Townlands – ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’

John Feeney Schaefer Radio Star Crop Image Name: John Feeney Schaefer Radio Star Crop Description: TOWNLANDS - LOVE'S OLD SWEET SONG Copyright: © (source).  This image may be reproduced in print or electronic format forpromotional purposes only.

This is a story of music, ambition, and love. Son of a small shopkeeper in Swinford, Co. Mayo, young Feeney abandoned a farming career to become one of McAlpine’s Fusiliers and a navvy in London.

Feeney dreamt the impossible dream of another, better life as a professional singer on the international stage and realised that dream with the support of his life-long love, Maura Ruddy from nearby Ballina.

 In the age of the all-conquering ‘Irish Tenor’ when John McCormack stood like a colossus on the world stage, it was perhaps not surprising that Feeney’s ambition turned in that direction. 

In June, 1928, with the money he made as a builders’ labourer in London, he packed his bags for the bright lights of New York.  Shortly afterwards, and against the wishes of her well-to-do parents, Maura Ruddy followed him.

Unfortunately, Feeney’s arrival in America coincided with the Great Depression and the Wall Street Crash.  When he found work, he worked hard, but Maura, now working for Consolidated Edison, largely supported his musical ambitions in these years.  They were tough times. But nobody doubted John Feeney’s talent or commitment.

Feeney found a niche as a social diarist for the newly founded ‘Irish Echo’ newspaper, and used his spare time working the school events and community concerts of Irish-American New York.  Slowly but surely he built up a voice and a reputation that was to make him a star, and in the eyes of many, the natural successor to John McCormack.

Feeney signed a recording contract with Decca Records and from his very first session came “When It’s Moonlight in Mayo”, his biggest popular hit and the song with which he would always be associated.  For the next fifteen years John Feeney was a Decca recording artist and released more than forty tracks in the USA, England, and Ireland.

Feeney’s breakthrough into radio – the big medium of the day – was strategically crucial.  By the mid-1930’s, close to 100 million Americans were turning to their radio dials for entertainment. 

 A prize opportunity came in March, 1937, when the German-American brewers, Schaefer’s of Brooklyn auditioned for an Irish Tenor to broadcast on their radio show.  Feeney made a good impression at his audition on Schaefer’s St. Patrick’s Night programme.  Such an impression that he ended up fronting the popular music programme for more than two decades!

John Feeney had become a star and Irish America took him to its heart. Success in America was followed by sell-out tours of Ireland including a triumphant homecoming concert in Swinford, of which one critic observed: 

“.. many years ago I heard John McCormack sing in Dublin before he became world famous.  … It may seem an extravagant declaration, but I have never heard a truer tenor, or a voice with a greater range or compass or sweetness than that of Jack Feeney, save McCormack.”

But the world was changing, with WWII in the offing. John Feeney’s career continued to be a success, but by the end of the 50’s he realised his voice and health were in decline.  In the early 1960’s, Maura and John decided to return to Ireland for good.  She would take over her father’s mineral water business, which she had inherited, and John would be its PR front-man. 

John suffered a minor heart attack early in 1967 from which he appeared to make a complete recovery.  But in December of that year, while they were returning to Ballina from a visit to relatives, a minor car accident triggered a fatal heart attack and he died in Maura ‘s arms on the side of the road.  On Christmas Eve, 1967 John Feeney was buried in the Ruddy family grave in Ballina.

In the thrusting, new Ireland of the 1960’s and 70’s, the memory of John Feeney was soon forgotten, with other echoes of a distant and more difficult age.  This might have been the end of the story, were it not for chance and the persistence of his widow, Maura, who contacted Harry Bradshaw, radio producer, to revive Feeney’s reputation after all these years.

Now more than one hundred years after he was born, and fifty years since the peak of his popularity, John Feeney’s lyrical tenor voice can be heard across the airwaves again.   A great Irish tenor, lost some would say, in the shadow of John McCormack, is finally being recognised in his homeland.

It’s a tribute to the persistence of his life-long supporter and partner, Maura Ruddy.  Her love for him, which underpinned his success when he was alive, endured beyond his death, and even her own, to ensure that his music would never fade away.