An Irishman’s Diary on tenor William Dunlea, the ‘voice of Erin’

William Dunlea:  sang in some of the most celebrated concert halls in these islands and America. Photograph: Courtesy of Cork City Libraries

William Dunlea: sang in some of the most celebrated concert halls in these islands and America. Photograph: Courtesy of Cork City Libraries

 

The Cork-born tenor William Dunlea was known as “the voice of Erin”. He made records, won singing competitions and performed on the radio in Ireland and England. He also sang in some of the most celebrated concert halls in these islands and America. Despite all this, he has been slightly forgotten in the mists of time.

Born the first of 10 children in Cork in February 1911, Dunlea was brought up in Blackpool on the city’s northside.

One of his first introductions to music came when he sang in Aloys Fleischmann’s choir at the Catholic cathedral of St Mary and St Anne.

The choir enjoyed a national reputation thanks to the talent and dedication of its singers and the professionalism of Fleischmann.

Dunlea was their boy soprano until his voice broke. He then joined some of the local bands, including the Blackpool National Prize Band, where he was their sole euphonium player for five years.

He was musically very gifted as he could turn his hand to other instruments too – drums, melodeon and the clarinet, among others. Singing was his true passion, however, and with some coaching he soon began to make an impression.

In 1938, Dunlea won the Newcomers Hour singing competition on Radio Éireann. It was his friend and future taoiseach, Jack Lynch, who had encouraged him to enter the competition.

The following year, Dunlea came joint first in a competition that was run by one of Ireland’s leading singers, Count John McCormack. Dunlea sang The Song That Reached My Heart (Jordan) in the New Voices singing competition, which was adjudicated by the world-renowned tenor. McCormack said that the Corkman had “a very pleasing voice and the gift of telling a story in song”.

A few years later in May 1944, McCormack was again judging a singing competition in which Dunlea won first prize. It was the Feis Ceoil and Dunlea took the gold medal after competing with 25 other contestants in the tenor solo category. A report in this newspaper said that “the singer who came first had a promising voice, of nice quality. He did show some semblance of imagination and interpretation, especially in the second song The Flower of Finae”.

Dunlea’s star was in the ascendant. During the 1940s, he could be heard singing in various venues in Cork and Dublin. In Cork, he sang in charity concerts, variety shows and all-star concerts in different venues around the city including the Arcadia Ballroom, City Hall and the Opera House. Meanwhile in Dublin, he was entertaining audiences at the Olympia Theatre. He also became a regular performer on Radio Éireann during this period, when his beautiful tenor voice could be heard in the evening time.

Nicknamed “Walloo” by his friends, Dunlea was a tall man who stood at around six foot. Photographs of him in his prime show a handsome, charismatic man complete in evening suit and white bow tie, who would have easily made an impression on audiences.

After the war, he went to England and sang in venues where the immigrant Irish could enjoy the sound of home: places with evocative names such as the Banba in Kilburn, the Blarney Club on Tottenham Court Road, and the Hibernian Club in Dagenham.

While in England, he also performed regularly on the BBC, and on January 26th, 1947, he sang in the Royal Albert Hall in front of a crowd of 6,000 spectators.

More singing competitions followed, including the all-England tenor championships in 1948, where he claimed the gold medal.

When the Gaumont cinema chain in England was taken over by the Rank Organisation, Dunlea was hired as their guest artiste to sing at the interval in cinemas all over England.

Around this time, he was invited to appear on the popular BBC radio programme Opportunity Knocks.

After this hugely successful spell in England, his next extended foreign excursion was to America where he spent seven years.

He sang in venues all over the United States and won yet more competitions, including the gold medal in the tenor championship in Chicago in 1951.

Three years later, he sang in Carnegie Hall and when President Sean T O’Kelly was conferred with an honorary degree by Boston College in 1959, Dunlea was invited to sing at the ceremony. He had achieved fame and success in Ireland, England, and now America.

However, he missed his native land and returned to live in Cork in November 1960. He would spend the rest of his life in the city. The music scene was changing, with young people preferring to listen to pop music. Nevertheless, he continued to sing and managed a pub in his native Blackpool.

His health gradually declined and he died on January 11th, 1998, but what a stunning musical legacy he left behind, surely earning the moniker of “the voice of Erin”.

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