Cover of the Week 20 Carrickfergus

When I was growing up, my uncle Pat (his name changed here) was the family lush on the Irish side (we grew up pretty much half Italian/half Irish, though my Irish father also had French and Russian on is side, hence the surname). The “lush on the Irish side” may seem redundant, but someone has to take the top spot. Pat is still with us. He is actually my father’s cousin and the big brother my dad never had. Pat took dad to his first Brooklyn Dodgers game at Ebbet’s Field, which was more or a less life-forming event for my father and, by extension, subsequent generations, who could never root for the Yankees, lest they fall over to the Italian side with his Italian father in-law.

In suburban NY, we had a lot of Italian and Irish kids, or some combo thereof. It was a constant war of influence with my parents’ two sides:

“You’re Italian.”

“No, you’re Irish. Here, wear this ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish button.”

“No, have this cannoli. Can your Irish relatives make pastries like this?”

“What color is your hair? And you think you’re Italian? Don’t believe ’em.”

When I was in 1st grade, on Columbus Day, the Italians’ chance to reply with pride and dignity to the Bacchanalia of St. Paddy’s Day, a teacher asked all of us who were Italian to raise our hands. My mother’s voice echoing in my head (“you’re Italian”), I raised my hand. My teacher told me dismissively to lower it. She could plainly see by my pale skin and orange hair that I was not Italian. Plus, my name is Janovitz, whatever the hell that is. It certainly is not Italian. My mother sent me in with a note the next day explaining this situation and I received a satisfyingly public apology from the same teacher.

As for the Irish side, well, there was usually no mistaking that influence; it was quite evident in my appearance. But my O’Shea side had been here for generations, unlike the families of some of my friends, whose parents came over as the first generation. So a lot of the links to the old country were already dissipating into a general NY-Irish-American-ness, which as we know tends to embrace the cartoonish stereotypes and soak them deep with a lot of beer and whiskey. And songs.

Whenever we had a get-together at Uncle Pat’s (who is, himself, half-German) for whichever holiday, out came the folding wooden chairs and some Sing-Along with Mitch records. But also, out came a lot of Irish albums and tunes. These tended to be the old maudlin warhorses like “When Irish Eyes…”, “My Wild Irish Rose,” “The Unicorn,” “Turaluralura,” and, heaven help us, “Danny Boy.” But those sad old melodies, especially as sung by a bunch of old relatives, made quite an impact.

When Buffalo Tom first went to Ireland, probably around 1990 or 1991, we landed and started out in Limerick. Down in the hotel lobby there was a gift store with cassettes for sale. They had Irish Heartbeat, by Van Morrison and the Chieftains. I bought it like the tourist I was. At least it was a cool record and not some lowest-common-denominator tripe. In fact, it turned out to be one of my favorite Van-related records. It was great to hear the Belfast Cowboy soul man hooked up and singing “Irish soul” with the trad Dubliners. I listened to it as I took my jet-lag-recovery nap. I woke up and walked out with the fellas to get some grub and a few pints. One of Tom Maginnis’ best barbs still stings to this day, “You know, Bill is actually considered a very good-looking man in Ireland.” Now this is just wrong on so many counts: a) Tom is as Irish as the Fightin’ Irish guy or the Celtics’ Leprechaun, b) Yes, Tom is handsome (though all beauty fades with age), c) Tom had not yet seen the Corrs or had forgotten Larry Mullen or would not bring the whole isle down with d) me, who is not good-looking by almost any measure, save for that by used by my Mom and wife.

Still stinging and needing something of a salve for my wounds and jetlag, we retired to the first pub we stumbled across, and there was an informal sesiun underway, with a handful of college or high school-age kids in a corner of the bar, around a table, singing all sorts of tunes, from Dylan, to the Waterboys, to traditional Celtic folk, to Van the Man and more. I was tickled to have stumbled in on this, which I later came to find out is a pretty common sight. Though my friends in Session Americana have taken up the cause here in Boston, dealing mostly in, as their name suggests, acoustic American music, and “Irish Sesiuns” take place in Irish pubs around Boston and other cities, it is still a relative rarity to hear music played informally and semi-spontaneously in America. For a rock guy first visiting one of his ancestral spots, seeing and hearing people play great music for the fun of it, because it was just part of their culture, made me wish for it more in my everyday experience back home.

Speaking of Irish Heartbeat and Session Americana, I will be playing this old ballad, which I first heard on that record, with the cats at Session Americana’s St. Patrick’s Day gig at the Lizard Lounge March 17. They play every Tuesday there, just a bunch of extremely talented singers and players around a mic or two, a table with some drinks and friends. This Tuesday just happens to fall on St. Paddy’s Day.

6 thoughts on “Cover of the Week 20 Carrickfergus”

  1. Oofa I grew up listening to a lot of that stuff..WFUV Fordham used to play it on the weekends and probably still does, since my mom was from the north we leaned more to the rebel stuff like the Wolftones. Which FUV used to play until they got politically correct in the late ’80’s. Nothing beat a trip to Woodside Queens to catch the Wolfetones at the Towerview.

    Certainly the one thing I look forward to on any trip to Ireland is the music in the pubs…hardly a juke box to found in any of them

    On a side note any relation to the O’Sheas from Deer Park LI?…they were some crazy Mofo’s.

  2. Hey Bill.

    I’ve been enjoying your posts and covers these past few months. This one raised a few chuckles. I really like your version of Carrickfergus.

    And, in the cyclical way of these things, I’m writing this on St Patrick’s Day as an Irishman from Limerick. I’m afraid I didn’t live here in 1990 or 1991, but I did have a cassette copy of Irish Heartbeat at that time.

    Growing up in Ireland, I hadn’t been too enamoured with Celtic music until The Pogues came along a few years earlier and injected a bit of punk rock into it. I did like Van the Man and I really fell in love with this tape. It remains one of my favourites by him and it brings “back sad reflections/Of happy days so long ago”.

    Just to bring it full circle, I was in Edinburgh a few years later and I picked up another cassette: Let Me Come Over by Buffalo Tom!

    If you’re ever back in Limerick, Bill, we got a nice little venue called Dolans Warehouse. And it’s got a fine pub if it’s a bit of grub and a few pints you’re lookin’ for.


  3. Love this song. It is the only Van Morrison singing I can take anymore, the singing on that album. The rest of it sounds like a fat man in purple tights. Which, from time to time, it must actually be.

  4. I’m jealous of Americans. They get to be proud of their country (now George Bush has gone) AND they get to be proud of their ancestors.

    Here in England we mostly hate ourselves and our country. If you show any kind of pride in your country here you are branded as a racist. (I don’t have any pride in my country, I hate the place and can’t wait to get away to somewhere with smiles and SUN)

    We have huge past glories (We gave the world the Beatles and the Stones!) but this place feels like it’s sinking into the mud.

    We’re like a band on their 14th album. There’s just nothing left in this old dog.

  5. I got to hear this live at the Session Americana show on St Patty’s Day. It was one of the highlights of a fantastic night and definitely the most “celtic” of the show. I say “one” of the highlights only because there were so many other great performances. Rachel Price’s version of Tupelo Honey was … wow. So, I’ll call it a tie.

  6. Bill:

    I came to this a bit late, but its a great interpretation of an Irish ballad; You speak in your post of Irish and Italian, and dichotomies in general.

    Here in the middle of CT, and in growing up, everyone was Irish, Italian, or half and half- you got your Pasquale Kennedy and you Sean Mancini under one school roof; and it is certainly the great dividing line of Red Sox v. Yankees fans, the mason/dixon line of fan demarcation.

    Just like all these contrasts, I, of italian descent, have always been drawn to the bitter and sweet balance of traditional Irish music.
    You do the bang up job of a consummate pro,singing sad and hopeless lines, with a forlorn hopefulness. Its not about differences really, its about balance.

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