A pall of sorrow hung over Callan this month. A great singing voice had fallen silent when Denis Walsh of Mellows Park, better known to his friends as Dency, said goodbye to the world. He passed away peacefully on May 17th at St Luke’s Hospital. He was in his eighties.
For decades he blazed trail as a popular local entertainer. He had performed at charity functions since 1951 and livened up many a journey for Callan folk heading to All-Irelands.
Nolan’s bus was the place to be when Dency sang his repertoire of hurling songs. It was better than the Albert Hall as Jackie or Eddie drove the bus and our very own tenor with the voice of an angel lifted the spirits of expectant fans en route to a Clash of the Ash in Dublin or an inter-county showdown.
I wrote about Dency in the 2004 book Callan through the Mists of Time, recalling his exploits, and in particular the events of April 1999, which was a tense and fretful month for Callan because Dency announced he was to end his long singing career.
He revealed to a saddened and disbelieving group of drinkers in the Cozy Inn that a performance due to be staged at a Search for a Star final the following month would be his last public appearance as a singer of traditional and operatic songs.
He had entered hundreds of competitions over a span of five decades, winning an impressive 38 of them. But, owing to health problems, he felt obliged to give his vocal chords a rest and take life easy.
He decision to retire coincided with his well-deserved selection to represent Callan’s Cozy Inn in the second round of the Smithwick’s Singing Pubs event, which was held on May 6th 1999 at the Springhill Court Hotel. He believed this might be an apt occasion on which to “bow out” of singing.
I spoke to Dency before the musical event. He looked back with a mixture of nostalgia and pride on his career. His happiest memories included the night he sang alongside the great Ruby Murray.
It was on the stage of the old cinema in Callan. The “softly-softly girl”, he called Ruby, referring to her sweet voice. And she took Dency to her heart, praising his interpretation and rendition of both classical hymns and rousing Irish ballads.
She told her Callan audience that Dency had “more captivating charm than Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind.”
Dency complimented her too, and she appreciated his kind remarks about her high profile visit to Callan. “Ruby and I were the dream duet”, he joked.
He also took part in the Vic Loving Show when it came to Callan. He almost put Vic and her professional entourage in the shade with his own performance, though the visiting celebrity was gracious enough to acknowledge Dency as “a great entertainer.”
“Dennis is a man after my own heart”, Vic enthused, pinning a single red rose on Dency’s lapel after the Callan man’s “class act.” That was a rare compliment from a performer who had packed the ballrooms and parochial halls of rural Ireland.
In the 60s and 70s, locals happily joined in the chorus when Dency sang on bus trips to the matches. He always kicked off a singsong with the Rose of Mooncoin, to which he famously added his own line: “Where the thrush ate the robin and the three balls of twine.”
By the time the fans got to Croke Park or the other major venues, they were well and truly psyched up for the game.
An admirer of Dency’s recalled for me an occasion that underlines the esteem in which he was held locally. Sometime in 1989, a large number of Callan men were on a restoration scheme at Tullamaine graveyard when one of them, Jack Condon, called for silence.
There was somebody about to sing on Radio Kilkenny. It was Dency Walsh. Everybody downed tools. Shovels were abandoned, trowels fell to the ground, sprongs were put aside.
Billhooks stopped slashing at a forest of weeds, and the men using them froze to the spot when the work supervisor emitted a loud “hush”! The engine of a growling chainsaw being used to cut down a tree in the graveyard suddenly cut out.
A deferential silence descended over the ancient cemetery. For a few precious moments, the workers rested amid Celtic Crosses and moss-covered gravestones, and wiped the sweat from their weary brows under a blazing midday sun.
The frowning work supervisor mellowed and broke into a beaming smile at the prospect of hearing her favourite tenor perform for the county. She granted special dispensation to the workers, allowing them a break to hear Dency.
They gathered around a tiny transistor that was mounted on a wall beside the entrance to the graveyard. They started to cheer as Sue Nunn announced that their pal and fellow worker was about to sing. But the beaming supervisor cried “hush, lads, he’s on”!
An angelic voice became audible, rising and swelling by the second to a heart-fluttering crescendo. The strains of the Holy City (more commonly known as Jerusalem) pierced the calm air of a hot summer’s day like a trumpet blast from Heaven.
The long-time friend of Dency’s who recounted for me said it reminded him of a scene from The Shawshank Redemption, in which a group of workers react in a similar way when an Italian soprano is heard over a public address system.
The workers at Tullamaine were tongue-tied, overwhelmed, and transmogrified by the heavenly tones of the man from Mellows Park.
Give his popularity; one can appreciate the near panic that greeted his retirement declaration in 1999. A bus had to be hired to bring locals to Springhill hotel to hear what many feared would be his Dency’s swansong.
Following his Singing Pubs performance, dozens of fans from Callan and neighbouring districts approached Dency and pleaded with him to re-think his decision to quit. Candles were lit in the Parish Church. Prayers winged their way to Heaven from a small town in Ireland, beseeching the Almighty himself to intervene.
The prayers were answered! After hours and days of consultations and appeals, Dency agreed to postpone his retirement “indefinitely.” He continued to entertain, right up to a few weeks ago when illness interjected, singing Hosannas to the Most High and hurling songs with equal relish, and crooning the best of Irish ballads in the pubs and by the firesides… in the town of his birth and countywide.
Throughout his colourful life and singing career Dency had a special reverence for the Holy City, and you could visualize the New Jerusalem looming on a far shimmering horizon when he gave it his all, whether he sang it on radio, in a church, in a pub, or at a charity fund-raiser. Regardless of the venue his audience caught a glimpse, be it ever so small, of the divine.
Now, the man from Mellows Park has passed through the gates of that celestial home from home that he honoured in song.
And I suspect that out there, somewhere, he’s still singing…in the place where the music never dies.
Pre-deceased by his parents Martin and Brigid, brothers Sonny and Jim his sister Margaret. Missed by his loving family, his nieces and nephews, grand nieces, grand nephews, relatives, neighbours and friends, especially Ann and Roland Komar and Bosco and Elaine Bryan.
– John Fitzgerald