Paddy Reilly-Ballyjamesduff is calling you!
Who was he, and did he ever come back?
The Garden of Eden has vanished they say
But I know the lie of it still
Just turn to the left at thebridgeofFinea
And stop when halfway to Cootehill
‘Tis there I will find it I know sure enough
When fortune has come to my call
Oh the grass it is green around Ballyjamesduff
And the blue sky is over it all
And tones that are tender and tones that are gruff
Are whispering over the sea
Come back, Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff
Come home, Paddy Reilly to me
Recent travels inIrelandbrought me to Ballyjamesduff, a pleasant bustling town in theCountyCavan, not too distant from the town from which that county derives it name.
This is the town immortalised in that wistful song “Come back, Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff”, the words and tune for which were composed by Percy French, renowned and best remembered, amongst his many other talents, as a writer of humorous Irish songs.
Ballyjamesduff – it is thought that the name derived from the Irish “Beal atha a’ seiscinn duibh”, or the “mouth of the black marsh” – grew up as a mail coach stop on the old Cavan toDublinroad, its long, wide, main street dating from that time.
Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) describes Ballyjamesduff as a “market and post town, and a district parish”, 8 miles from Cavan and 44 miles fromDublin”. The district parish was said to have 3227 inhabitants, of which 863 resided in the town which itself consisted of 5 streets, containing 150 houses. A Tuesday market was held in the town, “amply supplied”, and it also boasted a “constabulary police station” and “petty sessions” (court).
In present times, the town is noted for the “Ballyjamesduff Pork Festival”, providing “tasty treats” for pork lovers. The Festival was conceived in 1994 to stimulate the local pork industry. This annual “piggy bash” held in June, in addition to old fashioned roastings and open air musical entertainment also boasts pig racing (organised competitions, that is, as opposed to “porkers” scurrying off for dear life, to avoid being the “main attraction” mirroring, perhaps, the exploits of the “Tamworth 2” piglets of a few years ago, which many may recall!).
Whilst, in 1820, the coach route was diverted away from Ballyjamesduff (one of the earlier bypasses, no doubt!), and it became something of a quiet backwater, it still had its share of visitors including the young engineer, Percy French, who at the time was employed in Cavan.
He was born at Clooneyquin,CountyRoscommonin 1854, and in 1872 he enteredTrinityCollege,Dublinto study civil engineering. However, instead of applying himself exclusively to matters academic he began to develop his redoubtable talents for song writing, banjo playing and watercolour painting. Although he departed this life some 85 years ago, at the age of 66, in Formby,Lancashire, his musical compositions live on, as do reminiscences of the man himself.
On leaving university with an engineering qualification, and upon the point of emigrating toCanada, he took up a post on a government drainage scheme inCountyCavan. It was here that the self-appointed “Inspector of Drains” found opportunity to develop his interest in music and drama, and watercolour painting. His sojourn there provided the inspiration for two of his most notable songs “Phil the Fluters Ball” and “Slattery’s Mounted Fut”.
Many of his songs were inspired by the places he visited and the characters he met during his travels throughoutIreland. Amongst his later compositions was “Are Ye Right There Michael” something of a commentary upon the slow pace of life in the west ofIrelandand, in particular, the tardiness of the West Clare Railway. The latter, allegedly, caused Percy to be late for a concert performance in Kilkee,CountyClareand led, apparently, to an amusing court case.
My mother once told me the day I was born
The day that I first saw the light
I gazed down that street on that very first morn
And gave a great crow of delight
Now most newborn babies appear in a huff
And start with a sorrowful squall
But I knew I was born in Ballyjamesduff
And that’s why I smiled on them all
The baby’s a man, now he’s toil-worn and tough
Still, whispers come over the sea
Come back, Paddy Reilly, to Ballyjamesduff
Come home, Paddy Reilly, to me
Who then was the Paddy Reilly, (he certainly wasn’t the singer of “The Fields of Athenry” fame!)? And why did he leave? Who was calling him back? Was it a doting mother, who had some time before waved him off to foreign parts with the flutter of a white handkerchief until he was gone from sight and perhaps never to see him again, pleading plaintively for him to return? Or, was it a childhood sweetheart, to whom he had sworn undying love, imploring him to return to her? Did he ever, in fact, come back?
As the story goes, some of Percy’s friends challenged him to write a song about Ballyjamesduff. The song which resulted had the effect of putting the town on the musical world map. Paddy Reilly was, in fact, a real person who emigrated from his home town ofBallyjamesduff. He is reported to have been one of Percy’s favourites jarvies or horse driver in the town.
The answer as to who is entreating him to return is to be found in the later verses of the song, not often heard. It is, indeed, an old love and in his reflective moments dreaming of “whisperings over the sea” he consoles himself with the thought that one day “bells will be ringin’ in Ballyjamesduff, for me and me Rosie Kilrain”.
Prominently situated in the centre of Ballyjamesduff is a fine sculpture of Percy French seated on a bench, holding in his left hand a manuscript bearing the words and music for “Come back, Paddy Reilly, to Ballyjamesduff”. His gaze, however, does not light upon the document in his hand but, rather, is focussed down the street leading to the local hotel located at its end, aptly called “The Percy French Hotel” (incidentally, another hotel of the same name can be found in Strokestown, County Roscommon, not far from his birthplace). I could conjecture that Percy French is sitting there, waiting for Paddy Reilly to round the corner and to make his way up to him, to be greeted warmly following his return to Ballyjamesduff from his travels!
As to whether Paddy Reilly ever returned to Ballyjamesduff, my visit to that town did not reveal the answer. I duly continued on my journey and a few miles out from the town I had cause to call into a filling station to refuel my car. As I made my way to the adjoining shop to pay a sign over the door caught my attention. This bore the name “Paddy Reilly”. At last, I mused to myself, I had the answer. He did return, not quite to Ballyjamesduff but, at least, toCountyCavan, he had settled down, and was living happily ever after! Cue for another song?
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