A FAMILY ALWAYS ON SONG
No 68 was home to arias and Ali Baba, Ave Maria and Aladdin, says Miriam O’Callaghan. And now it’s gone
Inever spoke about what happened in our family. It didn’t go on in the homes of my friends. Or, not that I knew. But, in retrospect and it being Cork, it was probably widespread: The Singing.
Not your respectable Dean Martin, Perry Como or Sinatra, though they featured. My father did a phonetically perfect a la Tino Rossi. I’m talking actual arias. Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, Balfe. On the big liturgical feasts, or around a death or anniversary, there’d be
On my father’s side, The Singing happened in the old O’Callaghan kitchen at “68”, his childhood family home, an elegant, double-fronted distillery house on Blarney Street. One bedroom had a view to the harbour. Good for the soul. It also had a view of a father returning from work. Good for the body: a brilliant, handsome man, my grandfather had a short fuse, a long reach.
The garden was high-walled, appleand-pear-treed, slipping, then tumbling, to the Lee. There were tea-roses for devotions to the Sacred Heart; Easter lilies late enough for May processions. In family photos, the same flowers bloom for 50 years. The yard hosted a luxury bathroom: wallpaper, louvred doors, swifts nesting in its porch.
Across the street lived my father’s aunt, Lil. Once possessor of the exclusive contract to stitch the silk lining of the Austrian national ski-team’s gloves.
My 68 memories are a pick-and-mix of silver gleaming on the sideboard, a Barbie in a black-patent, dress-up case brought from America by uncle Tom, no blood relative. My cousin Elinor flashing panstick as she arrayed herself in orange silks and harem pants for an Aruba Coughlan ballet. maybe. Or Desert heat in the grey, tidal Father Matthew Hall, site of Viking massacres, upriver from Ford and Dunlop, where wages were good, lunches were eaten in the middle of the night, limbs were severed.
Men streamed down proud Northside hills to the night shifts in both. Their ham sandwiches in Ormond and Ahern sliced-pan wrapping; tea and sugar in brown paper; their wives sending them
Tristesse, Panis Angelicus; Ave Maria. Ali Baba. Aladdin,
out Imperial Leather-ed, spotless. While most whistled, some sang arias. Out loud. No self-consciousness. No white coats. This was Cork, and if you didn’t sing a bit of casual opera on your way to work, sure, you were nobody.
I know now that a man who lived near us was a fetishist. He’d captured the vocal chords of a woman, stored them on black plastic, pleasured himself with them day and night. Especially when he was doing the garden. The woman was Joan Sutherland.
In 68, my aunts and uncles each had their piece; the Sunday concert filling the hour’s fast before Communion. In truth, they fasted for an hour before Mass. You could never be too careful.
So here’s my father as Cavaradossi. My aunts and uncles as Mimi, Violetta Valery, Germont Pere. Uncle Con’s
wraps it up. Then lipstick, hats, gloves, brooches are put on, perfume and inhalers sprayed, aftershave slapped, ties straightened before going hell-for-leather down to Mass in Sunday’s Well, where they’re in the choir. Palestrina putting a stop to their secular gallop.
Now, all those O’Callaghans are dead. Of that company, only my mother and auntie Theresa remain. They married in.
But my mother’s side, too, was musically afflicted. She, herself, had a beautiful voice. Her mother turned down the chance to study in Italy, making an operatic life in Cork by marrying a gambler instead. At dinner time every weekday, after a stuffed heart or a nice bit of tongue, at 20-to-two exactly, her son Dermot would stand at the kitchen press and sing
from Then he’d race back to work, resisting the temptations of the Krups and Brauns, continental industrialists with agents eager to steal him and his commercial magic from Cork Radio and the semiaristocratic FitzGeralds. Today, his granddaughter is making an operatic name for herself in Scotland. Suzanne Murphy is one to watch.
Number 68 was sold last Christmas. I’d love to have bought it. It keeps the memory of the singers, the songlines of what matters: kindness, courage, dignity, loyalty, family.
Love? You could sing it, boy.
My Song, Violetta Hand Is Frozen Hear Your Tiny La Boheme.