Saving Mayo's lost tenor from obscurity
IF there is one musical phenomenon calculated to instil cold-sweated dread into the hearts of Irish people of a certain age it is surely 'the Irish tenor'. Those three independently innocuous words, when used in meaningful conjunction, seem to have the fiendish power to reduce grown men and women to quivering, blubbering wretches. Harry Bradshaw, RTE radio producer and son o
IF there is one musical phenomenon calculated to instil cold-sweated dread into the hearts of Irish people of a certain age it is surely 'the Irish tenor'. Those three independently innocuous words, when used in meaningful conjunction, seem to have the fiendish power to reduce grown men and women to quivering, blubbering wretches. Harry Bradshaw, RTE radio producer and son of the legendary Irish golfer known as The Brad, is a man with an eclectic taste in music (he played a mean bass in a schoolboy rock band and later spent decades recording Irish folk tunes) but even he baulked when the widow of an Irish tenor invited him to listen to her dead husband's musical legacy. He politely but firmly said no. "I told her it wasn't my area." Or aria.
As the producer of programmes like The Long Note and Folkland , Bradshaw had suffered enough for Ireland. He felt that someone else should have the dubious pleasure of wading through the mountains of acetate tapes, 78s, sheet music and concert programmes which constituted the Irish tenor's damnosa hereditas . But Harry hadn't reckoned on the tenor's widow, one Maura Feeney, a Ballina woman who had fallen in love with Swinford-born John Feeney when he was a mere foot soldier in McAlpine's Fusiliers and who, despite her parents' strenuous objections, followed him to New York and encouraged him to follow his dream to become a world-famous tenor.
Maura did not take Harry's "no" lying down. The feisty septuagenarian told him she was going back to the States and would be donating her husband's tapes, records and documents to the garbage collecting department of Dun Laoghaire borough if he didn't take them. "I couldn't have it on my conscience to let this stuff be lost to the nation so I took the five big chests, snuck them into my house in Raheny and deposited them in the attic." That was back in 1986, some 19 years after John Feeney had died in a car accident in Mayo and 14 years before Maura Feeney passed away in Florida. The material gathered dust in the attic and would still be gathering layers had Harry not gone up to the attic a year and half ago to find a particular tape and ended up taking out the collection. The dust was quickly blown away as Harry himself was "blown away" by what he heard. Feeney had "a rich rounded tenor voice which got deeper, almost baritone-like as he got older". His repertory went beyond the usual excruciating topographical dirges so beloved of Irish tenors wringing tears from diasporic Gaels and the tapes included recordings of Feeney's performances on US radio shows during the golden and post-golden age of American radio.
It was the radio show recordings which really excited Bradshaw. During the Twenties and Thirties, NBC and CBS vied for the colossal audiences created by the new medium and manufacturers invested fortunes in big production shows with massive orchestras, humungous stars, and dancing troupes. The works.
And John Feeney - the young lad from Swinford who had learned the rudiments of music from the local Marist Brothers and had arrived penniless in New York on the SS Samaria in 1928 - had become one of the big stars of radio shows by the 1930s. Harry determined to research Feeney's life and to bring out a CD of Feeney's repertory in time for this year's centenary of the Mayo singer's birth.
But firstly he had to clean up the recordings ("de-click and de-crackle them"). This was bread and butter to Bradshaw as he had worked as a sound engineer firstly for recording studios and then for RTE where he acquired an unrivalled proficiency as an acoustic restorer of old tapes. Bradshaw then set out to retrace Feeney's rise from humble labourer to radio megastar, concert hall performer extraordinaire and even minor film star. He has done a superb job in rescuing this Irish-American star from obscurity. He has also unearthed invaluable information about the lives and musical loves of the millions of Irish people who fled to America in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century. The booklet which Bradshaw meticulously compiled to accompany the CDs of Feeney's singing is full of jaw-dropping revelations about Irish-American life during Feeney's heydays. We learn that at one time there were 26 local stations in New York broadcasting Irish songs like The Old House, Songs From The Old Sod and There's an Echo of Old Ireland Everywhere, as well as Feeney's trademark song and biggest hit, When It's Moonlight in Mayo . The tale of Feeney's colourful life is certainly a tale worth telling - all the more so as he undoubtedly was blessed by an engaging voice and was by all accounts an exceedingly genial and benevolent man who never forgot his Irish, and more specifically Mayo, roots. He may have found his limelight in New York - where, like his friend and hero John McCormack before him, he regularly filled 3,000-seater Carnegie Hall - but the moonlight of memory remained frozen over Mayo.
Indeed, Harry notes with approval that Feeney "never jettisoned his West of Ireland accent".
From the mid-Thirties on, he and his wife Maura regularly returned to Ireland as Feeney performed, to much critical and popular acclaim, in big venues such as the Theatre Royal or the Cork Opera House, as well as singing to his "own people" in St Muredach's Cathedral in Ballina.
Having enjoyed a hugely successful career both on stage and radio and in 'soundies' he retired to Ireland in the early 1960s but sadly died after a car accident in 1967. He died in Maura's arms. She eventually retired to Dalkey and she contacted Bradshaw after he played When It's Moonlight in Mayo on The Irish Phonograph . She immediately knew she had found the man who would rescue from obscurity the man whose life, love, dreams and triumphs she had shared. She chose well. Brad Junior has done a terrific job of audio remastering and reputation restoration. The lunar glow is back over Mayo.
John Feeney, When It's Moonlight in Mayo (two CDs plus biographical booklet), Viva Voce, ?24.99. For more info, www.john-feeney.com