The gifted Donegal traditional folk singer, musician and storyteller Packie Manus Byrne has sadly died at the age of 98.
I first became aware of Packie after coming across an album called Songs of a Donegal Man* in my public library when I was in my early teens. The album, which was released in 1975 on Topic Records, had a biography about the man on the back of the album. But before revealing more about who he was there was some wonderful scene setting of his birth place – the rugged and remote Corkermore in the Parish of Killybegs, County Donegal. A place occupied by farmsteads and crofters (just eleven small farms and crofts**),
“by old men and old ways, depleted of its youth, dependent upon an economy that can scarcely support its inhabitants.”
It went on to explain how the harsh lifestyle encouraged the people to become introverted in their ways, turning to each other for support. Just before finding the album I’d been on holiday in Ireland to visit my mother’s childhood home and relatives in a remote part of Kerry where they spoke Gaelic. For a young lad from East London it was like stepping back in time. As well as hitting the town to catch some of the post-celebratory magic of the Fleadh Cheoil in Listowel that year I visited relatives in remote cottages where I was told many stories. Those memories and that smell of the peat fire still conjures strong memories. It was all of this that had led me to seek out some Irish music at my library and it was a particular paragraph on the back of this album that was enough to excite my imagination and book it out for a small token fee:
And it is then, behind shuttered doors, in rooms scented with the sweet smell of burning peat, that the singers, musicians and storytellers come together, following the custom of generations that have gone before them.
It’s with this backdrop we’re introduced to Packie Manus Byrne, the son of Gaelic-speaking parents whose childhood was spent hearing songs and stories in his parents kitchen
“where a large flagstone, set in front of the fire, was used by step dancers who would compete to the sound of fiddles and whistle. Relatives, who had spent the summer working in the South or in Scotland, would, on their return, sing every night for a week or so, teaching fresh songs or lilting new tunes for the fiddlers to play. The songs were usually long and were valued, not so much for the quality of the singer’s voice, as for the quality of the story which they
He was a born storyteller and it was only in the last few years that I realised how great a teller he was when I managed to track down a copy of his book ‘Recollections of a Donegal Man‘ in which he shared, with both humour and affection, those childhood days before re-counting some of his restless adult life which included his time as a labourer, cattle drover, steeplejack, smuggler, actor and circus hand. All this before coming to recognition as a traditional singer and musician.
In Stephen Jones introduction to ‘Recollections of a Donegal Man‘ which he compiled and edited he recounts the vividness of his words when sharing a story, and this line in particular may well ring true for many that saw him perform and tell stories.
“with Packie comfortably seated in an armchair in his North London room, as often as not with a mug of strong tea in his hand, and always with a sparkle in his eye.”
I came across this video which was filmed in 2012 in which he joins another traditional folk singer who dropped in, to sing a song he wrote, called ‘Bruckless Bay‘, a place made famous by the 1813 tragedy when a large number of sailing boats fishing for herring were hit by a violent storm leading to the loss many lives.
Just before writing this piece I was speaking to Pete Heywood (The Living Tradition magazine) who very kindly allowed me the use of the main photo for this piece which he captured in the middle of Packie telling a story at Inishowen after his 95th birthday. Pete recalled him having pictures of the likes of Fred Jordan and Seamus Heaney on his wall at home, names of his generation who we think of as long gone now. That just goes to show you what a long and fulfilled life he’s had.
A highly respected man who will be sadly missed but his stories and songs will of course live on.
* PACKIE MANUS BYRNE SONGS OF A DONEGAL MAN TSDL257
**Recollections of a Donegal Man by Packie Manus Byrne (compiled and edited by Stephen Jones..1989)
Photo Credit: Pete Heywood
Also read: The Living Tradition Packie Manus Byrne Celebrates At 95