The story spans an ocean and 70 years, flits across the early days of this newspaper and ended up last weekend in a County Mayo town where a native son was finally and formally recognized as one of Ireland’s greatest tenors of the 20th century.
John Feeney sings no more. He has been dead for more than 30 years. But his voice is about to be heard again on a double CD, released to mark the centenary of his birth, and compiled by Bradshaw using old radio recordings from New York that lay in boxes in his attic for more years than he would now care to admit.
The story of John Feeney, widely know as Jack, is an immigrant success story of the highest note.
Feeney, from Swinford, arrived in New York in 1928, the year that the Irish Echo began publishing. He had been working as a builder in London for several years, but as he toiled through his days he nurtured a dream. Someday, he promised himself, he would stand on the stage at Carnegie Hall and sing.
This he would ultimately do and during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Feeney’s voice would become instantly recognizable to huge numbers of Irish immigrants in the New York area by virtue of his starring role in the Schaefer Beer radio show.
His name would become familiar in print too as for the middle years of the 1930s Feeney penned the “Irish Social Circles” column in the Echo.
But if Feeney’s writing took him into the many Irish dance halls in the New York of that time, it was his tenor voice that elevated him to the stage.
Irish New York
His vocal abilities prompted comparison with the great John McCormack, the man who had stamped the image of the Irish tenor on popular American imagination.
Feeney’s fame, however, dimmed in the years after his death in 1967. But he is now poised to make a comeback, thanks to Bradshaw and the intuition of his late widow, Maura Feeney, who saw in Bradshaw a man she could trust with her husband’s life work.
“I had a great interest over the years in the music of Irish immigrants in New York. Largely traditional music. In the early years of the century some of our finest virtuosos were immigrants in New York,” said Bradshaw as he leaned back in his control room chair. “There was a huge demand for their music. Irish immigrants wanted these memories from home, so numerous ballrooms were set up and many of the ballrooms had county names. There were 28 of them active in New York up until the depression,” Bradshaw, the identically named but non-golfing son of one Ireland’s greatest ever golfers, said.
“These ballrooms were marriage bureaus, social centers and also places to find a job. Their popularity coincided with the beginnings of Irish music getting on record and by the early ’20s, the big American companies saw that this was a market.”
Before discovering the story of John Feeney, Bradshaw had carried out considerable research into the traditional Irish music scene in New York during the early part of the 20th century. It was, he said, a kind of hobby alongside his job in RTE, which just happens to be the production of traditional music programs.
Bradshaw recalled: “As part of my day job, I created a program called the “Irish Phonogram,” which dealt with early recordings of Irish music of all types, and in the course of making those programs, there was about 60 of them in the early ’80s, I played a commercial disc by a man named John Feeney, also known as Jack Feeney, ‘When it’s Moonlight in Mayo,’ which was his big hit.”
Bradshaw knew Feeney was from Mayo but not much more than that.
“So we asked listeners if they knew anything about him. The next day, when I got into the office, there was a message from a listener who said John Feeney was long dead but his widow was still alive and she lived in an old folks home in South County Dublin. So I put on the detective hat, traced her, found her and met her.”
Maura Feeney, he soon learned out, was from Ballina. Together they found a copy of a radio program that John Feeney had recorded in Dublin during a visit in 1960. Using this recording, he did a followup program on John Feeney for RTE.
A very determined woman
“And that was it,” Bradshaw said. “I continued with my job and she would send me the odd postcard.”
But in the mid 1980s, Maura Feeney contacted Bradshaw and said she wanted to see him.
“She had decided to go back to the States,” Bradshaw said. “She and John did not have a family. She had spent her life with John in New York and had never been able to fully readjust to the climate back in Ireland.
“She was now in her 80s and had decided to end her days in Florida [where she died in 1990]. So I went out to see her and we chatted. She had five large cardboard boxes in her room. She had earlier asked me to publish John’s work in Ireland because while he had been well known in America, he was not known in Ireland.
“I had no experience in Irish tenors, so I had declined. So she asked me again and I said, ‘Mrs. Feeney I’m not the right person for this.’ We discussed it back and forward and she said fine, no problem, my flight is on Tuesday, our garbage collection is on Monday.”
Bradshaw now had the sense that he was being cornered by a very determined woman.
“I looked at five boxes crammed to the top with discs, tapes, files, phonogram albums, scripts and said, ‘You can’t throw this material away, it is of historical significance and will be of great interest to somebody,’ ” Bradshaw said. “She said I was the only person she had found who was half interested, but I wasn’t really interested, so the garbage bin was the best place for it.
“I suddenly realized that I was being blackmailed. She knew I couldn’t walk away from the stuff. She was a good operator. So I argued with her, saying she couldn’t throw it in the bin. And so, reluctantly, I took the five boxes I didn’t want and put them in my attic. That was 1986.”
Back in the limelight
Eighteen months ago, Bradshaw was rummaging in the attic and just happened to pull out a file from one of the boxes. Reading it, he found out that John Feeney’s centenary was in August 2003.
” I said that’s the time for John Feeney to be remembered,” Bradshaw said, “so I figured that I would have a quick skim through the material, a quick play through the discs, draw up an index and try to dispose of it to somebody.
“And that was my downfall because when I started playing these discs here were radio transmissions in New York going back as far as 1938, through the ’40s, ’50s, files of photographs, personal papers. And basically what emerged was a fascinating life story of an emigrant who had set himself an impossible dream.
“He was working originally as a builder in London and he had this deep-down dream that he would make his living in a tuxedo on the concert platform. Maura had been the driving force, she had made him go for it.”
It took Bradshaw 10 days to play all of the Feeney material.
“I thought it was amazing,” he said. “And then when I dug further I found out that he also had a newspaper job in the Echo. He had immigrated to New York in 1928 and had started writing for the Echo in 1933.”
Feeney’s Echo duties had taken him on the ballroom circuit and he had met all the traditional musicians Bradshaw had researched.
“Paddy Killoran, from Sligo, a big name of that time, one of the great fiddle virtuosos, became a very close personal friend of Feeney’s and Feeney used Paddy and his band to back him on his first record,” Bradshaw said. “So suddenly it became clear to me. This is part of what I had been doing. So I began to do the serious research into Feeney and his family.”
Bradshaw discovered that when Feeney had first arrived in New York he had found a construction job across the Hudson in New Jersey but lost it when the depression hit.
Maura had followed John to New York, got a job and paid for her husband’s early singing lessons.
“He made his first record in 1931 and then auditioned for Decca,” Bradshaw said. “They wanted an Irish tenor for their label as McCormack was already signed up elsewhere. Feeney won the audition and made his first Decca record in November ’34.”
Feeney was to enjoy a long relationship with Decca. Around the same time he started singing on the popular and numerous Irish radio shows in the New York area.
“In 1937, he got his big break on radio with the Schaefer brewing company. Which wanted to highlight their beer in the Irish market,” Bradshaw said. They liked Feeney and gave him a try out on their St. Patrick’s night show and he was in.
“He went full time with Schaefer and gave up his work with the Echo about the fall of 1937,” Bradshaw said.
At this point, according to Bradshaw, the Mayo connection added impetus to Feeney’s blossoming career.
“Two immigrants from Bohola, William Carey and Bill O’Dwyer, recognized his talent and helped him secure a top vocal coach from the Metropolitan Opera Company,” he said.
Feeney had given his first ever serious concert recital in April 1936 and had received rave reviews.
Said Bradshaw: “His reputation as a radio singer was expanded into one of also being a concert singer. He began to perform all over the States in the late ’30s, Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, Boston Symphony Hall, Philadelphia Academy of Music, and other, smaller, venues.
“During the war he volunteered for the army reserve but was allowed continue with his singing. He also launched a minor film career. In the early days of television he did bits and pieces, but his main medium remained radio.”
As Feeney approached 60, his professional singing days were coming to an end.
“So he decided to call it a day,” said Bradshaw. “He made a decision in ’63 to retire but went into early ’64. His wife, Maura, and her sister had inherited the family mineral water business back in Ballina. John bought out his sister-in-law and in ’64 John and Maura returned to Mayo to run the business.”
Feeney had suffered a minor heart tremor in New York, not unknown in tenors because the body comes under great stress. He had a minor heart attack in early 1967 but recovered fully and then went to New York for a five-week holiday with Maura. In the autumn they went back again to Mayo.
It was at this point that fate took a nasty turn. John and Maura were driving home from a visit to County Sligo just before Christmas when a horse suddenly appeared on the road.
“John pulled the car off the road and into a ditch,” Bradshaw said. “It was a nothing accident and both he and Maura were uninjured, but the shock of it brought on a major heart attack. John went down on one knee and died in Maura’s arms. He was just 64.”
Bradshaw is now on a mission armed with a John Feeney double CD, a booklet on his life and a lecture which he has delivered in summer schools around the west of Ireland. He is planning to come to New York in the fall to speak at New York University. He is, he feels, making up for lost time on a great tenor’s behalf.
“One of the things I regret is that Maura asked me to promise her that I would publish John’s music, and I said, ‘No, I can’t give you that promise,’ ” Bradshaw said. “But by default it’s happened and in John Feeney’s centenary year. Maybe herself and John up there will have a wry smile.”
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