Out of the Mailbag, Comes Songs & Stories:
The History of Irish Music, by Larry Kirwan
ISBN: 9780963960115, 346 pages
a story from this month’s issue of the Ohio Irish American News
I love reading and learning, especially the history of Ireland, of music and of my friends. In Larry Kirwin’s The History of Irish Music, all my passions are rolled into one book. Whether in writing or in person, Kirwan’s style is the same: genuine, laced with humor, illuminating and as accepting as a politically active bandleader can be.
Kirwan’s musical history is full of seminal people, moments and music set against the backdrop of an Ireland undergoing political, religious and economic quakes. The shores change to America, the song remains the same, on the cutting edge of music; Kirwan tells it as he experienced it, firsthand. I loved it.
Throughout his career, with Deep Thinkers and seminally, as the leader and founder of Black 47, Larry has met, worked with, interviewed, and sang with and for, the biggest names in music. Black 47 went out with a bang after 25 years together, in a Farewell Tour that ended at the same locale as they started. Sixteen Black 47 and two solo CD’s, fourteen plays and musicals, two novels and a memoir, Kirwan also hosts and produces Celtic Crush for SiriusXM Radio and writes a column for the Irish Echo. He is President of the Irish-American Writers and Artists.
Larry’s perspective is personal, not word of mouth. Donal Lunny, Planxty, Sinead O’Connor, Shane McGowan and The Pogues, Christy Moore and Moving Hearts, Horselips, The Wolfe Tones. Liam Ó’Maonlaí and Hothouse Flowers, Punk music, Thin Lizzy, Sharon Shannon and the Waterboys, Moving Hearts, Paddy Reilly, U2, Saw Doctors, The Ramones, Damien Dempsey, Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys, those on whose the music world turned, are part of his repertoire too. Larry’s insight and commentary are fascinating, delivered in a straightforward conversational style, in print. Highlights are scratching the surface, but are a wee taste of the pure:
“There have always been two strands to the Celtic Music tradition – songs of entertainment and songs that talk about our history, politics and cultural identity. We’re definitely in no danger of losing the former – as long as there’s an Irish Rover, a Wild Rover or any other kind of rover to be lauded we’ll have entertainment. That goes for the hedonistic Celtic Rock side of things too with songs like Streams of Whiskey, Drunken Lullabies and Funky Céili. But take away the politics, the history and our ongoing resistance to political and economic oppression then our music loses its life-affirming and, for my money, interesting, quotient. Nor does every song need to be a fist-pumping anthem or political tract set to a four-on-the-floor beat; sometimes you just need to take into account the loss and loneliness of someone far away who is wondering how the hell he ever ended up enmeshed in a foreign culture, and if he’ll ever make it home. That’s the root of Irish music and if we lose that we risk becoming a parody of ourselves no matter what level of professionalism, proficiency, and entertainment we aspire to.
“I’m always more concerned with moving an audience rather than merely entertaining it, for touching hearts and even souls is much more gratifying than tickling fancies or expectations.
“I loved fair days but match days were their equal. They unleashed a wildness that took the old town by the scruff of its neck and shook it free of its slumbering nonchalance. Wexford adored its hurlers, especially when it seemed as though they might defeat their archrivals, the mighty Kilkenny, and reach the All Ireland final. The cries of the vendors, the surge of expectant faces up lanes and back streets towards the Gaelic Athletic Park, the repressed excitement that would erupt during sixty gasping minutes of belting and pucking the sliotar up and down the grassy pitch, hurleys splintering, blood spouting, with no thought of personal safety by any participant – all of this inspired the people to shrug off the patina of feigned respectability imposed by church piety or latent Victorian propriety. Suddenly you’d come face to face with the old hidden Gaelic Ireland – the thorny outlines of an ancient culture that doffed its cap to no one.”
Kirwan went on to speak of influences and irrationalities, but returned to the root of the modern ballad tradition, the pivotal band that brought the ballads back to life, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem:
“Indeed by 1964 one third of all albums sold in Ireland had been recorded by the Clancys and Makem. They were so popular that the mighty showbands even felt called upon to don báinín (white) Aran sweaters and actually stop the dancing while they performed a set of “Clancy ballads.” Years later when I first made my foray into the showband world one of the more popular numbers was a quickstep version of the Clancy’s Bonny Shoal of Herrings. One can only imagine what that grave purist Ewan McColl would have thought of this polka-like resetting of his flinty sea shanty. … the Clancys and Makem swept the dust off all of them. They removed layers of calcification from patriotic laments like Roddy McCorley and Kevin Barry. By juicing them so jubilantly while never tampering with their innate power, they cast these songs in a new light. We had become vaguely ashamed of them, especially after the botched IRA border campaign of the mid-1950s. The Clancys and Makem cauterized some of the innate danger and subversion thus rendering the old songs more respectable, and ultimately acceptable, by placing them in a more theatrical framework. An acquaintance of theirs said to me many years later in a Manhattan saloon, ‘You could see the shadow of the gunman behind the lads, but you were damn certain he had no bullets.’”
9-11 and New York are indelibly ingrained in Larry; 9-11 changed him forever:
“Those nights were so intense; you would almost jump for joy when you saw a familiar face enter – at least he or she was alive. When someone wouldn’t have shown up for a month or two you feared the worst. In many cases you might not know a name, so you couldn’t inquire if they’d made it through. On gigs around the tri-state area people would show pictures of lost ones and request their favorite Black 47 songs. Hard as it was when you recognized a familiar face, oddly enough, it was even tougher when you didn’t – to think your music had meant so much to someone you hadn’t even known.”
I was honored to write an endorsement for Larry Kirwan’s The History of Irish Music. The modern history of Irish rock told firsthand in a conversational painting of the times transported me to the time, and the temperature of Kirwan’s experience. I loved the book. The History of Irish Music is a Top Shelf Selection.