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The House Of Songs

Silence, timing and the poet’s vocation

watch and piano

It is 1979, I am nearly twenty, and my father may be about to sing; which is strange, because he has never done so before, at least not in the hearing of his children. This long hiatus seems all the more contrary since Dad is said to possess a beautiful voice. There are tantalising photographs of the munitions-factory concert party he led during the war. Worshippers in nearby St John’s remember the former altar boy as a gifted chorister — the Port Glasgow Nightingale, a local newspaper called him.

But now Dad is seventy, and clearly reluctant to break a silence that pre-dates my birth. So will he sing? Do his children want him to? My sister looks aghast; our brother is mortified. We exchange embarrassed glances in a nervous trigonometry of teenage gaucherie, an unease that seems assured by comparison with the stricken stasis afflicting the reluctant tenor.

Mum’s brave face deserves a medal. After a mute, marooned minute, having at last raised his gaze from the carpet, it is on that face that her husband focuses. Hester’s smile of trust and trepidation is what we are all looking at when Dad finally opens his mouth.

But doesn’t sing.

No sound yet from him, just the clamorous encouragement of the amiable eggers-on. It is his sister’s golden wedding anniversary. This really is an extended family; eleven surviving siblings of the dozen born, perhaps a hundred friends and relatives in the church hall, enjoying the ‘purvey’, as buffets are always known in the working-class West of Scotland, savouring a wee dram on a big day, applauding the ‘turns’.

Not so much a family as a troupe. Having grown up on Vaudeville and Variety, cheaply available to the famously fickle theatre-goers of Glasgow, the members of this amateur repertory company – of footballers and French polishers, shipyard tradesmen and girls from the rope works – use light entertainment to make light of their troubles. A torch song gives way to a bit of Burns, a monologue segues into a stirring bit of community singing, with harmonies as close as this Clydeside clan.

And then, in a change to the advertised programme, each taking one unyielding hand, they literally drag Dad onto the ‘stage’. Where he is standing, still. Still. Most of the guests are picturing him somewhere else and long ago. When meat-paste sandwiches and pots of tea a builder would have thought too strong were consumed in the crowded family home half a mile away, up by Birkmyre Park, overlooking the Firth, before Dad belatedly married at fifty and had me. When he sang. When everybody did.

For its Saturday night ‘at homes’, that house on the hill was celebrated all along the Lower Clyde. The widow O’Rourke’s parlour get-togethers, round the piano, were one part salon to two parts ceilidh. Through blitz and blackout they’d roll back the rugs and dance and sing and jest. But both my grandparents were dead when Dad met his wife to be, and all I knew about that vanished world, shattered into party pieces, were legends about a legend. On those nights, my gentle uncle Donald, the ‘skipper from Skye’ – he was a captain with the Hebridean ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne – called that parlour taigh òrain, a ‘house of songs’.

Back then, Dad’s frequently requested signature tune had been the ‘Londonderry Air’. Daniel O’Rourke didn’t just sing ‘Danny Boy’; he was Danny Boy. This evening, forty years on, it is that musical calling-card that his kith and kin want him to present, with the raffish flourish of old. But this show isn’t going on. Despite the coaxing cheers and mock-exasperated entreaties, not a single note from ‘Wee Danny’.

He’s a tiny man, half an inch short of five feet, but good-looking, after an Irish fashion, and charismatic: twinkle-eyed – really bluely twinkle-eyed – quick of wit, and great with children — including, most of the time, his own, for whom he improvised bedtime stories in nightly instalments of such virtuoso imaginative extravagance that, like his sister’s comic monologues, they could easily have been on the wireless.

Of him singing to us however, I had no recollection. Pleas for songs were mildly ignored with the same rueful shrug Dad deployed here. As weans – wee ones – his daughter and sons had begged him to sing. Now, in permanently affronted, shame-shrivelled adolescence, we prayed that he would not. Surely vocal bloom and burnish could not survive his phlegmy, hard-worked threescore years and ten.

I hadn’t known as a little boy – and hadn’t yet realised in that hall, as a mostly grown man in whom anticipation was turning to impatience – just how much the writer I’d become was learned from Dad. Song and story were at the centre of my performances from the outset. If I’m a sort of urban seannachie, a bard who preserves the heritage and the filial lineage of his tribe, then I inherited that calling from my father. His has been a silence I have felt duty-bound to fill.

The extent of my mother’s creative influence was much more evident from early on. The weekly shopping trolley of library books; the guitar bought for my sixteenth birthday; The Times crossword we’d do together; the legends and lore of her native Ulster, the myths and memories of her own, equally romantic Antrim girlhood; hints of loves lost, lives longed for but never lived: scripts I’d go on to write. In the poems and songs I was publishing during what was then my second year at university, it was maternal inspiration I acknowledged: the strong mother who pushed me out the door when my orator’s courage failed me and I nearly missed a schools’ championship debate — her determined smile, an act of will, of reassurance, of propulsive pride.

All of that emboldening beams in the dark hospital-matron’s eye Dad catches now. His hobby is mending watches. He knows a lot about… timing.


And, finally, he sings. All four of us trade looks. And he sings. Oh how he sings. I cry first. Then the other three do. Soon, everyone is weeping, even, eventually, Dad. His voice is smooth: dark and golden as a chocolate doubloon, pristinely preserved, a soft and shining souvenir from another age spared lustre-dulling use, the glint and gleam glowing on the high Cs, and at the core a single mellow octave is tremulous not with age but perfectly controlled vibrato.

Today, visiting a blind and ailing, frail and failing, dignifiedly gallant mother of a friend, I think again of that get-together, thirty-six years ago. Dad is long dead, as are all those sisters and brothers who entertained us, and themselves, so beguilingly. Kitty is ninety-six and will go into a hospice tomorrow. When I visit her, she always asks me to sing. Mine is a viola voice, undistinguishedly pitched between high baritone and low tenor. But her requests are never ignored. Though I’m not the back-street bel-cantist my father was, I am Daniel O’Rourke.

‘Do you know “Danny Boy?”’, Kitty asks, grasping both my hands. My answer is the song.

In the continuous ceilidh of Scottish culture Donny O’Rourke has been active as poet, broadcaster, journalist, editor and university teacher.

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