Tag Archives: Dublin Rogues

Thoughts on turning 70

Today I am three score and ten. Not quite ready yet to fly away, but certainly aware that more of my life is now behind me than up ahead

What has life taught me? Three things. There may be more, but three will suffice for now.

The first thing I learned was that Mother knew best. My father knew a thing or two as well but my mother was the one who – consciously or otherwise – pointed me in the right direction.

My mother enrolled me in piano lessons when I was six. She knew nothing about music but she sensed – rightly as it turned out – that I might have some incipient talent worth cultivating when I started rocking in my crib in time to the music on the radio. After I had taken piano lessons for seven years she got me a paid gig as organist for our church. That pointed me in the direction of eventually drawing on music as a secondary source of income. Mother knew best.

My mother taught me to touch-type. How did she know this clerical skill would one day stand me in good stead when I became a journalist? She didn’t, of course. But she probably knew that in the years to come the ability to type a letter without looking at the keys would bring me as much satisfaction as playing the piano without looking at the keys. Mother knew best.

The second thing I learned was to trust my gut.

When I was in my early 20s, I worked for the Irish civil service as a customs and excise regulator. The pay was good and the benefits were generous. But my gut told me the job wasn’t right for me. My gut also told me that Ireland wasn’t right for me. So I quit my job and immigrated to Canada.  My friends told me I was crazy but my gut told me I was right. Trust your gut. What did my mother say? She hugged me close and said, “Look after yourself.”

When I got to Canada I had an opportunity to go on the road playing music – singing Irish ballads as one-half of a recording duo named the Dublin Rogues. My practical-minded father thought I should look around for something more stable; something more like the Irish civil service perhaps. But my gut told me I should try making it in the music business, at least for a while. Trust your gut.

I met the woman of my dreams while playing a gig in Halifax. I knew within a short time that I wanted to spend my life with her. I didn’t talk to my parents about this. They probably would have told me to wait until I had a stable job and money in the bank. My gut told me I should get off the road and settle down with this wonderful woman who would soon become my wife. Zelda and I have been married now for 45 years and we have an amazing daughter, Nico, who is the apple of our eye. Trust your gut.

The third thing I learned was to follow my dream. This is a slight variation on trusting your gut.

Life, to paraphrase Wayne Dyer, is not a dress rehearsal; it’s the actual show. Find what you love to do and go do it. If you don’t like your job, quit and try something else. If you don’t like the second job, quit and look for a third.

My father was a civil servant. My mother was a civil servant before she married my father. They both believed the civil service was the best employer in Ireland. That’s why I joined the civil service; I was following their dream.

But I wasn’t following my dream. My dream was to play music and write stories. I didn’t know if this dream would butter any parsnips for me in Ireland, so I moved to Canada to pursue it. Within a few weeks of arriving I had a regular piano-playing gig at a pancake house in Burnaby. I spent my first Canadian summer in Dawson City playing nightly at the Palace Grand Theatre. I followed that with a year on the road playing nightclubs from Toronto to Halifax. Follow your dream.

When I quit the road I went to journalism school. That brought me a job at a newspaper, writing stories. That’s all I’ve done ever since: write stories. Today I market them on the Internet, which is the way everyone does business in the 21st century. I still play music from time to time but that’s now mainly for pleasure. Hauling keyboard equipment to the gig is no longer my idea of a good time. My musical friends keep telling me that the manufacturers are coming out with lighter and lighter gear every year. Maybe I’ll get me one of those feather-light keyboards before I give up the business entirely.

So there you have it. Three lessons that life has taught me during my 70 years on this planet.

I don’t like to think about death. But it’s the destiny we all share so I have to think about it sometimes. When I was in my 20s I bought my first life insurance policy. The broker offered me a hypothetical rationale, something along the lines of “How would you look after your family if you were diagnosed tomorrow with a terminal illness or were to get killed in a traffic accident?” Nobody of my generation actually believed that our families would ever have to deal with such a morbid prospect. Now it’s no longer a hypothetical concept. It’s a reality I have to face: My life will end.

I am still blessed with reasonably good health. My mother died of colon cancer when she was 62, and I used to worry the same might happen to me when I reached that age. Now I savour every moment, cherish every hour, enjoy every day. Life is more precious to me than ever so I try to focus on the good things – love, family, friends – and forget about the stuff that ultimately I have little control over anyhow. What the politicians might be doing to the economy or what industry might be doing to the environment is still a concern. But at the end of the day it will have to be somebody else’s concern. I will have done my bit. I cast my ballot and I rode my bike.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 60th wedding anniversary celebration of an American aunt and uncle who were good to me when I first came to Canada. She is now in her late 80s; he is in his early 90s. Their oldest children are in their late 50s. At first I didn’t think I would go to the anniversary bash, in Rochester, because of the distance and the cost involved. But now I’m glad I did. Family and friends, more than 80 of them, came from Ireland, Alberta, Ontario, California, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts and upstate New York. Some I hadn’t seen in eight years. We shared a lot of stories and a lot of laughs. I came away with one more life’s lesson to add to the three I’ve given you:

Family comes first.

The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney had died a few weeks before I went to Rochester. In the first poem of his first published collection he wrote about his father, who dug potatoes, and his grandfather, who cut turf:

I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

In another poem, Heaney wrote about his aunt, describing how she baked bread:

And here is love

Like a tinsmith’s scoop

Sunk past its gleam

In the meal-bin.

He wrote about his mother:

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

And, in a poem reprinted by the Irish Times on the day after his death, he wrote about his four-year-old brother, killed in a road accident when Heaney was away at boarding school:

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

Family comes first.

Leaving Dublin: An inside look

You can read an excerpt from Leaving Dublin here on the Amazon website. What follows in this post is a summary, chapter by chapter, of what else you can find in my book of memoirs. If it whets your appetite for more, you can order your copy (paperback or e-book) here.

Piano Lessons. You can read some of this on the Amazon website. My mother tells my father it’s more important for us to have a piano than a family car. The lessons pay off. At age 14, I land a paying gig as a church organist.

Boys Will be Boys. It’s Dublin in the 1950s, long before the Celtic Tiger roars. Life for us as kids is a carousel of playing in the lane, going to the movies, and eating french fries. Our parents teach us that a good education is the key to everything good in life.

Coming of Age. I get my first summer job away from home and learn about girls. I join the civil service and become bored stiff. My friend Michael Murphy and I talk about moving to another country.

Coming to Canada. We immigrate to Canada. Vancouver is our chosen destination. We have no plan. We just want to see if the grass is really greener.

Journey into Show Business. I join forces with an Irish tenor named Shay Duffin. We call ourselves the Dublin Rogues. We make records and tour the clubs and concert halls of eastern Canada. My mother wonders when I’m going to get a real job.

Journey into Journalism. I go to journalism school for two months. That’s good enough to land me a reporting job at the weekly newspaper in Smithers, British Columbia. My mother is relieved. Zelda and I get married and Nicole is born.

Nights on Air. We move to Prince George. I read the news on CJCI Radio. I quit to play piano in a local pizza parlour. My mother gets anxious again.

Give My Regards to Old Prince George. I join the daily Citizen as a reporter. My mother is happy that I’ve finally gotten the music thing out of my system. I cover city hall and write pop music reviews.

Remember Me to Herald Square. We move to Calgary. I cover cops for the Herald and then start writing about theatre. What do I know about theatre? Not much but I’m a quick study.

The Tribute Column. After 13 years on the theatre beat, I’m ready for a change. I write features for the Herald’s Sunday magazine and then agree to write an obituary column for the daily paper. My colleagues think I’m one brick short of a full load.

Locked Out. We unionize the Herald newsroom and get locked out while bargaining for a first contract. After eight months on the picket line, some of us go back into the building. Most of us go on to other things. I write my first book.

In Search of a Literary Ancestor. I discover my maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire, was a renowned folk poet in West Cork. I write a book about her.

Moving to the Front of the Generational Train. Reflections on the lives and deaths of my parents. They wanted for nothing more than to give their children a good start in life. They surely succeeded.

CBC Radio’s Daybreak Alberta

CBC Radio’s Russell Bowers did a great interview about “Leaving Dublin,” Sat. Sept. 10 on his program, “Daybreak Alberta,” broadcast across the province.

Click on the arrow and enjoy:

“Leaving Dublin” video

Watch the YouTube promo video for Leaving Dublin, my newly published book of memoirs.

Shay Duffin

We were a cabaret duo, with a focus on Irish ballads, comedy patter, and musical parodies. We called ourselves the Dublin Rogues. Ben Kopelow, our agent in Vancouver, chose the name for us. He dressed us up in green corduroy pants, white sweaters and tweed caps, and had us performing at every corporate banquet job that called for an Irish tenor to hit the high notes of “Danny Boy” and “Macushla.” Duffin was the Irish tenor. He didn’t always hit the high notes but the crowds loved him anyway. I played piano. I also sang bass harmony, and strummed a little on acoustic guitar.

We first performed together  at a Burnaby restaurant called Little Black Sambo’s Pancake House. At least, that’s what the place was called when I first arrived in Vancouver in November 1966. A sign on the outside of the restaurant depicted a caricature of a curly-haired black child. The B.C. Association for the Advancement of Coloured People complained, the owner removed the offending sign, and changed the name to the less offensive Sambo’s Family Restaurant.

The customers at Sambo’s didn’t have much interest in Irish folk music. Although Duffin was getting some airplay on Vancouver radio stations with a self-produced recording of an old IRA marching song called “Off to Dublin in the Green,” he discovered that the Sambo’s customers preferred listening to popular vocal selections from the musicals The Fantasticks and The Sound of Music. He sang “Try to Remember” and “Climb Every Mountain.” I played “A Walk in the Black Forest” and “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago. The customers applauded and the restaurant management was happy.

Duffin was keen to work full-time in show business. An upholsterer from Dublin who claimed to have once installed leather padding on a toilet seat in Princess Margaret’s Kensington Palace apartment—you could never tell if Duffin, an inveterate teller of tall tales, was making these things up—he did bit parts in movies and television shows shot in Vancouver, sold boxes of his 45-rpm singles on consignment at the Bay, and did his Irish tenor routine at golf club dinners and trade fairs.

The chance to quit our day jobs came in June 1967. A Vancouver impresario named Fran Dowie heard Duffin and me performing at Sambo’s and booked us for a two-month summer gig at the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City. Duffin was to be the emcee, telling jokes, and doing some solo singing on stage. I would be in the pit, playing piano accompaniment as musical director. A second piano would be pushed out on stage when we did our ten-minute Dublin Rogues routine. By this time, Duffin and I had released our first album of Irish ballads, Off to Dublin in the Green, on the RCA Camden label.

The Dawson gig gave Duffin and me a great opportunity to expand our musical repertoire and create a tight show. Every night after the Palace Grand Theatre show we went over to the Westminster Hotel to play music in the bar until closing time. By the time we left Dawson we had developed enough Irish material to fill four one-hour sets without repeating ourselves. We quietly retired “Try to Remember” and the hits of The Sound of Music from our program, and in their place offered renditions of “The Garden Where the Praties Grow,” “Johnnie, I Hardly Knew Ye,” and “The Boston Burglar.” We drew simultaneously from the repertoires of the great Irish tenor John McCormack and the popular Irish folk group The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. That made it difficult for the music industry to pigeonhole us. We moved between the genteel Victorian drawing-room style of musical performance later depicted in the John Huston movie The Dead, and the raucous style of pub singing that one associates with the rhythm of clinking bottles and tapping feet. How do you categorize a hybrid like that? One minute we were all decanted port and pianos draped in brocade. The next, we were doing percussion with spoons (“stolen only from the finest restaurants,” quipped Duffin) and encouraging the crowd to shout out the words, “Fine girl, you are!” The record company and the radio stations called us a folk act. But we viewed ourselves as supper-club entertainment, as a Vegas-type act that should be featured on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Needless to say, we never made it onto Ed Sullivan. We never had a hit record to get us there. Instead, we went on the road, playing nightclubs in Ontario and Atlantic Canada until we got bored of touring. At that point, Duffin and I discussed the possibility of putting together a theatrical show based on the life of the booze-loving Irish playwright Brendan Behan, with Duffin impersonating Behan and me providing on-stage accordion accompaniment. But that would have taken goodness-knows how long to research and write, with no guarantee of getting any workshop money or production commitments when the show was ready for staging. It seemed too much of a gamble to me. I opted out of the project before it began. Duffin, to his credit, took the idea and ran with it. He developed the concept as a one-man show and later performed it to critical and audience acclaim throughout Canada and the United States. “Mr. Duffin, if not Behan, has given us a memorable evening,” said The New York Times.

I went into journalism after quitting the road, and Duffin carved out a successful career for himself in television and movies. He played the ring announcer in Raging Bull, a horse trainer in Seabiscuit and the bar owner in the early scenes of Titanic. We didn’t remain in touch over the years, but I admired his success from afar.

He died this morning in Los Angeles, of complications following recent heart surgery. I will miss him.

[Excerpted from my memoirs, to be published next year by RMB Books]