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Castlebar Song Contest to be chronicled for posterity

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Castlebar Song Contest to be chronicled for posterity


Edwin McGreal

It may be consigned to history but to the history books it has yet to enter.
The Castlebar International Song Contest was an unthinkably glamourous show which ran in the town from 1966 to 1988 and brought a panache to the town during years which were, for the most part, largely listless.
From another age it may be but it is still spoken of in exciting tones around the town and one of the men centrally involved in the contest for virtually every year has decided the time is right to commit to the history books the story of the Castlebar Song Contest.
Paddy McGuinness was a spectator in the first year of the contest but filled virtually every role imaginable from that year. From stage production to a member of the jury to director of the organising committee, McGuinness was one of the many known locals whose work allowed the contest to prosper.
“It will always be a piece of history in Castlebar and I think it is important that it is properly recorded for future generations. It was absolutely huge in its day and, at one stage, the prizemoney on offer for the winning entry was bettered only by a contest in Japan. The sky was literally the limit for it,” McGuinness told The Mayo News.
The contest was started with the stated aim of getting a song that would identify with Castlebar in the same way as the Rose of Tralee and Mary of Dungloe. Paddy Jennings, owner of the Travellers Friend Hotel and Royal Ballroom (father of current proprietor Pat), Gerry McDonnell, who was manager of the Royal Ballroom and local solicitor Michael Joe Egan were the men who got the contest up and running.
The success of the first year saw the contest become an annual event and some of the best recording artists of the day, both nationally and internationally, flocked to Castlebar with as many as fifteen different countries represented in some years.
Such was the success of the contest that from 1973 until the conclusion of the contest in 1988, RTÉ broadcast the finals live. Given that this was a time (1973) when the only GAA games screened live were the All-Ireland hurling and football finals, it puts such a scenario in context.
A flavour of the magnitude of the contest can be seen by some of those who took part. Guests included the Dubliners, Horslips, Christy Moore and Johnny Logan while some of the winning singers/performers included Shay Healy, Brendan Graham, Linda Martin, Tony Stevens and Butch Moore. Three of Ireland’s greatest ever broadcaster - Gay Byrne, Terry Wogan and Mike Murphy - all acted as compères for the contest.
There was one significant local win when the band La Salle won the overall competition in 1971 with Feeling I’ve Got It Made with well-known Castlebar newsreader Michael Murphy as composer and the band featuring some of his brothers and other locals.
The contest was, of course, a huge boon to the local economy with hotels and guesthouses in the town typically full for the five day duration of the contest while the final would often see Westport hotels booked out too.
But the contest was of its time and come the late 1980s, the writing was on the wall.
“It was always under financial strain and it really was too much of a financial strain for a voluntary organisation to continue running it. We had built up substantial debts for a voluntary committee and we worked on paying them back and by the time we had the debt cleared, the era of the song contests had peaked. People were disappointed that we didn’t keep it going but I think the time was right, we went out at the top and didn’t allow it to fizzle out.”
But now, Paddy McGuinness admits, seems like the right time to chronicle the contest.
“I plan to include contributions from members of the public who attended or who had any association with the contest at any time during its 22 year duration.  My hope is that many will write a short piece on their memories/opinions - complimentary or critical, serious or funny - of the event. ”
He is also trying to trace programmes from 1967, 1968, 1970, 1973 and 1974.
Anyone wishing to help in any way can contact Paddy McGuinness on 087 6538126 or email info@albany.ie.