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).
Speaking of Beyoncé, incidentally, Cunningham used to recall an amusing piece of trivia about the recording session. Namely that the string section – professional musicians hired for the job – comprised “four coloured people”: none of whom, he guessed, had ever heard of the place they were eulogising.
So if you detect a hint of RB on Lovely Leitrim (and don’t spend too long searching), that may be where it came from. In any case, with a Jim Reeves cover on the A-side, the record reached No 3 in the Irish charts, and no higher. Then the B-side began to develop a cult following among an influential section of the market: hospital patients.
More to the point, it became popular with patients who listened to an RTÉ programme called Hospital Requests. And despite Cunningham’s pessimism on the prospect, therefore, the State broadcaster did end up playing the song. Within weeks, the record was climbing the charts again, this time to No 1 (where it unseated the Beatles’ Day Tripper).
It was one of a series of breaks that lifted Cunningham’s career, if not out of the Doldrums, then out of the Drumlins, at least. For several years, his fan base had been largely confined to the Border counties, from Leitrim across to Monaghan, outside which he struggled to break.
Then, he and his band earned a support slot in an Irish performance by the actual Jim Reeves. But only a month later Reeves died in a plane-crash. And Cunningham’s subsequent musical tribute became a hit in Britain, earning him an appearance on Top of the Pops.
After that, it was Phil Fitzpatrick’s song that cemented his fame. The record has sold over a million copies and became so loved by Irish emigrants that Cunningham once had to sing it five times in a row for a teary-eyed New York audience.
Leitrim’s loveliness notwithstanding, a great many people have been forced to leave the county over the centuries, a process that continues. The extent of the county’s Diaspora was, ironically, key to the song’s success. And among the many American exiles to whom it introduced Cunningham were the widow and sons of the man who wrote it and who died, far from his beloved Leitrim, defending the mean streets of New York.