On her birth cert and on her death cert, my mother is referred to by her actual name, Margaret, even though she was known all of her life as Joan. This kind of carry-on wasn’t entirely uncommon during the country’s formative years – she was born as the Irish Free State became The Republic of Ireland – but I often think she just felt one name marked her out a bit more than the other. Growing up on the northside of Cork city during the late 1930s and 1940s, many of the more popular women’s names – Statia, Hannah, Josie, Bridie and Molly – just sounded as old as they were widespread. And the thought of ever being among the old just never sat well with my mother.
She was clear about the funeral she wanted: no gawkers, no eulogies and no mementos. Joan didn’t need anyone to take the pulpit to remind those mourning her about how great she was or to list her many achievements, and neither did we. And she was still earning kudos even as she laid in repose at home: an elderly woman who’d come to pay her respects shook my hand and told me that my mother was one of the best looking corpses she’d seen in Cork all year. I’m not convinced its an accolade you’d ever really want, and you’d presumably require a proxy to pick up the gong for you, but I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.
Joan was a devout woman who loved many things: her family, style, show-business, flowers, music and the arts. During the last few days of her life, when we thought she was rallying her way out of intensive care, she asked us to fetch a couple of her favourite things to the hospital: a prayer book and the latest issue of ‘Hello’ magazine. She had a broad frame of reference and was as comfortable discussing Lot’s wife – the biblical character from the Old Testament who turned into a pillar of salt after she looked back at the city of Sodom – as she was Pixie Lott, the British pop singer and actress who clearly suffered the same fate thousands of years later.
But she absolutely loved Cork. Born and reared over a bakery up on Old Market Place, off of the Shandon Street end of Blarney Street, Joan viewed everything, consciously or otherwise, through the prism of where she came from and the people who made her. But she saw the joins on that canvas too – the warts, the squinting windows, the clear class division and the spare hands – and wasn’t slow to pull if she believed she had a case.
‘Desperate’ was one of her favourite words and she used it to describe everything from funerals to restaurants to priest’s sermons to local theatre shows to much of the work I’ve done over the years. And although the Cork in her would come out as she rolled her tongue around the first syllable, deliberately holding it flat for a couple of beats just for emphasis, there was never once a hint of malice in her voice or in the views she expressed. Her body might have failed her in the end but she checked out with her humanity in fine working nick: and of course she was usually right about everything.
I’ve written previously about my mother’s love of music and about the suspicion with which she regarded those unfortunate enough to be born without a note in their heads. And that love of music was at its most lethal when compounded with her devotion to Cork.
Her father was a first cousin of the well-known local tenor, William Dunlea – known as Walloo – who emerged from the back lanes to become a prominent fixture on the international singing circuit during the 1940s and 1950s.
We’d often see Walloo – long-retired and living off of unlikely tales of old nights of glory – during his later years as he shuffled around the northside. With his carefully pruned moustache, slicked-back hair, crisp white shirts and leather daps, he was a distinguished operator who cut a real dash, even in his dotage. A point not lost on Theo Dorgan, who name-checked him alongside another of my mother’s peers, Puzzle The Judge, in his mighty 1991 poem, ‘A Nocturne For Blackpool’:
‘Walloo Dullea, homeward bound on the Commons Road, belts out airs from Travatore,the recipe as before, nobody stirs from sleep and ‘Puzzle The Judge’, contented, pokes at ashes –‘There’s many a lawyer here today could learn from this man’.
I heard many stories over the years about William Dunlea’s performances abroad, many of which sounded hugely over-pumped. But what we do know is that he gigged in front of Presidents, public figures and the smart set – to what extent and to what end, who knows ? – and his achievements, the biggest of which was his escape from Blackpool, showed my mother both the power of dreams and the magic of song.
And this might explain why she was so taken with the many bands, artists, dancers, singers and hams who took the same road – in one unexpected turn of events, a hardy sham from Gerald Griffin Street defied all expectation and went off with an international ballet company – from the improvised rehearsal spaces around Cork and onwards to places that, in those soft profile pieces in The Evening Echo, sounded far more exotic.
For thirty years, Joan saved those articles for me, dated them and mailed them onwards in the post. It was just another of her ways, I suppose, of ensuring I wasn’t losing the run of myself, away from home and out of her sight. Wherever I was and whatever it was I was doing, others were doing it too – often far better – flying the flag, belting out an aria for Cork.
She had a particular soft spot for The Frank And Walters, brand leaders for local appeal and a band that’s never lost its common touch. Years ago, she met Ashley, the drummer, in an optometrist’s waiting room and forged a life-long connection with him during the short wait for a routine glaucoma test. And once that association had been soldered, she
followed his band’s progress intently, as if he’d sold her a serious stake in it. In an age of uncertainty, anxiety, distortion and scripted reality, there was always something quietly re-assuring about her phone-calls – and, in later years, the texts she’d ask my father to send from an otherwise dormant mobile – that kept me up to speed with what The Franks were up to and with whom.
But there were plenty of others too. Our conversations over the years were dotted with references to The Sultans of Ping, Mick Flannery, Cara O’Sullivan, John Spillane, The Montforts, James N. Healy, Joan Denise Moriarty, Miss Kavanagh, Paul Buckley’s cousin who changed his name and landed a couple of acting gigs in London, Handsome Tony and any one of a number of would-be local thesps who first togged out in local am-dram and who later graduated to walk-ons on ‘Fair City’. And most of whom, given the long-running global conspiracy against all of Cork, particularly its creative wing, have heroically kept the city up where it belongs. On the national and often international stages and firmly in the public eye.
Those of us who grew up during the 1970s will remember Cork city as a long-running horror-serial and anyone who’s seen Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic London in his zombie film, ’28 Days Later’, will be reminded of what Patrick Street and McCurtain Street looked like forty years ago.
The place smelt too, and it smelt badly. If it wasn’t some noxious odour carried up the river from the harbour on a strong wind and into the heart of the city, it was the enduring linger of cheap, damp coal – called ‘slack’ – that most families used to make domestic fires burn longer. My parents were obsessed with the stuff and no self-respecting home fire was ever constructed in Cork – and believe me, the creation of a small fire was a serious affair that also required the channelling of a decent draft down the open flue using double broad-sheet pages from The Echo – without a decent coating of slack.
Against the backdrop of such physical and economic deprivation – and no little cultural austerity too – our career options were limited enough: emigration, unemployment or an entry-point position into the civil service for those who either came through formal examinations or, as was all too common, could avail of a bit of pull. Needless to say, to be even moderately different or mildly lateral in aspect or ambition wasn’t easy.
Microdisney – like Theo Dorgan – emerged from beneath that mire and, as you’d expect, much of their work is rooted in it. Fans and critics often refer to the grotesque under-belly that dominates much of Cathal Coughlan’s work – it’s a mandatory requirement, I think – and the source of which can be traced easily enough back onto Cork’s own doorstep.
But most of the band’s earliest, tinnier and more fumbling material, like ‘Michael Murphy’ and ‘Pink Skinned Man’ – both of which featured in their recent live sets – would have been lost on my mother as its long been on wider audiences. Those older numbers are critical cogs in any considered tracking of the group’s long and peculiar history but, beyond that, much of the early material is strictly for loyalists, collectors and anoraks only ;- its just far too obtuse and not grabby enough.
And yet during that six month period in 1987, as the band was enjoying a broader, however fleeting popularity around the release of ‘Crooked Mile’, its first album on a major label, and when ‘Town To Town’ featured on day-time national radio and the band even fetched up on children’s television, they became surly majorettes in that marching panoply of Corkness. And in my mother’s eyes – and maybe even in her prayers ? – Microdisney joined the litany of saints, from Christy Ring to Seán Condon to Walloo to Danny La Rue and that would later feature the likes of Pixie McKenna [who she knew as Bernadette], Graham Norton, Cara O’Sullivan, Alan Foley and the many points in between on her own Via Dolorosa.
My mother was of a generation of remarkable, largely unheralded Irish women who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s with nothing. But who determined that, through education initially, their own children were going to have some sort of a chance. And who, with little by way of formal supports or state recognition, and working on gut instinct and raw cop-on only, consistently drove us on and succeeded, eventually, in making us moderately functioning citizens. So when she saw anyone from Cork – and especially from the northside of the city – being regarded either on a stage, a public platform or a playing field, her instinctive response was to bring it all back home.
Consciously or otherwise, she never lost sight of that broader social and cultural struggle and the scale of those routine sacrifices made by many families like our own – and by mothers, especially – to just keep us all on the bright side of the road and to protect us from the despair and torpor. And particularly those who, against every prejudice imaginable – much of it locally rooted – dared to be different because they just dared to dream.
Joan would have preferred, of course, had I stayed in teaching and followed the script, settled locally and been much easier to reach. There were numerous occasions over the years when, before mobile technology and even long after it, she had no idea where I was, never mind know how I was. But she never once questioned why I sloped off up the path I did because, knowing I could read and write – and with the love of music and sport she both instilled and enabled in me – she knew I had at least a few of the fundamentals in place and that I wasn’t entirely without hope.
I turned fifty years old on the week of my mother’s funeral, the week that Microdisney recently played The National Concert Hall in Dublin. Thirty-six years previously they were the first band I ever saw play live when, as callow and nervous as I was myself, they supported Depeche Mode in The City Hall in Cork in 1982. It’s been an eventful and colourful few decades for all of us since, during which the band has very obviously bulked up both its sound and its reputation. And in direct proportion, it should be said, to the waistlines of many of those once poetic young swains – myself as prominently as any – who fetched up to see them on Earlsfort Terrace.
I left the house reluctantly enough, between worlds. Our sideboard a spread of mass cards and birthday cards, a testament once again to that which we often take for granted ;- the kindness of friends and the kindness of complete strangers. And like most of those who made the journey – and I recognised many faces from Cork in the 1980s, a feat in itself – I really had no idea what to expect.
Microdisney aren’t exactly a comfortable listen or a barrel of laughs at the best of times, either. Death is all around us, of course, but its especially prominent in their formidable body of work, in case I needed reminding. Much of ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’, the album the band was re-visiting and the whole purpose of its two recent, unlikely live appearances, deals with an extreme emotional collapse where ‘the clock’ in the title is clearly a metaphor for death.
And yet in the company of another powerful, eminent woman – my wife – I found real comfort in even the band’s most unsettling material, of which there’s plenty. Even if the thought struck me throughout the night that I should probably have been anywhere else, working something or other through my system. And I suspect there was plenty of detail and nuance going on around the fringes that simply passed me by.
But as a release – temporary or otherwise – it was as effective a healing as any. The power of song and the redemptive appeal of music, like my mother, never growing old. And never to be forgotten.