Return to site





Gone to graveyards every one, it would seem.

The days are long past when half the men in Ireland were inveterate whistlers; for some reason it was mainly a man’s thing and – curiously - it seemed to be an accompaniment to both hard work and fecklessness.

Tradesmen whistled as they worked, as did labourers, street sweepers, shopkeepers and bus conductors - and so did the idle men who held up walls at street corners.

Men would whistle while they were painting their houses, mowing their lawns, washing their cars, drying the dishes after dinner or just going for a stroll.

Whistling was both a solitary and a communal thing. It was a way of sharing yourself with the rest of the human race and at the same time asserting your easy comfort with the world immediately around you. You could tell a man’s mood by the tone of his whistle - it could be happy or sad, whimsical or plaintive, celebratory or lonesome.

Whistling could even be sexy, as displayed in the classic 1944 movie To Have and Have Not, when Lauren Bacall, playing Slim, deliciously uttered to Humphrey Bogart as Steve, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and . . . blow.” Ah, be still, my beating heart!

In the 1960s John O’Neill, a professional performer born in England to Irish parents, was much in demand for his whistling as well as his singing skills. He was a regular guest on TV programmes like The Black and White Minstrel Show and Sunday Night at the London Palladium, but his greatest claim to fame was his performance as whistler of the theme music for the classic Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, although this is sometimes incorrectly accredited to the Italian warbler Alessandro ALESSANDRONI.

Using the pseudonym Whistling Jack Smith, O’Neill had a number-one hit single with a novelty tune called I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman. He recorded this for a set fee, and was never acknowledged as the performer nor paid any royalties. When the track was aired on Top of the Pops, he was shocked to see an actor mime to the record.

I was just a kid when O’Neill’s star was in the ascendancy. One of my front teeth was missing and I had a bit of a gift for the whistling and my mother briefly nurtured great ambitions on my behalf for a career in show business. But when the tooth was replaced, my talent diminished greatly, putting the kibosh on this best-laid plan.

We had a neighbour at the time, Mister Lynch, who could whistle for Ireland. He lived two doors down from us and was an inveterate log chopper. There was always a pile of tree trunks and limbs in his back garden beside the coal shed.

Every night, when the neighbourhood kids had been tucked into bed, he’d come out the back and spit into his hands and rub them together; then he’d pick up his axe and chop logs for an hour or so. And all the while he’d whistle along with the swing of the axe.

Mr Lynch’s whistling was the constant lullaby of my childhood. That was more years ago than I care to remember and even now, sometimes when I wake in the middle of the night - in that split second of disjointed time-lapse between sleep and wakefulness - I mentally slide back through the years and I find myself feeling the gap that used to be filled by Mr Lynch.

His whistling was a comfort. And I miss it still.