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Reminiscences of Tilly Fleischmann

One day in 1917, J. J. O'Connor, nicknamed the ‘great J. J.’ owing to a pompous and officious manner, came to see me in a state of great excitement. His first words were: “You often said to me that Irish people expect a Chopin or Grieg to fall from the skies, that it took years and successive precursors before the ground was really ripe for a genius. Well, this time you are mistaken. A star has fallen from heaven – an Irish genius – Dermot O'Byrne.” He told me in an awe-struck voice that Dermot O'Byrne, a ‘spoiled’ priest from Maynooth, was writing music under the pseudonym of Arnold Bax, that he had written seditious poetry after the Rising in 1916 and “that of course the works of a rebel would never be performed in England”. This was the first time I heard Arnold's name. I wrote to a London publisher, who sent me songs and piano music.
From that time onwards my husband and I procured as much of his work as could be got, and we followed his career with ever increasing interest and enthusiasm. Ten years later, in 1927, a meeting was held of the Father Matthew Feis [music festival] Committee of which I was a member. Rev Father Michael (OFM) presided. We were discussing adjudicators for 1928. Father Michael suggested Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Henry Wood and various other outstanding English musicians. I was appalled at the idea – orchestral and chamber music were practically non-existent in Cork at the time. “It is a wonder, Father Michael”, said I, “that you don't write to Arnold Bax.” “Who's he?” said Father Michael. I told him. “And where does he live?” I said I didn't know but I thought it was in London. Well, we had a good laugh, I'm afraid rather at Father Michael's expense – but in which he joined merrily. The meeting was adjourned for a fortnight, Father Michael saying in his light-hearted manner on leaving, “You had better all make up your minds by then as to whom you are bringing over.”
About a week later I met him sauntering down the South Mall (Arnold used to say that “Father Michael always walked as if in a meadow, kicking the daisies before his feet.”) “He's coming.” said he in great glee. "Who?" said I. "Arnold Bax, of course. I just wrote "Arnold Bax, London", and he got my letter!" I got a shock and was very annoyed too. "Well, Father", I said, "I never thought you would have the courage to write to him or that he would have the humility to come." "Oh" said Father Michael cheerfully "he is delighted to come. Read his letter." I read it there and then. It was certainly a charming, warm-hearted letter saying how much pleasure he would have in coming and that from now on he would be looking forward to his visit to Cork.
He came to adjudicate for the Feis for three successive years, during which time we all got to know him intimately. And he was a regular visitor, staying with us or with my son, Aloys Óg, every year, (except 1939-47 when he didn't leave England) until 1953. It was a friendship of twenty-five years. Strange to say, Father Michael was the first to greet him when he arrived in Cork, on the ‘Innisfallen’, in 1928 and was the last to leave his grave in 1953

SOME CHARACTERISTIC TRAITSbax af oysterhaven 1933.jpeg
Arnold had an extraordinary memory for people and Irish place names in particular. If we were visiting some place he had not seen before he would ask Aloys Óg for its name and English translation. Incidentally I became interested myself, and on hearing them thought that these lovely poetical Irish place names were still a living story of romantic Ireland, alas now dead and gone. He liked playing with words too, and making a good pun when the fancy took him.
Arnold had a particularly soft spot in his heart for the simple folk of the countryside and, though he was usually reticent and aloof with other people, he would sit on the sea wall opposite our cottage in Oysterhaven and enter into conversation with any fisherman or peasant passing by.
He had a fine sense of humour, and I think he enjoyed the trips we made in Aloys Óg's ramshackle old car – which had been purchased for 25 pounds – more than when we were travelling in a grand comfortable Austin! When we got stuck going up a hill, which happened often, we would all get out, Arnold included, and push her up.
Another trait in him was his disregard for his personal safety. Once coming down a long incline from Wilton to the Western Road, we got a terrible bump. The car had hit the kerb stone. Arnold was sitting next to the driver, always his favourite place. Looking at him he announced simply to us at the back, “He's asleep!” And so he was. He had been driving all night from a funeral in West Cork, and couldn't keep himself awake.
On another occasion at Oysterhaven, Aloys Óg took Arnold and myself in a small punt over a wall in the estuary. It could only be passed over if there was a high full tide. The water then flowed into the fields, which were a maze of small channels containing mullet and with all kinds of seabirds and wild flowers on its banks. It was fascinating to paddle along the rivulets, with the oars on the bank at each side. But one had to watch when the waters began to ebb. Arnold and Aloys Óg were so engrossed in chasing the mullet and enjoying themselves that they didn't notice the waters receding – the tide flows out very quickly, much more rapidly than coming in. We just barely got over the ditch without capsizing the punt into ten feet of water below. I said to Aloys: “You really ought to be more careful. If anything happens to Arnold, England will declare war on Ireland!” Upon which Arnold made a bitter and rather caustic remark. It made me think of a passage in a letter from E. J. Moeran in which he wrote that “37 copies of Arnold's published works, including full orchestral scores and chamber music, have been stolen from the public library at Nottingham. We all wonder who is the burglar with a taste for modern music. Arnold says it is the greatest compliment he has ever received.” And again of my teacher Stavenhagen of the Munich Royal Academy of Music telling us that when somebody said to Liszt how they deplored the neglect of his music at concerts etc, he simply said “Ich kann warten.” (I can wait.)

With all Arnold's outward realism and agnosticism pertaining to religion, he had a peculiar love for anything mystical or deeply religious. And although he seldom revealed it, when he did so he was as simple as a child. On one occasion in 1928 Aloys Óg and I took him to Gougane Barra. On the way we whetted his appetite by telling him of the marvellous hotel where one ordered trout on arrival which was then fished from the lake and cooked for tea. After we had waited over an hour for the feast, a girl appeared with the tea and one plate, which contained two small little fishes that looked like sprats. She apologised, saying that they were unable to catch anything bigger that evening. However all this added to the fun of the day, and we ordered a substantial meal of bacon and eggs.
Having finished our tea we set forth to visit St Finbar's monastery on the lake. Arnold was enchanted with it and we stayed there for some time. Before leaving the little island I went to the Holy Well, dipped my fingers into it and sprinkled the others with the holy water. All turned to go back to the car with the exception of Arnold. He took off his hat and stretched out his arms without saying anything. I reached into the well again and made the sign of the cross with the water on his hands. He put on his hat and returned silent to the car. Later on in 1929 he told me that he had just been finishing his Third Symphony and he thought it must have been the holy water that helped him.
Years afterwards, I think it was 1932, we were guests at Lord Monteagle's seat, Mount Trenchard in Foynes, Co Limerick. One lovely sunny day Lord Monteagle took Arnold, Mr and Mrs Norman, Aloys, Aloys Óg and myself in his motor launch down the Shannon to visit St Senan's grave. I must confess that when we landed on the little island, we were shocked to see the neglect of the place. All fences around the holy well were broken and flattened on the ground. The place was covered with nettles, and cows and goats had been drinking there.
We had brought picnic baskets intending to have luncheon on the island. Scarcely were we seated and the baskets on the point of being opened, when Lord Monteagle walked quickly up to us. He had been studying the sky and river and said: “We must return at once.”. A storm was approaching and one never knew what might happen on the river. Already drops of rain were falling and the place, all sunshine a few moments ago, now looked grey and threatening.
We got up quickly to get into the launch and in the hurry and confusion I forgot all about the Holy Well. All were in the boat again including myself with one exception: Arnold. He remained standing at the well. “Tilly,” he said, “you have forgotten the holy water.” He took off his hat as at Gougane Barra and held out his hands in the same reverent childlike manner.
When we were half way home to Foynes, the storm grew violent. The waves were actually two to three feet high. Had we not all been wrapped up in oilskins, which Lord Monteagle evidently always kept in his launch, we would have been drenched to the skin. None of us thought that such an innocent looking river could behave like the sea.

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(c) Tilly Fleischmann