To say that an era passed when Bernie Boyle died would be a cliché, and yet… Bernie, aka, Brian Mór, was a Republican activist, an artist and a veritable force of nature.
I first met him in The Bronx in a pub called Durty Nelly's, though I'd been aware of him for some time. The guy was hard to ignore. A big hulking presence he kept his cards close to his chest until you passed some unspoken test.
I was playing in a duo called Turner & Kirwan of Wexford back then. Bernie used to take in a set occasionally. Coming of age in the 60's he knew his music and his taste was broad. Turner & Kirwan's particular sound and fury, however, seemed to confound him – Irish acid rock tended to do that.
Bernie must have finally judged that it was not without merit for one night he nodded at me and we began to talk. Once you had passed his litmus test he took you totally into his confidence. In that one conversation I learned his political views, ideas on art, and his rock-ribbed abhorrence of any compromise, pomp or shallowness.
There was something about the man that made you want to be better than yourself in order to live up to his expectations. Once you were one of "his people" you could change your point of view, disagree with him, but on no account could you let yourself down.
Later that night he took me down the street to The Bunratty. That pub opened my callow brain to the wonders of traditional Irish music. Back in Wexford jigs and reels were nailed to the floor and drained of their vigor by very nice and proper musicians; in the wild North West of the Bronx traditional music was unhinged and unfettered, mad as the mist and snow.
Bernie's often-hooded eyes gleamed as he watched characters and players the like of Johnny Cronin, Banjo and Accordion Burke knock my socks off. That was a gift he gave me and I still owe him big-time for it.
There were few stauncher Republicans. He was from the breed that initiated the Border Campaign of the 1950's and he remained uncompromising until the very end. He aspired to a 32 County Republic and would settle for nothing less. All gains and losses were measured against this golden grail.
He never seemed to have any doubts that unification could be achieved, whereas I was full of them. I think that was where his calling as an artist stood to him - when things were at their worst he could lose himself in the fine strokes of some painting and emerge renewed and even more ready for combat.
The great sadness of being part of the broad New York coalition against British intransigence and entrenched Ulster unionism was that when the peace process began former comrades turned against each other. It was inevitable, I suppose, for as one wise old Republican stated, "it's a lot easier be against something than for it."
Bernie knew exactly where he stood and he could be harsh in his judgments of others, suspicious too of their motives. But as long as he felt you weren't letting yourself down he wouldn't turn his back on you.
At an award dinner in Queens some years back he presented me with a painting that stunned me. There in his fine hand and lovely brush work he had composed the story of my life as he knew it, from my love of James Connolly back in Wexford to the madness of the Lower East Side, from forming Black 47 with Chris Byrne on Bainbridge on down through the obvious successes and attendant failures.
It hangs on my wall and I treasure it; but I'll take it down and bring it to Connolly’s on May 4th just as so many others will bring theirs when we commemorate a towering man and a great Irish-American during his month's mind.
Clichés be damned! There's no way we'll never see the like of Brian Mór Ó'Baoighill again.