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Is Saturday night alright?

October 17, 2010

It used to be de rigeur, back in the sixties, for the Justiciary to show their independence by displaying ignorance, real or assumed, of anything remotely connected to popular culture. ‘What’s that?’ they would murmur looking dimly through the space between their wigs and their half moon glasses. Playing the game, the sparky young advocate would reply: “It’s a popular music group, m’lud” to muffled guffaws from the public benches. Along with many other Private Eye readers I despaired of the willful isolation of these crusty old relics. Oh how we laughed at each quoted example!

However, now I have reached a stage in my life where I’m finding, wherever I turn in printed or digital media, there are names that mean less than nothing to me. Even when the words ring vague bells, I have no reference points, other than realising that these people are clearly what we must call ‘celebrities’. And, this being 2010, they are Very Important Indeed. A colleague who teaches in the west of Scotland told me that, in answer to the Curriculum for Excellence question: Can you give an example of how you have been a successful individual, the reply was: “I saw such and such a celebrity getting out of her car”. High success indeed!

Of course, now being a crumbly, I suppose it is part of life’s great plan that, by definition, I shouldn’t have a working knowledge of all those transient personalities who make the teenage heart race faster. But I do worry about hinterlands of fame – where have these folk come from, why are they famous, and what will happen to them. My generation still exhibits a wry smile when we remember our parents sneering that the Beatles and the Stones ‘wouldn’t last five minutes’, but nowadays, there are ‘stars’ from last year’s Pop Idol or X Factor who have been forgotten already.

So, to become totally uncool (not far to travel to be honest), I share a story about ‘discovery’ which I gleaned from this week’s Irish Post. To do so I’m afraid it’s another trip to the ancient lands of my childhood in the sixties.

For the second half of that decade my summers were spent in a lovely seaside town in the west of Ireland, Kilkee, Co. Clare. We didn’t know it, but we were experiencing the death throes of a particular sort of holiday, safe, family based and relatively innocent. Imagine a comfortable but not overly luxurious hotel, with a friendly staff, an amazing view of the bay, a ballroom attached for showband dances, and a large lounge with hot and cold running waiters ferrying drinks to all parts from about 9pm till 3am every night. It was in this atmosphere, released from the three hours a night homework of my boys’ school routine for a month or so each year, that I grew up.

Whilst the teenagers danced wildly in the ballroom, the adults got on with the serious business of a few drinks and a seisun of songs, party pieces and general all round carousing. Luckily we didn’t yet know that, as teenagers, we were supposed to be surly and isolationist, so, once the dance was over, about 1am, we would pile into the lounge beside our parents and join in the fun. Everybody had to sing or play the piano, tell a story, or do a recitation, and nothing was too old or too modern, too traditional or too obscure to be listened to with respect and greeted with applause and murmurs of approval. From this distance it seems that those nights existed miraculously in a bubble of goodwill and an absence of self consciousness. So Hendrix fans would sing along to The West’s Awake, and septuagenarians would sing ‘Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair’. Magic, really.

It was a good experience, building confidence and introducing an approach to music and performing that I probably wouldn’t have found any other way, and there were some good musicians, singers and raconteurs who featured in those nights of entertainment.

One such was a District Justice from Co Wexford, a Dermot Dunleavy, who was a small, dapper man, silver haired and a bit like Mr Punch facially, who had a bit of presence about him, a mellifluous voice, and a passion for the songs of Percy French, which he delivered with great elan and twinkling good humour. Apparently, he was also given to bursting into song on the bench when he thought it apposite!

Percy French, born in Co Roscommon in 1854, was originally a civil engineer but became an acclaimed songwriter and a water colourist. Some of the songs he wrote around the turn of the century have become classics of their type: Are ye Right there, Michael. The Mountains of Mourne, Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff, Drumcolliher and Whistlin Phil McHugh. They existed in a particular genre in Irish music, where different traditions were combined to attract a wider market. Traditional folk was married to music hall, particularly in the USA, making huge stars out of the likes of John McKenna from Co Leitrim, whose virtuoso flute playing thus reached a far more populist audience than it would have otherwise. The De Danann album, Star Spangled Molly, is a good demonstration of this hybrid musical style.

French’s songs, similarly, fell somewhere between light tenor and popular entertainment, and, though they seem sentimental and rather cloying to modern ears, they reached a ready market in a country where emigration made for nostalgia and the willingness to ‘do a turn’, created a need for such songs. In a sense, these songs bridged the gap between the neo-classical material of the likes of Count John McCormack and traditional songs or popular ditties.

In the mid twentieth century, French’s work was championed and performed by a tenor called Brendan O’Dowda from Dundalk, and it would have been his recordings that Justice Dunleavy was imitating in his hotel lounge performances. By coincidence, French died in 1920 at his cousin’s house in Formby, Lancashire, ten miles or so away from where I lived in the 1960s, and is buried there in St Luke’s churchyard. Around 1970, my mother and I attended a small commemoration there, when O’Dowda, every inch the matinee idol, all wavy dark hair, Italian suit and camel coat slung round his shoulders, performed the unveiling of a plaque in French’s memory. A fitting tribute, as these two men had been good for each other.

O’Dowda’s son, also Brendan, is now a Chief Superintendent in Thames Valley Police, and was interviewed this week in the Irish Post. His revelation on how his father was discovered is what set me off on this posting. As a seventeen year old, Brendan was out with some friends in a boat on Carlingford Loch, on the Six Counties Border. Happy to be on holiday, he was singing his heart out. When they came to shore, he was approached by some guests from a nearby hotel, who had heard his strong and true tenor tones floating across the water. They made him an offer: “Come and sing for us in the hotel, and we’ll buy you your dinner”.

And so was started a long and successful career.

As a lucky break, I can’t help thinking it was more acceptable than the weekly Saturday night ratings bash that serves for talent spotting fifty years later. And the voice, as well as the hinterland, possessed a lot more substance.
I believe it’s something to do with resonance.

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