Dunphy, Sean (1937–2011), showband and cabaret singer, was born John Michael Dunphy on 30 November 1937 in the family home at 17 London Bridge Road, Irishtown, Dublin, son of Patrick Dunphy, a plasterer, and Mary Dunphy (née Farrell). Following his father into a building trade, he apprenticed as a carpenter, after which he joined the Irish army. During his army service, he moonlighted as a singer with a group named the Keymen. Emigrating thereafter to London, he worked as a carpenter and sang in Irish émigré clubs and dancehalls, such as the Hibernian Ballroom in Fulham. He married (19 August 1961) in her home parish in Baldoyle, Dublin, fellow émigré Lily O'Brien, a shorthand typist working in London; they would have three sons and one daughter.
In 1964 Dunphy returned to Dublin upon successfully auditioning, on the basis of a demo tape, as a vocalist with the Earl Gill Band. Theretofore a sit-down, orchestra-type combination, holding a winter residency in the Shelbourne Hotel ballroom, the Gill Band, under the management of fledgling promoter Oliver Barry, was reconstituting as a stand-up, touring showband, the better to exploit the going style in Irish popular musical entertainment. With a nine-piece line-up, that included two vocalists (besides Dunphy, they recruited a female vocalist, Amy Hayden, who remained till a 1968 line-up shuffle), a drummer, bassist, two guitarists and three horn players (including Gill (qv) on trumpet), the Earl Gill Band performed the standard showband fare of country-and-western songs, covers of the current hit parade, and a sprinkling of Irish ballads and céilí dance numbers. They derived valuable exposure as the backing band on a country-and-western music programme, Hoedown, airing during 1965 on RTÉ television, and featuring singing cowboys and cowgirls in a ranch-house setting ('as true to the genuine article as American efforts to achieve Irishness' (Ken Gray, Ir. Times, 3 June 1965)). Accordingly renamed the Hoedowners, and booked widely by Barry on the ballroom circuit, the band had a chart hit with their first single, 'Wonderful world of my dreams' (1966), featuring Dunphy's lead singing.
Performing 'If I could choose', a romantic lyric composed by RTÉ scriptwriter Wesley Burrowes (qv), Dunphy was the third person to represent Ireland in the Eurovision song contest (after Butch Moore (qv) (1965) and Dickie Rock (1966)); his relaxed stage manner, dignified demeanour, and strong, smooth baritone voice were deemed ideal for the competition's traditional conventions. At the 1967 Eurovision finals in Vienna, Dunphy was runner-up among seventeen contestants (Ireland's highest ranking until Dana's victory in 1970), losing to the UK entry, 'Puppet on a string', co-written by the Derry-born songwriter Phil Coulter, and performed by the internationally known pop star Sandie Shaw. A newly introduced change stipulating that half the members of each national jury be under the age of 30 was regarded as a definitive factor in Shaw's landslide victory with a simple, bouncy, 'contemporary' number.
Over the next several years, Sean Dunphy and the Hoedowners (as they were generally billed to exploit the personal celebrity now enjoyed by the lead vocalist) were among the most successful showbands in Ireland, playing to large live audiences in ballrooms throughout the country, and placing fifteen hit singles in the Irish charts from 1966 to 1973. 'Talking love', a single that peaked at no. 2, was the first disc released (in February 1968) by Dolphin Records, a label newly formed by Oliver Barry and another young promoter, Jim Hand (1937–2001). The band also recorded the first album on the Dolphin label, Ireland's own Sean Dunphy (1968). A second album, The best of Sean Dunphy and the Hoedowners, appeared in 1970. After scoring four no. 2 singles, the band had their first no. 1 with 'The lonely woods of Upton' (1969), a sentimental republican ballad inspired by a bloody IRA ambush of a troop-carrying railway train in west Cork in February 1921. Played in a danceable waltz tempo, and already a staple of their ballroom song list, the song spent a phenomenal twenty-four weeks in the Irish charts, including nine weeks at no. 1. ('Patriotic' ballads were prominent in Dunphy's repertoire. Subsequent A and B sides included 'The old Fenian gun', 'Michael Collins' and 'Skibbereen'.) They followed with another no. 1 single, the romantic ballad 'When the fields were white with daisies', arranged by Noel Kelehan (1935–2012), which spent fourteen weeks in the charts. Between the two records, Dunphy and his bandmates were represented in the charts in all twelve months of 1969. Based on a weighted analysis of weekly chart positions throughout the year, Spotlight magazine named Dunphy the leading recording artist in Ireland in 1969, ahead of Joe Dolan (qv) in second position and the Beatles in third.
An old-style crooner in the line of Bing Crosby and Perry Como, Dunphy was well mannered and impeccably dressed, always performing in suit and tie, with shoes polished and hair neatly groomed. His most immediate vocal influence was said to be Jim Reeves, who enjoyed a wide posthumous popularity in Britain and Ireland in the latter 1960s; like Reeves, Dunphy's musical roots were in country-and-western, but his velvety baritone could cross over into mainstream popular music. Shunning the celebrity limelight, Dunphy was a family man who returned home immediately after a gig, and whose primary recreation was golf.
As with many showbands, in the early 1970s the Hoedowners responded to the genre's decline by performing novelty songs and introducing stage gimmickry. With Gill dressing as a bearded and raggedy 'Darby O'Gill', they had a no. 3 hit in 1971 with 'Poor poor farmer' (B side: 'Hairy eggs and bacon'), released under the artist name 'Tim Pat'. In 1972 they appeared onstage as the Ho Down Circus, with every band member dressed as a circus performer. Dunphy deeply disliked such tomfoolery, and his 1973 departure from the band led to its rapid dissolution. After fulfilling a 1973 residency in Canada, he emigrated there, performing steadily in Irish-interest venues there and in the USA; he was said to be the first Irish artist to record in Nashville. He appeared intermittently in Ireland, singing at hotel dinner dances and 'Irish cabaret' shows, and occasionally in concert halls, generally during the summer months or the Christmas season; he had two minor Irish chart hits in the late 1970s. Returning permanently to Ireland early in the new century, he performed regularly with his own Sean Dunphy Band. He performed a one-off greatest hits concert in the National Concert Hall in 2009, and released an album, The very best of Sean Dunphy. Having recovered from a quadruple heart by-pass operation in 2007, he died in his sleep at his home in Baldoyle, Dublin, on 17 May 2011, one night after performing a benefit show to open a local arts week. The funeral was from the church of Saints Peter and Paul, Baldoyle, to Greenogue cemetery, Ashbourne, Co. Meath. His son Brian Dunphy is a member of the High Kings ballad group.