An Irishman’s Diary about Bing Crosby’s connections (and misconnections) with Kildare

Wrong number, right place


Mention of Bing Crosby (Irishman’s Diary, July 16th) brought an email from Luka Bloom with a funny story about an old friend of his – Luka’s, that is, not Bing’s – by the name of Noel Heavey.

Noel grew up in the Kildare townland of Clongorey, which achieved a certain fame during the years of the Land War, a subject to which we’ll return.

But the main story is set in 1961 when Noel’s father, who was known as “Sappy”, had a phone installed. There weren’t many phones in Ireland then, so there was great excitement at this event in the Heavey household.

Excitement was probably not the word, however, when a few months later, the same phone rang one morning at 5am. Calls at such hours could not mean good news, then or now. So it must have been with some dread that Sappy ran downstairs to answer it.

Whereupon, in the first surprise, an operator informed him the call was from Los Angeles. And in the second, the caller turned out to be the aforesaid Bing.

He had, of course, rung a wrong number. But as in the classic joke, they talked for 15 minutes anyway. Or at least that’s the Heavey family folklore. Then Sappy went back to his wife in bed and said: “Molly, you won’t believe who just called . . . ”

Luka wonders what they talked about during those 15 minutes: “The weather in LA? Horses? Kildare football? Hardly . . .”

Nor, I imagine, did they discuss the history of Clongorey. Even so, the placename rang a muffled bell in my memory. And sure enough, when I looked it up in The Irish Times archive, it was the subject of repeated mentions during the closing years of the 19th century, thanks to the “Clongorey evictions”.

The saga began in the late 1880s, when 51 families were ousted from their small-holdings of land and bog on the O’Kelly estate, for non-payment of rent after a series of bad harvests. Their homes were promptly destroyed to prevent return.

But their cause became a national and international one. And after a struggle that dragged on for more than a decade, the dispossessed tenants (who, by the way, included several of the surname Heavey) and their supporters eventually prevailed.

The landlords had never been able to re-lease the property. Instead, by 1901, the former occupants were being offered Land Commission loans to buy their holdings. Many did.

In the meantime, the protests had included an early public appearance in Ireland – 125 years ago next month – by a young English-born radical who would go on to make quite a name. A newspaper report of her Clongorey speech, in which she declared herself to be an Irishwoman who had just been “a long time in England”, caught the eye of the commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, who sent an urgent request to his intelligence division to find out just who this “Maud Gonne” was.

Anyway, getting back to Bing Crosby, it was more likely horses that he and Sappy Heavey were discussing that morning, because although he’d rung a wrong number, it wasn’t very wrong.

Heaveys’ differed by only one digit from that of the Keadeen Hotel, in Newbridge, which was owned by the famous Prendergasts, with whom Bing was friends.

The latter partnership would have its finest moment a few years later when Meadow Court, a horse trained by Paddy Prendergast and co-owned by Crosby, lined up for the 1965 Irish Derby.

There were no starting gates then and, amid a general outbreak of transatlantic Paddywhackery, American newsreel footage (it’s on YouTube, of course) described the rather uneven start as resembling “the exodus from a Dublin pub at closing time”.

The voiceover man was so busy trying to think of wisecracks, obviously, he didn’t have time to check the name of the racecourse. Not only did he omit the definite article (“It’s the luck of the Irish at Curragh”), he also pronounced the name as if it rhymed with “Toora” and “Loora”.

But at least the horse got his lines right. Under Lester Piggott, he railed like a good thing and won by two lengths. And such was the excitement afterwards, Crosby stopped smoking his pipe long enough to sing When Irish Eyes are Smiling for the crowd.

He had bought his share in the winner only the night before. I don’t know how much he paid for it, exactly. But given that the horse went on to win the King George V at Ascot as well, it can hardly have been a wrong number.