The tale within Fairytale of New York



The musical man of medicine Dr Arthur Colahan


“And the boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay, and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.”

Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York gets everywhere at this time of year. Even Tesco in Narborough Road, where this week I was shopping and listening to Shane deliver the above lyric in his magical closing time voice.

Galway Bay, if you didn’t know, is a song designed to carouse the hearts of homesick Irish the world over. It has an uncomplicated melody and all the subtlety of a soft focus tourist board montage…the gentle ripple of the trout stream, the murmur of coastal Gaelic, breezes perfumed by heather.

So it may surprise you to learn this well known ditty was written in a Leicester residential street by a prison doctor.

Dr Arthur Nicholas Whistler Colahan penned Galway Bay at 9 Prebend Street, in Highfields.

Arthur as a young man with eyes as deep as the ocean

Arthur’s former home, surgery and last place on earth

The imagery of this soporific standard couldn’t have been in greater contrast to the cold steel bars and high walls that he knew while walking the narrow Victorian corridors of HMP Leicester. At the prison, in Welford Road, Arthur cared for the neurologically impaired.

In 2002, the Leicester Mercury had the good fortune to speak with Cecilia Upton (nee Lardner), a retired teacher living in Whitwick.

She revealed that in 1930, Dr Colahan and his wife, Maisin, became her godparents. Significantly, Cecilia’s parents Tom and Mary Lardner, who lived in New Street, Whitwick, also heralded from Galway.

Mrs Upton told us that when her sister, Mary, was 14 she went to work for the Colahans at their three-storey Victorian home and surgery in Leicester.

It was there Mary carried out domestic duties and worked on reception. It just so happens that young Mary Lardner had a splendid singing voice and, as soon as Dr Colahan penned something new, he would get this Leicestershire songbird to give it the once over.

However, it wasn’t the Whitwick teenager who made Galway Bay a 1947 classic. That was down to the silken tonsils of crooners’ crooner Bing Crosby.

Dr Colahan, who was born in Enniskillen and had spent his formative years in Galway, died at home in Leicester on September 15, 1952.

His body was to make the final journey back to Ireland’s west coast, where, today, his bones lie buried in an unmarked grave at Bohermore cemetery.

In Leicester, we managed to go one better and erected a plaque to this musical man of medicine outside his city home.


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Arthur as a young, very handsome man

Arthur in his youth


Galway Bay

If you ever go across the sea to Ireland,
Then maybe at the closin’ of your day
You will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh
And see the sun go down on Galway Bay.

And if there’s to be a life in the hereafter –
And somehow I’m sure there’s going to be –
I will ask my God to let me make my heaven
In that dear land across the Irish sea.

Just to hear again the ripple of the trout stream
And the women in the meadows making hay,
To sit beside the turf fire in the cabin
And watch the barefoot gossoons at their play.

For the breezes blowin’ across the sea from Ireland
Are perfumed by the heather as they blow.
And the women in the upland diggin’ praties
Speak a language that the strangers do not know.

For the strangers came and tried to teach us their way.
They scorned us just for bein’ what we are.
But they might as well go chasin’ after moon beams
Or light a penny candle from a star.

And if there’s to be a life in the hereafter –
And somehow I’m sure there’s going to be –
I will ask my God to let me make my heaven,
In that dear land across the Irish sea.


#This article is a hybrid of something I wrote for the Mercury’s Leicestershire in 100 Objects and something I penned this morning.

Images courtesy of the Leicester Mercury.

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