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Songsmith who put Big Tom and Wee Daniel on the map

After finishing a gig at a rural Irish venue, Daniel and Margo O'Donnell headed for a lounge bar to unwind. Soon a sing-song organically erupted and well-known ballads were given the royal treatment by accomplished performers.

Then, in the wee hours, a woman named Bridie from Kerry gave a rendition of a relatively unknown song which left Daniel O'Donnell speechless.

"I couldn't believe I'd never heard it before, it was so beautiful and so right for me because of where I was from," said Daniel this week after returning from a hectic tour of Australia and New Zealand.

The song was 'My Donegal Shore', the year was 1983 and the writer was the simply brilliant Johnny McCauley. The track was O'Donnell's first-ever recorded solo single.

On Tuesday, McCauley was laid to rest in North London at the age of 86 after a glittering career in which he launched some of the biggest names in country and Irish music.

Johnny said in a BBC interview a few years ago: "I suppose 'Donegal Shore' was the song that launched Daniel O'Donnell's career. It catapulted him into the limelight and he hasn't looked back since."

The haunting ballad was first recorded by another of McCauley's regular clients, Big Tom, and it appeared on his Blue Wings album, recorded in Nashville in 1980.

On that trip to the States on board the QE2, Johnny penned no fewer than 12 songs "to pass the time".

Though he was thought by many to be a Donegal man, McCauley was actually born in Limavady in Co Derry in 1925, the eldest in a family of five. After leaving school, he became a painter and decorator.

Then his uncle gave him a guitar -- and changed the course of his life forever.

"I remember getting myself a tuition book, which was so full of complicated musical theory that it was useless. I practised the chords on my own and eventually became proficient, and from then on there was no stopping me. I was a great lover of music, whether it was singing in choirs or playing guitar."

Aged just 17 he set off for London and quickly settled into the local Irish music scene, releasing songs on his own Denver Records label with his band, the Johnny McCauley Trio. Soon he acquired a residency in the premier ballroom for the Irish in London -- the Galtymore in Cricklewood -- and it was here where he first met Big Tom.

"We were playing in London one night in 1965 and Johnny was waiting outside the Galtymore to speak with me. Over the years he wrote a lot of songs which I recorded. 'Four Country Roads' and 'Back to Castleblaney' are probably the most well-known," said the Monaghan musician at Johnny's funeral in London this week.

"He had a brilliant brain, simply brilliant. Johnny was one of the first to write Irish country music and he put a lot of Irish singers on the map with his songs. He was a gem, a poet and a musician all wrapped into one. Some people can write words but can't put the music to them, but Johnny could do both with ease."

More than 80 of Johnny's songs were recorded by various artists with tracks such as 'My Pretty Little Girl from Omagh' (apparently inspired by the sight of so many girls from Omagh in the Galtymore) and 'Among the Wicklow Hills' becoming massive hits for Larry Cunningham. Brian Coll also made it big with 'My Hometown on the Foyle'.

Other McCauley creations include 'Any Tipperary Town' and 'Destination Donegal'.

While Johnny's songs brought huge success for some Irish artists, the man behind them earned a comparatively modest return. Not that he minded.

"I've given up on becoming a millionaire. I didn't do it for the money, though I get my yearly royalty fees from the songs I've penned," said Johnny in an interview in 2007.

'I enjoyed what I was doing -- walking around the park with the dogs whilst thinking of the words of songs I had in mind at the time. At times though I couldn't get to sleep at night with the lines in my head.

"It's funny really that most of my compositions are more popular today than ever, especially the fast ones, which appeal to dancers. It's always nice to know the different generations listen and dance to them."

Though Johnny's compositions have become so well-known, he didn't demand the spotlight.

"People will be amazed by how many classic songs this one man wrote," said O'Donnell.

"His songs will be sang in pubs after closing time and the airs whistled by postmen on their rounds -- in this business that's the sign of a brilliant song and a brilliant songwriter."

On the steps of the altar at the All Saints Church in Kenton, North London, this week, mourners placed a wreath in green, white and gold in the shape of a guitar.

McCauley leaves a wife, Phyllis, and son Chris.

Johnny McCauley, born April 23, 1925, died on March 22, 2012.

Graham Clifford

Indo Review