'Happy Man' Cahal Dunne sets Christmas shows
Ireland's “Happy Man” is still smiling broadly.
Singer-songwriter Cahal Dunne, who arrived in Western Pennsylvania from County Cork in the early 1980s, remains in happy motion with a variety of activities and projects.
The West Deer Township resident — who has been an American citizen for 25 years and is the nephew of the former prime minister of Ireland, Jack Lynch — came to these shores as the winner of Ireland's National Song Contest with his composition “Happy Man.” He represented his country at the International Eurovision Music Contest in Israel with, he recalls, “half the world watching” on television.
“Happy Man” went to No. 1 in Europe and Ireland. Dunne also has performed on PBS and has sung for former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
Dunne spends nine months doing shows in the Pittsburgh area, including an upcoming month of Christmas performances, and three months working in Florida and elsewhere in the winter. His Christmas repertoire includes traditional carols and some of his own songs and piano pieces.
“I enjoy Christmas in as much as it brings out the best in us,” he says. “We consider our friends and neighbors more. We reach out to old friends far away and just catch a breath around Christmas week, once all the preparations are done.”
He earned early recognition locally for his many years at the former Blarney Stone in Etna. “I have fantastic memories performing there. We (he and his wife, Kathleen) got married there.
“I love the hills and valleys that remind me of Ireland,” Dunne says of Western Pennsylvania, “and Pittsburgh's skyline is the prettiest and most impressive in America. I'm a huge Steelers and Penguins fan also. I still don't understand the nuances of baseball.”
He drives about 30,000 miles a year throughout the country entertaining.
“Last year, I did a tour out West, performed 26 shows in 30 days and did 10,000 miles in my truck. That was the most grueling tour I ever did,” he says. “My dad never exercised and lived until he was 93, so I might outlive him, but I hope I won't have his back pain, lack of flexibility, etc.”
Like many other show people, he would rather not mention his age because, he quips, “We entertainers are not allowed get old. I'd rather people find out how old I am when I die.”
Dunne and his wife lead two tours of Ireland every year.
“I started it way back in the '80s as a way to give back to Ireland during the recession there,” he says. “Over the years, I have grown to love it. What's not to love: bringing great people back with me to Ireland, showing them the best of Ireland, giving them a greater sense of who they are, and where their people came from, and realizing how hard their ancestors worked and sacrificed for them now to return in such luxury.”
He considers himself an entertainer from Ireland, not an Irish entertainer. “I love the great Irish songs, but I love ‘The Impossible Dream' and Chopin also.”
“I have several friends in Pittsburgh who come to nearly all my shows, and they tell me they like the variety of styles I sing and play, from classical piano pieces to a Billy Joel medley to country to Broadway to gospel. I love all genres of music, so why not play them?”
He also plays the piano and shares his humor and stories.
His son Ryan asked him to relate some of the stories he had told him about the old days to his friends in a bar one night, and they thought they were funny.
“One of them said it sounded like a movie and suggested I write it down. Ryan kept bugging me about it, so I started and it just poured out of me,” Dunne says.
The result is his first book, “Put Yer Rosary Beads Away Ma,” which he sells at concerts and online. He describes it as a salty tale of a young man's musical dreams and struggles in 1970s Ireland.
“It's a memoir about my days trying to make it in a band in Ireland, always fighting the recession that kept getting worse, and playing in Northern Ireland during the troubles up there. I call myself Billy in the book as nobody can pronounce Cahal,” he says.
“I've got it into the hands of Ireland's biggest movie director, Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot”), who likes it, so you never know.”
Dunne is considering writing another book about a couple and their son during the famine in Ireland in the 1850s.
As if he is not busy enough, he has formed a choir, called ChoirPlay, based in Allison Park with 23 people so far. He refers to it as a new choral concept: pop, rock, country, Broadway and gospel songs sung to professional backing tracks. “I got through college in Ireland conducting choirs, so I'm going back to where I started.”
Their first concert is a benefit on Dec. 6 at St. Ursula Church Hall, Allison Park, for the church.
“We'll be singing a Billy Joel medley, a Michael Buble song, ‘Home,' ‘I Hope You Dance,' ‘Climb Every Mountain,' Leonard Cohen's ‘Hallelujah,' ‘All About That Bass' and a few more. I'll be singing some Christmas favorites, also.”
The choir will begin its second season in April. “If anyone would like to join, there's no personal audition. So if you feel you can carry a tune, come along, try it out for a night, and then decide to join if you wish,” he says.
He has been invited to start a second similar choir in Apollo in April. “I hope to start several choirs throughout Pittsburgh, singing the same songs, and come together to perform for charity events in the future. It's just a fun thing for everybody, no pressure,” he says.
“Music moves me,” Dunne says. “It inspires me. It literally lifts me up. The world would be a very sad place without music. It touches us in every way possible and is vital to our well-being, mentally and socially.”
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.