There were many journeys in evidence over what was a very special weekend organised to mark what would have been Packie Byrne’s 100th birthday. Like so many young men from Ireland, Packie made the journey over to England for work on a regular basis. Carrying his music and traditions with him, he eventually found himself a new community of friends and a special place in the folk revival in England. He appeared at The National Folk Festival at Keele alongside Felix Doran, Jeannie Robertson, Fred Jordan, Alex Stewart and Jimmy MacBeath. Despite several periods of poor health (he suffered from TB which left him with only one lung) he outlived them all, reaching the grand old age of 98. In some respects, his passing in 2015 marked the end of an era, but if we needed reminding, his centenary weekend ably demonstrated that the tradition continues in younger hands. In the various sessions, there were musicians spanning at least three generations.
We travelled to Donegal by car and Stena Line ferry from Cairnryan to Belfast, a journey which I always look forward to. For me, an essential part of the experience is the drive; first down the Ayrshire coast, then a relaxed crossing with a nice meal and a stroll on deck, before heading onwards from Belfast westward to the hills of Donegal. In recent years the coastal route from the remote north west of Donegal down the western fringe of Ireland has been designated ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’ and recognised as one of the great drives in the world.
Packie, who was known by some as the Donegal Rambler, was born on what is now the Wild Atlantic Way and, in his younger years, drove cattle from the south of Donegal to various places, including towns in the north. In those times, travel was far from easy and the life he led would now seem incredibly harsh. Packie’s stories about that lifestyle were told in his book, Recollections Of A Donegal Man, and are alluded to in his songs, several of them expressing his love for his native Donegal.
Many of Packie’s friends from his time in England made the journey over for the weekend; most of them were already familiar with Ardara - it was Packie who had drawn them to the town and Packie and Donegal that had kept drawing them back over the years. As they gathered for the centenary celebrations, along with Packie’s other friends, family and neighbours, the songs and tunes that emanated from this great writer and tradition carrier were very much in evidence.
On the Friday evening there was a gathering of singers in the upper room of the Beehive Bar who sang a host of songs written by Packie, from his fairly well known Hills Of Inishowen and Meet An Irishman to some that are heard less often, including a wonderful rendition of his poem about one of the many hospitals he had frequented, St Columbas By The Sea. By the time that gathering ended, there was already a good going session in the downstairs bar, with the tunes and songs flowing as freely as the Guinness. As is customary in Irish gatherings, the sandwiches came out in force, fuelling the participants until the early hours of the morning.
At noon on the Saturday a Centenary Anniversary Mass was held for Packie in the church in Bruckless where Packie is buried. It was an uplifting time for family and friends, and a time for people to pause in quiet reflection at his graveside, where his headstone says “the Donegal rambler is no more” and a tin whistle nestles amongst the flowers. Later in the afternoon, the documentary made about Packie’s life by Ardara’s Peter Alexander, Last Action Folk Hero, was screened in the Corner House Bar, followed by a song and music session – which also featured the obligatory mounds of sandwiches.
The Saturday evening concert in the Nesbitt Arms Hotel was a very special occasion. Packie’s Donegal community turned out to honour him, including many of the local musicians and singers whose lives he had touched. They were joined by musical friends from the UK, and from other parts of Ireland, in a wide and varied concert, again featuring songs and tunes written by the man himself, alongside others that he had “adapted” (as only Packie could) and some that had other special connections to him. Taking part were several of his collaborators from his time in England, including Bonnie Shaljean, Julie McNamara, Hilary Blythe, John Waltham, Jo Freya & Fi Fraser and Sharon Creasey. They were joined by others from Ireland such as Breda McKinney and Michael McGonigle from Inishowen, and several local singers and musicians including Eugene Meehan, a long-time friend of Packie, and fiddlers Jimmy & Peter Campbell and Tara Connaghan. Jimmy will be 80 this year, and has known Packie since he was a boy – they share many stories from over the years, along with the ability to recount them in their own unique style!
But perhaps the most poignant moment was when Packie’s own grand-nephew, Pauric Keeney, took to the stage to sing Packie’s song, The Hilltops Of Old Corkermore. With the same mixture of mischief and charm radiating from him as might have been seen in Packie in days gone by, Pauric’s presence was evidence that he, and others of his generation, are ensuring the continuation of these songs, tunes and stories.
Though the idea of making this an annual event in Packie’s honour is tempting, it looks like this will have been a one-off – a chance for friends and family to be together and remember him in a special way. However, plans are afoot to begin compiling an archive of recordings of his songs and music, to ensure they are not lost to future generations. Packie’s book, Recollections Of A Donegal Man, has recently become available again as an eBook, and is full of tales from his long and varied life. But, importantly, the weekend evidenced yet again the wonderful songwriting skills of a man with great insight and a unique way with words. These songs are alive and being sung in his native Donegal and far, far beyond, and while this is the case, Packie Manus Byrne and his legacy will be with us for a long time to come.