The active retirement association dinner was followed by music and song; country music blended seamlessly with jigs and reels; ballads, love songs and singalong favourites filled the hall. A sense of place that seems innate brought forth a song reciting the villages of the county and then a song expressing an exile’s desire to return to that county. ‘Lovely Laois’ had the qualities of a country music anthem while being very firmly about solid ground in the Irish Midlands. The refrain inspired those gathered to join in its words:
Lovely Laois, I hear you calling,
In my dreams, I hear you say,
‘Come back home to dear old Ireland’.
Lovely Laois I’ll come back to you someday.
Growing up in the English West Country, it is hard to think of songs comparable to those from the Irish counties; there seems to be an extraordinary sense of the particular, of the local, of the identity of each community.
Such a strong sense of one’s own place can carry with it the danger of parochialism, of insularity, of parochialism, of a failure to have a sense of the wider world.
Driving through Laois later that Sunday evening, the RTE Radio ‘Documentary Hour’ included a 40 minute programme on Henrietta Moraes, an extraordinary woman. Henrietta’s biography on Wikipedia says,
. . . a British artists’ model and memoirist. During the 1950s and ’60s, she was the muse and inspiration for many artists of the Soho subculture, including Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, and known for her marriages and love affairs.
Henrietta’s life was lived to excess, addiction a regular reality. The sale by Christies last year, for £21 million, of a 1963 portrait of her by Francis Bacon contrasts sharply with the penury in which she lived much of her life.
What suddenly caught my attention was the account of her years in Co Laois, years lived in the community where the afternoon’s dinner had taken place. Penniless, she had been appointed caretaker of the empty Georgian house at Roundwood outside of Mountrath. The appointment had been an act of kindness by the Irish Georgian Society and Desmond Guinness and others who knew her at Roundwood recalled their memories of the time, Desmond Guinness suggesting that one of his abiding memories of Henrietta would be of her ‘barrelling down the street in Mountrath’. The eccentricities and outrageous behaviour of former years persisted, but it seemed that in a very quiet corner of the Irish Midlands, Henrietta had found a welcome.
Visiting a farmer whose land lay close to Roundwood, I asked him, ‘do you remember Henrietta Moraes?’
‘I do. Mad as a hatter. She went around in great big long dresses that reached the ground. You would see her out walking the roads in those dresses. But a very nice lady’.
In a community that sang of its villages and its county, where the sense of place was beyond words, there was a sufficient sense of security to welcome someone utterly different, to provide a context for times of happiness.
In a world where the particular was dominant, there was still space enough for a sense of the universal.