Monthly Archives: January 2014

Place me up in Monto

Luke Kelly.

Luke Kelly.

I’M not sure if there’s a statue of Pete Seeger in his hometown.

But I know there isn’t one of Luke Kelly in his.

The Dubliners’ singer, long regarded as one of the important performers in Irish music, died 30 years ago today.

Kelly did more than most to burnish an idea of Dublin and Irishness in the public consciousness.

And yet you’ll search in vain for any likeness, sculpture or bust of the musician in his hometown.

Contrast this to the bronze figure of Phil Lynott on Harry Street, seen by thousand of passing pedestrians, Dubliners and visitors every day.

Or the litany of other statues that dot the city, from dawdling literary heavyweights (Wilde and Joyce) to mythical cattle rustlers (Cú Chulainn) to alleged prostitutes (Molly Malone, and I admit that’s up for debate).

If Official Ireland can see fit to maintain a (pretty regal) statue of Prince Albert (look him up, or up to him) surely they can do something for Luke Kelly?

Pretty regal. Statute of Prince Albert, Leinster House, Dublin.

Pretty regal.
Statute of Prince Albert, Leinster House, Dublin.

There’s no bust of Gabriel Byrne in his hometown either, although the Irish government did see fit to honour the actor with a cultural ambassador role a few years back.

The Dubliner emerged last weekend to criticise the government for “paying lip service to the arts”. “I don’t think they really care about it,” he stated, bluntly.

And correctly too, if the foot-dragging on a proper commemoration for Luke Kelly is any indication.

We’ve been here before of course. A decade ago Dublin’s city councillors voted to erect a statue…but nothing happened.

In the interim the boom, which saw just about everything and anything built in the capital, came and went. And still no movement on the statue.

It popped up on the agenda again last year, but there’s still no word on funding, or an actual site (surely somewhere close to Kelly’s home in the north inner city, or the nearby, fabled Monto area there he sang of?)

And all the while the culture of music and song that Luke Kelly lived, sang and even brought to the Ed Sullivan Show is flogged mercilessly, more often than not to sell booze. (To be fair The Dubliners weren’t averse to pushing the beer connection themselves.)

Across the Atlantic this week tributes have poured in for Pete Seeger, a performer who, over a 70 year career, came to epitomise that country’s folk music. There’s no Irish equivalent of Seeger but, in terms of influence and talent, a claim could certainly be made for Kelly.

Ireland is a country where, it was claimed this week, €2bn can be spent on a sweetheart deal for municipal workers.

A tiny fraction of that would erect a statue to Luke Kelly and put him – as he sang himself – “home for while in me own country”.

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You say tomato, I say heuristic cultural device

Shopping a la cart.

Shopping a la cart.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

TURNING on a red light.

Slicing ‘toMAYtos’.

Answering ‘cell’ phones.

Rarely seeing, let alone using, public transport.

All things you do in the US, which you don’t in Ireland. And all of which I encountered on a visit this month to my wife’s hometown of Los Angeles.

These differences are usually small curiosities (unless I forget to look before turning on that red).

Like the way I stare blankly at voluminous LA coffee menus, or in wide-eyed wonder at the Whole Foods’ shopping cart escalator.

They’re just tasters to a deeper difference between American and Irish people, which is far more engrained than the rules of the road or in-store trolley conveyance.

In my experience this difference comes by way of a simple question: is the coffee cup half full or half empty?

Americans are often accused of being glibly optimistic, if not naive, in their world view. Many are, I’m sure, and many are not.

But they are considerably less cynical than the Irish, something that is impossible not to notice when you some spend time each year in both countries.

Cultural differences.

Cultural differences.

My other half is the perfect example. A music journalist, she cut her teeth in the first dot-com boom, before launching a catering business, returning to journalism for a number of major US publications and then, in her mid-30s, deciding to leave it all behind and move to Ireland.

At every turn her question was not (as I would have asked) ‘why?’ but ‘why not?’

Where I would seek out flaws in a plan she would see speed-bumps; where I might see regrets for past decisions she sees experience.

This faith in reinvention is not an exclusively American trait, of course. But I’ve seen more of it in citizens of that country than most others.

It’s been fodder for commentators, artists and academics for years. One New Yorker recently tried to explain it to me using, as he put it, ‘heuristic cultural devices’.

Tonias Wolff. Pic: Mark Coggins

Tobias Wolff.
Pic: Mark Coggins

But I’ve come across a simpler description. It is contained in a collection of Tobias Wolff’s short stories, gifted to me by my LA-based father-in-law on my visit earlier this month.

In one of the stories, A Mature Student, a Czech-born immigrant says of her adopted home: “Americans…such faith in the future, where all shall be reconciled. Such compassion toward the past, where all may be forgiven.”*

How much faith do you need, how much compassion can you have? That’s the $64,000 (or €45,000) question.

That, and ‘tomato’ or ‘tomayto’.


*Tobias Wolff, “A Mature Student”, Our Story Begins (Vintage, 2008), p 315

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Come all ye voices of a generation

'Come all ye budding folksingers.'

‘Come all ye budding folksingers.’

CAN YOU recall where and when you first heard The Times They Are A-Changin’?

Me neither. The song’s so deeply wedged in my ears that I was probably humming it in my cot.

It turned 50 this week, prompting a slew of analysis on whether the times had changed, what today’s youth have in common with their 60s forebears, what Bob Dylan had for breakfast the day he wrote it. The usual stuff.

Not many articles made mention of a fact which explains why the song has always sounded so familiar to me – its roots in Irish folk music.

Specifically in the rain-lashed, tear and beer-stained ‘come all ye’ ballads that ran, like a sodden thread of Aran wool, through the traditional Irish music of my youth.

An interest in folk songs, which I’d picked up from my parents’ cassettes at home, later saw me spend far too many evenings of my college days and after at sessions in dreary pubs.

These events often concluded with a late night lament  – for the lost soldier boy, the emigrant bound for Amerikay, or the closing of the bar.

As a budding folkie Bob Dylan sat through his own share of sessions. Luckily for him the ballads in the Greenwich Village taverns of the early 1960s were sung by the likes of Liam Clancy and his brothers.

'Knee slapping...'  The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

Of The Times They Are A-Changin’ he later explained: “It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’…”

The former may a reference to the Clancy Brother’s knee-slapping Brennan On The Moor, which immortalised the 19th century Cork highwayman Willie Brennan. (Dylan had earlier used the song as inspiration for his own Rambling, Gambling Willie.)

While there are echoes of Ireland in the title track the album The Times They Are A-Changin’ boasts plenty of other material that wears its Irish folk influences on its sleeve.

Restless Farewell is a barely-disguised take on The Clancy Brothers’ The Parting Glass. The melody of With God On Our Side is identical to Dominic Behan’s The Patriot Game, another song popularised by the Clancys.

Maybe all this is why, when I first heard the album as a young student, much of the music resonated with the half-learned Irish melodies I’d picked up since I was in my cot.

Such influences come full circle in the end. Three decades after Dylan released The Times They Are A-Changin’ The Clancy Brothers took to the stage at Madison Square Garden during a tribute to the ‘voice of a generation’, Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert.

That night they performed When The Ship Comes In, transforming Dylan’s song into an Irish sea shanty, turning Dylan’s Irish influences back on him.

What went around had come around. And no doubt will come around again.

Or as Dylan sang 50 years ago this week: “The wheel’s still in spin.”


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Miley and me

Miley. Pic: Michael Connors.

Miley. Pity the waiter.
Pic: Michael Connors

Eating dinner recently I glanced over my shoulder – to be greeted by the sight of Miley Cyrus’ backside.

Add me to the millions who’ve seen the popstar’s derriere in recent months then.

Impressive as it was, Cyrus’ bum played second fiddle to her mouth, with which the pop star dispatched a series of requests, loudly, to the wait staff.

The location was the Chateau Marmont, where my wife and I were meeting friends for a Christmas dinner.

My other half had told me that we were likely to encounter a famous face or two at the hotel, a Hollywood celeb bolthole for more than 80 years.

(So much so that I had my ‘I love Nespresso too!’ monologue prepared in the event I bumped into Clooney in the gents – next time G!)

Watching Cyrus source a clean fork, or whatever, may not have been the most dramatic episode in the Chateau’s history (there’s been one or two) but, in fairness, it did cause us to pause mid-mouthful (and also pity the waiter).

A genuine, bona fide, shock and awe star no less. Much as I’d like to pretend I’ve no interest  in the comings and goings of A-listers I couldn’t resist glancing once or twice at Cyrus’ table for the rest of the evening.

(BREAKING: 20-something Team Miley eat and yap for two hours before bouncing out into the night. World continues to turn.)

Me. Digestif time. Pic: Clare Kleinedler.

Digestif time.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Truth to be told the sighting was probably a little wasted on me. Without my dining companions I probably would have missed it altogether – despite Miley’s wracking bell tones.

I’m hopeless at spotting celebs. In the newsroom, on a news site, it’s usually no problem; but in the flesh…er, is that the guy from that TV show?

Cyrus could have plonked herself on the table and twerked the wine bottle and my response would still have been one of outraged confusion and, probably, indigestion.

This is in contrast to my wife who, in a former career, made a living off her celeb-spotting skills. (An hour after the Cyrus episode she noticed Bobby Cannavale, recently seen in Blue Jasmine, shuffling through our hotel lobby. I thought he was a porter).

Nonetheless if you’re going to have a glammed-up dinner why not do so in a dining room with the hottest name in pop? And Ridley Scott. And the daughter from Veep.

Unfortunately for Miley though, she was upstaged on the night, proving a bouncing, jabbering distraction to the real star of the evening:  the restaurant’s famed spaghetti bolognese – or rather the cook behind it.

Chef Spence in action. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Chef Spence in action.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

The dish, a Chateau staple, came from the kitchen of executive chef Carolynn Spence, a pal of my wife’s and something of an Eirophile (we had a good chat about Dan Donnelly’s wandering arm).

Over the years I’ve eaten plenty of spag bol but I can’t ever remember it tasting like the one we had that evening. The meat sauce melted on my tongue, the pasta (not too little, not too much) was my sort of al dente.

This plate was so good that not even one of biggest celebs in the world could distract me from it – well, maybe for half a minute.

The rest of our night was devoted to equally important things – catching up with friends, including a chat with chef Spence. Maybe we should have invited Miley over for a drink.

Then again there’s more important things than celebrity. Even in Hollywood.

The Chateau Marmont, West Hollywood. Pic: Gary Minnaert

The Chateau Marmont, West Hollywood.
Pic: Gary Minnaert

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