James "An Beirneach" Byrne 1946 - 2008

7th November 2008
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Death of fiddler James Byrne Meenacross, Glencolmcille, Donegal

*The following is taken from "The Guardian" 11 Feb 09*

James Byrne, a quiet man who rarely left south-west Donegal, was nevertheless known throughout the musical world as one of the best traditional Irish fiddlers.

Byrne, who has died aged 62, was a pig farmer from the mountainous Irish-speaking region of Glencolmcille. The music of the area is essentially derived from the Scottish folk tradition, with strathspeys, reels, and "highlands" brought back by workers who would travel to Scotland for the "tattie" picking. Several exceptional fiddlers lived near the Byrne farm, and it was visited by at least one, the legendary John Doherty.

The Byrne family were also musically talented, and James was taught to play the fiddle by his father, John. He listened to the influential Sligo players Coleman, Killoran, and Morrison on 78rpm discs, admiring the sound, tunes and style - often, he said, using thorns instead of needles for the wind-up gramophones. The family would discuss the merits of the Sligo style, and would play the tunes, but would use the Donegal style of playing instead. After Byrne had grown up and become a farmer, he recalled that interest in fiddle playing was so widespread that if fiddlers came on the radio when he and his fellow farm workers were in the fields, they would dash into the house to listen. But emigration and old age diminished the tradition. By 1980, many of the players of Doherty's generation had died, and Donegal music was only being played in isolated pubs. The fiddlers put their instruments away: Byrne said, "We sat in Halla Muire [the church hall in Glencolmcille] and played cards." Ironically, it was a time when Irish folk music was becoming increasingly popular throughout Ireland, Britain and America due to groups such as Planxty and the Bothy Band. However, a young fiddler from Derry, Dermot McLaughlin, heard about Byrne's prowess on the instrument and tried to revive the tradition. Soon, Claddagh Records, the small, prestigious Dublin label, recorded The Brass Fiddle, featuring Byrne. He followed this with a solo album, The Road to Glenlough (a lake near his home in Mín na Croise), in 1990.

As Byrne's fame grew, so did that of a young band from Donegal called Altan, who played many of his tunes. Cairdeas na bhFidileiri, the fraternity of fiddlers, rediscovered the older fiddlers in Donegal and enlisted the help of several, including Byrne, to start a summer school to pass on the style of playing and the tunes. Byrne became better known outside Donegal and played at London's Return to Camden Town festival - one of his very rare departures from his home county, where he usually played in local pubs. He also appeared in several TV programmes, including the BBC series Bogmail. In recent years, Byrne began his own summer fiddle school, and performed regularly with his partner, Connie Drost, and their daughters Merle, Aisling and Seona, all excellent fiddlers.

His death by heart attack came as a shock to many, as he had seemed fit and healthy. He is survived by Connie, Merle, Aisling and Seona, and his fourth daughter, Sarah.

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