There were times when one song dominated all others. The Isle Of Capri spread to Ireland and Britain in the 1930s. "It was in the Isle of Capri I first met her, beneath the shade of an old apple tree." It ended rather sadly, she said "strangers do not linger. And as I kissed her hand I could see she wore a plain golden ring on her finger".
It was a song with simple words and simple music and a common theme. It was no wonder that it became hugely popular. Soon came a song that was even more popular; South of the Border.
"South of the Border, I rode back one day. There in a veiled light she knelt to pray. The mission bells told me that I shouldn't stay, South of the border down Mexico way. And now as I wander, my thoughts ever stray, South of the Border down Mexico Way."
It was a simple song with simple music and a familiar theme.
The Lily of the Lamplight was the best song that came out of World War II. It was a story of a German soldier and his girlfriend. "Underneath the lamplight outside the barrack gate, Darling I remember the way you used to wait. There in the flickering lantern light I held you tight. We kissed good night my Lily of the lamplight, my own Lily Marlene."
This song was heard in the desert nights as the Allies and the Axis sang it in turn while waiting for the Battle of El Alamein.
Ireland had its own songs but they weren't war songs. A young woman from Belfast dominated the scene. Her name was Bridie Gallagher. Her favourite song was The Boys of the County Armagh. It could be heard in football stadiums whenever the county was playing. And it could be heard even more loudly at Parkhead, the home of Glasgow Celtic. There you could hear nuns and priests sing as loudly as the rest.
Bridie was a fairly good singer but she was brilliant at holding an audience. One night in Farranfore while she was singing There's a Hole in the Bucket, a young man tried to imitate her. She asked him to come up on the stage and sing it with her -- he tried. Then she asked him to sing it on his own -- he tried but she had to give him a hand. When they finished, they got the biggest ovation of the night.
Delia Murphy was a lovely singer. Her Spinning Wheel is a kind of country classic. She could descend to such ditties as: "Let him go or let him tarry. Let him sink or let him swim. He don't care for me and I don't care for him. Let him go and get another. One I hope he will enjoy. I'm going to marry a far nicer boy."
About the same time The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were sweeping the country. They wore "bawneens" and they made a lot of noise and a lot of money. Liam was the only singer amongst them and he wasn't great. Tommy Makem was probably the worst singer ever to appear on a stage but they got away with it.
Paddy McCarthy, from West Cork, had been in the British Navy. He was a good singer. He performed at fairs and at football matches and hurling matches. He was also a strong man. He could balance on his chin a wheel from a horse's cart. That was no mean feat. Paddy also used to challenge anybody in the crowd to tie him in chains from which he couldn't escape. One day in the market in Tralee he couldn't unbind himself. The gardai were called. Paddy wasn't too worried. He went on to sing a few verses of Skibbereen.
In my time Jim Crowley was the last of the wandering singers. His favourite tune was the Black Velvet Band. He was an ex-soldier and like all such men he liked to be clean and tidy. My mother used to wash his shirts. One night, he left our house at about 10 o'clock to go to friends a few miles away. He wasn't long on the road when he got a lift in a cattle lorry. He woke up the next morning at a fair in Roscommon. Then one night of high wind he sheltered behind a wall in the football field. He was found dead the next morning. Some of the local women gave him a decent burial.
Margaret Barry was the best singer of them all. She reached her peak in fame and fortune in London. She came back home and did a tour of Ireland and a tour of the USA. Both were not a success. She died a few years ago in a cottage in Tyrone. Some of her neighbours were very much lovers of music and so she had a fairly happy ending.
While all this was going on Christy Moore was singing in England, mostly in queues at football matches. He made his fame very slowly. He had a sister, Eilis Moore, who was a grand woman and a grand singer. I met her last at Dublin Airport as she was going to give solo performances in Scotland. I could only admire her courage.
Those people brightened our lives. They brought us a touch of romance but their own lives weren't so romantic. Singing for a living, even if you are successful, is a hard task. When I lived in Cork's fair city you didn't need the radio to know what songs were on top. The messenger boys were all whistlers. As far as I know there are hardly any messenger boys and most of the in-songs cannot be whistled.
The Beatles' songs were no good for whistling and Johnny Cash gave them little material. The greatest song for a chorus at football games in our time is The Fields Of Athenry. The world awaits a new song to compare with The Isle of Capri and South of the Border.
Fogra: Congratulations to Brian O'Driscoll and the Irish rugby team on their amazing victory over Australia