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Unapologetically contemporary

POSTED ON May 22nd  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure


Willow Sea and Tracy Friel are Grounds for Invasion.


By Colleen Taylor

I’m feeling very cool this week. Walking about the streets with my headphones in, there’s a hip sound guiding the pep in my steps.  It’s all thanks to two new additions to my playlist: “Let Go” by Galway band Grounds for Invasion and “Hold Ya” by Dublin-based Rocstrong.  Although I wouldn’t group these two tracks in the same genre setting, they deserve mention together for their parallel ultra-modernism.  “Let Go” is electro-pop/rock and slightly techno while “Hold Ya” is funky and soulful. What connects them is this audible demonstration of how unapologetically contemporary the Irish music scene has become.  These Galway and Dublin representatives illustrate current Irish arts scene’s freshness and its curiosity.  These songs don’t rely on the crutch of past influences: they are very much the fashionable sounds of Ireland now.

Grounds for Invasion is a musical partnership out of Galway forged between Willow Sea (or Will O’Connor) and Tracy Friel.  The two met at college, and Sea, moved by Friel’s rendition of a Bo Diddley song, conceived of an electro collaborative project, which planted the seeds for “Grounds for Invasion.”  The duo released their debut album, “Dying Stars,” in February of this year to considerable acclaim among some amateur critics in Ireland.  They drummed up some more fans at the Body & Soul Festival, where they’re also playing this summer in 2015.  The Irish Times named Grounds for Invasion one of the bands to watch in 2015, and their debut “Dying Stars”–still a very recent release–continues to garner interest in Ireland.

Electro-pop music oftentimes turns me off.  I find it too “out there,” sometimes too reliant on the sound board than the voice and instruments.  But when I stumbled upon “Let Go” off the new album “Dying Stars,” I had the opposite response.  This song is about the voice.  The lyrics and echo-y vocals intersect with the cool, mellow electronic beats in seamless, natural correlation.   The song is hypnotic: it pulls you in and induces a bobbing head or tapping foot in immediate response.  Grounds for Invasion aren’t trying to over-play or over-sync their sounds.  They competently navigate the common ground of the electronic world and the artistic world, and the resultant sound is authentic–not to mention, very cool.



Rocstrong is Andre J. P. Bangala.  Born in the Congo and raised in Ireland, Rocstrong’s cultural background is, like his musical influence, interesting and pluralistic.  He is a man taken with rock and funk sounds and looks to a diverse range of artists for his inspiration, from the likes of Elvis to Pharrell Williams.  His sound is ultimately his own, though; Rocstrong writes and produces all his music.

“Hold Yah” is upbeat, fun, funky and musically fascinating.  Released online just a few weeks ago, this song is only Rocstrong’s third official release, but it sounds like the accomplished track of a musician with three times that amount of output.  “Hold Yah” asserts Rocstrong’s individuality, particularly in the Irish musical context.  His voice manages to sound both as if from an earlier era and decidedly modern simultaneously.  The song both belongs in 1970s New York and the top of the Irish charts today, timely and timeless at the same time.  This song not only reinvigorates funk rock with electronic keynotes, it also brings a bit of Dublin’s urban feel into styles that otherwise live elsewhere in the globe.  The singer must be commended for avoiding the electro-genre rabbit hole that traps many young artists today.  Instead, Rocstrong wisely chooses to resurrect sounds and styles that shouldn’t have gone away in the first place.  But Rocstrong is doing far more than great tributes to earlier musical eras–he writes his own musical instinct into the Irish music scene, bringing things back to the lively space of right here, right now.

If you’re feeling like you could do with some cool new tunes, join me by adding “Let Go” and “Hold Yah” to your playlists.  They’re both available on SoundCloud.  In particular, keep an eye out for Rocstrong.  He’s doing something special and completely jovial for the Irish music scene.

Colleen Taylor writes the Irish Echo’s “Music Notes” column.


New Irish-American Writing

POSTED ON May 21st  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure


“Brownstone Dreams” – an extract

By Kevin R. McPartland

Staggering slightly and mumbling, Bobby Dutton made his way across the schoolyard of P.S. 124 and then stopped. He stared at a large wall that separated the Catholic school from the public school. At the bottom of the wall was a small hole. A full moon was high in the sky and he could see quite clearly the dark indentation in the brick.

Bobby was here at one-thirty in the morning on a dare. It was Hanky who had pushed it—saying he didn’t have the balls to take the gun from its hiding place in the hole in the wall. Earlier in the evening Bobby’s crew, the Schoolyard Boys (as they called themselves), had gathered down by the banks of the Gowanus Canal—an odorous, oil-slicked, narrow waterway that filtered in from lower New York Bay. They’d drunk two six-packs of Rheingold beer and had sniffed several tubes of airplane glue.

As he stood staring at the wall, Bobby suddenly thought of rats; rats were known to scurry around the schoolyard at night. He wondered if maybe there was a rat in the hole — but then succeeded in pushing the fear out of his intoxicated mind as he stooped and pushed his hand gently into the 4-by-4-inch hole, and felt the grainy handgrip of Vincent Casseo’s .357 Magnum. He slowly pulled the gun from the hole and then raised it to a firing position. He closed one eye tightly and aimed the gun at nothing in particular. He noticed how the moonlight danced off the gun’s barrel as he turned in a wide arc and then returned to his original position. He felt the weight of the gun and thought about how these small mechanical devices brought such power to people. He was about to pull the trigger but caught himself—that would be stupid, he thought. He didn’t need every cop in the neighborhood responding to a shots fired in the schoolyard call, so instead, he raised the barrel to his temple and gripped the trigger lightly, ever so lightly, just enough to feel what the last seconds before committing suicide would be like.

Bobby’s senses were heightened in some strange way by it all, as he caressed the cool metal of the trigger with his finger and pushed the gun’s barrel flush against his temple. It was as if he was rehearsing something that was inevitable, or maybe it was all the airplane glue he’d sniffed and the beer. Whatever it was, it was starting to spook him. He slowly took the gun away from his head and tucked it into his waistband. He knew at that moment there was no turning back. He was taking the gun. It would shut Hanky’s mouth once and for all, and besides, the gun felt good to him. He’d make sure to get it back long before Vincent ever knew it was missing, proving to himself and the rest of the Schoolyard Boys he had balls—great big ones.

Bobby started out of the schoolyard, heading toward the Thirteenth Street exit. As he walked, a new sense of confidence flooded his intoxicated mind. He liked the way the gun felt pressed into his belly—held in place by his belt. He felt like a bad-ass, a gangster, a cop, someone who was empowered. He made his way up the eight steps to street level and began to walk up Thirteenth Street. He noticed his shadow in the moonlight and the fact the street was empty except for a woman walking a dog. He noticed a lot of things he wouldn’t have ordinarily noticed. He was different now—he was packing. His street sense told him to be extra vigilant—but in spite of that fact, he hadn’t noticed the heavyset figure that had very slowly opened one of P.S. 124’s large brown doors and was taking particular interest in who it was that was exiting the schoolyard so late at night, and then, as Bobby disappeared up the street in the darkness, had slammed the door shut and turned off the floodlight.

 Kevin R. McPartland is a native Brooklynite, novelist and short-story writer. He is the author of the novel, “Brownstone Dreams,” of which this extract is the opening chapter. The novel published by Boann Books and Media and is available from or His work has appeared in such publications as AIM Magazine, Chicago, and Grit Magazine, Williamsport, Pa., as well as in the anthology of short stories by Vietnam War veterans entitled “Adventures in Hell,” Ritz Publishing, 1990. He has been a regular reader at the Irish American Writers & Artists’ salon since its inception.


Where Dublin’s departed rest

POSTED ON May 20th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

13/8/2014. Glasnevin Cemeteries

The round tower over the burial site of Glasnevin Cemetery founder Daniel O’Connell.



By Michael Gray

Media vita in morte sumus: in the midst of life we are in death. It’s a sobering thought that in any municipality of significant size and enduring history there are more departed residents of the city interred beneath its soil than there are living and breathing above its surface. Dublin is no different in this respect, and the city’s live population of a million and a quarter is far outnumbered by the combined totals of the dead and buried in its two main cemeteries, Glasnevin, on the north side of the city, and Mount Jerome on the south.

The larger and more celebrated of the two, Glasnevin Cemetery, has hosted a million and half burials since it was established more than 180 years ago. Its status as Ireland’s necropolis and last resting place of the nation’s heroes has made it the subject of a fascinating new documentary, by Irish filmmaker Aoife Kelleher. Kelleher’s film, “One Million Dubliners,” presents a refreshing approach to its subject by examining Glasnevin in the here and now, treating its storied history with a light touch, and eschewing the use of archival footage to focus instead on interviews with the people who run the cemetery, from the CEO, to the florists and gravediggers.

Glasnevin Cemetery was founded in 1832 by Daniel O’Connell, revered Irish patriot and emancipator, at a time when the Catholic population of Ireland did not have its own designated burial ground. A plot of nine acres was consecrated for the interment of departed Catholics at what was then the edge of the city, a location so remote from the center that for decades it was underutilized. As time passed, the city grew around the cemetery, many notable persons were buried there (including O’Connell himself – his memorial tower at a height of 168 feet, dominates the graveyard), and Glasnevin became fashionable with Dubliners of all classes. The cemetery was gradually extended to its current size of 150 acres, and became the preferred place of final repose of Ireland’s leaders in politics, music and the arts. Interred in its grounds are the remains of Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Countess Markievicz, and Maud Gonne. The tombs of O’Donovan Rossa, Roger Casement, James Larkin, Brendan Behan and Luke Kelly can also be found among its acres.

Kelleher’s camera lovingly caresses the ornate stone forest, resplendent in autumn foliage, to visit the graves of all of these remarkable Irish men and women. As a poignant counterweight to the cult of celebrity surrounding these heroes, Kelleher visits the Angels’ Plot, where the unbaptized remains of stillborn babies and miscarriages were interred, when the harsh rules of the past denied them a place among their relatives in consecrated ground.

“One Million Dubliners” is ably steered on this journey by the documentary’s real star, the resident historian of the cemetery, Shane MacThomáis. MacThomáis, a charismatic tour guide in the cemetery for decades, projects such a genuine affection for his native city and its remarkable cemetery, the history and the legacy, that the viewer will crave more of his wit and charm, and less of the interviewees in stiff suits higher up the ranks in Glasnevin. Alas, there will be no more of him. MacThomáis died tragically last year at the young age of 46, before the film was released. He is now buried in the graveyard, like his father and grandparents before him.

This month “One Million Dubliners” became available on DVD and Video on Demand. It is distributed by Kino Lorber. Visit the distributor’s website for more information.

 Michael Gray is the Irish Echo’s film reviewer.


Musical standards high in Parsippany

POSTED ON May 19th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

ALLISON HAUGHMarianne Mangan

Whistle player Allison Haugh in silhouette at the Fleadh.


By Daniel Neely

Last weekend, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s North American Province and Mid-Atlantic Region held their annual joint Convention and Fleadh at the Hilton Hotel in Parsippany, N.J. It was a terrific weekend full of workshops, concerts, language events, ceilithe and sessions – truly something for everyone. The music and camaraderie that abounded reflected well the spirit and enthusiasm the Irish and Irish-American communities have for our traditional music.

The weekend was chock full of activities. In addition to the regional and provincial meetings on Friday, there was a full array of music workshops led by members of the Moylurg Ceili Band (the 2013 All-Ireland Senior Ceili Band champions), dance workshops led by Mick Mulkerrin, Maureen Mulvey and Shannon Dunne, the Grupai Cheoil Competition and a Ceili.

The bulk of the Fleadh competitions took place on Saturday. Hundreds of young people from all over the country came to compete and compete they did. If the myriad sessions in the hotel lobby throughout the weekend were any indication, the musical standard was very high all around. It was clear from the competitions I watched myself that these young folks put in a tremendous amount of work and could go home full of pride that they did the music proud. Congratulations to the select few who qualified to compete for the All-Ireland in Sligo from Aug. 9-16, it should be a great adventure. Best of luck over there! (See for more information.)

Saturday evening featured an invitation-only cocktail reception sponsored by the Irish Consulate of New York to celebrate the weekend. In attendances were several members of the Mid-Atlantic Region’s Hall of Fame, numerous branch officers from branches all over the country, representatives from Sligo and guest of honor Jimmy Deenihan, T.D., Minister for Diaspora Affairs.

Later that evening, the region’s Hall of Fame gala banquet took place. Brendan Fahey, Frankie McCormick and “The Sligo Masters” (Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran and James “Lad” O’Beirne”) were the honorees, rightly recognized for their contribution to the music. Congratulations to all the inductees and to their families as well for the support they’ve given as well!

The Small Group and Ceili Band competitions both took place on Sunday. These are great competitive events that not only speak to the talent of those competing, but to their sense of teamwork as well.

Overall it was a lovely, successful Comhaltas weekend! Truly, it was truly a thing to see so many young people represent the music so well, but it was great, also, to see the tremendous pride in the eyes of the parents and teachers who know (maybe all too well) how much work goes into a weekend such as this. A rich and rewarding experience!

Visit to learn more about the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh. For those interested in learning more about the region, go to or

Many of the young folks who compete in the Fleadh have teachers who are local to them, but a very large number of them also attend the music camps that take place throughout the country. One of the most interesting such weeks in the Mid-Atlantic region is the Musical Arts and Dance Week – known to most as “MAD Week” – which is sponsored by the O’Neill-Malcom Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and will take place July 6-10 at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Md.

MAD Week is a day-oriented “commuter” camp for locals directed by fiddler Mitch Fanning. Under Fanning, the week has developed a stellar reputation and attracts some of the music’s best teachers.

This year’s MAD Week staff will feature one of it’s best lineups to day. On staff, they will have John Carty, MacDara Ó Raghaillagh, Brendan Mulvihill, Rose Flanagan, Sean Cleland, Kevin Crawford, Linda Hickman, Jerry O’Sullivan, Zan McLeod, Donna Long, Billy McComiskey, Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, the Devane brothers and many more. It should be quite a week.

A hearty congratulations is due to MAD Week for two reasons. First is that this summer the camp will celebrate its 10th anniversary. What a milestone! Secondly, they recently received word that they were awarded a substantial grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s very important that Irish music continues to get federal arts funding and it’s great to see it going to the right place. Congratulations, MAD Week – keep up the excellent work!

If you live in the area, MAD Week definitely worth checking out. For more information, visit

Daniel Neely is the Irish Echo’s traditional music correspondent.

Flannery’s latest is probing, beautiful

POSTED ON May 18th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure


Mick Flannery is not a country singer, but his style sometimes reflects his Nashville start.


By Colleen Taylor

Cork singer Mick Flannery found his sound in Tennessee. Like many of his countrymen, Flannery traveled to the U.S. as a young 20-something looking for a break from college. However, unlike the typical Irish J1 tourist, what Flannery found in the States was the beginnings of a music career. In Nashville, he entered a songwriting competition and won several awards—a turning point he now marks as the launch of his music career. Today, Flannery is considered one of Ireland’s best and most innovative singer-songwriters. Although he might not be getting as much airplay or international attention as Hozier, his work is just as pensive, probing, and melancholy. Flannery’s most recent album, “By the Rule”—released in 2014—is part beatnik, part soul, and a truly original, authentic piece of musical craftsmanship.

Flannery divides his influences between Ireland and America, Cork and Nashville. Born in Blarney, Flannery now lives in Ennis, Co. Clare. His Irish identity finds musical expression in his poetic lyrics, and in his tender, emotive melodies. Otherwise, however, Flannery’s musical style can be more directly traced to the American folk music scene, and specifically his time spent in Nashville, where he honed his craft and his songwriting abilities. He definitely isn’t a country singer, but Flannery’s style seems to honor his start in Nashville, and every now and again a country-esque flare emerges from his melodies. There’s something Dylan-like about his acoustic stylings as well, but he sings from the heart like an Irish balladeer.

The Cork man released a self-titled EP in 2002. His first full album, “Evening Train,” came in 2005, followed by “White Lies” in 2009. “Red to Blue” in 2012 marks an important moment in the singer’s development: with this album you can hear his maturation into both songwriting and a sophisticated sense of genre, influence and arrangement. Still, his latest album reflects the real moment of formation for the artist.

Flannery’s “By the Rule” is versatile and resists categorization. Some songs sound like they were meant to be played in a piano bar venue off Broadway, while others belong at a folk festival, or even a Cathedral concert. Some even sound from another era—“Out to Sea” strikes me appropriate background music for a tragic moment in a period film.  Amidst all this variety, Flannery’s deep, soulful vocals and scaled-back guitar chords create a thematic tie between the songs. “By the Rule” is about Flannery’s voice on its own in its pure, acoustic authenticity. There’s no doubt that his voice’s range, its ability to reach to the deepest pit of the human heart, justifies the simplicity of his acapella arrangements.

The album was written in Berlin, which is fitting. The collection’s darkness, intrigue and sometimes avant-garde inspiration speak to the city’s atmosphere. For me, the real standouts on the album are “The Small Fire” and “Even Now” because they are the most unique—they sound the most like Mick Flannery and no one else. In particular, “Even Now” is something special: it’s so rare and so powerful nowadays to hear the simple combination of soft vocals and a few piano chords.

“By the Rule” is quieter, more mournful than his previous work, such as the upbeat hit track “Gone Forever” off his 2012 album, “Red to Blue.” I wouldn’t recommend a “By the Rule” playlist if you’re looking for a pick-me-up. But like all good art, this album is probing and beautiful. It has an effect. All in all, it affirms the respect Flannery has earned among the music critics and even warrants more far-reaching international buzz for this solo artist.

What Flannery claims to love most about his vocation as a musician is the “creation.” More so than gigging, even recording, for Mick Flannery, it’s about himself, his instruments, and the pen. No doubt about it, “By the Rule” is the work of a creation—a melding of sound and emotion that makes its listener feel.

Mick Flannery is playing all over Ireland this summer. He’ll be at the Doolin Folk Festival and the Killarney Festival in June. For those of us spending summer in the States, however, you can get a taste of Flannery’s work and watch his music videos on

Colleen Taylor writes the “Music Notes” column for the Irish Echo.

Why Chicago is hosting a Hooley

POSTED ON May 15th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

james cagney

The Gene Siskel Film Center on Sept. 25-27 expects to see some of

the same ethnic swagger that made James Cagney famous.


By Mike Houlihan

I auditioned for the Clifford Odets play “Awake and Sing” back in the late 1970s when I was a young actor in New York. After I finished reading for the part, the director, Ken Frankel, asked me to sit down. Oh boy, I felt like I had just nailed it. He looked at me strangely and said, “What the hell are you doing here?”

In retrospect of course it was a good question. I was a young Irish kid trying to play a Jewish guy named Ralph Berger. Hey, but I’m an actor, I can do anything, right?

“No,” he said. He went on to explain that it didn’t make a bit of difference how good an actor I was, there was no way I was going to be cast as a young Jewish fella, especially in New York city where there were millions of young Jewish actors. “Are you nuts?”

Of course, I’ve been hearing that question my whole life. But Frankel’s advice was to stick with who I was already, at that place and time. And for me that was a narrowback Irish kid, albeit a shockingly handsome Irish-American lad!

It wasn’t long after that I was cast as Captain Brennan in Sean O’Casey’s classic “The Plough and the Stars.” This was more like it. I did some research and discovered that my grandfather, Denis Cusack, was a member of the Irish Citizen Army back in the day.

Now I was awakened to my own Irish heritage and I went at it with a vengeance. But it was tough to “stick with your own”; there weren’t many films or plays that featured Irish-American stories in those days. It wasn’t like that golden age of Irish American cinema in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s that launched giants like Jimmy Cagney, Pat O’Brien or Spencer Tracy, or directors like John Huston, John Ford, or Preston Sturges.

Now the gangsters were all Italian and audiences relished the anti-hero genius of De Niro, Pacino, and Joe Pesci.

But the Italian-American mafiosos I would never play, and the Jewish American scruffy idealists I should never be allowed to portray, shared their origins with those Irish-American giants in film history.

spencer tracy

Spencer Tracy was nominated for nine Oscars in the Best Actor category (a record he shares with Laurence Olivier) and won twice. Mike Houlihan hopes to hear from the next generation of Irish-American actors.

Children of immigrants all, their stories were forged in the ethnic tenements of New York, Chicago, or Boston. The pinching poverty and bare-knuckled brawling was salted heavily with religion and romance. That stew produced storytellers. I say the best storytellers in this world.

Does talent like that skip generations? No. The ancient myths and romantic tales created by Irish-Americans over just the last two centuries in America are passed on in our DNA. We need to encourage it, and nurture the future of Irish-American cinema. It’s time for a new generation of Irish storytellers to “awake and sing.”

I’ve played tons of Irish-American cops, bartenders and priests in my 40 years since that “Awake and Sing” audition. And I want to keep doing it. But we need to discover the next wave of Irish-American storytellers who can bring their ethnic swagger to the screen.

That’s why we’re now calling for entries for our first annual “Irish American Movie Hooley.” We’re looking to discover the next John Ford or Grace Kelly or maybe you, Eamonn McGillicuddy. So if you’re an Irish-American indie filmmaker, or you’re related to one, call and tell them to submit to our festival before July 31.

We’ll be screening the best three Irish-American film premieres on Sept. 25-27 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. So tell us your story, show ‘em what you got, and join us in Chicago next September.

And if you need an older fat guy to play an Irish American cop or priest in your film, get in touch!

You can learn more about the first annual Irish American Movie Hooley by visiting


The legacy of the great divide

POSTED ON May 14th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

the great divide

By Tom Fleming

What is the most important argument in American history? The quarrel between North and South that led to the million dead of the Civil War?

The struggle for the civil rights of black Americans? The perpetual conflict between the haves and have-nots?

All these things have roiled the nation. Some of them are still disturbing our political equilibrium.

But there is one conflict that most people do not recognize, partly because it began so early and partly because it can take – and has taken – several forms. It is the clash that first divided – and then made enemies – of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Surprised? So was I when I read in a congressman’s diary that he visited Mount Vernon after Washington died. Martha Washington told him the two worst days of her life were the day George died and the day Jefferson came to pay his condolences. That is when I started digging into this forgotten feud. I soon decided it was our most important argument because it involves the basic structure of the American government.

Thomas Jefferson was in France, serving as America’s ambassador when George Washington, James Madison and other gifted men created and ratified the Constitution. At the heart of the document was a new office, the presidency, with powers co-equal to Congress.

Washington was the chief advocate of this innovation; he had seen how poorly the Continental Congress performed during the Revolutionary War, without a strong leader to unify their policies.

Thomas Jefferson disliked the Constitution. He was even less enthusiastic about the presidency.

He thought they were both too strong.

Together they represented a threat to American liberty. He made it clear that this was his primary value. He did not expect the Constitution or the union to endure very long. He saw nothing wrong with western states seceding and forming a separate nation. At one point he argued that every generation should write a new constitution. James Madison talked him out of that wild idea.

When Jefferson returned to America and became Washington’s secretary of state, the two men clashed repeatedly over their differing opinions. For Jefferson the dangers were spelled out in Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s policies.

He sought to unify the nation’s economy around a government controlled central bank that would pay off the Revolutionary War’s debts and encourage commerce and manufacturing.

He argued there were “implied powers” not stated explicitly in the Constitution that enabled the federal government to do such things. Washington agreed with him. Jefferson saw these policies as ominous steps toward a tyrannized nation, probably ruled by a king.


Author Thomas Fleming.

Complicating matters was Jefferson’s hatred of Great Britain and his enthusiasm for the French Revolution. Washington did not share either sentiment.

After peace and independence were secured, he was ready to deal with Britain as he would with any other foreign country. When the French revolution fell into the hands of radicals who beheaded King Louis XVI and began massacring thousands of innocent people, Washington saw France as a menace to freedom everywhere.

After several tense face to face encounters, Jefferson realized he could not change Washington’s mind and resigned from the government.

But he remained the active leader of a political party that opposed the Washington administration’s foreign and domestic policies. He persuaded Madison, once Washington’s closest advisor, to act as his right hand man in Congress.

When Jefferson became our third president, he was determined to undo Washington’s presidency. He called his administration “The Revolution of 1800.”

He praised Washington as “our first and greatest revolutionary character,” but ignored his presidency.

Jefferson was determined to make Congress the dominant voice in the federal government. He accomplished this in several ways. He abandoned Washington’s annual speeches to Congress, reporting on the government’s problems and successes. Instead, Jefferson’s reports were read by a clerk.

Even more important was the way Jefferson worked behind the scenes with congressional leaders to get his polices accepted. He soon created the illusion that Congress was running the country.

He was tremendously helped by a stroke of good fortune – France’s decision to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States – thus adding a third of the continent to the nation. Thereafter Jefferson’s reputation rivaled, and even exceeded, Washington’s.

In times of crisis, however, some presidents invoked Washington’s tradition of strong presidential leadership.

In 1833, Andrew Jackson crushed South Carolina’s attempt to secede from the Union by invoking the presidency’s implied powers.

The Civil War made Abraham Lincoln the strongest president since Washington. The man from Illinois had no hesitation about wielding unprecedented power to deal to rescue the Union. He suspended habeas corpus and other rights, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and dozens of executive orders, without consulting Congress.

When an assassin killed Lincoln, Congress, already resentful at his assertion of the presidency’s implied powers, seized control of the federal government.

It abandoned Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation and set about punishing the South for the Civil War. For the next forty years, weak presidents and an emboldened Congress became the rule.

The old adage, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, came into play. Congress became the home of political bosses whose chief interest was their own enrichment.

Not until Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901 did the strength and leadership Washington and Lincoln brought to the office reappear.

By that time, America was on the brink of a revolution. A wealthy upper class and an impoverished lower class were regarding each other with growing hatred.

Roosevelt began condemning “malefactors of great wealth.” He instituted anti-trust lawsuits against several businesses that had become brutal monopolies. He created national parks and national forests, reassuring people that some of America’s most attractive landscapes would always belong to everyone. He declared that his administration guaranteed a “square deal” to every working man and woman.

Someone asked President Roosevelt where he got the authority to act and speak so independently of Congress. He cited “the Jackson-Lincoln” theory of the presidency.

There was no mention of George Washington. It was mournful evidence that Thomas Jefferson’s determination to obliterate Washington’s presidency had been all too successful.

A few years after Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson became president. He had written a book, “Congressional Government,” which severely criticized this distortion of the founders’ Constitution.

Wilson restored one of President Washington’s most important innovations, his annual speech to Congress. A superb orator, Wilson was soon persuading Congress to pass badly needed legislation, such as the creation of the Federal Reserve banking system, which returned control of the nation’s finances to the government.

Another strong president who invoked the presidency’s powers was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Confronting the crisis of the Great Depression, he relied on the veto to force Congress to follow his leadership, invoking this power 641 times, more often than all his predecessors combined.

The wars and recessions of the rest of the Twentieth Century added enormously to the presidency’s power. By the 1960s, presidents asserted the right to block or “impound” Congress’s attempt to spend money for dozens of federal programs.

President Richard Nixon carried this policy to an extreme that infuriated Congress. Exacerbating his relationship to the lawmakers was Nixon’s determination to win the war in Vietnam – a policy that the Democratic majority in Congress opposed.

In 1972, Nixon won reelection in one of the greatest landslides in American history. It was graphic evidence of the presidency’s awesome power.

The whirlpool of extreme emotions swirling around Nixon exploded when a political burglary in the Watergate apartments revealed a president who was all too ready to lie and conceal evidence.

Nixon’s resignation to avoid impeachment led directly to another era of congressional government. Congress passed the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act, which made the lawmakers the sole judge of how much they could spend.

It was the beginning of unchecked deficit government that may yet imperil the financial stability of the nation and the world.

The presidents who have succeeded Richard Nixon have repeatedly found themselves challenged by an aggressive Congress. America has the only legislature in the world that claims the right to interfere in their country’s foreign policy. Again and again we have seen recent presidents confronted by the central issue that divided Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

There is no easy solution to this dilemma. Both sides must work out a balance that will enable the federal government to function. Until recently, President Barack Obama and the Republican majority in Congress have been disinclined to make any concessions. Perhaps there is an answer in a little known aspect of the Great Divide.

Toward the end of James Madison’s life, he had a profound change of mind and heart. He repudiated Jefferson’s approach to government. He addressed Congress directly, urging them to create a trained army and navy.

Lack of both had almost cost us our independence in the War of 1812. He urged the creation of a central bank. He recommended Washington’s Farewell Address as important reading, even though it contained a fierce criticism of Thomas Jefferson’s worship of the French Revolution.

He called on all Americans to regard the Union as the crucial value of their government.

One might say that Madison had abandoned the divisive ideology of Monticello, and returned to the sunny porch of Mount Vernon as George Washington’s friend and admirer.

It is a journey that all Americans can and should take now and in the uncertain future. Never have we had a greater need for a new appreciation of George Washington’s approach to the presidency.

 Author and historian Thomas Fleming’s new book, “The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined A Nation” is published by Da Capo Press, Boston.


Writing just wouldn’t go away

POSTED ON May 13th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott

Costello, Mary (c) Martina Kenji

Mary Costello.


Last year, Mary Costello joined the ranks of Irish writers who’ve made an immediate impact with a first novel. Indeed, “Academy Street” was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award (open to writers based in Britain and Ireland), with the judges calling it a “remarkable debut with a transcendent, quiet power.”

A previous Costa winner, Maggie O’Farrell, said: “I read ‘Academy Street’ cover to cover in one night, unable to stop. It is a short novel about a long life, stretching from rural Ireland to post-9/11 New York, and brings to mind the elegance of Colm Toíbín and the insight of Alice Munro.”

Munro’s fellow Nobel Prize-winner J.M. Coetzee said: “With extraordinary devotion, Mary Costello brings to life a woman who would otherwise have faded into oblivion amid the legions of the meek and the unobtrusive.”

Its author summarized “Academy Street” thus: “It’s the story of one ordinary woman’s life in New York played out over the second half of the 20th century. It opens in 1944 in a big old house in the west of Ireland called Easterfield. Tess Lohan is 7 when her life is suddenly ruptured by the death of her mother.

“Later, Tess trains as a nurse in Dublin and, in the early ’Sixties, emigrates to New York. She lives in an apartment on a street in Inwood, Academy Street. She has a brief calamitous love affair which results in a son, Theo. The novel follows her life as a nurse and mother over the next four decades. It’s a life that is touched by joy and marked by fate and by Tess’s perpetual ache for home and belonging.”

Costello added about the novel that has just been published in this country: “There’s a family resonance to this story. My mother grew up in a big old house in Galway, and I modeled Easterfield on that house. When she was 3, her mother died suddenly. My mother never emigrated, but her sister Carmel did. She nursed in Manhattan in the early ’Sixties and lived in a flat on Academy Street. While I borrow details from her life, my character Tess is a fictional creation and her interior life is entirely her own.”

Mary Costello was a teacher up until 2011 when her first book, “The China Factory,” was published.

“I started writing short stories way back – in my early 20s,” she recalled. “Two of them were published, but then I didn’t really persist in sending work out after that. I’d gotten married and was teaching fulltime and gradually writing slipped to the margins of my life.

“But stories would still brim up and I’d write them. I didn’t welcome writing – I felt it as an interruption, a burden, a secret even, and I tried to give it up. I just wanted to be normal like my sisters and friends. But it wouldn’t go away,” Costello said. “I didn’t know any writers and wasn’t part of any writing community, so I was writing in isolation. My marriage broke up after 10 years, but I kept writing – and I was teaching fulltime. Then, into my 40s, I sent some stories out to the Stinging Fly, a literary magazine and publisher in Dublin, and they liked them and wanted to publish them – which is how my first book came about.”

academy street cover

Mary Costello

Place of birth: Galway

Residence: Dublin

Published works: “Academy Street,” “The China Factory” – a collection of short stories.

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

I work best in the mornings, typically from about 9-1 p.m., and if the work is going well I’ll return to it in the afternoons. When I’m rewriting I work at night too. I always have notebooks on the go so, in a way, a writer is never not working.

Ideally I need a quiet familiar place, with my books nearby. Stability is important. I like to know I have a block time ahead– months preferably – free of travel or work commitments.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read your favorite writers closely. Trust your own voice. Be patient.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

”Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson; “Elizabeth Costello” by J.M. Coetzee; “Dept. of Speculation” by Jenny Offhill.

What book are you currently reading?

“With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires,” a memoir by Willis Barnstone.

Is there a book you wish you had written?

“Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson.

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

Ben Lerner’s latest novel, “10:04.”

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

 Albert Camus.

What book changed your life?

No book ever changed my life but all of J.M. Coetzee’s rocked my world.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

My childhood bedroom in east Galway.

Special-edition salon to benefit librarians

POSTED ON May 12th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

t.j. english

Best-selling author and former IAW&A President T.J. English will read at the event supporting urban librarians.


By Karen Daly

Irish American Artists & Writers will hold its first fundraising, “special edition” salon, entitled “The Amazing Library Variety Show, with Readings, Music, Performance and More!” on Tuesday, May 19 at The Cell Theatre.

As part of its mission to encourage full participation in and access to the arts and education, IAW&A has selected the New York City-based grassroots advocacy group, Urban Librarians Unite to benefit from a night showcasing many of IAW&A’s talented members and special guests.

The show’s producer Mark Butler, who has recruited a stellar group of artists and musicians to donate their time and talent says, “We’re calling it the ‘Amazing Library Variety Show’ because the lineup is amazing and so is this organization. ULU works tirelessly to help libraries thrive and survive.”

Hammerstep, the innovative dance troupe which combines Irish and contemporary dance into an explosive new style is scheduled to make its first IAW&A appearance. Among the headliners scheduled to appear are raconteur and salon founder Malachy McCourt; Black 47 founder and IAW&A president Larry Kirwan; Irish tenor Karl Scully; singers Cathy Maguire and Maxine Linehan; and traditional musicians Tony DeMarco and Don Meade.

Best-selling authors T.J. English and Mary Pat Kelly will read from their work. More fan favorites include jazz saxophonist Jon Gordon; actor and writer Honor Molloy; accordionist and singer Marni Rice; novelist/poet John Kearns; off-Broadway star Richard Butler, and comedic performer Sarah Fearon.

IAW&A will give all proceeds from the show to support the work of Urban Librarians Unite. Among its initiatives, the group operates a Save NYC Libraries Campaign and Volunteer Library Brigade that brings books, maps, Wi-Fi and free eBooks to city sidewalks and parks. Their Hurricane Sandy Children’s Book Campaign distributed over 20,000 books through free mini-libraries in areas of Brooklyn and Queens where libraries were damaged by the storm.

Urban Librarians Unite’s popular “24 Hour Read In” celebrates the written word and the role of the public library in New York City. This year’s Read In will be held at City Hall on June 9 at 4 p.m. to June 10 at 4 p.m.

Irish American Writers & Artists Board Member and Treasurer, John Kearns says, “We’re very proud to mark the 4th anniversary of IAW&A Salons with this very special event that will benefit a dynamic organization that is focused on helping the community.”

“The Amazing Library Variety Show with Readings, Music, Performance and More!” will take place on next Tuesday, May 19 at 7 p.m. The Cell Theatre, 338 West 23rd St., Manhattan. $25 Suggested Donation. Reservations at

Windswept west evoked at IAC

POSTED ON May 8th  - POSTED IN Archive, Arts, Arts & Leisure


Norah Rendell’s “Spinning Yarns” is comprised of Irish, Scottish and English songs collected decades ago in Canada.


By Daniel Neely

New York City’s Irish Arts Center is known for staging the best and finest in Irish music and I’m happy to report their most recent production exceeded expectation. On Saturday, May 2, IAC hosted Ghost Trio (, an Irish music powerhouse that features Iarla Ó Lionáird (vocals and harmonium), Ivan Goff (uilleann pipes, flute and whistles) and Cleek Schrey (the hardanger-inspired 5+5 fiddle) and they were absolutely brilliant. I thoroughly enjoyed this band and its live show and I urge you to see them if you ever have the chance.

The groundwork for this group was first laid in 2011 at the Irish Arts Center when Ó Lionáird (a member of the critically acclaimed group the Gloaming) and Goff (who tours widely with several top groups) were paired as part its Masters in Collaboration series. It was an outstanding pairing that in turn attracted Schrey, a musician with a kindred sense for the group’s direction, and whose instrument, which has drone strings and sounds wonderfully with the pipes and echoes the depth of the sean nós style, added an important dimension to the group’s overall sound. Since they formed, they’ve performed around the U.S. and Europe, including a shows at Princeton University and the prestigious Masters of Tradition festival at Bantry House in County Cork.

On May 2, Ghost Trio hypnotized with a lush and engrossing mix of instrumental tracks and evocative songs in both the English and Irish languages. Through the rich overlap of acoustic timbres, textures and sounds, the group managed to evoke the solitude of Ireland’s windswept west as well as the sanguine comfort of good friends and heady conversation, and pushed at the traditional boundaries of Irish music. I truly look forward to hearing what this exciting group will do next – we shall see what the future holds.

In my media player this week is Norah Rendell’s newest album, “Spinning Yarns.”   Rendell is an award-winning singer, flute player and whistle player from Canada who now lives in Minnesota. In addition to being the executive director of the Center for Irish Music in St. Paul (, she has worked with groups including the Two Tap Trio and the Máirtín de Cógáin Project, she’s been a featured soloist at the Celtic Connections festival in Cape Breton, and was a longtime member of the group The Outside Track. This, her first truly solo album, is an enchanting project filled with carefully curated and sensitively delivered songs that music lovers will doubtless want to check out.

“Spinning Yarns” is dedicated to Rendell’s passion for the song tradition of Canada. Inspired by her husband Brian Miller’s research into northwoods song (, Rendell conducted her own intensive research and uncovered a number of pieces – 12 of which she presents here – that were collected decades ago from singers of Irish, Scottish and English heritage living in the great country to our north.

And in impressive body of songs it is. The albums starts with “Letty Lee,” a breezy love song that revels in the pursuit of a woman who, after enduring a barrage of platitudes, finally relents. Rendell sings beautifully here and sets a great tone for what’s to come.

“Lost Jimmy Whalen” is one of the album’s standouts. The interplay between the harp (Ailie Robertson), mandola (Randy Gosa), and bouzouki (Brian Miller) creates a texture that is almost like that of a music box come to life. The introduction of the harmonium adds an additional layer of interest which creates a nuanced and harmonically satisfying whole. Over this, of course, is Rendell who sings with great sensitivity

“Forty Fisherman,” collected in Newfoundland in 1951, is another standout. A tragic tale about the loss of life in the course of maritime duty, Rendell does a truly admirable job not only with her voice but on flute. Joining her here is Dáithí Sproule, who adds lively fingerstyle guitar playing that projects a sense of poignancy that goes so nicely with Rendell’s voice.

The standout track for me is “Sir Neil and Glengyle.” This song about Scottish knights and ladies collected in Nova Scotia in 1909 puts Rendell in spectacular light. The arrangement, driven by percussive harmonics on the guitar and a seething harmonium, articulate well with the way Rendell has chosen to phrase the lyrics. As the song become more involved, the harmonium introduces a bit of dissonance that destabilizes the harmony but brings a special sort of intensity that matches well with what Rendell sings. Lovely stuff, indeed.

“Spinning Yarns” is a thoughtful, intimate exploration of Canada’s song tradition. The songs she’s uncovered are unusual and thoroughly enjoyable, and the arrangements smartly conceived and well executed. There’s a warbling pastorality in Rendell’s voice that enriches the whole and helps make this a splendid homage to the song tradition of Canada. Highly recommended! To learn more about Rendell, this album and her work in general, visit

Daniel Neely is the Irish Echo’s traditional music correspondent.



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