They lined up four abreast in the numbing cold outside the old family homestead in Mabou - waiting for hours to say a final goodbye to John Morris Rankin. Inside the Red Shoe Pub, 100 m from the wake, old friends embraced and a doleful woman heading for the bar blurted, "He would have wanted us to have a pint." At the front of the room, a fiddler in dress shirt, tie and suspenders, along with a piano player sporting coveralls, tossed off some of the same reels, jigs and strathspeys the eldest member of The Rankin Family made his own. And on the hill overlooking the village, St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church - where the world-famous Celtic musician was baptized and last week eulogized - shone brightly into the night, lit by strobe lights and a simple illuminated cross atop its steeple.
Tiny, picture-perfect Mabou was disconsolate last week. Not just because the world lost an important musician. Rankin's death at age 40 in a freak auto accident was a tragedy on a deeper, more personal level for the people in the close-knit Cape Breton village. They had watched the uplifting family saga unfold: the 12 kids brought up by their mother, Kathleen, after their father, Buddy, died; the first musical steps taken by John Morris and his siblings Jimmy, Cookie, Heather and Raylene at local ceilidhs and kitchen parties; their blossoming into a roots-oriented band that sold two million records and ignited the Celtic music boom in Canada before calling it quits last September.
In John Morris, perhaps more than in the other members of the group, the villagers seemed to glimpse something of themselves. He, after all, was the shy Rankin who shunned the spotlight despite his virtuosity on the fiddle and piano. He was the one who stayed closest to the area's proud 300-year-old musical tradition. He was also the Rankin who came home, moving to nearby Judique when the group announced its amicable split. "He just wanted to slow down after all that time on the road, play a few gigs and spend time with his family," said Joey Beaton, a piano player and composer whose fiddler father, Donald Angus Beaton, was Rankin's early mentor. His retirement, spent with his wife, Sally, his daughter, Molly, 13, herself a promising fiddler, and son Michael, 15, lasted only five months. After a decade of travelling the globe, John Morris died while driving his son and two friends to a hockey game, less than an hour from home on a stretch of straight road he had travelled countless times before (all three boys survived).
By the end of last week, the pile of salt he likely swerved to avoid was gone. But footprints from mourners and the curious covered the snow on top of the 25-m cliff over which his sports utility vehicle plunged before landing in the pounding sea. In Mabou, his body lay in state for two days and nights in an open casket in the flower-filled parlour as visitors streamed by. Then the 11 remaining siblings (their mother died in 1998), some of whom had travelled from as far away as the United Arab Emirates, said their goodbyes and the hearse drove slowly along the main street, where the sign on a general store read, "Closed from 1 to 3 p.m. because of a death in our community."
And the community responded, with a send-off the likes of which Mabou has never seen. At the church, 17 clergy sat in the front, while about 600 mourners crowded the pews or stood, and another 300 listened to a broadcast at the nearby convent chapel. At the end, about 70 Maritime fiddlers said goodbye the only way they knew how, by playing The Glencoe March as the grief-stricken family made their way down the aisle. "How do you make any sense out of something like this?" said Denis Ryan, an Irish singer living in Halifax who sang during the funeral. "Maybe there's no way to." Many others gathered for the final farewell likely felt the same.
Maclean's January 31, 2000