It happens almost every show. Someone will come up to me and ask, “Where in Ireland are you from?” I have to break the news that I was born in Oak Park, Illinois, but my grandfather came from Ireland. Sometimes there is a look of dismay, that our Irish music cannot be as Irish as Irish music from Ireland. Some of the performing arts centers will promote acts that they claim are “authentically Irish,” even if the authentically Irish group sings “Standing on the Corner Watching All the Girls Go By.”
Even with my having Irish citizenship, I feel that there is something odd about being Irish. As if the word “Irish” has become one of the more complex five-letter words uttered. What does it mean to be Irish? Is it a word that can only be applied to people living on the island itself? Can a hyphen help, as in "Irish-American" or "Irish-Canadian?” Or is it completely something else?
For me, the first clue I was Irish was the Paddy Butler Ceili Album that my parents had. As I studied the happy faces of the dancers on the album cover while the disc played, I was swept into the music and into something that felt visceral. My parents told me that our family came from Ireland (my mother had Irish roots on both sides of her family), so I accepted that coming from Ireland meant something that was special.
Occasionally word would come over about “the cousins” in Ireland. My Aunt Peggy traveled there to visit; she returned with pictures of the farm and folks gathered outside the doorstep. Grandpa and Grandma went over to visit several times, and took pictures with Grandpa's brother, Martin, everyone unsmiling in the bright sunlight. But there was the siren call of Ireland still, even in those stiff photos. These were the days of letters and long distance phone calls costing a small fortune. The Irish that were there were connected to the Irish here, but the distance of those days meant that I would probably never meet them. So it was the Irish here, my relatives and neighbors that truly felt Irish to me.
In high school, I listened to the Chieftains to get psyched up for a cross-country match. I would run with the “March of the High Kings” playing in my head. Later, I would play the recording of the RTE orchestra’s Mná na hÉireann, “The Women of Ireland,” and the music was raw, seductive and powerful. And it was a time when listening to these songs intermixed with the Electric Light Orchestra and Kraftwerk was all right to do. In college, the Boomtown Rats and the Pogues were standard fare on my stereo. The late Phil Chevron’s song “Thousands are Sailing” would drive home the point that to be Irish was to be an outcast and that the story was still unfolding. My girlfriend at the time was Irish, and was one of those whom I tried to “get the hand of opportunity to draw her ticket from the lottery.” She did get it, but that is another story....
Through all this time, I did not ever consider myself “Irish” as a nationality, but more as part of my makeup. Being Irish did not interfere with my being an American. It sort of hung back there in the subconscious. And I didn’t want to be Irish all the time. But then again, when you went through a grade school nicknamed “The Fighting Irish” and you heard someone say “Oh, they act like lace-curtained Irish,” the Irish wasn’t too far away. One time at college, I was talking about Irish music when a tough South Side Chicago Irish guy said, “You think you’re Irish, name one of the hunger strikers.” “Um, Bobby Sands,” I replied. “Everyone knows Bobby Sands,” he sneered and stomped off. That was my introduction to the hyper-Irish. For them, Irishness was a religion. And though I would rub elbows with them from time to time, I avoided getting poked in the ribs by them as much as I could.
When I started performing Irish music in earnest, I was in college and saw that being Irish was not some monolith, but a fractured word that like a broken mirror would reflect an image, but was only a part of the whole. There was Irish history, brutal and oppressive. There were Irish comedians, sharp-witted and acting out that oppression. There was the pseudo-Irish Shamrock Shakes and St. Patrick’s dye-the-river-green American take on Irish. There were the Irish writers, Yeats, Shaw, Joyce. The poet O’Shaughnessy who defined what a calling (and an Irish calling at that) in music meant for me.
“We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamer of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea breakers
And sitting by desolate streams,
World losers and world forsakers
On whom the pale moon gleams,
But we are the movers and shakers
Of the whole world forever, it seems.”
But the most honest form of being Irish for me was the music. There were Irish bands of all kinds, too. Rock, folk, Irish country, traditional and experimental Irish bands. Also, after meeting Cuz Teahan, I was introduced to artists I never heard of, Irish artists who recorded old ballads on 78s and I started to learn those melodies, offering me a glimpse on a world that was rapidly fading away. Then there were the great Irish musicians themselves, like Cuz, Johnny McGreevy, Mary McDonagh, Bertie McMahon, “Horse” Keane and other “old-country” Irish that were playing at the festivals and ceilis. It was their melodies that connected most with me.
Later would come along the Irish pub craze, but in the early 80’s, they were run like supper clubs by actual Irish owners, with entertainment that ran along nostalgic lines. And then there were the Republican pubs, who were going to put Maggie Thatcher and the Brits out of the six counties. It was good to have Bertie McMahon around for these gigs; being from Ireland, he was accepted by the owners of such establishments, and so Brian and myself, who were not accepted, were at least tolerated. Both environments were great for playing music, for trying to tap into the indescribably tribal pulse that throbbed through most of the music. For Brian and me, it was harnessing that tribal quality and injecting it into all our music (without getting our teeth knocked out or worse) that mattered. That was touching the Irishness that we both knew we had. So one night it would be a tough Irish pub, the next night Harry Caray’s, playing for the Lord Mayor of Dublin and Mayor Richard J. Daley, along with the editors of the Irish Echo. The night after that would be a ceili at the Irish American Heritage Center. We had to traverse the wide world that Irish music inhabited, in a city as diversely Irish as Chicago.
When I finally did meet my cousins in Ireland, it was a great breakthrough. My cousins were still part of an era that was quickly vanishing. By 1990 their rural Irish lifestyle was all but gone. But this connection was what I was seeking, the link that lived in most of the songs that I had learned. It was hard to find the Irish I grew up hearing about in an Ireland that was rapidly filling up with supermarkets and super highways. My cousins gave me my connection to the land, to the farms and lastly to the graves that ultimately would be the only holdings the McCormacks had left in Ireland. It was a brief time in my life, about 20 years of being able to enjoy my family and share them with Brian as well. Our music was influenced by the nights spent in the cottage of Ballybrehony, soaking in the conversation and sharing in the genuine community that came through the front door. There, in the warmth of the turf fire, did I know that I was Irish.
When Brian and I started touring Ireland, our music caught the ear of Matt Molloy of the Chieftains. The first time he heard us, he told us, “Don’t change a thing, don’t change a thing.” He meant that our music, to him, was Irish. Maybe not his Irish, but our Irish.
And perhaps that is what I think is important about being Irish. Being Irish exists on many planes. As the world of the sidhe, the fairy folk, exists parallel to our own dimension, the true Irish identity cannot and should not ever be quantified. For me, my Irish journey is to connect to the magical wonder of living. In every aspect of Irish music, life is exposed and opened as majestically and wondrously as the western cliffs of Clare are to the raging Atlantic. The connection exists beyond pedigree, it is the being in the soul that matters most. As our bodhran player, Takeshi Horiuchi says, “I am not Japanese, I am Irish.” And that, I totally understand.