Their very different contributions to the world were messy and complex. But in their separate ways, Chuck Berry, Martin McGuinness and Eamonn Casey contributed hugely to change…
Two of them were deeply implicated in the recent history of Ireland, as it evolved from darkness into dawn. The third was a man who played a guitar just like a ringin’ a bell. Goodbye Eamonn Casey, Martin McGuinness and Chuck Berry.
All three were flawed men. All three inflicted suffering through those flaws. All three were punished for it. And yet, flaws or not, all three were well spoken of in death.
Think of the three of them and you marvel at how things have changed. I accept that it can be hard to grasp it all if you weren’t there and didn’t see it and live through everything that happened – what it was really like here in Ireland and how great was the struggle to generate change.
In Chuck Berry’s case, he was up against the deeply embedded racism of the USA in the 1950s. Five years ago, we might have thought this to have been consigned to history’s dustbin. But no one can be under that illusion, now that Donald Trump and his associates have emerged from the swamp.
He was an important figure in turning the masses – and especially white Europeans – on to black music. But the truth is that Berry was no angel himself. Far from it. He was convicted of armed robbery while still a high school student and was sent to a reformatory where he was held from 1944 to 1947. In 1962 he was sentenced to three years in prison for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines.
Almost two decades later, in 1979, he served a four-month jail sentence and did community service for tax evasion. As Irish promoters would tell you, he always demanded to be paid in cash. An understandable stance for a musician who always felt he was being ripped off, it caused problems with the IRS. No surprise in that either.
Then, in 1990, he was sued by a number of women who claimed that he had installed a video camera in the toilet of his restaurant in Missouri, the Southern Air. He opted for a class action settlement. With 59 women. And the cops found drugs as well. He was given a six-month suspended jail sentence and two years’ unsupervised probation and was ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital. You could say he got away lightly.
Not the nicest of men, then. And few of those who met him here liked him very much, if at all. But nobody can gainsay the music. Nobody can deny how good he was or how influential nor how the world, through the music, was ineradicably changed, as you will read elsewhere in the obituaries and tributes. From ‘Maybelline’ through ‘Johnny B. Goode’ to ‘No Particular Place To Go’, and loads more besides, his is a fantastic legacy. He inspired The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Rory Gallagher and many more of the enduring greats.
To his admirers, Eamonn Casey was also a man of great wordplay. He committed no crimes for which he might have ben convicted, of course, though diocesan money was used in a way that was certainly inappropriate. But his own gregarious nature and commitment to the Irish charity Trócaire notwithstanding, he was himself the embodiment of a system every bit as reactionary and repugnant as the white America through which Berry had to fight his way.
Casey had an affair with Annie Murphy, an American divorcee, and they conceived a child. Good for them, you might say – except that intense efforts were made to get her to give up her child for adoption. It may not have been a crime, but it was offensive. Then, years later, when she emerged from the shadows and named the father, she was subjected to a torrent of abuse amounting to a witch hunt – for example on the Late Late Show – that we wouldn’t believe could have been as bad as it was, except that we can watch it all over again on YouTube now and marvel at how appalling it was. And how representative of the country too: Ireland really was a narrow-minded, sexist and bigoted place then.
Their child, Peter, was born in 1974. From where we are now, on both sides of the border, it was another time, another place, in almost every conceivable way. But back then Northern Ireland was immured in open conflict.
Martin McGuinness was a teenager when the first civil rights marches took place. The reaction they encountered largely triggered the response that engendered the Provisional IRA. McGuinness came to lead that organisation, firstly in war and then out of war.
In that war, many utterly appalling things were done. Crimes were committed. Many of the tributes that have been paid to his legacy have tip-toed around the outrages committed by the IRA, of which there were many. One fully accepts that atrocities were not the sole preserve of republicans. On the contrary, loyalist paramilitaries and the British army, not to mention the old B-Specials and their successors in the Ulster Defence Regiment, were guilty too, and in some cases of more barbaric, psychotic actions. But the horror of it all was sickening and shocking.
There are things that may never be said about those years and many families will never know the truth about the deaths of their loved ones. It was a recurrent theme, even a preoccupation, for this column over the years: the savagery of the behaviour of republicans among others, and the heartless lack of concern for the casualties.
One must unreservedly acknowledge that Martin McGuinness came to understand that the war couldn’t be won even if it also couldn’t be lost. He looked at, for example, the carnage of the Enniskillen bombing, or mass murder if you will, and began the long and tortuous path to peace, a process that has given Northern Ireland two decades of ordinary living. And we have to say that much of what he did over the past two decades was done with a quiet dignity, genuine humility and a warm smile.
Well, he is gone now, as are Chuck and Eamonn. They don’t really have much in common, these three men, except that without them, inadvertently or otherwise, things now would be very different indeed.
And at their deaths they afford us an opportunity to think about where we once were – and how far we’ve come. It hasn’t always been a straight path. And in Chuck Berry’s homeland that path could be winding back towards the darkness.
In the end, however, they played their part. Let them now rest in peace – and, in Martin McGuinness’s case, the peace that he finally proved so instrumental in building.
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