Piano Man

I have a thing about clean hands, and I can trace that right back to my first piano lessons aged six. Before you got to touch the pristine white keys of Mrs Frame's upright piano, you washed your hands in hot water and Imperial Leather soap, and then dried them on a clean starched towel. A whiff of that exotic, luxurious aroma still brings me right back there. I can smell it now.

My next piano teacher was Sr Frances, a Good Shepherd nun who announced one day as we sat side by side at the piano that she thought I should take organ lessons. Her thinking was, and the phrase she used has stuck in my mind ever since, "because every parish needs a priest that can play the organ".

I was 12. That's jumping guns, counting chickens and putting carts before horses all in one.

The truth was that although I loved music, I never wanted to be a classical pianist. I had had a traumatic experience playing Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba at Newry Feis, where my foot shook so much I kept holding the sustain pedal down and the whole thing ended up like the Queen of Sheba falling into a big pot of soup. But I did love the idea of being the piano man. The man at the centre of the craic, the guy who would check on a night out to see was there a piano and what sort of nick was it in, and was it locked and would it be ok… I worked out chords for 80s chart classics from Howard Jones to Axel F, and spent ages at our piano at home, tinkering around, making my own arrangements of Irish songs from a glorious little green hard-backed book called Cas Amhrán. My Óró 'Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile was a classic.

My father had a lovely singing voice, and came from that generation of "if you’re going to sing a song sing an Irish song". So for him it was the Oul Claddagh Ring, Cliffs of Dooneen or the Granemore Hare…and it’s a perpetual sadness that for all the evenings we sat in the living room looking at each other, and all the Saturday nights he belted out songs in the kitchen while enthusiastically burning sausages to Céilí House, I never even thought to accompany him on the piano singing one of his songs.

I must confess, now, I had a wee sneaky tinkle right here in the NCH one time when I was 17. We’d come down to Dublin for a big competition, and when no-one was looking I slipped onstage through the big heavy door, and found the grand piano unlocked. I played the Wexford Carol to a silent ovation from an empty hall. Thank you Dublin.

But then a son came along who also played piano…

A few Christmasses ago, I realised that while I can do the Wexford Carol and a bit of Carolan and The Boys from the County Armagh in whatever key you want, Spanish Train by Chris de Burgh, this guy, this guy can do Wuthering Heights, Bohemian Rhapsody, all the ABBA stuff, Elton John, you name it, with all the trimmings, fistfuls of notes all in the right order, augmented and diminished chords… and if he doesn’t know it, he’ll work it out quicker than me…

As a parent that’s both exhilarating and sobering. The genes have worked and found a new generation. But they’re stronger, sharper, quicker. So over time, I found myself, not in the hotseat at the keyboard calling the next song, but sitting on my cajon, a little box beside the piano, tapping out a rhythm, and watching young goldenballs doing his thing. Prouder than punch, like, but waiting like a greyhound in a trap for someone to call a tune he didn’t know, ready to jump in and remind people that I used to be able to do this.

One day I came home from work and before I got to the front door I could hear Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s beautiful sweeping piano piece Woodbrook, one of my faves, coming from our living room. I stopped and listened, wondering was it a recording, and then realised it was the son playing it on our piano. And it’s hard to describe what that feels like…a child of yours has learned a piece that you love, that he loves too, and that’s momentous and significant and moving. But it’s more than that. It’s like when we used to talk about handing on the faith, that they grasp something that you showed them, like catching a first fish, so that in all that they do and in all the places they go in life, they hold on to something from you.

- John Toal

You can hear the full Miscellany programme from Sunday 19 December 2021, by going here.