Where are all the whistlers?

Published Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 3:53 PM

I was writing in another paper recently about what seems to be the lost art of whistling in Ireland. The reaction from all sides astonished me.

What I wrote was a light piece about how much I missed the presence of whistlers nowadays on the streets and in workplaces. It was a bit of craic around the reality that whistlers are indeed very scarce on the island now.

Twenty years ago going to work was having to listen to a morning chorus from milkmen and bus conductors and about every second person around.

Lightly I noted that fact and assumed that a few readers might enjoy it equally lightly and forget about it in five minutes or even less.

No way Jose. I've been deluged with comments and reaction since. It's a strange world indeed.

The single element that drew the most reaction was my statement that women never dared to whistle during the heyday of the art in the fifties and sixties. It was considered not to be respectable or proper for women to whistle a jig or a hornpipe as they went about their housewifely duties in an era where the majority of them worked in the home.

If they were heard whistling the fact would be talked about by the neighbors as the making of a scandal. There was even a saying about it, "A whistling woman or a crowing hen/will bring bad luck to honest men.”

That was our Fermanagh version. I now know that there were variants of that in about every county in the country, but they all delivered the same message … a whistling woman brought nothing but bad luck about the place.

For that matter, I've never to my knowledge heard a woman whistling. I never consciously applied my head to the matter, but I probably felt, like many men, that women are actually physically unable to whistle at all. Something, perhaps, to do with their beautifully soft lips and sheer lack of volume from chest cavities shaped differently to ours.

I've now learned from many sources that women can indeed whistle but (in Ireland at least) still do not do so in public places. I don't know about the rest of the world.

I think the popularity of Irish whistling in its heyday was due to the fact that a lot of jigs and reels and slow airs lent themselves readily to the art. We are a musical race anyway.

I've seen a half-set being danced to the lively version provided by a lone whistler blasting away and clapping his hands in time. There was also a watershed gramophone record of the fifties featuring a master whistler called Ronnie Ronalde. It was played constantly on Radio

Eireann and was as popular as that all-time big hit from Bridie Gallagher about the Boys From the County Armagh.

Ronnie's big hit was entitled “Birds In a Monastery Garden.” Against an organ background of pastoral music he was able to whistle the songs and sounds of all the birds of the garden-the linnets and finches and blackbirds and thrushes and the soaring larks.

It was almost a prayer. It filled the country with nearly as many imitators as there were of the great sports broadcaster Miceal OhEithir, but nobody came anywhere close to Ronnie. Some of you probably remember it yourselves.

But that was a time when carpenters whistled when they hammered, butchers whistled as they chopped, barbers and postmen and bricklayers whistled. About everybody whistled through the day except maybe priests and policemen. And women of course.

And the countrymen whistled in a differing fashion to most townsmen. The latter were given to whistling through their teeth, while countrymen produced a rounder and louder sound through lips pursed into an "O."

Mechanics looking into the innards of sick cars pressed their tongues against the insides of their teeth to create a unique sound. Usually they whistled fragments of cowboy songs before delivering bad news about the state of your gaskets and tappets.

We were very respectful to our women back then too as long as they desisted from whistling themselves. There were very few wolf-whistlers outside Dublin and Cork when pretty girls walked by.

Anyway, the reaction stunned me. I now possess the words of all the pishogues (superstitions) about whistling women and crowing hens.

I know where the small surviving corps of Irish whistlers can still be heard in action. There is, for example, a lovely man called Dan Kennedy who wrote a letter on the subject.

Dan keeps the old art alive in Cork City. He is a member of a traditional music band called the Irish Weavers. He has whistled all over Europe and the U.S. and can be heard every Wednesday night in Clancy's Bar in Marlboro Street in the city.

Somebody else told me that there are famous whistling competitions annually in Louisville over with you. (I'd only associated that town with one Lip before, not two!)

And I received the most fascinating booklet about the historic and therapeutic properties of whistling from the famous Joe Foyle from Tipperary and Dublin. This is so learned and detailed on the subject that I feel it proper to tell ye who wish to learn more about whistling to obtain a copy of Singmute or Whistle directly from Foyle at the Orchard Shop, 22 Sandford Road, Ranelagh, Dublin 6. It costs about $15 of your money, including postage, and is worth every cent.

This learned thinker and whistler, for example, was an associate of none other than Marshall McLuhan!

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