As Irish as a song

Marjorie Doyle
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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.

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."

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.

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 100th 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 onto 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.

Marjorie Doyle is the author of "Reels, Rock and Rosaries: Confessions of a Newfoundland Musician." Visit her website at www.marjoriedoyle.ca.

Organizations: Benevolent Irish Society

Geographic location: Ireland, Newfoundland, St. John's Canada Bendemeer Tipperary Galway Bay

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Recent comments

  • Christine
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    Marjorie, you just took me back decades to a little girl sitting on the cold brown linoleum floor, basked in the morning sunlight listening to my Dad shaving as he sang Galway Bay and oh Danny Boy!!! And to my neighbour, on his way to morning Mass, stopping and smiling as I rode my bike up and down Patrick Street singing Galway Bay to the top of my lungs!!

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    I am reading the novel Ireland by Frank Delaney , a brute of a book and beautifully written , much like your lovely story here today . I was taught by the Presentation Sisters . Under their guidance I have become the woman I am today . Your writing style and your ability to entertain will have me searching out your book Reels , Rock and Rosaries .

  • Doris
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    My name was Flynn.
    This column brouoght back a lot of wonderful memories and I must confess, a few tears.

    Happy St. Patrick's Day to all.

  • Maggie
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    Thank you so much, I grew up in St.Marys, and I moved to Ontario as a teenager.. I still have my waiste lenght RED Hair and My Freckles, People always ask me if I am Irish, And because I never did loose my accent or ways of speaking..I just say, No Ducky.
    I was born a Newfoundlander and I will always be one..Our Bodies may travel, but our hearts are home in Newfoundland
    Going for a mug-up and getting my old bones to bed
    Stay well and Chipper
    Maggie

  • Dallas
    July 02, 2010 - 13:20

    LOVED READING THAT STORY ESPECIALLY ON ST PADDT'S DAY NOT IRISH BUT FROM ST JOHN'S LEFT MANY YEARS AGO BUT MY BROTHERS STILL LIVE THERE WE ARE THE MORGANS FROM BLACKMARSH RD THANKS AGAIN

  • patricia
    July 02, 2010 - 13:13

    Kudos on your column on St Patrick's day.I too as my name implies was born to an Irish clan,went to St Patrick's convent School on Patrick St and the first song I ever learned was Galway bay.You evoked a lot of memories

  • Bernice
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    Thanks for the Memories!

  • Sean
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    Thanks for the memories.I went to Holy Cross School on St.Patricks St.in the 50s and 60s.And I can certainly relate to your story.My dad would sing Galway Bay as he shaved at the mirror in the morning...with the pipe smoke from Jack Barrys pipe drifting through the sun lit room!Oh my,young lady!What have you started here.....I loved the story.....and someone will have to tell me where and how I can buy your book from Houston!Thank you and Many More St.Paddies to you!!

  • Christine
    July 01, 2010 - 20:13

    Marjorie, you just took me back decades to a little girl sitting on the cold brown linoleum floor, basked in the morning sunlight listening to my Dad shaving as he sang Galway Bay and oh Danny Boy!!! And to my neighbour, on his way to morning Mass, stopping and smiling as I rode my bike up and down Patrick Street singing Galway Bay to the top of my lungs!!

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:05

    I am reading the novel Ireland by Frank Delaney , a brute of a book and beautifully written , much like your lovely story here today . I was taught by the Presentation Sisters . Under their guidance I have become the woman I am today . Your writing style and your ability to entertain will have me searching out your book Reels , Rock and Rosaries .

  • Doris
    July 01, 2010 - 20:05

    My name was Flynn.
    This column brouoght back a lot of wonderful memories and I must confess, a few tears.

    Happy St. Patrick's Day to all.

  • Maggie
    July 01, 2010 - 20:04

    Thank you so much, I grew up in St.Marys, and I moved to Ontario as a teenager.. I still have my waiste lenght RED Hair and My Freckles, People always ask me if I am Irish, And because I never did loose my accent or ways of speaking..I just say, No Ducky.
    I was born a Newfoundlander and I will always be one..Our Bodies may travel, but our hearts are home in Newfoundland
    Going for a mug-up and getting my old bones to bed
    Stay well and Chipper
    Maggie

  • Dallas
    July 01, 2010 - 20:02

    LOVED READING THAT STORY ESPECIALLY ON ST PADDT'S DAY NOT IRISH BUT FROM ST JOHN'S LEFT MANY YEARS AGO BUT MY BROTHERS STILL LIVE THERE WE ARE THE MORGANS FROM BLACKMARSH RD THANKS AGAIN

  • patricia
    July 01, 2010 - 19:52

    Kudos on your column on St Patrick's day.I too as my name implies was born to an Irish clan,went to St Patrick's convent School on Patrick St and the first song I ever learned was Galway bay.You evoked a lot of memories

  • Bernice
    July 01, 2010 - 19:48

    Thanks for the Memories!

  • Sean
    July 01, 2010 - 19:46

    Thanks for the memories.I went to Holy Cross School on St.Patricks St.in the 50s and 60s.And I can certainly relate to your story.My dad would sing Galway Bay as he shaved at the mirror in the morning...with the pipe smoke from Jack Barrys pipe drifting through the sun lit room!Oh my,young lady!What have you started here.....I loved the story.....and someone will have to tell me where and how I can buy your book from Houston!Thank you and Many More St.Paddies to you!!