Wednesday, 15 April 2015


I wake to find that I have been rehearsing in my dream some new tunes I am learning on the tin-whistle.

My subconscious is doing its job, reviewing and organising the experiences of the day.

For most of my life, I have played the tin-whistle rather aimlessly. My father bought me and my two brothers tin whistles one Christmas when I was about 10 years old. I never went to tin-whistle lessons, but played away to myself. Learning tunes from sheet music would be a chore, so I made up my own tunes and played them to myself. There were a few favourite tunes I liked to play, and it was lovely to break the connection between waking and sleeping with a few tunes in the evening before bed.

Forty years later, I met one of the boys next door at a funeral. He laughed and he said: "My mother used to say you always know when Frankie is at home, because you will hear the tin whistle."

I never considered myself a tin-whistle player, since I never learned any proper tunes, except those that came to  me by accident. At a party or music-session, I would recite an outlandish poem or sing a comic song..

Then, twenty years ago, some musicians of the Land Registry mentioned to me that they were forming a "sessions" group and I joined them. Now, I had to discipline myself to play in rhythm and learn the tunes the others wanted to play - tunes from the vast store of traditional Irish session music and ballads. We called ourselves "The Chancers," which was in line with other social groups in the Land Registry, situated on Chancery Street, Dublin, such as the Chancery Players, (with whom I went on stage in drama) and the Chancery Art Society, which I founded.

Soon afterwards, playing music for the old folks in the sheltered accommodation of Clareville Court Daycare Centre, I joined up with other "amateur" musicians to form The Invincibles.

I had to learn, in double-quick time, a selection of tunes from the vast repertoire of Pat O'Neill, our semi-professional accordionist.

So, a new experience for me, over the last 15 years, is the repeated learning of new tunes. This happens mostly when I have the house more or less to myself.

Yesterday evening my wife went out to a committee meeting. My media-editor son was out watching a movie and my artist son was up in his bedroom-studio painting, so I switched off the television and rehearsed a few new tunes. These are the tunes that continued to play in my brain when I was asleep.

I am not sure that rehearsing of tin-whistle tunes in my sleep is helpful. A professional golfer will tell you that it is not a good idea to rehearse the faulty swings you are trying to eliminate. I fear that in going over the tunes in my sleep, I am rehearsing the errors I make in trying to figure out the notes, rather than the perfected tune. The only rehearsal of value may be the actual playing of the tune, in which the fingers learn to automate the movements necessary to bring the tune into reality.

Waking from such a dream brings a reflective mood.

My wife, last evening, was out at a committee planning another commemoration in Glasnevin Cemetery. How many hours went into the last one I participated in, with the Invincibles, our commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce during the First World War.

The preparation was quite onerous. First, there was, of course, the collection of the material: a task that fell to the National Library and the Cemeteries Museum, who collected and organised a substantial volume of war memorabilia during the course of last year. Then there was the task of selecting material from the collection and other sources (letters from the front, snippets of historical fact, outpourings of poets in the front lines, songs and tunes of and relevant to the period), in consultation with the  museum staff, and combining them in a narrative; then the editing of the text to reduce it to a targeted performance time of one and a quarter hours, and obtaining permission to use copyright material. After that all the members of the band had to learn the tunes, then come together and rehearse them. Then a musical arrangement was generated. Keys were chosen to match the voices. As tin-whistle player, I had the privilege of leading into one of the songs, while a mouth-organ introduced another. Even though the whole band had learned all the tunes, it was discovered that best  effect was achieved sometimes by just the mouth-organ introduction and a female unaccompanied voice on the lyric. Poignant, touching!

Next comes a full, timed, rehearsal, and an additional edit to ensure that the performance comes strictly within the allotted slot.

The material is sent to the printer, and the band rehearses again and again.

Then comes the actual performance in the little chapel in the graveyard on Christmas Eve. Over 200,000 Irishmen fought in the First World War, so the chapel was full of people whose parents or close relations were touched by the war. For example, one neighbour told me his father had been on sentry duty on Christmas Day, 1914, during the unofficial truce. On both sides of no-man's-land, the soldiers were celebrating Christmas. High spirits on the German side caused one German to throw his comrade's helmet out onto no-man's-land. The boy jumped out to retrieve his helmet, and my neighbour's dad shot him. Of all the horrors of the war, this was the incident that haunted him to the end of his life.

 I had the privilege, at this gathering, not only of tin-whistle playing, but of reading letters and poems from the front.

It was a once-off performance, and we have not repeated those songs and tunes in any subsequent performance. Now the question has arisen, not only of reprinting the booklet, which is out of print, but of recording the aural performance. I have a doubt whether the quality of the live performance can be repeated in a studio. When I read in the chapel, for example, Thomas Kettle's sonnet from the front: "To my daughter Betty, a Gift from God," the emotion that filled my voice was a reflection of the emotions of my audience. I suppose, in the studio, I can imagine myself back in the chapel reciting to that very real audience.

The editor had suggested that the poem be cut back (as one measure to keep the performance within 1.25 hours) and only the most relevant lines read, but I felt that the whole poem was necessary, and I got my way:

"In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud, as was your mother's prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You'll ask why I  abandoned you, my own,

"And the dear heart that was your baby thrown
To die with death. And oh! They'll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it with a knowing tone.

"So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,

"But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor."

As I retype the poem, the emotion comes back, and I must cease.

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