Former Congressman Joe Crowley shares a story about how music and a shared heritage can connect us, despite political differences.
I recently learned of the passing of a fellow former Congressman from Pennsylvania. His name was Michael Fitzpatrick. Michael had long battles with various cancers and succumbed to them on January 6th of this year.
Congressman Fitzpatrick was a Republican from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. He was first elected in 2004, and then was defeated by a buddy of mine Patrick Murphy the following election. They had a couple of “donnybrooks” down there in Bucks County, and Fitzpatrick would ultimately best Murphy in 2010 and hold his seat until he retired at the end of 2016.
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2016, that remarkable year! After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, I was in a fog. The world seemed disjointed to me. I had a sense that the world would not be the same. I was right. Whether a supporter of President Trump, or a detractor, like me, our world has certainly changed.
I needed a bit of respite and fell back to an old friend, music.
I had recently written a song about my wife Kasey and our family and the distress that I was feeling in my life, so I contacted a friend up in Philly, Gabriel Donohue.
Gabe is a renowned artist. He has performed over the years with the likes of the Clancy Brothers and the Chieftains. I trusted Gabe enough to open myself up and record that song called “Through This World.”
As we were wrapping up I had some spare time and I asked Gabe if I could record one of my favorite songs as a young boy. One that always hit me when I heard it. It was “Lovely Leitrim.” I have no direct family lineage to that inland Irish county (my family is from Armagh, Louth and Cavan), still I had a romantic image of Leitrim through that song.
In more recent years I learned more about the origins of the song. For instance, it was originally written as a poem by an Irish American New Yorker who had come to “the states” for a new life. He came to America in the early 20th Century, as did my grandfather Edward Crowley. Like many young Irishmen at that time, they both became police officers in New York City.
I will never know if they ever met, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. That young Leitrim man had written the ode longing to return to his native homeland having seen a great deal of his adopted home, but never fully reconciled with it. I later learned that his story was cut short after he was killed responding to a stick up at a bar on the upper east side.
But the story didn’t end there. That poem was taken and put to song by one of Ireland’s great singers, Larry Cunningham. When it was released, in the summer of 1965, it was #1 for several weeks in Ireland. Keep in mind that this was at the height of The Beatles!
For my rendition, I had taken the song and rearranged it from the Cunningham waltz version to more of a ballad form. With the genius of Gabriel, I was very pleased with how it came out. For me it was a form of therapy. Trying to piece together the political world around me. My own deep regard for the immigrants amongst us and their yearning to make a mark in America.
A week later, I found myself in the back of the House of Representative Chamber waiting for the final votes to be called in the Obama “Lame Duck” session when I looked over my shoulder to see Mike Fitzpatrick. Mike had been away from Congress recovering from recent surgery. These would be his last votes on the Floor before his retirement. His brother Brian would be filling his seat having won the general election that November.
I turned to Mike and said, “Mike, I’ve known you for a few years now but I never asked you where your people were from back in Ireland.” Mike responded, “Well Joe, most of my people were from Leitrim.” I responded by saying, “I just came back from recording one of my all time favorite songs, “Lovely Leitrim!” Mike looked at me and said, “Joe, my grand-uncle wrote that song.”
I was tongue tied. It was a surreal moment for me. A chill came over me.
Despite our political differences, we enjoyed a relationship of dignity and we were always jovial with each other. A shared connection, through a song and heritage that meant so much to Mike and me. After our conversation on the Floor, Mike asked if I could send him my version of the song, he wanted to share it with his dad. I later received an email from his dad proclaiming, “My uncle would have liked your version!”
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I am grateful for the years I spent in the House of Representatives. But it is this story that will be remembered when all else fades. A “God moment” when I had that conversation in the back of the House Chamber in 2016.
We are all very aware of the breakdown in civility and political discourse in our country. It will certainly take enormous efforts to restore our nation and bind the wounds. Maybe, this little story can rekindle the flames and forge that bond again.
May God rest your soul Mike Fitzpatrick, and your grand-uncle Philip’s too.