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Bill Nevins talks with Black 47's Larry Kirwan about Politics, Beer, and Sex



"History of Ireland"
Irish playwright and musician Larry Kirwan walked into a Lower Manhattan dive, Paddy Reilly's, one night in 1989 and founded Black 47 over many rounds of Guiness shared with NY beat-cop and uileann piper Chris Byrne. They hit upon the concept of mixing Irish traditional music with rock, rap and reggae and blending in a political edge and realistic street-smart narrative lyrics. At first, Black 47 got a hostile reception from the NY Irish music scene. But over time, with grit and perseverance, they caught on. Black 47 has always been very open about their radical politics, but it is counterbalanced by their very funny, boozy wit. The rest is history, written large from bar to bar along the East Coast, in Ireland and even as far off as Argentina. Their fans follow them from city to city, like politically-astute Deadheads. And their gigs as house band for Connolly's Pub on 47th Street in Manhattan are always packed, with delirious fans bouncing around inches from the stage and shouting out the lyrics. Their latest CD is Trouble in the Land (Shanachie). Larry Kirwan, a native of Wexford on the southeast coast of Ireland, writes the songs of Black 47 and he has recently recorded a solo album, Kilroy Was Here.

Bill Nevins talked with Larry Kirwan in November, 2000.


Bill Nevins: Black 47 has always been associated with the East Coast, especially New York City. They've been called, "the house band of New York". They've also played in Ireland, which makes sense given your Irish roots. But this past October, Black 47 toured Argentina. What's up? Are you getting restless? Why Argentina? And, since you are touring widely, when will you play in the Southwest USA?

Larry Kirwan: Black 47 is eternally restless. We would love to play everywhere. Unfortunately or fortunately, we are a working class band--we live from the money we earn from playing. As we don't receive record company support, each gig must be costed before we play it to make sure that everyone gets paid and that we don't incur a loss which could put us under, financially. This is a total pain in the arse, but it's necessary for survival.

As it turns out, the Argentine promoters who invited us were able to pay for flights and hotel rooms and pay enough money to satisfy everyone's needs, so we were able to go. That's how we decide where we will play. It's a very tricky situation, as any musician will attest to. But it is the reality, so adapt or go back to playing in your garage!

Playing in Argentina was wonderful. A whole new audience and a whole new situation to get used to.

Eventually, something will break so that we can play in the Southwest, but for now . . . it's just keep on working to pay the bills! Been like that for ten years now, and we really don't mind. It is a good job!

More than any other American band, Black 47 is strongly associated with the struggle for human rights and political-social justice. Given Argentina's grim recent history of right wing repression, the ongoing "Mothers of the Disappeared" protests against military kidnappings and murders, and Argentina's role as the birthplace of Cuban Revolution hero Dr. Ernesto Che Guevara y Lynch, what ramifications are there in Black 47 going there now?

Well, it was an "interesting" situation. For one thing, it was unusual. We did not know the political affiliations of the promoters before going there--mostly because of the language barrier. To our shame, none of us speaks fluent Spanish. Of course, when we got there it was quite obvious that the former members of the Junta had not invited us!

I knew that there had been a sizeable emigration from Ireland to Argentina in the late 19th and early 20th century--many of whom were from my own home county, Wexford. In an anthropological way, I was deeply interested to find out how these fourth and fifth generation Irish people had made out. I was very moved by the greeting that was given to us. Many there already knew about Black 47, which was quite stunning to me. They tend to keep abreast of what is going on in Irish circles--not merely the big success stories like U2 or Sinead O'Connor--the usual suspects, as it were--but in people like us who have made an impact or contribution to Irish culture--especially as it related to the Irish Diaspora.

Still and all, Argentina is a country walking on egg shells because of the continuing influence and strength of the military and the disappearances. Because the people have dealt with it--not entirely different from my experiences of the Czech and Soviet peoples right before the Wall came down.

It's a very interesting culture--very sophisticated and yet one that will, no doubt, experience great growth when the military shackles are finally totally lifted. For me, it was a great personal experience. My father was a merchant seaman and Argentina was almost his second home for many years. He badly wanted me to go there and experience the warmth of the people and a country that he loved as a young man. Also, one of my favorite composers is Astor Piazzolla. I have been deeply moved by his music and to be in the places that influenced him was inspiring.

And, I found myself dragged onstage to dance jigs with an Argentine Irish dance troupe! Danced my arse off, but it was grand! And the audiences loved us, even though there were English-Spanish translators scattered through the crowds at every gig, explaining our lyrics.We seemed to get the word across, anyway. Especially in our song, "Bobby Sands" when we sang of the infamous role of Maggie Thatcher--the Argentines still hate Thatcher for the Malvinas War and her sinking of their navy ship Belgrano. They all got up and cheered--pretty thrilling!

Your latest Black 47 studio CD, Trouble in the Land, came out on Shanachie, while the Black 47 Live in New York City CD came out on Gadfly. Why different labels?

cd cover Different strokes for different folks, as they say. And now again, with my solo CD ,(Kilroy Was Here), I'll return to Gadfly. I've structured a deal with Gadfly, whereby I retain ownership of the masters and share much more in profits from sales of the CDs. Shanachie, on the other hand, has the same structure as the majors--along with some of the same advantages of the majors. They also do a lot more of the work. But, more and more, I am interested in holding on to the rights to the CDs. Once you relinquish those, you kiss away all say in what is done with them from that point on.

However, I would expect that the next Black 47 studio CD will be on Shanachie. I've had a good experience with the folks at Shanachie. You can get any of them on the phone at the drop of a hat. The fucking interns wouldn't even take my calls at Mercury! Nonetheless, I see Black 47 and Larry Kirwan as mavericks. While there is a loyalty to those who do right by us, still the particular need will provide the outlet.

What has been your experience with the various record companies, including Mercury and EMI, that you have worked with over the years?

Well, it's been pretty good for the most part. But that's taking into account that so many things can go wrong. A Murphy's Law of sorts. EMI definitely tried their misguided best for us. They spent a lot of money, but there are few Einsteins in this business. Mercury were a joke! And I've no reason to believe that they've changed. We would never have been with them but for the fact that Danny Goldberg, their ex-President, is a fan of the band and shares some of our political sympathies.

Shanachie are a great small company but are constrained by their size. And Gadfly are very small but allow me to hold on to the masters. When working with them, I have to assume a good portion of the work of promotion. But that's okay.

The music business is very screwed up. No one really understands the great waste of both talent and resources that occurs. Unless you are totally committed to a crazy life, for Christ's sake, don't get involved! Go straight to Wall Street and live the music life through your CDs and downloads!

Early in 2000, Black 47's co-founder, uileann piper/bodhran player/rapper Chris "Seanchai" Byrne left amicably to concentrate on his own projects, (recording with his band, The Unity Squad, and hosting legendary sessions in his Manhattan pub, Rocky Sullivan's). Can you talk about how the band is evolving after Chris?

LK I would say it's getting into a more musical phase. Our newest member is uileann piper Joseph Mulvanerty. Joseph comes from a jazz, as well as traditional Irish background. He is also 23 and, perhaps, reflects more of the times than the rest of us old geezers. We all tend to be lost in our own worlds. The earth could come crashing down around us and we would still function as musicians and a musical outfit. Joseph has probably brought in the rare air of contemporary life. He is also very quick at improvising, and adds greatly in that department.

It was a good change for everyone concerned. We can try new things and Chris can proceed with his own career. We're all very excited about the way things are going. The band is looser now and the changes should be reflected in the next album.

What are some of your favorite memories of the band with Chris Byrne?

Oh, man, there are so many! I remember in the first months, we were playing a benefit up in the Bronx. We were very confrontational back then. A crowd of hecklers had gathered in front of us. Finally, Chris basically told them all to go fuck themselves. One of them shouted back, "You shouldn't have said that!". When we inquired why, he pointed to one in their midst and said, "'Cause he's the owner!". Another place we never played again!

There was also a great intensity to the band with Chris in it. He was always balls to the wall on stage. I seem to remember the girst Guinness Fleadh [festival] on Randall's Island [NY] as being particularly forceful. As usual in these situations, promoters tend to relegate us to the small stage for "cosmetic purposes" and we very much resented it. People were just stunned by the raw intensity. At many times, we were very much on the edge, both physically and mentally, and we always channeled that feeling into the music. Chris was a great person to have along side you onstage. He didn't particularly care for any musicians' type carry-on or tradition and he hated the whole idea of "rock'n'roll". Quite often, he came across as this Brooklyn, New York City Policeman laying down the law onstage and I am proud to have served with him. He also had a very cutting sense of humor which could put everything--both triumph and disaster--into perspective.

Black 47 has always sung about the emigrants, Irish and non-Irish, in America, both the serious and the humorous sides of that story, as well as about the d history of the Irish back in Ireland. But what about the relationship of the Irish in America to the indigenous Americans, the Indians? Are you bothered by all those John Ford-John Wayne movies with Irish songs in them that glorified Indian-killing? What about that famous Custer 7th Cavalry marching tune, "The Garry Owen"?

Well, from my point of view, I've always said that each race has its own assholes. And I, for one, would never rule the Irish out of that particular equation. In fact, many of Black 47's fights have been with the Irish. I've always had self-confidence in myself and my Irishness, so that I don't feel that I have to stand up for Irishness, especially when it is bigoted. I don't for instance, care, as do many, if the Irish are stereotyped as being drunks. In many cases, we deserve it. I know how much alcohol I consume and how much my race does too. I don't feel that I have to speak up in situations like that. We also get credit for being great writers and speakers and we accept that, though many of us never crack a book and can barely string a few sentences together. So, I accept the good with the bad.

I know that the Irish were responsible for great cruelty to both Native Americans in the West, (as were most other immigrant races), and to African Americans. Our people went on a rampage during the anti-Draft riots in New York at the time of the American Civil War. I wrote about it from the Irish immigrant point of view in our song, "Five Points"--not to refute what happened, but because I found the affair an interesting subject--basically that an immigrant group brought a great city to the verge of anarchy and could have had a huge impact on the Civil War.

It also interests me that the Irish were not abolitionists, for economic reasons, (which is what most of history is about). But that doesn't excuse the fact that our people were responsible for lynching African-Americans during those awful times. There is no excusing something like that--even if the cause is understandable. That is, two groups on the bottom of society fighting for jobs. It happened. It was awful, it was dramatic and I wrote about it.

History is messy, just like life. And if you're going to write about it in song--you usually have to adopt a point of view. You can't just recite a whole lot of facts--we songwriters leave that job to historians. People speak a lot about melting pots, but the reality is that most races do not mix that well. When they meet, they generally tend to collide. And I think that I, for one, have dealt fairly with some of the failings of our race, such as xenophobia, sexism and homophobia.

Yes, in "Five Points" you get inside the mindset of the Irish anti-draft mobs, and in your version of "Danny Boy" you describe very sympathetically a gay Irish construction worker who runs head-on into bigotry on the job in America. And one of your songs is a heroic portrayal of Paul Robeson, including samples of his own speeches. As a political and social progressive, is it hard to see that the Irish in America are often slammed as reactionary bigots, as they have been by the British Government, Bono and other critics?

Well, remember that for all the racists and bigots there were people like Paul O'Dwyer, various Kennedys, Malachy McCourt and many others who have been on the side of the angels. We have a strong liberal side, too. Unfortunately, because we were put down at first ourselves, we tended to retreat back into the security of the tribe. But we had great people who spoke out against various forms of racism also. Now that the Irish in America have reached a plateau of success, the worst forms of racism are becoming mere memories. Long may that be the case!

Black 47 has often sung about the Northern Ireland conflict, in songs like "Fanatic Heart" and "Time to Go", and you often played at benefits and generally supported the efforts towards lasting peace and justice. The peace process looked to be well established earlier this year, but recently there has been new violence. What do you see for the future?

The war is over. There will be problems with the winding down. But, essentially, the world is a different place now then back in 1968-69 when things first erupted in Ireland. From my point of view, getting the power of the American Presidency involved was essential. This was, by no means, an original idea. It went right back to the 1860s and was continued in Parnell's, Collins', and DeValera's eras. The American Presidency was the one power that would make the British sit up and take notice. Then when the [pro-British] Unionists felt that US aid would be coming in, they were eager to be part of the settlement, too! There is an old saying that the "Unionists are more interested in the half-crown than the Crown". So, yes, trouble will continue in the changeover but peace is here and even though it may falter from time to time, the people and the times demand it.

Black 47 has caught a lot of criticism over the years for a) your politics and outspokeness and b) your diverging from expectations of how an "Irish band" is supposed to sound. Any comments?

Well, yes and quite rightly so! We've always been on the cutting edge of opinion. That's not a place to be if you are afraid of criticism or controversy. We set ourselves up to be the voice of disaffected nationalism and Irish republicanism in the US, championing the rights of the nationalist minority in the North of Ireland. That was not a pretty place to be back in 1989 and the early 1990s. Sinn Fein [the Irish Republican political party which endorses the IRA] and [Sinn Fein President] Gerry Adams were social pariahs then. Now, every musician, politician and hanger-on praises Mr. Adams and wants to get their picture taken with the man! And that's okay.

Sinn Fein has, by far, the best political minds in their midst. Their political acumen was sharpened by years of imprisonment and they took advantage of their hardships. For those who have been around it, Irish Republicanism is a flame and an ideal that's very consuming and has great moral strength and integrity. When it was mixed with left wing humanistic ideology, it was very irresistible.

I know its strength and appeal. I was raised by a very hard-core Republican grandfather. But it was anything but generally popular when Black 47 started out. So, because we told it as we saw it and, in my case, sought to give back Republican and socialist heroes to the young people, we were castigated by certain sections of opinion. We were controversial and certain people tried to marginalize us. But that was no big deal to us because as Yeats put it, "Was there another Troy for us to burn?". We were political and if you didn't like it, then you were better off listening to something more accomodating to your blander tastes.

And now we are still controversial. Because, the awful question has to be asked. Was it worth it all? What has been achieved from thirty years of mayhem that couldn't have been gained by the young marchers of the People's Democracy [Northern Ireland nonviolent civil rights campaign of the late 1960s]?

It's a very difficult question to face up to. But it's going to have to be done. Would we have reached the same position we are now in, or even gone a little further, if we hadn't, time after time, given up the high moral ground by slaughtering people?

After all, there is still no Republic and whole communities have been polarized and may stay that way for generations to come. These are difficult questions and must be dealt with.

I have a lot of respect for Sinn Fein, though I am definitely not a member. Sinn Fein can go on to achieve great things. It is now the only all-32-county [all-Ireland, north and south] political party. But if these questions are not dealt with, they will become just another political party. And that would be a sad thing for Irish Republicanism.

By the same token, it must never be forgotten that Irish Nationalism and Irish Republicanism were facing some very intransigent people like Mrs. Thatcher and various right wingers and "little Englanders" in both the Conservative and Labour Parties of Britain. I, for one, will never forgive Thatcher for the unnecessary deaths of [IRA prisoner and elected Member of Parliament] Bobby Sands and his nine comrades, who died on hunger strike in 1981.

As regards "expectations of what an Irish band should sound like", I never even considered that to be an issue! We were original musicians trying to make original music. The furthest thing from our heads was, "What do people expect or think of us?". From the very first night we started playing we were involved in controversy but were also balancing the need to challenge ourselves and enjoy the music with the cyclone of gigs, travelling, partying and generally keeping up with life.

It's still that way. In my own case, there are expectations but they come totally from myself. Like how do I stretch the band and myself musically? And lyrically, I was trying, from the start, to emulate the greats--Dylan, Yeats, Joyce, Miller, Durrell. I knew there was no hope but, at least, if you aimed at the stars you might just crash into the moon, (and not the one that rhymes with June)!

With Joseph Mulvanerty now your piper, do you also plan to add a reggae-rapper similar to Chris Byrne's singing style? Or to feature guest artists on future recordings?

No, no such plans. Why repeat yourself? The band will produce, from within itself, what we need. I approach everything from a songwriting point of view. What suits the song, suits me. That's how I bring in people to record with us. But I don't hang out and don't have many contacts in the "real" music business. Santana had a lot of "guest artists" on his latest album. I loved his solos, as ever, but most of the songs left me cold. I opened the CD, played it once, and haven't opened it since, sad to say.

Your song, "American Wake" sketches a homesick Irish exile. You have lived in America now for about twenty years. Many Irish who came to America in recent decades have gone back to Ireland now that the economy there is much better. Have you thought of doing that yourself? What keeps you in America?

I'm still head over heels in love with New York City! I love the very stones in the streets and the sense of history there continues to overwhelm me. I go back to Ireland every year. This year, I went back to bury my mother. My father is quite ill. I expect when he's gone that a major link will be severed. I try not to feel that way but parts of Ireland are slipping away from me. I'm going to Wexford to do my first solo show soon. It's rather like putting the cat amongst the pigeons. Jumping in off the deep end. Perhaps it's an act of desperation because I don't feel the same pull to Wexford anymore. I don't envisage going back to live. But then, stranger things have happened.

Can you tell a bit about your early years here, and your work in both music and theater? Didn't you have a folk duo album out in the 1970s?

I came over here with Pierce Turner who was also from Wexford. We had a duo called Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, (a most difficult name to say). We played together until 1985 and around 1979 morphed into The Major Thinkers, who had some small success with a song called "Avenue B is the Place To Be" on Epic Portrait Records. Turner and Kirwan released a critically acclaimed and radio-played album around 1978 called Absolutely and Completely. It's now a very costly collectors item!

We were very quirky and original. We also smoked a lot of dope and were caught up in a whole hedonistic scene that centered around a bar in the Village called The Bells of Hell. We came very close to breaking through on a couple of occasions but it didn't quite happen. We remain great friends.

After Pierce and I split, I went full time into the theater. I wrote, directed, produced and did whatever to four or five plays until 1989. Those plays were collected in a book called Mad Angels. I still work in the theater and I have written another five plays and musicals since then. I still love the theater but, to put it bluntly, I haven't the time, and probably the inclination, to kiss the right arses and that is a necessity in the theater.

On occasion, also, I have had to turn down opportunities because of my responsibilities with Black 47. Still, I persevere and make sure that everything I do gets, at least some kind of production. I'm currently collaborating with Tom Keneally, (author of Schindler's List), on a musical about women convicts being deported from Ireland to Australia. And Liverpool Fantasy, my best known play, [about what might have happened if John Lennon had quit the Beatles before they made the big time], will be produced in Liverpool in April. I also have hopes of The Poetry of Stone, my last play, getting a New York City production this Spring.

Any thoughts on The Bells of Hell, that legendary Manhattan pub? What are the best pubs in New York now? Elsewhere in America? In Ireland? In Argentina?

Well, The Bells was a great influence on me. I spent some of the happiest nights of my life there. It was full of characters--your brother in criticism, Lester Bangs, being one of them, and a great friend. It was a time for hanging out, getting smashed, laid and doing lots of drugs. Also, getting the experience and experiences from which I have been able to dredge for songs.

In tandem with The Bells was The Kiwi, an after hours joint on 9th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A. I usually repaired there when the Bells closed and stayed until late dawn. It was mostly a Black and Puerto Rican place with assorted transvestites, hookers, drug dealers, and people of the night.

I now prefer quieter places with very good beer. Of course, I spend a lot of time in bars, given the nature of Black 47's appeal. But there is no one place that I frequent.

In your songs, and onstage, you often step inside the persona of a character, historical or fictional. Can you talk about some of these, and how you chose them?

Well, I came to that way of writing unintentionally. It happened because of the immersion with character that comes with playwriting. I hadn't even realised what I was doing until the band's songs began to be reviewed. I do have to have a feeling for the characters and be able to identify with their causes. With [1916 Irish socialist hero] James Connolly, I hated the old standard song, "The Ballad of James Connolly". As a socialist myself, I resented that he had been railroaded by tears-in-the-beer nationalism. I thought that Connolly, the world revolutionary, would have resented that, too. But with that song, as with the others, I always have to find a way to enter his spirit, as it were.

With Connolly, it was quite simple. What must he have felt--knowing that he was going to be executed--about leaving his family fatherless and penniless behind him? Once I found that chink in the armor, the rest was just a matter of diligent and knowledgeable songwriting.

So, I suppose it's a technique. But I ponder long and hard before taking on a character. I'm working on a couple right now and, to tell you the truth, I'm finding it particularly hard and painful. Which could mean that I'll fail or maybe that I just have to keep persevering.

Do you write some songs directly from your own persona?

Very much. But I also usually throw in a wild card. Still, I'm not really a confessional writer. I use the raw data of experience and then add something totally outside the mix to spice things up.

How much are the other band members involved in creating your songs?

Not at all in the lyrics. Our usual procedure is that I write the words and music and a couple of the main instrumental lines. Then Fred [Parcells], the trombone player, comes in and transcribes some of these lines and rearranges them. Then I go in with Hammy, the drummer, and Geoff, the sax player and Joseph our piper and suggest parts to them. Everyone works to get the song together so we can play it, in some form, at the next gig. Then, over some months, the song mutates into what it eventually becomes. But it doesn't stop there. We post new song lyrics on our website and ask for our fans' criticism and suggestions. We often drop songs for long periods and when we revive them, we will have new ways of reinterpreting them--often not consciously done.

Your first solo album, Kilroy Was Here, will be released on Gadfly Records in February. How does it differ from Black 47 projects?

A couple of years back, I was working on a play about my family and my crazy political upbringing, entitled The Poetry of Stone. My grandfather was a stonecutter, a self-educated man and an ardent Irish Republican. He raised me. Anyway, the play just poured out, (not the usual case), and was probably the best thing I had written. It was very intense and stirred up a lot of memories of family and growing up in Wexford in a different era. The song, "Tramps Heartbreak", from Trouble in the Land, [Black 47's latest album, on Shanachie], came from the same process.

Around the same time, I heard Time Out of Mind by Bob Dylan and, like many's the worker in song, that album forced me to take stock of my own work. Basically, I felt Dylan had left us all behind again. There was a depth to that album that floored me. And, to tell you the truth, I felt that I had been, at times, merely skimming the surface in my own songwriting.

And so, I took a step back, got out the pick and shovel and went mining. A number of songs from Kilroy Was Here came from that excavation. Three of them are up with the best I've done--"Molloy", "Kilroy Was Here" and, most especially, "Life's Like That, Isn't It?".

Musically, I wanted the mood to be quieter than Black 47 but as intense. So, I featured trumpet and violin as the lead instruments. Those instruments have a slightly Spanish feel but that was, oddly enough, the feel of some of the music I heard growing up in Wexford. Remember that my hometown was then at the end of its era as a seaport but the international influence of the port was still very prevalent.

Many of the songs were written on Sunday evenings, which used to be a very heavy and reflective time in Irish life. I usually go to a bar with my children, have a few pints and then on the walks home, the songs seemed to seep out. Later that night, in the quietness, they would take shape.

Stewart Lerman, who produced Trouble In the Land, set me up with a number of musicians. From the start, we wanted to keep it loose, almost a jazzy feel. So, we had two three-hour rehearsals and then went in and cut the whole thing. All the vocals and acoustic guitar were done live, usually in first takes. I had intended to re-record them but found that, while technically the redone vocals might be better, yet they couldn't match the intensity of the music. I'm very proud of the album and think it takes songwriting/storytellling in a new direction.

The Black 47 website (www.black47.com) has spawned a Discussion Forum which you maintain and which has turned into the prime information source on Irish history for many fans. Are you happy with this? Is it becoming a separate job to manage the site?

Well, Black 47 has a responsibility. We've opened a lot of eyes to the politics and culture of Ireland, so it's only fitting that it would spill over onto our discussion site. It doesn't really take too much time. There are many educated people who drop into the site and give their opinions, so I don't have to keep it percolating. It seems to do that itself. What does take time, is that I answer every email personally. But I'm a fast typist and can usually think on my feet. It also has given me a much better understanding of what Black 47 means to people--for better or worse!

You have expressed admiration for Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the former Member of Parliament who long has been identified with the Irish Republican left, and is a heroine to many Irish- Americans, but who has been "marginalized" in Ireland by the changes in Sinn Fein and the peace process. What is the future for the Left in Ireland?

Bernadette has been a major influence on my life. You have no idea what she meant to us as young teenagers when she "hit the scene". She was magnificent! Read her maiden speech in the House of Commons for sheer intelligence, integrity and intensity. At different times, I've lost touch with her but then I listen to her speak and it seems she still has that annoying (to some) instinctive ability to get right to the heart of the matter. Because of this facility, she has been marginalized. The truth is often unpalatable and she has a strident way of presenting it.

To many of us used to dealing with the realpolitik, it was clear that Sinn Fein and the IRA were always going to have to come to a compromise with the Northern power structure. It came quicker than most of us would have expected. I can make allowances for something like that, but a Joan of Arc like Bernadette will not. No one wants an Old Testament Prophet in their ranks, especially a wee woman from County Tyrone. But, that's their problem. For me, she is a lighthouse. I don't always agree with her but she intuitively makes me question all my beliefs, every time I listen to her.

I don't know what the future of the Left is in Ireland. Hopefully, Sinn Fein and the progressive elements of the Irish Labour Party can form some kind of alliance. I do see Sinn Fein, because of their great ability and their grassroots work, gaining up to ten seats in the Irish Parliament in the not too distant future, and becoming a power broker in their own right. Then the fat will truly be in the fire. Sinn Fein in an Irish government? It's coming!

Can you talk a bit about the strange adventures Black 47 has had--being shot at onstage, crashing in the tour van, etc.? Do you bring this stuff on yourselves? Other bands don't have those kinds of adventures, do they? And then you write songs about them!

Well, the band always was passionate and I suspect that element tends to foster adventures. Our audiences, for the most part, have always been great but there are a few volatile people amongst them, too. The shooting was an aberration. One off-duty New York policeman took out his gun, thinking it was unloaded, in the middle of the dance floor one St. Patrick's eve, and pulled the trigger on himself. Unfortunately, the bullet went through him, killing him, and bounced around the balcony, passing through our road manager's wife's hand and then lodging in my wife's body. An amazing coincidence, seeing they were sitting thirty feet from each other!

At the time, one of the British tabloids had named us as "the musical wing of the IRA", making us fair game for fanatics, so we assumed the gun shot was aimed at us. But it was just a tragic accident.

We travel a lot, long journeys by van, so the crash was probably just one of those things. I think our shows just bring a lot of passion to the surface. And passion has a way of doing its own thing.

At almost every show of yours I have seen, and I have seen a lot of them, you pledge to give up drinking. Who do you think you're kidding?

I love drinking! It loosens up a part of me. I try to keep it under control nowadays. Being creative is much more important. And yet, that first pint just feels wonderful. My body now tells me to slow down and I'm able, for the most part, to obey its orders.

Seriously, though, Black 47, like Shane MacGowan, has been slammed for "perpetuating the drunken Irish image". Any response?

Irish people like to drink. There is usually an underlying reason for a stereotype. But, in reality, what band brings more subjects, (both political and social), into their songs? What other band's songs are used in so many political and history courses throughout the USA? If we like to let it all hang out on stage, with the help of a few drinks, what's the big deal? It's a lot better that kids go to a Black 47 show, drink in supervised conditions, and pick up something about history and politics than sit in their basements and chugalug without any kind of restraint or supervision. It takes a lot of concentration and fitness to get through a two-hour Black 47 set. I know how to pace myself. The kids watching will unconsciously get that, too. I can't afford to get drunk--I have to be up at 630 the next morning to get my kids off to school! But I can get loose and I adore doing so!

You always throw yourself totally into your shows, physically and emotionally. They are great fun, but it looks exhausting to do that night after night, week after week, year after year.! How the hell do you keep going?

Oh, those shows lift you up. I feel rejuvenated after them. I can't sleep. My fingers are tingling. They are a thrill and a privilege to do. You have no idea how wonderful it is to be in a great rock band that's roaring along at full throttle onstage! It's like having the best fuck of your life every night onstage!

Jim Carroll, another New York City rocker, took a long hiatus from music to write poetry and do readings--he only recently resumed his rock career. You also have many plays in print and often in production. Do you see your future as continuing with the band, or do you see stopping and focusing on writing and plays?

I like doing both in tandem. I could probably get on better in the theater world, if I concentrated on it. But I have to make a living too, and music is a great way to do it. I do wish I could give a bit more time to writing. It's a joy to me. But, I think everyone is time-constrained these days. I just do the best I can and let the chips fall where they will.

Where is the best pint?

I go to a little bar called Riverrun in Tribeca. there is a great bar called McGeary's in Albany that has a wonderful array of beers, also. But I suppose the best pint is in the place where your friends are.

Thanks, Larry. Cheers.

Audio: "The History of Ireland Part 1"
by Larry Kirwan, (p) Cherry River/Starry Plough
© Kirwan/Gadfly Records
used with the permission of the author and label


This interview originally appeared in edited form in Thirsty Ear.

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