You don’t want to ask Larry Kirwan whether he’s Irish. He’s the front man for a band called Black 47, and if you’ve seen its very popular ”Funky Ceili” video on MTV, you know the song’s chorus is a hard-rocking Irish reel. And fast-talking Kirwan, 36, with his Irish brogue, seems typecast as the irresistible Hibernian no-good who ends up in New York, thinking of his girl back home ”whenever I’m sober, which isn’t too often, I have to confess.”
Of course, she was pregnant, and her father wanted to castrate him, so why wouldn’t he drink? And what’s a ”ceili” (pronounced KAY-lee), anyway? According to Kirwan, it’s a traditional Irish rave, more or less, with folk music and dancing: ”We used to go to them to kick up hell.”
As Kirwan recalls this, he’s about to go kick up hell again, on the stage of Paddy Reilly’s, an Irish bar in New York City, where, despite its growing MTV fame, Black 47 still plays to jammed houses twice a week. The crowd shouts along with Kirwan’s pledge (in a song called ”Maria’s Wedding”) to his former Italian girlfriend in Brooklyn: ”I’ll even” — ”NO!” screams the entire club — ” I’ll even go out and get a job for you!” The wildly romantic music is thrown together like a mad rock-rap-reggae-Irish improvisation for an improbable group of instruments: trombone, soprano sax, both drums and drum machine, Irish uileann bagpipes, and Kirwan’s scorching guitar.
Ask Kirwan whether ”Funky Ceili” is his story, and he responds with a disquisition on two literary ”magic realists,” Henry Miller and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The story is an archetype, he says, based on things that might have happened. Kirwan, an active playwright, is also intensely political. The group takes its name from one of Ireland’s many calamities, the potato famine of 1847, and ”Funky Ceili” hints at the limited choices women face in Ireland, a land where abortion and divorce are outlawed.
But Black 47 is, above all, a party band. ”I’ve seen them 90 times,” says Robert Evitt, an Irish-American stockbroker. ”I used to go every week, but my liver gave out six months ago. So it’s every other week now.”