James Byrne: The Beirneach lives on

Remembering the life of the gentleman of the fiddle - a musician who touched the lives of so many

Frank Galligan


Frank Galligan



Special feature - James Byrne

Donegal Fiddler, James Byrne

In the liner notes of the 10th anniversary album, ‘The Beirneach’...Field recordings of Donegal Fiddler, James Byrne...his daughter Merle recalls “Listening to dad talking about his childhood I was struck how his memories mirror our own.
“I remember the old days when his friends Donal Ward, Sean Con Johnny, Thomas Cunningham and a gang would come into play music in our kitchen until the wee hours, and Aisling, Seana and myself falling asleep to the sound of highlands, barn dances and reels. How lucky we were to have that experience.”
And how lucky are we - not only to have known this gentleman of the fiddle - but to savour, once again, his extraordinary and unique playing. I was delighted to meet up with his life partner and mother of the three girls recently, and her own story is a fascinating one.
She was born Connie Drost in the town of Arnsberg in Westphalia in Germany. The river Ruhr meanders south of it and it is almost completely encircled by forest.
Her father sang in the local choir and she recalls him practicing his Do Re Mi’s on a Tuesday night.
Her brother Michael practiced the violin for a few weeks until the racket drove his parents mad, and they gave him a mouth organ instead.

Connie with Merle, Aisling and Seana

Connie laughs: “He threw it away in disgust but I picked it up. I also played recorder and guitar, and when I became a member of the orchestra, I became very familiar with all all types of flutes, including the bassoon.”
Planxty were playing in Cologne once, and on hearing Andy Irvine and co for the first time, she was hooked on Irish traditional music.
When she eventually visited Ireland, she remembers being in Galway holding an Inter-rail ticket and realising that the transport system was dismal.
She decided to visit the furthest place in the country and picked Donegal...no railway past Sligo! In any event she landed in Carrick and was bowled over by a session in John Maloney’s Slieve Liag bar, where the fiddle players were the legendary Con Cassidy and James ‘The Beirneach’ Byrne.
“I could only see his back!” she laughs, “and the next time I saw him was in Madge the Doc’s in Carrick, where Dermot Byrne, Con Cassidy and Thomas Cunningham were playing.”
A man came over to her and asked “Are you enjoying the music?” “My English was very limited then and I told him to ‘p...s off!” Being the civil being he was, the man did just that. Connie and James did not have an auspicious start!
But third time lucky...she wanted to learn the fiddle and in due course - with a few more focail in her vocabulary - she landed at The Beirneach’s home in Meenacross and enquired about lessons. “I never teach!” she was told, but a fortnight later he landed down to Kinnakillew where she was staying and said that he ‘kinda felt sorry for her’, and would give her a few lessons.
She purchased a Chinese fiddle in Galway for 35 punts and the rest is history!
Merle was their first born, and she was playing fiddle at the age of four. Aisling and Seana followed and not only do Aisling and Merle have music degrees, but all three have inherited many of their dad’s traits.
He was a gentle thoughtful person who never sought the limelight, a man who simply loved his music and family. Aisling has her dad’s musical gift and his gentle conviviality...among her many achievements, she was invited to play with the late Michael O'Suilleabhain for his retirement with the RTÉ Orchestra in Limerick, and teaches and plays at many music festivals.

Seana is a homebird who lives locally, loves playing with her mum and has James’s quirky sense of humour, as well as an affinity with nature and the simple life...while Merle, who has inherited his humour and calm has the travel bug and is currently in Serbia, having been to Vietnam, Uzbekistan and Cambodia.
Connie is delighted at the reaction to the release of the field recordings. “It took six months to get the CD together and I have to give Aisling huge credit. She’s a full time musician but she worked so hard and selected all the tracks on it.”
The response from as far away as France, Australia and the US has been fantastic. One person described it as a ‘Time Machine’ as it brings you right back. Another said the intimate liner notes made you ‘Feel part of the family’.
I agree. Playing it recently on Highland Radio has elicited a similar response.
Sadly, James passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in the early morning hours of Saturday, November 8, 2008. He was waked in the family home in Meenacross over the weekend.
During the wake, strong winds caused a power failure and James left this world the way he entered it – by the soft twilight of candles and oil lamps.
He had told Fiddler Magazine: “You don't really have to learn the style if you grow up with it. You just sort of fall into the swing of it....”
Thank God Connie, Merle, Aisling and Seana are ensuring that those of us who treasure one of our greatest ever fiddlers are still falling into the swing of it. The Beirneach lives on.