One of the most uplifting Christmas presents I received was an old cassette tape – remember those listening tapes once played on a cassette machine? Well, I still have, and use, a cassette machine.
Back in the 1990s, my late nephew gave me a tape of some Dublin schoolchildren re-telling their versions of Bible stories (and the story of St Patrick). He was a film-maker and he thought it one of the most engaging recordings ever. Perhaps rashly, I gave it away, subsequently, to a writer who was doing research on children’s voices. I then wished I had asked her to return it.
But guess what? A cousin had just come across another copy of the original tape when clearing out his old cassettes (or transferring them to digital archives), and sent it as a Christmas present. And so, I was able to listen again to Give Up Yer Aul Sins, first recorded in the early 1960s. It’s a delight, and a classic, introduced with great empathy by Fr Brian D’Arcy on the cassette tape.
These young children came from the inner-city Rutland Street school in Dublin. They were often in classes of 60 or 70. The conditions were basic, and many of the kids were poor. Nevertheless they had been taught by a truly gifted teacher, whom Fr D’Arcy introduced as Miss Peg Cunningham; it’s evident that they made these Bible stories their own, and related to them with vividness. Their engaging Dublin accents inflected their innocent interpretations of the New – and sometimes Old – Testament.
They absolutely grasp the drama of Salomé, who “did a dance” and then asked for John the Baptist’s head on a plate.
They mingle their vernacular with a sense of reverence. “C’mere, Angel Gabriel, I want you to go to Mary and speak nice to her,” begins their version of the Annunciation, and “Our Lady was delighted that she was to have a young fella.”
Then they continue: “Our Blessed Lady decided to visit her cousin Elizabeth – three days’ walkin’, an’ she had to walk on the road, stones’d cut the feet off you,” and then: “Our Blessed Lady made a gorgeous prayer.”
There was a particular old-fashioned Dublin way of emphasising “gorgeous” which the tots enunciate with great charm.
As city-dwellers, they felt the need to explain the shepherds’ role at the Nativity. “Shepherds are fellas that care for sheeps and little lambs an’ all…and they heard this beautiful music up in the sky.”
As for the bad King Herod: “He was gettin’ in a shockin’ temper.”
The lesson of the Finding in the Temple was when Our Blessed Lady said “c’mon home now” and “children shouldn’t say no to their mammy or curse their mammy.”
They vividly recount the story of Calvary, and pick up on what ‘Mrs Pilate’ wrote to her husband: ‘Don’t do anything to Jesus, he’s a good man’”
They know all about Cana, and the miracles. “Oh where did you get this lovely wine? It’s gorgeous!”, “This fella was blind from a baby and he said to Jesus, would you cure me, Jesus? And Jesus said, ‘yeah’.”
When it comes to the Apostles, they describe Judas as “a dirty aul squealer”.
They vividly recount the story of Calvary, and pick up on what ‘Mrs Pilate’ wrote to her husband: “Don’t do anything to Jesus, he’s a good man. But he didn’t mind her.”
When Simon is picked out of the crowd, the child tells of the order: “C’mere you stranger and carry this cross!…Simon looked at Our Lord’s face and he said, ‘for the love of you, I’ll carry the cross’.” So Simon became a shockin’ holy saint.
Their guilelessness, and yet their confidence in speaking with such a sense of involvement and understanding, in their own terms, is stunning.
As for the story of St Patrick – they really identify with Patrick’s struggle: “Go up there and mind them sheep and lambs and cows for me,” they say, recounting his life as a slave. “And when he prayed to God at night, he prayed he wouldn’t be afraid.”
Give Up Yer Aul Sins is not only a dazzling message of faith. It’s also a unique archive of the way Dublin youngsters used to speak. I was also glad to learn, subsequently, that Brown Bag Productions made a short film based on the original, and some of the clips are available via YouTube.
Though to have the original cassette really was a ‘gorgeous’ Christmas gift.