The Black Velvet Band

St. Patrick’s Day isn’t really a holiday I celebrate. I do have Irish heritage; the O’Sullivans came over from Kilkenny several generations ago and dropped the O somewhere along the way to become just Sullivan, my last name at birth before my parents’ marriage. I couldn’t even tell you exactly when they arrived here. Despite the fact that it’s become trendy to be Irish, it’s not something I think about much, and I certainly don’t connect it with green beer or fake accents that sound like they came wrapped in cellophane at the bottom of the Lucky Charms box. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone else’s fun, it’s just not for me. It’s not my story.

Well, not quite. St. Paddy’s Day seven years ago is an exception. I remember that there was a little house full of people rattling the rafters with booming voices singing about pretty colleens. That was the day my grandmother was buried.

You’d think us awful if you’re used to the more sombre affairs that funerals generally are. There was no real talk of how it was a lovely service or that the flowers were beautiful. Instead, we sent our matriarch off with songs and laughter and not a little irreverence. Wallowing and sniffling was not her way, nor was it ours.


There’s no right way to write about her. I’ve tried so many times. I couldn’t speak at her funeral for the tears, but even with dry eyes, what can I say? What words do I have in my vocabulary to make you understand what she meant to me, to all of us?

I could start by telling you about her faith, all the mornings with whispered hail Marys and prayer cards to St. Anne. How the last time I ever spoke with her she ran calloused fingers over her prayer beads and explained to me the Mysteries of the Rosary, glorious and joyful and luminous and sorrowful, and how that moment standing by her hospital bed could be described as any of those things. I could tell you about her little quirks, the shirts stained with food and socks full of holes, the way she called her doctor Fuck-Knuckles when she disagreed with any diagnosis he offered, or the way she was almost as faithful to The Young & The Restless (and Victor Newman) as she was to God himself. I could tell you that her eyes were tired from a life not always kind to her, but that the way they crinkled up when she laughed made you think of what she must have been like when her face was unlined and her fingers held neither knots nor rings.

But children are selfish about their caretakers, because the only way we’ve ever known them is in relation to us. I can’t speculate about what her hopes and dreams must have been, because I have no idea. To me, she’s a branch on the family tree too high to see clearly.


I remember it snowed on St. Paddy’s Day that year, with big fat flakes fluttering down as we left the graveside service. I thought that it must have been her way of saying goodbye, or reminding us to wear gloves.

Before long, her tiny house was full of people, neighbours and friends and so, so many people she’d had a hand in bringing into the world. I remember thinking about how she’d given birth in that very same house with her own mother as the midwife. It’s no wonder that even in the face of death, all we could do was think about how so much life had come from her, the joyful mysteries overtaking the sorrowful.

It was a kitchen party, so of course guitars appeared as though out of thin air. We sang songs about Paper Rosie and Mary of the wild moor and Sarah, Sarah, won’t you come out tonight, when someone mentioned an old Irish ballad my grandmother had used to sing. Stories started pouring out then, the older children remembering her singing it to the younger, the younger children remembering her singing it to the grandchildren. Little by little, the voices started to chime together and sing The Black Velvet Band, the words coming out in unison like a muscle memory of something we’d all forgotten we knew. We sang as loudly as we could as if she would somehow hear us, babies singing a lullaby to a mother already sound asleep.

It’s the only St. Patrick’s Day I really have any memory of, because it’s the only one with a real connection. Who I am has nothing to do with shamrocks. Where I come from has more to do with a woman whose eyes, they shone like the diamonds, so you’d think she was queen of the land.

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