Irish Music Is Back In The Bronx This Summer Because It Never Left
Last year’s drum-beaten ‘death’ of New York is giving way to reopening fits and starts. Amid continuing doubts about fall school openings, bottomed-out rents, posh retail vacancies, folding landmarks, skyrocketing crime, and the exodus of Bright Young Things, Mayor Bill De Blasio predicted that ‘this is going to be the summer of New York.’ The Mayor’s Office is leaning into the #SummerOfNYC hashtag on Instagram. ‘Cultural activities are coming back,’ De Blasio remarks. ‘People are going to flock to New York because they want to live again.’ But millions of people have been living in the outer boroughs, keeping the City running this past year, and the cultural life of neighborhoods didn’t stop when Broadway went dark. With the easing of COVID restrictions, Keane’s Fleadh Cheoil returns to the Bronx this month, moving Irish music from the open windows of NYC’s ‘Little Ireland’ back to the stage.
In the strict sense, ‘Fleadh Cheoil’ describes a series of fleadhanna (‘festivals’) dedicated to traditional music and overseen by the Colmhaltas Ceoltóirí Éirann (‘Society of the Musicians of Ireland’). A ‘non-profit cultural movement’ with hundreds of branches serving Ireland and the Irish diaspora, Colmhaltas organizes tiered county and regional fleadhanna in Ireland and manages ones abroad, all of which culminate in the All-Ireland Fleadh. In a broader sense, though, fleadh cheoil simply means ‘a music festival.’ Just as it’s linked to certain modes – ballads, laments, drinking songs – and certain instrument types – the fiddle, the flute, the bodhrán – fleadh cheoil’s also linked to certain words such as seisiún (‘session’) and céilí (‘visit’) that give a sense of its character. The older term for a céilí’s M.C. – fear-an-tigh, or ‘man of the house’ – likely gives a closer sense of ‘visit’ as ‘house party.’ The spirit’s communal, improvisational, and sometimes raucous. Shane MacGowan, for example, used to describe his own music as ‘Psycho-Céilí.’
Seamus Keane, lead singer of the Irish-American folk-punk band, The Narrowbacks, has been organizing a week-long fleadh cheoil at his bar in The Bronx’s Woodlawn neighborhood since 2017. ‘It’s hyperlocal,’ Keane reflects, ‘but that’s because of the amount of talent concentrated here. You’ll be at a wedding or having a drink down the block running into world-class musicians, artists, GAA athletes.’ This year’s Fleadh Cheoil lineup includes Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies, Eileen Ivers of Riverdance, Shilelagh Law’s Denny McCarthy, All-Ireland Fiddle Champion, Dylan Foley, Celtic Cross, Padraig Allen & The McLean Avenue Band, and numerous others. ‘We get phone calls from musicians in Ireland, really great ones,’ Keane continues, ‘and we put them up here, help get them gigs.’ Keane’s own band, The Narrowbacks, will be performing at the Fleadh. ‘It’s like the Irish Nashville in New York,’ he smiles. ‘If all the bars here do this, it could be like that.’
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Like the idea of tradition, itself, New York’s Irish music scene has always been a moving target. The Irish heyday of ‘Upstate Manhattan’ put The Clancy Brothers on jukeboxes throughout ‘bucket-of-blood’ pubs on Broadway and Dyckman, but it also generated the productive tension present in Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy, the ‘last great punk album’ of the genre’s first wave. Similarly, the pubs along The Bronx’s Bainbridge Avenue served as ‘minor league venues’ for acts that later went on to national renown. As Black 47’s Larry Kirwan recalls, the ‘nurturing of original music in the Irish Bronx’ demanded that ‘musicians stretch beyond their usual repertoire and highlight their chops to the best of their abilities.’ Evenings at Keane’s Fleadh Cheoil, which start in the daylight and can stretch till the early morning, continue this ethos, providing the space and time for musical experimentation, innovation, and variation on traditional standards. ‘It’s far easier to put an original spin on ‘Sean South of Garryowen,’’ Kirwan reflects, ‘than ‘Cracklin Rosie.’’
The artistic sense of an ‘original spin’ on Irish traditional music reflects the range of musical influences that make up the distinctive brew of New York’s ‘Irish-American Songbook.’ The same might be said of other prominent sites of the Irish diaspora. In the U.K., for example, céilí’s apt to go global, reflecting the influences of London urban life through the organic inclusion of ska, electronic, and hip-hop elements. Similarly, Keane remarks, ‘a lot of us here, kids who went to Iona from Pearl River or Queens or the Bronx, first discover The Pogues and The Clash, and then come to a new appreciation of trad music from that.’ The Narrowbacks, who have opened for the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, reflect this trajectory, but with added infusions of Country and American folk. A musical conversation with Keane, for example, shifts between Shilelagh Law, alt-country phenom, Tyler Childers, and ‘70s-era Springsteen. ‘As a songwriter,’ Keane reflects, ‘Springsteen’s the biggest influence.’
If there’s a natural overlap between the lyrical landscape of Springsteen’s music, the Bronx’s DIY ‘Fleadh Cheoil’ scene, and the unique cultural space of Irish-American New York, it’s the sense of work. ‘Irish America,’ Keane remarks, ‘is its own thing altogether – two parts Civil Service, construction and pubs, mix in equal parts GAA and AOH.’ And the sense of working life and artwork often bleed together. Filmmaker Colin Broderick’s Emerald City, for example, draws on his experiences working construction in the community. Ray Donovan used McLean Avenue as its stand-in for working-class 1970s South Boston. Not surprisingly, stop by the Fleadh and you’ll hear musicians talking about construction in both senses – the meticulous, world-class construction of songs and the next day’s jobsite.
The refrain to The Narrowbacks’ ‘Streets of Woodlawn’ – ‘Oh, is there no work today?’ – draws its lyric inspiration from the neighborhood’s backbeat of working life. ‘Sunday’s the big night at the bars,’ Keane grinned, ‘and Mondays, I’d see the same guys coming in during the day, and just say oh, is there no work today then, and that’d be that.’ Of course, throughout the pandemic, Keane’s Irish Bronx felt the weight of work in both senses. Many construction and restaurant workers couldn’t feed their families. At the same time, neighbors who were first responders and healthcare workers spent 2020 in the proverbial eye of the storm. In the midst of this, initiatives like ‘The Meitheal, or Irish America in Support of Healthcare Workers’ fundraised for the community with all-star remote musical performances that attracted both local performers and international names like Damien Dempsey, Mundy, and novelist Colum McCann.
Meitheal’s another word on the edges of fleadh and céilí. In the Irish, it describes a collective effort to help bring the crops in, and it’s a spirit that attends the Fleadh Cheoil’s return this summer. ‘The landlord’s been understanding this past year,’ Keane explains, ‘but we wouldn’t make it without the music. The music keeps the bar working.’ Naturally Keane hopes that The Narrowbacks can continue performing, recording, and gaining recognition now that live venues are reopening nationwide. ‘Even so,’ Keane remarks, ‘nobody cares about your album when they’re waiting for you to get them a bucket of ice.’
You can follow Keane’s Bar & Restaurant for live music updates here.