With all the requisite ethnic politicking surrounding the fast approaching presidential election, the question of Barack Obama’s Irish-American coattails is once again salient. As the Dublin-born, Oakland-based singer Shay Black discovered with an acappella version of the Corrigan Brothers’ ditty “There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama,” the urge to claim the half-Kenyan Hawaiian as a kinsman is potent indeed.
After the genealogy website ancestry.co.uk announced that Obama’s great great great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, was born in County Offaly, and sailed from Ireland to New York City in 1850, the Corrigan Brothers posted a video of their tongue-in-cheek tune on YouTube.
Black, who hails from Ireland’s preeminent musical family, revamped the song and recorded it as a sing-along at Berkeley’s Starry Plough. His 2008 YouTube video of the performance became an internet sensation, garnering more than 1.2 million hits, and possibly nudging the course of the campaign.
“The Corrigan Brothers version was done as a parody, but I loved the concept,” says Black, who performs a series of St. Patrick’s Day gigs around the region with his brother Michael, including Saturday at Freight & Salvage. “I started to sing it, and add my own verses, and then the YouTube video took off beyond anything I could have imagined. The Irish Democratic Caucus said it had a huge impact. People wrote from all over the world.”
The impulse to embrace and celebrate Obama’s Gaelic lineage speaks to the particular experience of the Irish in America, a journey from marginalized minority to mainstream assimilation to ethnic kitsch. With some 40 million Americans claiming some degree of Irish heritage and many more crowding into the metaphorical pub as St. Patrick’s Day approaches, the brothers Black express a good deal of ambivalence over the way Irishness gets enacted this time of year.
“It’s nice to be remembered,” Michael Black says. “St. Patrick’s Day does provide opportunities for lots of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, and it does open audiences up to new directions in traditional Irish culture. The problem lies with stereotypical stuff, the green beer.”
A wet and wintry day
“In Ireland, St. Patrick’s day is a wet and wintry day,” adds Shay, who leads a regular Sunday night Irish song session at the Starry Plough. “It’s only recently that the consumer aspect has taken off. When our mom was alive she’d send us over some shamrock, and we’d wear it out of habit. It’s the only corny thing the Irish do. But there’s not this fanatical drinking the way it’s portrayed.”
The Black Brothers (who are sometimes joined by Dublin-based brother Martin) are scions of a celebrated musical family that includes sisters Frances and Mary Black. Their performances are peppered with sea shanties that Shay collected during the two decades he lived in Liverpool, when he toured widely throughout Europe with the storied shantyman Stan Hugill.
While the brothers occasionally toured and recorded with their sisters, they mostly worked individually until they started performing as the Black Brothers in the late 1980s, performing around California in March when Martin would come out from Dublin to visit.
“We’ve never gone out to look for gigs,” says Michael, who moved to San Francisco in 1984 to study, eventually earning a Ph.D. in sociology from UC Berkeley. “I think had we discovered ourselves as a bona fide band 20 years ago we might have given it a shot, playing a bit more. But it sort of came onto us by accident. By that time we all had other areas we’re pursuing.”
Other options for Irish music fans
In addition to the Black Brothers, who perform with cellist Myra Joy, fiddler Bobbi Nickles, and keyboardist Bryan Seet, Berkeley offers several other options for Irish music fans. The great Irish-American band Solas plays the Freight on Friday with the latest addition to the fold, Cork-born fiddler and vocalist Niamh Varian-Barry. While the band has shed several members of the years who went on to major careers (like guitarist John Doyle and vocalist Karan Casey) the quintet is still built around Seamus Egan on flute, mandolin and whistles, and Winifred Horan’s expert fiddle work.
The Albatross presents Blind Duck on Saturday, a quartet of veteran Celtic music players including Marla Fibish (mandolin, mandola, button accordion), Steven Donaldson (bodhran, dumbek), Don Clark (guitar, bouzouki, mandolin), and Michelle Delattre (concertina, whistle, fiddle).
And Berkeley’s year-round Emerald oasis, the Starry Plough, presents Driving With Fergus on Saturday, a traditional Irish combo built around the duo of Lewis Santer (guitar and Irish bouzouki) and Vince Wolfe (flute, whistles, pipes, drum). While their repertoire is based mostly on reels and jigs gathered in Ireland, they also include influences from American old-time, Balkan and Breton music. Starting at 4 p.m., the festivities include the McBride Irish Dancers of California and John Slaymaker and the Monday Night Céilí Musicians and Dancers.
Andrew Gilbert, who writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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