Friday 25 September 2015

THE BAND: A Parallel Life

The Band

‘If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward.' (Mark 9)

A cup of water given, the gift of a musical instrument, responding to a poor person, chance encounters, a photo posted on facebook - the prophetic nature of seemingly insignificant acts. Signs of the active presence of God in ordinary life experiences.

It’s odd, even interesting at times how things converge. Sometimes I call it Providence. A friend posted a photo on facebook from the early 1970’s of the Mervue/Renmore Comhaltas Ceoltori featuring my sister Rosaleen and myself among others, including two members of St. Patrick’s School Band of which I also was a member.

The following evening we were having dinner with a family who used to live beside us in Mervue, three of whom were home from the USA for a short break. An absolutely beautiful evening of connecting and remembering.

We talked lightly about what threats our parent’s used to get us to do what they wanted. I mentioned the threat of Letterfrack that was used to frighten me into getting my act together. The younger ones at the table never heard of it. The older among us remember well the talk of it.

The photo stirred memories of a difficult period in my childhood, especially the years 1965-1966 when I was in my final year in Primary. School had become a serious problem for me when I was about nine and I began mitching when I was ten. The report of it got home and there was, quite naturally, consternation and uproar.

I was caught between a rock and a hard place. Being in trouble at school meant being in trouble at home; it meant being punished in one way or another in both places. It was then that the threat of Letterfrack was issued and I was perversely relieved at the prospect. And oddly, from the perspective of what we know today, no one ever asked me why or what was wrong and I didn’t have the words to explain myself.

But I had refuge in the empty sanctuary of the Augustinian church and the band was my great escape into a parallel world.

The Band was given to me in the ways of Divine Providence. When I was in third class the Principal, Brother Cuthbert, wanted to start a choir so he went round the classes auditioning. When he rejected me my teacher, Brother Claver, asked him to listen again and I was chosen the second time, even being given a solo for An Poc Ar Buile.

The choir transmuted into a mouth organ band and I was handed a Horner alto which he taught me to play. Neither he nor I had any idea of the importance of this moment for this period in my life. I had no ambition to play any musical instrument. It was given to me, I accepted it and, while I had no passion for it, I was technically very good.

The mouth organ band in its turn transmuted into a ceili band under the very capable guidance of Brother Albinus and I was the leader of the band, out front on my own when we marched in parades.

It was in this that I entered into the parallel life that I loved so much. Not the music but the friendship, enjoyment and especially travelling to fleadh ceoil’s all around the country. In the way that I had no words to express my sorrow, I have no words to express the joy of those days, those journeys.

We won many prizes, including all-Ireland’s as a band and as individuals. I came first in solo all-Ireland’s in 1968 & 1970 as well as a number of province and county competitions. From being an accordion, tin whistle, mouth organ band with a drummer, we graduated to playing fiddles and banjo as well. Again I was given a banjo to learn and play, though again I had no personal interest in it as an instrument. I probably didn’t even like it but it turns out that I was good at it, even being singled out for praise at the all-Ireland one year. I was mystified when the judge spoke his praise of my playing. Mystified, because it was news to me that I was any good at all.

Evelyn asks me if I was nervous performing in front of other people. Nervousness, self-consciousness or pride never entered my head. I simply played and was very content doing so. And it was the only sphere of life in those few years where there was no trouble.

I thank God for it because without it I would not have survived as well as I did or maybe not survived at all.

So, I’m thinking that God gives us gifts for a time in our lives, prophetic gifts that speak of his presence, a presence that often simply keeps us going, hanging in there for want of a better phrase.

I played the mouth organ for the season in which it was given, for its time and I don’t play it anymore because it’s time and mine has passed. There are other prophetic gifts given along the way so that I may remember the simple truth that God is with me, with us.

I have just met Andy Byrne down at the Post Office here in Shankill, a widower and mouth organ player who asked me if I picked up playing it again. When I said no, he suggested I get one and start playing – the longer type in the key of G. He and I met three years ago when his wife Nora died and I celebrated her funeral Mass. At the burial he himself played the mouth organ and sang at her grave. A most touching moment.

Is this convergence a prophetic meeting reminding me that I have need to play the mouth organ again for some reason?

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