Road to nowhere: Paddy Ryan was born in County Longford in Ireland. In recent years, he has visited the United States regularly to perform, however, this year his visa application was rejected. SOURCE: PADDY RYAN MUSIC
The music industry offers plenty of stories of performers being denied entry into foreign countries because they somehow ran afoul of the law. Immigration authorities worldwide routinely ban artists who have been linked to illicit drugs, violent behavior or perhaps — as was a case involving the British singer formerly known as Cat Stevens in 2004 — a banned terrorist group.
Award-winning Irish folk artist Paddy Ryan has no such red flags in his personal history. Yet, he too was denied access to the United States earlier this month to fulfill a lively schedule of St. Patrick’s Day-themed concerts in the New York City, Philadelphia and Boston areas.
What was the reason, you ask? In short, it was largely due to his honesty as well as his emergence as a headlining solo performer.
So, during a time of year when it seems that everyone wants to be considered Irish, Ryan’s own nationality is costing him thousands of dollars in appearance fees while depriving Philly’s growing Irish music scene of another breakout attraction.
“A (U.S.) customs agent asked me, ‘Why do you think it’s right to come over here and take Americans’ jobs?’ ” Ryan said. “I told him, ‘If Americans were doing what I’m doing, I wouldn’t be coming over.’ ”
Indeed, one of Ryan’s primary appeals in America is his authenticity. The 27-year-old was born in County Longford in the Republic of Ireland before his family relocated to Liverpool, England, when he was a boy. It’s an area that supports a strong Irish community, allowing Ryan to remain close to his cultural roots, as evidenced by his brogue.
At age 11, he began performing traditional-style folk music with his father, which he continued throughout his schooling years. After Paddy completed his university studies, the duo became a full-time act, touring the U.K., Ireland and Europe as The Ryans. In 2009, they won the Best New Artist award from the Kansas City-based Irish Music Association, an organization that annually recognizes the top musicians from the global Irish diaspora. The following year, The Ryans won IMA awards for being the best duo or trio in live performance, as well as the best recorded album.
A couple of years later, The Ryans began visiting the U.S. regularly to perform. The younger Ryan had met a booking agent in New York who wanted the duo and their band to play on a Celtic-themed Caribbean cruise. An immigration agent at home helped the performers obtain temporary work visas, subject to annual renewals.
Over the next couple of years, The Ryans’ reputation, and that of Paddy as the front man, grew on sea and American soil. Ryan became friendly with some New York City firefighters, who shared their old fire stories and helped him book popular nightclubs in the city. Ryan wrote a song in tribute to Father Mychal Judge, the FDNY chaplain who died in the World Trade Center lobby while helping the victims and first responders of the 9/11 attacks.
The Ryans played the International Celtic Festival at Hunter Mountain near Albany. In the Philly area, the Kevin Barry Gaelic Football Club — a Jenkintown-based nonprofit sports association with Northeast Philly ties — hired Paddy to perform for a fundraiser at the MacSwiney Club.
“I knew he played in New York a lot and was looking to branch out,” said Ciaran Harkin, a member of the football club. “I thought we’d get a new face down here and we gave him a gig. It was a real successful effort.”
Ryan became a familiar name at other Irish clubs around the city, performing at Plough and Stars in Old City and Tir Na Nog in Center City, as well as Temperance House in Newtown, Bucks County.
“When I play in places like Philadelphia, it always surprises me to meet people with such a close connection to the songs,” Ryan said. “They’re literally five-thousand miles away (from Ireland) but know more about Irish history than a lot of people on the island.”
Local nightclub operators have been equally impressed.
“One of our managers saw him play in Newtown. He played a lot of music that was similar to what people know. He’s an Irish ballad kind of guy, a storyteller,” said Joe Driscoll, who books the music for the Ashburner Inn and did the same role at the former Finnigan’s Wake for almost two decades. “That music works in our venue. It creates a more personal feeling with the crowd.”
Ryan describes his solo work as a hybrid of his traditional roots, along with rock, Latin and other influences. He primarily plays an eight-string baritone acoustic guitar. Frank Daly, the lead singer of Irish rock band Jamison and co-founder of the annual Philadelphia Fleadh festival, said that Ryan would have plenty of work in the area. In fact, the city has a tight-knit and growing community of Irish-style musicians and venues.
“If the guy was over here, he’d absolutely get shows,” Daly said. “It’s a very good network in Philly. There’s enough work to go around and it’s good because everybody is doing something different.”
Ryan was planning on returning to the U.S. this month, and debuting his new album of 10 original songs, until immigration officials threw him a curveball. Titled Man in the Box, the album’s release is on hold for now.
In advance of this year’s tour, Ryan’s father decided to leave the group, so Paddy applied for a visa renewal as a solo performer. In the past he had renewed online. But this year the U.S. embassy summoned him for an interview.
When asked about his activities on prior visits, Ryan told the truth about the often unpredictable music business. Immigration officials like artists to nail down their schedules in advance, whereas in reality, gigs can pop up or be postponed on short notice. Ryan told an interviewer that one time, his tin whistle player became ill before a show, so the group had another musician sit in for the night. That was another immigration no-no, apparently.
“Even though it’s my band and I am the lead singer,” Ryan said.
By the end of the interview, Ryan was informed that his application had been rejected, that he would have to apply for a different type of visa as a solo performer and that he would not be able to submit any of his old credentials to support his claim that he’s an established international artist with an American following.
One of the great ironies of it all is that each year, more than 400,000 Irish citizens visit the United States with nothing but a passport. Ireland is one of 38 nations listed in the U.S.’s Visa Waiver Program, allowing its citizens to stay here as tourists for up to 90 days. Ryan thinks that he wouldn’t have been the first musician to come to the U.S. ostensibly as a tourist to avoid the work visa process. But as a prior visa holder, the tourism claim probably wouldn’t have worked for him anyway.
“I’m just trying to do it the right way,” he said. “But it’s hard to build a reputation in the United States when you’re not allowed in the country.” ••