Just short of 30 years since the final curtain came down on the Castlebar International Song Contest, that iconic and legendary festival is finally to be chronicled for all time in book form. The written record of the history of the contest, in its time regarded as one of the foremost in the world, is to be launched at the end of next month.
Paddy McGuinness, the last Director of the Contest in 1988, has taken on the onerous task of compiling the definitive history of the contest. It has been a major challenge, but it has also been a labour of love, and anyone familiar with Paddy McGuinness’s meticulous approach to anything he takes on will have no doubt but that the book will be an unique record of an unique event.
The Castlebar Song Contest was launched in 1966 as a modest enough one-night promotion. Its purpose was to find a song to put Castlebar on the map, but even the most optimistic of its organisers would have been hard pressed, on that October night in the Royal Ballroom, to predict its future success. The brainchild of Michael J Egan, President of the Chamber of Commerce, the contest took wings after that first year.
Under the aegis of a representative committee, headed by Director John MacHale, the event never lacked for ambition. By 1970, RTÉ had come on board to transmit the final from the Royal Ballroom on national TV - a rival for the Rose of Tralee festival. By that stage as well, the full RTÉ Concert Orchestra had become the festival’s resident guests. The one night stand had become by now a week long festival, and ancillary activities included song writing workshops, visits by top composers to the local schools, and the daily broadcast from Castlebar of the morning RTÉ radio programmes by Mike Murphy, Larry Gogan and Val Joyce.
As its fame grew, so did the glamour of the event. The top names in the music industry flocked to Castlebar when a IR£20,000 top prize made it the second biggest song contest in the world. Terry Wogan and Gay Byrne were regular comperes; Johnny Cash, Acker Bilk, Mary O’Hara, The Tremeloes, Chris Barber among the headliners. Jimmy Kennedy, doyen of songwriters (Isle of Capri, South of the Border, Red Sails in the Sunset) became the Castlebar patron, later to be joined by illustrious song writers like Paul Anka and Neil Sedaka.
For 22 years, the Song Contest continued to sparkle, an annual extravaganza of glitz and glamour and sheer entertainment which drew participants from all over the world. John MacHale was succeeded as Director by Seán Horkan, then Peadar Flynn, Henry McGlade and Paddy McGuinness. Additional sponsors came on board to join local businessmen like Michael McDermott, Cathal Duffy and Paddy Jennings in financing the event.
There will be stories aplenty to be told at what should be a nostalgic event in the Linenhall when the Paddy McGuinness opus is launched on March 30. The Castlebar Song Contest was a real community event, it was something which generated huge goodwill and support in the town and beyond. It was ambitious, professional, influential and hugely newsworthy. It put the town firmly in the headlines, and won for it the prestige and status which its founders had set out to achieve.
No doubt, as the launch night wears on, and the mood becomes more mellow, there will even be the wistful suggestion that perhaps the song contest should be revived, that the town might be ready to relive old glories.
But the past is another country, and those golden years came about only because the right people, with the right idea, came together at the right time, in the right place.