Mick Lavelle in Mick Molloy's.
(Photo: James Fennell)
The bell rings and in strolls Mick Lavelle. He swears he wasn’t looking for trouble. He was just looking for some trousers. He’d seen a nice brown pair hanging in the window in Morans. And he happened to walk in just as we were asking Dominic Moran if he knew of any old timers in Westport that we should talk to. Dominic laughs like a hyena at the sight of Mick.[i] ‘It always happens this way’, sighs Mick. ‘I have become well-known by accident’.
Mick Lavelle is a singer with a voice that rumbles like brontide thunder. He says his vocals have actually improved considerably since a quadruple by-pass in 2006 obliged him to quit smoking. There is also perhaps a more wistful passion in his eyes since the passing of his beloved wife Annie in April 2008. Nonetheless, with his 80th birthday rapidly approaching, there seems to be no let up in this Westport icon.
Mick was elected 'Culchie of the Year' in 1991. He reckons he won the contest simply because he was the only contestant who wasn’t ossified on drink.[ii] He has been in books and ‘on televisions all over the world’ ever since.[iii] These days he tends to stay put in Westport. In the evenings, he might spend an hour singing, always unaccompanied, or telling stories and jokes in Matt Molloy’s on Bridge Street.[iv] In fact, Mick sang with The Chieftains the night the pub opened. His most famous song is probably ‘The Millionaire’, a raucous ditty about a man who dreams he’s won the lottery.[v] He also does a brilliant rendition of Howard Crawford’s parody of ‘The Green Fields of France’. On other occasions he might just whistle and lilt. He can even performs a few ditties with his nose.
Mick is known far and wide for his repertoire. He believes he knows the words to over a thousand songs. ‘When you’re young there’s plenty of room in the old computer but then it gets full up’, he says with a gravelly chuckle.[vi] His mind is still full of triggers and if you mention a place like ‘Roscrea or ‘Kildare, he is apt to respond with a verse from ‘By the Bright Silvery Light of the Moon’ or the opening bars of ‘The Roads of Kildare’. And the way he sings the latter instantly catapults your imagination so you’re right there on the roadside where poor Rosie was born. It’s a little like hanging out in a musical.[vii]
Mick was the fourth of six children, three boys and three girls, born to a couple who farmed sheep in the mountains above Newport.[viii] They lived in a thatched cottage and went to school in Skerdagh, surrounded by ruined cabins and blanket bog. His childhood was a hard one ‘but people were happier than they are now, anyone will tell you that’. After school, he and his siblings would ‘come home and have a bit to eat if they had it’. Then they would head out in their barefeet to gather and spread turf in the bogs. ‘Or you’d be put out in the meadows picking stones. You’d come home and wash the feet and into bed and off to school again in the morning’.
Nonetheless, Mick says the mountains were a much livelier place to live than the towns in those days. In towns, people went shopping and then went home. In the mountains, people visited one another and stayed a while. ‘Ah yes’, says Mick, ‘the crack was in the mountains’.
Two pivotal events happened when Mick was 16 years old. Firstly, his father died of cancer at the age of 39. Mick watched him go and ‘I can hear that man roaring yet, no injections, no nothing’. Mick’s father was his musical inspiration. ‘He’d always be singing the songs when we were kids, when he put us to bed and things’, he explains. Young Mick also collected ballad sheets from an old fellow who would walk around singing particular songs and selling the lyrics on a sheet of paper. ‘Music was my first love’, he says. ‘It’s always kept me going because you meet people and have crack’.
The second big event of 1946 was that Mick’s career as an entertainer began when he drank his first ever pint. He had been given the role of a child in a play that was to debut in Dooega on Achill Island. With butterflies running amok in his belly, he drank a pint to boost him pluck. ‘I was like the man who was asked why he never got married’, he recalls. ‘He was too shy when he was young and he was too old when he got the courage’. Hardly was the drink down the hatch, but Mick was treading the boards and belting out ‘The Irish Rover’ to a stunned Achill audience.[ix] ‘At that time it was all sad songs, you see. ‘I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’ and ‘Danny Boy’ and all that. But ‘The Irish Rover’ went down a bomb’. Before long Mick was performing in houses and pubs from Newport to Glenhest to Burrishoole.
Singing was fun but spending so much time in the pub had its inevitable conclusions. For starters, he was spending all his money on booze. ‘I was out every night, singing songs. I never had enough money to get drunk but people would be buying me drink and then, after a while, they’d say I wasn’t capable of singing’. So he quit drinking and, despite spending so many nights in the pub, he hasn’t touched a drop in fifty years. [x]
When not singing, Mick worked in a welter of jobs, in the bladder wrack factory in Newport, on the roads of Mayo, in Westport’s textile factories, in the Railway Hotel and in Newport House. While working as a porter in Newport House during the early 1960s, he met Grace Kelly, Seán Lemass and, most importantly, his late wife Annie, who was the cook at the time.[xi] The Lavelles had no children because Mick was travelling so much in those days.
Mick fears for the future of the quick Irish wit and he is dismayed that so many great songs seem to be disappearing from our collective memory. He holds that young people are too easily ashamed to sing, even though ‘I know many who have lovely voices’. ‘Everyone is so busy now’, he says stoically. ‘Well, there will be plenty of time when we’re dead and gone’. And with that, he disappears on into the bar, singing strong, ‘Though time or tide may vary, my heart beats true for thee …’.
[i] As it happens, like thousands of other people, I first met Mick when he rolled up on a nearby seat in Matt Molloy’s and broke into song. He’s been doing that in Matt’s ever since The Chieftains’ flautist and his wife opened the pub in 1990 [check date]. Dominic Moran was clearly relieved to see him. Up until then, the elderly shopkeeper had been rather wary of us, half-wondering whether we were pestering him simply because his brother is the priest in Danville, California, from which parish hails Chelsey Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully landed an Airbus safely on the Hudson River in January 2009.
[ii] The prize was a trip to Boston where he performed. He has also won numerous Connacht lilting, singing and storytelling championships. He has sung and danced for four Taoiseachs and Presidents.
[iii] Mick does a Howard Crawford’s great parody of ‘The Green Fields of France’ in which a dreary drunkard starts singing ‘How do you do young Willie McBride’ :
If you go for a drink on a Saturday night,
A song and a pint, everything's going right
Till some drunk in his cups stumbles inside
And asks for that song called Willie McBride.
You say you don't know it, but that doesn't do,
"That being the case, I'll sing it for you,"
Then raises his voice and sings in a key,
Never heard before on land or on sea.
If you think that is bad, it gets even worse;
It appears that this fool knows every verse.
With his arm round your shoulders till he gets to the end
He sings it to you, for now you're his friend.
Oh, Willie McBride, why the hell did you die?
What trouble you'd have saved us if you'd come back alive
And got a wee job or signed on the bru,
We wouldn't have to hear all those songs about you.
Willie McBride, but I'm glad that you're dead
With the Green Fields of France piled over your head.
By the trouble you've caused with that song about you,
Oh, Willie McBride, shooting's too good for you.
[iv] One concerned a fellow who goes to the fair to sell a cow and comes back drunk and without a cow. The wife knew there was no use saying anything to him when he was drunk. She put him to bed and when she got him snoring she started looking in the pockets to see was there any money come back from the cow. She couldn’t find a bleddy thing. The only thing she found in an inside pocket was a ballad sheet. She held it out in front of her and she started crying. The husband rose up and said: ‘Mary, that’s not the right air of that song at all’.
Another one was about an old farmer in a cap and Wellingtons cycling along with two greyhounds chasing him. A Garda car came up behind him and asked if he had a coursing licence. The farmer said the dogs weren’t his. ‘We’re not that bloody green’, said the Garda. ‘Them two dogs wouldn’t be following you only that they know you’. ‘Well’, said the farmer. ‘Weren’t you two following me and ye don’t know me’.
[v] I am reminded of a man I met who counselled that one has ‘as much chance of winning the Lotto as eating a can of alphabet soup and shittering out the entire works of Shakespeare.
[vi] For instance, he knows ten songs about Donegal, four about Kildare and one about Carlow. He sings us ‘The Roads of Kildare’, ‘The Curragh of Kildare’ and ‘The Bright Silvery Light of the Moon’. ‘In America they wouldn’t have much time for the humourous songs', he says. 'They might not understand the crack so I sing them sad songs’.
[vii] When a pretty woman walks through the door and recognizes Mick, he throws his arms open and breaks into song. ‘Now is the hour when we must say goodbye…’
[viii] Mick believes the Lavelles were a French Huguenots family and that their name came from Laval, meaning ‘The Valley’. Others hold that it derives from the Gaelic name of Ó Maoil Fhábhail ‘descendant of Maolfhábhail’, a personal name meaning ‘fond of movement or travel’.
[ix] ‘I got [the song] from Frank O’Donovan when he was in Newport with a travelling show. He was ‘Batty’ in ‘The Reardons’.
[x] Sensibly, he does not wear his pioneer’s medal as he is so often in the pub.
[xi] Annie was a lifelong member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association.