A Wee Do

Lily McWilliams

“Give our Mary a wee sherry,” said my father, while she snorted and sniffed, saying, “I haven’t touched a drop in years.” As always, father was looking out for her.  In our aunt Mary’s own words, “He is my rock, our Steve, I could never do without him.” I exchanged looks with my sister; how often down the years had we listened to that mantra?  There she sat, all huddled up in her fur coat which any attempt to remove always failed. “Madame,” she had been called all her life. It was her proud bearing, the way she held up her head. Family history said that, in her youth, she cut a quare fine figure of a girl with slim ankles always clad in ankle boots.

There was something among the older women of that time that if you had a good leg and a tiny ankle it was a sign of good breeding. This idea also extended to their hands. If they were long and elegant, it meant you had come from fine stock. Indeed, it was supposed by many that you might turn your hand to the piano. Having “piano fingers” was the greatest compliment you could receive.

Our aunt was forever telling us that we must always remember our roots. That our good name was all we would ever really own. My father carried this attitude with him all the days of his life.I now know why. We were the docklanders. The Sailortown folk who lived in our own wee district right beside the sea in Belfast. Generations had struggled to make their way in what was often a very hard station in life. Our anthems were the sea gales. Our orchestra, the ship horns that blew across Belfast Lough. To hear them on your way home from work in the evening was to know you were truly coming home. This was your own place. This was where you belonged. Madame had another wee sherry. She began to relax and lit a cigarette. Then, one by one, neighbours began to drift into our house in Pilot Street, one of the main thoroughfares into the docks. It was late evening. The dock gates were closed for the night. The district was quiet after another long hard day when many worked the ships and boats, unloading cargoes from all over the world. Outside, hundreds of pigeons gathered, as they did every night, to eat the corn dropped from the flour mill lorries as they drove up and down our street. Their fluttering sounds and the flapping of wings at times made a right oul’ din. No bells rang from St Joseph’s chapel tonight for there were no mid-week Novenas. In the mornings, living just across the street from the presbytery, we awoke to their continual ringing. The chapel then was the hub of all our lives. It was a meeting place for my mother and our neighbours. Baptisms, weddings, funerals, First Holy Communion and Confirmation were the rituals of what our faith meant then. The presbytery was a large Victorian house with numerous rooms where, many’s the time, I felt lost going up and down landings and stairs as I delivered messages for whatever housekeeper had called me from playing to go to the shops for them.

Everywhere within our dockland street were a million memories, some sad, some joyous, for this was what life was all about. The good came with the bad. You stood up and took it on the chin. You were a docklander, made from good stuff. This all formed your character and introduced you to the realities of life.

Tonight our house was packed. It was the “wee do” before I got married. My mother and father were treating our family and friends. The living room was crammed. So many strong personalities bouncing off each other. We had to proceed carefully.

The fun began as one of my sister’s chums, Big Rosie from the Falls Road, began to sing “The Boys from the County Armagh”. Such was the enthusiasm of clapping hands and stamping feet that Rosie grabbed my soon-to-be husband and the pair of them swung and danced in a ceilidh dancing rhythm.

The mood was set. “Madame” was next. After many protestations that she could not sing, that she would not sing and was still in mourning after a lifetime for the loss of her beloved husband, she fell into “You are the sunshine of my life”.  Half way through it, her voice faltered, tears glimmered behind the gold rimmed glasses and we held our breath. A rapturous applause lifted her spirits a little and she embarked on another song, “You’ll never know just how much I love you”.

Behind the sorrowing widow, I caught a glimpse of a once-upon-a-time young bride and my heart went out to her. A neighbour, Florrie, was next. Well oiled by now with four hot whiskies in her, she got up and danced as she sang “He’ll be coming round the mountain when he comes”.

We could see the bottom of her long pink silk knickers turned into her garters just above her knees as she lifted her frock and danced around. Mary up the street followed with a sopranic offering of “I’m only a bird in a gilded cage” and continued with “If I was a blackbird, I’d whistle and sing”.

Such reverence as she sang while her high notes fluttered out of the roof and away across the night sky. My uncle Jimmy took centre stage. “When I carried your books for you” he began in a soft, croaking voice.

Our aunt Bridget sat listening. In our family circle, they were the Jewels in the Crown. Their’s was an old fashioned love which was to last a lifetime, over fifty years together.

My sister Marie was asked to sing “Boy of mine”. To this day, it has remained her party piece. My oldest sister Anita had made the supper. We had a break while everyone had tea and cake.

Our home had been papered for the wedding. It was bright and fresh. Material possessions meant nothing to us then. Together, as a clan, we had riches beyond compare. My sister Mona had recently emigrated to America. She was much missed that night.

In her honour, I sang a song she loved called “Noreen Bawn”. It is about a girl who emigrates only to die from a broken heart on her return to Ireland. Tears were blinding me as I thought of our Mona so far away. How I wished she could have been there for my wedding in St Joseph’s chapel in a few days’ time.

My brother Gerry was talking to everyone, smiling and laughing. He too relished the gathering of our clan on nights such as these. I felt so loved among my friends and kin that night. I knew I would carry that memory of all of them, their songs, their fun all my life.

That evening remains crystal clear to this day although it was all a lifetime ago. Our aunt Eileen had us in stitches as she sang her own wee song about “Weddings, Weans and Nappies in the middle of the night”.

Then my father stood to sing “Pal of my cradle days”. He coughed and spluttered his way through it. My husband- to-be ended the singing with “My Lagan love”. That song followed him and me all the days of our lives. Every song that night told a story. I looked around the kitchen (as the living room used to be called) at the faces I was to leave in a few days. Life had touched most of them harshly in one way or another and, still, here they were offering my Paddy and I as much goodwill as we could receive.

Down all the years, so much more music blossomed in our lives. We began our married life in St. Joseph’s chapel on a mild November morning. We began on the note of high doh. We would end it many years later on the same note. Better to leave the best times with music and memories where they were then, in my own wonderful dockland home, a place that cast a spell a lifetime ago for me and mine. To this day, no-one and nothing can break that magic. Aren’t I the lucky one to have all that time and all those people to look back on? Yes, indeed, I was blessed then to come from them. I remain blessed now to own a dockland legacy, for that is what it truly was, my own sense of place. A docklander I was. A docklander I remain.