Irish music, play divert attention from war

Paul Sparkes
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If you look back on the years of the two world wars — 1914-18 and 1939-45 — you probably think, as I do, that everyone was occupied all the time with war. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, of course. Life, as they say, goes on.

The music and lyrics for the song “Killarney.”

Nevertheless, when I flipped through a program for an Irish drama staged at the B.I.S. here on the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day 1917, I couldn’t help but think that far away from St. John’s at that very time there was turmoil and death, with our people in the very thick of it.

But, in point of fact, St. Patrick’s Day 1917 saw many serving Newfoundlanders bunked down in the little French village of Meaulte. They had come into the village from the front a few days earlier, even though it was in the Somme Department — a region that will forever be associated with spilled blood.

Small though it was, Meaulte’s main road had, by March of 1917, been tramped smooth and flat by the marching boots of thousands upon thousands of armed men as they advanced eastwards towards the Belgian border. But on this particular occasion, it was the locale for two weeks’ ordered rest for the Newfoundlanders. Uninterrupted sleep was a much anticipated gift.

The St. Patrick’s Day program I was examining was an offering of the old 1860s play “Eileen Oge,” an Irish drama by Edmund Falconer (O’Rourke) 1814-1879. The four-act play includes songs and other music. More on the play in a moment. First we go back to Meaulte.

Travelling band

At the early hour of 7:30 a.m. as the French village slept, our Regimental Band appeared on the main road, travelling in (and on) a decrepit truck. It is a wonder they weren’t all shot, suddenly entering a community filled with sleeping soldiers and with an active war zone not that far away. But the band recklessly broke into the morning stillness, and drove around and around playing snippets of military music. No one stirred.

Capt. G.W.L. Nicholson, in his “The Fighting Newfoundlander” (published by the Government of Newfoundland, 1963), wrote that the band got no reaction until they struck up “The Banks of Newfoundland” (“Up the Pond”):  

“From all quarters, Newfoundlanders burst into the street, dragging on their clothes as they came. The bandsmen were promptly surrounded and carried off, willing captives, to breakfast.”

Newfoundland’s prime minister, Sir Edward Morris, was in the area at the same time. St. Patrick’s Day in France, 1917, turned out to be memorable. Every number the band played was cheered and applauded; there were presentations of awards by the PM — who also spoke and was in his best form, throwing  one hilarious line after another out among the men. “His humorous sallies had his audience in gales of laughter,” Nicholson reported happily.

Reading this, I no longer felt ambivalent about fun and entertainment here at home while there was horror and death in Europe.

The Irish play

Turning back to the program and all three hours of Falconer’s play, it had been attended by Governor and Lady Davidson and Archbishop Roche.

The play had been directed by T.H. O’Neil with a cast of many people with suitably Irish-sounding names: M.J. O’Brien, F.M. O’Leary, Peter O’Mara, Gerald Power, J.J. Mahoney, Alicia Fitzpatrick, Kitty Myler and Bessie Coady.

Incidentally, “Eileen Oge” could not have been easy for our players. It is written in dialect with H’s applied and dropped and language shortcuts peppering the script — Irish-isms.

The orchestra of the Benevolent Irish Society participated, and the presentation must have been quite something, as “Eileen Oge” includes the song “Killarney,” which Falconer wrote for the play (to Michael Balfe’s music). As we all know, that song became a beloved staple.

Under the direction of T.P. Halley (on the piano), the B.I.S. orchestra at that time included T. Power and J.W. Keough on violins, F. Devereaux on mandolin and Hawaiian guitar, P. Fitzgerald and W.J. Darcy on cornets and J.M. Darcy on French horn. You can well imagine that they emitted major sound. I am sorry I cannot provide the musicians’ or actors’ full names. The program gives them as I have done here. In 1917 it would not have been  polite to casually toss off first names. Tut, tut.

A melodrama, “Eileen Oge” had first been performed in London near­ly 50 years before, so the song “Killarney” must have been very well known and popular by the time the play opened here nearly 100 years ago.  If you search “John McCormack Killarney” on Google or YouTube, you will hear the Irish tenor singing it in 1904. It is a scratchy recording (as you might expect) and it does nothing to compliment the great voice. And, by the way, that high note which comes toward the end — “Ever fa-IR Killarney”? McCormack does not rise to it. Tut, tut again.

Let’s have a quick look at the program itself — the leaflet that His Excellency and His Grace would thumb through before the curtain went up. It gave the synopsis of each of the four acts, where the action was occurring, who was there, what was happening: “Scene One, The Haw­thornes; Bridget and her rival adorers — the mystery cleared — Eileen’s love put to the test.” And so on.

Only two pages of the program were concerned with the play — one listing characters and actors and the other, the synopsis. All the other pages were stuffed with money-making ads. Things have changed so radically in 97 years, of course, that the commercial messages become more fascinating than the play description. Here are some ad clippings:

“Newfoundland Postal Tele­graphs: Send your telegrams to the Postal System. Offices in all important places in the Colony, and cable connection with all parts of the world. Having control of mail couriers the Postal System can forward messages to the smallest and most remote settlement in the Island.”

“1917 Spring Shipment of Ceylon Teas just to hand, comprising our favourite brands: Blackrock, Dalkey, Monkstown, Corona.”

“Try our Blue Mountain Jamaica Coffee roasted and ground on the premises. J.D. Ryan.”

We seem to have been deprived of nothing during that war.

Marshall Brothers advertised their exclusive styles, including “the faultless Dorothy Dodd for ladies and the  best good shoe, The Invictus, for men. Full assortment of sizes. Let us shoe you.”  Marshalls launched their full-page ad with this line: “In order to be well received but one irreproachable thing is requisite — Boots.” (One might think that pants would trump boots.)

Newfoundland Wholesale Dry Goods Ltd. advertised itself as “Newfoundland’s Greatest Wholesale Dry Goods House” — and also, “The only exclusive Jobbers of British and American Dry Goods on Water Street.” Its president was W.S. Monroe; vice-president, J.M. Devine, and secretary, J.M. Spearns.

Geo. H. Halley was pushing his Red Rose Crushed Coffee: “Never muddy or bitter, as the new crushing process removes the bitter tasting chaff and dust — Only in sealed tins, 1 lb., 50 cents; 1/2 lb., 25 cents. For further particulars please read the description on the tin.”

Wholesalers Geo. Neal Ltd. adver­tised brown slab tobacco, Champion Soap and Purity Baking Powder.

Of special interest is a full-page ad in the program placed by John Sullivan, Inspector General of the Constabulary and Chief of the Fire Department. Here is an extract:

“Every person who shall carry any fire through the streets, lanes or any wharves in the town, except in some covered vessel, or who shall kindle or light a fire in any of the places aforesaid or who shall carry a lighted pipe, cigar or cigarette on any wharf where hay, straw or any combustible material may be stored, shall for every offence be liable to a fine not less than ten dollars or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month.”

Ten dollars in 1917 would be nearly equivalent to $180 today.

Super reading between acts, right?

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:

Organizations: Somme Department, Benevolent Irish Society, Postal System B.I.S. orchestra Google Newfoundland Wholesale Dry Goods Greatest Wholesale Dry Goods House Neal Inspector General Fire Department

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Meaulte, France London Iceland Water Street

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