It’s just over a century ago that one of Ireland’s favourite ballads, “When It’s Moonlight In Mayo”, was first performed to vaudeville audiences in the United States – and the earliest recordings of the enduring melody were made in 1915, 100 years ago this year.
In the intervening years, the lovely song, composed by Percy Wenrich with lyrics by Jack Mahoney, has been recorded by some of the world’s most popular male and female vocalists and continues to be a favorite with accomplished singers all over the world.
Over the decades, the song title has been shortened to Moonlight in Mayo, but the melody and lyrics have not changed since it first won the hearts of a packed Majestic Theatre in Chicago in 1914 when Percy Wenrich, and his partner, Dolly Connolly, sang the ballad.
Long since adapted as the Mayo anthem, Moonlight in Mayo is sung with pride and joy by Mayo people wherever they meet in the world.
The song’s evocation of exile, and the loneliness of the emigrant, reflected in the sense of loss and distance felt by those left at home, still resonates today in a country that sadly continues to depend on the safety valve of emigration.
It’s hard to believe that the song was originally popular during the Ragtime music era (1895-1918) in the United States. My research suggests the song was written in 1913 and regularly performed by Wenrich and Connolly, but did not become a hit until two years later.
In fact, the song was a slow-burner as discovered by American music researcher, Bill Edwards (a.k.a. Professor Bill).
The Music Trade Review of April 24, 1915, explained:
“Some popular songs have sought success and won it. Others have won success through their intrinsic merit, not suddenly and overnight, as it were, but gradually, the sort of success that generally means a long and profitable life. One of the numbers to be included in this category is “When It’s Moonlight in Mayo,” the beautiful Irish ballad by Jack Mahoney and Percy Wenrich, two of the stars in the music game.”
A Hit in New York
Percy Wenrich, also remembered for his Ragtime piano instrumentals, and Jack Mahoney were among the most successful Tin Pan Alley songwriting partnerships in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century when they penned When It’s Moonlight in Mayo.
Percy Wenrich was born in Joplin, Missouri, on January 23, 1887 and died on March 17, 1952. His songwriting partner, Jack Mahoney, was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1882 and died in New York City in 1945.
And while Wenrich and Dolly Connolly regularly sang the ballad from 1913 on at shows across the United States, it was not until that night in Chicago that the song struck a chord with audiences.
When It’s Moonlight In Mayo was originally made popular by the American singer and actor, Fiske O’Hara, known as the Irish Tenor. Born George Russ Cleary Fiske O’Hara on March 11, 1878, in Rockland, Maine, he died on August 2, 1945, in Hollywood, California, aged 67, and is buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
O’Hara first introduced “When It’s Moonlight in Mayo” in his Irish comedy-drama, “Jack’s Romance,” winning rave reviews for the song from New York theatre critics of the time with one writer in the New York American newspaper telling readers:
“Fiske O’Hara, the popular romantic actor of the good-natured Irish go-lucky types, had plenty of songs in his new play, ‘Jack’s Romance.’ But the other day he accidentally came across another called ‘When It’s Moonlight in Mayo.’ And Fiske O’Hara an hour later was glad that he did hear it, for he had picked for himself the ballad hit of the season.”
The earliest recording of Moonlight in Mayo
The earliest recording that I could find of Moonlight In Mayo is by Will Oakland who made a recording of the song on April 6th, 1915, in Camden, New Jersey. Will Oakland (1880-1956) was an American Countertenor, famed for his exceptionally high vocal range. The recording is part of the United State’s Library of Congress National Jukebox.
Another early recording of the song, made in New York, dates from 20 April 1915, with the release date of the 78 RPM record in July 1915.
The recording is by the famous Canadian tenor, Henry Burr ( born Harry Haley McClaskey in New Brunswick, 1885-1941). It’s a lovely recording by Burr with backing vocals by the Peerless Quartet. The recording on the Columbia Graphophone Company label can be found at the link above in the Canadian Historical Sound Recordings section of the Library and Archives of Canada.
A hit on YouTube
YouTube has a huge number of performances of Moonlight In Mayo from polished recordings by famous stars such as Daniel O’Donnell to heartfelt renditions from living-rooms all over world, including one video of an eighty-five-year-old lady singing the song in Irish – and sing-a-long pub performances from ballad singers like The Mulloy Brothers from Mulranny.
Mayo International Choral Festival organisers gave a rousing rendition of ‘Moonlight in Mayo’ from the summit of Croagh Patrick at the 2014 launch of the festival.
The Irish singers who are most associated with Moonlight in Mayo are Bridie Gallagher (“The Girl from Donegal”) and famous Irish tenors from the nineteen forties through to the nineteen sixties such as Josef Lock, Connie Foley, and Paddy McManus.
The Swinford-born tenor, John Feeney (1903-1967) also had a big hit with the song, recorded on his first disc for Decca Records in New York 1934, and it was to become Feeney’s signature tune until his untimely death in 1967.
But it’s Bridie Gallagher who tops the Moonlight in Mayo YouTube charts with nearly 37,000 views to date, closely followed by Paddy Reilly’s haunting version of the ballad, which has received over 22,000 views, just a sample of the huge list of YouTube performances, and further evidence of the melody’s continuing popularity.
So what is the explanation for the timeless appeal to people of all ages of what is in truth an over-sentimental song?
The critic in the New York American, a century ago, most eloquently summed up the enduring appeal of When It’s Moonlight in Mayo.
“Like all successful ballads, it combines the great beauty of melody with the simplicity of form. The tune haunts your ear like some witching folk song you’ve learned as a child, yet not suggesting any definite one because it is purely original and not in the least an imitation.”
The lyrics of When It’s Moonlight in Mayo.
When It’s Moonlight in Mayo
(Two Irish Eyes Are Shining)
It’s just a year ago today I left old Erin’s Isle
My heart was throbbing in the soft light of my colleen’s smile
In all my dreams I seem to hear her sweet voice soft and low
I know she’s waiting where we said goodbye in old Mayo
For two Irish eyes are shining
And an Irish heart is pining
Where I kissed her and caressed her
In the gloaming long ago
Loving Irish arms will press me
And true Irish love caress me
And sweet Irish lips will bless me
When it’s Moonlight in Mayo
Her Irish eyes like beacons shine all in the darkest night
I know their sweet love beams will always fill the world with light
The roses on her cheeks will lend enchantment to the scene
And when shamrocks wear the dew I’ll wed my sweet Colleen