Eugene Dunphy presents another instalment in his Ballad Sheet Series
Near to Banbridge town in the
County Down on a morning last July,
Down a boreen green came a sweet
cailín and she smiled as she passed me by;
Oh she looked so neat from her
two white feet to the sheen of her nut brown hair,
Such a coaxin’ elf, I’d to shake
myself to make sure I was really there.
Oh, from Bantry Bay up to Derry
Quay and from Galway to Dublin
No maid I’ve seen like the brown cailín that I met in the County Down.
It’s common knowledge that the Gaelic League did much to preserve and promote the Irish language, and to instil in the Irish people a pride in their rich cultural heritage. Following its foundation in 1893, League branches sprung up all over the country but as many soon discovered, concerts organised by local branches were often quite boring, worthy affairs; just ‘too gloomy’, according to The Freeman’s Journal.
Enter stage left, and to thunderous applause, Cathal MacGarvey, an Irish speaker from Donegal, who was blessed with an impish sense of humour. Born in Rathmullan on the 3rd of June 1866, he moved to Dublin in his early twenties and immersed himself in all aspects of the League.
In 1900 he opened ‘An Stad’, a tobacconist shop and guest house at 30, North Frederick Street, the address becoming a hub for poets and writers. When his shop was visited by luminaries such as Douglas Hyde, WB Yeats, James Joyce or Seán O’Casey, MacGarvey regaled them with stories, jokes, recitations and songs, delivered either in Irish or English.
He made guest appearances at League functions throughout the country, and when An Stad closed in 1905, ‘the King of Irish Ireland Entertainers’ decided to turn professional.
The majority of MacGarvey’s humorous recitations (and there were many) were self-composed, and included titles such as ‘An Orangeman’s St. Patrick’s Day’, ‘Mulligan’s Terrier Dog’, and the epic ‘Mayoral Banquet at Ninepence a Skull’.
On the 24th of July 1910, at St. Mary’s Hall, Kingscourt, County Cavan, he introduced the local branch of the League to a new song, The Star of the County Down. Both words and music were published in May 1911, by Gill & Sons, Dublin.
Set to a traditional air, and arranged for piano by ‘Kaye M’, the song had five verses and included an unforgettable chorus (‘Oh from Bantry Bay up to Derry Quay…’), but when sung today the verses are usually whittled down to three.
The subject matter is not unusual, in that it tells of a man being smitten by a beautiful girl, in this case Rosie McCann from Banbridge, County Down, and the lyrics are far from Keatsian or Byronesque, but the imagery contained therein would give any romantic poet a run for his money.
Only MacGarvey would dare to include the following line in a love song: ‘When her eye she’d roll, she could coax ’pon my soul, a spud from a hungry pig’. Audiences from Ballyshannon to Cork, from Dublin to Belfast, simply could not get enough of it.
In 1912 MacGarvey was appointed manager of a new Dublin cinema, the Phoenix Picture Palace on Ellis’s Quay, and two years later, he took up the post of manager of the Masterpiece Theatre at 99, Talbot Street. When returning from his lunch break on the 5th of May 1916, just days after the Easter Rising, he was almost killed when a damaged gas-pipe exploded near O’Connell Street Bridge, the Irish Independent recording that ‘he was thrown violently against the side of the bridge and was left unconscious for some minutes’. Undaunted, MacGarvey brushed the brick dust from his hair and clothes, and returned to his duties in Talbot Street.