The Home Place: The rhythm of life - Moya Doherty

It was always a bit of a puzzle to me, this ‘being Irish’ thing

Illustration: Mark McColgan

Illustration: Mark McColgan


It was always a bit of a puzzle to me, this “being Irish” thing. I never really knew what it meant. If you grew up in a Border town in the 1950s and 1960s, as I did, you had a particular lilt to your language and a particular list to your thinking.

Pettigo, Co Donegal. The main street: Britton’s pub, the Custom House. Ms Bishop, the Protestant music teacher. Mr and Mrs Snow across the road who sold their religious artefacts in a stall by Lough Derg. The Tamlaght road with the milk churns. The post office where my mother bought me my first green-white-and-gold apron to help with the housework. Dust under the beds, lino on the floor, a hand-rotated dryer, the well at the end of the garden, the chipped crockery set for the Crolly doll’s dinner.

Reid’s sweet shop, a skip and a hop away from our rented lodgings. The old red-leatherette-seated yellow Volkswagen Beetle. The Silver Cross pram where the next baby sat, strapped in under the milky spring sunshine. The Cardinal Red-polished front step.

The rhythm of life in a Border town. Once a Border-town girl, forever on the border. The border of life.

The trips to Enniskillen – the first one home from Erne Hospital, the third girl of the two school teachers. The clattering as I wore my mother’s white patent-leather high heels, clip-clopping along the Ballyshannon hospital floor, visiting the next newborn sibling.

The sweet sound of the Irish language. The rhythm of the walk, the rhythm of the talk.

Across the bog, much further west, Granny on the doorstep, fleshy arms folded – skin the gloss of aluminium foil; thick-tongued, broken English spoken.

Uncle Connie in the shoe shop selling only the farm workboot or the black wellington or the sturdy brogues for the country woman. No truck with style. Brown paper and string, the boxes of leather-smelling Clarks shoes stacked high, the Irish Press crossword, the hatch into the kitchen to hear Granny call her bachelor son to dinner at 1pm.

The rhythm of leaving. The rhythm of losing.

The Sunday trips to Cloghbolie to Grand-Uncle Dan. A streally countryman who never left the house he was born into. Gable end to the sea, front facing the road. The Sunday cooking steaming from the range in Granny’s kitchen. Soda bread wrapped in a tea towel, bacon and cabbage, spuds, sweet apple pie, parsnips and carrots. A mackerel. A week’s sustenance for Dan the stammerer, Dan the loner, Dan the bachelor. Dan, whose brothers and sisters – all but Granny Bridget – headed north to Scotland, east to London, Chichester and beyond.

Across the street from Mulhern’s Corner Bar in Dungloe, the Doherty clan, returned immigrants. Back from the Depression in New York to run a small business and rear a family, leaving behind the many sisters and brothers to settle forever in the Bronx, Brooklyn and beyond. The rhythm of the home place beckoned.

The first journey at seven years of age from Donegal to Dublin.

The melting into a big city. That first bus ride to the heart of the city: Nelson’s Pillar, Clerys’ clock, Guineys, Mac Liammóir in the Gate, McAnally in the Abbey. Poetry in the classroom, music lessons.

The Belgrove National School teacher painting her toenails shocking pink under the desk. The Aran sweater knitted by my sister Nuala, so complex and intricate she was made explain each stitch to the class at age 10 to ensure intellectual property.

The clatter and clump of the long and the short and the tall of us hammering on the school-hall floor at the Irish dance class. A haon, dó, trí, ceathair, cúig, sé, seacht . . . is a haon, dó, trí . . . is a haon, dó, trí . . .

The rhythm of a journey. The rhythm of the everyday.

The Manor House School in Raheny: nuns whose memory might just give nuns a good name. Sr Alacoque, not cut out for the habit – but a wizard of a basketball coach. Sr Theresa, the tsetse fly who shocked the innocent, asserting that all natural disasters were a means of stabilising the world population. Sr Ephrem – the little effer – tiny and fearful of her wards. Mrs Parker and her passionate love of theatre. Ms Barrow and her passionate love of music.

The shift to the world of a young adult. The basement of North Great George’s Street, rehearsing Shakespeare’s plays. The bus journeys, touring the towns of Ireland with Sundrive Players on the amateur-drama circuit.

Another decade into the 1980s, the divorce referendum rejected, the abortion referendum rejected, the strut of the Fianna Fáil politicians as they attempted to control RTÉ.

From secretary to TV presenter, then on to the boat to London in search of another border.

The rhythm of departure. The rhythm of the immigrant.

London in the Thatcher years, the bombing of Harrods, and the shame of being told, when I spelled out loud my northern nationalist name, that “h” was pronounced “aitch” and not “haitch”.

Five years of cosmopolitan colour – a thousand years away from the Border town. Learning to shape the Irishness in the emerging frame of a woman built from memories of the past.

The locals from Africa, India, the Caribbean, Ireland, gathering in Donegal Charlie’s corner off-licence, settling on orange boxes, clambering their way through the politics of the day.

The rhythm of return. The yearning to head back to a place called home.

The love of a good man. The decision to marry. The joy of the return. The birth of two healthy sons.

The emerging rhythm of life, the beat of the drum of time, the search for a voice. The rhythm of an idea in the corridors of RTÉ. The rhythm of opportunity. The meeting of minds that shaped the music and the dance. The explosion of Irishness, a new rhythm to the roots.

The opening nights. Dublin, London, New York, Sydney, Japan, Beijing. The standing ovations.

The rhythm of the music. The rhythm of the dance. The rhythm of Irishness.

It was always a bit of a puzzle to me, this “being Irish” thing.

Moya Doherty is a founder and producer of Riverdance

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