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By Earle Hitchner
Irish Echo

Is there anyone living in or around the Big Apple who hasn’t heard "When New York Was Irish"?

The song has an appealing melody with lyrics dipped in nostalgia ("how I long for the days when we danced in the aisles") and pride ("we started with nothing and wound up with it all") but roughened with reality ("wakes," "heartbreaks," "we worked on the subways," "we put out the fires"). About 15 years ago, it seemed to be on every singer's lips in every New York-area pub.

The lyrics are printed at the conclusion of That Special Place: New World Irish Stories, a book of candid, painful, hilarious, thoughtful older-and-perhaps-wiser slices of autobiography by Terence Winch, the song's composer. He is a founding member of Celtic Thunder, the Washington-Baltimore group that first made "When New York Was Irish" popular on their 1988 Green Linnet album, The Light of Other Days.

Winch’s comments about the song illustrate the Bronx-bred directness in his style: "Some people seem to think it's too arrogant or jingoistic. I tell them: write your own version." But he's also a published poet---Irish Musicians/American Friends," published in 1985 remains a favorite of mine---who can evoke an image of pinpoint vividness.

In the book’s title story, an urban adventure involving the purchase of a black-leather motorcycle jacket, 10-year-old Terence and his 49-year-old Galway-born mother ride the subway down from the Bronx to Bloomingdale's in Manhattan. "We sat on those seats that always reminded me of shellacked corn on the cob," he writes. In scribbler parlance, that's a perfect metaphor. Throughout the book are references to individuals, named or not, whose odd, comic, or otherwise intriguing behavior Winch deftly describes and sometimes skewers. For those who know the East Coast Irish music scene, there's a roman-a-clef pleasure in reading about a record label representative, "a large, needy soul always in search of approval," who pops a Valium during a store appearance by Celtic Thunder, or a woman musician with a "parade of men forever throwing themselves at her feet." (Winch tartly adds: "Most of them were assholes.")

Even so, a genuine, uncloying sweetness pervades much of Winch's reminiscing. Like a pinball wizard, he never tilts when recalling people closest to his heart. Among them are P.J. Conway, the accordion player who was his father's best friend, and Charlie McCarthy, another family friend whose advancing blindness prompted Winch to visit him at lunchtime and make him "Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, carefully adding the exact equivalent amount of water to the contents of the can as though any miscalculation would spoil the culinary miracle, with two pieces of buttered, sliced toast and a hot cup of Lipton's tea to go along with it." There's almost a secular divinity in these details. Nothing in "That Special Place" is more moving than the author's descriptions of his mother, who suffered terribly near the end of the cancer that killed her when she was 55 and he was 16. "My mother died in January of 1962, before people like us had things like tape recorders," Winch writes. "As far as I know, her voice was never recorded. I long now to hear what she sounded like. Did she have much of a brogue? Did she sound smart, funny? I can't remember at all what her voice was like." For Winch, a musician who also sings, the loss of such a precious voice remains understandably hard.

The author's own distinctive voice rings true throughout That Special Place. …Terence Winch's work is a joy to read. He'll make you both flinch and laugh in recognition of past screw-ups in your own life. (As an altar boy, I also mistook a priest's signal and brought cruets of wine and water up to him far too early in the Mass, a situation that befell Winch in "Last Legs"). Several episodes with well-known musicians, particularly fiddler Brendan Mulvihill and Galway sean-nos singer Joe Heaney, are also indelibly recounted.

The author wears his Irish-American heritage and experience not on his sleeve but in his mind and heart. He brings a fiction writer's eye for epiphany to his nonfictional storytelling, and many of his insights have the texture of hard-won truths. "I was born homesick for a place I'd never seen," he says about Ireland at one point. "Maybe memory is simply the soul's story and is not necessarily confined to the body," he says elsewhere.

Winch's book is full of the soul's stories, and it will occupy that special place in readers' own memories.

Dedicated to his parents, Terence Winch's "That Special Place: New World Irish Stories" is a 119-page trade paperback published by Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn, N.Y.

August 4-10, 2004