The Piano Teacher

The piano was the only musical instrument taught by a qualified music teacher to Shercock children in the early 1940s. Miss O’Connor, a highly regarded piano teacher in Bailieboro cycled to Shercock, every Saturday on her yellow and blue racing bike to give lessons to my sister and four school pals in the parlour of our house. My father often refereed to Miss O’Connor as “Miss Serious” a title which jocosely belied her blithe and cheery personality, writes Brendan Murray.

Often as I passed our parlour window when piano lessons were in progress I would hear her sing out in a strained high pitched voice “fa, fa, fa,” or “do, do, do,” as she desperately tried to help a pupil identify a correct piano note. On an odd occasion she expressed her exasperations by loudly screeching “no no, not lower, ... higher, higher higher, higher.” In my humble opinion, her unmusical vocal endeavours couldn’t help her pupils; it was obvious to me and anybody else within hearing range that her singing voice would be classified under the category of “Crow” and she should never sing in public and should immediately hide her voice under “a bushel”. On that hypothesis, it was automatically assumed that she would never contemplate giving singing lessons. I hated the sound of the piano in those days, because not alone had I, a hardy seven years old, to endure these unmelodious and discordant sounds every Saturday but on other days of the week as well when my sister and her pals practiced long and hard in their determined efforts to become proficient musicians. At times, the racket was intermittently increased by the accompanying howls of our neighbour’s dog registering his protests.
One Saturday evening, when her final pupil of the day had gone, “Miss Serious” played a tune on our piano, presumably to get rid of her frustrations or perhaps just to ascertain if the piano was suffering any ill effects from her pupils enthusiastic thumping. My parents were quietly chatting over a cup of tea in the kitchen at the time when suddenly the sounds of a marvellous melodic tune wafted up from the parlous; they stopped and listened and then sat back in the company of glorious piano music played by a skilled and undeniable virtuoso. When the music ceased they remained silent for a while, afraid to disturb the peace and tranquillity that for a whole ten minutes had unexpectedly descended upon our household; after a few moments my father broke the silence quietly exclaiming ... “Jesus! She’s good; I didn’t know “Miss Serious” could play like that.”

“Miss O’Connor is an excellent player,” said my mother.

“Yes”, he replied, “she sure can play the piano; she can make it talk; I never heard better; she’s got music in the tips of her fingers. “What was the name of that tune?”
“The flight of swallows.”

“The flight of swallows,” he repeated and added, “it was grand,” then relaxing into jocose mood he said “she sure can play the piano but please don’t ask her to sing, unless on some occasion you’d like an unwanted guest to take flight and rapidly at that.”

“Well now, I’ve got news for you,” replied my mother. “She told me this morning that her star Bailieboro pupil, a young fellow called Slevin, will sing at the variety concert that Fr. Maguire is organising.”
“Her star pupil, a singer,” exclaimed my father in disbelief, “Do you mean she’s teaching someone to sing? That can’t be right; you misunderstood her.”

“You heard me right; I was surprised myself,” replied mother adding, “I didn’t know she taught singing as well as the piano; the thought never entered my head.”

“Well, I can well understand that,” replied my father, “anyway, I don’t believe it. How in God’s name could she teach someone to sing when she can’t sing a note herself? That would be similar to a man who never kicked nor laced a football training the football team.” He silently pondered the conundrum for a few moments and then to my delight announced, “we’ll all have to go to this concert and hear this star pupil sing; to say the least, it might be a very interesting concert indeed.”

The concert was held on a Sunday night in one of Mr. Pete Burn’s spacious potato warehouses; the premises was well prepared for the occasion and justified the aggrandised title of “Burn’s Hall, Shercock” on the posters advertising the event. The large temporary stage was made from scaffolding planks placed on wooden porter barrels hidden from view by dark drapes. The noises of final preparations from behind the borrowed plush wine stage curtains gave an air of expectancy to members of the audience as they entered and made their way to seats, all of which had been borrowed from the chapel and other sources during the day. Miss O’Connor could be seen seated at our piano (borrowed for the event) in front towards the left of stage; she was busily arranging music sheets. Friends and neighbours warmly greeted each other as they took their seats. Soon all seats were occupied and there was standing room only for late arrivals. A hush settled on the loquacious audience when eventually a bell sounded to indicate that proceedings were about to commence.

Anticipation increased as the stage curtains were slowly drawn back to reveal a beautiful landscape background scene. A microphone on stand stood in front centre of the stage. Fr. Maguire came quickly from the wings and addressed the audience; he welcomes each and everybody “to what would be a great night’s entertainment,” provided by very talented people drawn from the four corners of the parish, including pupils from the national schools of Shercock, Duish and Bailieboro, all of whom had never performed in public before. Without further ado, he introduced the opening performers.
Three young Bailieboro men, dressed in Scottish kilts and Tam O’Shanters danced in exaggerated highland style from the wings to centre stage singing the Harry Launder song commencing with the words:

“If you see three Bonnie Ladd íes
Travelling through the rye,
You’ll know its MacDoodle, MacNab and McCoy.
Mac. Doodle is the big fellow, the strongest of us all,
Mac. Nab in the middle is about 6ft tall
And the little fellow beside him is McCoy.”

Their performance was all the more enjoyable as each young man’s size and weight was as described in the song. When they concluded they danced off stage, again in exaggerated highland dance style. There was rousing applause for this opening number; cheers and handclapping greeted the performers when they returned on stage to perform an encore.

Next to perform was a young Bailieboro man. He stood behind a regal type chair on which he placed both hands as he sang the old patriotic song - “The Three Flowers” commencing with the verse -
“One time when walking down a lane
As night was drawing nigh,
I met a colleen with three flowers
And she more young than I.
Saint Patrick bless you dear said I
If you will kindly tell
For the place where you did find those flowers
I seem to know so well.”

The continuous applause when he had finished the song prevailed upon him to sing an encore.
Fr. Maguire then announced that the time had now arrived for the audience to be entertained by pupils from the various schools in the parish. He said that he had auditioned quite a number of volunteers in each school and while they were all very good, he considered that the mix of those selected, provided good variety and best represented the traditions of their schools and districts. He then introduced three young girls representing Shercock School - Dolores Murtagh, Myra Mac Morrow and Gertie Murray and asking for an encouraging round of applause he lowered the height of the microphone before leaving the stage.

The girls, two dressed in cowgirl outfits and one in cowboy outfit (with buckskins), complete with hats, decorated waistcoats and riding boots with spurs, paraded onto stage jangling their spurs and singing the popular song with the opening lines -
“I’ve got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle,
As I go riding merrily along.”

This act got great applause, swelled by boisterous cheers and whistles from the Shercock contingent in the audience.

Acts by other schoolchildren followed; all appropriately introduced by Fr. Maguire who adjusted the microphone on each occasion depending on the height of the performers.

Bridie Murtagh, a Shercock schoolgirl sang the popular ballad - “The turf man from Ardee.” There was dead silence as Birdie’s sweet voice commenced the opening verse -
“For the sake of health, I took a walk
One morning in the dawn.
I met a jolly gentleman as I slowly walked along.
A friendly conversation passed between that man and me,
And that’s how I got acquainted with the turf man from Ardee.”
For her encore’ Bridie sang - The Bold Felim Brady - The Bard of Armagh.”

Next, wearing matching navy-blue gangies and long pants, the young Carolan twin brothers from Taghart representing Duish school sang the international balled, - “Barbara Allan”.

They sang in perfect unison and in a traditional harmonious style that captivated the entire audience, some of whom didn’t previously know that the townland of Taghart existed never mind Duish school. The uproarious applause when they concluded the song guaranteed that the young Carolan twins had put the high mountain region of Taghart on the map for all time; the applause only subsided when they returned on stage to sing the ballad “London Derry on the banks of the Foyle” commencing with -

“I know a wee spot
It’s a spot of great fame
It lies to the north
Sure, I’ll tell you its name.
It’s my own native fair place
And it’s on Irish soil
And they call it London Derry
On the banks of the Foyle.”

Piano accompaniment for all the singers with the exception of the Carolon brothers was played by Miss O’Connor; she could now be observed fussily arranging her music sheets in preparation for the next item. This indicated to close observers that the moment of truth for her and her “star singer” had arrived; a hush of anticipation settled on the audience seated near the stage and spread like wildfire to the four corners of the hall; you could hear a pin drop; the noise of Fr. Maguire’s footsteps approaching the microphone sounded loudly throughout the entire hall. He announced that the time had arrived for the final item of the night, a song by a young Bailieboro boy, Jim Slevin. He said that Jim was a pupil of Miss O’Connor and like most of the youngsters tonight hadn’t sang in public before; he said Jim would attempt a song which the older people in the audience might appreciate. He adjusted the mike and a lad of about 12 or 13 years of age came from the wings. He was dressed in short pants, white starched shirt and red bow tie. His brown hair was combed back in man’s fashion (at that time). He stood in centre stage, well back from the mike. An odd whisper was audible, “he’s too far back from the mike; we’ll never hear him.” Jim then did the unexpected; he stepped up to the mike, lifted it and placed it at the side of the stage; a hand reached out and took it into the wing. He then took up a position at the front centre of the stage and nodded towards “Miss Serious” with an expect flourish she ran her fingers over the piano keys playing the opening bar of his song; she stopped and nodded to him.

The quality of Jim’s voice stunned the audience as he commenced with the lines -
“Love thee dearest, Love thee,
Yes, by yonder star, I swear.”

His voice had all the qualities of a male counter tenor, unbelievable in someone so young; his marvellous tone had too much depth to be considered the voice of a boy soprano. He hit the top notes effortlessly. Every note sounded as clear as a bell in every corner of the hall. The entire audience, young and old, sat enthralled. When he had concluded there was a silence; then the enraptured audience awoke and broke into tumultuous applause. Jim stepped a few paces back and bowing in acknowledgement looked towards his teacher. She nodded to him and he stepped centre stage once more for an encore and only then did the applause abate; with an expert flourish on the piano keys, his delighted teacher played an opening bar before stopping and nodding to him; there was real confidence in his voice as with chest out he commenced his encore singing ...

“I’m sitting on the style Mary
Where we sat side by side
On that bright May morning long ago
When first you were my bride.”

The audience sat relaxed listening in the company of a marvellous voice, as with great technical ease he slowly sang the song they knew so well but never heard so well sung before.

The applause continued long after young Sleven had taken his final bow. It did not subside until Fr. Maguire came on stage to thank the performers, their parents and schoolteachers and all who helped in any way in the night’s entertainment. Finally, referring to the performance of young Master Sleven, he said that “on a rare occasion the good wine is reserved till last” and pointing towards Miss O’Connor he added, “ a great singer must have a great teacher.”

We emerged from the hall amid that companionable audience, some were dallying outside on the dimly lit street waiting for their enlivened friends and neighbours; they jovially greeted each other with shouts of “marvellous entertainment” “Great night,” “Up Taghart”, “Come on Bailieboro” “wasn’t young Sleven great” and “Great voice-well trained.”

When eventually we turned for ho me my father winked at me and said “I wonder does “Miss Serious” know anything about football; our lads need a bit of help; a great team must have a great trainer.”

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2004