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Book Review

Story of music and irrepressible Irish immigrant family

Published:Sunday | March 31, 2019 | 12:15 AMAnn-Margaret Lim - Contributor - -

Co-written by mother and daughter team, Maureen and Leora O’Carroll, Maureen O’Carroll: A Musical Memoir of an Irish Immigrant Childhood, is a delightful and satisfying read.

It details the modest, yet exciting childhood of an acclaimed cellist, who played in the Sydney, New Orleans and Seattle Symphony Orchestras, the New Zealand National Orchestra and others, and for the likes of Tony Martin and Frank Sinatra. The list includes, of course, some of the prolific names of the opera, classical music and orchestra scene - Dame Joan Sutherland (soprano), composer Aaron Copeland and many more.

The 207 page memoir begins with 17-year-old Maureen receiving a letter of invitation from the New Zealand National Orchestra to be a salaried cellist. Happy for the affirmation of her talent, Maureen is hesitant, as accepting the invitation means that she leaves her family in Australia in three days and heads for a different country. Her fate is already decided, she is told by her mother, May, who tells her she has to go for her own development and to assist her family financially.

From that first chapter, titled “Farewell”, we travel back in time to get an understanding of the household Maureen and her 9 siblings grew up in and constituted. As Maureen and her daughter chronicle Maureen’s parents’ early life in Dublin Ireland, their migration, though briefly, to New Zealand, then Australia, where the family settled and expanded, we see a colourful couple with strong political, specifically, Irish Independence and catholic beliefs and practices.

In fact, both parents were in the Irish Citizen Army, participated in the 1916 Easter Rebellion and were jailed subsequently. May was actually jailed twice, with the second jailing being as a result of knocking a policeman unconscious after he accosted her for collecting coins for the release of her jailed brothers. Even after leaving Ireland, both parents held on to their political views, with Maureen’s father, John O‘Carroll campaigning independently, running twice for State Parliament and once for Senate.

As Maureen recalls, her dad usually ‘soap-boxed’ in the Domain, an expansive park area in Sydney. As she also disclosed, Australia encouraged large families during that era (1930s), and so the O’Carroll family was ‘showcased’ by her father as his contribution, or what he’s “done for the country.” The siblings also served another purpose during these campaigns. They supplied the musical accompaniment their father needed, many times during his speech, since he campaigned independently and lacked access to corporate funds.

Ever present

As Maureen explains, “music making was ever present” in her family and although, not considered rich, the O’Carrolls ensured that the children went to classes to learn to play instruments. Often times, family time meant the children practicing their instrument, as the parents listened, or the father joined in on the piano.

Fascinated from early on with the cello, a young Maureen would go into her bigger brother, Emmet’s room and pretend his violin was a cello, until she got her instrument of choice, at age 6. Even within this very serious endeavor of becoming a world-renown cellist, there are rib-tickling moments, especially in the early days.

For example, her parents whose purse was always strained from the expanding household, ceased from sending their children to the private classes at the Conservatorium and started them instead at the local Balmain Convent, which gave music lessons for a smaller fee. It is here that Maureen was told sitting astride the cello was unladylike. In short, the Convent ‘untaught’ her every correct thing about playing the cello. Faux paus of faux paus, for those with ambitions of being professional musicians, the Convent nun taught her to play by ear!

What follows, is her mother sending her back to her original tutor, who sent her back home with the message that she had become unteachable and a back and forth which pursued until she was re-accepted at the Conservatorium.

As the zesty, strong-willed personalities of both parents are sketched and illumined, there are many ‘chuckle moments’ for the readers, as we see the interactions between parents and children, mainly Maureen, who has the misfortune of being the middle child. For example, a five-year-old-Maureen, wanting to ‘get even’ with her parents for not caring about her, staged her death, which meant getting naked as Jesus was and lying on the floor, with her arms outstretched and her head to the side, sans crown of thorns, which could not be sourced. Waiting for her parents to find her, Maureen, fell asleep that way, only to be awakened by her father exclaiming. “This girl is absolutely impossible. What are we going to do with her?!” To which Maureen responded; “But you don’t understand. Can’t you see that I’m dead! I’m DEAD!”

There are many brilliant, honest and delightful moments like these throughout the book, not only concentrated in Maureen’s early childhood, but seen in her teens too. For example there is the time, when upon her mother’s advice, she dry-cleaned a dress with kerosene, for a special meet- the-parents-date with a boyfriend. That scene, humorous as it was, helped her to decide that he, “Simon Peck… was really a humorless, selfish bore.

Poignant details

The duo’s commendable, uncluttered style carries the narrative easily along, as they choose specifically poignant details, which make for engaging read. Bringing the O’Carroll’s “joie de vie to life on page’, and giving a glimpse of the light and life the large family brought to the environs in which they inhabited, the reader gets the feeling that those whose lives were touched by this family, would miss them.

The reader will also appreciate this glimpse in the O’Carroll’s unconventional, but delightful home at 220 Darling Street in Balmain, a peninsular area of Sydney. The home, which had a barbershop/salon, tobacconist, gift shop and a lending library, which was really a betting house, named the Anchor, at the front of its ground floor, was often Balmain’s beehive. At one point, during her husband’s World War II sojourn, May O’Carroll’s commandeered the Anchor, which was then mainly a gift shop.

We also relive with Maureen her discovery that her mom May O’Carroll moonlighted as Madame Llaraco, a gypsy woman who read people’s future through tarot cards and tea leaves. In fact, it was her mom who read through Maureen’s tea leaf that a letter would be coming, the letter that signaled her real start as a professional cellist.

As we revel in the O’Carroll’s irrepressible spirit, we also get glimpses of the parent’s beginnings that would have engendered this grit and determination to survive and strive. For example, the reader is undoubtedly moved when we ‘witness’ Maureen’s dad breaking down into tears when recalling his orphan years. As Maureen recalls her father spoke of his life in an orphanage in England only once and it was then that she realized “men too, could weep.”

At the book’s conclusion, the reader appreciates the family from which Maureen O’Carroll sprung, one which would certainly feed and encourage creativity and prodigy; one which was rooted in love from both parents and especially in that mother/daughter bond, that is replicated in Maureen and Leora, who, like her mom, is also a musician.

Indeed we see how a world class cellist would spring from such industrious, unconventional, strong-willed, vibrant parents.

Title: Maureen O’Carroll: A Musical Memoir of an Irish Immigrant Childhood

Authors: Leora O’Carroll, Maureen O’Carroll

Publisher: Independently Published, January 2019

ISBN: 1794251529, 9781794251526

Ratings: Highly recommended

Ann-Margaret Lim is a poet and author, her collection of poetry, Kingston Buttercup was amongst the Bocas Prize 2017 poetry shortlist. Her books are available at Bookophilia, at amazon and Feedback: