Gifted Irish tenor linked with Percy French

Brendan O'Dowda, who died on February 22nd aged 76, was one of the most popular Irish entertainers of his generation

Brendan O'Dowda, who died on February 22nd aged 76, was one of the most popular Irish entertainers of his generation. A gifted tenor, he specialised in interpreting the songs of Percy French, whose biography he wrote. Highlights of his career included appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, singing at the opening of Telefís Éireann and a Royal Command Performance.

Brendan O'Dowda was born on October 1st, 1925, in Dundalk, one of nine children of Francis O'Dowda and his wife, Josephine (née Brunton), of Point Road. He was educated by the De la Salle Brothers in Dundalk. He first sang in public when he was nine in a school operetta, Pango and the Princess, written by one of his teachers, Brother Ferdinand.

Some years later, while on holiday in Omeath, Brendan O'Dowda went boating with some friends on Carlingford Lough and his singing was heard across the water in a local hotel. When the group returned to shore, he was invited to entertain the hotel guests in return for supper. He agreed on condition that his friends shared the hospitality.

A guest later introduced him to a Drogheda-based Augustinian priest, Father Farragher, who was a cousin of Dr Vincent O'Brien, long-time director of the Palestrina Choir.


Brendan O'Dowda was auditioned by Dr O'Brien in Dublin and arrangements were made for him to join the Palestrina Choir and to receive free private tuition. A job in a fruit importer's office was found for him so that he could earn his keep.

His other great interest was playing Gaelic football and he regularly turned out for the Louth senior team. Dr O'Brien urged him to choose between football and music, pointing out that constant exposure to the elements could harm his lungs. Brendan O'Dowda reluctantly hung up his boots.

During one lesson with Dr O'Brien, a distinguished visitor and former O'Brien pupil listened to the young singer.

"Brendan," Count John McCormack told him, "you have the makings of a voice, but it's work, work, work." The great tenor also emphasised the importance of learning to relax in performance.

Brendan O'Dowda gained invaluable experience as a performer in charity concerts up and down the country. As his reputation grew he was invited to audition for the Imperial Opera Company. But he declined, preferring more easy-listening forms of music.

He decided to move to England in order to advance his career. There he was a founder member of the Four Ramblers who frequently broadcast on BBC radio and whose guitarist was Val Doonican.

On hearing Brendan O'Dowda sing in concert, impresario Val Parnell signed him up for a two-year stint at the London Palladium. He then toured for several years with a roadshow, playing summer seasons at seaside resorts.

Broadcaster Eric Robinson was responsible for launching him as a solo performer on BBC. He became a regular guest on such programmes as Just A Song At Twilight and Music for You. He was in good company; fellow-guests included Beniamino Gigli, Tito Gobbi and Joan Hammond.

He made his first record, an album of ballads, for EMI. Entitled Emerald and Tartan, it included two songs by Percy French, Darling Girl from Clare and Bridget Flynn. It led to him topping the bill for a short season at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, playing to packed houses.

His records became a mainstay of Radio Éireann's sponsored programmes. A Brendan O'Dowda Circle was formed which organised travel to his concerts throughout Ireland. His popularity soared.

A second album, devoted entirely to the works of Percy French, was recorded in 1958. The success of The Immortal Percy French owed much to Philip Green whose orchestral arrangements gave a new lease of life to French's songs.

The influential US trade paper Billboard rated the album very highly and the first of many American tours followed.

While performing in Las Vegas, Brendan O'Dowda was given a letter by the Governor of Nevada for the President, Eamon de Valera. On receipt of the letter, the President invited the singer and his family to visit Áras an Uachtaráin. It was a relaxed, informal occasion and the President declared Brendan O'Dowda to be a worthy ambassador for Ireland.

Brendan O'Dowda recorded many more albums in the course of his career. A one-man show devoted to the songs of Percy French was highly popular. Apart from the US, concert tours also took him to Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

He was featured on a number of film soundtracks including that of Darby O'Gill and the Little People in which he and Ruby Murray sang the duet, A Pretty Irish Girl, which was mimed by Sean Connery and Janet Munro.

In 1981, his biography of the composer, The World of Percy French, was published; it was twice reprinted, in 1991 and 1997.

Brendan O'Dowda is survived by his wife Alice (née Boyle), sons, Dermot, Ciarán, Brendan, Damien and Conor, daughters, Ailis and Bridget, brother Frank and sisters Maureen and Ina.

Brendan O'Dowda: born 1925; died, February 2002