Sunday, August 12, 2007

Can You Hear Me Now?

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Fergus O’Byrne and Jim Payne in concert several times and one song that never fails to move me—I don’t know the title—is a compilation of fragments from letters sent by family in Ireland to the immigrant who left to seek his fortune in Newfoundland. His sister is married, children are born. The letters are infrequent and clearly from folks to whom writing is a challenge, and eventually comes the news that father and mother have gone to their graves without having seen their long-lost son again.

How strange this all seems in an era of cell phones, when even a trip to the grocery store gives rise to calls regarding the choice of cereals. That’s why the latest book in my “extreme exploration” reading seems vaguely unsettling. Mike Horn is an explorer par excellence and in Conquering the Impossible he describes his 12,000 mile journey around the Arctic Circle via Norway, Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Siberia. He travels on foot, dragging a sled, by boat, kite, kayak and even for a short while on a bike. His journey takes 27 months and he encounters temperatures from 75 degrees below zero to 85 degrees of mosquito-ridden heat in Siberia. His constant companion? A satellite phone. I do not want to detract from his courage. The phone would have been no help to him 95% of the time. The dangers were too imminent and he could not have summoned help when confronting a hungry bear or finding himself on swiftly melting ice or facing boat-crushing seas. Although the phone came in useful on a training run when he needed medical advice for the gangrene resulting from frostbite, he used it almost exclusively to co-ordinate the re-supplying of equipment as he changed modes of transportation, and to deal with his worst nightmare, Russian bureaucracy. But I couldn’t help wondering: what difference would it have made to Robert Falcon Scott or to Shackleton if they had had such a convenient way of contacting civilization?

I was reminded of this communication void the other day when I was cleaning out some papers and came across something Al had sent us many years ago. When he was living in Madagascar, he visited Île Ste. Marie, an island off the coast. There he found, wrote down and translated an inscription on a tomb. It was the burial place of François Fortune Joachim Albrand (1795-1826), who had spent six years colonizing the island for France. How sad that he had no way to contact his family in his last days. The inscription ends:

TRAVELER, whoever you may be,
At the sight of this solitary tomb,
Dreaming of your aged father, your brothers, your friends,
Who wait for your return,
You will not be able to hold back from a few tears.
This one here also had a father, brothers, friends,
Who loved him with idolatry.
They hoped to see him again soon,
But he returned no more.

Traveler, pray to the God of mercy
For the repose of his soul.
Some of those who died on September 11, 2001 had the opportunity to make a last call. Would you want to do so? Who would you call? What would you say?

Guess What? As I was trying to locate a photo for this post, I came across this. Watch him climb Gasherbrum II. Real time. Be patient and let it load.


Mairin O'Byrne said...

Hi Beryl the name of the song is Kilkelly Ireland I have included the words.

1. Kilkelly, Ireland, 1860, my dear and loving son John
Your good friend schoolmaster Pat McNamara's so good
As to write these words down.
Your brothers have all got a fine work in England,
The house is so empty and sad
The crop of potatoes is sorely infected,
A third to a half of them bad.
And your sister Brigid and Patrick O'Donnell
Are going to be married in June.
Mother says not to work on the railroad
And be sure to come on home soon.

2. Kilkelly, Ireland, 1870, my dear and loving son John
Hello to your Mrs and to your 4 children,
May they grow healthy and strong.
Michael has got in a wee bit of trouble,
I suppose that he never will learn.
Because of the darkness there's no turf to speak of
And now we have nothing to burn.
And Brigid is happy, we named a child for her
And now she's got six of her own.
You say you found work, but you don't say
What kind or when you will be coming home.
3. Kilkelly, Ireland, 1880, dear Michael and John, my sons
I'm sorry to give you the very sad news
That your dear old mother has gone.
We buried her down at the church in Kilkelly,
Your brothers and Brigid were there.
You don't have to worry, she died very quickly,
Remember her in your prayers.
And it's so good to hear that Michael's returning,
With money he's sure to buy land
For the crop has been bad and the people
Are selling at every price that they can.

4. Kilkelly, Ireland, 1890, my dear and loving son John
I suppose that I must be close on eighty,
It's thirty years since goodbye.
Because of all of the money you send me,
I'm still living out on my own.
Michael has built himself a fine house
And Brigid's daughters have grown.
Thank you for sending your family picture,
They're lovely young women and men.
You say that you might even come for a visit,
What joy to see you again.

5. Kilkelly, Ireland, 1892, my dear brother John
I'm sorry I didn't write sooner to tell you, but father passed on.
He was living with Brigid, she says he was cheerful
And healthy right down to the end.
Ah, you should have seen him play with
The grandchildren of Pat McNamara, your friend.
And we buried him alongside of mother,
Down at the Kilkelly churchyard.
He was a strong and a feisty old man,
Considering his life was so hard.
And it's funny the way he kept talking about you,
He called for you in the end.
Oh, why don't you think about coming to visit,
We'd all love to see you again.

Beryl Ament said...

Thanks, Mairin. I can't tell you how sad that song makes me. It is a story that must have been lived countless times, and the tragedy is that in these days when streams of refugees are forced to leave family behind, it is still happening.

Anne said...


I was searching for a copy of the epitaph on Francois-Fortune Joachim Albrand's monument in Madagascar, and was delighted to see part of the translation of it on your blog--the only place I've found ANY of it! When I was there, I took a slide of it, but it is too difficult to read, and I'd love to use the information in it in a presentation I will be doing next month (or I'd like to have it for future reference if you don't read this in time to get it to me). In English would be super, but in French would also be fine--or both! As I recall, the first part was rather humorous.

A couple of other things in your entry on this date hit an emotional nerve:

I've read most everything I could find about Ernest Shackleton, and recently recommended "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" as a selection for my History Book Discussion group. I also thought Worsley's account of the voyage was excellent. The biography about Shackleton was a little disillusioning about him as a person IRL though, but the survival of everyone on the voyage is just unbelievable.

And the Irish song, "Can You Hear Me Now?" brought tears to my eyes every time I heard it, which was usually when Blackthorn sang it in concert somewhere on our side of Detroit (we live north of Ann Arbor now).

I need to get back to sorting my Madagascar slides, but hope very much to hear from you!

Thanks, Anne

Beryl Ament said...

Anne, how gratified I was that three topics in one post resonated with you. My son spent two years in Madagascar with the Peace Corps and sent us this epitaph when he visited Ile St. Marie. Or maybe he brought it home when he returned. I truly can't remember now, nor can I find the original. Too much tidying up. I just sent him an e-mail and asked him if he had anything in its entirety. Your "presentation" intrigues me and Ann Arbor suggests the U of M. We live in Grosse Pointe and my e-mail is

How I would like to travel to Madagascar and fill in the gaps in books about the colonization of that island—if I were 40 years younger.

Anne said...


Thank you for your quick response to my post, and for emailing your son! I certainly hope that he still has the copies of the epitaph and I will hope to hear again from you regarding this.

I've sent you an email separately.