For over 30 years, Larry Kirwan’s voice provided the soundtrack for Irish American and Irish immigrant life.
As the frontman for legendary Celtic rockers Black 47, Kirwan went from playing punky jigs and reels in small clubs in the Bronx, to gigs on network TV and packed festivals and stadiums.
The Wexford native rode the wave of 1980s and 1990s immigration from Ireland and – at a time when Riverdance and Angela’s Ashes were also huge hits – redefined what it meant to be Irish.
What many fans did not realize is that even when he wasn’t belting out “Funky Ceili” or “Rockin’ the Bronx,” Kirwan stayed busy creating – writing plays, fiction, and playing music in various other forms.
So, though Black 47 no longer performs, Kirwan remains as busy as ever.
He has a new novel out, as well as a Broadway-bound musical, opening in November for an initial run in Chicago, before heading to Broadway in early Spring 2022
The novel is called Rockaway Blue. Set right after 9/11, which sent so many Irish American families across New York into mourning, Rockaway Blue takes readers on a dizzying tour of the Big Apple in all its gritty splendor. Along the way, Kirwan unspools an intricate mystery surrounding that awful day, forcing one family to confront some brutal truths about this national tragedy.
Then there is Kirwan’s new musical Paradise Square. Set in the mid-19th Century, the musical is a melting pot love story, set amidst the ethnic and racial tensions of Civil War-era New York.
Kirwan and his musical and dance collaborators explore not just the conflict among New York’s African American and Irish immigrants, but also a romance – one that faces a severe test during the infamous New York City Draft riots, when immigrants living in the Five Points protested their conscription into the Union Army.
“Located close to what is now known as Chinatown, Five Points was where poor Irish immigrants and free Black Americans coexisted in what the show posits as a unique, cross-cultural moment, where Irish step dancing joined with tap…and interracial relationships flourished,” the Chicago Tribune noted this week.
“In ‘Paradise Square,’ Five Points functions as a kind of fleeting nirvana, a vista of what America might have been, only for the racism and ugliness of the post-Civil War era in America to effect its inevitable, subsequent destruction.”
This week. Kirwan took some time out from rehearsal as well as the whirlwind of promotion to talk with Irish America about the new book, the new musical, and why it’s important to work with “combustible material.”