This week veteran Irish Voice columnist Mike Farragher releases This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks, a series of columns on his Irish American background and the lessons he’s learned from being Irish. He talks to CAHIR O’DOHERTY about the new collection and the unexpected discoveries he made as a weekly columnist that have enriched his life.
The Irish are never happy until they’re miserable, and they don’t know real contentment until they’re dead.
Just ask Mike Farragher, 44, the longtime Irish Voice music columnist, because he knows all about it.
That ambiguous cultural inheritance that looks on love and human happiness as it braces for the approaching meteorite, is something he was handed long before he knew what to do with it.
Not that he’s complaining, far from it. As his new, often howlingly funny collection of stories titled This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks makes clear, there’s real value in casting a cold eye on life and death, as long as you know when to ease up and have some craic, too.
A signature music columnist at the Irish Voice for over a decade, Farragher has had the enviable job of meeting the legends of Irish rock, punk and pop music and finding himself right at the coalface of Irish culture. It’s an experience that has enriched him; in fact, as he quietly makes clear, it’s been transformational.
“My mom and dad are amazing people, and when my columns were first coming out in the Irish Voice they weren’t super thrilled,” says Farragher, with dry understatement.
“They felt I was just airing my dirty laundry in public. But since that time they’ve really come to know what my columns and this book are really about -- which is honoring them, and Irish culture. If I hadn’t written it who would have?”
That’s a good question, as it happens. “My parents were farmers,” Farragher adds. “I do not have an English degree, there was nothing in my genetic code or my experiences at school that say writer. Really, if I could do this anyone can.”
But growing up in Jersey City in the seventies and eighties, Farragher had no time for the trappings of Irish culture as he originally knew it. It wasn’t until bands like Black 47 and Afro Celt Sound System turned him on to the punk echoes lurking under the trad bonnet in the nineties that he began to see the point of Irish music at all.
So he was a gradual, not an instant convert. But first he had to divest himself of his corporate life (and the paychecks that went with it). A growing dissatisfaction with the demands of the business word was gradually pushing him toward a new career path as a working music journalist, with all the crazy perks that go along with it.
But if you’d told him it would change his life he would have scoffed at you. He didn’t like Irish music, any of it, and he would have said so.
“It was torture, that’s what I thought. I would have been voted least likely to become an Irish music columnist. I really didn’t like the Clancy Brothers or anything like that,” he said.
“It wasn’t until I heard the Pogues and Black 47. Because they were able to introduce elements of punk and rock and hip-hop they were able to give me back my culture in a language I understood.”
Being inspired by the likes of Shane MacGowan and Larry Kirwan led Farragher to look into the music that in turn had inspired them.
“What’s really cool about doing my column is that I can sometimes get the opportunity to thank the people that gave me my culture. If it wasn’t for people like the Pogues and Black 47 I would never have fallen in love with my culture in the first place,” he says.
The day that changed everything for Farragher was the day he packed it all in. One day in his job in the health care industry he closed a three quarter million deal. He popped the check in his briefcase and left the meeting. But he felt nothing, good or bad.
“After they signed the check I went downstairs and I bought an Irish Voice and I saw an ad in the paper for a music columnist. I forgot to place the order for the medical equipment they’d just ordered -- I just ran home and wrote the cover letter to the Voice,” he said.
“If a sale that big was in my briefcase and it wasn’t lighting me up anymore, it was time to change my life. So this column was more than a column for me, it gave me an access to self-expression that wasn’t already there.”
Almost from the outset he became aware of a generational difference between the Irish America of his parents’ generation and his own. Helpfully though, he met other Irish writers who knew all about it.
“When I interviewed Frank McCourt when he had published Teacher Man, his follow up to Angela’s Ashes, I told him that I first picked up my pen because of his book. He was kind about it because he really knew about the differences between Irish America and the native born Irish,” he said.
Farragher told McCourt that if he mentioned his name at the Thanksgiving dinner table he would get a lot of dirty looks because Farragher’s family thought McCourt was full of it.
“His response was that the Irish who come over here end up with a nostalgic, warped view of what Ireland is. For my parents’ generation the Catholic Church was not just a religion, it’s also their cultural identity and their social life,” Farragher says.
“When the Irish came to America and they wanted a taste of home I think the church could provide them with it. I do not have the same viewpoint as my parents do with my faith. I see it as something very different.”
A longtime columnist for the Voice, when Farragher found himself filled with the desire to tell some of the stories from my own life he set out on a path that has resulted in the collection This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks.
“It was just sort an experiment to begin with and I ran a new column in the Voice called ‘Narrowback’s Corner.’ But right away I started getting emails and calls and posts on Facebook from people saying, ‘This is my life too.’ It resonated for them and it just encouraged me to keep on.”
One of the things that Farragher can do like no other is reflect on the Irish American experience and all the baggage that comes with it (good and bad). Alongside the humor -- and there’s lots of it -- Farragher also makes room for the struggles and sorrows of life too.
“The more honest you are about yourself the better the writing is. The Irish have often been concerned with or rebelling against the concern about what the neighbors will think. I could give a s*** about that,” he says.
“My parents have always been worried about that but I’m over it. My kids are going to read this book someday. They’re going to know exactly who their father is from it -- and my grandchildren if I’m lucky enough to see them.”
Farragher attended his first ever book signing over the weekend, and the response showed him he’s onto a winner.
“To have a room full of strangers laughing hard at your work was terrific. I’m still on a high over it. It’s just one guy’s experience and one view of Irish America that is funny and thought provoking, but when you read it and put it together you’ll get a sense of who I am.”
Meanwhile, when Farragher’s mother heard about the new book she feared she’d be the target of an Angela’s Ashes style takedown. But what she saw and heard at the book signing has caused her to reconsider.
Farragher has an instinct why she’s had a change of heart. “After they read the book everyone wants to meet my mother. I told her over the weekend that she’s going to be the real star of the show, not me.”
Farragher will read from This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks at Fiddleheads Restaurant in Jamesburg, New Jersey on March 8. He will read at the New York Public Library in Staten Island on April 16 and the New York Public Library in Woodlawn on April 26. To attend or to order the book visit www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com
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