Born in Scotland to an Armagh mother and a Scottish father, young MacEwan and his only brother were reared by their mother after the father left the family home.
Though poor, both boys got musical and voice training and by the age of 12, Sydney had won his first talent competition as a singer.
He started studying to be a Jesuit priest at just 18 but left the seminary after a year, somewhat disillusioned. He still answered the ‘call’ and studied at the Scottish College in Rome.
Ordained in 1944, he combined his priestly duties with a professional singing career which took him all over the world.
In that RTÉ Radio interview, the canon spoke fondly of his Irish connections and his delight at how Ireland more or less took his song Queen Of The May and kind of adopted it as an anthem hailing the arrival of summer.
I’m not certain which RTÉ broadcaster — possibly Gay Byrne — made a point of playing the song on May 1 each year. That tradition is still continued by Ronan Collins and the song is amongst the most popular ‘hymns sung in Irish churches.
Written by Mary E.Walsh, the proper title of the piece is Bring Flowers Of The Rarest — though we generally sing it as ‘Bring Flowers Of The Fairest’.
It’s a Catholic song of Marian devotion but it truly reflects an age-old Celtic tradition of gathering flowers at this time of the year.
We all know the phrase ‘June is bursting out all over’ but in reality May is when everything changes in nature. The dowdy shawl of winter and spring is finally cast aside as summer beckons and unveils its beautiful bounty.
May in Ireland is associated with the pre-Christian feast of Bealtaine. In ancient times, bonfires were very much part and parcel of the birth of summer — I wonder is Bealtaine a corruption of ‘beal tine’, the ‘mouth of the fire’? signifying perhaps a fiery start to the opening or mouth of the season of plentifulness that was just commencing.
There is an old riddle — no one knows it’s origin but it goes;
This refers to the ancient practise of washing one’s face in the May morning dew. The dew didn’t come from rain, neither does it flow from a tap. One never dries off the dew — you just let it fade away naturally, so the ‘towel’ is not a cloth woven or spun.
On May 1 this year I wet my two hand from the dew that was on the grass in our haggard at dawn. They say such ablutions will prevent wrinkles. Well, I already have a few of them boyos on my forehead.
I only started the May morning washing with dew when I was about 50 so I suppose by then the seeds of those wrinkles were well sown!
The May traditions were ingrained in the DNA of our ancestors long before St Patrick brought the faith to this country. In ancient times, the seasons and months were dictated and measured by the sun, moon and stars, by the ebb and flow of the tides, by heat and cold, and length of day.
Global warming and pollution have definitely skewed the seasons and the way they seem so tri na chéile nowadays. There is no certainty anymore. It seems like anything goes when it comes to weather and climate and cold and heat.
This year is different though. The stilly silence, absence of planes, less traffic everywhere, has meant so many more people are communing with nature. The last few weeks have been beautiful, as if to say ‘yes, things are awful, pandemic-wise… but look... look all around and take time to enjoy nature in it’s beauty’.
The idea of ‘bringing the summer’ is the same theme as in Bring Flowers of The Rarest, the concept of moving from spring into summer and bringing with us all that summer entails.
At present, everything seems to be moving at a much slower pace, there’s no hurry, no rushing hither and yon. Normally this time of year sport would be of huge importance to nearly everyone. Imagine the headlines last Monday in de paper ‘Late Horgan Score Gives Rebels Dramatic Win’ — lads, we’d be talking about it ‘til tomorrow at least.
But no, we had no game and won’t have for weeks or months so all’s quiet as summer moves in to stay with us for a few months.
It’s Tuesday at nearly nine in the evening as I write these words. I sit near an open window. No car nor tractor can I hear but an orchestra of birdsong. The crows are raucous in their nests minding their fledgling young and the blackbirds, thrushes and swallows add to the musical mix.
With ne’er a match or a meeting to go to, I’ve spent many an evening lately in the fields. The rabbits are back, the furze bushes blaze forth in yellow profusion and all seems right with the natural world.
This is May, glorious budding, blooming, basking May. When June and July are come and gone and shades of autumn are lurking will we still have such silence? No-one knows.
People say that this year will ‘change people forever’ and cause many to evaluate life and the important things in it. Then people have short memories.
In many respects, memories of this peaceful May might well be like the fragrance of summer when summer is gone. Would that it were not so.
If any good at all were to come from this pandemic, surely ‘twould be to press the ‘Pause’ button on our lives and times. We are in virtual lockdown now with two months. For hundreds this dreaded disease that silently stalks the land has brought death. For most it’s an awful inconvenience and causes upset and financial disaster.
Yet the sun still rises, the birds sing and people are walking and talking more than ever. Ah yes, we are in strange times so make the most of them.
I sometimes do sigh a deep sigh of … well, of kind of thanksgiving and appreciation of how lucky many of us are to live close to the beauty all around us. To be able to wash one’s face in the morning dew and hear daily the dawn chorus and observe bees humming and plants and flowers opening and spreading joy and happiness. Artists try and paint it and scribes write of it but Louis Armstrong truly summed it up;
Enjoy May, and may it bring us closer to a nicer, changed world for all.