Celtic band's Sept. 11 song strikes chord


It may be July, but fans of "Ceol na nGael" ("Music of the Irish"), the metropolitan area's most popular Celtic radio show, have been flooding the station with requests for a Christmas tune.

"Christmas in New York," a song inspired by Sept. 11, is the work of Shilelagh Law, a raucous young pub band based in the Bronx/Yonkers area and popular on the Irish-American festival circuit. Written by guitarist/singer Richard Popovic, the song will be released Sept. 6 on Shilelagh Law's second album, "Together in the End."

The band also features four-time All-Ireland fiddle champion Denis McCarthy, a firefighter with Engine 67 in Washington Heights; bassist Stephen Gardner, a heating system salesman, and high school teacher Terence Brennan on the bodhran, a traditional goat-skin drum. McCarthy's older brother Kevin, an accordion player and 12-year veteran of the NYPD's Bronx Task Force, sat in as a guest musician on the CD.

"We had them in for a studio performance and they kind of sprung the song on us," said Jennifer Croke, producer of the WFUV radio show (90.7 FM), which airs Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

"The next week, the phones started ringing," she added. "The song really seems to capture what everyone is feeling months removed from the attack. It touches a nerve."

Popovic, a 28-year-old carpenter who's Irish on his mother's side, conceded the song was his third attempted tribute.

"No one will ever hear the other two because they're way too cheesy," he said. "I wrote this one in December, obviously, and the words and music just started to flow."

When he played it for his band mates, "I cried like a baby," said Denis McCarthy, 30.

They immediately added "Christmas" to their repertoire, playing it in haunts like the Hibernian in Yonkers and An Beal Bocht in Riverdale, the Bronx. Kevin McCarthy first heard it while celebrating St. Patrick's Day with fellow police officers at J.C. Fogarty's in Bronxville, Westchester County.

"Imagine a bar packed with cops and the whole place just goes quiet," he said. "No one knew how to react, so we all just raised our glasses."

The song prompted a similar response at the Westchester Irish Heritage Festival in Hartsdale on July 7. After jigging and hooting through the requisite rebel anthems and drinking songs, the crowd hushed as Popovic sang of a city struggling to cope but defiantly celebrating the holiday:

"It's Christmas Eve, 11 p.m./ You walk down to the church and quietly go in/ Kneel down in the last pew, right on the aisle / And say, God, I know that it's been a while/ But can you do me a favor on this Christmas Eve/ Can you send out some blessings to people for me/ You know these last months have been kind of rough/ And we could all use a little love ..."

Searching for kid brother

Croke attributed the song's grass-roots appeal to the fact that "it mentions everyone, not just the rescue workers." The lyrics hail "the guys in the hardhats removing debris" and "the everyday people who answered the call."

For the McCarthy brothers, both of whom responded to Ground Zero on Sept. 11, performing the song has been a kind of therapy. Kevin, 33, spent the day searching for his kid brother while securing the scene. He finally found Denis about 1 the following morning, manning a hose at 7 World Trade Center.

"I whacked Denny on the back of the head and said, 'Call your mother,'" he recalled.

Denis, who lost seven members of his probationary training class, added, "I felt helpless down there. The way I see it, maybe playing this song is my contribution."

The band is scheduled to perform at the New York Irish Festival at Belmont Park in Elmont, L.I., on Aug. 16. A portion of the proceeds from the upcoming album, available on the Web (www.halfthebottle.com), will be donated to the Twin Towers Fund.