By Gerry Molumby
WITH the 100th anniversary commemorations of World War 1 in mind, a visit to the Warwickshire pub where the conflict’s most famous marching song was written, gives pause for thought.
‘It’s A Long Way to Tipperary’ was penned in a pub now known as The Tipperary Inn in Balsall Common, Warwickshire in the British midlands. Originally called The Plough Inn, in the leafy agricultural county of Warwickshire, it was where shy introvert Harry Williams lived with his family in 1900 – his father managed the pub.
From an early age, Harry showed a talent for writing songs. During his adolescence – confined to a wheelchair following a childhood accident in which he broke both of his legs – he spent most of his time studying music and poetry, becoming an accomplished pianist and mandolin player.
By contrast, extrovert music hall showman Jack Judge, who sold fish regularly outside the pub, struck up a friendship with Harry. Together they went on to compose many songs together in a musical collaboration which has stood the test of time.
AN UNLIKELY PARTNERSHIP
Their partnership lasted fifteen years, during which they wrote thirty two songs. One of them, which started life in 1909 as a nostalgic music hall Irish ballad It’s A Long Long Way to Connemara (where a young Irish emigrant is yearning for his girl in County Galway), was destined to become the most famous worldwide army marching song ever.
Jack was a regular music hall performer and had the lyrics and music of their sentimental Connemara song and could not resist a bet he was given in 1912 while performing in the Grand Theatre, Stalybridge, near Manchester.
A fellow performer challenged him that he could not “come in tomorrow night with a brand new song he had composed overnight”! Jack simply changed Connemara to Tipperary (his grandfather’s home county) and is said to have brought the house down as the curtain fell on the premiere performance of It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary.
London publisher Bert Feldman promised he would publish the song, but on two conditions. He suggested that they delete one ‘long’ from the title and change the ballad into a marching song for both solo and choral singing. So as the printing presses cranked up in London in 1912, three million copies of the sheet music were printed for sale and many million more after the War.
Both men earned £164,000 between them. Many would regard that as a fortune today, but then it was an absolute fortune. The money allowed Harry to buy the Plough Inn for his father and they duly changed its name to the Tipperary Inn. The pub stayed in the family for forty years, its walls today adorned to the memory of Harry and Jack.
COMFORT IN THE TRENCHES
During the First World War, Daily Mail correspondent George Curnock saw the Connaught Rangers Irish Regiment singing the song in full tenor voice as they marched through Boulogne on August 13, 1914. Popular Irish tenor of the time, Count John McCormack recorded it two months later. Then the regiments from other countries of the Empire took it ‘home’ with them in 1918 – all of which helped its worldwide popularity and endurance.
Other composers cashed in by writing other Tipperary-themed World War I songs, such as I’m a Long Way From Tipperary, I’m Going Back to Tipperary, and It May Be Far To Tipperary It’s a Longer Way To Tennessee.
Its popularity continued into the Second World War and is up there with other songs of its time like Keep The Home Fires Burning, consoling soldiers who just wanted to return home “to the sweetest girl I know”; it was featured in the 1951 film On Moonlight Bay and the stage show O What A Lovely War, even featuring in U.S. TV series The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Siobhan Harrison from BBC Warwickshire recorded the radio programme World War 1 At Home from the Tipperary Inn, and local folksinger Wes Finch sang the song in its original ballad format. Listen to the documentary at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01svw1q.