Jimmy Kennedy – Ireland’s Most Successful Songwriter

By Martin Gleeson (January, 2017)

The son of a policeman, Jimmy Kennedy was born in 1902 in Omagh, Co. Tyrone. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, and began teaching in England. He later became a civil servant in the Colonial Service.

Jimmy had been writing poems and songs from an early age and while he was waiting to be posted to Nigeria, he embarked on a career as a professional songwriter by joining a Denmark Street music publishing firm.

Jimmy wrote one hit song after another, and many of them were inspired by events he witnessed in his life.

Jimmy had settled in Portstewart, Co. Derry, and he often watched the yacht ‘Kitty of Coleraine’ sail past, showing a large red sail. The outcome was Jimmy’s biggest hit, Red Sails in the Sunset, which was recorded by over 40 artistes.

One night in thick fog in England, Jimmy’s car headlights picked out a sign for a pub called Harbour Lights, inspiring the song of the same name.

When he read that the music hall singer Gracie Fields was on holidays in her villa in Capri, he wrote The Isle of Capri.

When he received a picture-postcard from his sister on holiday in California stating the ‘we’ve gone to Mexico, south of the border’, he wrote the song South of the Border (Down Mexico Way). This was recorded by many artistes, among them Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

During the Second World War, Jimmy served in the Royal Artillery and rose to the rank of Captain. He had a wartime hit with the song, We’re Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line.

His career as a songwriter spanned over 50 years and he wrote more than 2,000 songs, of which 200 were worldwide hits. Up until the age of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Jimmy had more hits in the USA than any non-American songwriter. Few people will know that this Irishman wrote My Prayer, Teddy Bears’ Picnic as well as Hokey Cokey.

Jimmy lived in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, for a number of years in the seventies. He was a patron of the Castlebar International Song Contest from 1973 until his death in 1984.

In July every year, the resort town of Portstewart hosts the Red Sails Festival. What a marvellous way to commemorate the great Irish songwriter who wrote:-

“Red sails in the sunset, way out on the sea
Oh, carry my loved one home safely to me.”