We were a rowdy bunch over from Ireland, and it was the last day of our Easter 2016 sacred music singing holiday. An impromptu sing-song began as our Italian hosts at La Palazzola monastery, cleared away our evening meal dishes from the long oak tables in the communal refectory. All of us were reluctant to leave the room with its vaulted ceilings and great acoustics. One of the tenors stood and began to sing The Fields of Athenry. We joined him, with intuitive harmonies. ‘Oh, baby, let the free birds fly…’
Our group comprised half the monastery’s residents that week. Other guests included a honeymooning couple, some men dressed all in black on sabbatical from various religious orders in nearby Rome, and half a dozen nuns. Early on in the week, I’d noticed one of the nuns – distinctive blue cardigan, sensible shoes – who would linger after mealtimes, smiling and nodding towards us, before filing out, dutifully following her sisters to the chapel for prayers.
But that evening, as we rounded the last corner of a chorus in The Fields of Athenry, swinging straight into a rendition of The Auld Triangle, I saw the nun leave her sisters and walk over towards us, her face alive with expectation, her smile broad, her apparent reticence gone. ‘Are you all from Ireland?’ It was her ticket into our company, and we laughed. ‘Well, that lad there’s from Germany, she’s from Birmingham, he’s from Buncrana, those two are English and, sure, isn’t our choir leader Dutch …’
Crippled and unable to stand, I sat instead on the seat of my Rollator, a neat collapsible walking aid, handy for traveling. And I watched across the wide dining table as the nun planted herself opposite me, gazing at us all in wonder, curling her fingers around the top of a wooden dining chair, with such force that her knuckles turned white within seconds. Her Irish accent was vague, faint, unrecognisable and overlapped, I guessed for decades, by a generic English one. I heard a longing in her voice when she said, ‘Is anyone here from Tipperary?’ Not one of us was, but we sang the tune, ‘… it’s a long way to go …’. The nun sang along too, lyrics embedded, her voice clear and unwavering.
Someone said, ‘Where d’you live?’
She was disinterested. Her answer was clipped. ‘Oh, England. This long time. I’m retired now, from a life of serving my order. And the public.’
Turning away from who’d asked, the nun’s grip on the chair remained firm, and she started singing Molly Malone. We sang too, any excuse. And from where I sat, I watched her throat, her mouth, her face. Behind her strong singing voice, it sounded to me as if she wheeled her own rusty wheelbarrow, full of long ago memories from some faraway place. Of course, in truth I knew nothing at all about her past and yet, all the same, I felt an ache pulse across the table from her, as if the Irishness of her soul was easing open with the oil of song.
Between ballads, I managed to make eye contact with her and I asked about her Irish origins. Straightening her back, as if she was responding to a roll-call, she rattled out, ‘Mary Cawley, Ballyhown, County Tipperary.’ When she smiled at me, I saw kinship glistening in her eyes, like flakes of gold in a prospector’s pan. Bearing witness from across the table, I could feel her ache easing. Through every fibre of her being, she was reconnecting with her tribe, all the familiar Irish songs welcoming her home. It was visceral. Absorbing every last drop seemed crucial to her, lest, Heaven forbid, she might become disconnected once again. But I’ve never forgotten those white knuckles.
(c) Esther Hoad