Olive Simpson - Singing the praises of former times in Donegal

Paddy Walsh


Paddy Walsh

Olive Simpson is singing the praises of Donegal. Not quite literally but were she putting those vocal chords to the task it would emerge as a sound to behold through a voice that has richly resonated through recordings and performances the world over.

Olive Simpson is singing the praises of Donegal. Not quite literally but were she putting those vocal chords to the task it would emerge as a sound to behold through a voice that has richly resonated through recordings and performances the world over.

A native of Dundalk, she was in her mid-teens when her parents, Bob and Nancy moved to Letterkenny in 1961. Her dad took up a posting as a cashier with the then Royal Bank on the town’s Main Street but her mum occupied herself with notes of a different colour being an accomplished vocalist and singing coach. Indeed it was Nancy who founded the Donegal Musical Society at the time.

“I loved living in Letterkenny even if it was for a comparatively short time,” Olive recalls.

Fate or otherwise moved the Simpsons into a house in the Ballyraine area, next door to a family that knew all about musical achievement, the acclaimed Pattersons. A match truly made in heaven. “I’ve always thought of the Pattersons as being the closest of friends.”

Another who falls under that bracket is renowned local tenor, Dan McTeague – and despite long ago having uprooted to reside in London, Olive retains regular contact with those friends she grew to know and cherish after she arrived as a teenager to the North-West of Ireland.

Music dominated - as it has to an even greater extent since - those early years and under the influence of her mother, a voice of potential nourished into rich fulfilment.

The local newspapers of the era record, both in words and pictures, the prize winning achievements of an 18-year-old Olive Simpson at the Londonderry Feis of 1964, coupled with the awarding of the Teachers Challenge Cup to mum Nancy. There was success too for Dan McTeague while in addition he and Olive triumphed with an operative duet at the same competition.


She remembers other musical events in which she was involved including a gala concert in the Fiesta Ballroom in 1963 and additional public arenas.

There was an inevitability that the world of popular and classical music would get to hear more of Olive Simpson and so it was to prove.

Two years before that prized appearance at the Feis in Derry, an American expatriate, Ward Swingle, had formed a group in Paris which became internationally celebrated under the name of the Swingle Singers through vinyl recordings and stage and television performances.

First soprano

After hearing her in London where she had relocated, Ward Swingle had no hesitation in asking Olive to become the group’s first soprano and from 1973 to 1986 she became, though she won’t say it herself, hugely influential in the group’s fortunes. Tours of Europe and the United States, along with those recordings, brought the eight piece Swingle Singers into even greater demand.

A long way from Olive’s stint as a teacher in the classroom – a job she had been forced to give up due to the fact that the chalk affected her vocals!

After those thirteen years of song and success, Olive considered it time to move on and went on to form another group of note, Chameleon, the voice and the songs continuing to flourish and appearances following with the distinguished likes of Shirley Bassey and Nana Mouskouri.

Albums also took the group to homes and hearts the length and breadth while Olive has also recorded on a solo basis, a C.D. in the collection of the McTeague household in Letterkenny billing her as the ‘Voice of Chameleon’ and featuring such notables as ‘My Lagan Love’, ‘By the Lark in the Clear Air’ and ‘Fairest Isle.’ And an equally stunning rendition of ‘Roisin Dubh’. You can take the Irish out of Ireland but you can rarely remove their cultural ethos.

In the latter stages of 2011, Olive returned to Donegal – “not as often as I’d like but I try to make it back when I can” - to catch up with old friends and acquaintances. Not to mention the recollections of former times in both Letterkenny and Donegal Town where the Simpsons moved in 1964 after Bob was promoted to bank manager.

“I remember Letterkenny as a tiny market town when we moved there first.” Remembers too taking the school bus to Raphoe and the friendships forged. And an equal affiliation with Donegal Town where the family remained until 1997 after which her parents retired to Malahide.

In 1992 the heavenly choirs were joined by Nancy and a year later by Bob. But the family are still remembered fondly in both towns.

“There have been some amazing changes over the years with a wonderful theatre in Letterkenny and other developments. We’ve never lost touch with either town and people like Billy Patterson and the McTeagues.”

Three years ago, Dan and Bernie McTeague were in London as part of a Letterkenny Reunion trip and went along to Brompton Oratory – of which the singer is a life member - to hear Olive perform in her role as a soloist.

“We met up afterwards and I remember the parents of the actor Ardal O’Hanlon were there also and we had our picture taken.”

Pictures from the past as recalled by this amiable woman of which it can truly be said life is a song worth singing. And in her case, singing to absolute sublimity.