Monday, August 03, 2009

RIP Frank McCourt: the golden tongue

Many years ago, in Furlong's pub in Durham NY, on the "Irish Riviera" (the New York Irish, like the New York Yidden, had favored vacation spots in the Catskills, only a couple of hours north of Brooklyn and the Bronx), I was talking to Jack Coen of East Galway, patriarch of the New York flute player; on the other side of him was harpist Kathleen Loughnane.

It was getting later and louder, and Jack was visibly uncomfortable with the company. At a certain point, he swung his stool around, away from the room and toward the bar, and Kathleen, another Galwegian who understood pub culture, said "Ah, no, Jack--now you're not going to turn your back to the room. Talk to me now."

She had sussed out that, for the old-timers, a pub environment that couldn't foster conversation wasn't worth being part of. It brought to mind the archetypal American workingman's tavern: a line of solitary drinkers at the bar, hunched over their boilermakers, staring into the drinks or the mirror over the bar. Kathleen knew better, and she gently teased Jack into swinging back around and rejoining the conversation.

The Irish, like some others, have always understood the power of the word. Long before there was writing in Ireland, long before Patrick ever brought the Light of Christ or the skills of Brogan the scribe, the Irish were already stringing together words like the jewels of Indra's web. And all the way down to the 20th century, through famine and genocide and the Catholic church, they held onto the power of the word, and the pubs of Ireland were temples to the community that conversation created. It was only when the television invaded the pubs, washing out the warmth of the lamps with the cold glare of the TV tube, that conversation began to die in Ireland.

But there were a few outposts where it still lived--where thoughtful publicans or outraged patrons refused to have the "damned box" in the place--and many of them were in the old Irish enclaves: South Boston, Manhattan and the Bronx, and Chicago's West Side. On a good night, even if you came from the bastard race of the Sassenach and couldn't hold your own in the conversation, you could--like an appreciative punter at a pub session--sit on the edge of the light and soak up the beauty of that old, old mode of converse.

There's a great line in Robertson Davies's masterful The Lyre of Orpheus--about the ill-fated decision by a university DMA-composition candidate to try to complete an unfinished ETA Hoffman opera--in which the book's token Celt, a Welsh director, curses the blessing of the gift of gab: "And they all mistrust me, because I'm surrounded by literal-minded morlocks whose tongues are covered in burlap when mine is hinged with gold!".

I thought of that line when I read Cynthia Kouril's beautiful, heartfelt tribute to Frank McCourt, which she had the good grace to publish at Firedoglake prior to his decease. After a litany of the wonderful old Irish pubs of Manhattan--mostly different ones than I knew, because she's of the literati and I was hanging in the City's music bars--she reminisces about hearing McCourt holding forth after Mass. For the musicians, the weekend mode was to play all night at a house party or--less frequently, at a dance hall--after which they'd shave, change their collars, and go off to Mass, before coming home to a huge Sunday dinner and taking up the tunes again.

For the writers, it was the White Horse in the Village, upon which Dylan Thomas had bestowed a benediction in the '50s, where the idea of the Voice, the greatest newspaper in America, had been hatched, and in which Bob Zimmerman, Mailer, Jimmie Baldwin, Kerouac, Dick Farina, and Hunter Thompson had all congregated to try to touch a little of the ancient Druids' linguistic gold.

And it was there, by God--it was there.

Really, do read the whole thing, but the following is where I think Cindy really struck a little gold of her own:

I am so sad. I remember when he would hold forth at the White Horse Tavern in the Village. He had such an agile mind and strung words together like fine jewels. He was an artist and words were his palette. I remember one Sunday, going there for brunch with Margaret Breen, and it was our great good fortune to be there when “himself” was telling stories. I don’t think that either of us girls said a word, just ate our brown bread, eggs and tea and listened in awe.
Go raibh mile math agait, Proinsias. Dia leat. Safe home.

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