A man who loved the music

Paddy Byrne  (27th September 1918 – 14th June 2003)

Paddy Byrne (1918-2003), Malin Head

Paddy Byrne, fiddler and composer of tunes, was born in Malin Head in a house overlooking Sandport on the 27th of September 1918. His mother was Catherine Doherty (Tam Roe) from Sliabh Ban, Malin Head, and his father was John Byrne from Kilcausey in Kilcar. John Byrne moved to Malin Head to take up a teaching position in the primary school there.

Growing up at Malin Head, Paddy was immersed in the music of the area, in particular the singing of his mother and aunts and the accordion playing of his uncles Pat and Willie.

John Byrne’s teaching career saw him teach in Glassles, where the family lived for a period, and in Aughaclay, during which time they lived in Malin Town. John and Catherine had 11 children and Paddy was the eldest. He had five brothers, Tom, Michael, John, Conal and Cartha, and five sisters, Gretta, Bridie, Sally, Maire and Nabla. Two of Paddy’s brothers, Michael and Cara, also played fiddle.

When Paddy was a young boy he went up to Carndonagh for violin lessons with a Mr O’Donnell. Music in the locality was very vibrant, with lots of accordion players living in Malin and surrounding area, such as Neil Toland, Frank Griffin and Tommy McGonagle. The accordion was very popular at the time and Paddy and his brothers Michael and Cara also played it as well as playing the fiddle. Paddy had fond memories of Jimmy Clingan from Carndonagh playing the fiddle. Another noted local fiddler was Pat McDonald, who played classical music in addition to traditional tunes and airs.

Dances around the area were a great source of music and camaraderie for Paddy, his brothers and family. In later years they often provided the music for the dances. Paddy’s brother Cara led a very popular band called Swingtime from the 1980’s.

In order to improve his Irish, Paddy went to live with his granny Margaret née Carr and his uncle Pat Byrne outside Kilcar in south-west Donegal. He attended Coguish School in the Glen a Baile Dubh and completed his primary education there. He met many noted fiddlers in the Kilcar area, such as Francie Dearg Byrne and his brother Mickey Bán, and Peter, John and Agnes Cunningham. Paddy immersed himself in the local traditional music, learning many tunes from the locality, including highlands and barndances, to add to his tunes from Inishowen. As a result his repertoire featured tunes from both extremities in Donegal, which was probably unique.

Paddy went on to attend St Eunan’s College in Letterkenny as a boarder. After that he returned to live in Malin and worked locally. He went to Dublin and qualified as a radio officer for the Marconi Company.

Paddy worked for seven years at sea in the Merchant Navy. Towards the end of this time, in 1955, he married Bridie Canning from Magilligan in County Derry. They had five children, John, Ann, Tom, Colm and Catriona.

It was after moving to Crewe in Cheshire in 1956 that Paddy took a great interest in the fiddle again. He met Jim Sweeney from Ballinamore and Con McGinley from Glencolmcille and they formed the fiddle section of the Green Velvet Céilí Band, based in Crewe. Paddy’s son Tom took up the button accordion at 11 years of age. Paddy and Tom formed a lifelong partnership in playing tunes, mainly traditional music but also jazz standards and popular ballads. They played for dances in Crewe and the surrounding area.

Paddy’s wife Bridie passed away in 1981.

It had always been their intention to return to Ireland. When Paddy retired in 1985, he went back to live in Kilcar. He found it an inspirational place in terms of his fiddling. This was where many of his tunes were composed, such as the Sliabh Bán waltz, Paddy Byrne’s Barndance, and the reels, the Kilcausey Reel and Round the Rock. The last was made in memory of Francie Dearg. Paddy and his son Tom also played together regularly during Tom’s visits to Kilcar.

Paddy made a number of tunes which are now part of the local traditional repertoire in Inishowen, largely due to the great teaching of Roisin McGrory and Clodagh Warnock. One of his jig compositions recalls his favourite football field in Inishowen, the Bay Field. It’s played after the jig, Pat Tam Roe, named after Paddy’s uncle.

In addition to music, Paddy’s other passion was soccer, at which he excelled, as did his brother Tom. Both brothers played locally in Inishowen and also played at senior level, Paddy with Dundalk and Limerick and Tom with Coleraine.

Throughout Paddy’s life music was his constant companion and on many evenings in his later years he would pass the time playing tunes or ‘resurrecting’ them, as he would say, from the classic O’Neill’s 1001 Collection.

Paddy died on the 14th June, 2003, and he is buried with his wife Bridie in Lagg Cemetery in Malin. A small fiddle on the headstone symbolises Paddy’s love for what he called the infinite beauty of music.

By Tom Byrne 9/2/2021