The Happy Mistake

There’s an Irish jig called, ‘I Buried My Wife and Danced On Her Grave’.  Awful, isn’t it?  Lovely tune though.  There’s another called, ‘Get Up Old Woman and Shake Yourself’, and then there’s, ‘When Sick is it Tea You Want?’  Tunes are normally played in sets of three; I’m thinking those three would be quite the set.  I’d reorder them, call them, ‘The CarnaptiousSet’: Shake Yourself; Tea; Grave Dancing.  Unconventional and comical titles abound in Irish music, although reels – such as the ‘Swallow’s Tail’ and ‘Otter’s Holt’ – are generally more soberly named than their eccentrically christened jig cousins.  ‘I’m The Boy for Bewitching Them’, and ‘The Gudgeon of Maurice’s Car’, are two more jigs; presumably not connected, as Maurice will do no bewitching by footering*about trying to get his engine going.  Many of the titles provide more of a suggestion than a statement; those are the ones that really get my imagination going.  I love the rhetorical wistfulness of, ‘Wasn’t She Fond of Me?’  I should write its companion piece and call it, ‘Wouldn’t He Like to Think So’.  And I wonder at what’s being hinted at in the pair of, perhaps dubiously titled, jigs, ‘Where Did You Find Her?’ and, ‘How Much Has She Got?’.

Of an evening, and at weekends, I’ll sit in the kitchen with my fiddle and work through the aged, delicate, sepia pages of O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland that Mary McLaughlin gave me in 1983 (it was already 75 years old then); my fingers tripping over, ‘Tripping Up The Stairs’, my heart feeling the joyful relief that comes across in lilt of, ‘The Day We Paid the Rent’.  On the other hand, no matter how I try to feel my way into, ‘Johnny With the Queer Thing’ (and I have tried), I cannot imagine what the queer thing might be.  Is it an undiagnosed aliment, or something he’s found in a sheuch* while out ploughtering* the fields, he’s brought it home and no one can identify it?  Maybe he’s made off with Maurice’s gudgeon pin.

My task for this weekend is to learn ‘Banish Misfortune’ (say it out loud, quickly; it’s surprisingly hard to get your tongue around) alongside the ‘Happy Mistake’.  Whilst they are simple little Irish Jigs, they are two of my favourites, because of their names; both of them, big life lessons.  ‘Misfortune it never comes single, they say’, goes the song, but one way of dealing with misfortune, single or otherwise, is to rejoice in those happy mistakes, be they your own or those of others.  One of my favourite ‘happy mistake’ stories is the one M. told me, from when she was a student nurse, forty years ago.  A fellow trainee within her group of friends had established an innocent pen pal relationship with an English solder based in a barracks in Germany, let’s call him Alfie.  After a long exchange of letters the nurse eventually sent a photograph of herself to Alfie, intercepted, with consent, by Bertie as Alfie was off on manoeuvres.  Alfie, excited by the prospect of what his overseas confidante might look like, had granted Bertie permission to open the letter and give him the low down.  However, upon opening the missive, Bertie found himself thinking: “Doesn’t she look the quare* one?” (I know, I’m now writing with potential jig titles in mind, and suddenly Bertie is Irish…)  Bertie called Alfie, long distance, and told him he was on hiding to nothing with this girl, she was no looker, he should banish misfortune, and move on.  But, lo and behold, next time Bertie had leave back in England, he looked her up and, before long, they were married.  Isn’t it funny the stories a jig can remind you of?

Right, I’m away to ‘Smash the Windows’, ‘Scatter the Mud’, and ‘Whallop the Potlid’, in no particular order.


Ulster-Scots glossary:

*carnaptious: bad tempered, irritable, quarrelsome

*footering: to muck/play about with something aimlessly, just for the sake of it or out of boredom

*sheuch: a furrow, ditch, or trench

*ploughtering: an ungainly way of walking, particularly through mud or heavy undergrowth or a terrain that is generally hard going, or at least, you make it seem like hard going.

*quare: fine, considerable, worthy of admiration

2 thoughts on “The Happy Mistake

  1. T went on memory lane with your glossary! His dad i think only talked Ulster-Scots, sure was a challenge sometimes for me!!!!!!


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