(First published 1/9/12) Kevin Gleeson, a talented guitarist and former portrayer of Keith Richards in Stones’ tribute bands Sticky Fingers and Beggars Banquet, is a graphic artist with the New York Police Department and a native of the borough of Queens, in New York City. Gleeson’s heritage is steeped in both Irish music and the turbulent history of Northern Ireland. Though he was raised in New York City, Gleeson describes his upbringing as more Irish than American. As a child, he was more accustomed to watching hurling games than watching the Yankees or Mets. “I don’t think it was until I was about 10 or 12 that I knew what baseball was,” Gleeson said.
TheWildGeese.com’s Daniel Marrin spoke with Gleeson, who resides in Queens’ Astoria neighborhood, about his family’s history and the “double-edged sword” of a heritage rich in both culture and political conflict.
Kevin Gleeson: My father's family was from Hollyford, in County Tipperary. They didn't have electricity at home so they'd play lots of Irish music, “The Patriot Game” and “Black Velvet Band” and all the “rebel” songs.
Dad came to America with the All-Ireland hurling team in 1954, as a goalie for Tipperary. As soon as he got off the boat, though, he joined the Army so he could become a citizen. They taught him how to cook and work in the mess hall, and then they shipped him off to Germany for a few years.
(Right: Kevin's mother and father)
He met my mother at a dance in 1958 up in the Bronx. They got married in the summer of 1959, and I was born that August. I was born in Forest Hills, raised in Riverside, and then we broke out into the Promised Land: a little two-family house south of Sunnyside, Queens.
My upbringing was more Irish than American, I think. Fridays and Saturdays, we’d have family and friends over for musical parties. We would get the Irish Echo newspaper, and listen to Irish music on the AM radio. My father wrote and spoke [Irish] Gaelic and he taught me how to say my name, how to count from 1 to 10, “God be with you” and things like that.
We had a picture of JFK and the Pope in every room and a cup of holy water to bless yourself. My grandma Bridget would call us every day to quiz me on what saint’s day it was. And, of course, we were altar boys, me and my brother Martin.
I grew up going to watch hurling at Gaelic Park in the Bronx, and I think it wasn’t until I was 10 or 12 that I knew what baseball was.
TheWildGeese.com: You mentioned the Irish “rebel” songs your father’s family played. How was your family involved with the Irish political conflict?
Gleeson: Well, my father's family were 3rd Tipperary Brigade IRA men with Dan Breen (left). Breen was, at one time, one of the most wanted men in Ireland, and the 3rd Brigade was said to have killed the most British soldiers of any IRA [unit].
My mother's side of the family was from Northern Ireland: My grandmother Bridie Monahan grew up at a pub called The Cross in Fermanagh, owned by her mother. Back then, it was against the law to show the Irish flag or teach the Irish language [in occupied Ireland], but my grandmother’s brothers would teach [Irish] Gaelic when the British weren't around. Two of her brothers were put in the bottom of a ship in Belfast Bay by the British and held there for a year or two years without any charges against them, just for teaching Gaelic.
TheWildGeese.com: Did you spend anytime in Ireland yourself growing up?
Gleeson: When I was four months old, at the start of 1960, we went back to Ireland to live. My Dad was having a hard time finding work here, and they decided to go back to Ireland. ... But they couldn’t get work there either, and then my mother got pregnant with my brother Gerry. And she said they had to go back [to the United States]. (Right: Kevin with his mother and father in Donegal, 1960)
We all went back to Northern Ireland for summer vacations in the 70s. Me and my brother would go hang out with the neighborhood boys and throw rocks at the British armored personnel carriers. It was interesting to come back from summer, and have my teachers ask me what I'd done over the summer.
I saw my father have a gun to the back of his head a couple of times. At times, they'd ask my Dad to open the car at the border crossings and roadblocks, at random. He'd go to open the trunk and they'd pull guns on him because a lot of trunks had been booby-trapped. All that time, he was an American citizen.
But those were the times-- the 60s and early 70s in Northern Ireland.
TheWildGeese.com: What do you think you learned from seeing that growing up?
Gleeson: I think I saw a parallel with the prejudice against the African-Americans in this country. I saw that, if you were Catholic. you worked for 5 pounds an hour and if you were Protestant you got 10 pounds an hour. It was very unfair. It encouraged people to stay on the dole [payments in Britain and Ireland to sustain those unable to work or to find work].
I also think I learned a lot of compassion for people who struggle and how people who have less could survive, with love and care for each other. I guess I was raised by people who really had to "stretch the teabag over a couple of cups." I think it was to my betterment that they really learned how to survive.
[In my family] we really knew the joy and the pain of being Irish. It really is a double-edged sword.