As Irish as a song

MARJORIE DOYLE

My name is Doyle. I hang off a tree with Devines, Foleys, Coffeys, Sullivans. I can sing and play 132 Irish songs. You might think me Irish.

Marjorie Doyle

In my childhood, St. Patrick's Day was a school holiday. Colourful banners and flags were strung from our parish church high on a St. John's hill to the Benevolent Irish Society below. At home, we raised an Irish flag — a gold harp on a green background — and sang the ballads of Thomas Moore, a famous 19th-century Irish poet. Our speech clung to that musical tense which converts the prosaic "I've told her" to "I'm after telling her." We said "ye" for you, "minding youngsters," for babysitting children and "tea" for supper.  Our sentences were sprinkled with "poor soul" and "God rest his soul."

If, on a sunny day, we saw a hearse in front of the church, we'd cheerfully mutter, "Happy is the corpse that the sun shines on." We walked to school bundled in drab woollen coats and always had a bandanna handy in case we needed to slip into the church. We were miniature Irish crones.

When I visited the mainland as a child, adults adding up my red hair, fair complexion and Newfoundland accent, would declare, She's so Irish. I would give a girlish smile of compliance, charmed to be thought so charming. When I stumbled into the writing of Edna O'Brien, Brendan Behan and Brian Moore, I thought: My literature.

And yet I wouldn't know a caubeen from a cruishkeen. My connection to the old sod is remote. I'm a seventh-generation Newfoundlander. True, the Irish made up at least half of this island society, but that was a long time ago. Irishness flowed into my childhood in a reliable cultural conduit: music. It flowed like an intravenous drip from Blarney to our convent school.

The Presentation Sisters (from Ireland) arrived in Newfoundland in 1833. Young girls were still coming out to become nuns here as late as 1911. One of the last of the Irish-born sisters — who'd left Tralee in the 1880s — was still giving piano lessons in the convent parlour during my childhood. On her one hundredth birthday she was carried out to the school and down the narrow staircase to our basement auditorium. She was eased into a humble throne, an armchair, and we sang for her The Rose of Tralee, The Young May Moon, and Bendemeer's Stream, sang as if we ourselves had been raised in the streets of Tipperary.

We were wriggling through childhood under a heavy Irish shroud, but we never heard the word Ireland. I squint through the endless corridors of childhood memory; I squeeze my body tight trying to recall a reference. I block sound, trying to hear what Mother Aloysius is saying to the class, trying to read her lips, but Ireland is not there.

Was there a single Irish story in all our readers? From school, I recall dreary talk of Canada: reciprocity and car manufacturing. I remember a book with colourful child-heroes from many countries, but I can't picture an Irish poet, patriot or colleen (GIRL).  The curriculum, likely beyond the control of the nuns, was barren of Ireland. But the music was not, and the lyrics of a song can carry sentiment, fictions and fact.

Oh Paddy dear and did you hear the news that's going 'round,
the shamrock is forbid by law to grow on Irish ground;
St. Patrick's Day no more we'll keep, his colour can't be seen,
for there's a bloody law against the wearing of the green.

I know the story, but not from reading or scholarly research.

A few years ago I was in the home of an 86-year-old man a few days before he died. He startled his children by sputtering out a song they'd never heard before, as if a tightly locked memory had loosened a little, unfolding a ballad of cowards, patriots and a freed land. That's one way to pass on the story of the United Irishmen and Wolfe Tone, and the Rebellion of 1798.

When I meet second-generation Canadians, I am often startled by how remote they seem from their parents' home countries. In one generation — 20 years, say — the links have weakened, grown rusty, as families hug tight to their new country.  The power of music! My people were gone from Irish soil 150 YEARS before my childhood, but Ireland was the world we brushed up against through the closeted nuns, the country we travelled to in their songs.

We were growing up in Canada (well, Newfoundland) in the 1960s. Across the country, youngsters our age were cheerfully counting "one little, two little, three Canadians" as Bobby Gimby lured Canadians to Expo '67.  We were mourning the boy-hero Kevin Barry who "high upon the gallows tree" hanged "for the cause of liberty." As Canadians sang Happy Birthday to their 100-year-old-country, we squeezed on to choral risers, praised the 18th-century patriot Napper Tandy and shared dreams and promises of a "return" to Galway Bay with an ancient Irish nun.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Marjorie Doyle, "As Irish as a song." National Post, (Canada) March 17, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Marjorie Doyle.

See Marjorie Doyle's page at Pottersfield Press here and at The Writers' Union of Canada here.

THE AUTHOR

Marjorie Doyle was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She received an M.A. from Memorial University in 1987. For ten years she worked as a broadcaster on various CBC radio shows, including five years as host of That Time of the Night. She was a columnsit with the Globe and Mail 1997-2000, a music columnist with the St. John’s Evening Telegram 1989-91. She's published in Queen's Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead, Geist, Ottawa Citizen, This Magazine and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Marjorie Doyle is the author, most recently of Reels, Rock and Rosaries: Confessions of a Newfoundland Musician as well as A View of Her Own and Newfoundlander in Exile: The Life and Times of Philip Tocque (1814-1899).

Copyright © 2006 National Post


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