My nickname for Rene has always been ‘The Duchess’, and I address all my mail to her in this way. I give her this title because, quite frankly, she lives like one and she always treats me like Royalty whenever I stay at her home. The postman genuinely believes that he daily delivers to royalty in the splendid Kilmeaden, 14-roomed bungalow. I always spend overnight at the home of Rene and James whenever I visit Portlaw (the village of my birth; a few miles away). Although they no longer accommodate paying guests, I am the only Forde they make an exception for since their retirement; much to the chagrin of my siblings who now have to seek less salubrious accommodation in Waterford City whenever they visit Portlaw.
Today, I will recite a poem about ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ at Avoca, and that will be followed by my own rendition of an old Irish song the poem refers to; ‘Sweet Vale of Avoca’.
Today’s song is ‘Sweet Vale of Avoca’. The ‘Avoka’ (Irish: Abhainn Aboca) is a river in County Wicklow, Ireland. It is contained completely within the county. Its length is 35 miles (56.3 km).
The Avoca starts life as two rivers, the ‘Avonmore’ (Irish: Abhainn Mhór, meaning ‘Big River’) and the ‘Avonbeg (Irish: Abhainn Bheag, meaning ‘Small River’). These two rivers merge together at a spot called the ‘Meeting of the Waters’ (Cumar an dá Uisce) in the Vale of Avoca, which is considered a local beauty spot, and was celebrated by Thomas Moore in his song of the same name. The ‘Avoka’ flows into the Irish Sea at Arklow, where it widens into a large estuary, giving Arklow its Irish language name an t-Inbhear Mór (the Big Inlet).
Although I was born in Ireland and my family is rooted in Irish culture, it was only a few months ago when I learned about the ‘Meeting of the Waters’ in County Wicklow, read the lovely words to Thomas Moore’s song, or heard it sung in that wonderful operatic voice of the Irish singer Maureen Hegarty.
Mary (also known as Maureen) Hegarty is an Irish opera soprano singer. She was born in Fermoy, County Cork, and she studied singing at the ‘Cork School of Music’ with Maeve Coughlan, representing Ireland at an early stage at the ‘Cardiff Singer of the World’ festival in 1985.
Although I only heard this song by chance in 2019, I was asked to look up Mary Hegarty in the 1990s by the late Earl of Harewood (Cousin to Queen Elizabeth 11). The Earl was a friend of mine, whom along with his wife, the Countess of Harwood, publicly read from my children’s books on three or four occasions during the 199Os in West Yorkshire school assemblies. Despite his royal connections, he was a down-to-earth and highly cultured man whose greatest love was the opera.
George Henry Hubert Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, was a British music director and author. In fact, he was one of the most authoritative opera experts in the world and held many offices in the realm of the operatic and cultural world of music. A music enthusiast, Lord Harewood devoted most of his life to opera. He was director of the ‘Royal Opera House’, Covent Garden from 1951 to 1953 and again from 1969 to 1972. He served as Chairman of the Board of the ‘English National Opera’ and was also its Managing Director. He was the Artistic Director of both the Edinburgh and Adelaide Festivals and from 1958 to 1974, and he was General/Artistic Director of the ‘Leeds Triennial Musical Festival’. He was Managing Director of the ENO offshoot, ‘English Opera North’ from 1978 to 1981. Lord Harewood also served as a governor of the BBC from 1985 to 1987.
He was the author of three highly acclaimed books on opera, with ‘Kobbe's Complete Opera Book’ being among the most noted. The Earl was a close friend to all the great opera singers around the world like operatic diva, Maria Callas. I was humbled to be more of an acquaintance than contact to the Earl and Countess, and I attended Harewood House by invitation on a few occasions over our years of acquaintanceship.
In the mid-1990s, I came across a marvellous singer with the operatic voice of a Pavarotti, who was working as a textile labourer in a mill in Slaithwaite, Huddersfield. Paul was his name and his only stated love was singing operatic songs that he’d learned since his childhood. Paul sang opera all day long (at home and at work) because he loved singing opera. He would sing in a Dewsbury pub on Friday night and at social gatherings of friends and family. He sang out of enjoyment and without any ambition in the slightest of ever progressing to a professional singer.
Even with my own limited knowledge of Opera, I could instantly tell that Paul was the best-untrained voice I’d ever heard. I made Paul the ‘Top of the Bill’ in a Charity Concert that I was presenting at ‘The Leeds City Variety’ to raise funds for the ‘Hollybank Trust’; an award-winning residential care home in Mirfield which caters nationally for severely handicapped children and young people who are too disabled to live at home. This special fund-raising concert of mine was attended by the Earl and Countess of Harewood as special guests. It was undoubtedly the presence of the Earl and Countess that persuaded the theatre Manager to allow me to present the show at this world-famous theatre (I was the first normal citizen given the privilege of doing so). The Earl agreed with my estimation of Paul’s singing and said he was prepared to give Paul an introduction to ‘Opera North’.
I approached Paul and told him what I thought and the marvelous opportunity that the Earl was offering him. In retrospect, I’d have to say that it was most unwise of me to encourage Paul to initially entertain the thought of singing professionally for a living and then persuade him to go for an audition with ‘Opera North’. At the time, I believed that I was offering Paul an unenviable introduction that was little short of a dream. The problem, however, was that it was my dream that I’d put in Paul’s head and not his dream I encouraged him to dream.
Paul’s audition was successful and ‘Opera North’ instantly agreed to take on the Slaithwaite mill worker after hearing him, but then Paul had a sudden change of heart. Paul liked his simple way of life over the years that brought him as much adulation for his opera singing from his mill mates and drinking pals as he needed, without any of the rigorous daily disciplines that would be demanded of him over a four-year period, were he to take up the offer from ‘Opera North’(that would also involve learning the Italian language between a punishing week of other learning).
When push came to shove, Paul wasn’t prepared to push away a life he knew and loved, in order to undertake the change in his lifestyle that would change him, his surroundings and way of future life. He was simply unwilling to do what was required, to have the opportunity of becoming a big opera star.
Since that day, I have accepted never to get anyone anything they don’t ask for. Unless the first move in the form of a specific request comes from them, I leave well alone. A person’s head should never be filled with the dreams and aspirations of another!
A few weeks after informing the Earl of Harewood for Paul’s decision not to proceed, the Earl contacted me by letter, and knowing that I was Irish by birth, he inquired if I’d heard of an Irish Opera singer named Maureen (Mary) Hegarty and suggested I look her up if I hadn’t. I’m ashamed to say that it was not until some seven years after the Earl died that I looked her up Maureen (Mary) Hegarty. That was the first time I heard, Maureen’s marvelous voice. One of the non-operatic songs she sang was ‘Sweet Vale of Avoca’; the song I sing for you today, backed by ‘Our Lady’s Choral Society’.
Love and peace Bill xxx