In Manhattan’s desert twilight, in the death of afternoon,
We stepped hand-in-hand on Broadway,
Like the first men on the moon…
Then we said goodnight to Broadway, giving it our best regards,
Tipped our hats to Mr Cohen,
Dear old Time Square’s favourite bard.
Then we raised a glass to JFK, and a dozen more besides…
Fifteen years later I can’t remember if that was me or the emigrant in Thousands Are Sailing, Phil Chevron’s song about the 1980s’ Irish-American diaspora.
For a brief time in the sticky, smoky, all-night summer of 1998, we seemed interchangeable.
My stay in Manhattan in September of that year was a brief one; Chevon’s song was populated by those who went and remained and perhaps never returned.
I stumbled up Broadway to a pal’s apartment; his characters rode the 7 train home to a room in Woodside, tools under the bed, next to their suitcase.
Such was the ’80s immigrant experience Chevron drew from. But his thousands numbered others: those who left the hillsides of Galway and Mayo in the 1840s on coffin ships to work the railroads to California, police the Five Points on the Lower East Side, staff the five and dimes in Southie.
“Did the old songs taunt or cheer you? Or did they still make you cry?” Chevron’s immigrant asks these earlier generations.
By the time I reached New York such questions were, for many Irish immigrants, historical. The friend I was staying with left Ireland to work for a technology company in lower Manhattan, connected with the multinational flow of the city and never looked back.
‘Irish-America’ still existed – Clinton’s involvement in the nascent Peace Process of that year attested to its strength – but it was long removed from the Sweepstakes or the Clancy Brothers on Ed Sullivan.
Thousands Are Sailing, though released a decade earlier, captured much of this. The song chronicled an immigration born of opportunity, not solely desperation – though the two surely became mixed at times, during the dark hours in the “rooms that daylight never sees”.
It’s possibly the Pogues’ greatest song, no small boast given that this was a band that produced the most famous take on late-20th century Irish-America.
It’s certainly Phil Chevron’s.
This Saturday night in Dublin there’s a celebration of his work at the Olympia Theatre. Thousands Are Sailing is sure to be sung. The night’s a testimonial show because Phil Chevron has, in his own words, “lethal” cancer.
I won’t be there to see and hear it.
But I’ll tip my hat to Mr Chevron, and his finest song, the next time I find myself in the desert twilight of Times Square.