John (Jack) Feeney
Mayo’s famous tenor the “Mayo Nightingale” impressed his audiences within the United States. His singing career spanned thirty years, “his tenor voice got deeper, almost baritone-like as he got older.” [i] Irish Independent 28/09/2003
John Feeney (Jack) was born on the 9th August 1903. He was the fourth of seven children, (five boys plus two girls) in the family. His father was Patrick and his mother Mary from Swinford, Co. Mayo. His parents operated a grocery business from their house on Main Street plus Landowners of a local pub. He received his early musical instruction at the Marist Brother’s School Choir while a student at Swinford National School. He worked on his father’s farm in Dunmore, Co. Galway but had a “dream’ of singing at Carnegie Hall in the U.S. Following his father’s demise he assisted his mother with the family business aged just eleven years. [ii]
In England he joined some construction work one of his jobs was on the building of Wembley Stadium in London. He returned to Dublin in 1926 to work on a service tunnel under the river Liffey. [iii]
He emigrated to the United States in 1928 on the SS Samaria he is listed on ship’s manifest of “Alien Passengers” as a clerk, six ft. tall, dark complexion with brown hair, blue eyes, with fifty dollars in cash.” His first job was with Western Electric in New Jersey but it folded during the Great Depression. He wrote columns titled “Irish Social Circle for the ‘Irish Echo.” During the war he volunteered for service but continued with his singing. [iv]
Feeney married Maura Reilly during February 1932 in Brooklyn New York. Maura was from Ballina, Co. Mayo, her family owned The Mineral Water Company. (Later following her father’s demise she inherited the business, Hugh Ruddy and Co.) On their return to Ireland she operated the business while John Feeney acted as its P.R. Officer.
He sang at many social occasions’ i.e. local school ceremonies, weddings, functions. He had minor attendances on T.V and in Films. Bohola’s William Casey and Bill O’ Dwyer secured a place for Feeney with a voice coach at the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. [v] John Feeney performed numerous times on the Shaefer Radio Show. His voice was described as “easy, warm and relaxed,” his repertoire included Irish favourites plus classical recitals of Mozart, Handel and Schubert. [vi] Among his famous numbers with the Decca Label, recorded on 78 rpm’s was “Moonlight in Mayo” plus “Galway Bay.” He sang at the occasion of the 1947 All-Ireland Final between Cavan and Kerry at New York’s Polo Grounds. During his 30 – Professional career Feeney recorded fifty 78rpm records while performing in concerts, at social occasions plus entertaining on radio programmes. [vii] He performed at the Boston Symphony Hall, Philadelphia Academy of Music. During his Irish Tours he performed at The Olympia and Theatre Royal in Dublin, The Cork Opera House plus The Savoy Theatre Limerick. He also sang for his own people at St. Murdoch’s Cathedral in Ballina. [viii]
He retired to Ireland during 1964. Unfortunately he was killed in a road accident in Mayo during 1967. He was buried in the Ruddy Family grave, Ballina on Christmas Eve, 1967. [ix]
Maura Feeney was contacted by Harry Bradshaw when he was compiling a show, he met her in South County Dublin where she trusted him to take John Feeney’s work contained in five boxes of tapes, discs, files, phonogram albums also scripts to honour her husband, (prior to her demise during 1987 in the U.S. Bradshaw at first refused but she suggested she would bin material so he then collected all Feeney’s materials. Harry Bradshaw produced a Double C.D. collection called “When it’s Moonlight in Mayo” on the occasion of the Centenary of Feeney’s death during 1986. According to The Irish Times he was “The Other Tenor” or “The Mayo Nightingale.” [x]
These remarks by a critic at Feeney’s Homecoming Concert in Swinford portray his greatness; “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. Townland’s – Love Old Sweet Song was produced by Roy Esmonde of Media Nua for RTE Television. [xi]
On the 23rd September 2016 an evening of story and song of Feeney was held in Swinford Cultural Centre.[xii]
Swinford annually hosts the Feile na Samha, John Feeney Musical Festival. The Gateway Hotel in Swinford remembers him with the Jack Feeney Lounge. A Commemorative Plaque was unveiled in his honour in Swinford during September 2016.
Johnny Mee mentioned John Feeney in his ‘Auld Stock’ column in the Connaught Telegraph of 30th March 2021 on page26.
[ii] Reilly, Terry. 2012 ‘Amazing Mayo Stories’, Yew Plain Publishing. Ballina.
[iii] Reilly, Terry. 2012 ‘Amazing Mayo Stories’, Yew Plain Publishing. Ballina.