Rita MacNeil, who died April 16, loved her native Cape Breton with “a love that is capable of suffering and endurance.”

Rita MacNeil has made her way home

  • April 25, 2013

“From Mabou to Big Pond, there is no place on Earth like it,” said Rita MacNeil, who died last week. “My glorious home, Cape Breton.”

The Cape Breton of Rita MacNeil’s musical imagination was not a fantasyland where butterflies are always floating above the meadows, and the sea breeze is always gentle. It is real and gritty, and glorious in the same way that an old rugged cross is glorious. MacNeil loved Cape Breton with a love that is capable of suffering and endurance.

“I caress you, O Cape Breton, in my dreams,” sang MacNeil in “Home I’ll Be.” “I see the blue lakes, feel the passion/ I have reasons to believe/ There are places that will bring you to your knees.”

Life often brought Rita MacNeil to her knees. Her 68 years were marked by frequent suffering. She knew poverty, family discord and sexual abuse as a child. Born with a cleft palate, she endured multiple surgeries and, more painful, ostracism and cruelty. Her family life was troubled, her first child coming by a man who disappeared, and her later marriage ending in divorce. She was a middle-aged, large woman in the entertainment business, which has little room for those who are not young and thin. And even what she did better than most, singing, required her to overcome painful shyness and stage fright. Perhaps being reduced to her knees allowed MacNeil to see the world as many others do, and her heart and her voice enabled her to sing of the glory that lies on the far side of suffering...

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