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Sure They Called It Ireland

by Corky Deir Rawson, condensed from “The Last of the Magic”, her collection of short stories about growing up in Windsor. Available at the Times office for $13.

The great miracle about St. Patrick’s Day is that it ever survived the ravages each year of those dreadful school concerts, perpetuated in the name of the patient old Saint of Erin! At best, the English language was a second tongue to eighty-five percent of the pupils at St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic School in the ‘30’s.

With names like Dubrowski and LeFevre, Brueghermann or Salamankis, kids of every known dialect and coloring gave out what they imagined to be typically Irish songs, presented in a cacophony of pseudo-Irish accents.

In so lush and dense a forest of foreign sounds, the knack of replicating a true Irish Brogue was rare indeed, but the Kellys and Muldoons managed each year, to set things to rights, up there on the little makeshift stage, in the sweaty miasma of the gymnasium. They knew all the songs, and their voices, like little crystal bells, could wring tears from the eyes of the nuns.

In 1934, Louise Mahoney and her twin sister Lucy moved from eastern Ontario. They became a great new force for the Grade six sopranos. They brought perfect pitch and voices like pure silver, quivering in space.

One particular St. Patrick’s Day, (that of 1936), ten days after the tenth birthday of the Mahoney twins, Louise was to sing the soprano solo part of “Danny Boy” and the big opening and closing numbers. But she wakened with a croaking case of laryngitis and a worse case of panic.

Mrs. Mahoney directed a solid half hour of deep gargling with warm salt water, punctuated by earnest supplications to the Blessed Mother to restore the voice of the little soloist.

“Ah Blessed Mary, Mother o’ God! And on the grand Saint’s very day too! Wouldn’t it do great honour to the old Bishop to cure the young voice now, for the honour and glory o’ God and all who’ve worked so hard for this day.”

And she eased her way into several decades of the Rosary for these petitions and others, while she was at it. “Hail Mary full o’ grace. The Lord is with thee,“and over the anxious woman’s prayers, the persistent, gutteral “Aahrgghghghghgh” of the gargling treatment, to mend the young throat, on the practical side of heaven’s influence.

And sure enough, at twenty minutes to nine, the twins shot out their front door on Allendale as though from guns. The young throats were wound about with woolen mufflers, like Egyptian mummies, wool toques pulled well down against the cold, and breathing into the folds of cloth, they strode out into the frosty morning.

They reached the heavy doors just as the last three girls trooped in, the loud brass note of the bell humming frozen in the air.

“Good morning girls, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to YOU!” the young pink-faced nun croons.

“Good morning Mother Gerald, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to YOU!” the smooth, eager faces answer in chorus.

“The concert will begin at 10:30 in the gymnasium and those participating will be excused from class for rehearsal onstage, at 9:30.

A startling clang from the wall bell in the hall catapulted the eight performers to their feet. In an orderly line, they marched without a sound; they entered into the land of Irish song-and dance on a wooden stage devoid of scenery, flats or real curtains.

With a low buzz, the audience filed into the gym to sit in graduated rows of chairs on the uneven floor of polished wood. Then the big lights in their wire mesh cages went dark, a makeshift curtain affair clacked open and the lights over the stage went on, to reveal a handpicked Irish choir of Czech, Lebanese, Syrian, Italian, French Canadian, Polish, Hungarian, Greek and Portuguese girls, aged eight to fifteen, singing at the top of their collective, multicultural lungs.

“When Irish Eyes is Smilin’

Sure ‘tis like a morn is Spring…”

The ethnic voices drop to a hum, forming a reasonable background for Louise Mahoney’s clear solo. Her voice rises sweet and true, giving joy to all, and “glory to God and to Erin.”

“There’s a tear in your eye, and I’m wondering why, For it never should be there at all…”

In roars the boiling-pot of voices, stronger for the hum and the momentary rest.

“When Irish Eyes is smilin’

Sure ‘tis like a morning-Spring…”

And on the last lines, the Mahoneys’, the Kellys’ and the Muldoons’ voices rise to the high soprano notes and hang there forever, it seems. “Sure they’ll stee-heel yer heart a—way—hayy” and the audience sits transfixed, pinned by that last note, its mutual skin in one gigantic goose bump, its hair prickling and bristling up the back of its electrified neck. Suddenly high emotion breaks, and applause comes in waves of rubber-handed appreciation.

The concert of ’36 was never topped. It stood out like the flashing emerald jewel it was, in a sea of common pebbles, and Mrs. Mahoney never forgot the finest details of her early morning throat-doctoring to “save her Louise’s keystone performance for the dear little nuns.” Each time she’d tell the story, the basins of saltwater-gargle would multiply, until they’d all been up since four a.m. to put things right for the redoubtable St. Patrick “on his very own feast day, don’t ya see?”


 

 

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