As a child in the Bronx, Terry Winch spent his St. Patrick's Days in the company of older Irish musicians. Whenever they put down a drink, the men would pick up a fiddle or accordion and play for the crowd of revelers. By the time he was in junior high, Winch was often playing alongside, as was his brother Jesse.
Now the Winch brothers are Irish musicians themselves. They'll spend this St. Patrick's Day playing with their band, Celtic Thunder, at the Dubliner on Capitol Hill from midmorning until dinner time. Sunday night they'll supply the music for a ceilidh (an evening of singing, dancing and storytelling) at Georgetown University's Copley Hall.
The men who started Terry Winch down this road were not famous musicians; they were family men who drank too much, earned too little and played music more for fun than money. They would have been completely forgotten outside their own families if Winch hadn't written a book of poems about them. That book, "Irish Musicians/American Friends," was published last year by Minneapolis' Coffee House Press.
Winch was a long way from the Bronx when the memories of these old men came flooding back to him. He had moved in the early '70s to Washington, where he became a central figure in Dupont Circle's lively avant-garde poetry scene. In 1973, he was trying to come up with a birthday present for Jesse, and he typed out 10 poems about the musicians. When he read them to Jesse over the phone, Jesse immediately suggested other names and anecdotes that deserved their own poems. The birthday present turned into a book.
Soon after Winch wrote the poems, an Irish folk revival took place in Washington. In January 1975, the Irish Tradition from New York came to the Dubliner for a week-long gig and stayed four years. The group educated an audience for authentic folk music and set a high standard for local Irish musicians. Around the same time, the Chieftains were popularizing the same folk tradition all over the world.
All that rekindled the Winch brothers' interest in Irish music. They left their old-timey string band, the Fast Flying Vestibule, to form the Celtic Thunder in 1977. Their 1981 self-titled debut album became one of the best-selling albums by an American-based Irish band. After many personnel changes, they plan to go into the studio this summer to record the follow-up album for Green Linnet Records.
"When we were growing up," Winch recalls, "the Irish music world in New York was a very central part of our lives. My father Patrick Winch played the banjo, and P.J. Conway, his best friend, played the accordion. As teen-agers, Jesse and I played with these old-timers all over the city -- at weddings, dances and parties -- and got to respect and admire them and in some cases love them as well. They stood out; a lot of them were very colorful characters. Some of them still are.
"When I was 16 in the early '60s, I spent the summer in the Catskills in Rockaway, which were known among the Irish as the 'Irish Alps,' at a place called the Emerald Isle Hotel with Johnny Lynch and a deaf old woman at the piano. Johnny would sing, dance and play at the same time, which is very hard to do."
That experience translated into this poem:
poetry Johnny Lynch's reputation rested on
his ability to sing
and play the accordion
all at once
at the age of 30 what hair he had
he was pink and chubby
he said the rosary every night
he would pick up Wheeling West Virginia
on the radio about 4 a.m.
and would kneel down by his bed
and listen to the music
The poems have a flat, deadpan quality, as if they were snatches of conversation stripped of any literary affect. Like most childhood memories, they don't offer a well-proportioned biography but a grab bag of peculiar details that imply a whole personality.
Winch, now 40, never turns the old men into mythical heroes; he wants to remember them for what they were. Thus he can write about P.J. Conway being so drunk one night that he mistook the living room for the bathroom, with disastrous results. Yet he remembers Conway's accordion playing so fondly that he still calls him "The Great P.J."
"I got P.J. Conway's accordion in the mail one day about six years ago," Winch says. "He mailed it to me from Florida, where he now lives. He's retired, though retired is not a good word to use in reference to P.J. He's 80 now and plays in a group called the Galloping Grannies and Gramps, which tours all over Florida. Without any encouragement at all, P.J. will burst into song in a very powerful, overwhelming voice, or he will pick up an accordion and belt out a tune at the least provocation."