A Few Minutes With… Larry Kirwan of Black 47

September 11th, 2014, 3:00 pm by Greg
Black 47

Larry Kirwan (right) and Black 47

Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Photograph by Kirsten Ferguson

Facing death straight in the eye clears one’s head in a heartbeat. If it’s the possible death of your child, the focus is even sharper. “You think, holy shit, you make a wrong move, and your kids are gonna die. That’s a big one,” says Larry Kirwan, leader of the Celtic rock band Black 47 performing Saturday afternoon at the 18th annual Irish 2000 Festival of Music & Arts at the Saratoga County Fairgrounds in Ballston Spa.

Black 47 takes its name from the worst year of the Irish potato famine, 1847. Their instrumentation includes uillean pipes and bodhran, and they address issues relating to Irish as well as American politics. They are one of the few contemporary rock bands that don’t blink when it comes to the politics of war. “When we were doing the Iraq album and playing it during the war, we’d do a lot of colleges or a certain amount of them during the course of the year and for three years, 2003 to 2006, it was a nightmare in bars and everything. Even colleges didn’t give a fuck (as long as) they could dance to it. They really didn’t.

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“The only way I used to get a rise out of them is I’d off-handedly say, ‘I’m sorry, but the draft is coming back in this afternoon. It’s gonna be tough on you guys.’ Then I’d go into the next song. And this rumor would spread through the crowd. It was wildfire. It was like everyone was listening to what you were gonna say on the next song.”

Black 47’s core audience includes those men and women who choose the military as an occupation at a time when facing death is a gamble they feel is worth the effort in a world of limited life options. Kirwan is not a war monger, but he separates his judgments towards our fighting men and women from those about politicians who make the decisions to go to war.

“We were against the (Iraqi) war for various reasons. Our fans were the ones going over there doing the fighting because we don’t have an upper middle class following. It tends to be working class, lower middle class, but it tends to be our demographic to a large degree, and they’re the ones who would be in the National Guard or who were gone for a week or a month or people who just didn’t have jobs and would go into the Army for a skill or whatever. They were our people, and we realized it wasn’t really the Clintons or the Bushes who were doing the fighting. It was our people.”

As a Vietnam veteran, I am pleased that Kirwan’s positive attitude toward our troops is more universal today than it was when I returned home. Nevertheless, there is a certain irony in this fundamental change in the public psyche that he represents.

I had no choice other than fleeing the country when I was told to go to Vietnam, and when I came home I was looked upon as damaged goods. I’m sure that many who make their own decision to join the military today feel trapped by circumstances as much as they are motivated by patriotism.

The irony is that most of the rest of the population gives little thought to what the United States is doing to these people who face multiple deployments, mental stress and physical maiming in the name of world politics. Many in our society today express our appreciation to those who make the ultimate sacrifices for us, but is that appreciation merely lip service? I wonder if we look hard enough at our leaders’ motivations when we rubber stamp their war efforts at the polling place.

On the other hand, “(Those) who do the fighting get educated really quickly. They get doctorates within a month,” explains Kirwan. He sees American media as complicit in numbing us down to the horrible reality we face globally.

“Ireland is a small country so you’re getting the news pretty quickly, and there are uninformed people in Ireland the same as anywhere else, but it seems to be really possible here (in the United States) to go your whole life and never give a political thought. That’s not the case in Ireland. Politics is just much closer to the vein over there and to the bone.

“I think (the United States is not like that) because television is the way it’s done over here. It’s less state run so you don’t get as much news. You don’t get as much objective news. You’re getting news from Fox or from MSNBC, and it’s coming with a slant all the time. I hate it. Even though I am more or less left wing, but I wouldn’t watch the anti-Foxes because I don’t need that news.

“I need the raw, unfiltered news, and I want to make up my own mind. I don’t want people to be telling me what I should be thinking, and unfortunately with the internet now you can sign up for whatever you like and get your own news, the news that you want to hear. It’s awful. With the demise of newspapers it’s going to get worse before it gets better. It’ll take a war where the draft comes again, I guess, (to get people to pay attention).”

As United States citizens, we rightfully defend to the death our freedom to speak our own mind, but that freedom carries with it a responsibility to be informed and to tell our leaders what we want. Too many of us lull ourselves into complacency and search out what news we do listen to based on our news sources feeding us the version of reality that we most want to hear. Having faced sectarian warfare in Northern Ireland, Kirwan has a different slant on the United States’ actions worldwide.

“You can’t have a foreign nation coming in and invading ’cause one thing I’ve found from being in Ireland is (nobody) likes invaders even if they’re do-good invaders. When you start to call people terrorists and you blacken them in that way, even though they may be people just defending their neighborhoods, it’s a really tricky situation. But I say the political finesse you have to get dealing with tricky situations like that situation that was in Ireland enables you to look at a situation in Iraq in a lot clearer way.

“You’re not listening to Fox News or MSNBC. You’re not influenced by partisans on either side. You think, holy shit, you make a wrong move, and your kids are gonna die. That’s a big one. And (Black 47’s) fans are gonna be the ones doing the dying for us. So far, ISIS hasn’t attacked the United States, you know?”

Kirwan believes that a foreign power like the United States cannot solve the problems in the world’s hot spots.

“From history (I’ve learned that if) you take out the guy who is holding the place together much as you’d like him to step down, he’s holding the Shiites and the Sunis together and the Kurds together. Those things have to happen organically.

I must admit, I get a chill when I’m asked as a veteran to stand up and be applauded for making a sacrifice for my country, but I’m a lucky one. I made it home alive and in one piece.

Do those who died for a cause hear the applause?

The 18th annual Irish 2000 Festival of Music & Arts takes place at the Saratoga County Fairgrounds in Ballston Spa on Friday & Saturday. The event boasts of being one of the country’s top five such ethnic festivals, attracting 15,000 people. There are three stages, and the headliners are the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Black 47, who are in the midst of their 25th anniversary and their farewell tour, are slated to perform at 4pm on Saturday.

WHAT: The Irish 2000 Music & Arts Festival
WHO: The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Solas, Black 47, the McKrells, Frank Jaklitsch, Shadowlands, more
WHEN: Friday & Saturday (September 12 & 13)
WHERE: Saratoga County Fairgrounds, Ballston Spa
HOW MUCH: $20 at the gate on Friday; $25 at the gate on Saturday; FREE children age 12 and under