Astronomy is a four-letter word

As a child I was always fascinated by the night sky. All the stars, moving planets and just the majesty of the view on a clear night. I don’t think that I am alone in this. I suspect it may be a part of that sense of wonder that we all feel, that feeling of smallness in a greater universe.

I do not remember where I was when Neill Armstrong uttered his famous words as he first set foot on the Moon. I was probably puking up on my ever selfless mother’s lap while History was enfolding before my selfish three-year-old brain. Everything (bar my stuffed donkey toy) was in black and white in those days. Yet those events changed me. I could not help it. They changed the world. Everything after that was in glorious colour. I then wanted to be not a super-hero who fought dastardly villains, but rather an explorer of Other Worlds, like Armstrong and Aldrin and even Collins, (my mother’s namesake) and to fight strange alien monsters who might otherwise destroy all humanity.

I soon realised that it wasn’t to be. Though an American citizen, I was resident in Ireland and at that time ( unlike now) the Republic had no realistic Space Program. At about the age of twelve my parents realised my predicament and got me a really cool telescope for my birthday.

It soon became apparent that Science was not my true vocation. Star-Gazing, however, was something that I could involve myself in simply for my own enjoyment.

There is a difference here, between Science and Stargazing, though it is a minute one. Yes, I was interested in the minutiae of astronomical data and fascinated by the facts and figures. But mostly I loved looking at the Moon. The telescope I had was great – you could look at distant stars (a thing I also loved to do) , but the Moon grabbed most of my attention. Hours would go by. I never took notes or studied the Damned Thing. I simply gazed in awe.

As a prepubescent, while others were building Airfix models of Spitfires and other weapons of destruction, I was making models of the Lunar Lander. I fondly remember finally attaching the dish-array which was the very thing that kept my heroes in touch with their command centre on Earth. This was a great moment for me. The instrument of communication and of communion between Humankind and The Cosmos. Little did I know that one day soon I would see similar devices protruding from houses and community developments all over suburbia.

Eventually, (I still know not how nor why) the telescope disappeared. I was devastated. It was stolen somehow. I have always blamed myself for this. I should have watched the thing night and day. I thought I had, but while becoming an adolescent I must have let my eye stray from it and then it was gone.

Later, as I tried to be a health-care worker in the eighties, I found myself working in a nursing-home in England, doing the night-shift.

As any night-shift worker in any field will tell you, there will always be fallow hours. For me it was the hours when the patients are happily (one hopes) in bed, and all you can do during this period is maybe read until you need to be in action again. Thankfully this nursing-home had a good library. Well, when I say good I mean large. Mostly it was murder-mystery novels, spy-thrillers and sleuthing stuff. None of this interested me. There was one book, however that grabbed me. It was by a science-fiction writer who happened to also be a fine scientist by the name of Isaac Azimov. The book in question was not a work of fiction, mind, but rather a collection of essays on matters of science, and in particular on how the Earth’s Moon was fundamental not just to the development of life on this planet, but also the development of what we like to call ‘civilisation’.

Azimov explained how, not only did the very existence of our satellite save us from the meteoric bombardments which were endemic in the early formation of the planet, he also spoke about how tidal forces helped early life to form, he wrote of the importance of Lunar Cycles and how unique they are to our planet. He also spoke beautifully about how the simple fact that this glorious Thing In The Sky made us wonder at the beauty of all things.

It also caused people to wonder about the causes of Cosmic events, giving rise to what later would be called Science. Philosophy might also claim the Moon as it’s originator.

Recently I saw a photograph of a clearly overwhelmed Neill Armstrong, taken by his fellow astronaut, “Buzz” Aldrin, both of whom had set foot on this object. I know Azimov must also have seen this picture.

The moon is responsible for many things. The Geocentric view of the Universe could not have been without the Moon, for the Moon really does orbit the Earth, and without this no-one might have thought that all other celestial bodies did likewise. The Theory of Epicycles would never have been conceived and had such a thing not have happened it never could have been questioned. We might not have had a Copernicus, a Galileo, a Tycho Brahe or a Kepler. We might not even have had an Einstien, Bohr, Heisenberg or Feynman.

Four letters.

M-O-O-N.

Or, if you prefer,

L-U-N-A.

Either way, we might not have such a thing as Astronomy, nor indeed Science without a four-letter word.

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1984

George Orwell opened his famous novel, ‘1984’ with the words “It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I Remember the year 1984…

That was supposed to be a clever thing, the clocks striking thirteen. It seemed somewhat absurd in those days, a clock striking thirteen. Not so absurd now. Allow me to attempt some Time travel…

I am speaking to you now from the year 1979. Everything here in 1979 is relatively cool. That’s a thing we say here in ’79- ‘relatively cool’. We are on a punk-rock jag and while we wear skinny jeans like your Hipsters, we call them ‘drainpipes’. Hipsters, to us, are the girly pants that they used to wear in the Glam-Rock days.

We feel dejected and misunderstood as teenagers here in 1979, a thing I’m sure you future teen-heroes have overcome. Plus ca change. We here in ’79 are uncomfortable with the way we are brutalised by priests and nuns. The Kerry Babies case shall soon harden us. Joanne Hayes is being crucified before our eyes for being a woman who may or may not have had sex. We are told that this makes her a hoor, and therefore a possible perpetrator of infanticide. We, as pubescents, hear the pseudo-scientific term ‘Superfecundation’ as if it were a biological fact among humans. Priests tell us it must be so within the cloistered walls of a Catholic school retreat. They beat us with leather straps and they give those straps special names. Pet names like ‘Mr. X’, ‘The Punisher’ and ‘Saint Michael’ (he defeated the devil, don’t you know).

So we here in 1979 decide not to look like those around us, the Long-Hairs, the Boot-Boys, the Buffs. Me and my pals all get crew-cuts, or skin-heads. It isn’t that we are ‘Skinheads’ , it’s just that everyone else has HAIR! We are now what some might call rejects, nerds or maybe just losers. In these days having a crew-cut in Ireland makes you look like a Traveller. Not a cool look. Not a way to get girls. It shall be the late 1990’s before this haircut becomes acceptable once more in the land.

In 1984 one pretends to do the Inter Cert. One proceeds to pretend that it matters to get good grades while not having even tried. One even plays along with the game of pretending that it matters when it clearly does not.

“It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen…”

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Going Back Home

Our final gig of the tour was in the renowned venue, The Troubadour in West Hollywood, LA. A fine farewell from a lovely audience. Missing this time were Jody Foster and Mickey Dolenz who apparently attended the show the last time the band played here. Not to worry. Those who were there more than made up for the lack of celebrity attendants!

We had a long travel-day following that, with an eight o’clock start at Long Beach Airport. A nice, laid back airport, this. The check-in, despite all our luggage and equipment was surprisingly easy and we were soon on our way. A brief stop in JFK and before we knew it we were back in Ireland where we now begin to deal with the weather and jet-lag. All in all it was a great further adventure and we hope it won’t be too long until we return. In the meantime, here are some photos from the road. Thank you, America and Canada!

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How I got into this mess in the first place

I guess you could say that I come from a musical family. All of us play more than one musical instrument. It’s all down to my parents. While they never forced us into playing music, they made sure that a broad variety of instruments were always around the house. They had a similar attitude to books. Simply insure that they are there, and hopefully the innate curiosity of children might cause them to explore. Also, being talented musicians themselves with a great love of all things musical, melody could always be heard in our house, from traditional Irish music to pop and Rock and Roll.

As a child I was constantly singing. This was remarked upon by my childhood schoolfriend, the one who went on to achieve Hollywood stardom. He said one day, “I bet when you grow up, you’ll be a singer”. He was not entirely wrong.

When we got to Ireland the primary school I attended had a music teacher who himself played a number of instruments, and though he was an accomplished fiddle player he taught us kids the tin-whistle. I can’t do much with a whistle now, but it was my first foray into the world of music. Then one day he announced that a snare-drummer was needed for the school tin-whistle band and asked if anyone interested might put up their hands. Mine went up like a shot and he grinned and said “I was hoping you would do that”. The position was mine.

Later, in secondary school, there was an old, neglected piano in the drama-hall. We had a piano at home, but I hadn’t yet experimented much with it. My brother Pato and I would put a towel in between the hammers and the strings and mime along to songs by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Specials, Madness, Squeeze and others. Then one day I removed the towel and tried to find the notes that made up the chords and melodies. Back at school I would mess around on the old piano with friends where I was spotted by some other kids who had formed a punk band. They asked me if I could play bass. I told them that I could, though this was not quite accurate. My older brother, Skin, had a bass guitar and I had taught myself, under the guidance of my sister Nurn, to play the simple yet beautiful riff from Joe Jackson’s ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him’, so I figured that I wasn’t really lying. I jumped in at the deep-end and joined the band. We were called Shattered Ego and went on to become a bit of a thing in Salthill, a suburb of Galway. The slippery slope had begun. I was now a doomed man.

Our first gig was in the same school drama-hall where I had tinkered on the piano. It was a great experience, and quite a success. I think I made about fifty pounds from that gig as we took all the money from the door. This was a phenomenal amount of money for a kid in 1981. We did gigs for youth clubs and moved on to pub gigs, chiefly in a bar called O’Rielly’s in Salthill. Here we met another band called Too Much The White Man, a reggae band from Tuam. On lead guitar was one Leo Moran and we in Shattered Ego quickly became big fans.

From there I went on to play in other bands culminating in me becoming a sit-in player for other musicians simply because I had, by then, taught myself a variety of instruments and could sing. This, though it was a great way of paying the rent, eventually became boring for me and so I began performing music for theatre shows, mainly with Macnas and Little John Nee. Creatively and in terms of my own enjoyment this was the way to go. I had particularly grown tired of playing covers. Then came the lovely experience of doing a show, The Midnight Court, with the incomparable Se√°n Tyrell. At the end of our tour with that play, I got a call from Leo Moran asking me to take over from Derek Murray in The Saw Doctors. Derek had been the sound engineer for my very first gig with Shattered Ego. I had also previously taken over keyboard duties from Tony Lambert in a band called Pyramid after he had left the Saw Doctors. Things began to seem weirdly inevitable.

It has been a great adventure thus far and I pray that the adventure may further continue for as long as I draw a breath. Thanks, Ma and Da, for leaving all those musical instruments strewn about the house. It’s your fault!

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Goodnight

Graham blew his head off in a garage
Eamman sucked his head out through a straw
Peter strung himself up off on a stray bough
Pato stuck a needle in his craw

Rory, we don’t know whatever happened
No-one will ever know whatever did
Jimmy, none could ever be as ever sharp as yourself
Good punks could never keep the hidden hid

Goodnight, goodnight,
I hope we won’t be meeting soon
Goodnight until we meet again
Goodnight, goodnight,
I’ll say good morrow now
And hope that I may say good morning once again.

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From Sea To Shining Sea

We have arrived safe and sound in the city of San Francisco. Flying in we were granted a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean as well as of the surrounding countryside. Breathtaking! Not long ago we were breathing in the air of the Atlantic over in New Jersey. As we enter the final stretch of our tour I can’t help but consider the amount of ground we have covered and that we have a bit more yet to cover. We have been given the privilege of being able to see more of America in one tour than many Americans get to experience in an entire lifetime. We also got to take in a small bit of Canada, a country of which I would dearly love to see more.

My first time in San Francisco was, I think, in the Summer of 1995 when I toured here with the arts/theatre group, Macnas. I had been absent from Macnas for a couple of years and had known some tragedy within that time so I was more than grateful for the opportunity to travel and perform with some good and talented friends again. It was a wonderful, healing experience for me. The show was about ‘Mad Sweeny’, an ancient king of Irish folklore. Sweeny had been cursed by Saint Aodan for having put one of his monks to the sword and so he began to believe that he was a bird. He commenced thenceforth to live in trees and to eat only the food that birds would eat. It was a tragic, rather sad story and like many Irish tales it did not end happily, although in our show the poor wretch received some alleviation from his suffering just at the point of death.

Arriving in San Francisco back then we had all been exhausted after a lengthy and wearisome series of flights which took us first to London, then to New York and on to ‘Frisco with a brief stop-over in some airport which I was too knackered to even recall. As soon as we got to our our final destination, the crew (some of which were also either actors or musicians in the show) went to the venue while the rest of us went to the hotel to check in. Unfortunately our tour-manager, who was the only one holding a company credit card, was back at the venue. None of the rest of us held any credit card whatsoever, so checking anyone in was an impossibility. Mobile phones were then not a thing that many people had so getting in touch with our agents of management was very difficult indeed. It ended up taking about three hours before we got checked in and the tour-manager was not happy with the hotel, as they already had the credit card details. He had even called to confirm those details, but the hotel would not accept said details. He had to delay a complicated rig-up (it was a very big show) to come and deal with this. To be fair, the hotel staff were very sympathetic and offered to give him a much better room of his own. As I had been booked to share a room with him, this meant that I also got a single room. I could not believe my luck. It turned out that my room was even bigger than the one given to the tour-manager. It is no exaggeration to say that this room was about the same size as the flat in which I then lived in Galway. The bed alone held enough real-estate to build a dwelling sufficient to house a small family.

This time around things are quite different. Everyone has both a credit card and a mobile phone. Communication now is as simple as tying one’s shoelaces and credit, while limited, is still available. At least for now. Times have certainly changed since those days but the sense of adventure has not abated one bit, thank goodness. We have a couple of days off here in San Francisco, then we have a gig in Sacramento, two gigs back here in San Francisco, one gig in West Hollywood and then home. Breathing the Atlantic air shall be nice again, but while I am here I shall treat myself to the scent of the Pacific.

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My Kind Of Town

A great gig tonight in Cleveland. The audience at the House Of Blues here always has a large amount of younger folks and they really add to the energy. A truly good show is always a two-way street. The band are energised by the crowd and the crowd by the band until a full-on feedback-loop of rapture is achieved. This, I think, happened tonight here in Cleveland.

So now we hit the road for Chicago. This is a city special to my heart as it is the place where I spent the first eight years of my life.

I was born in Evanston, Illinois and lived in Chicago until my parents decided to move back to Ireland in 1974. This was harder for my older siblings than it was for me and my younger sister, I think. For us, moving to Ireland was just a big adventure but to the others such a move meant leaving behind well-established friendships formed at school and in the neighbourhood. I never liked school, and while I had made friends there as well as in our local community I think I was young enough to be flexible.

I do retain some great early childhood memories of my short time in Chicago, though. While I didn’t particularly like the harsh, cold winters, I did love the long, hot summers. I remember the fireflies in late August and catching them, cupping them gently and looking at the beautiful way they lit up the inside of my hands. Like holding a small piece of magic.

I remember going over to a school-friend’s apartment one afternoon. His name was Fernando and it soon emerged that he was a pyromaniac. We went down to the basement of the building where he proceeded to light a fire in the garbage-cans. Nearly torched the entire place. Thank feck for the Chicago Fire Department!

I recall another encounter with the same Fire Department. Our Mam had brought us all to the dentist. Six of us there were. I was the second youngest. Easily bored, I, at the tender age of no more than six, decided to explore. I discovered on my exploration that there was a red device upon the wall. It bore the warning: “PULL ONLY IN CASE OF FIRE!” What was a young boy to do? I tried and tried, but couldn’t get the damn thing free. So I grabbed hold, put my two feet against the wall and made sure that I would find out what might happen if I broke the rules. Once again, I apologize to the brave people in the Fire Department!

I also remember Michael Sullivan, my neighbour from across the street, telling me that Nixon was probably going to be impeached or forced to resign. I had no idea what he was talking about and had to ask my elders.

Another memory involves putting on a performance in school with a friend who is now a Hollywood actor.

The music played in our house, from my recollection, consisted largely of a mixture of The Clancy Brothers and The Beetles.

My late brother Pat missed Chicago a lot at first and wrote a poem about his memories. I can only remember some of it;

“Summertime in Chicago
Means a lot to me
A t-shirt, some cut-downs
And a climbing tree”.

Says it all, really.

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