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MacGowan and MacColl in the video for Fairytale of New York.
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Fairytale of New York 'The boys of the NYPD Choir never actually sang Galway Bay, until now'

Nathan Mannion of the EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum looks at the impact of two iconic Irish songs – Galway Bay and Fairytale of New York.

THERE ARE MANY things that can evoke happy memories from our Christmas holidays of the past. Whether we like it or loathe it as adults, our inner child still has a grá for this time of year. Everything from freshly baked seasonal foods to the sight of snow can bring us back to those warm and fuzzy feelings.

The whole Christmas advertising ecosystem is built on this very concept of nostalgia. And it works. During the run-up to the Christmas season, we often find ourselves chasing a distinct feeling, the one that tugs at your heartstrings and evokes the notion of home. 

Music plays a huge part in that flow of memories. It’s no coincidence that the same bank of Christmas songs are played consistently every year over decades – people still want to hear them because they remind them of the magic of it all. 

Our latest project here at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum hopes to do just that by bringing to life a line from one of the most celebrated Christmas songs of all time – ‘Fairytale of New York’. 

Originally released in 1987 by The Pogues, featuring Kirsty MacColl, this song is one of the most authentically Irish songs of the season because it features a rawness and honesty that contrasts with traditional glittery and shiny Christmas songs. 

Gathering the ‘boys’

In the chorus of the iconic seasonal favourite, Shane MacGowan has a standout lyric during which most listeners join in: “…the boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay…”.

While people all over the world sing out that line, very few realise there never was an NYPD choir, nor did they ever sing ‘Galway Bay’. Until now.

Fairytale of New York in particular tugs at the heartstrings of the Irish diaspora, given its references to life in the Big Apple for Irish immigrants at a particular time in our history.  It is essentially an ode to all the Irish people who have left these shores and the generations who have followed them.

Screen Shot 2023-11-14 at 17.53.15 MacGowan and MacColl in the video for Fairytale of New York.

With that in mind, we have created an NYPD choir and have tasked them with singing ‘Galway Bay’, just before the bells start ringing out. We brought together four former NYPD officers, of Irish descent, who were joined by a men’s choral group capable of delivering the song as envisioned.

All four officers had worked together throughout their careers, which made for good camaraderie on the day we recorded the song.

‘Galway Bay’ boasts a rich history of its own. It was written by Arthur Colahan, an Irish doctor who spent most of his working life in England. He was born in Fermanagh in 1884 but grew up in Galway.

He completed his medical training at University College Galway, where he was known for his musical talents. The family was hit by tragedy in 1912 when his younger brother, Randolph, died in a sailing accident in Lough Corrib.

Colahan worked at the county infirmary in Galway before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in India during World War I. He later settled in Leicester and set up a medical practice, specialising in neurology.

Although he spent the rest of his life in England, Colahan retained a strong affinity to Ireland. He was close to his family and is said to have often been homesick. Galway Bay paints a traditional but nostalgic picture of the west coast, describing “barefoot gossoons” playing games and Irish-speaking women “digging praties” in the uplands. It speaks more to a distant longing for Ireland than a desire to move back permanently.

Screen Shot 2023-11-14 at 17.53.35

The ballad is Colahan’s best-known work, but his other songs – including The Kylemore Pass, Asthoreen Bawn and The Claddagh Ring – also held a strong appeal for Irish emigrants. He died in 1952 and was buried in a family plot at Bohermore cemetery in Galway, overlooking his beloved bay. In 1986, a blue plaque in his honour was unveiled at the site of his former home on Prebend Street in Leicester.

Galway Bay goes global

There’s evidence to suggest Colahan composed the song while in college in Galway; some argue that it was written after his move to Leicester. Whatever the case, it took many more years for the song to reach international audiences. Bing Crosby, whose maternal great-grandparents were from Cork, famously recorded a version of the ballad with an orchestra in 1947.

Crosby softened the original lyrics, changing a line about “a language that the English do not know” to “a language that the strangers do not know”. The single became a major hit, peaking at number three on the Billboard charts in the US.

A recording by Irish tenor Josef Locke proved particularly popular in the UK – but its appeal was far from universal. Just before the start of a variety show at the London Palladium, Locke was apparently instructed to drop the song from his repertoire. As Norman Freeman has written: “The domineering impresario at the theatre, Val Parnell, thought it was too mawkish and redolent of closing-time choruses in Irish clubs and pubs in the London area. He decreed that it was not to be sung. Locke refused to go on stage. In the end, Parnell had to concede. Locke, according to himself, gave a rousing rendition of the song that brought loud and prolonged applause.”

bing-crosby-who-bought-a-one-third-interest-in-meadow-court-just-hours-before-the-irish-derby-is-with-the-american-bred-colt-in-dublin-june-26-1965-after-the-horse-won-the-155820-first-place-mo Bing Crosby at the Irish Derby. With Crosby is Mrs. Frank McMahon of Vancouver, B.C. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Galway Bay was credited at the time with boosting tourism to the west coast. In a 1949 lecture marking the centenary of University College Galway, Professor Mary Donovan O’Sullivan surmised that the song had brought more people to the area than all the efforts of the Irish Tourist Board.

“Thousands of English people in recent summers have left behind them the White Cliffs of Dover to see the sun go down on Galway Bay,” she said. Some local businesses weren’t shy about exploiting the publicity, In 1953, The Connacht Sentinel reported that “enterprising people in the holiday trade in Salthill have been using the address, ‘Salthill, Galway Bay’”.

The lyrics especially appealed to people of Irish descent in the US. As the scholar Aileen Dillane has written: “The message of Galway Bay is directed to the listener who has never been to Ireland, from the perspective of someone who has left it and who is looking back upon it with nostalgia, wanting to convey how special it is and how it has always managed to stay unchanged. Given this particular perspective, Ireland being ‘there’ rather than ‘here’, the song is very much at home in an American context, even if it was written ‘across the Irish Sea’.”

By intertwining this iconic song with the NYPD choir, a rich tapestry has emerged, one that pays homage to Irish emigrants and their enduring connection to ‘Galway Bay.’ It’s playing a part in the celebration of culture, heritage and the universal themes that resonate across oceans and generations.

Nathan Mannion is Head of Exhibitions & Programmes, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. He holds a BA in Heritage Studies from Atlantic Technical University and an MA in Arts Management and Cultural Policy from University College Dublin. He also serves as Secretary and Membership Officer of ICOM Ireland.

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