A Jig Before Dying

About the Book

Back home in San Francisco after a year in Dublin, computer engineer Niall Sweeney enjoys a pleasant routine working in a bank and fiddling at night in an Irish bar. Suddenly, he is the target of a vicious and insane bar-room assault at the hands of a near-stranger. But Sweeney’s troubles really begin when he discovers the mutilated body of his attacker outside, opened like a can of sardines.

Horrifying coincidences crash down on Sweeney. Baffled, he is fingered by the police as the link connecting the murder with a complex IRA banking scam and a deadly London bombing. With the help of his wife Rose, a brilliant college literature professor, Sweeney tries to keep one step ahead of both the police and a malevolent shadowy stranger while searching desperately for the truth.

While Sweeney hunts among the bar musicians for the murderer, discovering only smoldering fear, secret affairs and a bartender who is far from what he seems to be, Rose launches off in another, seemingly crazy direction, convinced that the secret can be found in the murdered man’s obsession with a haunting thousand-year-old Irish poem-The Legend of Mad Sweeney.

Rose is first to stumble upon the bizarre truth. A tale of international complexity, cruelty and coincidence unfolds – a tale of a paid IRA informer’s flight from retribution, a brutal rape, multiple identities, twisted Catholic guilt, not one but two murder weapons, and… the impossible clue that connects it all… the not-so-mythical Mad Sweeney himself.

Rose learns, to her horror, that by revealing the strange solution to the mystery she would destroy the lives of half a dozen innocent people. The final decision about what to do is made for her by the sinister shadow man in a terrifying and deadly climax. But to save her husband, Rose must give the police a solution to the murder that is as believable as it is completely wrong.

   “Tell me again why you’re serving hand-ground French roast in china cups to the idiots upstairs while we have to squeeze this umbrella water out of a Coffee Max machine,” complained PC Jarvis to the hotel concierge.

     “Don’t ask me,” shrugged the pouting, sloe-eyed young Indian woman leaning against the machine. “I wanted nothing to do with this summit deal. You can blame that wanker Weldon as usual. He’s the one who insisted it be held here. Brilliant timing, too, with half the office being renovated and most of the front desk out with the flu. You’re lucky the Coffee Max still works.”

     Jarvis felt bored and left out. He’d only been in the grand meeting hall long enough for the last security sweep. Then it was back to his crummy desk in the command center long before the escorted limousines pulled into the marble entryway. The Brighton International Hotel’s plush suites and spidery, arched corridors might well be among England’s most acclaimed architectural wonders, but the staff facilities were positively Dickensian in their unfinished confusion.

     “So what do you suppose they’re up to now?” he asked, not really caring.

     “God only knows,” replied the concierge. “Just so they stop scaring away our regular clientèle. Can’t wait to see the back of them.”

     Jarvis nodded his head of tousled blond hair and tried to balance four paper coffee cups on his clipboard. The young Brighton Police constable had never drawn security duty at any government meeting before, let alone one as highly touted and publicized as this Commonwealth Economic Summit. But besides a couple of crank IRA bomb threats, it was all just long hours and three nights in a row without seeing his girl. And bad coffee.

     “Well, I guess it’s back to the nerve center,” he said sarcastically. “Maybe next time we can get a room with a jacuzzi.”

     “Not with Deputy Secretary Weldon running things, you won’t,” smiled the concierge. “High-handed old so-and-so. Where do they dig up these old government fossils? What was it the Guardian said about him yesterday? Nothing he attempts is ever well done? Ha. I only hope he doesn’t bore them all to death before the press conference. What is it? A couple hours yet?” She glanced at her watch.

     Jarvis just grinned darkly and maneuvered his luke-warm coffees down the service hall toward the room off the main lobby where the police security post had been set up. As he pushed through the door he was nearly knocked over by another uniformed policeman lunging for his radio.

     “Where’s the fire, Fred?” he cried, slopping coffee halfway across the nearest desk.

     “It’s Doomsday Paddy callin’ again,” snarled Detective Sergeant Crook with his hand clamped over the telephone mouthpiece. “Jerrold, do you think you could manage a trace this time?”

     PC Jerrold vaulted cat-like over the back of the desk to begin tapping expertly at the computer terminal.

     “Just keep him talking this time, damn it,” snapped the thin young man at the computer under his breath. The room grew suddenly quiet, with all three uniformed officers intent on the Sergeant’s half of the conversation.

     “Yes, I recognize your voice,” he drawled comfortably. “I can’t say I appreciate those last two calls much, though… What do you think I told ‘em? I mean, why ring to tell me there’s a bomb in the hotel if it’s just a load of bollocks? Why’d you ring again this morning? Just to yank my bloody chain?…”


     “Yeah, yeah, very clever… But what was all that about it all goin’ up at three fifty-six? Maybe your watch needs winding…”

     “Almost. Close by, wherever he is. Just another few seconds.”

     “Nothin’ yesterday, nothin’ today… Get your story straight, man. Think we got nothin’ better to do than sweep the same damn conference room every four hours for imaginary bombs just for you?”

     “Got ‘im,” hissed the policeman at the computer. “Right in the building. Car park phone box, street level.” Jumping out of his seat, he spun around for orders to see that the Sergeant’s face had suddenly gone deathly white.

  “Sir? Go for him, sir? Car park?” The young man looked over in disbelief as Sergeant Crook placed the handset back in its cradle. The sergeant sat for a long moment as if set in quick-drying cement, then leaped up and bolted for the door.

     “The bastard knew they’d changed rooms. Forget the car park. Clear the street! Now!” he shouted as he ran out jacketless into the wide hotel foyer and sprinted for the escalator while fumbling for the radio at his belt. The three constables scattered toward the east, north, and west entrances where a few more officers lounged along the barricades, keeping the public and press at a comfortable distance from the five cabinet ministers and twenty-eight industrial leaders meeting for another numbing harangue over trade barriers between Commonwealth members and the new, improved European Community.

     Jarvis stumbled onto the pavement and shot glances quickly left and right before running across four lanes to the ITV crew gathered around the remote television van.

     “All of you—move away from here at once,” he shouted, sweeping his arm toward the far street corner. “No questions,” he barked at the open-mouthed reporter holding a microphone. “Just move. Leave the van. All the way down there. Now!” The few scattered pedestrians not involved with newscasting took the cue and began hurrying away, shooting worried looks over their shoulders.

     Jarvis looked back nervously at the five-story hotel, its sleekly modern stone and glass façade stretching the width of the city block. What had the Sergeant said? He knew? The cold, Irish voice on the phone, the voice that had taunted the Brighton police with empty bomb threats for two days since the summit meeting began, knew that the final session had moved. Impossible. Nobody knew. But had anyone swept the other conference hall since yesterday? Damned if he had the slightest idea.

     His eyes counted the windows on the top floor from the left—five, six, there it was—the curtained room where the final agreements were being signed. Sergeant Crook would be there by now.

     As he reached down for his radio the entire street blossomed in a searing yellow flash. The blinding shock wave lifted him off the sidewalk as if he were no more substantial than a leaf and drove him splintering through a display window a bare instant ahead of a shower of rubble and glass and the sound of worlds ending.

     Screams echoed through the whirling dust. Jarvis couldn’t see. As he choked on acrid smoke he was almost shocked to realize that he was still breathing. Yet with this realization came another. He couldn’t move either of his arms. With a stab of white-hot agony he strained to turn his head. His left arm was a mangled, red mass. Quite useless. And the blood was pooling quickly.

     Blinking away the pain he turned to his right. Across the street he could just make out the hotel, the top two floors entirely ripped away as if by some gigantic clawed beast. The last thing he focused on was the bulky object that had landed on top of him, crushing his right arm. It was Sergeant Crook—or most of him—judging from the uniform and shirt sleeves, anyway. Funny, thought Jarvis as he lost consciousness, the sergeant sailing all the way across the street without his head.

     Two blocks away from the seafront carnage a neatly dressed man stopped casually in front of the Anglo-Irish Bank and inserted a card into the automated teller machine. Ignoring the choices offered, he entered ten digits, then held down the pound sign and hit “1.” The words “Priority Transfer” appeared. He entered eight digits. The numbers vanished. He entered eight more. The screen asked “Would you like this transfer in U.S. dollars?”

     “Bloody well right, I would,” he muttered, touching another few buttons and retrieving his card. Expressionless he turned, lit a cigarette, and ambled down the street away from the rising wail of sirens.

 Sweeney slammed his foot down onto the brake and squealed to a stop four inches from the tail lights of a wet black Chrysler.

     “Blasted city drivers,” he grumbled, reaching down to retrieve first his fiddle case and then the upended brown leather valise, now emptied onto the floor in a hopelessly scrambled pile of music sheets and a dozen or so compact disk jewel boxes. The traffic’s headlights paraded jerkily through the wet, streaked windshield as Sweeney blinked into yet another soggy San Francisco evening. He tapped the steering wheel, annoyed.

     Several blocks away there was a warm pub full of people he knew playing tunes he knew and drinking beer he could almost taste. And he was stuck in traffic behind some brain-dead New Age driver who had forgotten which pedal would move his car forward. And the guy was probably a teetotaller in the bargain. Sweeney leaned his head back and closed his eyes, shutting out San Francisco and trying not to tap his fingers.

Dublin is a pencil drawing
Quayside fading, twilight falling
Oh, summer nights
Clean shirt well worth waiting for
The bus is late but so’s the hour
Oh, summer nights

     The song he’d first heard in Flannery’s Bar two years before popped in out of nowhere and proceeded to unravel itself in his head. It was as though a soft voice had spoken up, reminding him to relax a little.

     “You’ve got to learn to enjoy being late, Niall.” Brian Patrick Byrne’s advice floated back to him. Of course, his Dublin friend’s counsel was accompanied by a pint of Guinness two hours after closing time. Yes, at least in Dublin there were demonstrable advantages to procrastination.

     “You’ve got to relax,” said Byrne. “No point in feelin’ guilty. That’s right out. And it’s your fiddlin’ that’ll suffer first, ye know,” he exhaled a slowly uncurling helix of smoke through his dark, randomly arranged teeth.

     “How’s that?” said Sweeney with a bemused expression as he lowered his pint and wiped the untrimmed ends of his sandy moustache. He had never considered himself to be one for needless suffering.

     “Sure, it’s the soul of the man as comes out in his music, as you very well know. What consumes the player? What passions are breathin’ in him? Why does he bother playin’ a tune in the pub at all? The music comin’ out the fingers is the music in…” he paused for effect, taking another drag from the pinched cigarette end held between square, calloused fingers and staring off into space. Tinker’s light blue eyes in a dark face. “…in the soul. It’s the music’ll tell a man’s passion as if it was carved on his forehead.”

     “Assuming there’s any passion there to express in the first place.”

     “Well, so there ye are. But if there’s none, it isn’t music then, is it? It’s just a lot of notes. Like your man sawin’ away all summer at the sessions and festivals in Doolin and Milltown and Ennis. You’re safe, mind. There’s somethin’ of the honest session man in ye.”

     Sweeney coughed rather than commenting in the face of this parade of sage pronouncements. “Come now, Brian. You telling me you can pick a man’s driving passion by hearing him fiddle? Christ, you’d never know. There’d have to be thousands of driving bloody passions… at least as many as there are fiddlers.”

      “Not at all.” Tilting his head sideways, Sweeney’s companion watched as another blue-gray spiral of smoke worked its way up from his pursed lips to the shadows above. “I figure there’s only six. As make any difference, that is.” He leaned back and counted on his fingers.

     “Ye got your love and hate. Ye got your madness and faith in God—which may in actual fact be the same thing. Then ye got your whiskey. And finally ye got your guilt. Now a man can generate some lovely music wit’ a push from any of the first five, but your guilt’ll come out soundin’ sour every time. Bloody Cat’lic intrusion in the sensible pagan scheme o’ things. No use for it at all.”

     Sweeney suppressed the urge to dissect Byrne’s little speech in any of the three or four obvious ways that leapt to mind. But a poor American visitor to Dublin hadn’t a prayer of winning an argument with the likes of Byrne, who had spent the better part of his life learning to wield English like a switchblade in the pubs along the Liffey.

 “So that’s your point, is it? It’s enjoy being late and lighten up or sound the guilty fiddler, eh? Oh well, we can’t have that.”

     “I was makin’ no point,” Byrne tossed off vaguely. “But that’s about the size of it. It’s like from little acorns, boyo. My advice would be to avoid it entirely.”

     “Then what about a motivating passion? I suppose I should have one, shouldn’t I? That is, if I can manage to avoid guilt when in the clutches of my Muse. What, oh what shall it be?”

     “Well now, I’d say your choice is either love or whiskey, since ye ain’t quite mad enough to make it sound inspired and we both know that faith in God hasn’t done much for ye.” He winked.

     “Although,” he added quietly, “I’ll own I’ve heard men as have played for plain hate so’s you wouldn’t ever forget it.” He dropped the pinched cigarette end from between his amber colored fingers and ground it dead under the toe of his shoe. “They just don’t seem to be able to play that way for very long.”

     Sweeney pulled himself back to the here and now of the drizzly San Francisco evening. The windshield wipers flipped back and forth in soft, six-eight jig time. He opened his eyes, noticing that his fingers were drumming complex counter-rhythms to the soft sound. He gripped the wheel tightly and stared out at the evening, thinking how similar were the faces of San Francisco and Dublin on nights like this.

     Come to think of it, the whole day reminded him of his year in Dublin. Wetter than expected. Colder than expected. Business appointments missed and little things left undone. In Dublin one always missed appointments and left things undone. He remembered being amazed initially at the casual Irish grace with which the urgent could be indefinitely deferred. And urgency had supposedly been the whole reason he and his colleagues had been sent to Ireland.

     It seemed merely silly in retrospect that some financial hotshot had convinced the Anglo-Irish Bank that they should try a daring, if fleeting leap ahead of the Americans into the forefront of the banking industry, installing automated teller machines on Dublin street corners that could not only spit out ten pound notes but could handle foreign stock trades and mutual fund investments for American tourists. Of course, these corners had historically been reserved for the nuns brandishing their Catholic Charities collection cans, as Sweeney could have told them, had they bothered to ask. But Sweeney was only a mid-level engineer whose views on what was needed on Dublin street corners were neither solicited nor considered, even though he had logged more time wandering around Ireland than had his entire Board of Directors.

     So, Sweeney and a knot of fellow engineers had been flown in for a projected month of installation, system tweaking, and training. When little had progressed in three months the conviction grew in Sweeney’s admittedly contrary mind that automated tellers catering to Type-A Americans would never catch on in Ireland. Still nothing had progressed in six months and he was certain in his heart of hearts that he knew why: the Irish people were born with an innate, fundamental resistance toward any business transaction that did not offer an opportunity for lengthy conversation. Teller machines of any kind, efficient and taciturn, didn’t have a prayer.

     Sweeney had tried once or twice to impress this idea upon the home office. Failing in this, he decided instead to spend as much time as possible playing music in Flannery’s Bar, awaiting inevitable failure and the call to come back home. His colleagues never did get the hang of Irish ways, sad to say, nor were they that keen on pubs. So, while Sweeney came to accept the speed at which things didn’t get done in Dublin, the others degenerated into an unhappy collective lump of sheer exasperation. Finally, as Irish techniques of deferral began to take on aspects of high art to Sweeney, the bank gave up, the contract was scuttled, the engineers were sent packing, and the street corners were left to the nuns.

 So now here he was, back home in traffic, doing exactly what he’d promised himself he wouldn’t do any more. Wound tight after a bad day at work, willing to surrender to his Muse, and yet feeling guilty. And for what? Accomplishing virtually nothing all day… again? Fighting Old Man Berenson’s antiquated decision-making system to two falls out of three… again? Being late for a session… again? How silly. Upstairs at Flannery’s Brian would have had him shrugging off such a thought in no time as an amusingly alien concept. But that was two years ago, and that was Dublin. Well, it had been a hard day. Now more than anything he needed a beer.

     The black Chrysler still stood frozen in the street ahead under wet, twinkling lights. Sweeney closed his eyes.

     How he hated driving in San Francisco. But he put up with it as a grueling necessity. Not so in the Irish capital. He’d flatly refused to sit behind the wheel anywhere in Dublin’s sweet chaos. The apparent Irish shortage of brain-dead New Age drivers had not made the looming menace of traffic measurably less harrowing for him. Whenever possible he’d opted for the company and imagined safety of the crowded sidewalks. In and out, through the wide selection of rotten weather, he’d march to the bank offices in Grafton Street or flit across the footbridge to the pub sessions and home again after closing time, fiddle case in gloved fingers, cap pulled down to his fair, bristling eyebrows, white breath dancing ahead of him over the cobblestones.

     The windshield wipers had somehow shifted into hornpipe rhythm. Sweeney opened his eyes.

     Looking again through the bleary glass he saw the door of the Chrysler open abruptly and a figure emerge to raise the hood. Craning his neck sideways, he saw that the rest of the traffic had cleared, leaving only the dead Chrysler between him and the session. Sweeney felt his impatience get the better of him. He pulled around the now double-parked car a little faster and closer than was absolutely necessary, and glowered toward the figure now looking up from the engine compartment. A elderly woman with a sagging neck and bleached Tammy Faye Bakker hair gazed over toward him in blank bewilderment. New Age? Not a chance. He shook his head and drove off.

     Sweeney angled around the corner of Clement and Tenth and nosed into a parking space halfway down the long block. He nudged forward, kissed the bumper of the next car, stopped and surveyed the legality of his work. Only a foot of his car extended into the driveway of a pink Art Deco row house. Painted to resemble an attentive regiment of pastel peppermints, the house and its nearly identical neighbors faded as far as he could see on down the street.

     “Close enough,” he nodded to himself, kicking the bumper for good measure. Truly a stroke of luck at nine o’clock on a Friday night.

     Emerging into the chilly evening he inventoried his pockets, dropped his keys into one of them, and reached back in to tidy the pile of CDs onto the seat. His own face stared up at him from each jewel box, below the lettered name “Niall Sweeney” and above the title Among the Nightingales. The youthful, almost unlined face on the booklet made an attempt to smile and look sincere as hell at the same time. The photographer had made Sweeney’s well-trimmed sandy moustache appear a little bushier than it really was. He’d missed the eyes, though. In the photo they appeared several shades darker than their actual cornflower blue. Proudly, he patted the CDs; all shrink-wrapped, shiny and new. He’d taken to having a few with him most of the time, just in case… well, just in case. He kicked the door closed, tucked the untidy black fiddle case under his left arm and stretched to his full six-foot height until his neck gave a pleasant little pop. A couple of deep breaths of the refreshing, lightly-salted air and he found himself entertaining friendlier sentiments toward his fellow human beings.

  Clement Street was growing indistinct as the evening fog crept up through the Avenues. The fog painted the street in a wash of quiet grays as it did every night. Armed with fiddle case Sweeney had strolled up and down that fuzzy gray street hundreds of evenings watching the moisture gather under the bay windows to drip down the necks of people coming out of cafes and restaurants. Now he walked on briskly past the bright windows and darkened shops, through bands of aroma that licked out across the sidewalk. Pot stickers and pizza and fog. Stuffed grape leaves and fish and fog. By the time he got to Eighth Avenue the knees of his jeans were soaked through and he was humming a jig the name of which he couldn’t remember.

     The Maids of West Clare? Nah. The Contagious Barmaid? Something like that. The Girl Behind the Threshing Combine? Probably not. Damn, it’s something about a maid, I’m certain! He grinned. Beer was required to clear the brain.

     Sweeney ducked under the green scalloped awning and turned into the door of the Bag of Nails. The bar was crowded. Over the cacophony of gossip and glasses and colliding billiard balls a tangle of tenor banjo, guitar and accordion scraped away happily at the back of the room.

     He elbowed his way past the pool table and through bodies four deep, casually dodging the end of a cue aimed in passing at his navel. Stretching up on his toes he squinted out over the mass of talking and drinking and smiling heads bobbing in a sea of undifferentiated brown and gray. Faded and dogeared, portraits of James Connolly and Padraic Pearse, Markiewicz and Wolfe Tone gazed down from the long wall facing the bar. Tired and worn, they seemed tonight to look perhaps more thirsty than heroic.

     Vin Bowen, slouching on his elbows near the end of the bar, hailed Sweeney through the crowd.

     “It’s after nine. You’re later than usual.”

     “Don’t remind me. I’ve promised myself not to feel guilty.”

     Vin stopped for the briefest of quizzical looks. “It’s just that considering the occasion I thought I’d see you bright and early.” Vin looked up from his habitual stoop and scanned questioningly past Sweeney’s shoulder. “Where’s Rosie?”

     “Things do seem to have gotten off to an early start.” Sweeney glanced first toward the musicians who, through the haze, looked shabby enough to have been installed at the same time as the Fenian posters, then turned back to Vin.

     “Rosie’s grading papers tonight. She was about halfway through a bottle of house red when I left. Better to leave her be when she’s in that kind of mood—already gibbering about flat brain waves in the English Department when I got home from the office. I told her that at the rate she continued gibbering she might as well volunteer to host a seminar in ‘angst’ next quarter. She didn’t think it was funny. What’s the occasion, by the way?”

     “You’re kidding?” Vin looked genuinely surprised. “Well, that’s what you get for working regular hours.”

     “Maybe. But chances are that my regular hours and I will outlive you.” As far as Sweeney had ever been able to tell, his old friend had survived for years on shakily-acquired student loans and the occasional odd job. The precarious nature of this system never seemed to bother Vin much.

     “Ah, but a drab and shallow existence, no doubt. Poor Niall. A married man. And so young. Shelved the passions of youth. Abandoned the chase.” He sighed dramatically into his nearly empty glass. “It’s so sad when an artist becomes respectable.”

     Sweeney rolled his eyes. “What is it about my damn bar crawling friends lecturing me about my damn passions?” he asked himself, half smiling.

     With a quick nod and a smile, Annie the barmaid reached a pint of Guinness to him past the potato-colored bar denizen to his right. He downed half of it without breathing and licked the foam off his upper lip as the first hint of a warming glow began to make its way up from the stomach toward the brain.

 Joe Gilmore squeezed past Annie on his way toward the other end of the bar, exchanging a quick pat on her rear for an even quicker smile. The pat was the most demonstrative behavior Sweeney had ever witnessed between the gruff Ulsterman and his rather shy girlfriend-employee during business hours. Sweeney took another sip and began counting hats.

     “A good fifty-percent night, this,” he concluded to himself. Sweeney had hit upon a theory one boozy evening in Flannery’s that the best sessions were those containing the highest ratio of hats to bare heads. He had not arrived at this theory through any scientific means, of course. He had just grown particularly partial to old caps in Flannery’s, preferably those with greasy thumbprints on the brim. The shabbier the better. And the theory seemed to hold true even here in San Francisco. A good crop of shabby caps perched atop a crowd of middle aged Irish immigrants promised a Friday session of surpassing noise and ardor.

     For those who didn’t like hats, there was always the Blarney Castle a few blocks down Clement. Nobody in there wore hats. Sweeney was not sure that any of them had ever set foot in Ireland. They stood around capless, resplendent in white Aran sweaters or Guinness tee shirts, depending on the season, holding Irish coffees and looking like a herd of mute, alcoholic sheep, wondering where the music was. What a fun bunch. Sweeney marveled at the rich cultural diversity of the city. He turned to Vin and poked him in the sternum.

     “So when do I meet her, eh, Vinnie?”

     “Who?” piped the voice above the sternum.

     “The new girlfriend, of course.”

     Vin raised one eyebrow. “Now, who said a thing about a new girlfriend?”

     “It’s written all over you. When was the last time you lectured me on the relative merits of married respectability versus the single life?”

     “When I was going with Lydia.”

     “And that was?”

     “Six months ago.”

     “Right. And how long is it since you told Lydia to stuff it and declared you would remain sober and chaste until you graduated and got a steady job?”

     Vin looked sideways and raised the other eyebrow. When he pursed his lips his rust-colored moustache looked like it would take over his entire face. Stooping, he was several inches shorter than Sweeney and at twenty-nine, a year younger. He had been working on his degree in English Literature at San Francisco State for eleven years.

     “Hell, Niall, I never said anything about sober.”

     Annie delivered another Anchor. Vin held up the pint and gazed through it as if he were testing the color of a glass of Château Latour. Then he turned and brightened as if someone had flipped a switch.

     “Now, Christie’s different, you know. You’ll like Christie.” Sweeney nodded attentively as the ever talkative Vinnie began to roll, accelerating to full speed.

     “It’s her first time here at the Bag. Wandering about the place now, as a matter of fact. I’ll snag her when I see her. Met her at school. A junior. Been out together every night since Monday.” Eyes rolled briefly heavenward. “She likes Irish music, of course. Couldn’t imagine being interested if she didn’t, certainly. She’s pretty up on it, too, though she really hasn’t been around much. And you know, she even has your CD!”

    “No! Well, Jayzus!” Sweeney put on his most obnoxious stage Irish voice. “That is an occasion worth celebrating! Somebody bought my CD.” He downed the rest of his pint with a flourish.

 “She was quite impressed when I said I knew you; a real recording artist and all. She said your music was very visual, or something. Said it made you seem like you’d be a nice guy. Had to come down tonight and see you in person. Ain’t that flattering?”

     “I am deeply moved.”

     “I didn’t tell her you really worked in a bank.”

     “Thanks, Vinnie, old boy. Sometimes it’s better to leave untarnished the little fantasies of life.”

     “Tell you what… I’ll go find her and introduce you. You gonna play a few tunes first or you want to sit here for a minute?” Without waiting for an answer he started prying his way back through the wall of bodies.

     “Hey, wait!” yelled Sweeney. “So what’s this occasion I’m supposed to know all about?”

     Vin squeezed back to within arm’s reach. “Oh, yeah, I forgot. Here, read this. Congratulations.” He handed Sweeney a small newspaper which had been stuffed in his pants pocket and then disappeared.

     Sweeney opened the paper. It was the Irish-American Weekly, a locally-published tabloid catering to what was left of the Irish community in San Francisco. Sweeney seldom read it. The paper skewed its coverage, its prose style, and its bias toward the older generation of the Irish in the City—the ones Sweeney had come to think of as the ‘Irisher-than-thou’ set. Nowadays, the casual observer would have a hard time finding many left in an increasingly Asian San Francisco. But there were still sufficient numbers of them tucked away in the old neighborhoods to fill the bars in the evenings.

     Knowing the attitudes of the Weekly, he’d sent them one of the first promotional copies of Among the Nightingales anyway.

     “Well, well, what do you know?” he mumbled as the realization dawned on him. “This’ll be my very first review!”

     He’d seen the Weekly’s current music columnist, Michael Blayney, at the Bag of Nails from time to time, always at the opposite end of the bar from the music. He seemed a singularly unpleasant person from what Sweeney could observe, verbally aggressive when sober, and leaning toward the lecherous once drunk.

     So many Irish drunks of Sweeney’s acquaintance got pleasantly chummier and blurrier as each new round appeared. Not Blayney. In the six months since he had first appeared in San Francisco he had made it clear that he used drink to polish his nastiness to a fine luster. Sweeney sent him the CD knowing all this (after all, promo copies were free), hoping the guy would say something nice about it, if only to reflect favorably on his regular hangout and the only decent Irish session left in the city.

     He skipped the bulk of the stories earnestly devoted to Irish politics and eagerly smoothed out the page with the baroque calligraphed headline ‘Ceol Agus Rince.’ Music and Dance. As always, a photo of two scrubbed, immaculately-attired, apparently terrified young step dancers dominated the page. At the bottom was Blayney’s column. Sweeney winced at the title: Celtic Charlatanism Exposed. The review began:

     It has become necessary for me to comment on an increasingly frequent and highly unfortunate occurrence in Irish music. That is, the effects of non-Irish dilettantes who corrupt and mock our ancient musical forms in the name of ‘cultural sharing.’ This corruption can be seen to be fostered by Americans eager to make a fast buck and supported by an ignorant press…

     “Oh, boy,” said Sweeney to himself, “this is not going well.” The column continued:

   So why is this so terrible? Surely it must be all right for pilfering hacks and talentless musical vagrants to make nonsense of Irish culture in the privacy of their own homes. But these same hacks are encouraged to perform in public and even record while the true Gaelic scholars and Celtic artists can’t get work.

     Sweeney gritted his teeth. Who was Blayney making out to be a Gaelic scholar? Himself? Surely not. Where did he get off spouting that stuff?

     So I come to easily the most flagrant example of the problem. My attention was drawn to a new CD recently. The package announced; Niall Sweeney—Among the Nightingales. On the back it proclaimed; ‘Irish fiddle tunes with a San Francisco perspective.’ What kind of conceit is this? Before even listening to the record I am alerted that here is another American who intends to alter Irish music into a parody of itself since he can’t play or hasn’t the dimmest understanding of the real thing.

     “Jesus.” He read on, his mood darkening.

     The ‘musician’ in question has not even a basic mastery of his instrument and no style at all. He fiddles with limping American phrasing that would make any true Irish musician ill. He is, in fact, a counterfeit Celt; an ingratiating Irish impostor. This CD fraudulently attempts to sell provincial Californian musical incompetence as ethnicity.

     Perhaps some serious students of Irish music will not view this CD as a deliberate cultural affront, assuming that since the ‘performer’ knows as little as he does about the real music of Ireland, he couldn’t have produced such cultureless swill deliberately. But I find his release of a CD such as this to be both pushy and offensive. The fact that he is allowed to perform in public is doubly offensive.

     The ‘musician’ in question has not even a basic mastery of his instrument and no style at all. He fiddles with limping American phrasing that would make any true Irish musician ill. He is, in fact, a counterfeit Celt; an ingratiating Irish impostor. This CD fraudulently attempts to sell provincial Californian musical incompetence as ethnicity.

     Perhaps some serious students of Irish music will not view this CD as a deliberate cultural affront, assuming that since the ‘performer’ knows as little as he does about the real music of Ireland, he couldn’t have produced such cultureless swill deliberately. But I find his release of a CD such as this to be both pushy and offensive. The fact that he is allowed to perform in public is doubly offensive.

     Sweeney unconsciously made a fist.

     In short, every copy of this CD foisted off on the public represents one more nail in the coffin of Irish culture, hammered in by another petty bourgeois charlatan. When we can no longer enjoy beautiful music from Ireland, played by native Irishmen the way it was intended to be played, we can thank the likes of Niall Sweeney.

     “So what do you think of the review?” shouted a cheery voice into Sweeney’s ear. Sweeney nearly jumped off his stool.

     “Don’t do that, Vin!”

     “Sorry. Remember? I wanted you to meet somebody. Christie, this is my friend Niall. Niall, Christie Reese.”

  Sweeney reached out automatically from his perch on the stool and shook a thin, pale hand. The hand belonged to a thin, pale girl, just old enough to be in the bar, rather pretty with blue eyes and a halo of short, curly brown hair. What made her especially striking in the crowd, though, was her height. She looked to be pushing six feet. Vin, making his very best and somewhat laughable attempt at standing up straight next to her, was a good three inches shorter.

     “Delighted,” she smiled.

     “Pleased to meet you,” said Sweeney, unable to keep the gruffness out of his voice. “Vin, did you actually read this before you congratulated me on getting reviewed?”

     “Sure! It’s really something, isn’t it? What did you think?”

     “Well, for one thing he spelled ‘petit bourgeois’ wrong. And he’s a son of a bitch.”

     “No, I’m serious! I’ve never had a reviewer do a hatchet job on me.”

     “You’ve never done anything worth reviewing. Learn to play something and make a record. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

     “What’s wrong? Is that the review Vincent told me about?” asked Christie. “Wasn’t it any good?”

     “Oh, some shithead who thinks he’s God’s gift to Irish music was let loose with a typewriter. I’d like to see him in here tonight. I’d give him a piece of my mind and maybe something to go with it.”

     “Let me see,” said Christie.

     “Here, I’ll read you my favorite part,” said Vin, deftly repossessing the paper from Sweeney and fussing it into a manageable bundle in the press of the crowd. “Here it is.” He read the bit about hacks and vagrants while Christie looked at him and Sweeney nursed his Guinness.

     “Oh, my,” breathed Christie. “How awful for you, Niall. Don’t worry, though. I wouldn’t listen to people like that. Better to pretend they don’t exist. Lots of people think you’re a fine musician. Vincent and I think you’re wonderful. In fact, I’ve been waiting all week to come in and hear you play.”

     Sweeney managed to find a smile under all the smarting pride. He eyed the tall girl more carefully, wondering if perhaps she really was different, as Vinnie claimed. Sweeney had never heard anyone but Vinnie’s mother get away with calling him Vincent.

     “So, Niall, tell me the truth. What did you do? Run over his dog or strangle his grandmother or something? I mean, it is sort of weird the way he got so personal. I didn’t even know you knew each other.”

     “We don’t. Just in the bar. I don’t think I’ve said a dozen words to him directly. You know what he’s like. More interested in the women at the sessions than the music. Of all the players around here, why should he hit on me? The man’s crazy, that’s all. I just can’t figure it out.”

     “He just sounds hateful,” said Christie. “Who is he, did you say? What could his problem be?”

     “Beats the hell out of me,” replied Sweeney. “But if you ask me, any man with as much hate in him as that ought to be hung up until it’s all nicely drained out.”

     Sweeney hauled his fiddle case up from between his knees and got up from the bar stool. “Aw, to hell with him. Anything further he has to say to me he can say to my face. He will find me down the other end, producing cultureless swill. I’m just glad Brian Byrne isn’t here tonight.”


     “Oh, nobody. A two-bit Irish philosopher I once knew who reads fiddlers’ souls. I’m not sure I’d like him reading mine just now.”