It's a Long Way to Tipperary

Clonoulty-Rossmore Vintage Club booklet for 12th Vintage Rally at Clonoulty, August 24, 2014, pp 54-58

We're all familiar with this marching song that became such a hit in the First World War and that the young soldiers of the Connaught Rangers sang as they headed to the Western Front in August 1914. It was to become one of the defining symbols of the war.

What isn't so well known is the name of the man who wrote it five years earlier, Harry Williams, from Warwickshire, who was born in Erdington, Birmingham in 1873 and spent his childhood living in pubs run by his parents, Henry and Mary.

As a schoolboy he fell down the cellar steps in one pub, breaking both legs and putting him in a wheelchair. Unable to play in the streets with his friends, Harry developed a talent for songwriting. Then, at around the turn of the century, he met a man called Jack Judge at his brother's pub, The Malt Shovel, in Oldbury, West Midlands and they began writing songs together.

As a team they wrote about 32 songs in total. Jack was a great singer and Harry was a musician. One of the songs was a ballad, It's a Long Way to Connemara, which Jack regularly performed at concerts. However, it was to be another three years before the song took final shape.

A keen gambler, Jack was set a a five-shilling challenge to compose and perform a song within twenty-four hours at the New Market Inn in Stalybridge, Cheshire. The smart Jack simply changed 'Connemara' to 'Tipperary', winning the bet and delighting his audience with the catchy 'new' song.

Bert Feldman, a London music impresario, heard about the song and within months had released the sheet music with a small but important change. He told the pair that Tipperary wouldn't be a hit unless they made it into a marching song and added an extra 'long'. The change was made, the song was published and the rest is history.


The Connaught Rangers

A Connaught Rangers captain, Dryden, is reputed to have heard an itinerant busker playing the song in Galway and encouraged his troops to sing it during marches. On August 13, 1914, Daily Mail journalist, George Curnock, stood on the steps of the Hotel Metrople, Boulogne to watch the British troops march past on their way to the front. The Connaught Rangers sang a song he had never heard before and, in addition to its rousing tune and the pathos of its words, undoubtedly what fixed the song in his memory was the words of a French soldier's widow, who had stood silent beside him from the beginning of the parade.

As the troops marched past singing It's aLong Way to Tipperary, the widow turned to Curnock and asked him what they were singing. He explained and translated the words for her and she replied emotionally: 'Oh! The poor boys! . . . A long, long way' . . . they do not know how long is the way they are going . . . how long – how long!' No doubt the poignancy of the words caused her to think of her late husband's death and the fact that many of these brave young men would undoubtedly soon join him.

Other soldiers in the war carried the song home with them and it became widely popular around the world. Harry Williams and Jack Judge earned £1,680, the equivalent to more than £150,000 today, from sales of Tipperary in the 12 months after its release.

Harry eventually became sole rights holder. Jack was a gambler and owed money to Harry and rather than pay them he gave away his rights to Tipperary. When Harry heard of the success of the song he donated £1,000 to the Great War Injured Beneficiary Fund.


Harry Williams' Role Restored

However, when Harry died from pneumonia at 50 years in March 1924, his role in one of the nation's most famous songs all but died with him.

His great-niece, Meg Pybus, has spent a lot of time in restoring Harry to his rightful place as the writer of the song. According to her his part in the song was quickly forgotten about. Jack took all the credit for writing it and it became his song. Because he sang it everybody just assumed that he wrote it too.

Meg eventually decided to launch a campaign to have Harry's part in writing Tipperary officially recognised. Together with her family they put together an enormous amount of material and sent it to the Imperial War Museum. Having studied it the Museum wrote letters to Harry's family saying they recognised his role in the song. It was in 2012 that the family got formal recognition that he wrote the song. Before them he was just recognised as the rights-holder.

It's a Long Way toTipperary is now the longest-earning song in musical history, even raking in cash from ringtones and YouTube. Though copyright expires seventy years after a composer's death in Britain, Meg Pybus still receives a one-eighth share of the royalties, about £4,000 a year.

The royalties come from all over the world. According to Meg the rights passed on to her grandfather when Harry died, then on to her mother and her sisters, and now through to the cousins. The cheques come every six months. 'It's everything from ringtones, cruise ship performances, YouTube and jukeboxes. The individual amounts are absolutely tiny, but when they are all added up it comes to quite a sum.'


Place of Origin

Arguments continue over where the song was written, with the residents of Honiley, where Harry lived with his parents in the Plough Inn, and Oldbury, where Jack Judges's brother owned the Malt Shovel at loggerheads to this day.

According to Meg, her grandfather and other relatives always said it was the Plough Inn. Harry lived there from 1900 until he died. She states that his name is on all the original sheet music, so there is no doubt about it. Jack Judge's family claim it was written by him in the Malt Shovel but, as far as Meg is concerned it was in the Plough. She remembers going to her grandfather's house as a child and Tipperarywas always being played. 'I grew up with the song.'

The Plough Inn was renamed The Tipperary Inn in Harry's honour in the 1940s and remains a shrine to the famous song to this day.
The final word goes to Meg: 'It's a terribly sad song in many ways, given the connotations attached to it nowadays. It's a strange story, because if it wasn't for that bet in Stalybridge or the outbreak of war, the song would never have become popular.'

The song's enduring popularity is reflected in the fact that in the last 100 years it is estimated that three million copies have been sold in the USA and another five million around the world.


It's A Long Way To Tipperary

It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long, long way to go.
It's a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know.
Goodbye Piccadilly,
Farewell Leicester Square,
It's a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart lies there.
Up to mighty London came
An Irish lad one day,
All the streets were paved with gold,
So everyone was gay!
Singing songs of Piccadilly,
Strand, and Leicester Square,
'Til Paddy got excited and
He shouted to them there:
Paddy wrote a letter
To his Irish Molly O',
Saying, "Should you not receive it,
Write and let me know!
If I make mistakes in spelling,
Molly dear", said he,
"Remember it's the pen, that's bad,
Don't lay the blame on me".
Molly wrote a neat reply
To Irish Paddy O',
Saying, "Mike Maloney wants
To marry me, and so
Leave the Strand and Piccadilly,
Or you'll be to blame,
For love has fairly drove me silly,
Hoping you're the same!"