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From Sidesaddle to the Symphony: Cellist Maureen O’Carroll

Looking for a cellist memoir? Maureen O’Carroll: A Musical Memoir of an Irish Immigrant Childhood by Maureen and Leora O’Carroll gives us a glimpse into the life of a remarkably talented musical Irish immigrant family in Sydney c.1930-50.
This beautifully written memoir is a series of short episodes that bring to life what it was like to grow up as an Irish immigrant in Sydney during the 1930s and 40s, as experienced by the young cellist, Maureen O’Carroll.

Much as the Kanneh-Masons have welcomed us into their musical home during the pandemic via video live streaming, this memoir opens up the world of a family of 10 musical children – 4 girls and 6 boys, each of whom was musically talented. One can almost hear the music coming through the pages.

Maureen (cello) with her sisters Cathleen (violin) and Patricia (harp). Photo courtesy Leora O'Carroll

Maureen (cello) with her sisters Cathleen (violin) and Patricia (harp). Photo courtesy Leora O’Carroll

Each chapter in the book draws the reader into an episode in Maureen or her family’s life, beginning before her birth with the story of her parents in Ireland. Her mother, May Gahan O’Carroll, was a member of the Citizen Army and the women’s army, Cumann na mBan, in Dublin as a 16-year-old. She was an honored participant in the six-day 1916 Easter Rising and over the years, she was imprisoned several times as a result of her work for Irish independence. She met her husband, John O’Carroll through her brothers who were also members of the Citizen Army.

Together they continued to fight for Irish independence until deciding to leave for New Zealand in 1925. In 1930, they moved to Balmain, a peninsula area of Sydney in order to find more Irish Catholics like themselves. That’s where Maureen was born.

Growing Up in Sydney

The book continues with stories about living in Balmain, growing up as an Irish Catholic immigrant, and finding her way in life at school and at home. We learn about her childhood and her early years as a cellist, everything from her excitement over being given her first cello to defending herself against a scary dentist.

The stories of Maureen’s childhood drew me in completely, and although each chapter could be taken as a bite-size bit of text, I found it difficult to stop reading. I won’t give away too many of the stories, but here are two that stuck with me.

Purcell Sweets?

Pascall Sweets

Pascall Sweets

The chapter entitled, “Purcell Sweets” is the story of a childhood misunderstanding Maureen experienced in her elementary orchestra. Maureen explained:

I enjoyed . . . orchestra but was never particularly aware of the compositions we were playing . . . One Saturday morning at the end of our rehearsal, [her conductor] Mr Krasnik said “You have all played wonderfully today . . . In fact, you are playing so well that next week I’m going to bring you some Purcell Suites.”

Not being as familiar with the composer Purcell as the brand of sweets – Pascall – what Maureen thought she heard was “Pascall sweets,” which she loved. These were

hard on the outside with a fruity, chewy center, [and they were] expensive . . . so they were a very special treat.

All week Maureen thought about these Pascall sweets and so she behaved very well at the following Saturday’s orchestra rehearsal. She explained:

I was in my seat early, with my bow rosined, my cello tuned, and I was going to play as well as possible.

In spite of her excellent behavior and being praised by her conductor again that Saturday, he never gave them any Pascall sweets. At the end of the rehearsal, she burst into tears, telling him:

“Mr. Krasnik, you are a mean, mean man!”

Years later in another orchestra, she realized her mistake as she

read the title and composer of a work we were playing – “Suite, by Henry Purcell.”

Assuming a More “Ladylike” Playing Position

Side-Saddle Cello-Playing Position

Personally, the only time I witnessed a side-saddle position for playing the cello was in junior high school orchestra when my stand partner’s miniskirt was too tight – and short – for her to open her legs enough to play properly.

It was not a clothing malfunction that caused Maureen to assume this position as a child; it was a nun.

When Maureen’s family hit a financial rough patch, she had to get lessons at a convent rather than the Conservatorium. Maureen explained:

Had I been more wordly, I would have realized that Sister had never seen a cello before . . . She proceeded to have me sit in a “ladylike” side-saddle position with my legs crossed to one side the cello perched against my hip.

Luckily, Maureen was only with the nun for six months before she was able to return to her old teacher at the Conservatorium. Although he was glad to see her,

The sight of his former student imperiously leaning back in the chair, seated sidesaddle . . . left him staring and slack-jawed.

There’s more to this story, but I won’t give it away. The end result was that Maureen was sent away, with her teacher saying,

“I’m sorry, there is absolutely no way I can teach you . . . Pack up and go home.”

Crushed, Maureen headed home, but her mother sent her back, insisting that she get lessons. Again, he sent her away. After a

humiliating yo-yo process of traveling back and forth to the Conservatorium . . . having to face the rejection . . . and then home [to face] the stubborn determination of my mother . . . I finally burst into tears in [his] studio.

What she did next shows the sort of determination, honesty, and directness evident throughout her life. She convinced her teacher to accept her again as his student by telling him:

“I can’t go home until you promise to teach me again . . . I’ll get into a lot of trouble.”

This was the same direct approach she took later in life as a member of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra when she saw “Rule Britannia” on the concert program. She informed the management

that she refused to perform such a piece and during the concert, placed her cello down and marched off stage at the Opera House, only returning at its end. She kept her job.

Not only did she stand up for what she believed – she was straightforward about doing so.

Mothers and Daughters

A significant theme of the book is the connections between mothers and daughters, and this runs from Maureen’s mother, May, through her daughter, Leora, the co-author of this memoir.

The tales of Maureen’s childhood are framed by moments of connection between mothers and daughters.

The book opens with an episode shared by Maureen and her mother May – the one that launches her career as a professional cellist at age 17.

The last chapter of the book is divided into two sections, the second bringing us back to the narrative about Maureen as an adult, and her connection with her own daughters.

Maureen’s Career

The book then closes with an epilogue by Maureen’s daughter, Leora, the co-author of the book. Leora tells of Maureen’s life after childhood, filling in details of her impressive career as a cellist.

After playing in the New Zealand National Orchestra as a teenager, Maureen performed with many famous artists in orchestras across the USA.

In 1974 she returned to Australia, and played with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I leave it to you to read more details of her career in the epilogue.

Maureen playing cello in Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy Leora O'Carroll

Maureen playing cello in Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy Leora O’Carroll

The book left me wanting more. It made me wish I’d known Maureen O’Carroll, and made me want to read the life story of her mother, May.

Although I’m glad we got the highlights of Maureen’s career at the end of this memoir, I’d love to read a memoir, part two: the story of her career. I hope Maureen’s daughter, Leora, will write more about her musical family.

Author Q & A

Leora O’Carroll kindly answered some questions I had after reading her book.

When did you and your mother start working on the memoir?

We wrote the book years ago sitting side by side for many months working on it. But the idea of the book goes back to when I was a small child and my mother would regale me with stories from her childhood. I was always fascinated with these amazing adventures and would press for more.

Living in middle-class America, as we were, my mother’s experiences growing up in her family, in Australia, during the Depression and World War Two, were remote and exotic.  I loved hearing about her childhood in this chaotic, music-filled household with nine siblings.  Although her family endured hardships, my mother always had an optimistic outlook, and her humorous takes on her childhood are what made her recollections so enchanting. So even as a young girl, it struck me that these stories should be written down.

How much of it were you able to get done together?

We completed the book together and then later, I wrote the Epilogue.

Your mother lived the life of an immigrant family. Did you feel the effects of her being an immigrant, too, in your own experience growing up?

I think that most children growing up with an immigrant parent have an awareness that their family experience and their parent’s perspective is going to be different from surrounding norms. My mother would make us, her children, aware of immigrant families and point out the many challenges that they would be going through to make it in a new country.

As my mother was a Depression-era child growing up in a large family, she never liked to waste anything, especially food. We grew up hearing about the Irish famine and how our grandmother was often put to bed for the day with her siblings, as there was no food, so their mother wanted to conserve her children’s’ energy.

Did your mother remain close with her siblings even after she left her childhood home? I note that your Aunt Cathleen also played in the New Orleans Philharmonic in the late 1950s.

As my mother left home at age 17 and lived in the U.S. for many years, the sibling she was probably closest to was Cathleen as she was also in the States. Yes, Cathleen and Maureen played in the New Orleans Philharmonic together and then Cathleen played in the Cleveland Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Obviously her upbringing affected her beliefs and loyalties as shown by her bravery in not playing “Rule Britannia” at the concert in Sydney. Did her beliefs affect her cello-playing in other ways as well?

Her beliefs affected all elements of her life, well beyond cello-playing. She spoke up about social injustices and taught her children from when we were very young about the evils of racism, antisemitism, colonialism et al… and that all people should be treated fairly and with dignity and compassion. I can recall as far back as the 1960s, our family hosting black musicians and others from different backgrounds and races.

My mother also went out of her way to help families obtain an instrument for their child and was generous with her time teaching and coaching young musicians. She  emphasized to young musicians how music could help them out of their current circumstances and even though they may not want to pursue becoming a professional musician, playing an instrument well could help them earn a college scholarship and better their lives.

Do you have any other cellists in the family?

Yes, it is my sister Adrienne who played the cello and is mentioned at the end of the book. My son also studied the cello though he’s not playing right now.  As far as I’m aware, there are no other cellists in the O’Carroll family although there are various other talented musicians.

About the Book

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