IT’S FUNNY HOW a song, the pop of its day, syrupy, sentimental but tuneful, can awaken long-buried memories and re-capture a time, place and incident, long related to a remote card-index in one’s brain, labelled “Dross.”
While listening to John Bowman’s archive programme during breakfast on a recent Sunday, I heard a recording of Jack Doyle’s singing “Down Mexico Way,” and I was back in memory to a few minutes in the early years of World War II, when the boxer-cum-singer-cum-playboy-cum-famous celebrity, passed briefly through our street.
Occasionally, RTE can make a masterpiece in the radio documentary genre, and this one, made up of fragments of reminiscences, comment and song, was just that.
The grapevine reported in our street that Jack Doyle was in Mary Fitzpatrick’s pub at the junction of Heywood Road and Queen Street, and would be coming out shortly. That brought streams of young people from all the adjoining streets to the junction, which then, in contrast to now, was completely traffic-free.
I had heard my father, who was very interested in sport, talk about Jack Doyle, the poor boy from County Cork who might have been a world champion, and who had come from rags to riches. Although, in the politically-correct speak of today, and as such might be identified as racist, and open to prosecution, a contributor to the radio programme did describe him as the Great White Hope.
He had everything: a phenomenal right-arm punch (or was it left-arm?) and good looks. He was called the “Gorgeous Gael” by the media. He was multi-talented. He could sing, dance and he dabbled in film-making. His charisma was such that he could charm the birds out of the bushes, and in the case of homo-sapiens female gender, he did just that.
And there he was, on that long ago afternoon, bringing glamour into our street. It was a grey time and it was a grey street, with a warm community, working-class not over-blessed with money and unacquainted with glamour. I remember we waited a long time before he emerged from the side-door of the pub.
And here, I have to revert to modern language to describe him. He was very tall, broad-shouldered, a hunk, a heart-throb, drop-dead gorgeous! He was accompanied by his diminutive, exquisitely beautiful, then wife, the film-star Movita, and by his host Dr. Pat O’Callaghan who lived on the nearby Western Road.
Jack Doyle did not so much talk, as give a performance. He paraded past us, his long, very expensive coat swinging theatrically behind him. We did not cheer, or clap. The phenomenon of the groupie and the fan was not even conceived at the time. We stood there, open-mouthed, overawed, just gawking at him. That was the brief entrance and exit of Jack Doyle into my life, recorded as a passing memory.
I do not think it was an event which greatly impinged on the proprietor of the bar, Mary Fitzpatrick. It may not even have been recorded in a photograph. I knew her in later years and she was a gracious lady, who ran a typical old-fashioned Irish bar of the period. There were no comforts. A few Guinness oak casks could be used as substitute seating. The counter was high and the interior very dark. It was strictly a place for men only, though a few women were known to negotiate some cash-only transactions at the side door.
The rise and fall, from celebrity to bum, of poor Jack Doyle was brilliantly presented in the recent RTE cameo. He was famous and he then became infamous. Some would say he was too young when “discovered.” Some would say he was badly managed and some would say he was cynically exploited.
But it would seem he never reached his full potential, either as a boxer or entertainer, because very early on in his career, he developed an appetite for alcohol, and ultimately descended into the complete alcoholism which killed him. By then he was alone, with only his fellow drop-outs for company. His body was rescued from the certainty of a pauper’s grave by the people of his native Cork, who gave him a decent funeral.
Tragically, all that he left behind are a few records. He had a very pleasant light tenor singing voice, which had some training. A friend, who knows quite a lot about music, tells me that the popular Irish singers of the period had two qualities: an over-emphasis on words beginning with the letter “r” and a certain nasal twang, which my friend describes as “the naa-y” in the voice. And listening to his record singing voice on the radio programme, Jack Doyle seemed to have both.
He sang “South of the Border” as a duet with a soprano. It was the song that was then popular when he passed through our street all those years ago. It was sad and maudlin but it told a story and had a nostalgic refrain and a memorable tune. And I wonder how many of our modern pops, over-electrified, and repetitive, will still remain as listenable-to in 50 years time?
In fact, it was so memorable that the tune stayed with me all of that Sunday, humming away in my head. It was there when I did the chores, prepared the dinner vegetables, even when I walked in Glenary Woods. It seemed to become the mood music, the orchestral background, to unfilled promises, and unachieved potential, to lost love and a lost life, all lost to booze somewhere “South of the Border, down Mexico Way.”