Shay Healy told us to give them Danny Boy in every set. We were an Irish trio in Boston, so we did
For months we played in Majorca at 11pm each night. Then came a chance to travel to the US
Rosemarie Caine (far left) with Liam Clancy
When the harpist Rosemary Caine arrived in western Massachusetts in the 1970s it had no Irish arts scene, so she set about establishing a group of like-minded lovers of Irish music and theatre. These musicians, actors and singers have been together since the early 2000s. Their mission has been “to illuminate through original music and story the lives of Irish geniuses of literature and legend -- saints and sinners included”. She is now retired, still playing the harp and continuing her involvement in Irish arts
In the 1970s I was pretty Eurocentric and never imagined that on March 2nd, 1972, I’d be bidding farewell to the land of my youth forever as I joined the long line of emigrants who followed the work. As a member of the Burren Flora trio, with the harpist Jackie Dolan from Nenagh, Alice Foy from Limerick and me from Ardee, Co Louth, we were early alumni of the Shannon Castle Singers , joining in 1966. Our four seasons at Dunguaire Castle in Kinvara, Co Galway, as Irish cultural tourism began meant we got a winter break from May to October, so we went on holidays to Majorca, harp in tow.
In Majorca we were hired by the Tago Mago Club, a major nightspot that showcased traditional flamenco singers and musicians. The club had headliners such as Sandy Shaw, Tom Jones and Cilla Black. For five months The Burren Flora went on stage at 11pm, backed by a movie montage of chocolate-box Irish mountains, lakes and streams.
After Majorca, our first job was outside Boston. It was a jump from the Embankment in Tallaght to an Irish pub in Norwood, Massachusetts. I was recently reminded of our 1972 arrival in the United States when I heard of Shay Healy’s sad death and remembered his cheerleading appearance when we landed at Logan Airport. Shay was one gem of a welcome committee. We were to join a stable of Irish, Welsh and Scottish performers of whom he was one. Not only did he pick us up, but his wife, Dymphna, and son Oisín shared their small two-bedroom apartment with us until ours was ready.
We were three Bunratty Castle refugees with dark waist-length hair, chiffon dresses and a harp. ‘This is straight-on Wild Colonial Boy territory,’ Shay Healy warned
On the way to Norwood, Shay gave us a running commentary of what to expect in Boston. What kind of repertoire do we need, we nervously asked. We were three Bunratty Castle refugees with dark waist-length hair, chiffon dresses and a harp. “Forget The Last Rose of Summer,” warned Shay. “You’ll die an untimely death with Down by the Sally Gardens. This is straight-on Wild Colonial Boy territory,” he told us. His advice: “You’ll be eaten alive if you don’t give them Danny Boy in every set.” With Shay’s support and encouragement we adapted and gave them what they wanted, including The Wild Colonial Boy. Danny Boy not so much.
Suddenly three months was over. Alice and Jackie returned to a summer gig at the pre-Bono Clarence Hotel, in Dublin, but I stayed behind and ran off with a man who had fixed his black smoldering eyes on me from his stool in a Boston bar. The dark-eyed future husband had been there every night, keeping up a “Could I freshen your drinks, girls?” offer between sets. There was no getting away from him, or so I thought until later, when, after being married for 13 years, I divorced him. I have a lovely son from that marriage.
I bounced around for a few years in Amherst, looking for something that could give the same cultural bandwidth as my life in Ireland. That was the beginning of my one-woman Irish Embassy in western Massachusetts. There was music, but now without a trio. I was a loose Celtic cannon in this tightly wound world of the puritan. I invited about 200 people over on St Stephen’s Day every year and force-fed them plum pudding, Irish poetry, jigs and reels. I continued to pine for Ireland, the ballads and the craic.
I felt a religious zeal to lead western Massachusetts out of Celtic Siberia, entirely missing the point that in this enlightened place there were plenty of folk who not only knew who Yeats was but had also read Ulysses. I was lonely, sad and always alert for the sound of an Irish accent. I shocked myself by becoming something of a professional Irishwoman. In Dublin I would have sneered at the future me.
The US also gave me a divorce. I became a citizen when I felt enough pride and understanding of my adopted land to take that step. I kept singing as I sewed bridal veils
My American husband had financial obligations to his widowed mother, so I knew from the get-go that if I flew the marital coop I would need to be able to fully support myself. My escape route came when I stumbled on an idea. White Victorian dresses were all the rage in the secondary wedding market. With nothing but gut instinct, I rode that wave and redesigned a romantic Edwardian outfit. There was a green connection too: upcycling damaged and stained Irish damask tablecloths.
And so began my era as a dress and wedding-gown designer. The business lasted 25 years and was my escape route. I was able to support myself and my son, doing something I loved that gave me a connection to Ireland. The United States also gave me a divorce. I became a citizen when I felt enough pride and understanding of my adopted land to take that step. I kept singing as I sewed bridal veils. I sold the business in 1999.
In 1998, with the encouragement of my former Burren Flora colleague Alice Foy Duffy, I went to the summer harp school Cairde na Cruite in Termonfeckin, Co Louth. Beginning the next stage of my Hibernian-American odyssey, I started to play the harp, and melodies emerged from the strings. The WB Yeats poem The Fiddler of Dooney became a song and the beginning of a stage musical inspired by Marian Broderick’s book Wild Irish Women.
I was concerned that people would not come to a show written by a dress designer turned composer about obscure distant and forgotten Irishwomen. My fear of heathen Hibernophobes was unfounded. They came. We set sail for the Dundalk Drama Festival in 2004. We called ourselves the Wilde Irish Women from Western Massachusetts, and we took some good men with us.
This was followed in 2006 by the musical Women in Arms, a play about Deirdre, Nessa, Macha and Maeve. My Jewish husband, Howard, said helpfully: “Try the not so obscure. How about the Wilde Irish Women of James Joyce?” I got on it. The production, completed in 2014, worked well for Bloomsday and for 2016’s commemoration of the 1916 Rising. Well, you can take the woman out of Ireland, but you can never take Ireland out of the woman.
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