Heritage: A Story

His mother lilts for the dancers
when there’s no musicians to play;
she stands by the field side
on summer evenings
and faces them
as they show off their ancient art
to the darkening sky,
while the old folk sit on chairs
watching with critical eyes
and the children,
with fewer years than fingers,
sit on walls
laughing, shoving. clapping;
and he one of them,
though prouder than they
because that’s his mother there,
respected by all,
her voice as bright
as the rising moon,
driving the dancers on
till there’s no strength left in them
for dancing. There’s one tune she lilts,
a reel, fast, sinewy, hard;
it has all the force
of unyielding waves breaking on
the rocky headland
or a beater
striking a mighty bodhran;
all the drive
of rushing winds
racing through the winter forest,
or nimble-fingered pipers
tempting the trees to dance.
He loves it
and remembers it,
and when he’s alone
he plays it
over and over in his head
on his imaginary fiddle,
for it’s a fiddle he longs to have. So when at last
it’s his tenth birthday
and his father gives him
a real fiddle, saying
‘I think you’re just about man enough
to hold oneof these,’
the reel is one of the first tunes
he tries to play
where his father has sent him
so no-one can hear his racket.

But he doesn’t know
what it’s called;
so he goes to his mam
as she stands over the washing tub,
and says, ‘Mam, that tune you lilt
for the dancers.’
‘Which one?’ she says,
and he lilts a few bars of it to her.
‘What about it?’ she says.
‘What’s it called?’ he says.
‘I don’t know, she says,
I made it myself
when I was younger,
about your age I’d say,
but I never gave it a name.’
‘So what should I call it?’ he says.
‘Whatever you like,’ she says:
‘Now I have this to do, so leave me.’

A fiddler,
nostrils full of smoke,
had done with playing for the night.
He was packing up his instrument,
looking forward to a long, cold beer,
when a young woman
came onto the stage
and stood beside him.
She said,
‘That was really beautiful; thank you.
For a time there
I almost forgot where I actually was.’
‘I’ve played better,’ he said:
But I appreciate the thought.’
‘That last tune you played,’ she said,
‘I think it was a reel.’
‘Yes it was,’ he said,’what about it?’
‘Is that an old tune,
or do you know who wrote it?’
‘All my tunes are old,’ he said,
‘and I don’t suppose I know
who composed one in a hundred of them:
does it matter?’
‘I don’t suppose it does,’ she said,
‘but sometimes it would be nice to know
why a tune was made,
where it got its title from.’
‘Well,’ he said,
‘no-one will ever know for most of them:
when the people who made these tunes went
their life-stories went with them.’

She said, ‘that’s sad.’
‘Is it?’ he said:
‘Why?’

The years have passed.
He is head of his family now;
not only that but
he plays for the dancers too;
and the tune he learnt from his mother
is the tune they ask for most:
and every time he plays it,
or hears his children
give it a go – one like him loves the fiddle
while the other favours the pipes –
he hears her silver voice
as clear as if she is standing beside him,
and each and every time he says to himself,
‘By God could she lilt!’

But how can he not think of her then?
The tune bears her name.

I am a life-long lover of the traditional i.e. pre-Americanised folk-music of my homeland, the British Isles. Its great value, apart from its unique character, is that it was a truly popular music, insofar as it was free, a genuinely individual and communal art, which meant that everybody owned it and could bring their own creativity to bear on it with whatever skill they had, large or small, just for the pleasure of it; and above all, they could tell the stories of their own lives and tell them in their own language without having to accord to the accents an idioms of a global industry which manufactures and markets music as product. I have tried to tell here a story which at the very least hints at the kind of individual and communal bond we of these islands,whether Irish,English, Scots orWelsh, once had with our common culture.

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