DOYLE, LAWRENCE, farmer, office holder, and songwriter; b. 1847 on Fortune Road, Lot 56, P.E.I., son of James Doyle, a farmer, and Sarah O’Hanley; m. 12 Feb. 1872 Margaret Whitty in St Peters, P.E.I., and they adopted three children; d. 31 Jan. 1907 in Farmington and was buried in St Peters.
The son of Irish immigrants, Lawrence Doyle was raised by his widowed mother on a Fortune Road farm, near Farmington and five miles south-east of St Peters. He probably attended the Birch Hill school. For the rest of his life he farmed, working part time as a carpenter. Evidently he also acquired veterinary skills and he was frequently called on by neighbours for help in drawing up legal documents and preparing the dead for burial. In the 1870s he was postmaster of Farmington and from the 1880s he served on the Birch Hill school board. In politics he was a Liberal, in religion a lifelong member of St Peters Church (Roman Catholic). A thoroughly average farmer, Doyle is remembered as a hard-working, moderately prosperous, and public-spirited citizen.
Doyle’s claim to fame rests on something he himself probably looked on as a pastime: his songmaking. Since his work has not survived in manuscript form, it is hard to say how many songs he may have written, but about a dozen pieces, and a handful more in fragmentary form, have been retained in local oral tradition. A sampling of them provides a good estimate of his talents and of the sort of people and events that he wrote about so creatively. “The picnic at Groshaut,” perhaps his best-known piece, describes in gently humorous fashion what happened at a local tea party when hard cider was mistakenly served rather than the customary soft:
There was scuffles through the crowd and the noise was rather loud,
’Twas from jolting one another to and fro
And old men with foreheads bare threw their dusters in the air
Wanting someone for to fight them at Groshaut.
“Fogan MacAleer” tells the story of a woman-shy farmer who went to a neighbour to buy a mare and discovered too late that he had sealed a bargain for the man’s daughter, all because he had allowed a blacksmith to act as his go-between. “Prince Edward Isle, adieu” portrays the evils generally supposed to have been brought to the Island by confederation and Sir John A. Macdonald*’s National Policy, both of which caused, among other things, an exodus of young Islanders to the United States:
Through want and care and scanty fare,
The poor man drags along;
He hears a whistle loud and shrill,
The “Iron Horse” speeds on;
He throws his pack upon his back,
There’s nothing left to do;
He boards the train for Bangor, Maine,
Prince Edward Isle adieu.
There are others, among them “When Johnny went plowing for Kearon,” “The merchants of the Bay,” and “The potato bug,” but the ones quoted are typical.
All through English-language, Canadian-American folksong tradition – and the Celtic and English traditions that were its sources – runs a stream of satirical and invective songs made up about local persons and events. Songs of this sort do not have a long life in oral tradition, which has led folklorists, for whom continuity and variation through time have been the hallmarks of authenticity, to slight or even ignore them entirely. Yet of the songs that are current in a community at any specific time, satire generally makes up an important segment. It is the tradition of making these songs – who makes them and why, what they are about, and how they are received – that is important. Lawrence Doyle’s career, then, offers insight into the fascinating cultural and artistic problems of creativity and innovation, in the context of the small community.
In all likelihood Doyle performed his songs at family and social gatherings. These songs are almost entirely confined in their geographic range to a triangular area from Morell in the west to Souris in the east to Cardigan in the south – a folksong region that can be seen to be largely economically determined, with a number of interrelated farming communities and small ports.
Doyle’s forte was a kind of gentle satire, a poking of fun at people and situations, but without the invective and character assassination characteristic of such other Island songwriters as Lawrence Gorman*. This gentleness is notably lacking, however, when the subject is politics, where Doyle shows his colours as a staunch Liberal. Although it was nothing unusual for anyone to make up songs at the time – as Doyle’s great-nephew James Whitty put it, in the country east of St Peters “everybody was making poems” – Doyle was recognized as someone who consistently turned out memorable products. A number of his songs are still sung and remembered, in varying versions, in the northern part of his native Kings County.
More detailed information on Doyle can be found in Edward D. Ives, Lawrence Doyle: the farmer-poet of Prince Edward Island; a study in local songmaking (Orono, Maine, 1971). On the satirical song tradition see the same author’s study Larry Gorman: the man who made the songs (Bloomington, Ind., 1964).