St. Patrick’s Day at Irish Design was just not the same this year.
Anne Marie Regehr was not there to play her Irish music, as she has for the last 30 years, first on her fiddle, then on an Irish harp, which she learned to play at the age of 60.
It was certainly not the same for her family on their mother’s favourite day. They are missing their mother, and her love of music, of Ireland and of all things Irish, says her daughter Diane Haliski.
Anne Marie, who was dedicating much of her time looking after her ailing husband, died suddenly at the age of 83 after suffering a stroke.
Born April 23, 1937 in the Cottage Hospital, she died March 8, “peacefully, with grace, and surrounded by family.”
Anne Marie is well-known for playing her music at festivals, concerts, weddings and funerals around the region. She also played for seniors in long-term care residences, and would intersperse her tunes with amusing anecdotes of family history or Irish tales, says Diane, calling herself the Wandering Minstrel.
Generous with her time, and loving to share her passion for music, she would play anywhere she was asked. If she charged for her time, it was a small amount, but anything she made she would save for her next trip to Ireland, says Haliski.
From the time she was a child, Anne Marie longed to visit Ireland, which she did at least 24 times, all but two of them on her own.
“I knew she loved to travel and had been to Ireland several times, but I was shocked to learn she had been that many times,” says Diane.
The last time was two years ago, when she was continuing to explore family history. She loved to visit castles and cemeteries, looking for information about her ancestors.
“She felt more at home in Ireland than anywhere,” says Diane.
Her first visit was with friends, but she decided she would see more on her own if she went alone — full of energy and enthusiasm, she would pack as much as she could into every moment of every day when she was away, living “like a gypsy” and enjoying her solitude.
She also made one trip that included Diane and a large group of Irish dancers, who she accompanied to a dance competition.
Her husband Dan, her childhood sweetheart of 63 years, stayed at home, and was always very supportive of his wife and her dreams, says Diane.
Going through her mother’s musical history, Diane found six binders packed full of information about places Anne Marie had played, the many people she had connected with and performed with, as she travelled to many locations around Europe and Great Britain, pursuing her love of music.
One tidbit Diane came across was an item about a contest Anne Marie had entered in a pub in Ireland, a traditional door dancing contest — an old door is laid on the floor, on top of a rock, explains Diane.
Her mother not only step-danced on the door, but played her fiddle while she danced, “which gave the Canadian lady the win,” she says.
Growing up in St. Davids, Anne Marie was encouraged to play the piano as a child. When she turned 40, she took up the fiddle. She had accompanied many fiddle players on the piano, says Diane, and wanted to learn the instrument herself. She proudly played the hand-made black walnut violin her husband gave her for Christmas one year.
Diane remembers a home filled with music, for her as a child and recently with grandchildren. “We were so lucky to always have music in our lives,” she said. And in addition to the many performances on her own, Anne Marie was also musical director for St. Davids Presbyterian Church, and a member of the Niagara Old Time Fiddlers Association and various other groups over the years.
She also remembers great summers in Muskoka, where her mother had worked at a lodge as a young woman. She had great memories of that time, and took her family back there every summer for many years, creating great memories for them as well, says Diane.
Two of the highlights of her mother’s life were opening for American musician Willie Nelson, at one of the Niagara Falls casinos — Diane isn’t sure whether that was in the U.S. or Canadian side — and taking the stage to play with the Chieftains, a traditional Irish band formed in Dublin, when they performed in Hamilton.
Anne Marie was also an amateur historian, and loved to traipse through old cemeteries. “She’d drive far just to visit an elderly soul, on the off-chance they may have a story to share about some distant relative,” says Diane. “That was exciting for her.”
Many of these stories were used in the compilation of her Family History Book. When it was being published, she was advised just to make 100 copies, says Diane, and was surprised to have it sell out at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum.
It included her father and grandfather, Nixon and Ed, who published the Niagara Advance, the local newspaper that almost reached its 100th anniversary before it was shut down.
Ed, her grandfather, came to town in 1919 specifically to start the newspaper, and his son Nixon, Anne Marie’s father, took it over and ran it until he sold it in the early 1930s. While Anne Marie was born after her father sold it, she loved to hear the stories her father would tell of those years — he too was a great story-teller — and she was proud of that connection.
When she died, she was working on another family history, this one telling the stories of the men in her family, going back generations, who had served in the military.
Anne Marie had wanted to give it to Diane’s son, a captain in the Canadian Armed Forces. Diane says she hasn’t been able to find it yet, but she will keep looking — there is so much to go through as a result of her mother’s very busy life and many interests.
Diane says she walked with her mother regularly, and had a hard time keeping up with her — she was very active, dancing and playing her music right up until her stroke. “She seemed so young” says Diane. “She really surprised us.”
Her mother was always upbeat, always positive, “and always really supportive of anything we wanted to do. She let us find our own ways, and was always so helpful. She would help anyone with anything.”
She also loved to be out in the community, and going out for dinner with Dan, especially the NOTL Golf Club. They were out for dinner just before her stroke, says Diane. “I’m glad they had that one last time before she died.”
A small graveside Celtic service, with some local musician friends, including Doug Miller on flute and Debbie Whitehouse singing some of Anne Marie’s favourite Irish music, was held at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
Anne Marie is survived by her husband Daniel, children Heather Williams (Mark), Diane Haliski (Mark Holmes) and Teresa; four grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and her siblings Kathleen Sharpe and Terry Brennan.
She is predeceased by her son Desmond, parents Nixon and Elsie Brennan (Dawson), and brothers Michael, Harry and Dennis.