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New Thoughts on Old Songs

Papa Boy

By Joseph McCahill

When he was very young my Dad heard his father sing “Danny Boy” so many times before hearing it anywhere else that he thought it was an original. He was shocked to hear it in public sung by a stranger. I only recall hearing Papa sing it a couple of times, but one was very memorable. In August of 1994 he and my Grandma Rainy celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary with a huge party in their backyard. They renewed their post-D-Day vows, rented a large tent, hired live entertainment, and invited everyone they knew.

Papa was a salesman for 30 years after the war, and never lost his panache for gab. He had a heavy badge an old Army buddy had given him that looked like a police badge, except that it said, “cut the bullshit, where’s the discount.” While always one up for a good sale, Papa didn’t adhere to the badge. During the later stages of the party, Papa demanded the microphone, and attention. He broke into “Danny Boy,” and silenced the party. I didn’t know at my age, but I imagine the rendition was sobering to the party-goers. Even when sung well, the sadness of the lyrics linger like ominous fog over an uplifting sunrise that is the music. The song includes foreshadowing of death, and unfortunately, this rendition was no exception.

Not a year later, Papa suffered a heart attack and died while on vacation. His funeral was at the same church I grew up going to—the connecting grade-school, the one my dad attended. I was a pallbearer at the age of thirteen. I was not involved in planning much of the funeral mass, had never before lost someone close to me, and was dreadfully unprepared for the weight of a six foot oak casket holding a fully grown man. It was the combination of these things and my grief that pretty much paralyzed me as my brothers, cousins and I carried Papa down the aisle of church. I remember turning from the front near the altar, desperately lifting, and beginning our slow walk. When I looked out at the crowd, I realized for the first time that morning that the church was packed, overfilled to standing room only. In the choir loft, someone was signing “Danny Boy.” The waterworks ensued and by the time we made it to the hearse, I was an absolute wreck. I piece this altogether in narrative form, knowing what obviously happened, but my visual memory serves differently. I distinctly recall looking up to that loft, and before focusing my vision through the tears, seeing Papa not in the casket, but singing once again. Now, more years have passed in my life without Papa than those I had with him, and as my youth passes, the memories of my Grandfather pass too.

When my wife and I went to Ireland on our honeymoon, I felt a sense of humility in all that was there and unknown. Growing up in an Irish-American family only one-hundred years removed from immigration, I felt like a fraud entering my ancestral homeland at the Dublin Airport. My wife was born in Chicago in a Polish-Italian neighborhood. Her parents were one of each. Ireland was foreign to her. I, however, likely had semi-close relatives in Ireland. My name originates on the island, and all four of my grandparents have Irish blood. And yet, I didn’t feel like I was coming home.

There was a line for those with EU passports. It moved quickly, like entering the El with a fare card. There was a longer, more scrutinized line for all others. I was—am—an other there. My home is in Illinois. This was apparent when eating recognizable but just off meals, paying in foreign currency, and driving on the left side of the road.

We were tourists and made our way south, across the countryside to the western coast. As we travelled, and absorbed the flowing landscape, I questioned whether I should have known the story behind that castle, or that county or town. What political battles were fought there? What did certain flags mean, and why were some signs in Gaelic? I suppose it doesn’t exactly matter though. Knowing historical facts is simple. I could Google them or look them up in our tourist books, which, in fact, I did for some. But that’s not the point. What became quite clear to me is how much we lose in one-hundred years, or fifty, or even fifteen. There is no collective unconscious automatically shared through the generations. Not everything is remembered.

And yet I still had a vague, unshakable sense of dj-vu. I was like a student who had attended all the classes, heard all of the discussions and assignments, but had never opened his class book. It was all recognizable, and I knew why. Everywhere I went—in shops, on the streets, in restaurants, the B and B’s and pubs—I saw Papa in the men there. He brought me familiarity in a place he had never been, since, in essence all Papa or I have from Ireland is our biology and our looks. Finding his, and mine, in these strangers was an enormous comfort.

One night in Cork City, my wife and I stayed at a local pub long enough for the bartender to lock the doors to the public, but continue serving drinks to the locals still inside and us. We made fast friends with the older regulars at the “closed” pub, and at some point our conversation led to me divulge that my wife was a classically trained vocalist. They asked for some songs, and promised to provide lyrical queues if she got stuck. Sure enough, the request list eventually got to “Danny Boy,” and my wife began “the pipes the pipes” with an older Irish accompanist. They stumbled on some words (there are many variations), but they rallied, and hit the last part—the death kneeling part—in stride. I saw the other guys at the bar, the ones who were not singing, mesmerized by her voice. I was not home, but I knew in a peculiar way that I had been there before.

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