Noises Off – Frank McNally on opera, humming and vintage tractors – The Irish Times
Following a mention here recently of composer William Vincent Wallace, a reader sent me the — almost lyrical — story of how he acquired his middle name.
It all started in Thurles, around 1830, when Wallace, 18, already a virtuoso, was appointed organist of the “Grande Chapelle”: ancestor of the Catholic cathedral. It was good that he was born a Protestant, as was his simultaneous appointment as music teacher at the local Ursuline convent, where he taught both students and novice nuns.
Among the latter were two sisters of the family variety, Isabella and Jane Kelly, who on becoming sisters of the other species took the names Paul and Vincent (distracting curiosity heightened for the chronicler by the fact that “Paul & Vincent” is also the name of a long-established animal feed company from which, when I was a child, my father bought nuts for calves).
Sister Paul’s duties were to ring the convent bell for Vespers. And it is said that while standing on the nearby bridge one evening, listening, Wallace formed the idea of what became: “Alas! These chimes fly so softly,” the classic song from his greatest opera, Maritana.
But the novice bell ringer also rang with him in a more personal way. In short, they fell in love and Isabella left the novitiate, much to the dismay of her sister, who was in no way alleviated when Wallace converted to Catholicism and, apparently to appease her, took “Vincent” as her middle name.
The lovers got married, then emigrated to Australia with another of Isabella’s sisters. Alas, even before they landed there, the romance had taken another turn. In operatic terms, the dashing Don Vincente morphed into the diabolical Don Vincenzo. He fell in love with the sister-in-law instead.
Husband and wife separated soon after their arrival, after which poor (and pregnant, as it turned out later) Isabella returned to Ireland. Her son, also William Vincent, never saw his father, and mother and child continued to live impoverished lives in Dublin.
The sad story was told in a 1969 RTÉ documentary “Alas! These chimes”. The program also included the poignant detail from the opera that, as she lay dying, Isabella heard a street organ outside her window playing another popular tune by Maritana. This one was called “In Happy Moments”.
Sometimes, as the “Paul and Vincent” trick illustrates, you can know too much for your own good. A vast store of otherwise useless agricultural and general information has occasionally come to me in quizzes. But it’s more often a nuisance, as I was later reminded while reading Ardal O’Hanlon’s new novel.
The book has a humorous subtheme in which the main character’s wife snores. Being a loving husband, he tolerates this as best he can. Hence his “little joke” that their nights together are “like sleeping with a Massey-Ferguson 125”.
His wife does not like the analogy, despite her explanation that the 125 is a “small tractor” and therefore, by implication, woman-like (although in Ireland, of course, all tractors – and machines farmers in general, especially if he cuts things – are women).
And I agree with O’Hanlon’s character that it’s a perfectly reasonable joke. But my immediate reaction upon reading it was that it got the wrong Massey Ferguson. Surely, I thought, he means the 135?
Where I grew up, in a place and time similar to the characters in the novel, there were only two options for Massey Ferguson. Neither was large, by modern tractor standards. But the 135 was the smallest, with a 45.5 horsepower engine that could conceivably lend itself as a diplomatic comparison for the hum.
The 165, on the other hand, was a much larger animal – 58 horsepower. My dad bought one when trading in a Fordson Dexta, and it looked huge in comparison. You certainly wouldn’t compare a loved one’s snore to a 165, certainly not as a joke.
As for the 125, I had never heard of such a thing when I was growing up in Monaghan. Nor was it in the latest issue of Classic Massey magazine, which in an attempt to solve the mystery I paid £7.40 last month, and which has a vintage 135 on the cover.
But as I now know, thanks to the internet, the old MF 100 series that the 135 and 165 were part of did indeed also feature a 125. It only had, as the name suggests, 25 horsepower. So on the plus side, it lends itself to a humorous and polite description of snoring. On the other hand, it was produced under license by Mitsubishi for a “niche market”, exclusively in Japan. And while I can only admire the level of research that goes into novel writing these days, it seems like a very long way to go for a joke.