(This is a longer version of a piece which was first broadcast on Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio 1 on January 25th.)
The dead aren’t easy to find. You’d think they would be, what with death notices in newspapers, indexes of wills, and even the online census to hurtle us back in time as far as 1911 whenever we want. And yet, when I went hunting for a woman called Josephine Rowe, who died in 1945 (and even that piece of information was hard won), she proved surprisingly elusive. But the story doesn’t start in 1945 – how could it start where it supposedly ends? – so let’s go back further. To 1910 maybe, because it was about then Josephine wrote a poem called Macushla – the literal translation is my pulse, but it’s used to mean my darling or sweetheart – which was set to music by a man called Dermot MacMurrough. It is a sentimental plea for love; a tale of longing and loss and despair. John McCormack, in one of his earliest outings for the Victor Label, recorded it in 1911. On this recording, he was accompanied by the Victor Orchestra and it was produced by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Someone sure understood what branding meant in that company. In this 1911 version you can hear his highest voice ever recorded, yet to my one-hundred-odd-years-later ears it sounds so forced: the high, brassy crackle of his voice over the repetitive fuzz and static of the disc itself reminds me of the train in the story The Little Engine That Could valiantly struggling, “I think I can I think I can” up the hill. John McCormack’s recording was to be the first of many. In 1933 Macushla was used in an American movie Paddy The Next Best Thing, and five years later, unlikely as it sounds, in the film Hawaii Calls. Fast-forward sixty years and Frank Patterson sings it in the film Michael Collins. Zip forward again and not only does Hilary Swank have Mo cuishle embroidered on her boxing silks in the movie Million Dollar Baby, but the crowd sings the song at various points during the film. More recently, Rufus Wainwright has given it a defiant heartbreak I never could discern in previous versions. You can find him on YouTube, dressed in well-worn lederhosen, singing Macushla in cities around the world. His mother, the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle forced him to learn it, he jokes. So what about its author? I became curious when I wrote What Becomes Of Us, a book set in 1965-1966. There is a scene in which a central character, a child called Anna, sings Macushla to herself, unintentionally imitating the speeded-up whine of the old record player it’s played on. Josephine Rowe was born in Carlow in 1861 or ’62, where her father had a jewellery and watchmaking business. A respected and popular man, when Matthew William Rowe died in 1899 the Leinster Express reported that, ‘his disposition won for him a large circle of friends, who deeply mourn his death. Mr Rowe had passed through many of the painful scenes which have occurred in Ireland, and his retentive mind could recall the sad scenes of the cholera and the famine years.’ The report doesn’t mention that he went bankrupt in the year his daughter was born.
But what of his daughter? Josephine seems to have ping-ponged from Ireland to England and back for decades. The 1881 census records her as a pupil teacher in Kent, by 1889 she’s in Dublin and marrying Joseph Crawford, a clerk from Rathmines. There is no sign of her in the Irish census of 1901, but in 1911, the UK census finds her aged 50, married for 21 years and without children, alone in lodgings in Twickenham. She lists her occupation as ‘lyrical writer and journalist (unattached).’ I presume that unattached means what we would now call freelance, rather a reference to her solitary status on census night. Not long before that, in December 1910, her poem The Lights O’ Lundy was published in the North Devon Journal. This poem isn’t up to much in my opinion, so I have decided to believe it’s just a piece of its time, and shouldn’t be subjected to too harsh a contemporary scrutiny. Lundy is a island in the Bristol Channel, twelve miles from the Devon coast. These days, it is permanent home to about twenty people. I came across it – so to speak – during my exploration of the Shipping Forecast as part of the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. Her poem has a Macushla-lite quality to it: ‘Oh! flashing lights o’ Lundy/ I see you softly gleam-/ Across the waster of waters,/ You fling your silvery beam.’ It continues in that vein for some time, as you can see.
In 1923 her second book, entitled Lyrics, Irish and Other was published. It was available to purchase for three shillings and sixpence directly from its author, now based in Gloucester. Does selling her book by mail order from her house imply things weren’t going too well? Possibly. As it would seem to have been in her life, in her writing she had only the one Macushla: a song which, for all its syrupy nostalgia, resonates with our sentimental hearts. A hundred years later I wonder would she have been dismissively referred to a one-hit wonder and consigned to bargain bins and the occasional just-before-Christmas live performance? Josephine Rowe died in Gloucester on April 1st 1945. The National Library of Ireland and Trinity College each have a few signed copies of her books and manuscripts in their collections. According to the UK Index of Wills and Administrations bequeathed her effects to a solicitor called Robert Tweedy Smith. She left £160, 14 shillings and sixpence; by far the smallest sum recorded in the dozen other deaths that keep her company on that particular page of the Index. This solicitor had also inherited money from a spinster in Worthing some years before. His name appears on passenger lists of ships that sailed to New York, New Zealand and Jamaica. But his life, and how he spent the small sum that was all Josephine Rowe owned when she died, is a story for another day.
With many thanks to JJ for the tip-top research.
The shorter version of this piece can be heard on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, January 25th. Piece starts 38 minutes in.