HOLY HERETIC DEVOTIONAL – JAN. 21, 2017 – SHEROES & HEROES: ARTISTS
Compiled by Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center Director Beth Foster
“The great are only great ’cause we’re down on our knees, rise up, my brothers and sisters, we were born to be free.” — Black 47
Black 47 were a New York City based celtic rock band with Irish Republican sympathies, whose music also shows influence from reggae, hip hop, folk and jazz. The band was formed in 1989 by Larry Kirwan and Chris Byrne, and derives its name from a traditional term for the summer of 1847, the worst year of the Great Irish Famine.
Kirwan originally arrived in New York City from Wexford aged 19, and played in a succession of bands before teaming with Byrne, a Brooklyn policeman, in 1989. The combination of Kirwan’s electric guitar and Byrne’s use of traditional Irish instruments initially received a poor reception, but a year later, with the addition of new members Geoff Blyth (founding member of Dexy’s Midnight Runners), Fred Parcells and Thomas Hamlin, they were playing regularly at Paddy Reilly’s bar on Manhattan’s East Side. The band began to play three to five nights a week, and garnered praise for both the socio-political lyrics and “off-the-wall” live shows, quickly drawing a fan base from both the political left and right. Kirwan stated in an interview that the band was “formed to be political,” with the socialist lyrics attracting one half of the political spectrum, and the songs of the day-to-day life in America attracting traditionally right-leaning “cops, firemen and construction workers.”
The band got their first big break when their debut release, Home of the Brave, launched as a cassette at a St. Patrick’s day gig at Reilly’s in 1990, was heard by Frank Murray, manager of The Pogues, who signed them to his newly launched label. A second song from the album, “Black 47,” caused a stir amongst older fans of Irish music who had maintained close emotional ties to their ancestors who lived during the famine, traditionally a subject rarely addressed in song. The band followed up with Home of the Brave in 1994 with Jerry Harrison serving as producer, and a move from EMI to Mercury Records in 1996 followed with the release of Green Suede Shoes.
Throughout the late 1990s the band continued to perform around 150 nights a year both on tour and at Reilly’s, but was plagued by a series of tragedies behind the scenes, and their political stance on affairs in the North of Ireland resulted in UK record companies being unwilling to support or promote the band, restricting a potentially lucrative market. At the 1996 St. Patrick’s Day gig a 22-year-old off-duty police officer, Christopher Gargan, used his department issue 9mm pistol to commit suicide, injuring two women including June Anderson, Kirwan’s wife. In 1997 one of the band’s sound engineers, Johnny Byrne (immortalised in the band’s single “Johnny Byrne’s Jig”), died from injuries suffered after falling from his apartment window in New York City not long after recording an album of children’s songs with Kirwan. The late 90s also saw band member Thomas Hamlin’s apartment burn down, Kevin Jenkins retire after a car crash whilst on tour and John Murphy, a close friend of the band, die after falling into a coma after a motorcycle accident. These events are reflected upon in “Those Saints,” a song on the Trouble in the Land album, released in 2000. 2000 also saw the release of the band’s first compilation album to mark their tenth anniversary, Ten Bloody Years, and the departure of Byrne who amicably left the band to concentrate on his solo project, Seanchai and the Unity Squad.
In an early interview Kirwan spoke of the British “attempt at racial cleansing” and exploitation in Ireland, and many of the band’s songs directly relate to Irish republicanism, such as “James Connolly,” “Bobby Sands” and “Vinegar Hill.” The presence of this content has at times bought criticism on the band from listeners who are politically neutral to the situation, as well as restricting their promotion in the UK. Speaking of the period that inspired the band name, Kirwan said, “I’m not one of those people who believe the British did [the famine] on purpose … But what they did do was they allowed millions of people to starve and leave the land because they didn’t want to change the particular economic system they had at the time.”
In 2000 Byrne sued the BBC after they used one of his songs, “Fenians” without his permission as a soundtrack during a segment about alleged gun running by members of the IRA in a documentary. Byrne stated that the British military machine was controlling Northern Ireland, and was insulted that his music was being used as pro-British propaganda.
On top of the Iraq album, Kirwan noted that the war was one which “the working class is fighting.” He also stated that politicians wasted an opportunity (after 9/11) to change the world for the better, placing most blame on the shoulders of then-president Bush Kirwan argued that had there been a Churchill-esque leader then America would have taken the opportunity to rid themselves of dependence on foreign oil, and change the way America communicated with the rest of the world. He also criticised Bush for using the memory of the victims of 9/11 to justify war as the biggest tragedy that came out of the event.
Today’s Action: The song lyrics that are today’s quote urge us to rise up. What is one tangible way that you can rise up against unjustice. Think about it. Really think about it. Then do it.
Today’s Sharing: How will you rise up? Tell us on the Fellowship of Heretic’s Facebook page at facebook.com/holyhereticzine.
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