Sunday, March 17, 2013


[Here is a post I wrote several years ago, when my oldest brother was still alive, when I hadn't had my brain operated on yet, when my youngest son and my good friend Bill Lannigan's son were still boys, after a snowy St. Patrick's Day. Tonight, I woke up in the middle of it and thought there's still no better tribute to Saint Patrick's Day in the USA then to spend some time listening to the music of, or reading the books of, Terence Winch.]

In a series of early posts, I wrote about how jive the idea that “cream always rises to the top” is. Some of the greatest artists, in every form, remain underrated, unknown or unappreciated.

Saint Patrick’s Day got me thinking about this after an Irish-American friend and neighbor here in Jersey, who grew up in Brooklyn the son of a New York policeman, came back to my apartment with his little boy and mine, having spent half the day at the parade on Fifth Avenue and the other half on a nearby hill with our boys sledding and snowboarding.

I put on a selection of Irish music, beginning with Sinead O’Connor’s “This IS a Rebel Song” in which she sings to “my hard Englishman” “How come you’ve never said you love me/In all the time you’ve known me/How come you never say you’re sorry/And I do…..”

I followed that with John McCormack (one of the first recording stars, a tenor Louis Armstrong admired and claimed was a great influence on him!) singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” recorded in 1916 (!) followed by a recording of his from 1911 (!) singing “Macushla” then “The Irish Emigrant” from 1928 and a few others, including his 1939 version of “The Star of the County Down.”

Then Van Morrison’s version of that last song off the IRISH HEARTBEAT record he did with the Chieftains, and then from the same record Van’s “Celtic Ray” and the title song, both of which moved my wandering heart when I first heard them while living in L. A.

I ended this little musical selection with two of my all time favorite songs of any kind, the unfortunately defunct [original] Celtic Thunder’s recordings of Terence Winch’s songs, “When New York Was Irish” (from their THE LIGHT OF OTHER DAYS record) and “Saints (Hard New York Days)” (from their HARD NEW YORK DAYS record).

I hadn’t listened to either in a while and was surprised at the impact they had on me.

Only two days ago, I drove my departed sister’s best friend, who was like another sister to me when I was growing up, to visit my oldest brother, a retired Franciscan friar living in a nursing home up near the New York border [and now departed too]. In the car when we took him out to lunch, my sister’s friend, talking about a party, referred to the singing of “When New York was Irish” as the highlight, and my brother said, “Michael’s friend wrote that.”

There are, I think at this date, some 28 different recordings of that song by all kinds of singers and bands, since Terence and his brother Jesse’s band Celtic Thunder first recorded it in 1988. Many people I’ve met think it’s an old song they learned from their parents, even though it hadn’t been written when their parents taught them songs.

Others just take it for granted as a New York area Irish anthem that’s been around for as long as they remember. It’s been a much played, best selling tune in Ireland, as well as wherever the Irish have been or may be in recent decades.

It’s a classic, part of the culture, and not just of the Irish and their many tributaries, but even of other ethnic groups who just enjoy the tune.

If “When New York Was Irish” has become some kind of anthem, replacing “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” for recent generations of various Irish descendants, “Saints (Hard New York Days)” is “When New York Was Irish” II.

It looks back at an even more recent time, the 1950s and early ‘60s in New York’s Irish neighborhoods, referred to—just as over in Jersey where I was, or other towns and cities with Irish enclaves in those days—by parishes, the “Saints” of the title.

Listening to “When New York Was Irish” moved me more than ever, not in the way of nostalgia for “better days” but in reliving the dreams and pain of my parents and grandparents and calling to mind and heart their sacrifices and stoicism in the face of all the obstacles they overcame.

But “Saints (Hard New York Days)” kicked me in the heart and into relived days of my own, and the loss not of innocence but of hard realities that were transcended through the grace of shared experience and a tough spiritual surrender to that experience.

Ah, words elude me when I try to express what this song does to me. I can only say I was wiping away tears when it ended, overwhelmed with the beauty and artistry of Terence’s accomplishment. All I could say to my friend, equally blown away by the poetry of the lyrics and the emotional impact of the tune, “And he has to work a nine to five job, the man who wrote those songs,” to which we could both agree, “He should be exalted, honored, and given a stipend to live on for life after giving us those works of art.”

And I didn’t even bring up Winch’s books, which I’ve mentioned several times in my posts, but nonetheless can’t say enough about. His memoirs in the form of poetry and prose, like IRISH MUSICIANS, AMERICAN FRIENDS or THAT SPECIAL PLACE or the about-to-be-published BOY DRINKERS [long since out and available, along with even newer books like the great collection FALLING OUT OF BED IN A ROOM WITH NO FLOOR], outshine so many so-called “memoirs” cranked out by graduates of workshops that specialize in “creative non-fiction”—usually meaning altered facts to make a splash or neatly tie up a storyline “created” for a half-true-retelling of exaggerated “reality.”

But what I really wanted to write about is how Winch was ripped off by others in ways the early black blues musicians were, and early black rhythm and blues and black creators of rock-n-roll were. But no one is making a case for him, or pointing out the hypocrisy of “the man” etc.

But there it is. Terence Winch should not have to do anything except enjoy seeing his songs recorded and sung and played all over the world by various Irish and hyphenated Irish, as well as many non-Irish, singers and bands, or if and when he wants to, perform the songs himself, or with others, and be paid enough to spend his free time writing more, instead of going to an office to earn a living working for someone else.

PS: When I first met Hubert Selby Jr. he was working in an office in L. A. as a “clerk” making a low hourly wage, and most people I ran into thought he was dead or didn’t know he was the author of LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, let alone other great books like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, because they hadn’t been made into movies yet. Maybe some day someone will make a movie out of “When New York Was Irish” or “Saints (Hard New York Days).” The only other thing I can think of is TERENCE WINCH IS THE REAL FATHER OF WHAT’S-HER-NAME’S BABY!

[PS: I have no idea what that last sentence is referring to anymore.
PPS: Happy Saint Paddy's to all!]


JIm said...

Son of a gun, you really can turn a phrase. I remember raising hell on St. Patrick's Day at the Parade in the late 50s with Irish high school kids from St. Benedict's Prep. Man, that was a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

A lovely tribute to your friend. Your heart is deep and this deepness was felt in your words. Thank you. Happy St. Patty's Day!