Back in the fifties, when I was twelve, I went rummaging in a cupboard at my grandmother’s house. Behind the bundles of Old Moore’s Almanacs and Sacred Heart Messengers, I found a box of records my Uncle John Joe had brought home from America in the twenties. It contained such jewels as “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “Last Night on the Back Porch” and the unmistakeably suggestive “Makin’ Whoopee”.
I was amazed. My Mass-going, rosary-reciting uncle had brought such music back to Catholic Ireland? The quiet, steady bachelor, who was at that moment out milking the cows, had not only enjoyed such naughty records, but had smuggled them home in his luggage.
Had he, I wondered, danced to such daring tunes in the ballrooms of New York? Had he held a woman in his arms, a woman with short hair and shorter skirts, and swooped around the floor to the tune of “My Blue Heaven”?
Like all children, I found it difficult, but fascinating, to imagine the old being young.
Halfway down the box, I came upon a title that made me shriek with laughter. “What do you give a Nudist on her Birthday?” The word nudist was rarely heard in my world. A countrywide puritanical ethos, a po-faced archbishop in Dublin and an inclement climate all militated against it. To see it bandied about with levity brought joy to my small rebellious heart.
Right at the bottom of the box, I came upon “Miss Otis Regrets.” The title intrigued me.
Winding up the old gramophone, I listened attentively as the polite words and the dainty music revealed an unexpectedly savage tale of infidelity and murder. Ah! The mystery, the romance, the excitement of such people and places! So unlike our own dear, holy Ireland.
As the strains died away, I found myself wondering why my uncle had returned to the small farm in Mayo. Did he tire of the bright lights, the high life, the daring girls? Or was it that sense of duty that had ground down many such men?
His father, I remembered, had died and his mother was left alone to manage the place. Perhaps he felt he had no choice but to come back and look after things.
He seemed happy enough. He appeared content as he harvested the grain and dug his spuds, as he cut his turf and made his hay.
But how did he feel when he looked back on those glittering days of his youth? Was he glad he had returned to his roots? Or did he, like Miss Otis, have regrets?