“Song for the Mira” has become the anthem of Cape Breton but the Irish in Ireland loved it too and two different versions were once in the Irish Top Ten.
In the summer of 1973, Allister MacGillivray, a young Irish Canadian, was feeling homesick for Cape Breton island in Nova Scotia. He was working for the summer and staying in a friend's cottage on Prince Edward Island 300 miles away from home.
On a rainy night, alone and homesick, he sat down and composed “A Song for the Mira” about the river that traverses that Cape Breton area and the people who lived along it banks. It was a folk song redolent of homesickness and loneliness and it struck an incredible chord.
This year, 45 years later, the song and the writer was named to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. It has been translated into 300 languages and been rewritten as a choral piece and sung by more than 800 choirs internationally.
Ireland adopted the song by the young Irish Canadian as their own. It created a record in the 1983 when two different versions of it were in the Irish Top Ten at the same time. To this day thousands of Irish believe it is their song. It would become a Cape Breton anthem, beloved both on the island and around the world.
When Anne Murray, whose albums sold over 55 million copies worldwide, rendered her own version of the song she sent it into the stratosphere.
How did a young unknown writer create such a classic? "I was able to crystallize all the things I'd been missing at the end of August on a rainy night playing the classical guitar in this little cottage," he recalls. "It was a completely selfish, autobiographical song."
He did not know what he had done until he played if for some musicians back in Cape Breton There was a unanimous sense that something powerful had just happened.
It had indeed - the simple scenes from an Irish Canadian childhood captivated and entranced listeners. He did not know how huge a hit it was about to become until the day a car drove onto the pier where the fishing boat he had been working on was just docked. The driver had a tape with orchestral backing of the song to play for him. It was the big time.
The Cape Breton Post reports that In April, in Halifax, MacGillivray’s signature song was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, a long-deserved honor, according to local musicians.
“He’s a master songwriter,” says Stewart MacNeil of the Barra MacNeils, who have performed MacGillivray’s work. “His melodies are memorable but it’s the elegance of the lyric that has always captured me.”
“Without a doubt this song is a Cape Breton anthem,” says Matt Minglewood, who sang the song when he was with the Cape Breton Summertime Revue in one of MacGillivray’s favourite versions. “Way to go Allister!”
The song that emerged on a rainy August night 45 years ago when MacGillivary was staying in a cottage owned by a doctor on Prince Edward Island has stood the test of time.. According to MacGillivray, the song basically wrote itself.
He recalled for the Cape Breton Post how the song came about.
“I was sitting, practicing the classical guitar when my song came to me in a rush and I just got the sensation I was going to write something. I must have been playing a guitar pattern and got the melody in my head so I grabbed a piece of this doctor’s appointment book and I flipped it over because the songs come quickly and I started scribbling and in about 15 minutes I had completed the song,” he said.
“And I still have that manuscript. It’s very neat to look at it because there would be very few changes in the words over that whole sheet. It comes out rhymed and rhythmed and all the nuances are in there so I then just practiced it over a few days there and never thought it was anything particularly spectacular — little bit concerned right off the bat I had Marion Bridge and Mira in the words because sometimes that limits the international interest in a song — that’s what songwriters are always telling me — but I didn’t care.
“This was a song I was writing for myself and some of my buddies back home.”
The world loved it and the Irish loved it and every major performer, it seemed, played a version Recordings by Brendan Grace and Brendan Shine were hits in Ireland in 1983. Versions have been released by several other Irish singers including Phil Coulter, Foster & Allen, Daniel O’Donnell, Celtic Thunder, Tommy Makem, Mary O'Hara, and Frank Patterson.
Choral recordings have been made by the British Columbia Boys Choir, Canadian Orpheus Male Choir, Cantabile Chorale, Centennial Choir of Cornwall, Chor Leoni Men's Chorus, Gerald Fagan Singers, Men of the Deeps, Men of Note, and the Toronto Children's Chorus.
All for a song so simple in its lyrics it is accessible to everyone and also, captured the loneliness of exile from the home place.