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Culture and Customs: Traditions, folklore, and more.
Tara Hall, Headquarters for 'Fighting 69th' and Irish Brigade Memorabilia, online at Fighting69th.com.
Irish Culture and Customs: Traditions, folklore, and more.
REVISED 5/23/06, 9:40PM EDT
Black 47's Larry Kirwan: At 'Sixteen'
Kirwan and Black 47 became nationally known by dint of MTV's extensive airtime of the band's breakout single "Funky Ceili" in 1993, and their prodigious energy in performing more than 100 times a year. While avoiding the trappings, and the trap, of fame, the Wexford-born immigrant seems to understand its power in Irish history. His opus, which includes 11 plays and musicals, 15 albums (including his solo work and the new release), and three books, often invokes the involuntary "celebrities" that have emerged in the history of Ireland's struggle for nationhood, figures like revolutionaries James Connolly, Michael Collins, and Bobby Sands. The last two are referenced in "Bittersweet Sixteen."
In fact, Black 47's name and mission rely on such historical consciousness: The name refers to the worst year of An Gorta Mor, the 1845–1851 Irish potato famine, and resonates with the underclasses that supported the band early in its career. It is these blue-collar fans that are always foremost in Kirwan's mind. "That's the nature of the free market, and there'll always be people on the bottom, so there's always a gig for Black 47, trying to bring people up," he said with a wry chuckle.
In admitting this, he readily characterizes Black 47's music as a soundtrack for tribulation, saying: "For some reason Black 47 music works really well in times of crisis. Black 47 does well in the areas where people are not going to have as good a lifestyle as their parents." Apparently there are enough of those people — and other fans — around because Black 47 still performs 150 nights a year. March, obviously, was a major touring month, with dates in Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Florida, and, of course, Manhattan's Knitting Factory on St. Patrick's Day for "New York's hometown band."
This anti-commercialism is part of Kirwan's philosophy, as well. He contends that broadcast media at large has sacrificed its integrity for profit and sees a lot of promise in satellite radio's all-inclusive creative vistas. He hosts a twice-weekly program, "Celtic Crush," on Sirius Satellite Radio showcasing his own broad definition of Celtic music.
After a show, Kirwan is more likely to relax over a laptop than a pint. In writing novels he appreciates the retreat from collaboration: "You don't need a band, you don't need actors, you don't need a director, it's just you and the page." When writing plays, he concentrates on character development and sustaining dramatic tension within a play's inner "truth," never straying from this grail lest the artifice of the play becomes apparent and lose the audience. "In a play, if there's one second that the audience sees through a character, the play's over at that point." He credits dramatic composition with improving the depth of his lyrics, particularly between the years 1984 and 1989 when he had left music for playwriting. "When I came back to doing songs in '89, I was writing in a different style because I had gotten so much into character."
Connolly, of course, was severely wounded while commanding the republican forces in Dublin's General Post Office during the failed 1916 Easter Rising. He was executed by a British firing squad, propped up in a chair because he was unable to stand.
The son of a sailor and the grandson of a monument sculptor, Kirwan, who declined to provide his age, is steeped in both middle- and working-class morés. This anchors a populism that is also rooted in his reading. "Reading Che (Guevara) again, I realized that was one of the reasons I got into politics and became left wing," he recalled. "'Look after those below you'; it's communism in a way, using communism in the broader sense of commonality."
The passionate and informed person is naturally compelled to action, and Kirwan thinks the times require such motivation because "there's a battle going on for the soul of America." He decided to become an American citizen because he wanted his children raised as Americans and wanted to commit himself fully to living here. While he expects people to elevate themselves, he doesn't slight the politically disengaged, because there are so many ways in which people can act to improve their society. To express this, he paraphrases IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, "No one can do everything, but everyone has their part to play." Interview over, he rushes away, to interview Rosanne Cash on Sirius. WGT
(Includes audio and lyrics of many of the band's songs.)
Copyright © 2006, Alex Féthière and GAR Media.
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