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Packie Manus Byrne

An eightieth-birthday tribute

The following article appeared in the February 1997 issue of Living Tradition magazine, an excellent bi-monthly publication dealing with traditional music, published in Scotland.

The authors are Stephen Jones (that's yours truly, founder of Roger Millington), and John Moulden. John is a "singer, percussionist, researcher, writer, editor, lecturer, publisher and song hunter". In 1996 John won the Bass Ireland (Nominated Discipline) Award for his contribution to traditional song in the north of Ireland. He runs Ulstersongs, a mail-order business with a catalogue of rare and fascinating books and music.

Packie Manus Byrne turned 80 on February 17, 1997. As a traditional singer and musician, storyteller, actor, comedian, and all-round character, his contribution to the living tradition has been immense. Here are two tributes to this uncommonly talented and likeable man.

A talent worn lightly

by John Moulden

When I first met Packie Manus Byrne he was an unhappy man -- not that it stopped him being genial or having a long discussion in the basement of Cecil Sharp House with the fiddler Seán Maguire, and others, including myself, a very callow youth, on the nature and state of "The Tradition" -- but he had just lost a set of tuned horseshoes and a musical bicycle pump by leaving them on a bus and was worried about his future without them. It was October 1964 -- The Sixth Folk Festival at Cecil Sharp House. Packie and Seán were substituting for the top of the bill Donegal fiddler, Johnny Doherty. He had agreed to appear and Dr McCloskey of Ardara was to escort him to London (Johnny having hardly travelled outside Donegal). When the good doctor went looking, Johnny had gone to ground, terrified at the prospect of the boat and the sea.

The conversation with Packie showed a seasoned performer: music halls, pubs, cinema queues; singing, playing whistle and musical novelties; song writing. He'd competed successfully in Fleadheanna Ceoil and in radio competitions. After the 1964 Festival, he was taken up by the English folksong revival on account more of the humorous side of his abilities than of their very real depth. The issue of English Dance and Song next after his debut (vol. xvii no. 1, Dec. 1964) gave his "Bog Down in the Valley" a cumulative song of great cheerfulness, and his parody of "Brennan on the Moor", which had Brennan meeting the Clancy Brothers and being seduced away from robbery and blunderbusses towards singing and big guitars. Packie was brought back to the same festival the following year when Ken Stubbs thought Margaret Barry's dancing to Packie's whistle playing the best bit of the event. However, anyone who considers Packie a lightweight, either as performer or tradition bearer, should check his Topic album "Songs of a Donegal Man" [see discography below] which has some of the finest performances of traditional ballads I have heard, sung in an unassuming but passionate style.

I next met Packie in 1966 at the Keele Folk Festival which was to become the (English) National Folk Festival. Packie, having had me play spoons with him previously, invited me on stage to accompany him. The performance was subsequently broadcast and I was paid my first fee ever; eternal gratitude set in.

My meetings with Packie were at fairly long intervals. I looked forward to them because they were always enjoyable -- amusing -- yet always serious. We met at Fleadheanna and singing festivals and after his return to Ireland in 1987 these meetings became more regular, to my joy. Forkhill, Ballyliffin, "Willie Week" -- he graced them all. The year before last the tape "From Donegal and Back!" was launched at a party in Ardara. Singers came from all parts of Ireland and England and a lucky American who happened to be staying with Packie -- researching, it was said. They came because they loved him and respected his work.

Packie has now almost stopped singing and whistle playing because of lack of breath, but he still makes a good hand at telling stories, anywhere, at the drop of a hat and the more outrageous the better, but also at storytelling festivals. He is easily the most complete performer with the broadest repertory of anyone I know: musician, singer of silly songs, singer of ballads, entertainer, novelty artist, raconteur, creator as well as carrier -- a living treasure who wore his talent lightly. As a result it has never truly been recognised that his verve and passion for entertaining hid the most profound and accomplished artistry and the greatest breadth of knowledge of the tradition of his area -- and in general.

With his eightieth birthday we give thanks that a man seldom strong, and sometimes dangerously ill, should have survived so long to give so much joy. Amazingly, the part of his life which has supported him best -- with friends who continue to visit and call -- lasted no more than twenty-two years. However it would seem that all his previous life led up to it and that all his subsequent life has been its reward; long may he enjoy it!

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An indomitable spirit

by Stephen Jones

In 1985, prompted by our mutual friend Sharon Creasey, I started tape-recording conversations with Packie Manus Byrne with a view to making a book about his life. What attracted Sharon and me were Packie's stories of his cattle-smuggling activities across the Northern Ireland border, tales of his days as an undercover agent in the Home Guard during World War II, and hilarious and potentially libellous reminiscences of characters in the Irish-music world.

In the end some of the wilder stories did not make it into the book, Packie being too much of a gentleman to expose the quick or the dead to public ridicule. But in the process of all the talking, taping and typing I found things in Packie's life that were of far greater and more lasting interest. Certainly, the external details of his astonishing career are fascinating, but the deepest impression Packie made on me came not from what he had done, but from his character and his attitude to life itself.

Packie is a complex man: certainly no saint, he can be as stubborn and contrary as you like, and has a mischievous streak that borders on the roguish. Yet to me the essential fact about him is that he loves life, and loves people too.

He actively practises what he calls "the art of survival" -- a legacy of the world of his childhood, where neighbourliness and self-reliance were the foundations of existence. Packie means by this a knack for getting by on very little, improvising and adapting, getting the most enjoyment out of every situation, and living harmoniously with others. All told, I find him a truly admirable role model for our post-industrial, city-dwelling times!

Packie's genuine appreciation of people and their company (plus his irrepressible and highly developed sense of fun) is what makes others respond to him so warmly. It also makes him, in many ways, a very unconventional man. An octogenarian bachelor living alone at the top of a hill in Ardara, he receives visitors from all over the world. As ever, he is rarely short of female company, and many of his friends and visitors are 50 or more years younger than he. More than one young folklorist from Scandinavia or North America, scouring Ireland for material to study, has called on Packie for an afternoon, ended up staying for weeks or even months, and remained a regular correspondent for years thereafter!

The folk revival of the 1960s represented a kind of homecoming for Packie: in the comradeship and cooperation of the early folk clubs he found echoes of the community into which he was born. I think this is what enabled him finally to settle down and give focus to his prodigious and eclectic talents, to our great benefit.

Packie's friends and admirers sometimes feel that he suffers unfairly from a reputation as a lightweight in traditional-music terms. While he is unlikely to lose sleep over this, it is a pity that his immense traditional repertoire was never fully collected and documented. Once when we were talking of Séamus Ennis, I mentioned that during his collecting days Ennis had reportedly been given more than 200 songs by one singer in Ireland. Packie thought for a few moments and said that he could have given a collector that number quite easily, a claim I do not doubt for a second.

Whatever opportunities have been missed, the years since Packie's retirement in 1987 have seen quite a bit of creative output. The tape-recordings were proudly published in 1989 as "Recollections of a Donegal Man", a book that elicited many excellent reviews and generated several sackfuls of mail to Packie. A second book of funny stories, written entirely by Packie, has just come out as "My Friend Flanagan: tall tales told by Packie Manus Byrne". Veteran Tapes recently released "From Donegal and Back!", a cassette album of vintage recordings. And there are at least two new projects in the offing. The first should put Packie's right to heavyweight status as a whistle player beyond doubt: Jean Duval, a flute player and composer from Montreal, is putting the final touches to a collection of some 80 of Packie's tunes (most completely unknown, and all beautiful). The second should introduce a wider public to Packie's skills as a songwriter: singer Julie MacNamara is planning to record an album of his compositions.

Life has often been hard to Packie, although you'll never hear him say so. There's not much meat left on his tall, once-strong body, and I have often wondered what is keeping him alive, especially since he seems to eat hardly anything! Surely his indomitable spirit, his love of life, is what has kept him with us for four score years. Here's a fitting example of that spirit, told to me by his neighbour, Packie McGinley.

Packie Manus's last bout with heart trouble a couple of years back put him into intensive care for a few weeks, and a nursing home for several more. One day a party of friends came from England to visit him in the nursing home. The convalescing Packie appeared to be very weak. He received them tucked up in bed, blankets up to his chin. He chatted bravely and amiably, moving only his head to speak to the visitors on either side of the bed. When the time came for them to leave, he said, "Oh, are ye going? Well then I'd better see you out!" Flinging back the covers, to their amazement he sprang out of bed fully clothed and shod, and escorted them chuckling to the door.

To cross the path of this remarkable man has been an immense pleasure and privilege for me, as it has for so many others. They will, I am sure, join me in expressing undying gratitude to Packie and wishing him well for his eightieth birthday. God bless you, Packie Manus Byrne; for, to borrow the words of another much-loved Irishman, "Your like will not be there again."

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