‘St. Patrick’s Day, Fortune Harbour; then and now It’s St. Patrick’s Day again and we have just come through a two-day storm. Our St. Paddy’s concert, scheduled for tonight, has been postponed until Saturday, March, 21st . I am sitting here tonight, sipping on an Irish whisky, remembering what St. Patrick’s Day used to be like some sixty years ago, when I was a lad. At that time I would have proudly proclaimed my age, to be going on nine.
“It’s St. Patrick’s Day again…..”
Around 1955, Fortune Harbour, a little sea-side community on the North-East coast of the island of Newfoundland, boasted of about one hundred and sixty people with no road communication to the outside world. At that time there was no electricity, nor indoor plumbing. To some, it would seem like such a small world, yet it was large in terms of what it provided us; a fertile soil for our raw enthusiasm and furtive imaginations and a warm and protective cloak of love, security and inclusiveness. Looking back at St. Patrick’s Day then, I can only describe it as a religious feast, spring break, and Mardi Gras, all rolled into one. Celebrations started with Mass in the morning. Even there the festive mood was evident as some of the older men could be seen displaying a few fancy, but somewhat subdued dance steps as they shuffled out the church as the choir sang the closing hymn,˜All praise to St. Patrick“ My grandfather and his buddies would be dressed in their best (and likely, only) white shirts and top coats, proudly adorning a shamrock. After a quick cup of tea and an early lunch, they would start visiting. By early afternoon, it wouldn’t be unusual to see four or five burly men standing on the kitchen floor, holding hands and each in turn, bellowing out a rendition of his favourite old Irish ballad. Each singer seemed to have a song for which he was well known and proper etiquette dictated that no one else would dare strike up that particular song. Sometimes, the woman of the house would be a singer or step dancer and would be pressed upon to offer a song or a step. Most houses would have an accordion, harmonica, or fiddle and there was never a shortage of dancers. The few, who didn’t sing or dance, would be heard cheering on the performances with expressions of ˜Way ta go Danny”, ˜Well done yourself Mick”, or ˜Grand job Bridget; grand job indeed”.
“…offer a song or a step”
We kids would follow the revelers around from house to house where we would crowd in the porches and jostle for positions on the wood boxes, water barrels, or any bench that would give us the best vantage point to take in the sights and sounds without being too intrusive. It wouldn’t have been unusual for five or six of us to stand there, with our rosy cheeks and running noses, completely immersed in and enthralled by the recitations, songs, dances and yarns. Any lull in the action would find us running outside where we would entertain ourselves, mimicking some of the singers and dancers, especially those who had already imbibed a little too much of the homemade refreshments. There always seemed to be one or two of us with a special flair for the fun-making. Of course, the big topic of conversation would concern our plans and expectations for the night, when along with our parents, we would head for ‘The Time’ in the school house. There would be music, square dancing, soup, and delectable sweets for all. I remember one time when my status was immediately elevated when I came out front with the breaking news that my father (who had a small general store) had just acquired an ice-cream machine and would be making ice-cream for ‘The Time’. The organizers were going to give to each child a free ice-cream in a double-decker cone, and anyone who wanted an extra one could purchase it for five cents.
“….give to each child a free ice-cream”
We hear the accordion again, and rush into the porch just in time for me to see my grandfather demonstrate a couple of steps he was so proud to say that he learned from his father John who had come over directly from the ‘old Sod’. Then he would raise his glass and give his unique, and somewhat unusual, toast, ˜tis a pity about me and the bad damn Irish, Buddy”. Well, Mom had warned me, that if I heard him repeat that toast a couple of times, it would be the signal that it was time to get him underway for heading home. She would have supper early because she was making soup for ‘The Time’, and had to be at the school early to help the other ladies setup.
Well, he was a bit reluctant to move until I told him that I had a secret he might like to know. I had been rummaging through the back room and found a flask of dark rum Uncle Jack had sent him for St. Patrick’s and had heard Mom say she wasn’t going to give it to him until he was safe in the house for the night. He was a little feeble on one side as the result of a slight stroke and she worried about him, drinking and falling. Well, the thought of the rum was like a miracle cure. He grabbed his coat, said his good-byes, and danced his way out the door. As we quickly navigated the narrow pathway to our house he told me not to mention to Mom how much homebrew he had drunk, nor the fact that he had been dancing on his bad leg. That’s when I sort of let it slip out that it would be great if only I had another dime for ‘The Time’ tonight, what with the new ice-cream cones and all. He rummaged through his overcoat pocket, and produced a quarter and gave it to me. I walked on air the rest of the way home. ‘The Time’ in the schoolhouse had been the best night I could remember. I had four cones of ice-cream and I even organized a few of my buddies to do our own square dance over in the corner of the room, but we didn’t dance with any girls. About nine o’clock, my brother Martin fell asleep and Mom covered him up with her coat. Of course, I wouldn’t dare close my eyes for fear of missing some of the fun. At ten Mom advised that we were going home. I tried to negotiate, suggesting that because we lived near the school, I would be alright to walk home on my own, but all to no avail. She insisted it was time for everyone to be going home, but I knew the real reason we were leaving. As the sound of the accordion faded in the distance, I muttered aloud that next year, I would be going on ten and if that brother falls asleep, she could bring him home, but I wouldn’t be leaving until the dance was over. Quickly I realized that there would be a price to pay for my bravado, as she grabbed me by the collar and suggested that I would be going on twenty before I called the shots. Suddenly, I found myself silently crying, ˜Tis indeed a pity about me and the bad damm Irish, Buddy”.
“….bad damm Irish, Buddy”.
Our little Fortune Harbour concert of 2015 will take place on Saturday night when we’ll keep some of the old traditions alive. There will be singing of the old Irish songs and the rousing sounds of accordions and bodhrans. When I pick up my accordion and play a few old Irish reels I am guaranteed there will be a couple of people from the audience who won’t be able to resist jumping upon the small stage and ˜givin’ us a few steps”. (No one will know that in my mind’s eye, my grandfather will be on his feet, steppin’ it out with everyone else, in spite of his bad leg.) My wife Valerie has written a couple of funny Irish skits which she, and four of her friends, will be performing. The whole thing will be relaxed and not at all over-rehearsed. Our house will, no doubt, fill up for the after party and I still won’t want to go to bed until the last tune is played. In a week or two, St. Patrick’s Day will be forgotten and we’ll be looking for an excuse to have another party . . . and why not? Nothing beats the winter blahs like Music and Friends. Joe Wiseman Fortune Harbour.