they crawl offstage they will announce their immediate intention to withdraw to the hotel room, and yet will be spotted four hours later in an after-hours watering hole waxing lyrical on the glories of New York City.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 22.20.21Irish rock hounds tended to descend mainly on two venues for the post-seminar hanging out (“hanging out”, as opposed to schmoozing, involves no business element, and a deal more liquid refreshments). Brownies, once a notorious after-hours bar on Avenue A in the East Village, has become (along with Paddy Reilly’s bar on 28th), Manhattan’s home to the alternative Irish music scene, and it hosted several excellent gigs featuring Irish and Irish American musicians. For post-gig intimacy and atmosphere, however, Sine-é café on St. Mark’s Place probably topped the list, with one post-gig seisúin involving the impromptu talents of no less than The Four Of Us, Marianne Faithful, Sinead O’Connor and the erstwhile king of coffee house performance, Allan Ginsberg.

Yes, it was there in the dawn’s early hours that one and all miraculously forgot about six figure record company deals, national tours and music publishing contracts, and converged into a generous, universal musical community. Schmooze-free, timeless and often slightly out of tune, musicians would play with great abandon and without set lists in that great traditional seisúin spirit, and not a name-tag in sight. “Badges?” As one wit pronounced on the sidewalk outside Sin-é early Saturday morning, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!!”

And the party just went on.

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First published short story

Full-package-man-WEB

This was my first published short story. It made its debut thanks to the wonderful Mr Ciáran Carty, who has published and encouraged so many Irish writers down the years as the editor of New Irish Writing, which appeared in the now sadly defunct Sunday Tribune.

It was hugely encouraging when ‘The Package Man’ was also shortlisted for the New Irish Writing Awards in 1991. Eventually, it became adapted as one of the linked stories in my first actual published book, which is probably fitting. 

Read the original story below.  It’s located in Paris in the early ’80s, when young Irish people were increasingly leaving for London, Europe or America pretty much as soon as they’d finished their “Leaving” (Irish high-school graduation exams). The theme of the story is, itself, about the shared exile of two very different people. 

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It was this, the deceptive, chilled sunlight, that kept her in a constant vague illness.  Just a cold – but it was always there, getting better sometimes but never really going away.  Emerging onto the Rue de Rivoli, she began to cross the road before the lights had turned, following the crowd.  Slowing down a little as she began to cross the square in front of the Hotel de Ville, she scattered several flustered pigeons and glanced up at its impossible facade.  The stone was tinged gold in the evening light, its thousands of pompous little statues frozen in lofty animation, an arrogant advertisement for city and empire, its rows of windows mirroring the blue of the sky and the glittering, icy Seine. 

She sighed and hurried into the post-office on the ground level.  Inside, there was a line going the full length of the place for stamps and express letters.  Shit.  She gauged the length of the queue, and how long it would take to get through it, but there was no remedy but to wait her turn.

The line moved along at a snail’s pace.  She was getting fed up. She must have looked at every stupid thing in the room.  The man in front of her smelled badly of garlic and cooking and she was sick just standing behind him.  The man behind her had been staring at her solidly, unflinchingly since he joined the queue.  She turned and glared at him.  Behind him was a rather scruffy, nervous looking African man of about 30 wearing glasses, followed by a prim little French lady in a blue woolly coat. 

There was another delay at the hatch ahead, and by the time she reached third from the top, she had been waiting 15 minutes.  As the man before her began to speak through the screen at the girl, she knew she’d probably be waiting 15 more.  The guy could hardly speak French.  This didn’t impress the Post Office clerk, a woman of about 28, blonde and skinny, and extremely irritated. 

“Monsieur, postal services to Cambodian refugee camps are cancelled, as of last month.  As they are to Gabon, Mozambique and Syria.  No more, Finished. “ The man looked at her patiently. 

“No, it’s going to Thailand.  Not Cambodia.  Near the border in Thailand.”

“No, no.  Services are cancelled.  New rule!  Next please … “

The man looked momentarily distressed.  It was obvious he didn’t understand what the woman had said.  Then, smiling, he gave a little nod of his head and began to speak again.  She winced as the woman behind the hatch observed him with supreme disdain. It really was quite difficult to make out what he was saying. 

He was a small man, painfully skinny, his clothes hanging off him like a scarecrow.  His shoes were falling apart and he wore a navy crimplene jacket with very wide lapels and no tie.  He smiled forbearingly, looked down at the package in his tiny, fine hands, and began to explain again.

“This package is going to Thailand.”

“What?  I can’t understand what you’re saying.  Speak up.”

“It is going to Thailand.”

He appeared to be addressing the woman most politely, but she could see a grave, concentrated hatred somewhere in his eyes as he spoke.  It was a calm, but strong anger camouflaged very carefully by a dispassionate smile.  She was a little taken aback.

“What is he saying, for God’s sake, I haven’t got all day”,  screeched the clerk.

“I have sent things before.”

“What?  she addressed the people waiting.  – What is he saying?  I haven’t a clue!”

The man didn’t take his eyes off her, and maintained a pleasant expression, despite her rudeness.  She wasn’t having any of it.  The woolly coat lady pursed her lips and nodded in approval. 

“Move along.  Move along, Monsieur!  You aren’t the only person in line here, and I have to get on with my job …”

The man didn’t move.  Now, the resentment had ebbed.  His eyes only showed a mixture of pain and disappointment.  She looked at his face, haggard so as to be almost skeletal.  It became suddenly apparent to her that this man was very tired, and a lot older than he looked.  His hands began to tremble as he clutched the parcel desperately.  He had a sort of twitch that, while not noticeable before, now became quite pronounced.  He stammered something else which was immediately screeched down by the woman.

“Excuse me …”   Here we go, she thought, barging in as usual.  She might as well.  She enunciated slowly.    

“They have made a new regulation, Monsieur.”

The man looked at her haughtily, the glimmer of anger in his eyes flaring up again.  Of course, it was none of her business to talk to a man in a language that wasn’t hers.  But that bitch behind the hatch was worse. 

“They are not delivering packages to the Refugee Camps anymore at all – they have stopped the service.  See?”   She pointed at a printed sign taped to the glass at eye level, but he didn’t look.  He was shattered.  Glancing down at his parcel, his anger to turned to ineffable sadness.  He frowned as if to camouflage his defeat, still unmoving.

“Is there no other way to send it, Madame?”  The woman exploded.

“Mademoiselle, who do you think I am?  Mind your own affairs.  And since you’re so good at communication, maybe you can teach him French.”

“The gentleman was most likely educated in French, Madam.”

“Well, Mademoiselle, he doesn’t seem at all educated to me.  Now – move along!”

Suddenly the African behind them pushed his way roughly to the hatch and hissed in a barely controlled fury.       

“You make me sick!  How dare you treat a human being like this?  You French, in fact, are bloody sick!”  He pointed at the woman.   “You, you are inhuman!”  The woman behind the partition stood up and moved back a step. 

“Get out!  You have no right to talk to me like that.  Get out!”

“This putrid society as created people like you – and your National Front bastards!  With absolutely no respect for humanity, for basic human dignity.  Who gave you the right to treat this man like this?  Who?”

The African voice, in its emphatic, precise French, was rising at each phrase.  Clucking shuffling and sighs sounded around the Post Office.  A couple of Algerian youths leaned out of the telephone booth to observe the fray, eyes glistening.

“This very man has probably suffered most of his life from your colonial exploitation and mishandling.  He has probably served your country more than you ever can!  Fighting in your bloody war!”  He was shouting now, sweating face, hands clenched. 

“And now, when he asks you an honest question you treat him like a dog … “

The Asian man was staring at the African with an expression totally unfathomable.  It could have been distain, it could have been admiration, it seemed mostly to be disbelief.  The tirade continued.

“He’s mad, he’s mad!!”  the clerk screamed.

The little woman in the blue woolly coat pronounced sharply: 

“If you dislike us French so much, Monsieur, why don’t you go back where you came from?”

There was a murmur of agreement, and a simultaneous grunt of disapproval from those present.  The young North Africans were firing up and ready to roll, and she began to get nervous herself.  The dreaded cry of the uniform sounded in her ears …  Papers, please

Some threw their eyes up to the ceiling and just groaned.  It was the city centre, Friday at 6:45 pm, and there were important things to be done.  The man, clutching his parcel, suddenly touched her arm, and in American-tinged English, said:

“Say him is okay.  Is never mind.  Okay.”

“Not okay!”  roared the African, in English. “Ça va pas, non?  She must apologise to this man.”

Groans fought protests and calls for an apology, and a nasty argument had started up half way back down the line.  Then a uniformed post office employee darted out from behind the counter, and announced the police had been called.  The African began backing up towards the door, muttering about apologies as he disappeared.  The group of youths at the phone booth were already gone.  She panicked, heading blindly for the exit.  The package man held the door open for her and followed her out quickly.  Headline:  Loud-mouthed Foreigner deported yesterday after racial incident in post office.

They walked, and then began to run towards the river as a police van pulled up outside the Post Office behind them.  They tore across the square and down to the underpass that went beneath the traffic:  it stank, their galloping echoed crazily around the walls. 

Finally they emerged into the air again, and after she’d got her breath back, she thought of the fine line between tragedy and farce and began to laugh.  Her companion responded with a beaming smile and a short, nervous giggle, finally relaxing his death-grip on the parcel and shivering a little in the dusk.  She was surprised at how fast the light was fading.  They began to walk along the quay.  To their right the cafes were illuminated, with people at the window tables looking cosy and ignoring the view of the Pont St. Marie and the darkening river.

At the bridge they stopped, and she looked down, wondering how to take leave.  The man suddenly laughed, twitched, asking in English

“Is okay now?”

“I think so.”  She smiled.   She felt less ill at ease and so shook his hand.  “I’m sorry about your package. “

Looking up, her eyes met another expressionless gaze, and she glanced away again quickly, out across the Seine, shivering suddenly.

– It’s gotten cold, now the sun’s gone down.

He smiled – this time not without expression, but again an unfathomable mixture of melancholy anger and gentleness.

“Cold here all the time,” he said.