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The Greening of L.A.'s Musicians : They're All Irish on St. Paddy's--Some Even the Reel Thing

March 14, 1985|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer Oh! I wear a bunch of shamrocks

and a uniform of green, And I'm the funniest-looking Swede that you have ever seen. There's O'Briens and Ryans and Sheehans and Meehans they come from Ireland, But by Yimminy I'm the only Swede in MacNamara's band .

--Fourth and obscure stanza from the tune, "MacNamara's Band."

Irish bandleader Des Regan doesn't remember having any Swedes in his band, but over the years he's hired musicians with all sorts of ethnic backgrounds to play Irish music.

"I must have used hundreds of guys who weren't Irish," Regan said last weekend between sets at his Irish pub in Burbank. "When I came out to Los Angeles I was very disappointed. I expected L.A. to be jumping with Irish bars and music. I only found one place on Beverly Boulevard."

The Real Thing

Today, Regan's four-piece band consists of musicians from Ireland, and is one of a handful of authentic Irish bands that will be performing for St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the Los Angeles area.

In fact, most of the bands that'll be playing "MacNamara's Band" and other Irish-type tunes for Sunday's holiday and the days before aren't really Irish at all.

Regan found this out 13 years ago when he came here and started his band. He had played with Irish musicians in Boston after moving there from his native Galway in 1955, but found few here.

"When I came here we got a lot of guys from the country-and-Western field, drummers and guitarists," Regan said. "That's mostly where they came from. Prior to two years ago, though, we only had a couple of Irish-Americans."

Regan, who plays "an Irish-style accordion (with buttons on the side instead of keys)," met another accordion player from Dublin and started his band in Los Angeles.

"There were just the two of us," he said. "Then I picked up American musicians attuned to Irish music. Now there's a whole group of young Americans who have gone to Ireland to learn the traditional music and become experts."

Regan, who moved his pub from North Hollywood to Burbank three years ago and also started a travel agency for tours to Ireland, performs at his place on the weekends but also plays private parties for organizations and clubs.

"On St. Patrick's Day, how many people know the difference (in a band's ethnic origins)?" Regan said. "You could have a group up there humming and they wouldn't know. Most of the people you see (celebrating) St. Patrick's Day aren't Irish anyway. You get so many people coming out of the woodwork for one day, and then they fall back into their regular life the next day."

St. Patrick's Day in Ireland, according to Regan, isn't at all like it is in the United States. It's not nearly such a celebration.

"Back home it's not celebrated in the same way," Regan explained. "It's not as jovial; it's more of a Holy Day. People go for a drink or two after Mass, but they do that on Sunday anyway."

Wetting the Shamrock

But St. Patrick's Day in Ireland also has a special significance for people who like to drink, Regan said. "You go off, give up drinking for Lent, but it's commonly accepted that you'll wet the shamrock on St. Paddy's. People don't consider that you fell off the wagon. It's not considered breaking the fast. It's just accepted for the day."

Regan, who shortened his name from O'Regan, noted that a recent growing influx of Irish musicians in Los Angeles "has put the Irish name a lot more in the spotlight on the West Coast."

He added: "The musicians are the greatest ambassadors for Ireland. One of the largest Irish populations is here on the West Coast, but it is scattered. One Saturday night we might get 50 people in here from Ireland; the next, 10."

One of the young Irish musicians to emigrate to Los Angeles is Jimmy Shivenan from Charlestown in County Mayo. He has played saxophone and guitar (he also sings) with the Regan band for about a year and a half.

Shivenan and his wife were en route to Australia five years ago when they stopped in Los Angeles to visit friends and decided to stay.

Japanese Aficionado

Shivenan recalled being surprised not long ago by the interest of a Japanese visitor in their traditional Irish music.

"One night, there was a guy from Japan who came in and he spoke very little English," Shivenan said. "He had his fiddle and wanted to know if he could play with us. He picked it up and played the traditional music with us."

Said Regan: "Here we're Irish 365 days a year. But on St. Patrick's Day everybody is. I've always thought it was a great compliment for the Irish that all these people want to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, a compliment for such a small country, 300 miles long by 150 miles thick."

Gerry O'Beirne, another of the young musicians to move to Los Angeles from Ireland, plays with an Irish group called Train to Sligo, currently one of the most popular Irish bands in the L.A. area.

O'Beirne, though, is the only Ireland-born musician in the group. He comes from Ennis in County Clare. The rest are from the United States but have studied traditional music in Ireland, he said.

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