Henry Wymbs looks back on the life and career of the Louth-born tenor who was famous internationally for his interpretation of the songs of Percy Ffrench.


Brendan O’Dowda was one of the most gifted Irish singers of his generation. He became an acknowledged authority on the life and times of Percy French and his name is synonymous with the composers’ songs, especially Slattery’s Mountain Foot, Come Back Paddy Reilly, The Mountains of Mourne and Phil the Fluters Ball.

O’Dowda was born on October 1st, 1925, in Dundalk, Co. Louth, of a Kilkenny mother and Cork father and had several brothers and sisters. Brendan was a precocious youngster and his talent was evident from early on when he made his stage debt at the age of seven. He also gained distinction in his teenage years as a noted Gaelic footballer and athlete, but had to choose between football and music, as the constant exposure to the elements would damage his lungs and ruin a promising singing career. More on his sporting career later.

I had the pleasure of seeing Brendan perform in 1986 at a concert in Oxford with his good friend, comedian Frank Carson. At the time I was working with his son Brendan Junior as a police officer in Oxford. The similarity in looks between father and son is uncanny. They are so alike it is like stepping back in time. Mind you, that is where the similarity ends.

Brendan junior takes up the story:
“I wish I could sing like the ‘auld fella.’ My dad’s voice was able to convey many things – love, nostalgia, humour and friendship. I suppose some of his personality rubbed off on me. He instilled in me a set of values that has helped shape my life and career – respect, restraint, and responsibility. Treat everyone with the uppermost respect and dignity”

Brendan Junior’s chosen career in the police met with approval of his father.

“I joined Thames Valley Police in 1982 and have worked at nearly every police station in Oxfordshire. I retired some years ago but sadly my father did not live long enough to see me in retirement”

Brendan O’Dowda senior embraced the people of Ireland and especially his own folk of Dundalk.
“Dad loved all people, but his own kinfolk from Dundalk took pride of place,” says Brendan Junior.
“He was one of nine children and educated by the De La Salle Brothers in Dundalk. He first sang in public when he was about eight or nine in a school opera, Pango and the Princess, written by one of his teachers.
“Whilst boating on Carlingford Lough as a youngster on holiday with some friends, his singing was heard across the water in the local hotel. When the group returned to shore, he was invited to entertain the hotel guests in return for dinner. He agreed, provided his friends shared the hospitality.

“When his tenor voice began to attract attention, he was introduced to Dr. Vincent O’Brien, who was Count John McCormack’s teacher. McCormack once told my dad ‘You have the making of a voice, but it’s work, work and more work.’

“He continued to perform in charity events all over Ireland which gave him invaluable confidence. O’Brien took him under his wing and dad joined the Palestrina Choir where he received private tuition from O’Brien, together with a job in an office in Dublin to help pay his rent. At the time O’Brien believed dad would make it as an opera singer, however he preferred the more popular and lighter style of music”

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own