An Irishman's Diary
LARRY CUNNINGHAM was so synonymous with the song Lovely Leitrim, you could be forgiven for thinking – as reports of his death claimed on Monday – that he wrote it. He didn’t, in fact. And not to correct this detail might be an injustice on the man who did, and whose own demise – tragic in itself – predated the song’s success.
Phil Fitzpatrick was his name, and he was indeed from Leitrim: born in Aughavas in 1892. In adulthood, however, he followed a very well-worn path out of that county, to New York, where he spent 21 years as a policeman, assigned to the NYPD’s mounted section.
But he was a part-time song-writer too. And Lovely Leitrim aside, his lyrics also included one about the dangers of a policeman’s life: how, when he “kisses his wife and children goodbye, there’s a chance he will see them no more”. This was to prove sadly prophetic in his case.
One day in 1947, Fitzpatrick was having lunch with a colleague in a bar on 3rd Avenue when two gunmen staged a hold-up. Both officers were off duty, but armed. So a shoot-out followed, and although the two would-be thieves were killed, Fitzpatrick also suffered shots to the stomach and died a week later.
Among the things the Leitrim man was robbed of that day was the satisfaction of seeing his song become an unlikely international hit in the 1960s. It already enjoyed some fame at home – being sung at least as far away as neighbouring Longford, clearly, where Larry Cunningham grew up hearing it from his mother.
But it wasn’t until young Larry himself started adding it to his song-list that the possibility of a wider audience began to emerge. Performing around Ireland and Britain in the early 1960s, he noticed that it quickly acquired a following. And he decided that if he ever made a record – these was still the early days of his career, he would put Lovely Leitrim “on the B-side”.
The note of reserve implicit in the plan was dictated by market realities. What passed for the hip young things of that era in Ireland were into pop and – maybe – country and western, towards which, having a voice like Jim Reeves’s, Cunningham tended to lean. But Irish ballads were assumed to be dead at the time.
“I knew if I put it on the A side, it would never be played by RTÉ,” explained Cunningham years later. Thus did Lovely Leitrim join the list of famous B-sides that defied their original billing: a line-up including Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, Gloria Gaynor’s I will Survive, and Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).