In our occasional Word and Music segment on A Celtic Sojourn, we take poetry, prose, meditations, and sometimes fiction, read aloud with complementary music and song.

This is a segment for Mother’s Day and features songs by Karan Casey, Susan McKeown, Mary Black, and John McCormack, as well as poems by Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney, and an essay by New England singer and writer Carol Noonan.

Throughout human history and across generations and cultures, the bonds we forge with our Mother's and they with us, are among the most potent forces in our existence. The world's literature, music and visual arts are full of this singular emotion and variously celebrate its goodness and beauty, pine over its absence or loss, and regularly plumb the depths of its dysfunction.

In the Celtic world, Mother... Mum - Mammy as we called her - is an overarching presence and some of the great songs, tunes, poems, and stories have been written by or for her.

We start in 1928, with a recording of John McCormack's sentimental "Mother Machree." "Machree" is an anglicization of the Gaelic "Mo Chroi," or my heart, so "Mother of My Heart." Clearly, McCormack who was world famous at this stage, and already a Count of the Catholic Church, was playing on the heartstrings of millions of Irish emigrants here in the U.S. many of whom would have left their own mother in Ireland many years before through likely forced emigration. “I love the dear silver that shines in her hair," McCormack sings. "And the brow that's all furrowed and wrinkled with care."

"Mother Machree" by John McCormack
My Wild Irish Rose

Memories of childhood's simpler times when we are closest to our mothers are celebrated in this next song. In our older years, memories of these times often arrive uninvited, unannounced. Your mother's face perhaps, remembered thru your child's eyes on the margins of sleep, the susurrations of a lullaby pushing you gently into its softness. Susan McKeown is a Dublin born singer who discovered an old tape of her 8-year-old self singing the old Gaelic Lullaby, "Seothín Seo-H-Ó," and incorporated the recording across the span of time and coming of age to a new version of the song recorded when Susan herself had become a young mother.

"Seothín Seo-Hó" by Cathie Ryan/Robin Spielberg/Susan McKeown

Poet Seamus Heaney captures a precious moment in time with his mother in a poem that was voted Ireland's favorite poem shortly after the beloved poet's death in 2013. It captures that perfect serendipity of an ordinary moment when you were "all hers," your mother's. Now remembered in age, and after his mother had passed, the moment – simple as it was – is established squarely as one of the central memories of his life. This is from a collection of poems called "Clearances," where the poet imagines the passing of one generation to the next in a metaphor of agricultural or forestry, the clearing of old growth to make way for the new. It is known now by its first line, "When All the others were away at Mass."

Excerpt from "Clearances"
by Seamus Heaney

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other's work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

In this next song, we hear the encouragement and appreciation of a mother saying goodbye to a child who has come of age and is about to leave the nest. That bittersweet moment where tho pained to be deprived of the daily encounters, the mother encourages the child to "unfurl your wings" and "let there be no tears. Send me a dream," she says. "From away beyond, I promise I shall hear." Steve Cooney, the Australian transplanted to Ireland and such a part now of the music scene there, wrote these words. Mary Black is the singer.

"Bless the Road" by Mary Black
Speaking with the Angel

And then, of course, there is the pain of loss that is never keener, never more piercing, never as life-altering, as with the death of one's mother. Karan Casey lost her mother unexpectedly, and the two had been inseparable. She captures that longing for "just one hour" back as she writes in a heart-wrenching song of loss called "Lovely Annie."

"Lovely Annie" by Karan Casey
Two More Hours

In his poem, "Memory Of My Mother," Patrick Kavanagh, says that he does not ever think of his mother.

…lying in the wet clay, of a Monaghan graveyard…

Instead, he sees her on a fair day, or on a green headland in July, or at a meeting they might have after that same fair, when all the bargains are made, and they can walk together, free in the oriental streets of thought.

O you are not lying in the wet clay
For it is harvest evening now and we
Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
And you smile up at us -- eternally.

In this final part of our Mother's Day Words and Music segment, we go in yet another direction, to the time when we need to see our mothers at a different stage of life, having reared us, now needing our care in many of the same ways we needed them in our childhoods. We take a story from New England singer and writer, Carol Noonan who grew up in Massachusetts and now makes her home in Maine. Carol poignantly recounts the time of her own mother, aging and widowed, needing to leave her family home for a smaller place and more care. The essay is called "34 Buttonwood Lane."

34 Buttonwood Lane, Carol Noonan. (Click here for more information and text.)

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