The first time I saw the mural I thought: You’d only find the like in America!
Let me explain. This is 1976. I am the fiddle-player and General Manager of The Irish Boomerang. (It’s an old joke—the Irish Boomerang doesn’t come back, it just sings about coming back!) We are yet another second-rate folk group, trying to make a go of it in the States, topping (and tailing) the bill at The Shamrock Bar in Chicago. The mural in question is the backdrop to the little stage at The Shamrock; it shows Pearse and Connolly in vivid green tunics in front of the GPO in Dublin. They are posting up the Proclamation. Because the poster is curved around one of the pillars, there is not enough room for all of POBLACHT NA hEIREANN. So it is easy to imagine the artist thinking: POBLACHT NA hEIR looks kinda dumb, why don’t I just make it POBLACHT NA HERO?
‘Is that okay with you, Big Mikey?’
‘Yeah, okay, just do it, will ya!’
Big Mikey, part-owner of The Shamrock, Irish-Italian patriot and all-round scum bag, has us over a barrel. A small matter of work visas, not to mention the last known address of Seamus, guitar and vocals. Not that Seamus was ever convicted of anything; legal niceties were not much in vogue in the Belfast of the early seventies. It was just about some milk bottles, according to Seamus. High octane milk and a lighted rag and a pitcher’s arm and strike one! It wasn’t too long before the snatch squad put him out of harm’s way, up in the Kesh doing six O Levels. He was such a model internee that they let him out to attend his granny’s funeral. He promptly gave his escort the slip, hopped over the border and caught a plane to join us in the Windy City.
‘Us’ was myself and Tony, button-squeezebox, recent graduate in History & Politics, keeper of dangerous company. Tony’s idea of relaxation was hanging out at a crosstown jazz club, the only white face there, if not in the whole neighbourhood. By any odds he should have been mugged or murdered but the squeezebox was his passport. He had made friends with a black player called Toby. Tony and Toby, the Windy City twins. Indeed, they did look like brothers, or half-brothers at least: the same frame, the same bouncing walk, the same complete lack of common sense. Like that Saturday afternoon when the pair of them landed into The Shamrock, drunk as lords. You could have skated on the permafrost that spread throughout the place as Toby addressed Big Mikey—‘Yo, Brother, Ah’ll be havin’ a point o’ gueeeness‘—in his best buttermilk brogue. Before Big Mikey could get his considerable frame out from behind the bar, Seamus had managed to hustle them out the door. A few heated words were exchanged, with Seamus having the final say:
‘Just remember this, Tony, you can go back home anytime—I can’t!‘ So, The Irish Boomerang continued to dish up a mix of come-all-ye and rebel songs three nights a week at The Shamrock. We were starting to draw bigger crowds and Big Mikey was softening towards us. We got a pay rise and the promise of more to come if we ‘kept our noses clean’. This last comment came with a hard look in Tony’s direction. Toby couldn’t drink in The Shamrock but he was a frequent visitor to our apartment, even joining in our practice sessions. He was a born musician; he just had to hear a tune once and he could play it straight back to you!
At the beginning of March, Big Mikey called us into his office. This was a big step up; only the Mafia types who co-owned The Shamrock were permitted in this shrine to all things Oirish.
‘Siddown, boys, wanna beer? Ya know Saint Paddy’s Day is coming up and I’ve been thinking of doin’ something really special. Did ya ever see a movie called Darby O’Gill And The Little People? It has that great Irish actor Sean Somebody Or Other in it!‘
I could see Tony framing a suitable sarcasm: that would be Sean-as-Irish-as-the-bagpipes-Connery, perhaps? I decided to get in ahead of him:
‘Yeah, Mikey, great show! How about those dancing leprechauns, weren’t they just fantastic?‘
This was my first mistake. Big Mikey nodded in approval. ‘Ya goddit in one! Boys, I want ya dressed up as leprechauns for Saint Paddy’s night. See, here, I’ve already gotten ya the hats!‘
From under his Connemara marble desk he produced three elongated pork- pie hats in fluorescent green; on the front of each was a big ‘L‘ (presumably for leprechaun or was it for loser?). We stared in stunned silence at the leaning tower of green. Then Big Mikey said softly: ‘I’m making real good progress on those visas, boys.‘
Seamus reached over and took the topmost hat and solemnly placed it on his head. Tony and I slowly followed suit. The Irish Boomerang had sold out for The Crock of Gold.
But our humiliation was not quite complete. There were also flimsy shirts of green paper, printed with horseshoes and shamrocks, and knee-length breeches of the same material. The only consolation was that the fabric would not last more than one night. As we crawled out of Big Mikey’s office, I’ll swear he was laughing; you couldn’t blame him.
We spent the next fortnight keeping each other from leaving town. Only for Toby, we would certainly have lost Tony. Even Seamus was prepared to risk losing the all-important visa. The closing argument the evening before went something like this:
‘It’s only for the one night, right?’
‘And everyone will be scuttered, anyway, right?’
‘Including us, right?’
‘So, we’ll do it?’
‘Yeah, might as well!’
As if to put the Almighty’s seal on this bad bargain, the phone rang. ‘It’s for you, Tony, it’s your Ma.’ Another Granny down and Tony’s parents have booked him on a flight home the following evening.
‘Well, the lengths some people would go to, just to miss the Saint Paddy’s night gig!’
‘Lucky Leprechaun, what will you do with your other two wishes?’ But beneath all the banter we were thinking that without a squeezebox The Irish Boomerang was a pretty thin sound. Big Mikey would not be at all pleased. Those visas were once more a fading dream.
‘Toby could stand in for me. Couldn’t you, Tobe?’
‘Yeah, no problem, man!’
Seamus exploded: ‘Are you mad in the head? Have you forgotten what happened when you brought Toby into The Shamrock? Big Mikey would rather see an Orange Band up on that stage than a black leprechaun!‘
‘Of course, he could always wear make-up!’ My big mouth again! Two minutes later, a whiter than white-faced Toby paraded before us. When we added the leprechaun hat and the squeezebox, you could almost convince yourself that it really was Tony.
‘But what about his hands?’
‘They’ll be out of sight on the sides of the squeezebox. We’ll keep him out of the main light, anyway.’
Finally, it was decided that we would all wear the face make-up and, for good measure, we would paint shamrocks on our cheeks. Operation Fairy Child had begun.
On Saint Patrick’s night Seamus and I slipped into the dressing room at The Shamrock while Toby stayed outside in the van.
‘We’ll only bring you in at the last minute, Tobe. We don’t want any close encounters with Big Mikey.‘
Sure enough, Big Mikey’s bulk filled the dressing-room doorway. He was in great form, thanks to a few green Martinis.
‘Okay, boys? Hey, where’s Huck Finn?‘
‘Tony, is it? Oh, he had to meet someone. He’ll be here.’
‘He ought to spend more time with his own people.’
‘Well, he’s certainly doing that tonight, Big Mikey.’
‘Good. Okay. So what’s with the war-paint?’
‘It’s an old tradition that the leprechauns had very white faces. I guess they missed that in Darby O’Gill.’
‘Get outa here! Nice to see ya entering into the spirit of this. Do a good show, boys, I’ve got some “family” coming in tonight.’
Which was the only thing missing from this farce: the front tables occupied by The Friends of Italian Opera.
And then we were on, to drunken applause and the occasional shout of ‘Hey, Bianco!‘ Toby was in the shadows, stage left, Seamus was centre and I was on the right, Pearse and Connolly were behind us. I was thinking that the GPO might have been a lot safer than this. But then the gig started and Toby put new life into those tired old tunes and soon everyone was having too good a time to notice any difference.
We were getting down to the last couple of numbers when it all started to go wrong. Elvis was to blame, in a way. After watching a re-run of the Hawaii concert on television Seamus had taken to bringing a white towel on stage. ‘For the perspiration,‘ he would say. But really he hoped young women would fight over it (and him) when he pitched it into the crowd during the last set; the cleaners always found it in a corner the next morning. But the solid phalanx of gold-toothed, gold-chained gorillas at the front tables made him think again and this time he flung the towel into the wings.
In slow-motion action-replay I can still see Toby’s arm rise to expertly field the towel and then begin to wipe his face. Just as Seamus is saying ‘and on button squeezebox, Mister Tony McNamara,‘ he steps forward into the full glare of the lights, a poor imitation of a Black and White Minstrel. He makes a low bow, so low that he is practically eye to eye with Big Mikey who grabs him by the green paper shirt, and when he straightens up, his bare chest is revealed in all its ebony glory.
There is a stunned silence which I fill with an inspired if wobbly introduction to ‘A Nation Once Again‘, bringing the audience struggling to their feet. That’s how we always end our show. A few rousing choruses of ‘A Nation‘ marches them up to the top of the hill, but you can’t leave them there, of course. That’s when Seamus will come forward to sing unaccompanied the slow, plaintiff and very rebel ‘Only Our Rivers Run Free‘. And Toby is already three blocks away and running.
Seamus steps forward. He opens his mouth but it’s not ‘Only Our Rivers Run Free‘, it’s that great anthem of Civil Rights, ‘We Shall Overcome‘. They don’t get it immediately but when they do, all hell breaks loose.
Seamus will tell you that he saw the bottle coming. But he also says that what he actually saw was a Belfast milk bottle with a burning rag in it and he just could not duck. He went down at the feet of Pearse and Connolly.
POBLACHT NA HERO? Ya goddit in one!