Ed Ryan strums an A chord on his acoustic six-string guitar, then launches into what is arguably the world’s most famous Irish song.
“Sing along if you know it,” Ryan says to the crowd.
Who doesn’t know “Danny Boy”? But when Ryan sings it, even the loud conversations of the Rangers fans who are watching the game on one of the big TV screens at Johnny McGorey’s pub in Massapequa Park become hushed. Ryan’s voice matches his 6-foot-4-inch frame, and he reaches a rafter-shaking climax with the final, bittersweet stanza, sung a cappella:
“For you will bend and tell me that you love me
And I will sleep in peace until you come to me.”
Ryan’s rendition of the song, often interpreted as a farewell from an aging Irish father to a son departing for distant horizons, is met by wild applause and a few teary eyes. Not bad for a guy who grew up in Merrick and has never been to the Emerald Isle.
At 55, Ryan is a later-in-life Irish musician. He emphasizes that this is not the only kind of music he plays — he’s currently a guitarist in a Tom Petty-Fleetwood Mac tribute band, and still loves playing Beatles songs during his regular sets at local pubs. But this time of year is green in more ways than one for Ryan.
“March is what we call ‘Irish Christmas,’” jokes Ryan, who lives in Farmingdale. “Everybody needs someone playing Irish music somewhere in March. And I never say no. That’s a key to being successful.”
By late last month, Ryan was booked for 14 of the first 16 nights in March leading up to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. Some of the gigs are at pubs; others at libraries, senior centers, or private parties. Sometimes Ryan is the solo performer; sometimes he’s with other musicians singing Irish songs.
It’s a demanding schedule, but it’s the life Ryan says he has always wanted. He worked at various jobs as a younger man, but since the early 1990s, music has been his full-time occupation. “It’s not an easy living,” he says, but, “I pay my bills.”
“I’m proud of him,” says Ryan’s younger brother Dan, 51, a retired New York City police officer, who admires his sibling for sticking “with what he loves.”
Ryan comes from a family of eight children who didn’t show any obvious musical talent. “My father had a nice singing voice, but every time he got up in public, he’d try to sound like Jimmy Durante,” Ryan says, referring to the gravelly voiced entertainer who made the distinctly non-Irish song, “Inka Dinka Doo,” his trademark.
While Ryan’s maternal grandparents were from Donegal, Ireland, he didn’t grow up listening to the Clancy Brothers. “I knew a few ‘tura lura lurals,’ but my focus was on the Beatles and David Bowie,” Ryan says. At age 12, he learned to play guitar from a how-to book. He attended Sanford H. Calhoun High School, where he became involved with the theater program and “learned how to put on a show.” The shows continued at Nassau Community College, which he attended for two years, but left without a degree.
Working as the frontman for several rock bands, Ryan found success on the local club circuit in the 1980s and 1990s. One of his groups, Ed Ryan and the Underdogs, toured as the opening act for Long Island’s Debbie Gibson. In addition to his music, he worked the local stand-up comedy circuit.
Still, he dreamed of hitting it big as a rocker or songwriter. But changing tastes among younger audiences in the early 2000s and yes, advancing age, forced him to consider changing his tune.
“I got too old to be a rock star,” he says. “What could I do?”
Enter Gerry Finlay, who owns several local pubs on the island and is the leader of the Cara Band, a well-known ensemble on the Irish music circuit. Finlay had seen Ryan perform with one of his rock bands. “He said, `Would you be interested in doing Irish music?’” Ryan recalls. “I said, ‘I’ll give it a try.’ It turned out to be tutelage.”
As Finlay remembers it, he was impressed with Ryan’s powerful voice. “I knew he could belt out an Irish song,” says Finlay, who was born in Ireland’s County Monaghan and emigrated to New York in 1971. He now lives in East Islip.
Finlay taught Ryan the canon of Irish songs, from the standards, “Danny Boy” and “Wild Irish Rose,” to more obscure ballads.
“I threw them all at Ed,” says Finlay, who is 65. “He had a kind of feel for them.”
Which raises a question: Can an American — even an Irish-American — authentically sing songs of Irish suffering and loss? Ireland-born musician Gabe Hickey, who plays the tunes of his native land, thinks so. Born in Dublin, Hickey emigrated to the United States in 1977. Hickey, 69, who sings and plays the accordion, has been a musician for 40 years. Since the Bethpage resident retired last year from his job as a sales manager at a plastics company, music has been his main pursuit.
“You do not have to be Irish to enjoy and play Irish music,” Hickey says. “I would have to say though that being Irish might give you a better understanding of the context of the songs.” Those songs fall into several categories. “You have the rebel songs, the emigration songs, the wishing-for-the-homeland songs, the alcohol-related songs,” he says.
Ryan sought out Finlay and the other Cara Band members to learn more about the history of the music he was now performing, and the culture from which it emerged. “They’d be chatting on breaks and I’d ask questions,” he says. “What is this song about? What did that phrase mean?”
He decided to return to solo work five years ago, but kept Irish music as part of his act. (He still plays occasionally with the Cara Band.) Now, his gigs are filled with such songs as “Wild Colonial Boy,” “When New York Was Irish” and “The Fields of Athenry.” He’s also recorded two CDs of Irish music, along with two CDs of original rock songs and ballads that are available through his website, ed-ryan.com. The website also has a calendar of his scheduled shows.
At McGoreys, where Ryan has had a four-hour spot on Thursday nights for several years, the crowd sings along to the Irish numbers that many had never heard before Ryan introduced them.
“My father’s Italian, my mother is a Polish Jew,” says Michael Goodwin of Massapequa. “What did I know from Irish music? Now, I go to see Ed and I love these songs.” So much so that Goodwin, 63, hired Ryan to sing at his daughter’s wedding in 2011. “His music has provided countless hours of joy in my life,” Goodwin says.
Leading the cheers — and the singalongs — is Rain Ryan, Ed’s wife of 15 years, who is an enthusiastic supporter of her husband’s career choice, despite its uncertainties. “We’ve always been dreamers and we’ve always led with our hearts,” says Rain (short for Lorraine), who works as a waitress at an Italian restaurant in Farmingdale. “We might not have everything other people have, but that’s not as important to us.”
Rain fully supported her husband’s immersion into the Irish music for two reasons: It represented a source for new bookings, and it gave the mature rocker a new lease on his musical life.
“God gave him the ability to sing,” she says. “It’s a gift ... so why should he have to stop at 45 or 50?”