18 January 2015

My mother's 100th birth anniversary

Mary Coyle (née Collins)
18 January 1915 – 29 April 1970

I was told by a childhood and lifelong friend of my mother, Maureen, that this studio photo was taken when my mother was 19. They both had their photos taken the same day.

On 18 January 1915 an event happened in Dublin that was to have some consequences for me. Annie Dowd presented William Patrick Collins with the third of their ten children, seven girls and three boys. T
hey named her Mary. She in turn, on 20 April 1943, presented her husband, John Coyle, with the first of their two children, both boys. The photo above was taken in a studio shortly after their honeymoon. They were married on 6 July 1942.

The video above shows scenes of the Dublin into which she was born, all in the city centre. Apart from the volume and nature of traffic not too much has changed there in the last hundred years.

From what she and others told me I know that my mother was a very lively person when young. She told me more than once, with a smile, that when she was 12 she won a Charleston contest but was afraid her father would find out. I don't know if he ever did.

As a young adult my mother appeared in a number of amateur stage productions and on at least one occasion she appeared in one of Dublin's leading theatres, The Olympia, singing Vienna, City of My Dreams. I think she would have liked this version in the original German and performed in Vienna itself.

I can say that I grew up with music, thanks to both my parents. Neither played an instrument but they had me take piano lessons from the time I was five or six. And we listened to the same popular music on the radio as there was only one station in the Republic of Ireland in those days, though we could pick up some BBC stations as well.

My mother's 'party piece' was Because and her favourite recording of it was that by Deanna Durbin, who sang it in a 1939 movie called Three Smart Girls Grow Up, a sequel to the 1936 film Three Smart Girls. She often referred to these, with a smile on her face.

There used to a video of the song on YouTube taken from the movie but it's not there anymore.

Mam hated school and left the day she turned 14, as the law allowed. However, I think she regretted that. She and my father, who left school at 15 to become an apprentice carpenter, made sure that my brother and I got a good education. The husband of a cousin once said to me, 'One of the most important decisions in your life was your parents' decision to send you to O'Connell's School.' He was right and I think my mother was the driving force in that. I think that they both hoped I would be able to get a permanent job in the civil service but they never told me what to do. When they asked me one night, not long before I did my Leaving Certificate, the state examination at the end of secondary schooling, what I wanted to do and I told them that I wanted to be a missionary priest, they gave me their full blessing.
Ordination Day with my parents and brother Paddy

When I was four or five my mother, who had been a very fit person until then, not at all bothered by pushing a pram for miles, developed bronchitis, which was to plague her for the rest of her life. She told me after my ordination on 20 December 1967 that she had prayed that she would live long enough to see that day. I was sent in 1968 to study music at Manhattanville College, Purchase, New York. I got an unexpected opportunity to spend six weeks at home over Christmas 1969 and New Year 1970. That turned out to be the last time we were to meet. She died in her sleep on 29 April 1970.

My mother, though she was quick-tempered, wasn't one who showed other emotions openly. However, someone, possibly my father, told me that after my parents saw me off on my way back to New York that last time that she cried, the only time she had ever done so when I was going away.

A photo I took of my parents in the summer of 1968

After my mother's sudden death I gradually came to see so many unexpected blessing before she died, including the long visit home at Christmas. I've seen such blessings since in my own life and in those of others. I call this the 'thoughtfulness' of God.

The last song I heard my mother sing at a party, maybe during that long Christmas break, wasn't her usual 'party piece' but a song that has been adopted by the Irish as one of their own, even though it was written in 1875 by a German-American, Thomas P. Westendorf. 'Kathleen' is an Irish form of 'Catherine'. Here is Deanna Durbin, who had a beautifully pure voice, singing it, appropriately, in a movie called For the Love of Mary, made in 1948. It was her last film, though she lived to be 91 and died two years ago in Paris.

More than once my father told me how good my mother was at budgetting. Whatever it was, food or clothing, she always bought good quality, though not the most expensive. From both my parents I learned the values of honesty, responsibility and hard work. I learned not to spend money I don't have. I also learned to be trustworthy - because of their trust in me.

Mam, may your mezzo-soprano voice add to the heavenly choir!

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