Lasallians Unfiltered – Br. Charles O’Connell, FSC – De La Salle Hall
“For life-loving people like Peter and John singing together celebrated fellowship and remembrance. Both knew how much sorrow our lives contain but remained among the most joyful of men.”
March 17, 2016, Saint Patrick’s Day
Saint Patrick’s Day songfests in America featuring overused oversweet songs pall quickly for me. I attend to honor my Irish ancestors and their dearly bought every day heroism. Still I wonder: hasn’t time come to retire such events with their ethnic cheerleading and outdated sentiment? If Irish Americans had a surer grasp of Irish and Irish American history, would they need tinsel events that pass for homage? How much does Irish America have in common with Ireland’s Irish anymore? The New York City Parade until this year forbade gay people a distinct presence, while the homeland became the first country to legalize same sex marriage by popular vote. But enough philosophy, this songfest will take place in the big room, I’ll be a sport.
The men, old now, fill the big room arranged in two semi-circles. Many sit in wheelchairs, some in recliner like contraptions, called “Jerry chairs,” that can be wheeled about and adjusted like hospital beds. Others occupy regular chairs, mostly younger guests scattered through the group. I sit at the edge of the first semi-circle, bored and dutiful. In front, a young man, 42, leans over a stool arranging his harmonicas. He has the part of folk singer and looks it: pony-tail, well worn moccasins, faded jeans, santa-style red beard. He seems to have stepped off society’s mobility ladder so sings for his supper and for his new son’s whose recent arrival he announced at the entertainment’s start. He moved like any exhausted new father and fumbled locating his songs’ sheet music on its stand. He found all except for “Danny Boy,” whose lyrics then deserted him. He improvised in his strong, gritty baritone and his forgiving audience applauded fervently. The remaining Irish songs he chose contained only one other old chestnut, “The Wild Irish Rover.”
“No, ney, never, no more” go the “Wild Rover’s” lyrics as the Rover pledges to end his wastrel roaming fueled by whiskey and beer. Hearing those words sparked a sudden memory in me, the reluctant attendee. As I sat eyes closed, the exact image of an old friend, Peter, appeared unbidden on my shut eyelids as though on a screen. Pete’s bass could fill a cathedral with those same words or any words he sang. “The Wild Rover” was his crowd pleaser. He infused the song with an elegiac quality raising it above its pub tune pedigree. When he sang, the audience always joined in with gusto. Then he closed, softly lingering on the last “…never, no more.” Peter’s image had uncanny reality, Pete in person. I hadn’t thought of him in a long time and now a tear rolled down from the right eye, then from the left. Until that minute, I hadn’t known how deep my affection for my late confrere Pete Mannion had been. Everyone loved him, in that instant I grasped the reason.
The young songster father up beside the fireplace now sang a prison song I had never heard. Ireland’s vocal tradition has plenty of these songs from centuries of lock up by various uninvited visitors. The singer’s omitting the familiar tunes drew a barely audible sigh of gratitude from me. I’d label myself as one of the “PBS American Irish,” shorthand for someone introduced to the history of his own ancestral isle second or third hand, with much credit to public television’s policy of allotting time for different ethnic groups. For us Irish Americans, generations removed from the fabled voyage to Ellis Island, Irish music and Ireland’s story await distinguishing from the “Irish-American” cultural fusion we learned from movies and group folklore. More recently, colleges, even secondary schools, have offered courses in Irish history and the Irish American Experience, assisting students to form a coherent view. Those of us slightly older had to piece together a perspective on our own. Autodidacts, we had a phase of snobbery, disdaining the familiar. We discovered the Chieftains and scorned Bing Crosby. (Uh, oh, here comes the philosophy.) A strong candidate for the emblematic Irish-American song, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” may sum up the New World hybrid: twinkling eyes, never a tear drop, the emerald isle. We baby boom Irish Americans, after a little education, often reacted against such Irish American expressions as synthetic and saccharine. This reaction may explain the huge popularity of Frank McCourt’s memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” with its depiction of the harsh sides of Irish and Irish American life. McCourt paints pictures of the squalor that mid-century Irish poor endured. Fascinated with this, and not expecting it, American readers can miss McCourt’s wry take on Ireland’s genuine woes as ready for archiving, not for forgetting, his book among final tributes to a tangled past.
America’s immigrant ethnic groups both produced representations to make themselves distinctive and worked side by side with members of other groups to achieve this, a form of America’s “out of many one.” “Irish Eyes” resulted from the joint efforts of an Irish immigrant and a Ziegfeld follies veteran of Dutch-German origin, with the tune contributed by an un-hyphenated American. One famous song about the evanescence of friendship, ”The Last Rose of Summer,” owes its haunting beauty to an Irish poet and a traditional tune most often performed in an arrangement by a German composer. One collaborator on “Irish Eyes,” worked for a time in the psychologically intricate world of minstrelsy, whose stern rules probe deeper into the American psyche than a shelf of scholarship. The tune’s cheerful Irish exist in fantasy, but did its savvy creators conceal recognition of life’s woes? “Let us steal a smile whenever we can,” says the last ambiguous line. Ireland’s own songs speak more of pain than smiling eyes. Created over centuries of struggle with invaders and nature’s anger, much Irish song can fill a space with riffs on death and hunger, prison, flight, rebellion, courage, betrayal. A sensibility of sorrow runs through the songs, a caution against life’s agonizing tricks.
Ireland’s music expresses grief at leaving land and kin, becoming immigrants dependent on the kindness of strangers. Irish abandoned their land for its poverty and decay, its mean dwellings, the violent theft of land and chattels and other depredations by invaders, above all for its hunger. PBS Irish-Americans press on to learn more. For instance, to count among Ireland’s afflictions nature’s putting it in the path of the Norse who, even before the English, had come and taken their portion of loot. The Irish themselves had been formidable warriors. The Northern invaders came with skills that gave them an edge. They pillaged monasteries and denuded farms. Yet scholars now extol the Norsemen’s founding of cities in Ireland. The Norse built them for their own commercial benefit but the cities enhanced Irish life. As suddenly as they came the Northern invaders ceased their visits. In time, the English, close by, saw an opportunity, came and took Dublin, the best city, before the French or Spanish could get there. Some urbanized Irish adopted English ways and thinking, others remained strangers in the captured city, in time a fatal division. The English scorned the rural Irish as animals. The Norse had wanted some outposts, the English complete subjugation: land expropriated, exorbitant rents, merciless evictions. Kings and Queens assailed the island with partial success—from their viewpoint. Cromwell ground down nearly all. Irish landlords adopted the model. Life grew more complex. Danny Boy, almost the unofficial anthem, concludes “Sing an Ave there for me,” beside my grave. An Englishman wrote the song. Meanwhile the Irish Rover, thought a deadbeat by the pub keeper who served his valedictory pints, turns the tables and pulls a fistful of gold coins from his pocket, the booty of his travels. Many claim ownership of the tune: Scots, various seafarers, pub habitués. “The Irish Rover’s” oath and tune trace back at least to the reign of Elizabeth I, a scourge of Ireland. Seemingly a drinking song, scholarship locates its later use in Scotland’s Temperance Movement. Today English soccer games feature its chorus. The folk singer ended the prison song, and took a pause to rest.
Destitute people left Ireland to get something to eat. Ireland endured more than one famine. Blight did not cause them all. Few who went across the ocean returned, they stayed elsewhere to build for others what the Norse had built for them, and modern wonders too, railroads, subways, bridges, tunnels, schools. Their descendants studied in the schools and became learned. These refugees repaid the lands that welcomed them, and then some. The young father leading the day’s entertainment now sang a ballad from Tennessee. Much Appalachian music traces back to Ireland and Scotland and Scotch-Irish. The Tennessee ballad ended with a death.
As the singer finished the Tennessee ballad, Peter’s image took final leave like those cinema ghosts flying away into the back of the screen. I opened my eyes as Peter’s “no, ney, never” faded. I looked across the room past the young singer to where the dog lay on the floor. For no reason whatsoever, the thought occurred that dogs might someday not exist. This dog sat so quietly, so calmly, eyes scanning the semi-circles. The Kings and Queens of England, and Cromwell, sat just so with dogs at their feet. And the hungry Irish, did they take their dogs with them? The singer began another Irish prison lament. No one objected. Better to hear that than some banalities about leprechauns I thought, only to be abashed later reading the charming Irish song “The Leprehaun,” by Patrick Weston Joyce, a giant of Irish historical scholarship. Joyce’s delicate ballad ends, “and the fairy was laughing too,” maybe laughing at ignorant snobbery.
Ponder further this complex story. St. Patrick himself came from Britannia the future bitter rival when transformed into the Angles’ Land. (The parochial school version of this episode usually leaves the children confused at best.) A man of a dying cosmopolitan Roman culture, Patrick left Britannia enslaved by Irish pirates, slipped his chains, became a refugee, returned and conquered Ireland’s ancient culture. He brought her into Europe’s orbit, starting her modern history. Irish history takes shape from its interaction with neighboring peoples, a consequence of the island’s place on the map. It became a haven of scholars, renowned throughout Christendom. Then came the Norse ships and their mixed legacy.
The young father in front of the room neared the end of the prison song from later dark days when Britannia had become Ireland’s nemesis. Looking to the dog’s left I saw John Norton in his jerry chair, another descendant of Irish immigrants. John could no longer speak. He made sounds and had coughing fits, yet smiled and waved when others passed by. Age and infirmity did not conceal his distinguished and aristocratic visage, his face the window to a noble soul. Fashionable neuroscience nowadays says music touches deep memories that stay firm when most of the rest evaporates. Sure enough as the young father sang John beat time on the arm of his chair and swayed to the strumming of the mandolin. John, we knew, had been gentle and loved . Even as age depleted his energies he befriended difficult youngsters, often going to court on their behalf. Colleagues recall the esteem he earned by his dignity and solicitude for the children. His nickname became “Gentleman John.” Before wasting young lives in violence-ridden prisons became a cause, John had arrived at that insight. One lets one’s imagination go: Could some ancient impulse from his ancestral homeland have drawn him to succor prisoners?
Over many years, John engaged all manner of students. One day, a formidable motorcade appeared here followed by an official black car, little flags on its front. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island emerged from the car. He came in, asked for John and spent over an hour with him. John had known the Senator as a school boy over fifty years ago. Before becoming a teacher, when younger than the young singer, John served in the US armed forces. Like other citizen soldiers who served in World War II, he rarely spoke of it. As years passed the details of his service faded among his fellows. His martial story lies palimpsest-like beneath his later years. Some think he had been a pilot or maybe a bombardier, another friend recalls John spoke of piloting a glider. A different version puts him in a desk job. One struggles to imagine John as a warrior. Whatever the job, war didn’t leave him any less an honorable gentleman. His remaining long fruitful life graced the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
Irish song’s verse: “So soon may I follow, when friendships decay, and from love’s shining circle the gems drop away! When true hearts lie wither’d and fond ones are flown, Oh! Who would inhabit this bleak world alone?” I met John when he had diminished physically and faced the end serenely. The kindness he radiated still invariably drew one in. As I heard about John’s life, it seemed he determined no youngster should inhabit this hard world alone, a fine philosophy.
The songfest ended. Glad I had come and ashamed for my earlier sourness, I gave the young father a hearty clap. For life-loving people like Peter and John singing together celebrated fellowship and remembrance. Both knew how much sorrow our lives contain but remained among the most joyful of men. The beauty of their lives joined seamlessly with their embrace of simple human events like our entertainment. I left the big room resolved to look further into the songs of my Irish and Irish American predecessors. The beginnings of this project, whatever its errors, you may find above.
In Memory of
Brother John Norton
March 18, 2016 RIP
Brother Peter Mannion
April 18, 2013 RIP