A visit to Ireland every week Interview: Radio host for 17 years provides home away from home for those who love Emerald Isle.

Catching Up With ... Ed McBride

March 16, 1997|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Sunday morning. 11 a.m. Stand by.

Ed McBride adjusts his earphones and pulls a red lever in the WTMD (89.7 FM) radio station at Towson State University.

"Welcome to Reflections of Ireland," he says, the lilt ever so slight. He works to warm up his audience:

"You know, you don't have to go to Mass this morning," he starts. "I just got a call from the cardinal.

"Only kidding. But don't hurry up now to the 12 o'clock. The installation of officers for the St. Patrick's Day Parade is going on at 1: 30 p.m. down at the Basilica, and there's a Mass. Afterward, there's a fund-raiser at Mick O'Shea's," he goes on, referring to the Irish pub on Charles Street. "You're all invited."

Boldly, he opens his two-hour weekly radio show with "Bungee Jumping," an accordion piece by Sharon Shannon.

Music, tickets to an Irish dance, a good wish for someone in the hospital, all these he proffers on the air, along with his home phone number. For 17 years he's been introducing Baltimore to the contemporary music of Ireland and paying tribute to birthdays, anniversaries and weddings.

"Which anniversary is it? 44 years married? How many happily?"

Don't expect avant-garde; this is Irish country western, and occasionally ballads akin to Sinatra, but Gaelic. Today there's a steady dose of Mac & O and the Dublin City Ramblers, a pub group in town two weeks ago. Requests stream in for Tony Kenny, the headliner at Jury's Hotel in Dublin, who appeared the previous week at Goucher College.

Received plaque

At the Goucher show -- the Irish bash of the year in Baltimore -- Ed was backstage fixing things, and his wife, Ethna, had gone home to put the salmon in the oven for a post-concert dinner when Ed heard someone call him. Frank Gallagher, president of the Irish Heritage Society, was standing at the dais, holding a fancy plaque. A thank-you for a lifetime of work for the Irish community, for Ed's work to promote Irish heritage and culture in his adopted homeland.

He and Ethna were 19 when they became engaged in Derry. He had a brother in Baltimore and she had a sister in California. They decided to come to America in 1958 and live with their respective siblings. They could visit each other on weekends -- or so they thought.

Ethna baby-sat her way across the country. When she reached the prairie house in Colorado where another sister lived, she considered flying back to Ireland. At least Ireland had running water, and it was hot.

"I'd like to find a way to be in two places at one time," Pat Marnane croons in an oft-requested song: "Home Away From Home."

Ed understands the feeling. If he could have earned a living in Ireland, he might have stayed there. Instead, he works to preserve its memory. He's the kind of man who calls the newspaper to point out that the four-leaf clover used in a classified ad promotion is not the symbol of Ireland; that would be the shamrock, and it has three leaves.

Ethna authenticates him with her brogue, thick as the day she was born. Petite, with coiffed blond hair, she carries Dunkin' Donuts coffee into the radio studio. She offers to answer the second phone at the station and at home when it gets busy. The phone rings constantly, and Ethna, who still baby-sits, but now for her grandchildren, turns it off at nap time.

The skin on her arm is fair, pinky white. When she smiles, her

soft cheeks meet her twinkling blue eyes. She looks like my mother.

She is looking right at me. "Where is your mother from?" she asks, reading my mind.

"County Cork."

"I thought so, by your face."

The red light is on, indicating a phone call. Peggy Ryan says her son's birthday is Thursday. Does Ed have any new Tony Kenny tunes? Yes, he has a new tape.

"And so Sean, this is for you," Ed says.

Next he dedicates a song to anyone who's ever had to put an elderly relative in a nursing home. A couple at the Irish concert at Goucher cornered Ed and asked for it.

"Goodbye love, there's no one leaving " starts the Frank Patterson ballad. In the song, a man likens his sorrow at leading his mother by the hand into the nursing home to what she must have felt the day she dropped him at kindergarten.

"People are sitting home crying," Ed speculates.

He doesn't smoke. He doesn't drink. He doesn't play an instrument. Just when you wonder if this quiet, reserved man is ** truly Irish, he tells a joke.

When Irish entertainers need a hall to play, or a place to stay, they ring Ed McBride. After the last big concert, 12 people spent the night in the McBrides' four-bedroom home. In trans-Atlantic calls, unknown artists beg him to listen to their tapes. The first two days of every trip abroad are devoted to collecting new music. When Dublin recording studios see him at the door, they unfurl a red carpet to stockrooms of new releases.

"It's a hobby," he says.

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