Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Irish Confereence, Mr. O'Donovan, and an Acre Memory

Music can evoke strong memories in a person.   I can tell you the exact date and location the last time I heard the song.  It was St. Patrick’s Day of 1985.  I was driving down Gorham Street on my way to Saint Patrick’s Cemetery.  It was one of those raw, grey St. Patrick’s Days with the streets covered in black slush that forms on city streets like Lowell in mid-March.  While the weather was not cooperating with revelers who were making their way from bar to bar or who were shopping for corned beef, it fit my mood nicely.  My father was dying.  The doctor said it would be any day.  I was on my way to the cemetery to make the final payment for his plot.  As I turned into the cemetery the radio played:

Will you go, lassie, will you go?
And we'll all go together
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will you go, lassie, go?

For some reason the lyrics opened something inside me.  I’m embarrassed to say I cried.  My father was immensely proud of his Scottish heritage, as was his father who had been laid to rest just a few rows away from where I sat.  The words had a finality to them I wasn’t ready to accept.

He passed 3 days later.  A piper accompanied him to his grave.  There was no need for wills or lawyers.  There was no estate.  He had come into this world with nothing and left the same.  He never graduated high school or owned property.  He never sought accolades or won awards.  But he did leave me a legacy I carry with me today- a love of place and time.  The Acre, that sometimes forgotten neighborhood of Lowell, was more than where he lived.  It represented who he was.  He was born there, and even though near the end when things began to get tough we had moved him closer to us for better care, he finally moved himself back into the Acre.  I believe he knew he was dying and wanted to die where he began. 

Out of the blue he would recall his childhood on Worthen Street or learning to swim in the canals.  He’d take me to the river and tell me how the ice would come crashing down the Merrimack shaking buildings with its thunderous echoes through the streets.  The rag picker with his horse calling his trade on the cobblestones of Walker Street.  The gas light man whom he would help light the street lamps.  Stories of wakes and wedding and music in the streets.  That is what he left me.  It was his gift to me, and I try to share it with those who are willing to hear.

Myself & Brian O'Donovan
Every time I have heard the song on the radio, I have turned it off, the memories hurt too much.  Tonight, Brian O’Donovan of WGBH’s Celtic Sojourn feasted us with poetry and music.  He concluded it by having us join him in singing the verse to Will You Go Lassie Go.  This time, I let the music take me.  I closed my eyes and I was there with my Dad sitting by the river, him recounting  stories of a time forgotten.  I saw him with that tweed cap that never left him.  (My head’s too cold he would say.)   I made sure no one saw me wipe my eyes.  This week’s Irish Conference sponsored by UMass Lowell and Queen’s University is asking us to remember who we are, where we’ve come from, and asks us where we’re going.  Thank you to all who participated, speakers and listeners.  Thank you, Mr. O’Donovan, for sharing your gift.  And thank you, Dad

On the day of his funeral we left the house.  Before getting into the car, we looked in the snow and just peeking out was the first sprigs of heather.  We cut a piece and pinned it to his lapel before his final trip to church. 

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