LARRY KIRWAN is a small, bone-thin man with light red hair. He named his rock n' roll band after the worst year and "Black '47" tackles controversial issues confronting the Irish in the US and back home via Guiness-fed roistering and frank social and political comment. He is from County Wexford, in the south-east corner of Ireland. He first heard about the Famine from his grandfather, whose own father had survived by working as a sculptor at an Anglo-Irish estate. Sipping mineral water at his loft in lower Manhattan, Kirwan remembers, "As my grandfather got older and started to revert into childhood, he was constantly dredging up memories of speaking to his father, and also had this folk memory of it, which blamed Britain intensely for what had happened". He notes that his experience was highly unusual, as the Famine was not generally discussed in Ireland until recently.
His early saturation with history had mixed results, creatively speaking. "I rejected Irish music to a large degree and tried to get far away from it." Years later, though, it all rushed back. "I wrote the song "Black '47" in Italy, oddly enough, in Tuscany. I remember writing it in a farmhouse late at night and trying to keep it low. It had been on my mind to write this song for the longest time, to write a memorial to these people and to get it right. It was really important that I get it right." Searching for his words, he continues, "The Irish at that point totally believed in God. When this happened, 3, 4 years in a row, they were stretched to the utmost. I believe that a lot of them felt that God had turned away from them. There was a void afterwards, you can see it in the politics. There was no great movement until Parnell, 35 or 40 years later."
Kirwan notes that while the Famine interrupted the Gaelic oral tradition, the tongue was already losing ground. "English was the language of commerce, so I think that the Irish language was under a lot of pressure anyway." He feels that the cultural losses were even more profound. "Up to that point, the Irish thought in communal terms, from a clan basis which is very different than democracy. Gladstone finally got in the Land Acts, a great piece of legislation, which were basically buying back the land from the landlords and selling it to the peasants" Once the Land Acts were in place, he reasons, the hunger for land became obsessive and the old traditions were stifled. "That was a final nail in the coffin of the clan system," he says in a resigned tone.
The role of the Catholic Church also mutated with the times. "The Church didn't have the same control over the people pre-Famine they did afterwards," says Kirwan, "There was probably 8 million people in Ireland and a small amount of clergy looking after us. And then, the Famine came and all of a sudden the population's under 5 million! Now, no priests died, there's still the same amount of priests. I'm sure that there were individual acts of heroism - the priests did suffer in seeing the people dying and in trying to feed them. But when it was over, the people were totally beaten and the Church was the one institution that was still powerful. The Church essentially took over the running of Ireland at that point." Kirwan feels that the British quickly assessed the situation and used it to further their own agenda in Ireland. "The British and the Church are sort of made for each other, they're good survivors. The British allowed them to build their college at Maynooth. The Catholic Church always adapts!"
The song "Black '47" appears on the group's 1993 EMI release, "Fires Of Freedom". The lyrics rave at heaven and curse the landlords, just as the victims must have done while they had the strength. "Every time I do "Black '47" on stage, they (the victims) invade me." says Kirwan, "It's like a wave coming in. Sometimes, I can't talk after it. I have to choose the next song very carefully so I can segue way into it without a huge mood adjustment, because I'm enveloped by it. It rips me up every time I do it, it's really searing. It's almost like Native Americans taking peyote."
An associate arrives to help mix his upcoming release, a collection of children's songs, so we wrap up our discussion. "I think that the emphasis should be on the political as well as the memorial, because we can learn from what happened. Irish people in the South don't want to be bothered with the North of Ireland. How do we utilize what happened with Ireland, the lesson of the Famine? How can we solve problems that are ongoing?" After a thoughtful pause, he continues, "The gulf between Irish people and Irish-Americans started as a direct result of 1847. That's when the bulk of Irish people came over here. There's a particularly patronizing attitude toward Irish-Americans that, being an Irish person myself, I find really disgusting, simplistic and idiotic. I think that we can use the Famine to help explore all the differences. Somehow, we can help each other."