FRANK Ryan, of Tallow, county Waterford was born on November 5, 1900, and one hundred years later on November 24, 2000, the people of Tallow unveiled a bust of the great singer to commemorate his life and express their appreciation of the honour and reflected glory his achievements have brought to the Co. Waterford town.

  Frank was actually born in Fermoy but came to Tallow at the age of six. He was reared in Tallow, worked in Tallow, reared his family in Tallow, and had a great love of County Waterford. He was always referred to as 'the Waterford tenor.' Though Frank sang as a boy soprano in the local Tallow Churches his development as a singer was a late one.  Frank was first and foremost a farmer and a butcher and, in fact, he was working on his farm when he died suddenly on July 12, 1965.

  

  He joined the old I.R.A. as a young man and fought in the War of Independence in which he became Commandant of the West Waterford Brigade. It was not until he was in his early thirties that his beautiful tenor voice was discovered. He sang with the Fermoy Choral Society in The Mikado, The Gondoliers and The Geisha. He won the Gold Medal at the Feis Ceoil, Dublin, in 1936, and the adjudicator commented that his natural voice was even better than John McCormack's. The newspapers reported, 'a new McCormack discovered.' As a result of the Feis Ceoil award, he was a popular choice for operas and concerts, singing for four seasons with the Dublin Operatic Society in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin. Among his fellow artists during that time was the great Australian soprano, Joan Hammond. He was also a regular in opera at the old Cork Opera House. He was a constant visitor to England where he was in great demand for concerts and dinners organised by the various Irish County Associations. His English ventures at a later date included a packed concert at Londonís Albert Hall. He had a similar rapport with the Irish County Associations in America, the highlights of which were his invitation to travel with the Kerry and Cavan teams for the Polo Grounds All Ireland in 1947 to sing at the various functions, culminating in another packed out concert at New York's Carnegie Hall. As a result of this he received an invitation to be a guest of President Harry Truman at the St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1948. Not bad for a country boy from Tallow - to pack the two most famous concert venues in the world and meet an American President.

  I first heard Frank Ryan sing in the early forties in concert versions of opera with the Waterford Festival Choral Society, (later to become the Waterford Grand Opera Society). He also sang very often in the Theatre Royal in variety concerts, which were a regular feature of the war years. These took place on Sunday nights as the law prohibited cinemas from opening on Sundays. These concerts were mainly for charities, church building funds etc. The ones dearest to Frankís heart were in aid of the National Graves Committee.  Frank sang the part of Don Caesar in Maritana for the Grand Opera Society in 1945. This was the first full staged production of an opera to be mounted in Waterford since the touring opera companies ceased coming round, with the advent of talking films in 1929/30.  He sang Maritana again for the Society in 1958 and during that week he announced one night before the show that he was about to give his one hundredth performance of Don Caesar, surely a world record. He sang Faust in 1946 and the Lily of Killarney twice, in 1953 and 1961.

 Frank had an absolutely beautiful natural tenor voice, a 'big lyric' in quantity, which combined sweetness and power as required, a combination rare in many a famous international singer. Had Frank Ryan received, as a boy, the international standard of training his voice deserved, he would have been up there with McCormack and the rest.  When we were casting a later Maritana our London agent and one-time singing partner of Frank's, William Dickie, rang me and asked what kind of a tenor was needed for Don Caesar. The answer I gave him was that I wanted a tenor who was young, good looking, able to act and with a voice like Frank Ryan. The answer I got was 'My friend, if I could find a tenor like that, you couldn't afford him.' Tommy O'Brien, of radio fame, declared in his book, Good Evening Listeners, that Frank Ryan had 'the most natural tenor voice I ever heard.' He was also one of the most natural people you could hope to meet, totally ingenuous, without any 'side' or pretence whatsoever.  

  Stories about him are legendary, with so many 'legs' added over the years that makes them seem apocryphal.  Once when complimented by Joan Hammond on the quality of a particular high note, she asked if he had any more like that. Frank replied 'Yerra girl, I have a bundle of them.' On another occasion, he was due to arrive in the Friary Hall, Waterford, for the first rehearsal of the Lily of Killarney. An emergency on the farm that day held him up and he had to rush from the farmyard, into the car and on to Waterford, arriving in the rehearsal hall in a pair of hobnailed boots, his working clothes, no collar or tie and a stubble of beard. His English colleagues, used to the English formality of Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells, looked in amazement. Frank, completely unfazed, launched into song and their amazement quickly turned to admiration at the quality of the singing. Frank himself liked to tell the story of the time during the second world war (with transport curtailed) when, over a period of weeks, he cycled from Tallow to Cobh for rehearsals and performances by the local society. As he put it himself - 'It was a horse that did it.'

   I was privileged over a period of twentyfive years to know Frank Ryan and to hear him sing. I remember many fine performances over those years, but the one that stands out always for me was not in a theatre or concert hall. It was at a victory dinner in the De La Salle College for the All Ireland Hurling Championship winners squad in 1948, of which I was privileged to be a member. Frank, in great voice, gave a passionate rendering of 'The Bold Fenian Men,' sung with patriotic fervour you would expect from someone who had loved his country enough to fight for its freedom. 

   My last contact with Frank Ryan was in June of 1965 when, as Secretary of the Waterford Grand Opera Society, I wrote to him asking if he would be available in November to sing in a Maritana we were presenting to commemorate the centenary of the death of William Vincent Wallace. I also asked him to quote his fee.  His letter in return is now amongst our most valued archives.  He said he was available and added that he was honoured to be asked and 'for Wallace and Waterford there would be no fee.'

   Frank Ryan died suddenly on July 12, 1965 and we were sadly denied the privilege of hearing him in one last Maritana in memory of the Waterford man who composed the opera.

Written by Larry Fanning and first published in the Waterford News & Star Christmas Supplement 2000. Re-published here with Larry's kind permission


There are a few old 78rpm records of Frank Ryan  in circulation among private collectors but the only commercial Compact Disc of which I am aware is "Angels Guard Thee."  The 78rpm recordings on this CD, dating from September 1930 to November 1948, were supplied by Jim Morrison of Youghal, Co. Cork - a collector of rare records.  The other recordings were taken from a private tape of Frank's last concert, given in Fermoy, Co. Cork on 29th June, 1965, accompanied by the Band of the Southern Command of the Irish Army, when Frank was 64 years old.  This CD was compiled and assembled at STUDIO FIONA, Allens Walk, Fermoy, Co. Cork. Tel no 025/31309. The quality of the recordins is varied but some of the tracks are wonderful examples of Frank Ryan's magnificent voice.  The following are the selections included on the CD:

Angels Guard Thee (Godard)/Agnus Dei (Bizet)/I Hear You Calling Me (Marshall)/M'Appari (Flotow)/My Lagan Love (MacCathmaoil)/God's garden (Gebreurs/The Bard of Armagh (Traditional)/Macushla (MacMorroush)/I'll Walk Beside You (Murray)/Green Isle Of Erin (Roeskel)/Upon St.Patrick's Day (Minchin)/Bonnie Mary Of Argyll (Traditional)/Because I love You So Machree (McNulty)/The Boys Of Wexford (Jace)/The Lark In The Clear Air (Ferguson)/Brigid Flynn (French)/Mother Machree (Alcot-Ball)/Erin The Tear (Moore)


 

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