Every Fourth of July, when fireworks flash and fly across a desert sky, I find myself transported back to a twilight over Slane Castle shimmering with music and the notion of America. So very young, and had I not been awake, I would have missed it
. . . the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it
~ Seamus Heaney
My first rock ‘n’ roll concert at Slane Castle was in 1982 for The Rolling Stones “farewell tour.” Seriously. The Stones were saying goodbye. Goodbye. Warming up for them were the J. Geils Band, The Chieftains, and George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
The Rolling Stones kept saying goodbye, and two years later, I found myself back at Slane to see UB40, Santana, and Bob Dylan. Too, there was the sweet surprise of Van Morrison joining Dylan on stage to sing “Tupelo Honey.” As I recall, Bono showed up as well and in front of all of us – and Bob Dylan – he improvised, making up his own lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Honest to God.
But on June 1, 1985 – where I find myself every Fourth of July – America came to Ireland when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band made their Irish debut. The previous summer, I had been in the United States, when the Born in the USA tour was in full swing and was lucky to have been upstate New York at the same time as Springsteen. I saw him perform at Saratoga Springs and again in September, when a trip to Niagara Falls with an American cousin included a show in Buffalo. I knew Ireland was in for a treat, and when tickets went on sale, I also bought one for my little brother. It would be his first concert – a seminal moment in his musical education.
Imagine it. Close to 100,000 of us making a pilgrimage through the sleepy – and disapproving – village of Slane to see The Boss. Between assurances of increased security and a promise – as yet unfulfilled – that this would be the last rock concert to disturb them, the residents had been placated. Even the weather cooperated with the kind of sun-drenched day we Irish pray for. Some said it was the hottest day on record in Ireland.
Everybody was young, even the weather-beaten old farmers who let us park on their fields, and when the band burst on stage with a thunderous “Born in the USA,” everybody was Irish, even Bruce. When he turned his baseball cap backwards and bragged, “I had a grandmother from here,” the crowd erupted.
Although we all basked in his pride, the reality was that our weather was rarely that sunny, and thousands of us would be forced out of Ireland as economic immigrants, collectively the “brain drain” of the 1980s. Across the water, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister; farther afield, the Berlin wall was still standing; and, in Ireland, divorce was still illegal and condoms had barely become available without a prescription.
But on that glorious day, in spite of the economic and political truths of Ireland, and the ever-diminishing possibilities before us, a defiant Springsteen held us aloft, and we believed in America.
He’s a rocker, yes, but he has also always been there for people like me, people in search of the dream of America. I have always known I could count on Bruce more than any of the presidential contenders who convince me – daily – that the idea of America is unraveling. What do I know? I am not a politician or a rockstar. I’m just a girl with bad hair and a fearless heart and a conviction that we have lost our way.
Springsteen once told a reporter that he wasn’t cut out for the traditional school system:
I wasn’t quite suited for the educational system. One problem with the way the educational system is set up is that it only recognizes a certain type of intelligence, and it’s incredibly restrictive — very, very restrictive. There’s so many types of intelligence, and people who would be at their best outside of that structure get lost.
The Boss is on to something, but we know that Bruce Springsteen will never be an elected official. And we know he will never be a politician who would vilify immigrants or the working poor.
In A Nation of Immigrants, John F. Kennedy wrote that
Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.
Half a century later, such a policy remains elusive. Why is that? Why? And, which of the would-be presidents will step up and show us they understand the difference between the right to do a thing and doing the right thing? It remains to be seen.
While we wait, we have Bruce to lead us in a singalong, a proud and public celebration of the undaunted immigrant spirit:
~ Bruce Springsteen, Recipient, Ellis Island Family Heritage Award,2010
I am proud to be here today as another hopeful wanderer, a son of Italy, of Ireland and of Holland and to wish God’s grace, safe passage and good fortune to those who are crossing our borders today and to give thanks to those who have come before whose journey, courage and sacrifice made me an American.
Remember who you are, America.
There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard working man