The song has been recorded by many artists including Bing Crosby: Elvis Presley: The Platters: Englebert Humperdinck: Willie Nelson: Pat Boone: Jerry Lee Lewis and Vera Lynn among many others.
The biggest-selling version was recorded by the ‘Sammy Kaye Orchestra’. The recording was released by ‘Columbia Records’ as a 78-rpm single and a 45-rpm single. The record first reached the ‘Billboard Hot 100’charts on September 1, 1950 and lasted 25 weeks, peaking at Number 1. As far as I understand, no other recording of this song ever hit the Number 1 spot again.
The only harbour lights that fill my memory bank are seeing the lights on the Liverpool Docks when my mother would take her children on a holiday back to Portlaw Village where I was born in Waterford. During the earlier years of my development, when only four of my parent’s seven children had yet been born, I would arrive home from school on a Friday evening. It would be 4:00pm and we would be hungry and expecting tea, when, ‘out of the blue’ mum would spontaneously decide. She’d look at me and say, ”Put your coats on children. No time for tea tonight. We'll get something to eat on the ‘Cattle Boat’ in Liverpool. I haven’t seen my parents for nearly two years now and if I miss seeing them again this year, they might be dead next year! You see to the other three, Billy, while I pack the suitcases”.
Being the firstborn of seven children, until the others reached the age of ten years. It was the task of their older sibling who was next in line to attend to the needs of their immediately younger sibling. Folk in small families have never understood how larger households manage to do anything at all; never realising the amount and intricacy of organisation that becomes a second nature to daily functioning and survival!
As we were getting a change of clothes on, my father would arrive home covered in coal dust after finishing his shift at the pit and hand mum his unopened brown wage packet. He’d be expecting his hot bath run and tea on the table ready to eat within the following half hour. As dad was washing in the bath (it always took him half an hour to rid his skin of the coal layers lodged in the crevice’s and folds of his body), mum would write him a quick note and leave it perched on the kitchen table like an unwelcome surprise. The note would be brief, to the point and, to a reader other than her husband, it would never reflect the degree of mutual love and marital understanding between the couple.
“Dear Paddy, there’s a hot stew in the oven and I have also left you a few pounds to last you until you are paid again next Friday. I am taking Billy, Mary, Eileen and Patrick to Portlaw for a holiday. Post us some money over to my parent’s house when you get next get paid and duck the rent man until we get back. I’ll write when we’re coming back home to Windy Bank Estate. If you run short of bread and sugar, Harry Hodgson will tick you until I get back. Maureen x”
My father would return from his hot bath, and only then would he learn that he wouldn’t be seeing my mum and his first four children for an unspecified period of time and that he’d have to ‘be out’ or ‘stay quiet’ when the rent man, milk man or club man knocked on the door for their weekly money.
Without knowing that their oldest daughter and their four grandchildren were going to land on then unannounced and penniless late at night after knocking them up out of bed, and then eat them out of house and home for the next three weeks before we caught the ‘Cattle Boat’ back home to England, my maternal grandparents would happily share what they had with us.
I always loved standing on the deck of the ‘Cattle Boat’ and seeing the lights on the dock as the seafaring vessel pulled out of the harbour to cross the rough waters to Dublin, where we’d then have a short train journey before catching a coach into Waterford City. Once we arrived in County Waterford, mum would phone the Post Office and the Post Office lady would dash across to Willie Low (the only person in Portlaw who had his own car) and which he used as a taxi to earn a living. It mattered not what time of day or night we arrived in Waterford off the coach, the Post Office Mistress would be phoned and alerted of mum’s request. Depending on the time of day or night, the Post Mistress would get Willie Low out of bed or the pub and tell him to get into Waterford pronto and pick up Maureen Forde (Fanning that was) and bring and her and her four children back to her parent’s house in 14, William Street.
After Willie had done his annual duty, mum would often put off paying him there and then while telling Willie “I’ll see to you later, Willie, as my purse is at the bottom of my suitcase!” To tell the truth, poor Willie Low was probably the most likely of mum’s list of creditors who were least likely ever to be paid for his taxi services.
just as my mum would pay this week’s grocery bill to Harry Hodgson out of my father’s wages next week, I am sure that Willie Low (who’d always fancied my mother prior to her marriage to dad) would sometimes have this year’s taxi fare paid by mum the following year she brought us back to see our grandparents on holiday. During our many holidays in Portlaw (where myself and sisters Mary and Eileen were born), my grandmother would often say to my mum in playful jest, “That knock on my door may well be a holiday for you and the children, but it’s no holiday for me and your poor father, Maureen”.
Whenever I hear the ‘Harbour Lights’ song it always reminds me of the crossing from Liverpool. The crossing was always by the cheapest means (colloquially known as the ‘Cattle Boat’ where foot passengers would occupy the upper deck and cows, pigs, sheep, poultry and stowaways filled the lower deck). The cheapest crossing would always be the midnight crossing. This crossing might have been the sailing most used by the poorest of Irish migrants returning back to the old country for a break, but the ‘Cattle Boat’ was a veritable vessel of mirth, raucousness, goodwill and cheerful conversation where bottles of ale were drunk in their thousands with the abandonment of an English landlord, and the songs of Irish freedom were fervently sung by old-timers who’d been away from their native land far too long.
For the eight-hour journey across friendly waters, while the adults laughed, drank, danced and sung rebel songs, we tired children placed our heads down and slept wherever we could, (on seats, parental laps, crushed suitcases and even floors). The nearest image I could describe would be the happy seafaring migrants on the bottom deck of the 'Titanic'.
Those were the days; happy days. God bless you Mum for your spontaneous nature, that may have driven my poor father mad and made my grandparents much the poorer. But these times gave your children unforgettable happy experiences that cannot be erased from our hearts. I love my parents, my grandparents, my siblings and the country of my birth to which I will always belong in heart and citizenship whatever Brexit brings.
Love and peace Bill xxx