Music and Fairies

I love living in a flat where I’m tucked in like the flaps of an envelope by those who live around me: on either side, above and below, I feel as though I am bubble-wrapped by my neighbours. “And what about noise?” one friend asked me, “can’t you hear everything that goes on?” Yes and no. It’s an old stone tenement, built to last 140 years ago and the walls are thick – so, no, I don’t hear everything. On the other hand, many people live alongside me in this block, and they have to talk, and move, and hammer nails, and yell occasionally, and all those other noisy by-products that make up living, including lots of music – so, yes I do hear some things. What I hear, by and large, however, is a reassuring soundtrack of kinship. Sounds come in regular, repeating patterns; sounds that I could almost set my watch to, like the chug of the train pulling out of Dhu Varren bound for Portrush when I was a child. Trains don’t chug anymore, but back then, if the wind direction was right, you would know it was 8.10am and you’d have to get a move on to get out the door for school. So it is with my upstairs neighbour, and her clicking heels on what must be bare floorboards. Monday to Friday, the efficient, hurried ‘click-click’ of quick paced movement seeps into my light 7am sleep. It doesn’t quite wake me, but calls in a comforting beckon that it will soon be time to get up. It reminds me of all of the noises that have leaked through walls and ceilings of the different places that I have lived, the patterns of sound that punctuate a day.

Tonight, as I type, someone on the same level is playing a guitar and singing what seems to be their own compositions, indie folk, indistinct but soothing. When I lived in a terraced house in Belfast, at 8 o’clock each night, I would hear the sound of a recorder whistling low through the wall. It was not especially tuneful, but it wasn’t unpleasant either, as the little boy did his nightly ten minutes of practice. I willed him on as he repeated and repeated and repeated little stumbling phases until his tangled fingers were ironed out. I like to think I am tolerant of the noises conjured forth by the learner. I was visiting A. recently and the strains of Auld Lang Syne were coming through from above, played again and again on the trumpet. It seemed a bit early – May – for that particular tune, but practice makes perfect, they say. M. and I used to produce some challenging noises together (sometimes we still do!) as we practiced music as children, learning the violin, or singing, playing the tin whistle, recorder, or mandolin, bodhrans or whatever fad we had moved quickly onto, there was even a mouth organ at one stage. My father either had endless patience, or he had an ability to completely zone out our beginners’ din. Considering it now, it was probably the latter. Where other family members would announce their distaste for the racket and leave the room, (sometimes you might even call it a flounce) he would stay put, head buried in a newspaper, managing to watch television, or (somehow) have a nap.

Different coping tactics emerged. It was hard to hide a violin, but other musical instruments would mysteriously disappear only to be found in summertime when dad cut the hedges. Hedge cutting took place in July; dad was a teacher and had the time to do it then. By summer the hedges were lush, encroaching on the garden, glowering down like they did upon Fair Rosa in the playground song. Out dad would go, ‘wroughting’ as he called it, waging battle on the escallonia with electric hedge clippers, reaching the top of the hedge via a make-shift platform of a sturdy plank planted on two stacks of Billy Purdy’s milk crates. And, in a few days time, when the cutting was done (there were a lot of hedges) he would produce a haul of at least half a dozen tin whistles and recorders that had been rammed deep into the hedges in the course of the past year. The culprits never owned up to the act. A list of chief suspects was drawn up, whittled up to three, but there were never any convictions –still haven’t been, not after all these years. “Must have been the fairies,” mum would say. She has a point. There are, of course, fairies in Ireland, and they are not at all like Tinkerbell. Come to think of it, we used to butcher a tune called ‘The King of the Fairies’, maybe it wasn’t to their liking; maybe the tin whistles in the hedges was all down to, you know who.

‘The Faeries’, by William Allingham (excerpt)

‘By the craggy hillside,

Through the mosses bare,

They have planted thorn trees

For my pleasure, here and there.

Is any man so daring

As dig them up in spite,

He shall find their sharpest thorns

In his bed at night.


Up the airy mountain,

Down the rushy glen,

We daren’t go a-hunting

For fear of little men;

Wee folk, good folk,

Trooping all together;

Green jacket, red cap,

And white owl’s feather!’

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