Shannon, Ireland, November 1966
The two 23-year-old friends are sipping pints at Shannon Airport, waiting to board the Aer Lingus Boeing 707 that will take them to Montreal. They are wearing dark-blue suits, their Sunday best, with white shirts and matching green ties. They look like Mormon missionaries heading for a St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“No regrets,” says Jerry Burke. “No regrets,” says Dick Delahunty. They clink glasses. “It will be a great adventure,” says Burke.
They have been friends for five years. They met shortly after joining the Irish civil service as junior executive officers. The pay was good but the work was boring. That’s why they’re going to Canada. They want to see what else life has to offer.
“I can’t believe how quickly this whole thing came together” says Delahunty. “A month ago, we were gainfully employed by the taxpayers of Ireland. Now we’re out of work and on our way to the land of who knows what?”
“Why are we going, again?” asks Burke, smiling because he knows the answer. He’s known the answer since that day, five years ago, when a senior colleague told him an essential part of the civil service job was to bring a book to read in the office.
“We’re going to see if the grass is greener,” says Delahunty. “Did you bring your accordion?”
“No, I sold that. I have my guitar, though.”
They both like to sing. They have performed together in the pubs and folk clubs of Dublin and Cork since they first met. Delahunty knows all the lyrics and Burke knows all the chords. They are a dynamite combo. Or so they like to think.
“The Clancy Brothers had better watch out,” says Delahunty. “Delahunty and Burke are on their way. Dick and Jerry – an act as exciting as its name.”
“We don’t have to worry about the Clancys, my friend. They’re based in New York. We’ll be in Vancouver. We’ll have Canada’s Irish folk music market all to ourselves.”
“Except for the Irish Rovers,” says Delahunty.
“Who’re the Irish Rovers?”
“A group from the North, I think. My sister told me they’re big in Vancouver.”
Burke doesn’t think another Irish group will pose a serious threat. In fact, it could be advantageous to have them there.
“The more the merrier,” says Burke. “Maybe they can get us in with the right people. First, we’ll have to give ourselves a name, though.”
“Why, don’t you like Dick and Jerry – an act as exciting as its name?”
“Makes us sound like a couple of cartoon characters,” says Burke. “We need something with a little more gravitas, preferably one with an Irish or Celtic connotation.”
“How about the Croppy Boys?”
“I’ve a feeling that one’s been taken already. Good name, though. I also think there should be something in the name to suggest movement; to suggest the fact that we’re on the road.”
“The Travelling People?”
“Makes us sound like a couple of tinkers. You’re on the right track, though.”
“The Gypsy Rovers?”
“Too much like the Irish Rovers.”
“Yes! Ramblers Two. I like it a lot.”
“So, do you think this emigration thing could be a mistake?” says Delahunty. “We don’t have jobs to go to, and we don’t have any contacts over there. We don’t even have a place to stay.”
“We’ll find a place to stay,” says Burke. “If things don’t work out, we can always come back. The service will keep our jobs for at least a year.”
“How do you know that?”
“I checked. My principal officer said it’s standard practice for the service to treat a situation like this as a temporary leave of absence. We haven’t really quit our jobs. We’re on unpaid sabbatical.”
“And you remember what the man at the Canadian embassy said,” adds Burke. “Lots of office jobs in Canada for young men like us.”
Aboard the plane, Burke pulls the tattered copy of the Mary O’Leary poetry book out of his bag. He starts writing in his notebook.
“How are you doing with the translation?” asks Delahunty.
“It’s slow going,” says Burke. “The biographical material is relatively easy, but the poetry is a killer. This old Dineen dictionary is no help at all.”
Yellow Mary O’Leary was born in Tooreenanean in the year 1774, and it was there she spent her early life until she married James Burke around 1792 … Would that the rest of the words could come to him so easily.
“Any surprises in the book so far?” asks Delahunty.
“There’s a lovely story about how she met her husband. He was a horse dealer who travelled to the fairs around West Cork, buying and selling animals. He met Máire Bhuí at a fair in Tooreenanean where she was living, and he was smitten. She was just 18. They eloped to Skibbereen, got married, and moved to Inchigeelagh to begin their lives together. Isn’t that romantic?”
“When did she start writing poetry?”
“Nobody knows. She never wrote her poems down because it wasn’t prudent for the peasants to let the English authorities know they could read and write. Better for the authorities to think they were illiterate because an uneducated peasantry was easier to keep under foot. Máire Bhuí sang her poems and passed them on orally – passed them secretly – to her children and their children. They weren’t collected and transcribed until several years after her death.”
“It’s amazing that they survived, especially with the famine having killed off so many of the population during that period.”
“That’s why I want to translate them,” says Burke. “There are not many aspects of the famine that you want to hold in your memory. But these poems are an important legacy.”
“Did she write about the famine?” asks Delahunty.
“Not specifically,” says Burke. “But clearly she believed the English were somehow to blame. She referred to them as ‘big-bellied porks’ and ‘venomous hounds.’”
It was a lucky find, this little red-backed book containing Máire Bhuí’s poems. Burke stumbled upon it in a second-hand bookstore in Dublin while looking for some reading material to bring with him Canada. A gem among the dusty stacks, he knew immediately it was the one book he should have in his satchel. His father and grandfather had told him about their famous ancestor when Jerry was a child, and now he had something tangible to remind him of that connection.
An excerpt from my novel-in-progress