Today’s song is ‘Caledonia’. This song is a modern Scottish folk ballad written by Dougie MacLean in 1977. The chorus of the song features the lyrics “Caledonia’, you're calling me, and now I'm going home", the term ‘Caledonia’ is a Latin word for Scotland. The song became the most popular of all MacLean's recordings and something of an anthem for Scottish folk singers and nation lovers. ‘Caledonia’ has been covered by a great number of artists.
MacLean wrote the song in less than 10 minutes on a beach in Brittany, France, as he felt homesick for Scotland. He said: “I was in my early 20s and had been busking around with some Irish guys. I was genuinely homesick. I’d always lived in Perthshire. I played it to the guys when I got back to the youth hostel where we were staying and that was the final straw – we all went home the next day." He adds: "It took about 10 minutes but sometimes that’s how songs happen. I'm still amazed at how much it has become part of common culture. There’s not a pub singer, busker or pipe band that doesn’t play it."
‘Caledonia’ has been covered by a great number of artists. Most of these covers have been by artists from either Scotland or Ireland, and it has been popular amongst artists specialising in Celtic music. There have also been some adaptations by non-Celtic performers
‘Caledonia’ was first recorded by MacLean and published in his 1979 joint album credited to Alan Roberts and Doug MacLean that also carried the title ‘Caledonia’. The song is very similar in its sentiments to a much earlier song called ‘Jean and Caledonia’.
It doesn’t matter where one was born, grew up in early childhood, lived as adult, or where one died; our birthplace and homeland will always retain a special place in our heart. My own national flag never needs hoisting to know that my blood runs green through my veins, as what dear old Ireland stands for it is ever-present in my values, religious faith and belief system. Our homeland forms the core of our character, the backbone of our beliefs and the dreams of our destiny. It was here where it first began, and it will remain there until one’s last breath expires on our death bed.
All my life, I grew up with the traditional telling of jokes that commenced, ‘There was an English man, Irish man and Scots man……….’ As I grew up on Windy Bank Estate in West Yorkshire, England, all the English lads always made the English character in the joke the clever and sensible guy, the Irish character was always the dumbo and the Scottish chap would be the meanest drunk on the face of the earth! Not surprisingly, these character assassinations would correspondingly change, depending on the nationality of the person telling the joke.
We all discriminate to some measure and our motherland often influences the measure and kind of discrimination we practice through our belief systems and automatic response patterns. A person born in a predominantly Protestant country is more likely to find a joke about the Pope more acceptable than somebody who was born in a Catholic country. Similarly, a person born in Germany would be less appreciative about any joke pertaining to the two World Wars of 1914-17 and 199-45, than say an Englishman.
If there is one thing I know, it is the importance of one’s home base, wherever that place is located. Where does one look to when one is in greatest need? It is more likely to be one’s family. Where is one likely to feel the more comfortable in times of greatest hurt? The answer is ‘back home’. With perhaps, the exception of a cruel and unhappy upbringing, home is where all our hearts belong. When we first pack our suitcases and leave home, we never pack our hearts but leave it under our bed.
That is probably why every couple starting married life together aspire to one day owning their own house. Most newly married couples will want to have a family and this and that. All these wants collectively are represented in their concept of ‘a home’.
It is no surprise therefore that families living in one-roomed bed and breakfast accommodation of low standards and high rent feel trapped in their poverty. They know that with ten-year waiting lists for a council house, they will never be able to aspire above street level. They feel as though they are abandoned by the state and have been left ‘homeless’.
Every few years I like to travel back to Ireland and revisit my country and the place of my birth. I always make a pilgrimage see the house in which I was born in William Street, Portlaw almost 77 years ago. It then belonged to my maternal grandparents, Willie and Mary Fanning; who parented seven children, of whom my mother was their firstborn, and I hers.
To tell the truth, it is inaccurate to say, “I like to’ travel back to spend a week or two in the country and place of my birth”; far more truthful to say, ‘I need to’ return periodically. Going back home to Portlaw in County Waterford spiritually revives and rejuvenates me for the year ahead. Being in a place where I feel that I naturally ‘belong’ is refreshing, relaxing and recuperative in every sense.
About one mile from Portlaw (the village of my birth) I know I am close to the village when I spot the tree in the road fork. To the left of the forked road the sign indicates ’Portlaw’ and to its right is signposted the neighbouring community of Carrick-on-Suir.
I never pass this spot without recalling one year, while on holiday in Portlaw, myself and best mate Tony Walsh each cycled the road to Carrick-on-Suir (about six miles farther on) with two young girls on the back of our tandem bicycles. The young colleens no doubt thought they were onto ‘a good catch’ with myself and Tony, but the sun was beating down, we were 14 years old, and it wasn’t a bit of skirt that Tony and I were after but a bit of gas (Irish meaning fun). We all dismounted the bicycles for a pretend rest after we had travelled three miles. The young girls beamed with pleasured anticipation (no doubt believing that their time had come to be sent to Heaven and back) but as soon as they got off the tandems, Tony and myself laughed out loud and rode off to Carrick-on-Suir.
Each time I see this tree, I remember my childhood years and the many times my mother took us on a holiday to my grandparent’s house in Portlaw. Mum always did things on the spur of the moment. It wasn’t unusual for her to be cleaning the house one minute and then the next, be packing our suitcases. An hour later, Mum and three or four of us would be on the train for Liverpool and by midnight, we would be aboard ‘the Cattle Boat’ (so-called because the bottom of the vessel was filled with cattle being shipped across the Irish Sea). This was the longest sea-crossing available; lasting seven hours, but it was also the cheapest steerage cost.
We would travel all day by bus to County Waterford (12 miles from Portlaw). Once in Waterford, my mum would phone up the Post Office, who would, in turn, send a messenger down to Willie Low’s house, with the message that Portlaw born Maureen Forde (Nee Fanning) and her children were in Waterford wanting a taxi. Willie (who was the only man in Portlaw with a car, so he was the only taxi driver), would collect us from the Waterford Tower Clock and bring us to our grandparent’s home. Mum never had any money with which to pay him and always promised to ‘see him right’ later. I never knew what ‘see him right’ meant and I never asked! Mum would knock on 14, William Street (the only red door up the entire street) and when m grandmother opened it mum would say, “Get that kettle on. We’ve come to see you for a few weeks. I’ve no money though as Paddy hasn’t been paid yet, but he’ll post me a few pounds across at the weekend!”
Now, I must explain, that we were never able to afford holidays of any description, and until I was in my late teens, my mother would always get the family groceries ‘on tick’. We grew up as a family of seven children, with this week’s food being paid for out of my father’s next week’s wages. However, mum was not the kind of mother to allow little incidentals get in her way. She would raid the gas meter of every shilling in it, and instead of leaving the two week’s rent money out for my father to give the rent collector (one week’s rent, plus one week’s rent in arrears), mum would pocket that for the fare across to Ireland.
My dad would arrive home from a hard day’s work on a Friday evening, expecting a warm meal to be ready for him to eat. Instead, he would find a note from mum on the table which read,” Gone to see my parents with the children. They might be dead next year, and I’ll always regret it if I don’t go now. Tea is in the oven to warm up. Have borrowed the rent money so dodge the collector for a few weeks until I get back”.
There would always be a PS that said, “Paddy, send some money across next week. Love Maureen x"
As I head for the village of Portlaw past the fork in the road, I know that the final landmark I will cross as I turn the corner to enter the village will be the bridge of my childhood. Once the bridge has been crossed, only then do I consider myself as ‘being home’. This is my ‘Caledonia’. This place is where lies my roots, my heart, and one day, my ashes on my grandparent’s grave, in the graveyard of St Patrick’s Church to the left of the bridge.
I dedicate my song today to Lizzy. Lizzy is the daughter of my lifelong friend, Tony Walsh and his wife, Lily, who lives in Carrick-on-Suir. It is Lizzy’s birthday today. I don’t know how olds Lizzy is but I would guess it couldn’t be a day over twenty-one. Have a smashing birthday, Lizzy and give your parents fondest regards from me and Sheila. Billy Forde x
Love and peace. Bill xxx