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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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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.

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

In Paris for WexFour eLaunch!

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It was wonderful to be able to travel to Paris last week for the WexFour event at Le Centre Culturel Irlandais, where, following a special staged reading of the four one-act plays, the WexFour eBook from 451 Editions was officially launched.

The crew from The Wexford Arts Centre did an amazing job to a full house, and for a full account of the event, please click here for the article in The Irish Times, or click on the image above.  Below, you can see some photos from the trip. Click on the first pic to set the gallery rolling.

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Irish Examiner Feature by Sue Leonard

So delighted to get up this dark December morning and read the lovely piece today in The Irish Examiner by Sue Leonard, run as part of the “Beginner’s Pluck” column.   Sue’s kind words further made my day as she accredited the work with something every writer tries to acheive:  Whether she is describing the heartbreak of a family whose child has been damaged by a landmine; the impermanence of love on the field, or an exquisite encounter on a beach at dawn, Mulkerns creates magic.  With the verdict concluding that the book is “quite a wonderful collection of linked stories” I’ll be starting the new year on a high tomorrow.  It was great to meet with Sue and chat, and you can see more about her on her own website here.

Meanwhile, click here or click on the image below for the article.  My favourite line of it quotes me on working for Hot Press Magazine during my rock’n’roll years:  “I was hanging around backstage with various bands,” she says.’  Yes indeed – what a job description! 

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Leonard Cohen: He’s our man

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This is my contribution to a piece by Martin Doyle with tributes from John Kelly, Sara Baume, Peter Murphy, Evelyn Conlon and more.  For all writers’ contributions, please click this link.

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-15-44-29It wasn’t until the mid-nineties, a decade into the study of Tibetan Buddhism, that I began to listen to the music of Leonard Cohen. A beautiful Chinese artist friend would have no other soundtrack as she painted.  She said he transported her to a richer place than the blank, cold studio she was working in.  I only began to hear Cohen with her, then after she moved away I heard him more clearly by myself on a Buddhist retreat in Vermont.  Along pathways between pinewood trees and incensed shrine rooms, I played him constantly – in defiance of the strict rules of the monastery (no “entertainment”).  The experience was intensified by my fascination at Cohen himself having just retreated from the craziness of the music business to a Zen monastery in California.

Such respite from the turbulence and uncertainty of daily living in today’s world is always ephemeral.  Even Cohen came back into the spotlight when he began to tour again in recent years.  But his music is, in a way, is like a retreat.  It takes you out of the fray and into aural balm and wit and darkness that even while dark, is calming and sensual. (more…)

In Ireland, the Celtic Salmon Stirs

first published in The New York Times (Intelligence Column), April 2012.

 

Despite encouraging signs of a slow but steady return to a healthier economy, the recession still haunts Ireland.  It slouches with Yeatsian dread around our ghost estates like a nasty emission left by the so-called Celtic Tiger.  The boomtime branding – borrowed from an Asian buzzword – was never an accurate or lasting symbol for Ireland.
 
A more appropriate one might be the Salmon of Knowledge, or an breadán feasa.  In the ancient Celtic sagas, Fionn MacCumhaill became a great warrior by acquiring the pure knowledge of the salmon, which gave him the skill and wisdom to defeat his enemies. 
 
Today, Ireland faces the challenge of emerging from its slump in a fickle global economy that is more competitive than ever.  How can a salmon compete with a tiger?

Young, entrepreneurial Irish are picking up fast on the potential of new online opportunities.  The cost-effective tools offered by cloud computing, marketing fuelled by social media and accurate analytics can all help small business grow. 
 
With this in mind, Innovate Wexford and FUSE, two local organisations in a relatively small business community, set up ‘Techovate’, a conference that took place last month at the Wexford Opera House, in the southeast of Ireland.
 
To add star power, Techovate brought in senior executives from the Irish diaspora who now work at Microsoft, Google, IBM, Facebook, Cisco and LinkedIn to advise local entrepreneurs.
 
“The Techovate Conference is not so much about the technology itself,” said Brendan Ennis, its main organiser, “but how small and medium-sized businesses in Ireland use that technology to drive business growth and to expand the outlook abroad.”
 
Mr. Ennis pointed out that they have little choice in the matter.  “Let’s face it,” he added.  “If they don’t – they’re going to be left behind.”
 
One goal is to transcend the heady buzz of the conference chambers and reach Ireland’s more traditional mom-and-pop concerns, which are often surprised to find themselves in a world transformed by technology.
 
Wallaces’ general store in Wexford has been in business for more than 70 years, located on a rural river bend at a junction between three major towns.  Its family-run drapery, food and hardware departments have thus far thrived on local shoppers, and a traditional marketing policy heavy on regional radio and print media. 
 
“These days, your competitor is no longer the shop in the next town,” notes Chrissie Wallace, a family member running the store, “but the Website two continents over.” The family invested in a consultant to develop a comprehensive online strategy for the store, which will include a more social-media-focused website, cross-platform campaigns, a community focus section and Facebook and Twitter presences.
 
Lorna Sixsmith has embraced the new media with IrishFarmerette.com, her popular blog that brings the business of Irish agriculture to life online. 
 
“All business people should be blogging, no matter what their industry.  We should be showcasing to potential buyers abroad the fact that our animals are mostly grass-fed, that they are outside for much of the year,” Ms Sixsmith said.
 
“It would do so much for the sale of Irish food abroad if readers could identify with the real story behind the food they are buying and see the pictures,” she added.
 
Seán Kiely, a farmer, uses social media to combat the isolation of his work.  “I’ve rigged up my iPhone to my tractor, in order to stay in touch on Facebook or Twitter through the day,” he said.  Elsewhere on the farm, cloud technology helps him keep track of animal births, deaths and movements, and a small virtual weather station provides crucial facts about the soil and the weather so that he knows when to fertilise or plant.
 
The lessons that Irish companies, shopkeepers and farmers are learning about navigating and taking advantage of the world of technology can be applied by their struggling counterparts in Greece and Spain, Portugal and Italy, and beyond.
 
If the boom’s fallout has left countries across Europe flailing in murky economic turbulence, Ireland’s ancient salmon of knowledge may provide inspiration yet.  A symbol of wisdom, skill and determination, the salmon rarely fails in its journey upstream. 

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A different Side of the Irish

first published in The New York Times (Intelligence Column), December 2010

 

It may take the 21st Century Irish some time to get up out of their armchairs, but when they do, they have a strong sense of purpose and drama.
 
Despite one of the coldest November days on record in the Republic of Ireland, a massive crowd of demonstrators marched on November 27 across the River Liffey toward the city’s General Post Office building, carrying protest banners and demanding the ousting of the government.
 
The symbolism of their destination was unmistakable. The building was where, in 1916, revolutionaries who were fighting to free Ireland from colonial rule read the original Irish Proclamation of Independence.  This time, the nation was protesting an international economic bailout, seen by many of its people to be a modern blow to its sovereignty.
 
An Irish friend who is now working in Ethiopia for an aid organisation said that she understood how intently the world was watching the Irish crisis when a farmer in Somaliland casually asked her:  “How’s your bailout going?”
 
The international news media, which has been seen on every corner of Dublin over the last few weeks, saw a different side of the Irish that Saturday – the fighting side.  The roaring passion, size and diversity of the crowd (officially estimated to be 50,000 people, but thought by the news media to number up to 1,000) had not been seen on Dublin streets since the human rights marches of the early 1970s.
 
It took a lot to get the Irish en masse into the streets. We laughed at the first of the economic jokes (“What is the difference between Ireland and Iceland? One consonant and six months.”) We watched as the Greeks burned cars and destroyed shops on the streets of Athens.  We never really thought it could happen to us.
 
The depth of the current economic trauma is one that the ordinary Irish man or woman has found hard to accept, let alone fully comprehend. 
 
During the “Celtic Tiger” years, when everything turned to gold, and its citizens entered into a sexy spendfest of glamour and luxury, the country could do no wrong.  Today, the dizzy ramparts of success have crumbled, generating a spectacular fall from grace.
 
It is perhaps the scale of the descent – and the undeniable element of greed – that overwhelmed the country’s banks, businesses, developers and citizens during the boom, which, until now, has had the Irish living in a partial state of denial.
 
Small but significant voices of protest were heard regularly. In October 2008, senior citizens – some with walkers and wheelchairs – massed outside the government buildings to protest cuts in their medical benefits.
 
In September this year, the population made a popular hero of one Joe McNamara, a bankrupt builder who rammed his cement truck into the gates of the same government buildings to protest his plight.  He was seen as the voice of the “working man” against the powers that be.
 
Once the true extent of the crisis had sunk in, with its public spending cutbacks and its black hole of job losses and negative equity, the Irish people felt swamped by despair and confusion.
 
In the last couple of weeks, this metamorphosed into emotions running somewhere between terror and fury.
 
Anger goes beyond what the people perceive as a shameful request for a bailout. The inevitability of the draconian austerity measures needed to repay loans is seen as a betrayal by the Irish government to salvage the banks’ bondholders and the well-heeled developers, at the Irish people’s expense. 
 
The last twist of the knife came at the end of November, when officials from the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund arrived in Dublin, and, as one radio commentator put it, they were “not here to do their Christmas shopping … “
 
While not many people in Ireland are laughing these days, they have at least attempted to make a move towards change.  Traversing the freezing white ground of Dublin’s streets in protest, it was as if the collective Irish psyche had found its voice, and had begun to make it heard.
 
It remains to be seen, however, how much louder they will have to shout to make their government – or the broader eurozone – hear that the people are tired of those who led them into this quagmire and are demanding a fairer deal from their Christmas guests.
 
Helena Mulkerns is a writer and freelance journalist living in Ireland.

 

 

 

 

Motherland

published in Motherland, edited by Caledonia Kearns, William Morrow, 1997

 

HELENA:  I had a dream of matriarchs. The cottage was small and dark, and in one corner, an elderly woman with mischievous eyes sat beside a fire, on which rested a small, bright copper kettle. She was indistinct in the shadows, but the steam off the kettle rose steady, and the whole room reflected rosily in the round copper surface.

In the center of the room, a woman, in her mid-thirties, with a gentle face and capable manner, was working at a wooden table. Several other women were bustling around another fireplace to her right. There was a sideboard on her left that had upon it, among other things, a dead rabbit and a laptop computer.

When the woman at the table looked up at me, I realized it was my grandmother, Ellen D’Arcy Quinn. The other women were my mother and aunts: Dolores, Eve, Ursula, Helen, and Madeleine. The elderly lady was, most likely, my great-great-grandmother Eliza, born in 184o.

My grandmother didn’t speak, but she looked at me quite directly, with striking dark eyes. As I woke up, in my gray New York studio, I realized that her eyes had been communicating a very distinct imperative, that I should talk to my mother, Helen.

I remember E-mailing Mam about this dream, and noting that we should get together for a real chat, but it wasn’t until Caledonia called me up requesting a piece for her new anthology that I actually had the perfect opportunity to do this.

I called my cousin Jackie Quinn, in Birmingham, England, who, for the last twelve years, has been researching the maternal side of the family. She sent me a thick pile of collated information detailing the family back as far as 1789. My second cousin, Gerardine Loughman in San Francisco, sent me a beautiful photo of our great-grandmother’s gravestone, which I forwarded by E-mail to Helen, mentioning that Motherland had room for the story of a daughter who left and a mother who stayed – the experience of several generations of women in the family already.

Jackie’s research revealed a fascinating mosaic of lives, both tragic and joyous. Take Ellen Delaney, born in 1848 and who, at around age nineteen, fell deeply in love with one John Armstrong, a young Protestant student from the North of England, over on vacation in Kildare. When the two announced their engagement (a Catholic Irishwoman and a Protestant Englishman), both families disowned them. They ran away to Dublin to live together until she was twenty-one and no longer needed her father’s consent to be married. Four months after the wedding, our great-grandmother Mary Jane was born.

Then there was Eliza McGrath, our other great-great-grandmother, who married John D’Arcy on September 28, 1818. They had a baby which died at birth, while in the nearby manor house, Lord Carew’s wife had also had a baby the same day, but the mother herself had not survived the birth. Lord Carew asked if Eliza would wet-nurse the motherless baby, and although she refused at first, she realized the baby would die otherwise, twice a day, she would travel in the lord’s carriage up to the manor house. As the child grew up, he looked upon her family as his own, until Lord Carew sent him away to boarding school. Eliza used to like’ a little drop of whiskey or poteen in later years and owned a small copper kettle in which she distilled the latter. It is now in New York City, the only “family heirloom” in my possession.

I left home for the first time when I was sixteen, to go and teach English in Spain. Since then, I have been “away” more than at home. At first, you don’t stop to analyze your situation, because everything is so exciting and new. The sense that you may be missing the world that you uprooted yourself from doesn’t develop for some time.

Communication with “home” can be deceiving.  You try to be positive, so do those at home, dealing with the immediate, keeping up with the local gossip. No one likes to send bad news, and bringing up old ghosts can always be left until the next time. The visit home at Christmas becomes the annual, obligatory “catching up” stint, reserved for fa1nily and old friends. It’s usually spent rushing around, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and not spending enough time with anybody, least of all family.

When you then head back to Australia, London, New York, Munich, or Tokyo on one of those subdued, packed flights around the eighth or ninth of January, you’re left regretting all the things you didn’t say, all the questions unasked, the dreams unexpressed. You’ll be lucky if you just about had time to meet everybody and “say hello.”

Gradually, as the years go by, you become increasingly distanced, more emotionally than geographically. Home is just a plane ride away, but a million miles in terms of the reality of what you’ve missed out on “at home,” whether it be important changes in your parents’ and friends’ lives or just the very necessary bond that makes a loved one real to you.

My mother, Helen, did not emigrate, choosing to stay in Ireland when it was experiencing an upturn in its economic fortunes in the sixties. She has remained there, with my father, and we have communicated down the years by letter, phone, and more recently via E-mail. I think I know her, and try to spend as much time with her as possible when I go home, but then again, when I leave, I always feel that it hasn’t been enough.

I’ve always wanted to ask her what it was like for her, growing up in Ireland through the war and the fifties, experiencing the sixties (which she once described to me, late one night after one of her openings, as “the high point of the universe”). Occasional memories and half-forgotten stories are often not enough. We ended up having extended interviews, where I learned a lot about both her and where I come from, an exercise both enjoyable and fascinating.

My earliest memory of Helen is of her on a bright summer afternoon, in a turquoise dress, with her blond hair up in a funny chignon and smiling. Another involves a waft of Chanel No. 5, with her wearing a pale pink, embossed satin ball gown, leaning over my crib to kiss me good-bye when leaving to go out one night. I still hate the smell of that perfume, presumably since it meant “Mother leaving.”

I went through a period of rejecting my mother in my teens, so perfectly described in Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia that I gave her a copy of it to read, in a belated attempt at explanation. But since my late twenties, she has really become my best friend, and certainly the person with whom I’m in most regular contact, despite the distance.

Still, that funny look from my grandmother in the dream voiced what I “kept meaning to do” – that is, get a chance to sit down and speak with her. I know my mother, and yet I don’t. She has always been a very kind and compassionate person but at the same time seemed to me to be often quite reserved, and conservative. As I’ve (or we’ve) grown older, however, I see her increasingly as tolerant and open-minded, with a certain innate charm that touches most people and an understated lust for life that keeps her spirit much younger than her age in chronological years. She has always encouraged anything I chose to do and never turned against me for mistakes I have made.

She refuses to acknowledge herself as a “feminist,” which disappoints me, but then, all things considered, including our interview, I realize that she has basically lived her life, albeit in her own quiet, private way, as a feminist. She has gone against the grain in a number of ways and is now achieving one of her early aspirations, working as an artist, in watercolors and oils. We are in frequent contact on the Internet.

Absence: does the term sound less desolate as the world becomes smaller with our ever information-drenched, communication complex society? Or is its vocabulary still, by default, a forced repartee, stemming from the fact that we often try to deny the distance is even there? We carry on regardless, as if the ache of missing someone is just not an issue.

I’ve been absent for a long time and have only recently begun to reflect on this. Somewhere between my grandmother’s dream look and Helen and me sitting down to talk in spring 1998 in New York and Connecticut, it occurred to me that this was a chance to decode our tenuous vocabulary of absence-or at least make a beginning at doing so.    

For the full text of this piece, you can purchase the book online from various sellers, or contact me directly. 

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