18 October 2011
3 hours, 1 minute
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Larry Kirwan was born in Ireland in1954. Kirwan migrated to New York City at the age of 21. He grew up with four siblings, two sisters and two brothers. One of his brothers was Kirwan's only other family member to immigrate to America. Kirwan moved in with his widowed maternal grandfather when he was eight years old to help him around the house. Kirwan bypassed university in favor of caring for his grandfather. He did, however, enroll in accounting classes. While living with Hughes, Kirwan and his grandfather frequently discussed Irish politics and Republican figures. Around the age of 12 Kirwan decided to learn the guitar but never received any formal training. He played in Elvis Murphy's Showband, which both improved his guitar skills and introduced him to the rock and roll scene.
When he moved to New York, Kirwan lived in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The freedom he enjoyed in the city led to an entirely different lifestyle and social scene than he experienced in Ireland. He began playing music in the Bronx, where Irish immigrants from the 1950s came out to listen to his music. Kirwan and Pierce Turner comprised a New Wave band, the Major Thinkers. Kirwan took a break from playing in bands after the breakup of the Major Thinkers, and for about four years wrote plays. After this hiatus he began performing with the band Chill Faction, an experimental and improvisational group consisting of different musicians and the poet Copernicus. He later met Chris Byrne in a bar following a performance by Byrne's disintegrating band. Kirwan agreed to play with him, and thus, Black 47 was created. Black 47 was a confrontational band by nature, due to its combination of highly political songs and aggressive performance style. It merged hip-hop beats and loud guitar with the "sacred" sound of Irish pipes.
Kirwan is a firm believer in music as a motivator for social change, though he is skeptical that it will return to its former role as a primary form of protest. Currently, Kirwan has a radio show on SIRIUS Radio called Celtic Crush. He discusses various topics of his choosing as well as showcases contemporary Celtic rock. He also writes a weekly column for the Irish Echo, addressing a variety of progressive topics. As for performing, Kirwan recorded an album of children's songs called Keltic Kids that both children and parents can enjoy. Black 47 is currently on a break, but has a few shows scheduled for December 2011.
Music in County WexfordDisc 1, 38:52-39:40
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
LK: There was always music in Ireland. In every house that you go to you might have to sing a song or something, but my family wasn't especially musical. My grandfather had a great appreciation and my mother were into opera. Yeah, opera was very big in Ireland, actually. Light opera and heavy opera. Uh, but it was all types of music in Ireland. Wexford was just singing, whistling. Going down the street it wasn't unusual when I was growing up that people would be whistling and signing around you, you know. In fact, my favorite part of that book is describing Wexford at that particular point with the whistling and singing, and how music was just a part of people's lives.
Confrontational Nature of Black 47Disc 2, 30:07-31:12
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
LK: I said, "That television has to go off," and she [the bartender] was like, "What do you mean the television has to go off? The boys are watching the game!" "Fuck the game! The boys are here to see us." And she'd say, "These guys are not here to see you!" I said, "Well, we're not playing till that TV goes off." [laughter]. So we always won, now I think back on it, oh man. And with our first song, we used to open up with a song called "Home of the Brave," and the first lines were "Just got over from the Emerald Isle, I'm glad to see you're all doing so fine, it feels so good to be finally in the home of the brave and the land of the free." And this is done really sarcastically [laughter] and as we're doing that, half the place is walking out going like this, so in the end it got to be people would see us coming in and they'd go, "Oh no, not these guys!" And the bartender would be going, "My night is ruined because half my bar is gone, I'm not going to get any tips!" The fighting that went on in those first six months was just unreal.
Music as a Form of ProtestDisc 3, 7:42-8:42
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
LK: My feeling is that if people didn't get behind the Iraq War, I'm not sure you're gonna see it in this generation, you know? I hope so! Cause, uh, music is the perfect vehicle for protest and for political thought. It's not easy, though, to write political songs. I know that for myself, I have a real background in it and I've done it for many years, but it's very easy to preach and the only way to do it is to use a story to tell it, almost like a parable. Like Dylan was great at doing it, but it's hard to write a good political song because you tend to preach with it and preaching turns people off.
- Leah Rocamora [LR]
- Linda Dowling-Almeida [LA]