Looking Up. Jamie’s Story.

J. O’Reilly Productions, Cultural Arts and Blog
J. O’Reilly Productions, Cultural Arts and Blog
Looking Up. Jamie's Story.

Discovery of a diary from her first trip to Ireland reignites passion and a new view of the land of her roots, and inspires an ambitious project.

Wicklow Sunday Nov 1
Am off for cycling. Another beauty of a day.  Cycled past a wonderful, clean beach and then the lush pretty Wicklow Mtns — The prettiest yet, and a tame, aqua sea at our side. Flat tire but no other trouble.  Camped in the wooded glen of a farm near a rocky ridge – soft grass and shelter of tent was perfect against wind. 

Jamie’s Ireland Log, 1981

April Enews
“Looking Up”
A Story from Jamie

Read as a newsletter https://mailchi.mp/08a1712be539/rqcogewcy2

We don’t really start over when life as we knew it is forever altered.
What we do, what I did, after the initial pain from loss morphed into a tempered stab, and too-quick and shallow breathing warned this much missing might stop me breathing altogether, what I did was wake up before dawn. Light a candle. Sort stuff out for a few hours. See my grandkids. Cry a bunch. Sleep. Cook. Eat. Clean. And sleep more.

Looking around
I figured my career as I knew it was done. Stymied by the pandemic, halted by Michael’s death, I felt no sense of purpose. No connection to audience, virtual or otherwise, padding around the apartment in slippers. No lipstick. No perfume. Nothing hounded me desperate to be heard, sung or written about.

Then on a cold, dreary February day, ostensibly tasked with putting away Christmas, I washed my face and hands, got fully dressed, and stared at piles of papers and miscellany, emptied from an old chifferobe I’d passed on to my daughter weeks before.

“Just start.” I urged. “You can’t just leave it all behind for somebody else to sort when you go.”

I rifled through four decades of music: handwritten scores, chord charts, and lyric sheets. I sorted the notebooks with so-so poetry, Michael’s letters in perfect Catholic school hand, cards from my Mom and sisters, program notes, flyers, and first setlists from my Irish band. There were surprises: publicity photos I’d forgotten, snapshots of the girls, an odd Polaroid here and there.

Hours into it, the smell of old paper and dust particles troubling the air, with piles of papers at my feet, I started to cry.

“Who cares? Toss it all.”

I started to do just that, but tucked away in an old notebook was a group of weathered pages bound by a worn-out piece of silver string. I knew the pencil scrawl: the log I’d kept during my only trip to Ireland, an autumn honeymoon in 1981.

That marriage now ended. Life chapter opened and closed, keeping this seemed beside the point. I filed the Irish sheet music and ephemera at the top of a box and slid it under the bed but I read the log anyway.

It was hardly a diary. Its minimal words lacked flowery attempts at poetry, giving no obvious signs of my state of mind. Day and time. Miles biked. Places seen. People met. A windy day or rain. The day we had scones on the grounds of a castle. An accounting of our travel in kilometers, our spending in pounds. The breakfast we ate.

Breakfast – eggs, rashers, tomatoes. The hostess sings while she works. A quiet day.

Jamie’s Ireland log

We were in Wexford. The proprietress sang “They tried to tell us we’re too young,” outside our door, knowing it was our honeymoon, and I was sure she meant us. I was a new wife in unknown territory, in a strange place. Nervous, a bit at sea, and a little homesick.

I emailed Tom, who asked to read the Log, and filled in the spaces, remembering more than me.

“Then Kinsale. And didn’t we catch another train from Kinsale to Killarney? I think so. Then we biked into the national park, on those lovely winding roads for the touring cars. No camping allowed. But we stashed the bikes and pitched camp on that beautiful overlook, anyway. Hadn’t we just called home? And heard our friend had died. And our apartment had been robbed. And something else bad? Luckily, Killarney helped us get it all in perspective.”

Tom Amandes

(Read the story of the White Fire letter, and Tom’s song She Would Sing the Kerry Dances on the SongNotes Blog. )

Looking Back
During a visit one afternoon in 1979, Aunt Dottie gave me my heirlooms: three cloth Spanish dancer dolls from a trip to the Canary Islands, and two Wedgewood porcelain bisque 19c silhouettes. “From my father’s wedding cake,” she said.

And then she presented me with four crumbling volumes of Irish sheet music, marked with her familiar hand. She handed me the notes from a talk she’d given. There are three types of Irish ballads: the lullabye, the lovesong, and the song of valor.

It was pure joy playing and singing through the Irish Country Songs collection of Herbert Hughes, Margaret Kennedy-Fraser’s Songs of the Hebrides, and an Anglo-Irish songbook with arrangements by N. Clifford Page, with settings by Thomas Moore. It was a thrill finding the Irish Street Ballads of Colm Ó Lochlainn, its pages interspersed with 18c broadsheets renderings and simple lines of melody and music.

When I later encountered the songs of harpist Mary O’Hara on Stud Terkel’s radio show, and heard tenor John McCormick for the first time on an LP given to me by an historian at the new Irish American Heritage, (as prep for my concert at Orchestra Hall), I knew I found my specialty.

I Know Where I’m Going was Dottie’s signature song. She played and sang it at all the family gatherings. I sang her version when I recorded my first album at WFMT Studio, with Peter Swenson in 1984.

Listen to I Know Where I’m Going

Looking ahead
In the video I recorded at Michael’s request before he died, he talked of first hearing me and Tom and the band, at Holstein’s on Lincoln Avenue in ’85.

“The leader of the group was really tall and very handsome, and he had an air about him that made him seem very  benevolent.  And calm, and he was talented, as was the group. And then he introduced his wife. She came out, I’d never seen anyone like her. She was so beautiful and she looked so innocent and she presented herself with such joy and happiness.” 

Michael Smith
The Rogues & Jamie, 1983

With such joy and happiness.
Grief, people warn, can stop you in your tracks, make you stumble to regain footing, struggle to find purpose. Add to that the collective grief of the pandemic year, it’s a wonder we did anything meaningful at all. It knocked me on my ass, to be sure. All those losses have a toll.

Cliches aside, there are no accidents. Not if you’re paying attention. In sorting through what I might leave behind, I found who I was at the start. Reignite the dreams of that true self, and you complete the journey begun forty years ago, a lifetime in the making.

In virtual bike rides in Ireland, I summon up the feeling of soft, damp wind in my hair, recalling a trepidatious girl on the verge of an adventure.

I’m ready now to dig deeper into my roots. To celebrate the music I love, and the person I’ve become.

I know where I’m going. I’m going to back to Ireland.

Read about the Roots in Ireland Project