THE JIMMY WOULFE COLUMN
TWENTY-one years ago, young Limerick musician, Denis Allen, was asked to write a song for a new festival. That song, Limerick You're A Lady, went on to become the city's unofficial anthem. JIMMY WOULFE talks to the man who is still striking all the right chords.
*ANTHEM is defined in the dictionary as a song of loyalty.
Dubliners rally to Molly Malone as do Corkonians to 'De Banks'. Limerick's adopted song of inspiration is now of age, having been penned 21 years ago.
Denis Allen's magnificent composition, Limerick You're A Lady, emerged on the pages of a school jotter late one night after getting home from a showband gig.
It was meant that his great friend, Tommy Drennan, would record it, as he had done with many other of Denis' compositions.
However, when that plan had to be altered, Denis decided to kick on and record it himself.
Having spent most of his career as an instrumentalist with numerous local groups and showbands, Denis Allen's voice and song were embraced by the public.
Limerick had a new icon of verse and melody.
As a boy one of Denis' friends was Bill Whelan who was to go onto international acclaim with Riverdance.
"My mother, who was a Lundon from Kilteely, ran tea-rooms at Upper William Street and Whelan's had a newsagent's next door. Bill Whelan and I as toddlers used to play on the street together. I remember getting spins on his tricycle when I didn't have one ."
From an early age, Denis came under the influence of classical music as his father was a keen lover of opera.
"My father was a member of the Jesuit choir for 50 years. As a child you don't have any discerning notions; it's just music. I could have been going around whistling Faust as easily as anything else."
As his appreciation of music grew, Denis began to develop a more contemporary taste and became a keen fan of Buddy Holly, Elvis and Eddie Corcoran.
At John Street national school he played the tin whistle in the school band.
"It was a great school with only six classes. Everybody knew everybody else. And then I went to CBS secondary and it was a major a change. It seemed so big compared to John Street and you seemed to know nobody. I couldn't handle it and left after two years and got a job in Tom Sheehan architect's office where I began to train as a draftsman doing night classes at the technical school."
By this time Denis had begun to appear with different musical groups at city venues.
*After winning a music competition at the Crescent Hall, with a number of other musicians who called themselves The Casuals, he was approached by Brendan "Butch" Frawley to play at candlelight dinners in the Royal George. This was his first introduction to playing as a professional musician.
"There I was in a trio with blue coats with black collars and a dicky bow. I didn't have a clue what we were playing but I just strummed along and sang a few songs."
He hit the showband trail for a period with the Berwyn band which had been put together and managed by that man of many talents, Mick Crowe.
"Brendan Frawley was the band leader, Joe Cantillon, who is now a priest, was in it with his brother, Tommy, Gerry O'Brien, Ray Fitzgerald, a fantastic musician, Tom Frost on drums, Frankie Phelan on trombone, Dave McCormack on trumpet and Mick Falahy on saxophone. Steve Donoghue was also with the band.
"I remember going into my boss, Mr Sheehan asking him for my summer holidays in February as we were going on a tour to England. Most bosses would tell you: 'take a running leap', but he didn't. The Berwyn used to play Saturday nights at the Old Crescent clubhouse, then in Rathbane."
Denis left the Berwyn for a newly formed group, Bojangle which went on to back Rory Gallagher at the Savoy for two of his concerts.
In 1973 Tommy Drennan was looking for a guitar player for his band Top League, and Denis decided to join him full-time on the road.
"Tommy and Bryan Meehan gave me fantastic encouragement. Tommy recorded a complete album of songs I had written and one of them, Beautiful Peace, went to number one at Christmas. It was recorded at the Eamonn Andrews studio in Dublin and released under the EMI label."
Top League had a number of hit successes with songs written by Denis.
*In 1979 he was approached by Shay Kinsella and John Loftus to write a song to promote a Limerick Lady festival they were starting.
"I was playing with Shaun O'Dowd and Ding-A-Ling at that stage. Shay and John asked me if I would write a song which they wanted Tommy Drennan to record. Tommy was the singer synonymous with Limerick. I was a musician in a band and nobody outside of Limerick would have heard of me. Tommy had just recorded a single, Sunshine Lover, which was just to come out and he didn't want to bring out two singles at the same time so that was how I ended up writing and singing it.
"I was living in Glasgow Park and I wrote Limerick You're A Lady at three o'clock one night after getting home from a gig. I wrote the lyrics in about an hour and then I dabbled around with a melody. The following day I did a demo tape and John and Shay were delighted with it.
"I didn't have a studio at that time and I went to Dublin with Bryan Meehan, Bobby O'Driscoll and Des Reynolds.
"It must have been the cheapest recording ever. We got to the studio at 8pm and we were finished within three hours."
With his demo tape in hand, Denis traipsed around all the main record companies in Dublin getting a unanimous 'no thank you'.
Undaunted he went to a record company where he paid to have 500 copies pressed under his own Middle 8 label.
Denis decided to suss-out some of the best known disc jockeys in RTE radio.
"I went to Montrose and met Paschal Mooney and he took me in to where Larry Gogan's show was being broadcast. Bill O'Donovan was producing and out of the blue, Larry Gogan did a brief interview on air with me, something he rarely does. He played it and Mike Murphy played it and people began to look for this record, Limerick You're A Lady. As it wasn't on a recognised label, none of the shops had heard of it."
Quickly one of the big players latched onto it and released Limerick You're A Lady nationwide and within a few weeks Denis sang it on the Late Late Show in October 1979.
After that it just took off and was in the charts for over a year holding the number one slot for weeks.
Since then it has been recorded by Irish performers such as Suzanne Murphy, Joe Dolan and the late Frank Patterson.
*At the time Denis had the unusual distinction of being in the charts as a singer and a songwriter, as Shaun O'Dowd had a hit with a number called Reach Out penned by Denis at the same time.
"I was still in Ding-A-Ling and we had two records in the top 10," he recalls.
Subsequently, Denis teamed up with the Fureys for some of their English tours.
"I wrote a song for them called Lonely in London which was included in one of their albums. I did a 40-minute spot before the Fureys came on stage, a singer-songwriter thing."
Having converted the garage of his home in Mill Road, Rosbrien, into a well-equipped recording studio, Denis combines this with doing weekend work around the country.
At present he is producing a tape of local tenor, Michael Nash.
Among the big name performers who regularly use his recording studio are Sharon Shannon.
He has been invited to join Denis Ryan of Ryans Fancy fame in Canada next St Patrick's Day for a concert there.
"I still write and am always doodling around with ideas. Louise Morrissey was up in my studio recording recently and she wanted to know if I had any new material she could use as they are going back on the road as a folk act. People do keep in touch, knowing me as a songwriter."
He feels that he has written many songs which are, in his opinion, better than Limerick You're A Lady.
"But at the end of the day it's the public who decide what is a good song," he says.
Denis is married with two daughters who are in their twenties.