I BOUGHT a new book of poetry the other day – which is very unlike me. I’m not a poetry buff at all, apart from hero worshipping Patrick Kavanagh – the only poet I’ve ever encountered whose verse I memorised without even realising it. Talk about rote learning! He wasn’t even on the curriculum in my day, and I certainly wasn’t looking out for his ghost in Baggot Street back in the 60’s when I worked in nearby Government Buildings for a few months. But I was there when they were spraying the potatoes.
Even now, as regular readers will have noted, whenever I’m stuck for an authority to back up my own childhood memories or even some of my more mischievous ideas, some quote or other from Kavanagh comes to mind. “Is he the only poet you know?” I’ve been asked. Merciful hour! I hope I didn’t turn the best poet (in my opinion) that the country ever produced, into a cliché.
Anyhow back to the book of poetry that caught my attention. It was Eilean Ni Cuilleanain’s latest collection ‘The Boys of Bluehill’. Actually it was the title that took my fancy. It had a certain resonance for me. For the Boys of Bluehill and I go back a long way. You could say we were childhood acquaintances – I wouldn’t go so far as to say sweethearts.
Imagine my disappointment then when I flicked through the pages and found not a single poem about ‘The Boys of Bluehill’. But I bought the book anyway because, as I said, we do go back a long way.
Then I heard Eilean, the poet, on the radio being interviewed on the subject of her new collection and heard her explain that the title was a tribute to her late sister, Maire, a talented concert violinist who died tragically young and who had once played with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. She remembered her sister playing a hornpipe on the violin when she was 12, and the title of the hornpipe was, of course, ‘The Boys of Bluehill’.
Suddenly I was back again in Mrs Bourke’s farmhouse parlour in Silvermines, fiddle placed firmly under my 11-year -wwold chin and a well rosined bow held aloft like a maestro, about to launch into a version of the ‘Boys of Bluehill’ that nobody had ever heard before and hopefully nobody ever will again. I missed, not only the beat, but half the notes as well – and nearly mangled the fiddle in the process - while Mrs Bourke, the consummate professional, maintained her composure throughout the ear splitting performance, and then calmly told me to go home and practice.
That was easier said than done. At home they had taken to sticking wads of cotton wool in their ears whenever I went near the instrument and my father headed for the pub every time I inadvertently hit a bum note – which caused even more conflict. Someone even suggested once that I might practice out in the shed. But they must have indulged me some bit because in the end I thought I was Yehudi Menuhin. I had finally mastered ‘The Boys of Bluehill’ and to my parent’s utter embarrassment, I insisted on playing it for everyone who called to the house.
It was very unusual to find a music school in a small village back in the 1950’s, so we were very privileged indeed. And although pianos were rare in the community, there were fiddles in abundance.
Nearly every house had a fiddle stored in a loft or hanging on a wall. What they were doing while Rome burned was pretty obvious, although it has to be said that the village was a hotbed of revolutionary fervour nearly a century ago. In any case the music flowed and the school flourished. My own fiddle had belonged to an ancestor whose musical genes seemed to have skipped a couple of generations, because I hadn’t a note in my head not to talk of trying to make one on a fiddle string. The fiddle case had been lost over the years, but my mother sewed a canvas bag together for me which was another minor source of personal humiliation. The bow was always getting stuck in the spokes of my bike and the strings of the instrument were constantly snapping. “My G string is gone,” I’d wail and my mother would reply ‘more money’. I think I knew even then that they weren’t really expecting any return from their investment.
But we had great fun and the camaraderie was memorable. We wore a green and white uniform and played in a band at concerts in the parish hall, although I was usually consigned to the ranks of the triangle players at the side – another blow to the developing ego. Our signature tune was ‘The Boys of Bluehill’. Some of our members were very talented and only last year I met a woman I hadn’t seen for nearly 60 years. Her family had gone to live in England when we were all still in primary school, but to this day, every time she and her brother meet up they take out their violins and have a session.
Even I got something out of the music lessons. Apart from learning how to cope with my punctured vanity, I also learned all about quavers, semiquavers and crotchets, and became quite adept at fractions and mental arithmetic. And now, after all those years, the lessons that once had me stumped have given me an unexpected empathy with one of our most eminent poets.