To tell of times that were..

Forget-me-not. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Forget-me-not. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Recently  I had news of the death of a lady  from my home village in County Donegal. Having moved away many years ago, I had met her on perhaps two or three occasions in the past decade or so. Yet the news of her death made me feel particularly sorrowful. As the days passed and memories flooded back, I came to realize that the reason for my sadness was that her passing more or less closes the curtain on the memory of our late father’s fun-filled younger days over 70 years ago in that relatively isolated Donegal village.

Dad was born in 1921, the third of 5 children, each separated in age by 2 years. As electrification had not yet arrived, candles,oil filled Tilley lamps and blazing turf fires lit the long winter evenings of their youth. Cars too were scarce and bicycles – often the ‘high Nelly’ type were the preferred mode of transport. In a small community young folk made their own  entertainment. There were three Gallagher families in particular that forged deep and life long relationships, (although our family was not related to the other two). With others in the village they played badminton in the local hall, played golf on Logue’s 9 hole golf course, attended horse racing on the strand, played cards, kicked football on the Lee, told stories by the fireside, went out on the Mummers at Christmas and enjoyed the annual arrival of Duffy’s Circus. Touring repertory and variety players would arrive from time to time and put on shows that would be remembered for months afterwards.

Poetry was a big part of their lives and they tried to outdo one another with great recitations! Poetry came easily to them as they had to learn it by rote at school from the age of about 7 or  8, in much the same way as we learned our times tables in later years.The poems our father recited and quoted on a regular basis included

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu,

There’s a little marble cross below the town;

There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,

And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

(The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God , by J Milton Hayes)


No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,

The Ship was still as she could be;

Her sails from heaven received no motion,

Her keel was steady in the ocean.

Without either sign or sound of their shock,

The waves flow’d over the Inchcape Rock;

So little they rose, so little they fell,

They did not move the Inchcape Bell.

(Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey )

And, from  Tennyson’s ”Charge of the Light Brigade”:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
(My father was still reciting this poem to my son, almost 80 years after he learned it).

In the 1920s and 1930s these young folk had a small band that played at dances in the local hall. Much of their musical  inspiration came from a crackly valve wireless that was run off a wet battery,like the one that filled the deep sill of our kitchen window.

I recall my father telling me how good a badminton player Annie was, but it was her reputation as a pianist that was second to none. He often spoke of their great music sessions. He played drums that were still in our house decades later. He had the full kit – snare drum, cymbals, drumsticks, drum brushes, the wooden block and the big base drum with pedals that operated the wooly beater. ”Top of the Pops” was different back then  –  if they heard a song or tune on the wireless that they liked, they sent away to McCullough Pigot in Dublin for the sheet music.

Wind up gramophone

Wind up gramophone (Image Wikimedia commons)

Shellac gramophone records were ordered to play on their wind up gramophone players so they all learned the melody and the lyrics. Dad was a good singer and he sang away to himself for all of his life! One of his favourite songs  was Abdul Abulbul Amir. We children were totally mesmerized by the exotic sounding names and the incomprehensible words, – such as Mameluke, skibouk, and truculent sneers, but that only added to our glee on hearing him sing! Written in 1877 by Percy French, one of Ireland’s most prolific songwriters, what appeared to be a light-hearted ditty was in fact a skit on the war between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire and was a deadly serious tale! The great thing about Abdul Abulbul Amir was that  it sounded equally impressive whether spoken or sung,  and we delighted in either!

On his last visit to his home village in 2005, just eight months before he died, Dad and I  called to see his long time friend Annie. To the best of my recollection her piano had pride of place in her home, but the abiding memory of the day was how they both laughed and laughed as they remembered singing and playing Abdul Abulbul Amir. And so, the reason for my sadness is the evocation of beautiful memories that I saw a decade ago, remembering times stretching  back into the mists of time some 70 years before.

Annie’s love of music was honoured at her funeral with the singing of her favourite song from way back then – not the skittish Abdul Abulbul Amir, but the more appropriate and beautiful Tennessee Waltz that she loved.

Our father had several phrases that he repeated very often.When thinking back on events in his life and on those who were no longer with us, he would say – ”Ah! To tell of times that were…God rest them all.”

God rest them all indeed.

Listen here to ABDUL ABULBUL AMIR sung by Frank Crumit in 1927

Abdul Abulbul Amir Lyrics

The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar,
And the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar

One day this bold Russian, he shouldered his gun
And donned his most truculent sneer,
Downtown he did go where he trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Young man, quote Abdul, has life grown so dull
That you wish to end your career?
Vile infidel know, you have trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Quoth Ivan, “My friend, your remarks, in the end,
Will avail you but little, I fear,
For you ne’er will survive to repeat them alive,
Mr. Abdul Abulbul Amir!”

So take your last look at the sunshine and brook
And send your regrets to the Czar
For by this I imply, you are going to die,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

Then this bold Mameluke drew his trusty skibouk,
With a cry of ‘Allah Akbar!’
And with murderous intent he ferociously went
For Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

They fought all that night ‘neath the pale yellow moon;
The din, it was heard from afar,
And huge multitudes came, so great was the fame,
Of Abdul and Ivan Skavar.

As Abdul’s long knife was extracting the life,
In fact he was shouting, “Huzzah!”
He felt himself struck by that wily Calmuck,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

The Sultan drove by in his red-breasted fly,
Expecting the victor to cheer,
But he only drew nigh to hear the last sigh,
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Czar Petrovich, too, in his spectacles blue
Rode up in his new crested car.
He arrived just in time to exchange a last line
With Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

There’s a tomb rises up where the Blue Danube rolls,
And graved there in characters clear,
Is, “Stranger, when passing, oh pray for the soul
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.”

A Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps,
“Neath the light of the pale polar star;
And the name that she murmurs as oft as she weeps
Is Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

(many more verses are sometimes quoted)




Filed under Family History, Home, Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Living in Ireland, My Oral History, Older Generation, Oral History, Social History Ireland

24 responses to “To tell of times that were..

  1. That is a lovely set of memories. I am sorry for your loss – and for everyone’s loss of these wonderful memories. Glad you are still keeping them alive.

  2. I wish we still honored poetry the way we do other subjects like math. Look at how it lives on!

    • Isn’t it a pity that poetry drops out of fashion, although we here in Ireland have a few who inspire all generations and non poetry lovers. The work of the late Seamus Heaney attracted a whole new audience to his craft.

  3. Lyn Nunn

    Very sorry for your loss also Angela but I thankyou for both stories – your memories are lovely, it is sad when you realise the end of an era but the memories do live on, especially if we record them. I also enjoyed the story of Ivan and Abdul – very entertaining.

    • Hi Lyn!Glad you enjoyed the memories and the Abdul/Ivan saga! The world has changed so much in the past century, isn’t it a shame if all the social history is simply lost? Thanks for dropping by!

  4. Such a beautiful and evocative “in Memorian” to two people in your life, and the passing of an era. It seems strange but the songs and poetry were familiar to me as well, though they’d hidden in the recesses of my mind. Dad too would recite some of those poems. he didn’t inherit either his Scottish or Irish singing genes 🙂 Thank you for sharing such special stories with us.

    • Pauleen, thanks so very much for your kind comments. Glad you liked the post and that it had some good memories for you too. I think that a lot of what they learned about the world was through poetry – history, tales of people who vanished without a trace, disasters at sea etc. It was great that they loved these tales whether through poetry or prose and remembered them for so long. Thanks so much for dropping by. A

  5. Crissouli

    So sad that you have been so saddened…but what beautiful memories you have gathered and shared within this lovely tribute. I understand your recent message and how hard this would have been to write. I’m sure I would have liked your Dad and his friend, Annie, very much… what a lovely friendship they had and how fortunate that you shared in it.
    Tennessee Waltz was much loved in our house also… it was that song that I first learnt to waltz to… still love the song and the dance.
    I didn’t remember Abdul Abulbul Amir, till I played it and it made me smile… I can hear Dad playing it and an Uncle singing, just the chorus… another Uncle, who was also my godfather, had this on a .78.
    Your lovely memories rekindled some of mine also… thank you…

  6. Murray Ginnane

    An excellent trip down memory’s lanes, thank you, Angela. What a shared heritage the old Commonwealth / Empire left us with. I was brought up in N.Z. in the 1950s, but recall most of this. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” came from Canada, but in the same vein. I learned all those barrack-room ballads, — albeit mostly the bawdy versions, — but knowing the originals adds another level to the sagas of “Tall Tales & True” from Rudyard Kipling’s era. ========= “The Charge of the Light Brigade” quote reminded me of how a French General Pierre Bosquet observed at the time, from a safe distance : “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”. Or as a schoolboy-howler, mispronounced as ‘la gare’, = “It is magnificent, but it is not the railway station”. That one should never go away !!! =======
    And as for Abdul, … well, … One midnight on the blizzard-struck pre-XMAS of 2002, I was standing on the top balcony of the 13-storey, Intourist Hotel in Pyatigorsk, The North Caucasus. I was doing what boys do after they’ve been drinking, & then get woken by a noisy party in the next hotel room. I mean, why use the centrally-heated bathroom when there’s a blizzard outside? Next moment, out come a few of the party-goers on the next balcony, and do the same thing. After introductions in my pidgin-Russo-English, they invite me in. Turns out they are having a Soviet battalion reunion, and everyone is doing their favourite ‘party piece’. They want me to do a NZ ‘haka’. Instead I recite “Abdul-AbulBul Emir”, — the dirty version, with actions, after a few explanations. Well, talk about bring the house down — several of them knew of it, & the rest soon joined in, — and they had a Russian-language version. Aaahh, memories are made of this! Thanks again! === Murray Ginnane, back safe in N.Z.

    • What a fabulous response to my post! And I am so amazed (yet not surprised) that even 80 – 90 years ago the world was shrinking even though we may think that it only began in the past few decades. Those great epic poems – monodramas really, were the stuff of home entertainment – the Cremation of Sam Magee, The shooting of Dan McGrew and the lady known as Lou were as familiar to my fathers generation as anything else. Thank goodness for books, wireless and old 78 records. Havent we lost such a lot of ”culture’ in the last decades of the 20th century – and we THOUGHT it was progress! I would love to hear your rude version of Abdul – glad the Rooskies loved it! Thanks so much for dropping by and for your response! Very much appreciated ! Angela

  7. This is written so beautifully–you really evoke very particular images of days long gone and a way of life that was special. I’m glad you set these memories down, so they won’t be forgotten.

  8. rita mc gettigan

    Annie Gallagher Power was a first cousin of Mandy Gallagher grandfather of John Kelly

  9. Delightful song and memories of your father, family and friends!

  10. Niamh Kelly

    This was a lovely read. I met Jim Gallagher from the post office years ago in Annie’s house in London. Regards Niamh (Lily’s daughter)

    • Hi Niamh. Jim was my uncle who passed away last year …the 3 families – mine, Annies and yours (your grandfather, and your great aunt, Mary Ellen in particular) – were tremendous friends and enjoyed a lifelong friendship. They had great times together growing up in Carrigart. Why wouldn’t I be sad about Annie’s passing! Thanks so much for dropping by, Niamh! Angela

  11. Laura

    My name is Laura, Annie’s granddaughter. I just saw your post and told my mum Anne. She has asked what your name is?
    Some overly stories you have.

    • Laura! Hi and thank you for dropping by. I am so sorry for the loss of your lovely grandmother! She was a beautiful lady and was the life and soul of that village when they were all growing up. I was so very sad to hear that she had passed away as my Dad thought so much of her and spoke about her for all of his life. They were a great group of friends – our Gallaghers, teh North Star Gallaghers and your grandmothers family. they stayed in touch in England and all down the years. Hope they are all having a great sing song wherever they are now! Thanks Laura!

  12. Well fair play to your father and Annie if they knew that song by heart. But – as you say – maybe the times were such that there were the necessary hours, and the lack of distractions, to do so.

    I’m happy that you’re committing these things to writing SV. So many memories die without having been recorded.

    • Thanks so much Roy – glad you enjoyed. We all have these memories in our lives that we perhaps should record. The world is changing at such an almighty pace, the commonplace can become a distant memory in a short space of time.

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