An Irish Tune
I had two Irish grandfathers, Walsh and O’Brien, who both died before I was born. They’ve been strong presences in my life, nonetheless, since their songs and stories, colored by longing, have come down to me through my parents.
Legend has it that “The Rose of Tralee” was a song my grandfather Walsh sang by campfire light in the evenings when he worked for the railroad. Other workers would throw him a few coins, which he saved up and sent back to his mother, asking her to keep them for him. Instead, his mother used the money to send his brother to college, and when my grandfather returned, he had nothing. Even so, he put himself through law school and passed the bar. He served in the Great War, where he suffered from mustard gas poisoning, and later, when my mother was ten, he died of heart trouble, leaving my Nonna with six children.
That summer, at camp, my mother stood up in the talent show to sing “The Rose of Tralee,” in honor of her father who had just died, and if you can picture an angelic, soulful girl singing bravely to a lodge full of other girls, you can glimpse her sorrow, and how special the song was to her when she eventually taught it to her own seven children.
We sang it often growing up, along with other songs on car rides and around the fire at the cabin, and I’ve since taught it to my own kids. A more plaintive and romantic melody would be hard to find, and it feels especially rich because it has come to me via generations. My favorite line, by far, is “It was not her beauty alone that won me,” and in case you’re not familiar with the tune, here it is.
Others march in parades, drink green beer, and wave shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day. We made stew and grasshopper ice cream pie here, and as I was cleaning up afterwards and puttering around the kitchen, I sang my hand-me-down versions of “Danny Boy,” “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and my favorite, “The Rose of Tralee.”