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Stephen Garvey and ‘Mayo Mary’

County View

County View
John Healy

When the legendary bandleader, Stephen Garvey, took ill and died in Texas in 1962, his one great regret was that his operetta ‘Mayo Mary’ had never reached the stage.
Orchestra leader, composer, opera producer, church organist, choirmaster, musical genius, showman extraordinaire, the Castlebar music maestro had been a household name across the nation for over 40 years.
Of boundless energy, Stephen Garvey lived by music. It was his vocation from the day he was born, and as early as 1927 he had staged his first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at the Town Hall to rapturous acclaim, a success he was to repeat year after year until his eventual retirement. Organist and choir master at the Church of the Holy Rosary, many of his shows were fundraisers for the purchase of the church organ, and he later set up a family trust for the maintenance and upkeep of the organ.
After years on the ballroom circuit – in addition to UK and US tours – he finally bowed out in 1957 after forty years as orchestra leader and announced his intention of retiring to America. By then, he had achieved the milestone of having performed in all thirty two counties of Ireland – Arklow in County Wicklow marking the completion of the list – and played his last performance at the Arcadia Ballroom in Belcarra, where, for the finale, he was joined by his friend and fellow musician, Brose Walsh.
Stephen Garvey’s death in Houston, Texas, in 1962 evoked huge regret in Mayo and in the ensuing years there was a growing sense that it would be appropriate that his remains be repatriated to his native Castlebar. It proved to be a slow process – various committees came and went. In 1978, a plaque to his memory was unveiled at the old family home in Castle Street, and at a memorial Mass, Castlebar Choral Society premiered a hymn to Our Lady of Knock, composed by Stephen two years before his departure for the US.
But one final effort at repatriation was to prove successful. ‘The Friends of Stephen Garvey’ was re-formed to great local goodwill and enthusiasm, headed by the late Henry Downes, Billy Murphy, and Shane Rodgers.
A generous contribution from parish funds by Fr Paddy Curran, in recognition of Stephen’s lifelong dedication to the Church, helped defray the costs. And on an August day in 1996, following an emotional funeral ceremony, Stephen Garvey was laid to rest with his forebears in the family plot in the Old Cemetery in Castlebar.
The years were rolled back as the cortege made its way through the crowded streets, flanked by the Order of Malta, and led by old musical comrades, Jack Ruane, Tony Chambers and Brose Walsh.
The graveside oration was delivered by EU Commissioner, Padraig Flynn who, lauding the committee on its work, said ‘we don’t forget our own’.
But what of Stephen’s intended musical legacy to his home town, the composition ‘Mayo Mary’? Billy Murphy, one of the few people who once had possession of the actual libretto, used to recall how, on a trip to America, he had found himself in close proximity to the famous actor, Danny Kaye, as he passed through Kennedy Airport. The great man readily agreed to give his autograph, but the only suitable sheets of paper in the Castlebar man’s pocket was the libretto of ‘Mayo Mary’, on the back page of which Danny Kaye inscribed his signature.
But where the music is now – and indeed the prized autograph – is anybody’s guess, and ‘Mayo Mary’ still awaits the day when she will take to the stage in her native place.