Song Spotlight: “That Tumbledown Shack in Athlone”

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Every so often, I get to work with a client in music therapy who really challenges me to learn new music. I can credit specific individuals with getting me to beef up my repertoire in western songs, Filipino and Russian folk songs, songs in Yiddish, and songs performed by Bing Crosby and Patsy Cline, among others. More recently, one gentleman, in particular, has requested a whole host of Irish ballads. Since we are approaching St. Patrick’s Day, I thought now would be the perfect time to share one of his favorites with you.

My Irish-loving client is in his late 90s. He can’t see much, and his hearing isn’t great, but, boy, is his memory intact. In our one-on-one sessions together, he usually sings the first few lines of a song that he learned many decades ago and asks me to find the rest of it for him. I’m not sure what started his most recent interest in old Irish ballads, but we’ve worked through a few in recent weeks. Today, I brought the lyrics for “That Tumbledown Shack In Athlone,” which he had requested by singing the first two lines of this chorus:

Oh! I want to go back to that tumble down shack,

Where the wild roses bloom ’round the door;

Just to pillow my head, in that ould trundle bed,

Just to see my ould mother once more.

There’s a bright gleaming light, guiding me home tonight,

Down the long road of white cobble stone;

Down the road that leads back, to that tumble down shack,

To that tumble down shack in Athlone.

My client was delighted to learn that I had found the rest of the lyrics for him. (Of course, he didn’t need my help remembering the melody!) Since he can’t see well enough to read, he worked on memorizing a few lines during our time together, and I left him a copy of the lyrics for the nursing staff to read to him as he worked on memorizing the rest. When I left the facility, you could still hear him singing, as he worked on committing the first several lines of the chorus to memory.

For this gentleman, much of the delight in this song came from sharing memories of his very Irish grandfather and mother. It is likely that he heard recordings of John McCormack growing up like the one played on this YouTube video. John McCormack was a famous Irish tenor during the time when Ireland was struggling for home rule. He sang operatic repertoire as well as popular songs, and he was the face and voice of Irish popular songs from his era. Folks with Irish heritage will probably be familiar with his voice as well as some of the songs he made famous.

Even if your favorite music-lover has not heard of John McCormack or this particular song, it could still be a nice way to start a conversation about home, especially one’s childhood home. The mood of this song is definitely nostalgic and sentimental, and the lyrics of the chorus describe a pretty picture of a person’s home. These lyrics could also be modified to fit the description of another person’s home. Depending on the person, this song could be appropriate for decreasing agitation by helping a person focus on the image of a comfortable, safe place while being held by the rocking, lyrical melody. At the same time, though, the song acknowledges that the singer cannot go back home, in a wistful way rather than an angry or depressed way. This reflects the emotional reality for a lot of people – they miss places and people from the past. Rather than ignoring those memories and pretending that everything is perfect in the present, you can use this song to support them as they remember and reflect. I will give one word of caution, though: if you think your client or loved one has painful memories associated with their childhood home, this song may bring difficult memories and emotions to the forefront, and you need to be ready to handle that conversation if necessary.

Ah, the Irish and their sentimental ballads! Of course, they also know how to party, and we will be playing and singing a variety of cheery Irish songs in the next several days as well. Do you have any favorite Irish songs to share this time of year? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!

This post is part of an occasional series on special songs to share with your loved ones. For more song spotlights, click here.

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