Something to sing about – An Irishman’s Diary on ‘Galway Bay’

 

The recent removal of a stone plaque inscribed with the words of the song Galway Bay from the promenade at Salthill in Galway seems like one more colourful episode in the history of this song.

The lyrics of this once immensely popular tune were in four languages, the original English and translations into Irish, French and, to add a touch of scholarship, Latin. Apparently it was found that the Irish language version was abundant with some 40 grammatical errors.

The plaque has been taken away to inscribe a correct version.

The song was composed by an Irish medical doctor, Arthur Coholan. He was born in Enniskillen in 1884 but was brought up in Galway and graduated as a doctor there. At the outbreak of the first World War, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. Afterwards he settled in Leicester, England, where he remained for the rest of his life, specialising in neurology.

He had many interests, one of which was music. He played the piano. He wrote several songs that conveyed the longing for home of the emigrant, among them Galway Bay.

This was recorded in 1947 by Bing Crosby. His crooning baritone voice memorably caressed the sentiments of yearning to return to the home sod. The record became a worldwide success in the English-speaking world. It was a special favourite among the tens of thousands of Irish who were forced to emigrate, especially to Great Britain, in that poverty-stricken era.

An excellent recording of the song by the Irish tenor Josef Locke added to its popularity in Ireland and in the UK.

This led to an incident at the centre of popular entertainment in Britain, the London Palladium. Locke was engaged for a big variety show and intended to sing Galway Bay. However, the domineering impresario at the theatre, Val Parnell, thought it was too mawkish and redolent of closing-time choruses in Irish clubs and pubs in the London area. He decreed that it was not to be sung. Locke refused to go on stage. In the end Parnell had to concede. Locke, according to himself, gave a rousing rendition of the song that brought loud and prolonged applause.

Its very popularity encouraged people to sing it, not only in pubs but at celebratory gatherings of all kinds, such as weddings, christenings, anniversaries and birthdays. It seemed that many thought they could sing it well. Some of the singers – usually male – had an inflated estimation of the timbre of their voices, often hoarsened by alcohol

All too often, especially after pubs had disgorged the drinkers. it was sung in raucous snatches in the highways and byways of the country.

It began to be mentioned in court reports in the provincial newspapers.

I remember several headlines from both national and provincial newspapers. “Defendant singing ‘Galway Bay’ at 4 am – fined £20 for breach of peace”; “‘ Galway Bay’ woke up half the village,‘ says sergeant”. There was even a headline in one of the Midlands papers which ran “Sleep of parish priest disturbed by rendition of ‘Galway Bay’ in small hours”.

Needless to say, the justice severely admonished the late-night songsters for such a serious breach of the peace.

He warned them about any further small-hours excursions to “Galway Bay” and ordered them to deposit £30 in the church poor box.

Aspiring tenors were now inclined to exclude it from their repertoires because many associated it with tuneless bawling and alcoholic excess.

A sign of the decline in its musical stature were comic or satirical versions being sung in pantomimes and in parish halls.

One that I remember related to the final verses. “And if there’s going to be a life hereafter, And somehow I think there’s going to be, I will ask my God to let me make my heaven, In that dear land across the Irish Sea.” The last line was changed to: “Where Galway Bay’s unheard eternally.”

I’ve been told, but cannot vouch for it, that the constant singing of Galway Bay is what prompted the quote in Spike Milligan’s comic novel of an Irish village, Puckoon: “The Irish tenor, heard and dreaded the world over.”

Perhaps the restoration of the plaque in Salthill will do something to rehabilitate the reputation of the song.

And today’s pub culture and popular music tastes have changed so much in the last 50 years that it is most unlikely Galway Bay will ever again echo through the streets in the small hours of the morning.