Sunday, 29 October 2017

My Musical Memories

By Marion Riley


My music corner
© Marion Riley

At the age of fourteen when I left Limerick, I could play the piano by memory so once the notes were learned, I didn't need a music sheet. But nowadays I have to have the music sheet in front of me.  It's like as if that particular part of my brain froze when I left.  When I see an old piano in a hidden corner of a hotel or pub, I instantly recall the notes to The Irish Washerwoman, Garryowen and others. But the ones learnt since I left Ireland fail me without a music sheet.  So wherever I travel, I bring music sheets with me, just in case I find a piano waiting and no one around to make me nervous.

Some of my piano sheet music is parched yellow, stuck together with Sellotape and at least a hundred years old. Some are not even Irish songs but they remind me of emigration. For example, The Maori song which belonged to my grandmother.
Now is the Hour when we must say goodbye, soon you'll be sailing far across the sea.  
Image: By NAC (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My mother taught me and my late brothers. They went on to be musicians playing with both Irish and English bands In England and Germany.  But my sister refused to learn, she didn't like the practising of countless scales and wanted to play like Mozart, without any effort.

Mayo Mermaids by Percy French
Image: Robin Hutton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jigs and reels I play, the songs of Percy French and Thomas Moore, waltzes and the national anthem from an original copy of The Soldiers Song. My favourite songs are The Rose of Tralee and The Last Rose of Summer.  We played these at my mother's funeral for she was born in Tralee, survived her six siblings into lonely old age and passed away as the last roses were fading.

Photo via, Public Domain

And how music reminds me of childhood days, especially

Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of girlhood's years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm'd and gone

When I play the ivory keys, I’m back in green fields beneath purple mountains. I'm in old fashioned gypsy caravans. I'm swimming in the Atlantic waves, climbing old haystacks, picnicking by lakes and the River Shannon.  I smell the turf burning in the fires and see the candles lit all over Ireland on Christmas Eve guiding the Holy Family. I share the tears of those left behind as they wave goodbye to their sons and daughters.

River Shannon
Image: Publicdomain, via Wikimedia Commons

When I play Kevin Barry I'm reminded of my parents' parties. Too young to join in, I used to sit at the top of the stairs and listen to a northern Irish lady who for peace of mind, left her Derry home to live in Limerick. She sang with such emotion about 18-year-old Kevin and also Terence Sweeney. Lord mayor of Cork. 

Hearing the words of Just a Lad of Eighteen Summers and Shall My Soul Pass Through old Ireland fired my young imagination to such an extent that I dreamt of being like Joan of Arc, and riding forth to free my country. How easily influenced but how idealist are the young! 

One of my favourite music pieces is Éamonn an Chnoic:
 ‘Cé hé sin amuigh a bhfuil faobhar ar a ghuth
Ag réabadh mo dhorais dúnta?’
When I play this I'm back in Laurel Hill's school choir while the nun tries to get us girls to sing in unison and in tune. We're not taking it seriously especially those of us in the back row like myself.  We are giggling, and the poor nun is jumping up and down in frustration. Now, how I really appreciate the words and the haunting music, the energy and commitment of that poor sister!

Image: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How I enjoy playing jigs, reels and hornpipes to get the hands tapping and the feet moving, especially in the company of an Irish audience which has a particular gift to change from melancholy to sheer joy, even madness in a matter of seconds. Indeed, the Irish genes have been passed down to my half French grandson living down south. Apart from attending Irish dancing classes, when 8 years of age, he used to spontaneously dance everywhere, in supermarkets, at bus and railway stations, in car parks, even on the shingle shores of Brighton. 

I'm so grateful to my dear mother. She was one exam away from a Trinity College qualification to teach the piano, when her father packed her off to the wilds of Kerry to improve her Irish language skills. He was more into education than music and how she often spoke of her regret in missing out on this exam.  But her loss was my gain, she might not have had time to teach me had she been engaged with many other would be pianists.

Photo via

She always said that a person would never be lonely if they could play a musical instrument.  And how right she was.  Now that the children have left my nest and the grandchildren are in their teens and so involved with their phones and their computers and game boxes, I'm not needed as much as before. But I only have to play my music and I'm back in its melody of memories of the land across the Irish sea where I first learnt the five-finger exercise, almost three score years and ten ago. 

Text © Marion Riley
Marion Riley was born in Limerick city and emigrated as a teenager to Manchester. She has worked in Sardinia, Spain, Switzerland and France. A winner and runner up of Irelands Own writing competitions, the magazine has published many of her stories and articles. Her monologues have been performed at the Library Theatre and the Royal Exchange and her poems and memoirs have been published in various anthologies such as Write North West.  Two of her short story Films 'Curls of the Past' and 'Letting Go' are on the BBC website Telling Lives. She has also edited and published her late mother's memoirs' From Kerry Child to Limerick Lady.' Marion now lives in Sussex, close to daughter where there is space and peace for quiet reflection on life's transience

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