A love story that inspired Cavan's most famous song
Inside Story Everyone knows the classic ballad, ‘Cavan Girl’, but did you know it was penned about a Belturbet lady? SEAN MCMAHON spoke with Michael Woods who told him all about his late wife Rita who recently passed away, and who four decades ago inspired the song that won the Cavan Song Contest and a place in the county’s heart.
Fate was surely at play when a young Killeshandra man encountered a young woman from Belturbet for the very first time on the streets of their new home city, New York. That evening in 1964, the young Cavan man knew instantly as her hand fell into his, that it would last forever.
“The chat just flowed out of us,” recalls Michael Woods, speaking to the Celt on the phone from his County Sligo home. “I was on top of the world. I knew I had met the one that was meant for me.”
Michael’s soulmate was the beautiful Rita Munday from Belturbet, just only a few miles from his Upper Derries home, yet here they met for the first time thousands of miles across the Atlantic, amongst the millions who thronged the Big Apple shortly after her arrival in 1964.
Not only did Rita steal Michael’s heart, but the Celt can reveal she was ‘The Cavan Girl’ of the ballad, penned by Californian musician, Thom Moore. It won the Cavan Song Contest of 1979, and has long since become synonymous with the Breifne County.
Sadly Rita passed away to her eternal reward on Sunday, February 7, 2016, aged seventy years. Early onset of Alzheimer’s saw her suffer many years with the disease.
Michael, who was the eldest of a family of nine recounts that he was just shy of his seventeenth birthday when he headed off for America to stay with his grand aunt in 1958. It was tough to leave his loved ones, as his youngest brother was just six months old when he departed.
Meanwhile Rita Munday was originally from 41 Holborn Hill, and her brother Pat who still resides in Belturbet, fondly recalls her as “a great big sister”. Their father made a living fixing watches and selling jewellery. On July 28, 1964, aged 19, Rita together with her 17-year-old brother Brian, they set off for adventure in America. Incidentally, Brian, made his life in the States, living in New Jersey; a sister Ann meanwhile lives in St Helen’s in England.
Michael, now aged 74, recalls meeting Rita shortly after she arrived in New York and asking her to accompany him to a dance downtown, and she agreed.
“That was the happiest day for me. When her hand fell into mine, I knew it would be there forever,” he said.
“Rita had a lovely, gentle personality and was a very likeable person,” he recalls.
While in America Rita had a number of jobs. When Michael first met her, she worked for a finance company on the 33th floor of the famous Pam Am building (now known as the MetLife Building).
“For a year before we returned to Ireland, she worked for Stouffers Restaurant at 666 Fifth Avenue,” Michael says. “It was a middle to upper market restaurant – the restaurant was known as the top of the 6’s”.
During a holiday back home in Ireland in 1967 Michael and Rita were engaged, and the following year they came home from America for good. On September 28, 1968, they were married in Botharquill in the parish of Streete, County Westmeath, and together they had five children, Fergal, Fionnuala, Fiachra, Michael and Brian. They bought Coolera House, a pub in Knocknahur, south County Sligo, where they made their lives together, and it was there that the song Cavan Girl would be penned.
Originally from California Thom Moore was living in the Sligo area in the 1970s and called to the Woods’ pub to see if he could get a gig for his group Pumpkin Head. This wasn’t unusual as the popular Knocknahur bar, hosted many top Irish and international acts over the years, including Johnny McEvoy, Christy Moore, The Wolfe Tones, Julie Felix from America and English folk star Marianne Faithful.
Having befriended the couple in 1978, the following year, after a gig Thom sat at their kitchen table and wrote the memorable lyrics of ‘Cavan Girl’, with a view to entering it in the Cavan Song section of the 1979 Cavan International Song Contest. A major competition, at its height in the 1980s the show was broadcast live on RTÉ television, and winner of the Cavan International Song Contest scooped an impressive prize fund. That year it was staged in the Sports Centre in Cavan, though it would later move on to the Hotel Kilmore. As usual it attracted entries from many far flung countries. Over the 21 years it ran, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany, France, Poland, Belgium and Japan were amongst the countries to enter.
Michael and Rita were the only two people Thom knew from Cavan and he was inspired by the couple’s relationship. The song’s theme was that a man’s duty, once he knows the identity of the woman of his heart, must be to pursue her no matter what the cost.
The ballad went on to win the contest - he also defeated a song by a Czechoslovakian to win the International section with ‘Baton Rouge’. While Cavan Girl was about Rita, in reality of course Michael met her in New York, not back home in Cavan as the song would have it. But sitting at the Woods’ kitchen table Thom was entitled to a little bit of literary licence. While he was aware that Michael was from Killeshandra, he had wrongly assumed Rita was from Cavan town.
Speaking to the Celt, Ann Lennon, one of the organisers of the Cavan Song Contest, this week proudly remarked of Moore’s song: “The Cavan Girl song is a classic and will be there forever – that is our legacy.”
While it would indeed turn out to be a classic, in 1979 it was just another song.
“We did not give it much attention at the time,” confesses Michael, “we were very busy in those days. The song meant a lot more to us as the years went on and it was very significant in our lives.
“I was really surprised when Thom won the contest with the song. Of course a friend of mine John Clancy, who was in the Derragarra Inn at the time, sponsored it [the competition] to the tune of £1,000 in the Kilmore Hotel. It was a tremendous win at the time and as the years progressed, it meant more to us. “My daughter here and the children are singing the song now,” Michael relays of the scene in Sligo. “Hearing the song brings me back to those days in my life.”
That the couple inspired the song, and Rita was the actual Cavan Girl is not widely known. Michael confirms that he and Rita regarded it as their song.
“Very much so. And not really telling people – we did not really talk about it.”
“When I listen to it now, it brings back nice nostalgic memories. Rita Munday was a great gift in my life – we worked as a great team.”
Over the years Moore’s song has been covered countless times by everyone from The Dubliners to The High Kings. A French translation ‘La Fille de Cavan’ was even recorded by Renaud Sechan.
“It does not matter who sings the song – the words mean the same to me,” says Michael.