After Auntie Joan’s Funeral.
28th January 2018.
It seems to make sense to start with the image that keeps coming back to me these last few days. We are in the living room at Ebbisham Road, the house where my family moved to 3 months after I was born and where my Mum and my brother still live, 54 years on. There were seven of us altogether living in that small three bed-roomed house, with frequent long-term additions of uncles and cousins freshly over from Ireland, some to stay for the rest of their lives and others to return sooner or later to Co. Clare.
We are in the living room. It’s not just one occasion, but it’s a composite memory of many. It’s a Saturday evening, going into night, going into Sunday morning. The carpet in the living room is rolled up. The dansette has been playing music by the Gallowlglass Ceilidh band, The Kilfenora’s too, the Dubliners, the Wolfe Tones, Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy and the one song that was always rolled out: ‘McCarthy’s Party’. At the point of the image that keeps coming to me though, the recorded music has stopped.
There are more than the usual inhabitants of the family home sat and stood around. We’ve been augmented by a gang of the relatives: a selection from the ten brothers and two sisters on my Mum's side, spouses and plentiful kids. Auntie Joan and Uncle Jack are there, as are others amongst the neighbours, mainly the ones who have some Irish connection: Auntie Pam, Uncle David and the kids from over the road chief amongst them.
The play-arm of the dansette has been put back in its cradle at this point, because it’s late enough and everyone is drunk enough for the live music, to start, for the solo step dancing and for the singing. Auntie Marie (a former all-Ireland champion she always maintained) does her party pieces. Occasionally one of the younger kids pretends to do the dancing too, even though they don’t know how, joining in the fun, until the grown-ups pull them back. It’s disrespectful when Auntie Marie is dancing they seem to say. The young one doesn’t really understand what it is they’ve done wrong by joining in. While Marie dances I play fiddle, Liam Farrell is there on Banjo and there might be someone else playing: Uncle Dickie on spoons or melodeon maybe. Maybe I’m mixing a lot of memories into one. Probably this particular version of events never happened, but it’s true nonetheless.
The set dancing, the Siege of Ennis, The Walls of Limerick has mainly been done along to the music from the record player, but there might be a bit done to the live tunes. And then the singing. It’s the singing that always gets me when I remember: Uncle Jack singing Danny Boy in his fine Sligo tenor, powerful from his stocky body, that workman’s chest. Marie would sing too; for too long, a little too ‘lubricated’ (as the saying went in those days) until her husband Uncle Martin would say ‘For Feck’s sake Marie. Will ye shut up’. Sometimes she’d carry on just to let him know he wasn’t in charge. I would sing too; maybe the Galway Shawl, Spancil Hill, the Foggy Dew. Everyone knew the choruses and would join in: ‘She wore no jewels, no costly diamonds …’ People were far gone enough that in the verses they wouldn’t worry about getting the words a bit wrong as they joined in with the line or two they knew and mumbled their way through the rest. Getting it right wasn’t the point, being together, taking part in the ritual was.
Is it too fanciful to say that we were making ourselves anew in 'the strangers’ land’? Laying claim to that bit of Ireland that had been transplanted to England. Mixing some Irish soil into the chalky earth of the South Downs every now and then.
When we were much younger, and would go to bed about midnight with the party in full flow, we would sometimes get up the next morning and the visitors would still be there: I have an abiding memory of Auntie Bridget sitting on a beer crate in the front garden with a bottle of Guinness in her hand, the sun splitting the stones on a suburban Sunday morning.
Auntie Joan died a couple of weeks ago. The funeral was on Friday. I played Danny boy on the fiddle, just as I had done at Uncle Jack’s funeral a couple of years before. The service was in St. Joseph’s RC Church. The same church that Jack and Joan were married in, where we were all baptised, had first confession, Holy Communion, Confirmation … only the old church has been knocked down and a new one built in the grounds of the Convent. They’ve transplanted the old light fittings and the stations of the cross pictures that I remember kneeling at and mumbling my Hail Marys, Our Fathers, Glory Be’s, Acts of Contrition whilst feeling a warm fuzziness towards the hot bearded Jesus that was depicted in them. The convent isn’t a convent any more: it’s a pub and a hotel, although they weren’t allowed to remove the statues and the blue/white tiles depicting the Blessed ‘Ever-Virgin’ Mary.
Auntie Joan and Uncle Jack lived round the corner from us. They weren’t our biological Aunt and Uncle, but that didn’t really make any odds. Auntie Joan was the only person that ever called me James rather than Jamie and from her I didn’t mind it. My brother John was their son John Regan’s best friend and my sister Maria their daughter Karan’s. Throughout my childhood I was planning to marry Karan Regan (fuzzy feelings for hot-bearded-Jesus aside). For all us McCarthy kids: John, Eileen, Maria, Lorraine and I, the Regans were close family. All of my life Auntie Joan has lived in that house down the alleyway by the railway bridge. When Uncle Jack died she was still there, not anymore likely to be standing in the garden to say hello and have a chat with as you went past, but I knew she was there. Now she’s not.
It’s a council house and the family had two weeks to clear the accumulated stuff of Auntie Joan’s life so the house can be let to someone else.
Auntie Joan was a force of nature. Auntie Joan not being there is like the wind no longer blowing. (And like the wind, Auntie Joan blew both fierce and gentle).
When my Dad first came over from Ireland in the fifties he became friends with Jack Regan. Jack met Joan. Dad met Mary. Mary and Joan have been friends for about sixty years. Reared their children together. Saw Joan through losing her son John in his thirties … through the loss of both of their husbands. In recent years, my Mum being unable to make the trip down to Mynn’s Close, they rang each other at 8.20 every morning to check-in. My brother called down every day to take her dog Jasper out for a walk with their dog Rupert. I can only imagine what it’s like to lose your close friend of over sixty years.
When I was younger it felt like that would always be there – that way of life, those rituals, those traditions, those dances, those tunes and songs. With Auntie Joan going I realise they’re not. The songs are still there, the dance steps, the jigs, reels and set dances. But in reality, they’ve gone. A song, a dance, a tune aren’t the notes, the steps, the words - that’s just the clothes they wear. It’s the way of being together that creates the substance of the dance, the song, the music. That way of being, with all the good and bad of it, is passing as that generation passes. We could mimic it, but we would just be playing at dressing up in our parents’ clothes.
RIP Auntie Joan Regan.