The fact that my parents were Irish though I grew up in the middle of East London made me highly sensitive to the particularity of language. All around me people spoke in the brash and vivid Cockney dialect. But at home my parents still used the vocabulary and speech patterns of rural Ireland.
When particularly exasperated with me, my father would invoke the memory of the language from which he, too, had been exiled, calling me an ‘amadan’ or ‘a gamalog’ (Irish words for fool). My mother, on hearing unexpected news would not say that she had received a great shock or surprise but ‘a terrible land’, as if someone had picked her up and thrown her in the air.
Being a Catholic family we regularly said the family rosary and I was always particularly struck by the words of the prayer with which it ended, the first few lines of which are as follows:
Hail holy queen, mother of mercy
Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To thee do we send up our sighs
Mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.
At least that is how the version we used to say began. Nowadays, I think people say valley of tears, vale being a rather old-fashioned and self-consciously poetic usage. But when I was little I thought it must be ‘veil’ and I often tried to imagine what a veil of tears would look like. I thought it must be a bit like an large spider’s web festooned with raindrops. It is an image that has never left me.
How I miss the music of my parents’ voices! I can hear them even now, rising and falling as they recited the prayers at bedtime. It will soon be two years since my mother died of cancer. Whenever I think of her last days on Earth and the pain she suffered, I am tempted to reach for that veil of tears to cover my face from the world.