A very rough partial excerpt (draft chapter) from a book I am writing. Sean O'Torrain. Chicago.
An alternative Irish Night.
I find no comfort for my homesickness in the Irish American world. I hate how it is domination by the Irish American politicians and business people like the Daly’s. This caste seeks to claw its way up in US capitalist society by throwing out all that is revolutionary and hints at struggle in Irish history. It would not be too welcome in the US capitalist class if it talked positively of Irish revolutionary socialist James Connolly. Its substitute for upholding Ireland's revolutionary heritage is to dye the river green on March 17th. The leaders of the so-called Irish American community sicken me.
This Irish American political and business class are inseparably linked with the hierarchy of the Catholic church who also want to keep their snout in trough. They too help suppress any knowledge of Ireland’s revolutionary heritage. Along with this sections of the trade union bureaucracy in unions which had a large Irish American membership also play their part. And of course all these forces are linked one way or another to the Chicago police with their large Irish American component and whom I never forget murdered Blank Panther leader Fred Hampton. I do not frequent the Irish American world.
While my health allowed I tried to organize my own activities around March 17th. I called them Alternative Irish Nights. I knew Jimmy Lee Robinson. He was an African American man and a world class blues musician. I asked him to play at one of these. The theme was to thank the black revolt, the US civil rights movement, the African American people for inspiring the civil rights movement in Ireland and in doing so sparking off a new interest in Irish culture.
An Irish American guy volunteered to have it in an art gallery which was run by his African American girl friend. When we arrived the gallery was closed. I went to his house. He whined that he had been drunk and smoking dope the night before and slept in. I could see he was lying. I could see he had not opened the gallery because he and his African American girl friend were worried for their careers if they hung out with Jimmy Lee and I. His girl friend worked for the Daly machine, one of the African Americans it hired to try and hide its racism. I told them this in harsh terms. “You are afraid to let us in because you work for that racist Daly in city hall. You do not want to be seen with Jimmy Lee and me. Jimmy Lee is not part of the African American elite who kiss Daly’s boots and I am a socialist. That is why you have not opened the gallery.” Turning to the man I said; “You are just a fucking wimp who talks good about being against racism, has a black partner but when push comes to shove you back down.” His girl friend came to his defense. “You go, you white honky, go back to where you came from.”
With the art gallery closed we went to Chicago’s biggest Irish pub and asked could Jimmy Lee join in on the music session that was going on. There were about a dozen musicians sitting in a circle playing. You would have thought I had pulled the pin on a grenade and thrown it in amongst them. They huddled and they huddled and they huddled, they whispered and whispered, they looked over their shoulders at Jimmy and I. Then they sent one of their flunkies over to tell us that Jimmy could not sit in because the blues was different from the Irish music. It had a different beat and rhythm you see. Their racism made me ashamed to be Irish, I hated them and my nationality at that moment. And I was humiliated for Jimmy Lee.
I turned to Jimmy and said. “Jimmy I apologize. I got you into this. These are a bunch of racist fucks. This is what is going on. Come on. Let us go.” Jimmy said nothing just turned so we would leave together. As we made our way out a man and woman with very pronounced Cork accents separated themselves from the session and hurried after us. “Wait men, wait. I know a place we could go and have a bit of a session.” I was skeptical. I did not want to put Jimmy in another humiliating situation. “Are you sure. I will not put Jimmy through that racist crap again. Because that is what it was.” “I know, I know, you are right. But this will be okay. I know this other pub and its owner Patricia.” These two people impressed me by separating themselves from the others and taking a stand.
Jimmy and I got into my truck and followed the two Cork people. When we got to the other pub we exchanged introductions. “Neiley and Mary. Pleased to meet you.” We went in. There was Patricia behind the bar and two other customers. It was not going to be a wild night going by the numbers. But Patricia gave a big smile and shouted a welcome to Neiley and Mary and then to Jimmy and myself. She laughed out loud and clapped her hands, she was genuinely pleased to see us. “Set up there in the corner.” Jimmy plugged in his guitar and Neiley got out his bohron.
Jimmy wore a long coat with shoulder pieces and a cowboy hat. He wore high top boots and spurs which he tapped as an accompaniment when he played his guitar and sang. He had his guitar, his percussion spurs and his voice. All in all he had his own ensemble. He began to play the blues.
Neiley sat opposite him with his bohron and joined in. Jimmy was very helpful. He would sing a line and then gesture to Neiley to make up a line in response. At first Neiley found this hard. He was used to knowing the words of the songs. But gradually and with patient and encouraging help from Jimmy, Neiley got into it. And in no time at all we had this wonderful sight and sound, Jimmy and his blues guitar and spurs singing, and Neiley with his own very good voice and bohron producing a synthesis of the two traditions, the blues and the Irish music. I thought of the racists in the other pub and their lies. I thought what they were missing. How their lives were made worse by their racism. I had no sympathy for them and I cursed them in my mind.
Neiley and his partner Mary and I began to meet regularly and go out to eat. He liked steak and we would go to a place which had a two for one deal for couples on Tuesday night. One night he said to me: “Sean, I have never heard anybody talk as much about racism as you, why is this?” “It is not hard to answer that Neiley. African American people, the African American revolt in America, African American culture, saved my life, saved me from a life of rural idiocy and backwardness, gave me a way to live my life that has been rewarding and positive. That has allowed me to live my life to the fullest of my potential. I could not have done so without the African American revolt. My life would have been a catastrophe without the struggle and inspiration of the African American people. Seeing them marching, refusing to be beaten or hosed of the streets by US regimes and their racist police, reading Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, this changed my life. It allowed me to see that the rural backwardness that was Donegal in the 1950’s and 1960’s was not all that existed. Allowed me to see that I could find another life.
Neiley I would never want to be like that boy O’Keefe. You know his story. He was whining to me about it. His uncle got him over here from Kerry, got him a green card, got him into the operating engineers union and got him into a good well paid job with benefits. There is only one or two African Americans in his entire union local and only one on his job. He was complaining to me that this one African American on his job does not like him. Why not he asked me.
I told him why alright. That African American would have sons or daughters or friends who would have sons and daughters and friends all of whom could have had O’Keefe’s good job and union membership. Instead by being the nephew of a European American and especially having an Irish uncle O’Keefe had the job. I told him Neiley that if he wanted the African American man’s respect then take up the issue of racism in the union and the job. Oh he could not do that, he said, it would embarrass his uncle, he himself might lose his job. If he did his wife would kill him. I told him Neiley. If you cannot stand up then stop whining."