Did I think I’d find 1,000 Cork songs? Never in my wildest dreams!

As he prepares to compile his 1000th Song Of Cork for the weekly Echo column he began almost 20 years ago, singer/songwriter Jimmy Crowley tells JOHN DOLAN there are plenty more tunes and ballads where they came from. PLUS LISTEN to the Podcast here...
Did I think I’d find 1,000 Cork songs? Never in my wildest dreams!

Jimmy Crowley is celebrating his 1000th 'The Songs of Cork' column in The Echo. Picture: Larry Cummins

TOWARDS the end of 2002, Jimmy Crowley entered the Echo’s offices in Academy Street with a proposal for a new weekly feature.

The singer/songwriter wanted to publish a different song or ballad pertaining to his home city and county every Saturday, to begin a musical archive that would be left for posterity.

Jimmy knew plenty of tunes and ditties already - he had written some bangers himself - but wanted to use the column as a means of gathering more from our army of readers; he hated the idea of some of the fine songs stretching back deep into Cork’s history being lost forever, when the final person who knew their lyrics and tune breathed their last.

And so, on Saturday, December 7, 2002, began the hugely popular Songs Of Cork column, with the first ballad, The Groves Of Blackpool.

“I think that, together, we could build up a great social history and bring the past a little closer to us,” Jimmy said at the time.

This Saturday, he will publish his 1,000th song in a continuing, unbroken series!

Back in 2002, I recall pondering how long such a column would last. How many songs about Cork and its people could there possibly be? Fifty? Surely not a hundred?! ‘I’ll give the column a year... maybe two, tops,’ I thought.

How little I knew then about the music and song that has been part of the patchwork of Cork since time immemorial! And how much I have learned since, thanks to the quill and amazing musical mind of Jimmy Crowley.

Jimmy receives a special cake marking his 1,000th edition of ‘The Songs of Cork’ column in The Echo from Features Editor John Dolan. Picture: Larry Cummins
Jimmy receives a special cake marking his 1,000th edition of ‘The Songs of Cork’ column in The Echo from Features Editor John Dolan. Picture: Larry Cummins

I hope you, dear reader, have learned a few things too along the way, about this remarkable city, this singular county, about its people, its past, its present, and its future, through the medium of 999 songs and lyrics.

Each week for nigh on 20 years, Jimmy has faithfully sent his Songs Of Cork column to me, containing a brilliantly written preamble - he is a wonderful wordsmith as well as a buccaneering balladeer! - followed by a precious song from the Cork canon.

A travelling bard, his emails have pinged into my inbox from all corners of the world: From New York in Ameri-cay, as he calls it, to Newcastle; from the ports and cities of Europe, to the New World and further out, exotic places where even the Cork diaspora has not yet dared to tread.

Occasionally, just occasionally, mind, he will even send me a column from his beloved Cork!

Some of the songs you will have known; classics and old favourites like The Banks Of My Own Lovely Lee, Beautful City, Bantry Bay, and The Armoured Car; others were obscure and perhaps just a scrap of a chorus and a verse, as Jimmy sought the complete ballad. They were interspersed with the odd classic from his own back catalogue - like The Boys Of Fairhill and Johnny Jump Up.

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I invited Jimmy to our offices in Blackpool to chat about his amazing achievement and record a podcast, in which he would play a handful of those 999 tunes. In all the time I was with him, a lyric was rarely far from his lips.

As I presented him with a mighty cake, courtesy of Bracken Bakery in Blackpool, marking his Songs Of Cork landmark, Jimmy’s musical mind came to the fore.

“There’s a song about a cake...” he began, mentioning his fellow bard, Con ‘Fada’ Ó Drisceoil.

Shortly after, when we went on the rooftop of the Echo offices for a photo shoot, Jimmy marvelled at the panoramic view and began to reel off the songs he knew about the sights before him - the spires, the hills, the factories, the landmarks...

Music is this man’s life.

“Sure, I should just go around Cork in an open-top bus, singing about all the places we pass,” he suggests. “I could sing about Shandon, the Coal Quay, the pubs... music is a labour of love for me.”

There’s an idea for an arts festival to take up...

We sat down and discussed his 20-year odyssey in the pages of the Echo. Did he ever think he would reach 1,000 songs?

“Never in my wildest dreams,” replies Jimmy. “I can’t believe it, it’s extraordinary. Twenty years, it’s a big clutch of days and months and years.

Jimmy Crowley and Eve Telford at the launch of his new album 'Songs From The Beautiful City' last month. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Jimmy Crowley and Eve Telford at the launch of his new album 'Songs From The Beautiful City' last month. Picture: Howard Crowdy

“It’s been a pleasure, I never thought it would go for this long.”

Jimmy originally got his idea from the fact other song collectors down the years had traditionally used the local press to tap into readers for their songs and ballads, in particular a regular column in a Co. Down newspaper.

“I thought we could do a southern version of that,” recalls Jimmy, “because there were so many songs I had that had missing verses, and I thought people out there could help piece them together.”

He modestly adds that he “kinda glided into this role” as a collector of Cork songs - but who else but him could be the keeper of that flame? After all, this 71-year-old began collecting songs at 16, a year before he even wrote his first one!

As the Echo Features Editor, I don’t recall Jimmy missing a single column; nor does he. But, he adds, he came mighty close!

“There was one time, I was having an ECG check on my heart,” he recalls. “I was in a hospital bed and I thought, Jeez, I have to work on the column, John is expecting a column, and there were wires everywhere! Someone brought in an old laptop, Eve (Telford, his partner) brought one in I think, and I got it through then.

“It was done from a hospital bed on more occasions than you might think,” Jimmy tells me. “But we didn’t miss, ever.”

He recalls fellow Cork singer Máirtín de Cógáin bailing him out on the technological side while they were touring America together as Captain Mackey’s Goatskin And String Band, ensuring the column reached its destination on time.

So, why is it that Cork has such a rich song tradition? Jimmy’s answer goes deep into the psyche of his beloved home place - and includes a cut off Dublin!

“We have an indigenous spirit,” he replies, “which gives our songs a magical quality.”

“There’s a defiance in Cork, maybe the Rebel Cork thing, and I think Cork always looked up at Dublin and thought it didn’t have the mettle to be the capital city... there’s a confidence about Cork and its people, maybe an over-confidence.”

Corkonians, he suggests, use the medium of song to project their culture to themselves and the outside world. Then there is Cork’s history, brimming with sadness and conflict down the centuries, which adds to the ballad genre. Jimmy mentions that very first song, The Groves Of Blackpool, had its roots as a loyalist ballad going back to the 1798 rebellion.

To me, Jimmy is the quintessential Corkman: his grá for sport - especially hurling - and the Irish language, his love of city and county, his knowledge of history and politics, of the characters then and now... all taken seriously, but all worn lightly too. As I listen to him, I point out the other aspect that perhaps elevates Cork people as a musical race: The famously singy-songy accent.

It’s a theme he often warms to. “I think the Cork accent has a wonderful dialect and when it’s transposed into music, it sounds great,” he said when his column launched. Twenty years on, he tells me he broke down barriers of snobbery when he began singing in his own “melodic” accent at a time when it was “not cool”. We should all sing in our own accents, he argues - proving his point by bursting into a brilliant impression of his late friend Ronnie Drew’s Dublin drawl (you’ll have to listen to the podcast to hear it!).

 Jimmy Crowley with a special cake baked for him to celebrate his 1000th 'The Songs of Cork' column in The Echo. Picture: Larry Cummins
Jimmy Crowley with a special cake baked for him to celebrate his 1000th 'The Songs of Cork' column in The Echo. Picture: Larry Cummins

I ask him to play a verse of possibly the best-loved of all Cork songs, The Banks Of My Own Lovely Lee, and Jimmy’s preamble sums up its place in the sporting firmament. “If you go to Thurles, and hear the Cork fans singing just one verse of The Banks, like, how can you bate that? It can’t be bet! I’d hate to be a Tipperary fan, to hear The Banks coming right through the stadium.”

Jimmy admits his early attempts at songwriting as a teen lacked sophistication. “Funny songs, like the price of a pint and the shortage of petrol, issues which are curiously becoming topical again. But it took me a while to get a grave song out there or a love song.”

Jimmy frequently brings up his childhood in Douglas in the column, and says, despite the economic times in the ’50s and ’60s, it was an “idyllic, Utopian” time.

“It had a few mills, sweet shops, a couple of pubs, my mother worked as a weaver there, my da worked in town and came home on his bicycle, we always had enough, like, and we played in beautiful woods and rivers.

“Just a beautiful place to live... hopscotch and games in the middle of the street, being away for hours on end, our parents never expressed a fear of anything - ‘know what’s right and wrong, and be careful’.” His father - “the real Jimmy Crowley” - was an operatic tenor who sang the odd ballad, but traditional music soon gripped the young Jimmy. He recalls a pivotal moment - “when I was a small, little chiseller, as Ronnie Drew would say” - when he went to a concert at Cork City Hall.

Jimmy Crowley with Ronnie Drew
Jimmy Crowley with Ronnie Drew

“Four men bounded up on the stage wearing Aran ganseys, and one fella had an Aran cardigan, and that was Tommy Mackem and the Clancys.

“I just changed that day... I collapsed nearly. The emotion, like, and I suddenly started to realise that you could combine history with your love for your country, and the topography of the place, and everything combined together in the band. It was so real, it was just amazing.” Jimmy breaks into the opening line of the Clancys’ Brennan On The Moor as he reflects on that night: “‘Tis of a brave young highwayman...” “That night started me,” he adds, “and even though I always loved The Beatles and The Kinks, and listened to arias that really moved my heart - I was interested in everything - but there was nothing like folk songs. The Irish bands pulled me in, almost immediately.” Jimmy formed a ground-breaking Cork band, Stokers Lodge - named after a place in Frankfield with family ties to the Dracula author Bram Stoker - and his career in folk and traditional music took off.

“Living the dream,” says Jimmy, wistfully. He saw much of the world, touring in bands and solo, and says the folk scene is close-knit worldwide. They look after their own.

He particularly recalls being taken under the wing of folkies in England’s West Country, “they fed me breakfast the next day, then put me on a bus with a sandwich and sent me onto the next place. For a while, we had a similar folk scene here in Ireland, but it just didn’t work out. We need to go back to that, running events for the right reasons, not just to massage egos or pop stars - there’s a lot of pop stars in the folk scene at the moment. We did it for the love of the song, just to be ourselves, not just as a career.” He plays one of his own songs on a bouzouki called Benjy, a lute-like instrument which was gifted to him in a shop 50 years ago. “It cost about £300,” - look at it as an advance on the first album, he was told by a friend.

We move on to discuss Jimmy’s life now. The fates conspired to bring him love in the form of his sweetheart, English singer Eve Telford. They live in Cobh, where Jimmy can indulge his passion for the sea and sailing - also rich sources of songs - although he warns: “Never trust the sea, she’ll never be your friend.” The combination of Eve and Cobh helped him through the Covid years.

“I was a really lucky man. It never affected me viciously at all,” he says, “I just kept writing and managed to play at farmers’ markers that were still going, I kept my hand in. I had love and I had the beauty of Cobh.” Jimmy brought out a book containing many of the column’s ballads in 2015, entitled Songs From The Beautiful City: The Cork Urban Ballads, and recently launched his 13th album, Songs from The Beautiful City. It contains 27 songs, many of which have been rediscovered and plucked from the mists of time. He provides a fascinating insight into how he rebuilds and restructures an old ditty.

“It may be a song that I only have a snatch of, or a chorus,” he explains. “Try to imagine the anatomy, like, you exhume a couple of bones, and there’s a femur, and you say, well, what did this person look like? Science would put the person together… it’s like that with a song. What was the epoch, for a start, how did people talk, how did people sing? What were their fears? The Boer War, the First World War, whatever. There was a song called The Jail Of Sundays Well and I just had the chorus, and I wrote a song around it. I came up with the story of a woman who was a member of the oldest profession. There are songs like that on the album.”

Far from taking a back seat, he is all set to launch a 14th album, called Life, and is planning a collaborative project with Eve.

On the subject of hanging up his guitar, Jimmy is driven to continue from within. To sum up his attitude, he quotes a line from Samuel Beckett at the end of his 1953 novel The Unnamable - “… you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” He concludes by telling me a story about the Cork love for song. He starts by explaining how opera great Enrico Caruso would be stopped in the street and asked to sing - and duly oblige. Caruso said: “If you can’t sing a song at the drop of a hat for the plain people, then you can forget it.” Jimmy adds: “Recently, I put this to the test over in the North Mall, they were digging the biggest hole there ever, and the workmen said, ‘Oh look, it’s Crowley, give us a song, boy’. And I said, ‘Certainly! As I went up to the Coal Quay, for to buy an old chemise… I won’t say it stopped the traffic, but a lot of people took an interest in it! But you should be able to do that, there’s great devilment and therapy in it!” Finally, we reflect again on 1,000 songs, a remarkable achievement. And many more to come?

“Well,” says Jimmy, “ we’ll hardly make it to another 1,000, I won’t be around that long! But to leave something like this behind is a good thing. I hope to continue bringing a new song every Saturday.”

Take a bow... musicians pay tribute to balladeer’s milestone

CHRISTY MOORE, FOLK SINGING LEGEND Jimmy Crowley has been a great compañero since we first sang together in The Phoenix Bar many years ago. We did a tour back in the 1970s... Ballydehob, Kilcrohane, Kealkill, Schull, Sherkin Island and Skibbereen. We were hitting the high spots, our bandwagon was an old red Renault 4L, two balladeers and a bundle of songs He taught me Johnny Jump Up out on Sherkin Island, we’ve shared many’s the verse. Jimmy Crowley has been a master collector of songs. Blood & Bandage to the core... Cork’s very own Troubadour.

JOHN SPILLANE, CORK SINGER/SONGWRITER Big congratulations to Jimmy on reaching his 1,000th song in his iconic Echo Songs of Cork series, testament to his great scholarship and the rich biodiversity of the Cork song tradition. From jolly rollicking ballads like The Good Ship Kangaroo to great, deep, keening Gaelic slow airs such as Carraig Aonair, the lament for the Fastnet drownings, he has covered a wide range of song styles.

I am personally very grateful to him for a musical apprenticeship I spent playing with him in the early 1980s and have been greatly honoured to have some of my songs such as Princes Street and Passage West included in this wonderful column over the years.

Rock on, Jimmy, you good thing.

GERRY KELLY, CORK POPS ORCHESTRA So blow your breezes; blow farewell to the Asgard, See that lady go O’er the dark rolling sea A few lines from Jimmy’s song My Love Is A Tall Ship have always resonated with me and probably influenced my decision to learn how to sail. I first became aware of the song during the Tall Ships visit to Cork in July, 1991.

Jimmy himself is no mean sailor, and is to be complimented for his Songs of Cork column in The Echo. These ballads, which often refer to historical events, can arouse a historical curiosity and are a great way of passing on information to future generations.

I was amazed to see Jimmy has documented 1,000 songs for The Echo and am delighted he has preserved this legacy for future generations. ‘Fair Winds’, Jimmy!” PAUL FROST, CORK COMPOSER Chuireas féin agus Jimmy aithne ar a chéile am éigin insna seachtóidí. An bheirt againn óg istigh sa Phoenix. Bhí suim ag an mbeirt againn insna hamhráin dúchasacha agus roinneas leis go fonnmhar a raibh im cheann díobh, The Boys Of Fair Hill ina measc. Bhí san mar bhunchloch ag an chéad cheirnín a eisigh Jimmy agus Stokers Lodge.

Bhí agus tá an-shuím ag Jimmy in amhráin as Gaeilge, agus go deimhin sa teanga féin. Dhein sé céim sa Ghaeilge i UCC agus chónaigh sé thiar i nGaeltacht Chorca Dhuibhne ar feadh tréimhse. Laoch mór aige ab ea Nioclás Tóibín ó Rinn ó gCuanach a thugas i leith ar cheann des na Folk Festivals luatha. Tá an-chreidiúint ag dul do Jimmy as a bhfuil déanta aige timpeall ar amhráin áitiúla. Seoid is ea é inár measc, seoid nár athraigh riamh. Gura fada buan é.

PEADAR Ó RIADA, COMPOSER AND MUSICIAN I have known Jimmy since the early ’70s when he was a frequent part of our company around Cúil Aodha. Back then he always would sing local Cork songs. He went on to be very much the voice of a Cork city culture, and has been one of the wonderful brothers of Cork song.

God only knows what corner or cranny he pokes all the songs from, but he does so consistently. I have watched, listened and played his recordings on Raidio na Gaeltachta and was really impressed with his double album Songs From The Beautiful City. This boy has a track record.

I like the fact he was always interested in the sea and he sails the waters of our beautiful city and coast. Long may he continue to navigate the streams and rivers of our native, creative records of note and existence, and keep providing songs for our paper, the Echo.

Email us your tribute to Jimmy Crowley and have your say at letters@theecho.ie

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