Raised on songs and stories
Age shows no sign of diminishing Mick Lavelle’s thirst for singing, telling stories and enjoying life in familiar Westport haunts
THROUGH a life spent entertaining, Mick Lavelle has become somewhat of a local celebrity around Westport. An unassuming man and an unlikely ambassador for the town, he has been the subject of on-line discussions, television and radio shows on several continents. He also, undoubtedly, has one of Westport’s most recognisable faces. His story is one of a lifetime of song and merriment.
Mick grew up in Skirdagh outside Newport and, having left school around the age of 15, he went to work for a man in Kilmeena who used to buy turf from his family. From a brood of three boys and three girls, Mick spent seven years in the black and white parish in his mid-teens before returning home, but not before he had got his first taste of singing and entertaining.
“It happened that by chance there was a house when I was in Kilmeena – Walsh’s – which was a great visiting house, and they were doing a play there and there was a young fella’s part. Children weren’t allowed out at night so I was asked to do it. I remember going down to Dooega in Achill with Andrew Moran to perform the play for the first time. Sure there was only three or four cars that time between Newport and Westport and I had to sing this song ‘The Irish Rover’. Andrew had me out on the stage before I had a chance to get nervous, and that started me off.”
When he returned home from Kilmeena, Mick continued performing in plays and concerts in Newport, Glenhest and Derrada. Over the years he worked in the wrack factory in Newport before taking a job as a porter in Newport House for five years, where he met his wife-to-be, Annie. After 40 years of marriage Annie, died last year following an illness. Her anniversary occurs this week.
“I met Grace Kelly in Newport House and Seán Lemass stayed there, he was Taoiseach at the time, and I used to sing for him at night. I also met Annie there. She always encouraged my performing and supported me, and she never got jealous or annoyed with the attention.”
By his own admission, Mick worked at everything. “I was on the road, in the textiles in Westport, the Railway Hotel, anywhere there was work. People were glad to have a job those times.” All the while though, Mick remained dedicated to entertainment, and soon the accolades began to come. However, Mick’s stage presence in the early days was more rock n’ roll than the traditional seanchaí he has become over the intervening decades.
“I used to take a drink that time for courage, though it was dear back then, at ten pence a pint, which was a lot of money, and then I’d land for a concert and they wouldn’t let me on stage, and they’d be giving out to me. I wasn’t drunk ’cause I hadn’t enough money to get drunk, but they used to tell me I wasn’t capable. I gave up the drink then and I’m a pioneer for over 50 years now.”
In more recent times, Mick’s successes have made an encounter with him a most sought-after experience for many visitors to Westport.
He is a former Connacht lilting, singing and storytelling champion, but never took competing with his talents any further; for him it was more about taking part and the enjoyment he got out of it. One of his most famous moments came in 1991 when he was crowned King of the Culchies. This opened doors for him and he was invited to appear several times on RTÉ’s entertainment show ‘Secrets’, which was hosted by Gerry Ryan. Mick treats entertaining celebrities and dignitaries no different than his daily routine, and the Mayor of Boston has experienced his wit first hand, while a picture still adorns his sideboard of him singing for then President of Ireland, the late Dr Patrick Hillery, whom he entertained on two separate occasions in the eighties.
When Matt Molloy came to Westport Mick performed with the Chieftains on the opening night of Matt’s pub. It was the beginning of a relationship that has prospered in the last 20 years, and Mick has frequented the landmark bar almost every night since.
“Matt and his family were very good to me. Matt Molloy’s is still my favourite haunt. I’ve been in a lot of pubs in my time but Matt Molloy’s is the best pub I ever entertained in. It is just the right size and there is a real atmosphere in there. People did their pubs up over the years and went for grandeur, and it spoiled them, but Matt never changed his. Television crews have come there from all over the world and I have sung songs for them, and Matt brought me to Dublin entertaining and brought me on the ‘Late Late Show’ – that was back in Gay Byrne’s time.”
A walking jukebox, Mick Lavelle claims to know over 1,000 songs, and few could doubt him. He says he knows the names of them all and has collected so many songs in his memory because years ago he had to sing for the same audience and had to change his set-list all the time. In his modern role as an entertainer things have changed however, and Mick says that the different crowds he meets in Molloy’s every night are usually familiar with the same songs.
“The Americans like the old songs, stories and the craic. When tourists come here they don’t want to listen to country and western because they have that at home, they want old ballads and humorous songs.” Mick also admits that a lot of the stories he is renowned for telling are ‘ould yarns’ that he has added to.
Mick remains firmly attached to his home in one of Westport’s sleepiest cul de sacs, Prospect Avenue. Not much has changed there, he says, except for the amount of people visiting the labour exchange next door. Of course, he has noticed great changes in Westport, but Mick still feels it is a great town to live in and visit.
“I have had numerous letters from people I met over the years saying they want to come back to the town, and its friendly people. I have a lot of friends around the place, I have sisters still alive, though not in Westport, but my brothers are dead. It’s gone to the time now when you don’t know anyone, they are all strangers. You used to always meet people you knew or worked with but it’s not like that now. The only time you meet people you knew now is at a funeral. I’ve seen many fine people pass on, when you look at The Mayo News every week, you’d always see people you knew from out the country who have passed on.”
Mick had a quadruple by-pass three years ago, which inadvertently improved his ability to entertain. He had been smoking for over 50 years but gave them up after the operation. He now contends that his voice has never been better. He is not as involved with charities like the Mental Health Association and the Wheelchair Association as he used to be, but he recently recorded a CD in aid of Westport Lions Club, and will make another one soon which he hopes will raise funds for their initiatives in Kenya. Mick’s involvement with Comhaltas has similarly dwindled in recent years, but he still maintains strong links with the Westport group, and his wide circle of friends in the organisation.
Age means little to Mick Lavelle, who will soon enter his eighth decade still showing no sign of slowing down.
“I still go down the town every night, but at weekends the pubs are busy with hen parties, duck parties and stag parties. There is no sign of me slowing down though, I still love rambling down there, and only for I have that I don’t know what I’d do. I have a lot of good memories, times were hard and times have changed, but between the entertainment and all that I have been kept going and that is the way I hope it will stay.”
Age Young at heart
Home Westport, but not a Covie
Occupation Wandering troubadour
Happiest when Entertaining the masses in Matt Molloy’s pub