For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with all things Irish. I have no idea where this comes from or why it has stayed with me all these years. I remember clearly the first time I met an Irish man. I'd never heard an Irish accent before and I loved listening to him talk, just around the house, to his family. I was utterly entranced by the sing-song intonation, long vowels and dotted rhythms in his speech. On one occasion he good-naturedly called his daughter an "eejit", and when he told me what it meant, I laughed and laughed. (I was about seven. My sense of humour wasn’t sophisticated. He could have said “fart” and I would have thought he was as witty and urbane as Woody Allen.) His children went to Catholic school and wore little crosses around their necks. The older one, Siobhan, told me she had to go to extra classes to prepare for her upcoming confirmation. I had no idea what she was talking about and think I said something like, "what a drag," or the Northern early nineties equivalent, e.g. "That's bobbins", before continuing my colouring in or whatever we were doing. Then she told me she went to "confession" every week. At my blank expression she explained what confession entailed and over the course of about a minute, she BLEW MY TINY MIND. I'd never heard the likes. I was riveted. And terrified. I mentally listed all the sins I could remember committing just in case I ever found myself in confession. I wondered if I did confess, would I end up in hell? And indeed which one? Siobhan told me the Catholics have TWO! I was preoccupied for years afterwards with the idea of being born a sinner. It made me sweat with fear. Surely I couldn't have been sinning as a baby? My mother always said I was a lovely baby.
I worried that my thoughts were sinful. I'd already developed a deep love of swearing that has remained to this day, and I had crushes on pretty much EVERYONE. Another bit of me was attracted to the exactitude of confession: smacked your brother or having impure thoughts? Five Hail Marys and off you pop. Redeemed. (My understanding of confesssion was not exactly nuanced, what with being eight years old and not a Catholic.) I found the notion of numerical redemption a comfort. It appealed to my worry-stricken side, already bewildered by the random chaos of life. I relished the theory that good behaviour secured you a place in heaven and baddies went to hell, but the more enquiries I made about the veracity of the heaven/hell scenario, the more unsatisfactory and wishy-washy the answers. I quickly began to doubt the whole thing.
There were other more prosaic aspects of Catholicism that charmed me, particularly the idea of picking my own confirmation name. At the time I despised my middle name and wanted one like "Bernadette" or "Theresa" or "Mary". I also savoured the bizarre stories of some of the patron saints. Siobhan had showed me an illustrated anthology of all the saints and the depictions were INSANE. I couldn't believe we were allowed to look at them. Flagellating saints brutally martyring themselves, sometimes by beheading, drowning AND burning for good measure, were so much more compelling the drab toss that was read out in my morning assembly. I was enthralled. Inevitably, I fell out of awe with Catholicism. The heaven and hell thing did me in, especially as I hit my double digits and started sinning in earnest. I had to face facts. I was fond of homosexuals, contraception and divorce. I didn't like guilt, dogma or lengthy sermons in Latin. Me and Catholicism was never going to work.
My obsession with all Irishness however, has remained steadily into adulthood. I spent a number of my formative years with a hopeless crush on a man named Fergal. (It’s ok, he knows all about it.) I revised for my GCSE’s with the Riverdance soundtrack on repeat between episodes of Ballykissangel. Have you listened to Riverdance? Before you judge its parochial naffness, have a listen and tell me those harmonies aren’t BEAUTIFUL. If you can listen to a well played Uillean pipe without crying fair play to you*. Having said that, I wouldn’t piss on Michael Flatley if he was on fire. Sorry. He gives me the terrible creeps.
The universe saw fit to introduce me to Mr C, an Irish man who sounds English but gives himself away often with lyrical syntax and hibernian pronunciation. I can indulge my Irish obsession as often as I like. My in-laws, Mr and Mrs C-enior, have lived in this country for about thirty years but sound as if they left Dublin last Wednesday. Mrs C-enior receives every compliment about her personal appearance with “Would y’ever stop? I’m like the wreck of the hesperus.” She says things like, “Oh he’d have your heart scalded, that fella,” (about the new puppy, Ted, who bites) and “Robbie was such a dote when he was a little bazzer,” (about a picture of her son as an infant) and “I haven’t a clue how to work that yoke. Ask Himself.” (about the apple TV we bought them for Christmas. By “Himself” she means her husband.) They don’t mind me pointing out Irish-isms and Mr C-enior is quick to offer English-isms in return. Just the other day he asked me in outrage, “Why do English people obsess about what day it is? They’ll be telling a story and interrupt themselves to ascertain the day for no reason whatsoever; ‘So there I was’, they’ll say, ‘about to be sentenced to death. I think it was a Wednesday. Or was it a Tuesday? Oh yes, it was a Tuesday, because I’d put the bins out. Or maybe it was Wednesday because actually come to think of it, it was the recycling I’d put out, not the rubbish…..’ who the feck cares?” He shouted. “GET ON WITH IT!! You’d lose interest. An Irish person would never do that. Say what you want about the Irish but we know how to tell a story.”
He’s right about that. My favourite books are by Irish people and my favourite Irish author is Marian Keyes. I wish my favourite author was Tolstoy or Dickens so I could sound like an intellectual. Alas, I HATE DICKENS. Yes, you read correctly. I would rather have a root canal treatment then endure two minutes of “Martin Chuzzlewit”. When people read “A Christmas Carol” in festive gigs I have to stick things in my ears and stop myself from lowing like the nativity cattle. Because Marian Keyes has a vagina and sells her novels to a large market, her books are marketed like the dreaded “chick-lit”. You know, pastel colours, cartoon pictures of shoes and gold embossed lettering. Never has the phrase “do not judge a book by its cover” been more apt, for Marian is no frothy rom-com writer. She is a genius, an exquisite story-teller, a fearless tackler of difficult subjects and often knicker-wettingly hilarious. Her depiction of an addict going into rehab in “Rachel’s Holiday” (coincidence? I think not) was so eerily familiar to me when I read it in my early twenties that I had the terrifying but ultimately life saving thought: “Shit, maybe I’ve got a drink problem.” I learnt about the existence of 12 step meetings from reading that book and it got me through the heinous early days of withdrawal from alcohol. I googled her and discovered that she too was in recovery from alcoholism and “Rachel’s Holiday” was autobiographical and my love for her was thus cemented. I saw her in the flesh once. I was playing at the O2 in Dublin and I was nervous as FUCK and trippy with adrenaline. I looked out into the audience and there she was, third row back, laughing with her handsome husband. It was like she’d been sent by angels to remind me that I was alright, this gig was going to be fine. I’d once read her books as I waited to sign on at the JobCentre, two weeks off the sauce, thinking I’d never play the cello again. Now look at me! I was on tour! In a show so big, Marian Keyes was in the audience! I am rarely starstruck, due to the frequent disappointment I have felt on meeting famous people who turn out to be crashing bores, spouting egomaniacal tedium, but seeing Marian Keyes in real life made me jelly-legged with awe. I felt like she knew me. She could articulate things I knew about myself that I couldn’t say, and crucially, she did it an Irish accent, with Irish sentence structures, adding more pathos and humour than any utilitarian English description could have offered me.
When I’d finished reading MK’s back catalogue I started on Frank McCourt, Roddy Doyle, Patrick Kavanagh even Maeve Binchy despite the desperate* floral covers and italicised titles. I loved all of it. The grittier the better. Mr C has often said, “God, don’t you find those books depressing?” and of course I do. The tale of a consumption-ridden Irish 1930s childhood punctuated with poverty and infant mortality is hardly a rip-roaring joyride, but oddly, I could read about it all day long. I am a woman who has watched “The Magdalene Sisters” on three separate occasions, even though it makes my skin tingle with discomfort. There is no logical explanation for this. I just really dig depressing Irish stories. Maudlin is my jam.
I have become acquainted with a lot more Irish people in recent years, what with being married to an Irishman and also touring a little bit in Ireland. A large faction of London 12 step groups are populated with Irish recovering addicts who refer to themselves as “CIA”: Catholic Irish Alcoholics. I could listen to them talk all night long. The CIA have better linguistic tools for describing the extremities of the human condition, which is a basic requirement when talking about addiction. Their intonation, terms of affection, curse words, insults and inexplicable use of reflexive pronouns mean I’m riveted by every word, written or spoken. A good friend of mine in the dipsomaniac gatherings I attend, let’s call him Seamus, often regales me with stories about his 60s Irish childhood and his lifelong penchant for melancholia. He sings old Irish ditties about horrific tragedy in the same breath as telling an outrageous joke, with equal skill. His lexicon and vocabulary is so much better than mine. Seamus, like most of the Irish people I’ve met, is a superior story teller. I’d nick his phrases but it’s hard to pull off in my accent.
The most Irish thing ever happened to me last year: and it came completely out of the blue. I was asked to dep for a bigwig cellist to rehearse with wait for it………... Sinead O Connor, one of the most fiercely Irish people I can think of. I played the stringy solo in Nothing Compares 2U, only in a rehearsal, but still, I was delighted. I spent a hefty proportion of my adolescence listening to NC2U on repeat, ramping up the number of listens towards the end of disastrous teenage relationships. (Before any over zealous musos get uppity as I wax lyrical about the song: I know Prince actually wrote it.) Sinead was placed in one of the aforementioned Magdalene laundries as an errant teenager and is vocal about the abuse she suffered at the hands of the nuns. Since her debut album came out in 1990 she has been busy becoming world famous, getting married and divorced four times, ripping up a picture of the Pope live on SNL outraging the entire Catholic church, before paradoxically being ordained as a Catholic priest years later. She suffers with bipolar disorder and has struggled to keep taking her medication over the years. She has a huge tattoo of Jesus on her chest and some bloke’s initials tattooed on her cheeks. The cheeks ON HER FACE. However. She is talented, compelling and brutally honest, often to her detriment. She doesn’t give a flying fuck about the opinions of most people, which is a trait I wish I had. When I arrived at the studio, I sat in the cello chair and put my bag down to discover a huge piece of paper taped to the floor next to me. It said, in block capitals: BREATHE. I looked around and saw every band member had one of these makeshift signs. I thought of all the times I’ve hyperventilated with unwanted adrenaline on stage. Sinead caught me staring at it. She smiled a goofy smile and said, “Sometimes I forget to breathe when I’m nervous”. See? A slightly quare* woman after my own heart.