‘Galway Bay,’ one of the most famous Irish emigrant songs, was written in 1947 and made famous by Bing Crosby and by its use in the film ‘The Quiet Man’.
It was once the third bestselling song in the world, according to the Billboard chart. It became one of the great Irish tunes of all time.
Doctor Arthur Colahan never lived to see the massive worldwide success of his song, which he composed in 1927 in memory of his brother Randolph, who drowned in the bay in 1912.
He was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, the eldest child of Professor Nicholas Colahan (1853-1930) and Elisabeth Quinn of Limerick (b.c.1866). His family moved to Galway, and he grew up there.
After completing his secondary education at St Joseph’s College, Galway, he enrolled at University College, Dublin, in 1900, did an Arts degree and then studied medicine. He transferred to University College, Galway and graduated in 1913. He was a member of the college Literary and Debating Society and participated in drama.
He began his medical career in the County Infirmary in Galway, and then moved to Holles Street. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and was badly affected by mustard gas in India. After the war he settled in Leicester, where he spent the rest of his career as a neurological specialist.
Theories abound as to where the song was written or where it was first heard. Some say it was in the home of Dr Morris at 1 Montpelier Terrace, while others believe it was in The Vicars Croft on Taylor’s Hill, from where one could see Galway Bay.
Other songs written by Colahan included ‘Maccushla Mine’, ‘Asthoreen Bawn’, ‘Until God’s Day’, ‘The Kylemore Pass’ and ‘The Claddagh Ring’.
The opening lines: “If you ever go across the sea to Ireland… and Maybe at the closing of the day” has brought many a tear to emigrant eyes.
More importantly, Colahan never knew Bing Crosby changed his lyrics from “speak a language that the English do not know” to “speak a language that the strangers do not know” because Crosby did not want the song to be too political.
The ‘Light a Penny Candle’ lyric from the song became the title of a Maeve Binchy book that proved very popular.
The song vies with four other great Galway songs. ‘The West’s Awake’, ‘My Own Dear Galway Bay’, Mundy’s ‘Galway Girl’ and Ed Sheeran’s ‘Galway Girl’.
In more recent times the Pogues revived its memory by including it in their incredible Christmas tune ‘Fairytale of New York’.
The Colahan family grave in Galway cemetery makes no mention of Dr Arthur’s burial and few of his family attended his funeral. The song was used in the 1952 movie ‘The Quiet Man’, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, but Arthur Colahan’s name does not appear in the credits. It seems this songwriter was forgotten by almost everyone.
The Irish Graves Association discovered that Colahan, who composed the song was buried in a multiple grave in Bohermore, the Galway city center cemetery.
If you ever go across the sea to
Then maybe at the closin’ of your day
You will sit and watch the moon rise
And see the sun go down on Galway
And if there’s to be a life in the
And somehow I’m sure there’s going
to be —
I will ask my God to let me make my
In that dear land across the Irish sea.
Just to hear again the ripple of the
And the women in the meadows
To sit beside the turf fire in the cabin
And watch the barefoot gossoons at
For the breezes blowin’ across the
sea from Ireland
Are perfumed by the heather as they
And the women in the upland diggin’
Speak a language that the strangers
do not know.
For the strangers came and tried to
teach us their way.
They scorned us just for bein’ what
But they might as well go chasin’ after
Or light a penny candle from a star.