This one is super-long for a blog entry. That’s because it’s a short story draft–you know, those things you skip past in the _New Yorker_ or stopped reading after your Leaving Cert–so don’t feel you have to plough through it. YouTube is always right next door on the internet.
But if you’re interested, the story is inspired by an RTE radio documentary of the same name from 1987, and I’ve imagined it taking place in my grandparents’ hometown in Roscommon. I didn’t know them very well, so those bits are entirely made up. The awesome letter to the Catholic Herald is real, though, and so are the slogans. And one description of country life is swiped from a commenter here.
Oh, and I haven’t written a full-length story since my own Leaving Cert, so this took for-goddamn-ever. Making stuff up takes me even longer than reporting it. I’m posting a draft so’s I can see it with some distance and then patch it up.
As the phone company would say, “We know you have choices for your blog-reading needs, and we appreciate your business.” Thanks for stopping by.
…you danced with her the best slow dancer
Who stood on tiptoe who almost wasn’t there
In your arms like music she knew just how to answer
The question mark of your spine your hand in hers
The other touching that place between her shoulders
Trembling your countless feet lightfooted sure
To move as they wished wherever you might stagger
Without her she turned in time she knew where you were
In time she turned her body into yours
The bicycles go by in twos and threes
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
After Mass, Charlie Hanley offered Margaret Kelly a bar to the Saturday dance in Elphin. The fellas had bicycles, and the girls did not, and it was better that way. It meant a High Nelly was a ticket to ask.
The light girls were popular. They’d back up to the bicycle bar like little high jumpers, pretending to be more delicate than they were, and with a laugh and a wobble you’d be away. Margaret was middle-sized–two wobbles, maybe three–but when he reached for the handlebars on either side of her good frock, with her hair tickling his chin, he was glad of every mile of the seven from her home place to Elphin. She was cushiony enough not to complain about the iron slap from each rut in the road. Instead she gripped the bar and pointed her knees primly ahead, like a Strokestown House mistress riding sidesaddle.
They passed Billy Carmody and his donkey, bringing home the churn from evening milking. They saluted Jonjo Sharkey and his old bitch Gypsy, who even though her eyes were milky still snapped at Margaret’s dangling feet. These days the sheep obeyed Gypsy only out of habit, or pity. Jonjo would have to get the shotgun to her soon.
All day Charlie had turned turf. The sods already smelled warm and nearly meaty, as they would when stacked beside the range in winter. At the dinner hour they unwrapped their mother’s bread and drank strong tea from milk bottles. There was just him and the brother to cut their plot of bog. Margaret had a rake of brothers, but they were still young lads, and when she walked out to bring their dinners to the bog she often stayed on to work harder than they did. Though Charlie had known her since she was in High Babies and he was in Second Class at the schoolhouse, it was only in the last few years had he liked to watch her work from across the bog. She looked stronger than she was; rheumatic fever in Sixth Class had given her a bad heart.
In the evening Charlie and the brother walked back, stopping as they always did for a smoke on two flat mossy rocks in the bottom field. They shared a Sweet Afton and listened to the land. Half of life was winding down and half waking up; a change of shift, you might say. It was sweet now to stretch out on a warm rock and do nothing but draw in smoke. He thought about Margaret Kelly’s hair. As the night went on they might be dancing a rumba. Close-to-close dancing like that, it was bolder than the proximity of a bicycle ride, because there was no reason or excuse but the pure pleasure of it. The thought made him feel so alive it was barely bearable. _O yes, we have no bananas…_
Noel was too young for the dance, and his mind was on Under-16s hurling. Why, he wanted to know, did Father Treacy have Lennon playing centre field again tomorrow? Anyone with eyes in their head could see Lennon should be centre-forward and Noel should be midfield. Lennon was more skilful and a better scorer, and Noel was fitter, bigger, and more controlling of centre field. How else were they to beat Tulsk? Charlie agreed it was a senseless thing. Noel would puzzle it further, but Charlie was inclined to get to the dance. He stubbed the butt and rose towards home, hungry for his tea. The milk bottle rolled in his jacket pocket. Noel followed, slapping a sliotar from hand to hand, still complaining.
Saturday night you mightn’t guess Margaret was such a grand worker. Her burnt arms and hard palms were hidden and her shoes were polished. She had a green ribbon in her hair. He felt her sway on the bar of the bike, leaning into the bends with him, and though he was too shy to discuss anything but cutting turf and the county finals so far, he thought again that they might dance the rhumba later. He was relieved enough when they got within a few miles of Elphin, where more bicycles threaded through knots of linked girls. Spirits were high. “How’re you going on, Margaret?” said Mick Conroy, with a smirk, as he passed them. Charlie wobbled.
Outside the Four Provinces, they could hear the band already playing.
She likes…(dah da da)
I like…(dah da da)
She likes…(dah da da)
I never like…(dah da da)
But that’s my weakness
Now that people had started to come to the dances from other parishes, the Four Provinces had had a special iron frame made for hitching the bicycles, and appointed a lad to look after them. Margaret slid off the bar, wriggled softly, and patted her frock down over her hips. She was probably black-and-blue, he thought, and wished he’d tied on a blanket for her. She stood waiting for him to line up the bicycle until Winnie Fallon called her name from the door, and then she looked awkward.
“Thanks for the bar, Charlie. You’re very good,” she said. “I’ll see you inside, so.”
At the bar he shared a smoke with Paddy Beirne and Sean Óg MacDermott. Paddy still had shreds of peat under his nails. Sean Óg smelled of hard pink soap. They were trying to get a rise out of Paddy for being carried home from the Mart in a donkey cart after he and his father got a better price than expected for their yearlings.
“And did you clear a few bob at all on the cattle after your investment in the whiskey, Paddy?” said Charlie.
“I’d say it’ll be a while before you’re let near town again, would you not say?” said Sean Óg.
Margaret stood nearby, her hair rearranged.
“Will you have a mineral, Margaret?” Charlie blurted. She asked for a red lemonade. He called a stout as well, and turned from his friends’ winks. Side by side, they watched the band. Each time he lowered his head to the stout he took a glance at her tapping feet.
Peadar Clancy’s Band had come all the way from Leitrim to play. They were five skinny fellows with worn instrument cases. Peadar Clancy was the leader because it was his aunt who sent the sheet music and the gramophone records from America. He could play anything–fiddle, flute, melodeon, tin whistle, and bodhrán; from _The Walls of Limerick_ to _Kavanagh’s Craic._ But a few years gone by he and his brother had made a crystal wireless set from a kit, and started to tune in to 2RN out of Athlone. He was quickly ruined for céilí music. Until he got that itchy Jazz out of his head, there would be no more _Siege of Ennis_ or _Ballyvourney Jig Set._ What he wanted was to hear more Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Billy Murray; the way they seemed to be nearly laughing at you, they had such ease and delight. The way they made it up out of what they had, like the best of the old session players. Mrs. May Cash, his mother’s youngest, wildest sister, was known to have been to a Jazz club in Chicago. He wrote to ask her for the music.
No one around Elphin had heard the likes of this Jazz until Peader Clancy brought it in. The county didn’t have the electric yet, but some of the young lads were soon making crystal sets of their own. The Four Provinces booked Peader Clancy’s Band every third Saturday, and more bands caught on to Jazz behind him. They lined up to get the bookings even though they were paid little more than stout and sawdust, and they had to keep playing as long as a dancer wanted to dance.
When the Jazz came in, Margaret was always one of the first to pick up the rhumba, or the mambo, or the Charleston. You’d see couples edging up behind her on the paraffined floor, or watching her from the sides, until they got the rhythm for themselves. Fellows used to ask her to dance because she’d show them the steps without ever letting on that they couldn’t lead her.
As a child, she had loved to be picked to dance at the parochial house. Every night Father Treacy brought musicians in to play the old airs and tunes, and children were invited for a strict half-hour–no more. She was a fine little step-dancer. Her calm eyes seemed not to know about the kid-goat leaps below her waist. She looked instead for a nod from Father Treacy, or even a handsome smile from him that would make her steps weightless for a moment. As she got older she loved the céilí set dances too; the breathless pairs swinging round, passing each other up and down the lines, and reuniting.
Mick Conroy asked Margaret for a dance. She put down her lemonade and gave him her hand. It reminded her of swimming in the lake: how she’d shy back from the plunge, and then flail a little, oh, but when her legs and arms got their way, moving for the pure fun of moving, she couldn’t help but laugh. At Mick Conroy, too, making the monkey faces, putting on the extra bit of spin because he knew she could keep up with him.
We have-a no bananas today.
Just try those coconuts
Those wall-nuts and doughnuts
There ain’t many nuts like they.
The band members were grinning also. Even Jimmy Clancy, the novice, knew this one well, and they knew that it would fill the floor. They played it that bit slower the first time through, so that the lads would get their courage up to find the steps. The third or fourth time, much later in the night, they would be stamping and singing along, swinging the girls like baboons in the trees.
“Would you ever go and ask her, Charlie,” said Paddy. Margaret’s lemonade stood half-drunk beside them on the bar, the fizz nearly gone. He’d kept an eye on her while he stood joking with the lads, and it seemed that half the fellows in the hall had lined up to take her hand, grateful for her forgiving feet and her Jazz-baby smile.
“Didn’t you give her the bar over here, and then buy her the mineral? I’d say she’s cracked for you,” said Sean Óg. “And she’s only Denis Kelly’s daughter. What’s the matter with you at all, man?”
There she was, slapping her knees, kicking up her ankles in a Charleston. She’d borrowed lipstick from Winnie Fallon, and she was laughing. A dance took the right kind of thinking, she found. Lost over a bucket of her brothers’ dirty nappies, her mind would chase worries, until even a whiff of ammonia would tighten her thoughts as well as her chest. But when Peadar Clancy started into a new song, those pecking worries were forgotten. She’d enjoy the words–those those daft rhymes were gas–and puzzle out the key to the rhythm. It made her proud that she could always get it, as she’d always got her multiplication tables back in Fourth Class.
When she took a step back from Charlie’s step in the rhumba, it was with an ease that came from facing square to this fellow she had liked enough to hope for, answerable to nothing but the next shimmy. Inside the hall, the windows were blocked to keep the time from passing. It was the longest night of the year, and still not long enough. They danced on through tiredness and out the other side.
As Charlie and Margaret walked out, the band was on their fourth rendition of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” There were courting couples in every corner, and the single fellows were weaving slow cha-cha-chas at the seated single girls, their eyebrows cocked with hope. The girls’ ribbons were askew. The young lad looking after the bicycles had gone home, not willing to sit outside until dawn.
The dynamo whirred against the wheel. The sound it made was stronger than the light, which was just bright enough for Charlie to see the potholes he was about to hit. Margaret laughed at every lurch, taking the chance to butt gently against his collarbone or the cage of his arms for this last, lingering dance. She liked the smell of him, in the clean, smoky shirt he must have borrowed from Mass the next day (for he hardly had three). Mick Conroy had an awful smell of sheep dip off him, she told Charlie frankly. She wanted him to have no doubt that even without the bar home, and the lemonades, and the score of dances, she would still want to be with him. Then she worried he might think her harsh.
He slowed at the end of the long lane up to her home place, outside the farm dogs’ range. “Will we walk up the rest of the way?” he said, and she nodded. She felt lulled, quiet in herself now, like a sheep giving in to the shearers’ embrace.
She eased herself down off the crossbar. He could hear the rasp of her frock as she took a step towards home, thinking, uncertainly, that she should take the mention of a walk in good faith and leave the kissing arrangements up to Charlie. He gripped the centre of the handlebars in his left hand to walk with her. After a minute he shut his eyes, swam for her hand through the dark, and found it. She squeezed back, and he stretched her arm down to pull her closer to his side. The crossbar bumped against his hip as they went up the lane.
They heard a bark.
“It’s Bran,” she said, stricken in case her mother would wake, and they stopped. He let go her hand and slid an arm around her waist. In the dark, her warm waist was new again, its stillness different to the foxtrotting flesh of an hour before. With a tiny sleepy sound she slid a hip towards him, and he let go of the bicycle, wondering if the hedgerow would catch it before it clattered. Now they were close-to-close dancing again to silent music, her cheekbone against his jawbone. He sniffed her hair. She sniffed his neck.
Warmth. Talcum powder. Washing soda. Sweat. Stout. Shaving soap. Tobacco. Turf.
Later, when they tiptoed Margaret to her door, the rooster threw back his head. Charlie would have hushed him for her sake, but he also smiled at the proud male declaration, especially the low note of surprise that trailed the crow. Margaret hoped she would remember the spot where the High Nelly still sagged in the hedgerow, a new memory in the old lane she had walked all her life. There were streaks of dawn in the sky.
The next morning Charlie stood at the back of the church with the fellows. Margaret sat in the fifth row with her mother and her pack of brothers. The boys all looked the same, with the big Kelly eyes, the hair wet-combed, and their back-rasher ears. They were born in steps and stairs, and the youngest was still a baby. _Scraitheadh an saicín_ people said of him, the shakings of the bag–and wasn’t Peggy Kelly lucky to have Margaret to rear the boys and run the farm?
Even at the height of summer the church was dim. Cold air from the big stone pillars raised goosepimple ripples on arms sunburnt from a week’s work. Father Treacy looked down over his parishioners, at the young men slouched behind the last pew, chewing down on yawns from a night’s late dancing, or worse yet, on a wad of tobacco. He looked at the young girls, meek as you like at Mass, but set to parade down French Street afterwards with their arms bare for all to see. He glanced at the blurred little faces of the altar boys. Flaherty’s mouth hung open, as usual. It was these ones, the young people, not the mothers, the old women, and the small farmers waiting quietly with their arms folded for their after-Mass pints, that he addressed when he finished the Gospel.
“It has come to my attention that there are young people in this parish of Strokestown who engage in an activity which is far removed from the clean, healthy, national dancing that befits Young Gaels,” he informed them.
“Of a Saturday night they mount their bicycles and cycle as far as Elphin or even Frenchpark to foster foreign dancing, known as Jazz. There are girls and boys in this very church this morning who should be ashamed of their faces after their carry-on in the Four Provinces in Elphin only last night, and I haven’t an ounce of doubt that if it is the case this morning that they can hardly keep their eyes open in the sight of the Lord Jesus and the Holy Mother, it is not because they are weary from cutting turf or saving hay all week. It is because they are after spending their fathers’ money on beer dances. It is because they are after disgracing their mothers with shameless close-to-close dancing until cockcrow.”
The congregration shifted. It had been months since they had been rebuked. Even the old people cleared their throats, as if to offer apology or defence.
“For many months now I have been aware of this practice, and the time has come to take a stand,” he continued. “I do want to read to you all now from a strong letter I have written to the _Catholic Herald._ Let it be known that priests and parishioners around the country will want to waken up to this threat, and that I intend to see to it that the parish of Strokestown will be in the vanguard of the forces to crush it.”
He paused and glared at the young men, whose ears glowed, then raised the letter to his face.
“Jazz,” he read, “is an African word, meaning the activity in public of something of which St. Paul said ‘Let it not be as much as named among you.’ The dance, and music, with its abominable rhythm, was borrowed from Central Africa by a gang of wealthy Bolshevists in the U.S.Ah., to strike at church civilizations throughout the world. They know perfectly well the part this abominable music had played in bringing the austere Roman civilization into the dust, and they employed this engine of Hell to do the devil’s work.”
“The abuse we are declaring war against is far worse than drunkenness and landlordism. Action is needed to be taken by the church and state. Young teachers should be trained for the teaching of Irish music and dancing, and the dancehalls should be closed at eleven o’clock. Put down this Jazz!”
He put down the letter. The mothers looked stricken. The girls gazed at their missals.
“Ye act,” he said, “as if the Lord cannot see ye dance the Black Bottom, the Shimmy, and the Char-leston at pagan dances ’til all hours of the morning. Ye act as though your fathers did not sacrifice to rid us of foreign civilisation so that ye would be free to enjoy Irish music. Blinded with drink, ye are following the dances of the Negroes. And I say to you this morning that this must stop. This must stop, Paddy Beirne. Seán Óg McDermott. Mick Conroy. Charlie Hanley. Margaret Kelly. Bridget Sharkey. Winnie Fallon. Máiréad O’Rourke. Peggy MacMahon.”
Bridie French, who had walked to the Four Provinces with her five cousins, looked startled and guilty.
The dancers dropped their heads. Father Treacy wanted to drop his too, but it was his place to watch their shame. Ten years ago he had prepared these children for their Confirmation. What was it that they had not understood about his hopes for them? They were blessed, the first reared in a country that was free and pure at last, and he had broken his heart to bring back the beautiful old skills for them. The music, the weaving, the Gaelic Games, the thatching–all were part of the shape he had wanted to put to their lives. And they had turned blood-won freedom to the Rhumba.
Margaret studied her whitened knuckles. When Charlie had taken her hand a few hours before she’d felt ashamed of how rough it was, even though the fellows she danced with all had hard farmers’ palms. As they stood outside the barn, her callouses had snagged on his silky hair. You couldn’t scald your hands in washing soda half the week and keep them fine. You couldn’t save hay and scrub stone flags and thin turnips, and expect to keep yourself as soft as a schoolteacher. But then he had stopped it mattering. And now she mourned that she hadn’t even had a day to hold that private happiness like a Christmas orange.
“Mammy,” whispered her brother George, “is Margaret bold?”
“Whisht, child!” said her mother, her head bowed too.
Charlie could see his brother Noel glancing anxiously from the far corner of a back pew, where he sat with their mother and father. He would be wondering if Father Treacy would drop him from the Under-16s match that afternoon, for being related to a fellow in disgrace. He would be puzzling what it was, exactly, that made Elphin Jazz such a shameful thing, and trying to picture his brother doing the Black Bottom. Charlie didn’t know what the Black Bottom was; a Dublin dance, most likely, that had raised Father Treacy’s colour when he read about it in the _Irish Press._
He wanted to comfort Margaret.
Father Treacy was a forward-thinking man. He believed in fixing things in this life, not the next, and when he thought of a thing, it had to be done at once. Strokestown would stage the first Anti-Jazz Rally at summer’s end, he announced, setting an example for the province and even the whole country. It would celebrate the birthday of Turlough O’Carolan, the great blind harpist who had wandered Connaught a hundred years before, trusting that his melodies would stir the people to provide for him. The letter to the _Catholic Herald_ would invite all-comers to the rally. He would follow it up with a letter to the Taoiseach, Mr. DeValera, and to the finest musicians in the country. “Down with Jazz!” he called, raising both arms. Then he declared the Apostolic Creed, followed a beat later by a subdued chorus.
I believe in one God,
the Father Almighty,
Maker of Heaven and Earth,
Of all that is,
Seen and unseen.
Throughout July there were weekly committee meetings to chart the invitations, make the placards, and rehearse the music. They were to march from the parochial house down French Street to the church, and back again. The bands would play them along. To the children it was an extra day at the Fair; a Lughnasa party against pagans.
On the day of the Rally, Father Treacy climbed onto an orange crate, steadied himself on the gate, and then drew himself up to address the crowd. He was pleased to note that there were ten times as many bicycles lined up along the hedgerow as he had ever counted outside the Four Provinces at midnight on a Saturday. A strong turn-out of all age groups, like a parish priest’s funeral.
“Welcome, on this beautiful harvest morning. There will be those who will find it a great surprise that as many came out as came to this rally today,” he said. “But not for a moment did I doubt that when called upon, the people of Roscommon would speak up for the beauty of our traditions against the foreign invaders.”
“We want our Irish music!” shouted a young man from under a placard that expressed the same. The crowd jostled in support.
“Ye are to be congratulated for coming here today from near and far to take a stand against the Jazz that has crept into our towns and villages. It has stealthily, though not silently, infected the minds and bodies of our young people, and that is why I am especially gratified in the sight of Our Lord to see so many Young Gaels here today. As ye make plain the will and wishes of the people of Roscommon to continue the revival of our Irish music, games, and crafts, ye have the support of the President of the Executive Council, Eamonn de Valera himself. He did write a beautiful letter commending this Anti-Jazz Rally, and indeed he has sent a strong representative in the person of Mr. William Geoghegan, who arrived from Dublin this very morning.”
Mr.William Geoghegan appeared from behind his motorcar, and stood next to Father Treacy. He was dwarfed entiredly by the big handsome priest on his orange crate. No one knew who he was, but his motorcar and his tie to greatness earned applause. He gave a tight nod and a wave, and did not mention his Jelly Roll Morton gramophone record.
“Our powerful show here today will not go unnoticed,” said Father Treacy. “We will get the matter of Jazz programmes on the national broadcasting service debated in the chambers of the Dáil. We will get every parish in the country to take a stand on regulating the dancehalls. We will get the national schools to lead our young people to a wholesome, native culture.”
The way of life he saw was so fitting, so vigorous, and so long-awaited that he had never wondered what it would be like to dance to Jazz.
“Down with Jazz! Out with paganism,” called Bridget Sharkey’s aunt, and the call was taken up. Mr. William Geoghegan nodded again, somewhat nervously. The band struck up _The Walls of Limerick,_ and Father Treacy hopped off the crate to lead his people down French Street, with De Valera’s representative by his side.
“We Want Our Irish Music” the crowd chanted, hugely enjoying the day.
“Down With Jazz!”
“Out With Paganism!”
Children skipped forward and back along the edges of the rally, cheering and chanting against songs they’d never heard. A man from _The Roscommon Herald_ took their picture.
Charlie and Margaret walked close to the back. They didn’t hold placards or banners, nor did they shout slogans. They were known to be courting now, but were quiet about it, and had not been back to the Four Provinces. Each of their mothers had blamed the other’s child for getting their names read off the altar.
“He’s years away from getting the farm,” her mother pointed out, half-pleased for her own sake that this meant Margaret would have to stay to rear them all.
“She’s Denis Kelly’s daugher, Charlie,” sniffed his mother. Noel was puzzled again.
Margaret hadn’t eaten a breakfast that morning, sick at the thought that Father Treacy might point to her again in front of the whole parish. “Blessed Mother,” she had muttered as he climbed onto the crate, “You know I didn’t know about the Jazz, and nor did Charlie. I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. Forgive us, Blessed Mother, and let him not shame us again.”
The dread lifted as they processed down French Street with the festive crowd. _The Walls of Limerick_ raised her.
“I miss it,” she said quietly. “It was great old fun. And I wonder if we’ll ever have another night for close-to-close dancing. But we had the one, didn’t we, Charlie?”