Change of tune – Alison Healy on not being a songbird

I was lumped in with the most tuneless caterwaulers in the class

On Grafton Street the other day I overheard a woman with an American accent asking her companion why every Irish person was so wonderfully musical. They were watching a young woman serenading the shoppers with a Hozier song.

Ha, I thought to myself, lady, you have not heard some of us singing. We are a nation of songbirds and crows. Today I speak on behalf of the crow community. How bad am I? Once when I burst into spontaneous song, my toddler put his hand over my mouth and said firmly: “No singing.”

The songbirds among us have no idea what we crows go through. A birthday cake appears at work, and we must mime the words to Happy Birthday in case someone hears the mangled croaking and thinks a family of mice is trapped in the air-conditioning.

An impromptu singsong begins at a wedding, and we have to hide in the toilets until everyone has gone home and the breakfast buffet is being laid out.


I discovered my deficiency early in life. We were in first class, being divided up for the choir. Confidently believing I had the voice of an angel, I expected to be placed with the top warblers.

You can imagine my horror when I was lumped in with the most tuneless caterwaulers in the class. The cacophony of screeches and squawks that came from our small group would have simultaneously mystified and thrilled David Attenborough, had he heard such noises in the wild.

From that moment on, I knew that my larynx was a lethal weapon and this shameful singing voice could never be deployed in public again.

But some brave souls have no such qualms, and they wear their status with pride. Back in 1982, the Late Late Show decided to pay tribute to them by running a competition to find Ireland’s worst singer. The held the auditions in the Montrose Hotel and the RTÉ Archives online collection has the evidence to prove it.

The video shows 10 willing volunteers gamely showcasing their inability to carry a tune. It would put a smile on a turnip.

Accompanied by the show’s pianist Frank McNamara, the unnamed contestants cheerfully mangled their way through classics such as Bridge Over Troubled Water, My Way and The Rose of Mooncoin. The clip in the archives keeps us guessing by not announcing who eventually won the award. My inquiries to RTÉ were fruitless so we must remain in suspense unless someone comes forward to admit their success.

There was no such mystery about the winners of another singing competition – or should I say screeching competition. The annual EC Gull Screeching competition is an attempt to find Europe’s best seagull imitators. It’s really an effort to rehabilitate the public image of seagulls and show that they are not the aerial army of violent scavengers that some people believe. The competition organisers believe seagulls are the sound of the summer, of holidays and happy memories.

In this State, they are more closely associated with the unhappy memory of having your chips whipped out of your hands. Other memories include being forced to listen to their noisily enthusiastic copulating sessions, or cleaning up after their liberal defecation.

But many nations are more tolerant, and countries represented at this year’s European contest included Portugal, the Netherlands and Sweden, with nary an Irish name to be seen. Claude Willaert, the chief executive of Gullscreeching tells me the contest wants to “make seagulls sexy again”.

Were they sexy before, you may ask? Perhaps in Belgium they were. On hearing about the bird’s bad public image in Ireland, he says he believes this competition will encourage people to love them again. One person who definitely loves them is Cooper Wallace, the nine-year old British boy who won the junior title by impressively mimicking several different seagull calls.

His mother Lauren told the BBC that his interest in seagulls “started off as just another annoying sound from Cooper and we kept encouraging him to stop”. Exhausted parents everywhere will feel her pain. But then a random man overheard his impression and told him about the competition.

Claude says the contest has never had an Irish entrant and he thinks we should begin honing our seagull impersonations. “I do hope so that next year a green seagull will fly to us,” he says.

For those of us who are melodically challenged, perhaps this is finally our time to shine. We could bring a colony of gull impersonators together and showcase our skills on Grafton Street. If nothing else, it would confuse the American tourists. They would surely think we were for the birds.