SongNotes Mame’s White Fire, She Would Sing the Kerry Dances

Jamie shares a treasured artifact, and the story behind this soaring ballad.

It is twilight in the village of Tralee, not far from Killarney, in the early forties. (1840’s, that is!) The people are gathered in the street, standing in the shadows of the trees and grouped outside the hedge, waiting. “Hush-” they whisper, “Mary Healy is going to sing.” 

Mary (Mame) O’Reilly

Listen here to She Would Sing the Kerry Dances
Words and Music by Tom Amandes


Mame on the right

It seems to me that I have been waiting not years, not a lifetime, but all those lifetimes for someone to take the white fire and carry it on. It has been given to each generation and it has been thrown away; quenched by the hardship, poverty and burdens of life. 

The White Fire
The Letter from Mary (Mame O’Reilly) to Dorothy Ellen O’Reilly
My great aunt to my aunt, my father’s half sister

Early 1920s.
Dear Dorothy.
I wrote this letter the other night, or rather in the small hours of morning.  I tried to use my machine but could not, very well.
I guess I’ll send it.

I don’t mean for this letter to urge you against your own wishes, but sometimes we keep in too much. I know you will understand. I want you to be happy, but I’m afraid that if you don’t go on to something of the larger life possible to you, you will be like some of the rest of us who have seen Tir-nan-og, the land of youth.  The old world always looks gray after that vision.

You have not said anything about seeing anyone about your voice. I hope that you will not come home from New York without at least trying to get a hearing and an opinion from someone worthwhile. I am going to send one last appeal that you do not let the chance go by.  Whatever you do, here’s heart’s best love to my little girl. 

Dorothy, dear.
I seem to stand at the crossroads where I can look far back and forward.  If you knew what I see, you would realize how I feel. There is just a story, a fragmentary picture here and there which shows what has happened in the family, time after time, as the generations come and pass.

Let us go back to this picture.  It is twilight in the village of Tralee, not far from Killarney, in the early forties. (1840’s, that is!)   The people are gathered in the street, standing in the shadows of the trees and grouped outside the hedge, waiting. “Hush,” they whisper, “Mary Healy is going to sing.”

Mary Healy was your great-grandmother. She had one of the early pianos, a clavichord, I believe it was.   She had a musical education and the voice. Her father, Daniel Healy, wrote music like you would write a letter.  He brought his family to America when Mary was nineteen years of age.

He had a wonderful voice. Low and high, a double voice.  One day he was cutting stone in Toronto.  A friend came and told him he must come into the hotel and sing for a great singer from Europe who was there. He put down his mallet and went with the stone dust on his coat.

Evidently, he impressed the singer by his singing.  The singer put his hands on great-grandfather’s shoulders and exclaimed, “Man, you should never wear that coat.”

“I’m prouder of that coat than of anything I possess,” exclaimed great-grandfather Healy.

Good democracy, but not good sense. That was your great-great grandfather.  Mary Healy was twenty-three years of age when she married young Jim O’Reilly, your great-grandfather.

“Jim O’Reilly is downstairs, and he is going to sing!”

There had been a political meeting, and the crowd had followed him to Grandfather Synnott’s place (pub) to hear him sing. He was elected collector.  They carried him up the streets on their shoulders and crowded in to hear him sing.

No wonder she loved him.  He, too, had a voice. I never heard a tenor sweeter, more tender of full of feeling.  They sang to their children.
There were eight children in ten years and two more later.  They came west.  Her voice and her life were sunk in the endless wearing struggle.
Mary Healy’s.

Dorothy, what came of it all? It seems to me that I have been waiting not years, not a lifetime, but all those lifetimes for someone to take the white fire and carry it on. It has been given to each generation and it has been thrown away; quenched by the hardship, poverty and burdens of life.

It has come to you from both sides of the family. Your father (my Grandfather James) had the voice. He might have done anything with it. He didn’t know how good it was.

But when I speak of the “White Fire” I mean more than music. I mean the creative faculty, the spirit. I don’t know why it is that something catches us, every one of us, and throws us back. Life swamps and rolls over us.

But the next generation, Dorothy, that is you. The white fire is in your hands. You have it, my dear. I’ll never forget the day you played for me that prelude you composed.

‘She has it,’ I said.  I set my heart on your having a chance, not only to sing but to express music, to write, to act, to have the life which such a gift should give to you, It is the turning point for you. Don’t throw your torch of white fire into the swamp and turn back on the road to the commonplace.  If you do, I shall feel as I felt the morning after Pearse and Connolly were captured in 1916.  Well, I thought, it’s all over for a generation.

I can look further back than forward.  I will not be here to see the next generation throw the gift away.  Mame


Story behind the song
In the early 1920s Mame O’Reilly sent this letter to young Dorothy
O’Reilly, an aspiring singer, tracing the roots of her vocal talent on the
Healy and O’Reilly family sides. “The white fire is in your hands,” Mame tells Dorothy.  White fire (the chemical reaction occurring when high amounts of magnesium result in the flames at their hottest) is to Mame the intensity of the creative spirit. Dorothy would go on to make a career as a kindergarten teacher, living in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Singing at family parties and in the church choir.

Jamie’s Roots
When studying voice at DePaul University School of Music, I visited Aunt Dottie and she gave me her collection of Irish sheet music, and gave me a copy of the “white fire” letter. In 1984 she came to hear me sing my vocal debut at Orchestra Hall. “My singing days are behind me now, “ she said in a note.  “Yours are ahead, and soaring. Dear Girl, sail on!”

Tom Amandes composed She Would Sing the Kerry Dances in 1987. Inspired by our final visit to Dottie in a nursing home, it quickly became an audience favorite in my repertoire. Dottie died not long after our visit and was waked on St. Patrick’s Day.  She left me her piano.


More about the recording Jamie O’Reilly and the Rogues.
https://www.jamieoreilly.com/recordings/jamie-oreilly-the-rogues-a-collection-of-rogues-recordings

But when I speak of the “White Fire” I mean more than music. I mean the creative faculty, the spirit.

(Mame O’Reilly)
Nell O’Reilly Tucker
Socialist Convention, 1908
Read about In Old Chicago

2 Comments

  1. Lovely to capture the idea of a sacred gift passed through the generations, Jamie.

    Well, you can see that the coming generations will have it too. Also, makes me think that Casey’s first invitation to Nia was to hear him sing with his band – so some glimmer of history keeps rolling along.

    I didn’t realize that Tom had written The Kerry Dancers. It sounds as if its a classic song. I doff my hat. And I see now that it was written for you!

    1. Colleen
      Agree. It is has become pretty serendipitous, seeing these connections.
      And the generations will remember, espcially if I am documenting it now.

Comments are closed.