As Irish as a songMARJORIE 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.
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.
I know the story, but not from reading or scholarly research.
Marjorie Doyle, "As Irish as a song." National Post, (Canada) March 17, 2006.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Marjorie Doyle.
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).
© 2006 National Post
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