Punk Matters – But Not Enough. Thank you, Stiff Little Fingers


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When punk rock ruled over Ulster, nobody ever had more excitement and fun. Between the bombings and shootings, the religious hatred and the settling of old scores, punk gave everybody a chance to live for one glorious burning moment.

Joe Strummer, The Clash

Stiff Little Fingers celebrates its forty years in the music business with a homecoming concert in Belfast in the summer of 2017. The band burst on the scene when I was a teenager, writing about a life I could relate to in songs with titles like “Suspect Device” or “Wasted Life.”  Brave, bold, pissed off, they were relentless, taking to the stage and the airwaves on behalf of what could be in Northern Ireland, rejecting the paramilitaries and the politicians who were hell-bent on preserving a deadly status quo.

1b9e9601132555183d41a946c35b5d16At the time, most musicians were afraid to perform in Northern Ireland, in large part because of what had happened in the early hours of July 31, 1975, when five members of The Miami Showband were heading home from a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge. Their drummer, Ray Millar, had gone home to Antrim instead to stay with family members. On a narrow country road outside Newry, the band was flagged down by a group of uniformed men at what appeared to be a routine UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) checkpoint. Because such an incident was “normal” in the seventies in Northern Ireland, they wouldn’t have been overly alarmed.  But then the men in uniform ordered them to get out of their vehicle and stand by the roadside while the soldiers conducted a check of the back of the van.


Now, I don’t know if standing there on the side of the road, The Miami Showband realized this was not a routine army checkpoint. They were the victims of a vicious and premeditated ambush carried out by members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). As they waited, two of the UVF men – later revealed as members of the Ulster Defense Regiment – planted a bomb in the back of the van. It exploded prematurely, killing both, and in the chaos that followed, the remaining UVF members opened fire, killing three band members.

There were reports that the handsome young lead singer, Fran O’Toole, was shot 22 times in the face. Vulnerable and on the ground, he begged for mercy from men who kept shooting.  Brian McCoy, shot nine times, was the first to die at the scene. Tony Geraghty was shot in the back – four times. Des McAlea and Stephen Travers survived the blast from the explosion that flung both of them into the air. McAlea suffered only minor injuries and somehow escaped into the night; Travers was seriously wounded and survived only by pretending to be dead. Later, he recalled the gunman kicking the four bodies to ensure they were all dead.


It was unimaginable – young men, Catholics and Protestants, darlings of the show band scene, in their prime and adored by thousands of fans north and south of the border, slaughtered in the muck on a country road.

Naively, we had believed musicians were immune. Too, we saw in the Miami Showband what could be, its members and its audiences crossing all social, religious, and political boundaries. In fact, in his address to The Hague some years later, Stephen Travers would recollect his band as “a blueprint for social, religious, and political harmony.” But on that night in 1975, what happened to The Miami Showband left no doubt that musicians were just as much of a target as anyone else.  It became known as “The Day The Music Died,” but this is a hollow tagline that does not convey the monstrosity of it, the chilling choreography behind it, the harrowing legacy of it.

Northern Ireland’s musical life ground to a standstill. Performers from the UK mainland were too scared to risk their safety, and with this increased risk, performing in Northern Ireland became wildly expensive, the cost of insurance premiums soaring given the real threat of hi-jackings and bombings.

Our wee country had become a “no go” area, with fans of live music growing accustomed to canceled gigs, to more bombings and more shootings – all part and parcel of Northern Ireland living.  Performers were warned to stay away, and most took heed. A few – too few – kept going. In fact, only The Horslips and the late Rory Gallagher continued to include Belfast in their annual tours of Ireland, with Rory playing Belfast’s Ulster Hall more than any other performer. How we loved him. He played on, even as our country was in the grip of “The Troubles,” even as the bombs exploded in the city around him.

Rory Gallagher has once again returned to Belfast, at least he came, and for that we must thank him. Belfast has now become a graveyard for music. Concerts and big groups are a thing of the past…We want action now, for too long the groups in England haven’t given music where it can give the most help. Lennon tells us to give peace a chance, but has he visited us? All we want John ,baby, is the truth. Perhaps he is furthering the peace movements somewhere in Hyde Park. Perhaps the groups don’t want to make any sacrifices, maybe they are afraid, maybe they cannot stir themselves to help the people who need it most, who have no power to speak of.

excerpt from early 70’s Belfast underground paper,’Take One’.


A plaque bearing Rory Gallagher’s name was installed in the Ulster Hall in 2006, and we will honor his memory – and the gift of his music – with a statue at the Ulster Hall lest we forget that music was the alternative and that in time, there would be  punk rock and an anthem proclaiming as such and a renewed sense that music might just save us all. That anthem for an Alternative Ulster came from Stiff Little Fingers in 1978:

Nothin’ for us in Belfast
The Pound’s so old it’s a pity
OK, there’s the Trident in Bangor
Then walk back to the city
We ain’t got nothin’ but they don’t really care

Lest we forget.

I was reminded of this again in 2015 when gunmen stormed into The Bataclan Theater in Paris and slaughtered scores of fans at an Eagles of Death Metal concert.  Sickened, but not surprised, because I know better than most that a popular concert venue in Paris on a Friday night is not an unexpected place. For some it is “a legitimate target.”

Stiff Little

And, I should also have expected the statement from Stiff Little Fingers who were due to play in Paris on the heels of their gigs in Dublin and Belfast.

Of course they would play in Paris just four days later. Of course they would. And they did – with authority and heart.

It was the right thing to do – for Paris, for all of us.

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And now we have an opportunity to do something for Stiff Little Fingers.  Dee Wilson, author of The Punk Trilogy, has approached the Ulster Historical Circle with a proposal that a blue plaque should be erected at the old Trident Bar in Bangor,where the band performed in its early days. This is a reasonable request given that it is the mission of the Ulster Historical Circle to  “place commemorative plaques in public places, in towns and villages all over Ulster, in honor of men and women who have contributed to the Province’s history.” There’s a blue plaque for Van Morrison at 125 Hyndford Street, Belfast, United Kingdom, and there’s one for the old Maritime Hotel, proclaiming it the birthplace of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues in Belfast. There’s one for journalist and footballer, Danny Blanchflower and one for comedian James Young, who helped us laugh at ourselves during Northern Ireland’s darkest days.

But the Ulster Historical Circle has said no to Dee Wilson, no to a blue plaque at the old Trident (now Wolsey’s) Bar in Bangor. The Ulster Historical Circle has in effect said no to commemorating a movement which gave so many of us hope when the odds were stacked squarely against us, a representative explaining that “The Circle has streamlined our criteria since then and we now erect plaques exclusively to individuals who have connections of birth, death, sojourn, education etc with particular buildings.”

Really. Time for an alternative plaque, I think.

What we need is an Alternative Ulster
Grab it and change it, it’s yours


Sign the petition here




A Love Letter ~ “Nothing Good Gets Away”


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I have conducted many of the most significant relationships in my life almost entirely by telephone. With so many miles of ocean or freeway stretching between us, it is often easier to continue the conversation from the comfort of our own homes. There is something to talk about even when there is nothing to talk about. Before Skype and Facebook, I treasured long-distance phone calls with my mother, usually during the weekend when we could be less circumspect about the time difference and the cost per minute. There used to be sporadic phone calls from childhood friends, the rhythm of home so achingly familiar we would fall softly into conversation, easily picking up where we left off years ago.

By telephone, I have delivered and received the most important news of my life. from that which cannot be shared quickly enough: “I got the job!” “We’re getting married!” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” to the kind that startles the silence too early in the morning or too late at night to be anything good. From a village in Wales, my oldest friend calling to tell me her husband had been killed in a car accident: “My darling is gone! My darling is gone! Gone!”  From me in a hospital parking lot to my best friend, who, fingers crossed for “benign,” answers before the end of the first ring, only to hear, “I have cancer.”  Two years later, I wait on the other end of the line on one continent while she on another, enters my home and calls my husband’s name once, twice, and after the third time,  “He’s passed away! He’s passed away! Oh, he’s so cold. I’m so sorry.”

Thus, two people are connected in an ephemeral silence that leaves each with nothing to hold on to. 

Nothing but the distance between them.

Writing a letter is different, giving us time to shape our tidings with the very best words we have, but in spite of my best efforts, the letter-writing of my youth has fallen out of favor, snuffed out by e-mails and text messages, that regardless of font and typeface ( or supplemental emoticon) are just not the same.

How I miss walking out to the mailbox and opening it to find a red, white and blue trimmed letter that was its own envelope, light as onion-skin, marked By Air Mail – Par Avion. I have saved all my letters and will likely always keep them – to read and reread, because they are immortal reminders of people and places I treasure.

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In part, it is this sentiment that is behind the Letters of Note website, a veritable homage to the craft of letter-writing. Editor, Shaun Usher, has painstakingly collected and transcribed letters, memos, and telegrams that “deserve a wider audience.” I remember telegrams at wedding receptions in Northern Ireland. They arrived from America and other places to be read by the Best Man. Naturally, when I ordered the book that grew from the website,  I opted for the collectible first edition because it was accompanied by an old-fashioned telegram.

Considering telegrams and old letters, and the heart laid bare on stationery this Valentine’s Day, I am reading again the letter of fatherly advice from author John Steinbeck to his then 14-year-old son Thomas, at the time away at boarding school and smitten by a young girl, Susan.  There is both heart and craft in it, and the reminder we all need – ‘nothing good gets away.’

Steinbeck’s letter below  can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First—if you are in love—that’s a good thing—that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply—of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it—and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone—there is no possible harm in saying so—only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another—but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.



 Nothing good gets away.

Happy Valentine’s Day 2017.



A Spectacular Risk ~ for Guadalupe García de Rayos


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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

~ President John F. Kennedy

My circumstances are different from those of my grandparents and so many Irish before me, immigrants who were obliged to leave home because of famine or poverty or diminished possibilities or broken promises. Nonetheless, I can barely remember a time when I did not harbor a desire to come to America, eager to take what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls that “spectacular risk.”  And although I have now spent more than half my life in these United States, there are still unguarded moments of dislocation that bring a crushing loneliness and a guilt for having left my Northern Ireland. I sometimes wonder if perhaps the better thing or the best thing would have been to stay, to stay and strive to see far beyond the black and white images that flickered on our television screen at six o’clock every night. But I couldn’t. I fled as soon as I had the chance and became an immigrant in an America I do not recognize today, turning my back on the vulnerable, tiny country that shaped and scared me – my lovely, tragic Northern Ireland.

Not much older than my American daughter, I spent most of the 1980s planning my escape from Northern Ireland. It was a turbulent and traumatic time. We lived and worked and played and prayed within a national crucible of doubt and suspicion, a half-empty glass. We anticipated the worst; as such, we were rarely disappointed. By the summer of 1984, I had grown weary of the bombings and killings, the hatred and the sense of hopelessness that seemed to seep from every corner of the country.  Ardent and young, I seized an opportunity to come to America for one summer, believing then – as I would like to believe today – Tom Wolfe’s assertion that,

America is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.

I spent my first night in America in the YMCA on Times Square and 42nd Street. This was before the area had been spruced up by the city’s mayor and transformed into the glittering intersection we know today.  I think Rudy Giuliani likes to take the credit for the changes, but I’m reluctant to give it to him. I recall a hot summer night in 1984. I can still see myself standing in the doorway of a drug store with my bag held open, waiting expectantly for someone to search it for explosives, as was the habit of someone from Northern Ireland.  Between the jet lag and the scary characters in the street, I forgot I was on a New York city street rather than entering either end of Belfast’s Royal Avenue before the promise of peace and urban renewal projects transformed it.

For the first time in my life, I was both apart from and a part of a rich tapestry of human diversity and experience. Having spent my entire life in a rainy and relatively homogenized country – on the surface –  where almost everyone was pale and under 5’8″, this was sensory overload. Nonetheless, the shock of it would soon give way to an enchantment that stayed with me for many years. And for many years, the feeling was mutual.  I’m Irish, the immigrant lots of people want to be on St. Patrick’s Day, “Kiss me, I’m Irish” emblazoned on their T-shirts. Tell me the color of my skin doesn’t matter when people in power are deciding who should be walled out and who should be allowed to stay.

So I overstayed my visa at a time when it didn’t matter as much. An American man fell in love with me and married me, enabling me to stay here as a permanent resident, eligible to work and pay taxes and pursue the American Dream that I thought belonged to everyone.

I got lucky.

Lupita García de Rayos  did not share my good fortune.  Her parents brought her to America when she was just 14 years old, seeking the kinds of opportunities that would not be available in Guanajuato, Mexico. She remained in Arizona, became an adult here, fell in love, married, and had two children, Jacqueline and Angel. Arizona became her home for over twenty years.


But there was no line in which Lupita could stand, no way for her to acquire the Social Security Number that would enable her to work to support her family. There was no hope. For undocumented immigrants who have been here since childhood – with no path to citizenship – there is little recourse. Either hide or make up a number to fill in the blank space on a job application; do what you must in order to feed and clothe your children. Ultimately, she became a victim of this country’s failed immigration policies and Arizona’s employer sanctions law, resulting in her arrest in 2008, when she was swept up in one of Joe Arpaio’s unconstitutional raids.

Criminalized, Lupita pleaded guilty and spent six months in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention before being released back to her family. Subsequently, in 2013, an immigration court ordered her deportation, but the federal government did not enforce it. Because she was a non-violent offender, posing no threat to public safety or national security, Lupita was shielded from deportation under the Obama administration.

Until yesterday.

For the past eight years, she has checked in with immigration officials to complete an annual review of her case.  Warned that this year might be different, she went to mass and said a prayer before going to her meeting. She took a spectacular risk, in light of the President of the United States’s executive order which stipulates that undocumented immigrants convicted of any criminal offense — and even those who have not been charged but are believed to have committed “acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” — are now a priority for deportation. They arrested her and deported her in front of her family.

Less than twenty-four hours later, she is in Nogales, Mexico, far away from the only home she has known for 21 years.  Lupita risked it all.

Tonight, it occurs to me that it is only a month since this country celebrated the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, a man who put his life on the line in pursuit of an America that would provide “a place at the table for children of every race and room at the inn for every needy child” – a fabulous place where miracles happen every day. Let’s make one happen for this family.


Donate here to support Lupita’s family: https://www.youcaring.com/lupitagarciaderayos-754323


(This piece republished online at Irish Times Abroad)



For my BFF on her Birthday

My best friend and I don’t exchange birthday gifts or cards, and I don’t know why, because in the areas of gift-giving and card-selection, we are masters. Because of traffic on Interstate 10, we conduct our relationship almost entirely by phone. I like to think this is a good strategy in case either of us decides to move to Europe.  I take her for granted, and I don’t thank her enough for being the friend that she is, so in lieu of a card or a gift, I’m sending out a thank you letter on her special day:


Dear Amanda,

You really are gonna be 40 . . . someday. It seems like a heartbeat ago that Ken was asking if you were ever going to be 30. How he loved you, and I know of all people he would be the most grateful for your friendship to me. So for wading through all the bullshit and relishing in all the joy since we first bonded on a flight to New York in 2003, thank you. For cooking all those healthy meals for him after the aneurysm and for going to the house and finding him because I knew, I just knew – even though I was on the other side of the world – that he was dead, thank you. I know he wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to find him. There was no one better to break the news to me or to take care of the aftermath which included baking for my mourning family those mini chicken pot pies in individual ramekins, thereby rendering all my other friends clueless about what to bring that would be most comforting. He knew that only you would keep me from falling apart. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

For shielding Sophie from so much bad news, like the time I left her with you so I could go listen to the nice Cancer Navigator tell me that, yes, I absolutely had breast cancer but it wasn’t a death sentence. For carrying her on your swimmer’s shoulders when she was too tired to wait in line to see Santa; for the Dr. Seuss cake you baked for her high school graduation, thank you. For trusting her to babysit your little girls, for being her first professional reference, for “helping” her pass online Chemistry even though we both know she will never need it (except to answer a first-round question on Jeopardy – maybe) and for making her feel like she matters – thank you.

For reminding me that it could always be worse – always – and that the heart wants what the heart wants, thank you. For being judgmental but never judging me, thank you.For waiting and waiting in hospitals and at the hairdressers, thank you. For putting up with my airport behavior and pretending you understand why someone from Northern Ireland  would rant like that. For always letting me have the aisle seat. For the thousands of miles you have traveled across America with me and for driving the rental car while I sing and remain oblivious to signs on the road, thank you.  For watching my favorite movies so you’ll get it when I quote huge chunks of dialogue.

“I’m not going to be ignored, Dan.”

For the concerts – for Ryan Adams and Tom Petty and Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle. For our shared dislike of Dave Matthews and for the unspoken reason why we both hate Coldplay. For adopting a Greyhound and convincing me that I should as well. For the devil of a margarita – two of them – in Santa Fe. #thedevilinside #loveactually

For the lesson plan templates and your ‘forceful God complex’ and your ability to sniff out a complete fraud, thank you. For the million dollar ideas, none of which will come close to expand-a-fan, and for the hashtags, for‪ #‎sleepingwiththeenemy‬  following one of those nights when your youngest commandeered the bed, for ‪#‎saysalltherightthings‬ and for never tiring of our who-would-play-you-in-the-movie-of-your-life game, even though it always ends up the same way. I will forever be Meryl Streep in “Falling in Love” and you will be Elizabeth Shue or Jennifer Grey.

For the road trips to San Francisco and Santa Fe and – more than once – off the deep end. For Beale Street and finding rhythm and blues at the Rum Boogie Cafe. For walking in Memphis in the pouring rain and convincing the bar owner to stay open and make fried green tomatoes for us while we dried out. For sobering up in ways we will never forget at the Lorraine Motel. For Graceland – down in the jungle room. For splitting appetizers – before you discovered you have either Celiacs or the alternative diagnosis proposed by your gastroenterologist, Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) –  and splitting the bill and feeling sorry for whoever has to take my order, but then remembering that I will probably find out that they have a degree in education. For signing my name when I forget my glasses and figuring out the tip. For asking me to come up with a creative justification for the expense when Todd asks how your hair could possibly cost that much to cut and color. The struggle is real.

For pool and poker. We’re only “one away.” For scrapbooks and shopping lists. For buying the same outfits even though you are a “petite.” For the next best app. For sniglets and code words when we need an exit strategy – ‪#‎gottago‬ For driving on the wrong side of the road downtown and for losing your sense of direction on 7th Street – every time. Every. Single. Time. For considering what not to wear before anything else and for always bringing at least one extra lipstick that will work for me. For ‘anticipating my needs’ and not ever minding that I won’t take no for an answer. For tuning me out while you chop vegetables and I try to find my train of thought.  For the smallest handbag in America to the largest. For never leaving a voice-mail and for never checking the ones I leave for you, because you know I’ll ramble and forget why I called, thank you. Although that last one worries me – what if I need bail?

For naming your cold sores like they are hurricanes and developing a poker face for bad meetings. For taking Scott’s side because you know what I’m like, as I have always taken Todd’s side (for the same reason) thank you.  For hours of good advice you know I’ll ignore until later when I’ll tell you, just like Carrie Fisher in “When Harry Met Sally,” “you’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right.” For showing up, and for being my best friend, thank you.

Happy Birthday. xo