You probably know a guy like Billy Keenan and if you don’t, you probably wish you did.
Some of you might know him as the lead singer of both the Summerwind Band and the Prime Time Showband, where he peeled off riffs and rock with a broad smile that lit up venues and wedding receptions throughout the tri-state area.
He’s a proud Irish American and Fordham University grad who served his country overseas as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He’s a high school teacher that scores of youngsters, including his sons Patrick and Kieran, look up to.
An avid surfer, the wave of fate came down hard on Keenan on September 14 of last year when he suffered a tragic accident in the water that left him with severe spinal injuries. He is now unable to use his arms and legs, requiring 24 hour care.
“I was going down the Jersey Shore for the perfect late summer day to surf and then see my good friends in Celtic Cross, who were playing the Irish festival down there,” Keenan explains.
“My wife Noreen took the kids and went on the boardwalk and I took to the waves. Then this happened, and everything faded to black. I have no recollection, which is a tender mercy.
“I woke up 16 days later to this most grim reality. My arms and legs were useless to me and I was breathing on a ventilator. It’s hard to tell you what that was like; it was just pure and utter devastation.”
“We’re still trying to get our heads around the fact that this has happened and what the long term effects might be,” Keenan’s sister Gerri Geoghegan says.
“We have no idea where this road is going and that can be overwhelming. We are trying not to look at it as victims. We’re trying to navigate the kids toward that mentality. The kids are doing great now and we are just trying to keep that support for them going.”
The months since then have been punctuated by grueling rehabilitation sessions in hospitals, and the progress has been slow.
“I have been getting stronger. By January I was off the ventilator and since then, I have been trying to focus on what I can do versus what I can’t do,” Keenan says.
“I have always been very athletic. Music was a huge part of my life and playing is something I can’t do right now. There are days where I count my losses, and those days are hard. Now, I choose to count the blessings that I am alive.”
One of the things that’s gotten the family through has been the overwhelming support of family, neighbors and friends. Keenan’s wife Noreen calls them the “army of angels.”
Her parents have moved into her house so that the kids are cared for while she joins her husband in rehab. “I teach at North Rockland High School and that community has been amazing,” Keenan says. “They are contributing their sick time into my bank so I can be on rehabilitation longer.”
Maybe this is just an outpouring of love during difficult times, but perhaps it might be karma paying this kind soul back for his many years staging benefits for others?
“I’ve played benefits for the last 20 years since I left the army in 1993,” Keenan says. “I never wanted to say no to a benefit because I know people need help. You never think you would be on the receiving end of these things, and I am really seeing the kindness and goodness of humanity show up on my doorstep on a daily basis.
“The friends we make along the way have come to my aide, and what they have done for us in our time of need has been humbling and overwhelming.”
Indeed, the needs are great, including long term nursing needs.
“I desperately want to resume my teaching life but my injury was so bad that it is difficult to know if I will be back,” Keenan says. “When you’re the breadwinner of your family, that is a critical role.”
You can imagine the crush of medical bills and how quickly they can overwhelm a young family. Now is the time to help, when the Keenans need it most.
The Irish American community around New York has heard the call for help and answered it with a series of concerts and records to benefit the family as part of the #KeenanStrong charity.
He is adored by fellow musicians in the tight-knit Irish American community, including Kathleen Fee and the lads in Celtic Cross. They have organized a series of rocking events in early May to help the family keep their head above water.
The list of artists who answered the call for help is truly jaw-dropping: Eileen Ivers, Jameson’s Revenge, Joanie Madden, McLean Avenue Band, Girsa, Bergen Irish Pipe Band, Broken Banjo Strings, The Canny Brothers, Andy Cooney, Cunningham Brothers, Dennis Gallery and Celtic Justice, the Narrowbacks, NYPD Pipes and Drums, Primetime Showband, John Nolan, John Reynolds and Margie Mulvihill and the Verlin School of Irish Dance will all converge for the cause on the first weekend in May to make a difference in the lives of a family struggling to keep afloat in the face of these rough circumstances.
The concerts fan out over three venues. Saturday, May 3 finds Celtic Cross and the Narrowbacks headlining a show at Rory Dolan’s on McLean Avenue in Yonkers while the Canny Brothers and Cunningham Brothers lead a pack at the Irish American Center on Willis Avenue in Mineola, Long Island at the same time.
A Mass at noon begins the festivities at the German Masonic Park (Western Highway, Tappan, New York) in Rockland County on Sunday, May 4 followed by Ivers and Madden lending their fiddles and flutes to the cause.
Celtic Cross lead singer Fee says, "Every single person that walks through the door at these concerts, and everyone who had Billy play at their wedding or party over the years will buy this CD to hear Billy sing again. We Irish come together to help when it is most needed. In this case we coming together with music."
Celtic Cross’s bassist Patrick Dineen has been rushing to finish a CD of songs that Keenan was working on prior to his accident. He has assembled Jimmy Kelly, Buddy Connolly, John Reynolds, Margie Mulvihill, John Nolan, and his mates from Celtic Cross to be Keenan’s backup band in these recording sessions.
“I recorded the basic tracks Easter week in 2012 with my keyboard player and a local drummer,” Keenan says. “I did the vocals on it as well, never thinking that I would get the wish list I got to come together and finish this.
“It was true to my vision and I wouldn’t change a note. It’s above and beyond what I thought it would be. They made me sound really, really good. It’s the greatest backup band in the world!”
"We needed one more song, something that we could make a rallying song for #KeenanStrong," said Connolly of the idea of recording the recent Alternate Roots hit "Nothing More" featured in the Sochi Olympics.
The Connecticut-based pop act, currently on tour with Ingrid Michaelson, agreed. "They couldn't have said yes faster to give us permission to record their song for Billy,” Connolly said.
Keenan is working hard to get stronger every day for his family. We need to work hard for them right now. You can make a donation by clicking “donate” located on the home page at www.keenanstrong.org.
Checks can be made out to Billy Keenan to 169 S. Main Street, # 397, New City, New York 10956.
I just donated the proceeds I made from the column you are reading now to this cause, and if you’ve ever gotten enjoyment from reading this page, I humbly ask you to give what you can. Please come out and support the shows if you can. If you can’t, you can make a donation with your Paypal account as well by logging onto www.keenanstrong.org.