Delaney’s Donkey – Val Doonican
Now Delaney had a donkey that everyone admired
Temporarily lazy and permanently tired
A leg at every corner balancing his head
And a tail to let you know which end he wanted to be fed…
RIP Val Doonican. If you grew up in Britain between the 1960s – 1980s, he was a fixture on Saturday night TV. He had a crinkly smile and perfect teeth and the warmest smile on television. His daughter said today (2nd July 2015) that she thought no one had a bad word to say about him, that he was as lovely in real life as he appeared on television. Can this be possible ? I’d love to think so.
My own relationship with Val Doonican went from deep joy and abiding affection through to teenaged embarrassment that I ever liked him. Then growing ever older, childhood’s innocent honesty about what is good and what isn’t trumps the teenager, and just because 13 was when I discovered groovy music doesn’t mean that that I knew anything. Val Doonican belonged in that easy-listening Saturday night TV world, he sat on a rocking chair, he wore a cardigan, he was simply uncool. He was too nice. His songs were childish. Your nan liked him. He just wasn’t groovy !
But he was of course. First and foremost he was a musician. He worked for years on the Irish live circuit before eventually joining The Four Ramblers in 1951. UK tours followed, supporting the great Anthony Newley (who inspired a young David Bowie among others) and who introduced Val to his future wife Lynette. Newley also suggested that Michael Valentine Doonican go solo, so he did, performing for the BBC on the radio until fate offered him The Royal Variety Performance in 1963, aged 36. Billy Cotton offered him his own show at the BBC on the strength of that performance and he was – after seventeen years in showbiz – an overnight success. It was a story he liked to tell, and does so in the clip below, where I searched for an element of steel beneath the warm fuzzy smile. It’s there all right, look out for the moment when he silences the clap-along audience at the end of the song. Followed by that killer smile, crinkly eyes. The Irish charm goes a long way in England, and Valentine made a career of it.
His big hit was Walk Tall in 1964 – a song with a word of advice for everyone – be proud – look the world right in the eye – and Val sings in in a straight-ahead english accent with a slight Irish twang, barely discernible. It was a country song really, but I don’t think it was ever released in the USA. I remember it very well indeed – I was seven years old, my parents were together, we lived in a small village in East sussex called Selmeston, I had a younger brother Paul and a new baby brother Andrew, a cat and a dog and life was big and new. We lived opposite a farm and we could smell a strong mixture of creosote and cow dung that summer as the farmer painted his barn which was exactly opposite our garden, standing on a huge wooden ladder with a bucket of black goo which dripped everywhere and smelled like pungent tar. I loved that smell. The cow dung smell I got used to – country people will understand. What rose-tinted specs I have on as I remember being seven. Wow.
Val Doonican will do that to a memory, even the cow dung is coated is in roses. Later on in 1966 he had a hit with that great crooners’ song Elusive Butterly, written by Bob Lind. But perhaps he’ll be remembered most affectionately for the trio of humourous Irish songs which he regularly sang on his show – Paddy McGinty’s Goat, Rafferty’s Motor Car and Delaney’s Donkey. These were something else entirely – also in a country style, but sung in an unmistakable Irish twang that emanated from Waterford, his home down in the south of Ireland. These three songs undoubtedly contributed to the cultural English meme of the funny Irishman.
Briefly – Paddy McGinty’s Goat was written in 1917 by Bert Lee and R.P. Weston with two American songwriters called the Two Bobs. A song about a randy goat it was a favourite of Val’s and he put it on the B-side of Delaney’s Donkey in 1964. O’Rafferty’s Motor Car was written by Tommy Connor (an Englishman) in the 1920s and describes a car (a model T- Ford apparently?) which “used to be black as me father’s hat, now its 40 shades of green”. It appears to have inspired “Driving In My Car” by Madness…
Delaney’s Donkey is my personal favourite and complete with lyrical mishearings, despite Val’s perfect enunciation. Like the other two he affects a more Irish accent than he did for Walk Tall and gets the full humour out of the brilliant rhyming couplets and internal rhymes – in fact this song comes across as much like a rap than a song, a talking song, although there is a very strong melody line too. Music hall rap perhaps…
There’s a line towards the end : “Hogan, Logan and all the bally crew…” which seared deep into my subconscious, probably because of the other words I might choose to use instead of “bally“. Another line : “A grip like a Scotsman on a five pound note” – oh how we laughed at kindly smiley Val as he allowed us to enjoy these stereotypes! A different time…
I also always thought it was called “The Lady’s Donkey”. Still sounds like that !
But the song is pure joy, the love of language, the story that the whole town is trying to get this donkey to run, “they might as well have tried to push the Town Hall down”. Enjoy this clip – it was on The Guardian obituary today, but much as I hate to be fashionable or repeat someone else’s choices, it’s a brilliant clip. Enjoy, and Val – rest in peace. We loved you.