The Faheys came to Australia from Ireland starting with my father’s father’s father sometime in the mid eighteen hundreds. Dad (George Patrick) was the eldest son of eighteen children to Mary and John Patrick Fahey. They were Catholic and obviously didn’t believe in birth control or (obviously) self-control. Both of my grandparents lived to a very ripe age in their late nineties and Mary went to Mass most days of her long life. A visit to their Balmain Street, Leichhardt, cottage always resulted in a new set of rosary beads or a couple of holy pictures.
I never worked out how so many people could live in one house let alone how the old man managed to feed them. John Patrick was a working class man, a socialist thinker and a good drinker. He ruled the roost and apparently was to be avoided if he came home rolling drunk and singing. My mother was born in London to a background of Dutch and English Jews. Sid Phillips, a slight man with a shiny dome, married Polly Solomon and my mother, Deborah, was the eldest daughter of nine children. Sid served in WW1 and, from my perspective, Polly never worked in her life despite the fact the family never had sixpence to rub together. When my mother and father married they wisely only had two children (Zandra Miriam Stanton is my elder sister).
Considering both my parents headed very large families neither had any money and ‘homemade’ entertainment was a fact of life. As a young boy I was fascinated with my family, especially my grandparents, who seemed exotic and idiosyncratic. I now realise much of what I believed was based in family folklore.
Dad always told me that the Fahey’s came from Tipperary and that we once owned most of the piggeries in Ireland. It appears we were given the land by the great Brian Barou when Ireland was being settled. Apparently the expedition boats were rowing towards the green Isle when Barou declared “The first man to touch the shore will be given the West of Ireland.” My great, great, great, great, grandfather immediately grabbed an axe, chopped off his left hand and threw it to the shore declaring he had won the wager. Sadly, my father would say, the blasted English stole the lot.
On my mother’s side the stories were just as preposterous and closely linked with the family’s Jewishness although none of the Phillips seemed particularly religious.
Sid had one of the earliest sidewalk stationery supply carts in Sydney, parked out the front of Mark Foys Department store in Liverpool Street. Later he relocated the cart and business to the original Paddy’s Market in the Haymarket where he conducted his business until he retired in his early seventies. The regime was a very early (3.30am) set off, work until noon and then, after lunch, a journey to the races, dogs or trots to have a flutter. He then came home and slept on the coach until Polly would shake and wake him so she could play polka and rummy. Before she woke him she would find his roll of notes, peel off a few, give me one, and then put the kettle on for tea. I always suspected Sid knew this routine as well.
Sid had been a cook in the army in WW1 and every Friday night he would take over the kitchen. He made the best fried fish, Jewish style, I have ever eaten and then he would make very thin pancakes for me and Polly which we ate with lemon juice and sprinkled sugar. He also pickled his own herrings, rollmops and cucumbers and I can still savour the wonderful tastes.
Polly, on the other hand, lived the life of ‘Mrs Reilly’, or so it appeared to me. She knitted and crocheted all her life. If it had a shape she would knit a cover for it. She was very fast and very good. I loved going round after school and talk to her as she spun those needles. She also sang a lot of old songs including a stack of ditties from the Music Halls. She was a terrific honky tonk piano player and the songs would roll off her tongue.
My mother played piano and I can’t remember our house ever not having a piano. Most family parties ended up at our place. We lived in Eastlakes then Willoughby where we had ‘Fahey’s Lucky Lottery and Tobacco Shop. It was a gift store with a barber in the back. After that, I was a youngster still, we moved to Ramsgate and stayed there for most of my teenage years.
Dad started work at Albert G Simms, the scrap metal dealers that became Simsmetal, where he stayed until he had to retire because of medical problems associated with his war service.
There are lots of stories from my youth but suffice to say my family background was a healthy and happy one.
The Phillips family were nearly all musical. Nana Polly was always singing little music hall ditties like:
Sarah, Sarah, sitting in the fried fish shop,
The more she sits the more she knits,
The more she knits the more she sits,
Sarah, sitting in the fried fish shop.
Then she would sing:
She sells seashells down by the seaside
Down by the seaside she sells shells.
Polly’s eldest son, Uncle Mossy (my mother’s brother), married a Brandon and grandpa Len Brandon was once a pianist in the London silent movies. He played loads of old tunes and songs from that era and also from the music hall. I wish I had tape-recorded some of those sessions. I did manage to tape a few sessions with Uncle Moss including one where he sang ‘The Tattooed Lady’ – a song I have been singing for years, Dad and Moss were there when I had returned from a collecting trip up north and, as usual, I played them some of the tapes. One of the songs was a version of the ‘Les Darcy’ ballad, which is set to the tune of ‘My Home In Tennessee’. Both Dad and Moss immediately said – “We know that song but to different words”. Here’s what they sang:
I paid a franc to see, a fair tattooed lady,
And right across her jaw, were the words ‘Great Anzac Corp’
And on her chest was a possum, and a great big kangaroo,
And on her back was a Union Jack, painted red, white and blue.
A map of Germany was where I’d never been, and up and down her hips,
Was a line of battleships, and on her kidney, and on her kidney,
Was a bird’s eye view of Sydney, and ’round the corner, round the corner,
Was my home in Woolloomooloo.
This ditty, obviously from WW1, seems to be related to that other extraordinary tattooed lady that Groucho Marx sang about; ‘Lydia, Lydia, that encyclopedia, Lydia the tattooed lady’”
Mossy played the ukulele and sang a whole repertoire of popular songs, mostly from the 1920s and 30s while his younger brother, Charlie, always saw himself as an Al Jolson impersonator. Brother Clive was an amazing self-taught boogie-woogie player who could play any tune he’d just heard recently. Fats Waller tunes were always a favourite and Polly liked to belt out the old Sophie Tucker vamp songs
My mother, the only daughter, had a lot of competition to get at the piano and when she did learn she eventually gained her diploma in classical studies. Mom would play the standard classical pieces but was more comfortable with 1940s tunes like ‘Ida, sweet as apple cider’ and ‘When the red. Red robin, comes bob, bob, bobbing along’. Parties at the Fahey household had the piano belting out all sorts of songs all night. I can still picture and hear those parties as we all, young and old, squeezed to get close to the piano as if it was a loud speaker. The singing was boisterous and often glorious.
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