[Editor: This article by P. I. O’Leary was published in the “Books & Bookmen” column in The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), 19 July 1944. It was the last article O’Leary wrote (he died on 21 July 1944).]
Out of other days
Memory lays invisible hands
A recent death which touched me very closely and personally set my thoughts wandering back on old ways and through remembered yesterdays. The springs of the heart lie very close to those of the mind. They feed one another.
When, as in my case, someone who has been dear to us — who has shared our delights and, yes, our dolours — leaves these earthly pieces, heart and mind interact. The emptiness of the former, so intensely felt, is filled by the latter with memories. These recollections take many forms — and are very real. They wreathe about the departed one’s remembered personality, about things and experiences shared together. A thousand and one casual, trivial, unimportant words and acts, long forgotten, take sound, or shape, again. They assume a new richness and importance. Grief makes of them a sharp blade. Yet all is not grief. For resignation and a sort of grave joy is mixed with it.
This is well. We know we have here but a passing tenement. Our stay, at the longest, is but a span, Sooner, or later, comes the summons and the melancholy hic jacet is written above us.
However, though there is sadness in parting, there is gladness in remembrance. And we know just where remembrance is best — and where it is most rewarded. For memory holds the door — to prayer.
Echoes from yesterday
This is to be no parade of my natural grief at the death of my sister. My reference to that lamentable, but not unexpected event, is for the purpose of telling with what strange clearness some memories of other years loomed into my mind; how vivid and sharp they were.
I remembered, for example, how I always, when young, knelt next to her when the household Rosary was being said by us. I recall, as though it were this moment, the generous addenda of “trimmings.” For I didn’t have to wait for “John O’Brien” to tell me what’ these “trimmings” were; though I hope that that good friend of mine will add one for me when he recites his own Rosary.
Again, I recall very clearly our family choruses around the piano at night-time, when the domestic circle, and, I must confess, the choral strength was increased by the community voices of boyhood friends. My sister played — and we sang loudly and, I love to believe, not unmelodiously.
Old songs — and songs, then, not so old — one good thing at least the radio has done is to revive many of them — were familiar to us.
Our own tunes
Familiar to us as well were tunes not so well known, such as “The Blackbird” and “Old Dog Tray,” to mention but two. We had, too, our own melodies to which to fit the words of Allingham’s beautiful “Up the Airy Mountain” — to name it by its opening words; Mangan’s “Dark Rosaleen,” Scott’s “Melrose Abbey” and a “suite” of fascinating “Come All Ye”-s, together with lusty-voiced favourites, such as “Brian O’Lynn,” “The Pike Up Near the Rafters,” “The Wild Colonial Boy,” “Bingen on the Rhine,” “The Croppy Boy” and a store more.
It is such simple things that are the very fabric of memory.
I have mentioned Allingham. Do you remember his utterly simple “Four Ducks on a Pond”? Nothing could be briefer, less verbally plain. Yes, in that little lyric is all the regret in things of childhood remembered in after years. I don’t know why, but I have always been of the mind that Yeats had that perfect little poem in his thoughts when he wrote “The Salley Gardens.”
Fascination of winter
There was a wonderful magic in rainy days, I remember. There still is, of course, but we are not so responsive to it as in the days I here recall. We would press our faces to the pane of the breath-misted window and watch the rain coming down.
There was the biggest and squarest-set couch in the world at that window, which was fronted by three silver gums. Inside was a glorious fire, fed by real logs, in a real fireplace. And outside was all the wizardry of winter, with its copious skies and its long vistas of streaming and muddy ways.
For it was a country town — and you could see for miles and miles.
We really thought (and I am not sure that we were not right) that if we looked intently enough, and — oh, precious proviso of golden childhood! — believed enough, we could see, say, Mount Chimborazo, or Popocatepetl or Cotopaxi (how those names used to fascinate me), or the Mountains of the Moon.
In any case, if we did not see them we dreamed about them, which is the next best thing — or, perhaps, the best thing.
In our house — it was “the” schoolhouse — was a white-washed, comfortably-furnished room. We called it “The White Room.” I have mentioned it on this Page before. That room was kept for callers off the road, who wanted rest, refreshment and a roof. These were not a few in the round of the year; but each and all were welcome and sat at the table with us. That was my father’s insistence, and my mother’s wish, too. Nor was there any speeding of the parting guest — with an emphasis on the “speeding.”
It were a poor hospitality, and charity, planned on such unseemly lines.
Well, did such travellers requite, haven and repast. For, if they did not repay my father — materially, of course, they didn’t, even if they were able to; they dare not offer payment — they, with many a sustaining loaf of story and lore, filled our imaginations. For we had unappeasable appetites for such wonderful things as they told us.
Of course, we must have brought our own contribution of curiosity, fancy and spelled hearing to the feast. We paid for the milk of whimsical narrative and reported adventure with the loaf of joyous listening. Equally, of course, we were ready instruments upon which these masters — or so they then seemed — played. And I suspect, now, they used the long bow.
That suspicion, perhaps, is because I am not longer young, and am, more or less, losing my loyalty to those roving magicians I knew of old.
However, I doubt this self-incrimination. For I have only to remember my sister and the rest of us as we listened entranced to those recollected stories of fairies and leprechauns and the sidhe and of strange and unaccountable things done, to recapture that fine, if, now and then, somewhat disquieting, rapture.
For there was something disturbing in it. You cannot go to your bedroom along a passage, the moving, if not precisely menacing, shadows of which the dim light of one candle cannot dispel, without a feeling of aroused uneasiness, if not fully-stirred fear. Not even the bowl of hot bread-and-milk we each had before going to bed on winter nights could entirely correct a certain feeling of near-emptiness. …
But that only added a sense of reality to the ranns and tales to which we listened with enchained and enchanted ears.
The best remembrance
The games in the moonlight; the walks and pastimes when spring came down the way; the refreshing cup of cold milk in the dairy on summer days; the pony rides; the dogs; the sharp tang of frosty mornings; and all the wonder and the wild surprise of snow seen for the first time in a town where few would ever expect that it would fall — all things return in memories of one who will not return.
There is — is it not natural? — a burden of sorrow in such remembrance, but it is akin to the burden of a song — for it is lightened by the harmony of a good life nobly lived, one not without difficulties outfaced and sacrifices lovingly borne.
That, one realises, is the best memory of all. For, when all the other outward, sensible recollections pass, this remains. In this we realise something of the spirit of these words of a great Dominican:
“… Some trees, a river, then the hill where the sheep are grazing. Not a sound; everywhere calm. And in this scene I am alone; it and I are alone together. I am familiar with all its details, I can describe them, or sketch their outlines. … They compose the mirage which is before me; they are its elemental matter; but other is the image of beauty, and other what the eye of my soul admires. For what the inward eye admires is, as it were, an ideal image, within that discerned by the nerves of sight. …”
And that sense of the existence of something outside the remembered thing itself — “like air that trembles still where music’s been.”
Just one, or two, further glimpses of experiences shared, the atmosphere and the evocation of which return. … My sisters were “going for an exam.,” I remember. The set piece was “The Ancient Mariner.” To memorise it they were reciting, or rather, chanting, Coleridge’s imaginative lines.
That chant returns to my ears more clearly than even the sound of the story-telling of Larry O’Grady or Old Langford or the “Cooee”-calling, one-time dancing master who used periodically to call to teach the young ladies of the town genteel ball-games of his own invention.
It stirred in me a “feel” for phrase, a sense of the strange power that is in words. I say this truthfully — and modestly, I hope. For it is so. That unique poem, through the utterance of my sisters, awoke a latent, if early, apprehension of verbal beauty.
Mere verbal beauty and poetical associations, prizable as these are, are less than the depth of thought and belief that so often lie so remote from them. But they induce a penetration of the spirit, a mood
In which the burthen of the mystery
In which the heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened; — that serene and blessed mood
In which the affections gently lead us on —
Wordsworth was wrong. Properly grasped, this world is seen to be no “intelligible” one — though man has done his best (or his worst) to turn it into one. This world has its purpose in the divine scheme of things and often, in later years, my sister, acutely elucidated this. Not least by her example of faith and fortitude — expressed by these thoughts in a letter written long before this war:
We have no doubt that life to-day is too crowded, too noisy, too assertive, too pretentious in matters of ‘intellect,’ too combative about material things. Standards are lowered year by year to meet the demands of mediocrity. Yet out of this welter emerges clear and plain an effort to aid the uneasy human beings who only know that things go wrong. We are all pushing harder than is seemly, but perhaps we push to some purpose.”
The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), 19 July 1944, p. 9
The quotation beginning “In which the burthen of the mystery” comes from “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), also known as “Tintern Abbey”, a poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
See: 1) “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey”, The Literature Network
2) “Tintern Abbey”, Poetic Genius or Madness?
See also: “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”, Wikipedia
burthen = (archaic) burden
Coleridge = Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), an English poet
“Come All Ye”-s = songs that begin with the phrase “Come all ye”, especially regarding Irish ballads
See: 1) Barry Phillips, “Irish Come-All-Ye’s” (The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 22, No. 86, Oct.-Dec. 1909, pp. 374-388), JSTOR (Journal Storage)
2) “Come-all-ye: famous old Irish songs (1st ed.)”, ITMA (Irish Traditional Music Archive)
Dominican = a Dominican friar or monk; of, or relating to, the Dominican Order (properly known as the Order of Preachers), a Catholic organisation, whose members are known as Dominicans; the name is derived from the founder of the Order, Saint Dominic (ca. 1170-1221), also known as Dominic of Guzman
exam. = abbreviation of “examination” (a formal test of someone’s ability, knowledge, or proficiency in a skill or subject, or to obtain a passing grade or qualification)
hic jacet = (Latin, meaning “here lies”) the phrase “here lies”, often used as the beginning of an epitaph, especially as inscribed on a gravestone, usually (but not always) preceding the name of the deceased (e.g. “Here Lies the Body of M. Jane Wilcocks”; for John Keats, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”); an epitaph
See: 1) “Joseph Wilcocks: Dean and Priest/Minister”, Westminster Abbey
2) “File:John Keats Tombstone in Rome 01.jpg”, Wikipedia
John O’Brien = the pseudonym of Patrick Joseph Hartigan, a popular poet and Catholic priest [the mention of “trimmings”, with regards to John O’Brien, is a reference to his well-known poem, “The Trimmin’s on the Rosary”]
not longer young = a rarely used phrase, the commonly used version of which is “no longer young”
rann = (Irish) a stanza of a poem or song, especially of an Irish poem or song; a piece of an Irish poem or song
Scott = Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), Scottish poet and novelist
sidhe = in Irish and Scottish mythology, the sidhe (also spelt Sìth) are a supernatural species, similar to fairies and elves (in some traditions, they are regarded as spirits of nature, spirits of the dead, or gods); Irish or Scottish fairies
See: 1) Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, “The Sidhe Race” (Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 1888), Library Ireland
2) “Sidhe Faerie Folk”, Your Irish Culture
3) Scott, “Who the hell is Sidhe? – Fairy Faith and Animism in Scotland: A challenge to divinity”, Cailleach’s Herbarium, 9 August 2018
4) “Who Are the Sluagh Sidhe?”, Sluagh Sidhe
See also: “Aos Sí”, Wikipedia
vista = a view from a particular spot, especially a nice view from an elevated location; a distant view (especially as seen through or along an avenue, a row of trees, a row of buildings, or some other opening); a site enabling such a distant view; a vision, such as a mental view of the future or the past
Wordsworth = William Wordsworth (1770-1850), an English poet
Yeats = William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), commonly known as W. B. Yeats, an Irish poet
[Editor: Changed “leprachauns” to “leprechauns”.]
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