James Byrne from Meenacross, Glencolmcille, Co Donegal was one of the greatest Donegal fiddlers of his time. Born in 1946, his earliest childhood memories were of listening to his father John, also a noted fiddler, and their many musical neighbours sharing tunes and stories at the turf fire in his parents’ kitchen during long winter nights. House dances, raking nights and visits by travelling musicians like the Dohertys and the McConnells were still the main entertainment in rural Donegal. As James said in an interview for the American ‘Fiddler Magazine’, Spring Issue 1999):
“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....” (Full interview here)
James grew up to become one of the greatest exponents of the South West Donegal style of fiddling with an unsurpassed knowledge of the music of his native area. He was the custodian of a vast repertoire of tunes and lore and presented a living link to the legendary players of old.
James rarely left Ireland but was nevertheless known as one of the best fiddlers in Ireland. His style of playing, his tone and command of the instrument were exceptional and people travelled from near and far to learn from James and hear him play. In 1988 he recorded with fellow fiddlers Vincent Campbell, Francie Byrne and Con Cassidy 'The Brass Fiddle' for Claddagh Records, followed in 1990 by his acclaimed solo album 'The Road to Glenlough' (Claddagh Records). Many of the tunes he passed down from the older generation of musicians are now played the world over.
In later years, he set up the traditional music project ‘Ceol sa Ghleann’ in his home parish to revive the style and raise interest in the local tradition among the young people in the area. He often featured on Irish Traditional Music broadcasts both in Ireland and abroad and regularly performed and taught at festivals and events, inspiring many players with his great gift for music and warm personality.
James passed away suddenly and unexpected in the early morning hours of Saturday, 8th November 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.
His legacy is being carried forward by his family - his life partner Connie and their daughters Aisling, Merle and Séana and the many other young fiddlers he taught and inspired.
Ní bheidh a léitheid ann arís.
"The news of James' sudden death caused shock, then sadness, then loving memories in all who heard. James is irreplaceable in his immediate and beautiful family of Connie, Merle, Aisling, Sarah and Séana. He is also irreplaceable in the Glencolumbcille family where he enhanced even that beautiful place; in the Irish music family where his stature and gifts as musician and person he carried and shared gracefully; in the family of Ireland, where his love of her native language, her music, and her helpful ways he expressed freely. The memories are good, the sorrow is great.” (Tommy Peoples)
"James Byrne was one of the great heroes of Irish traditional music, his technique and style of playing were exceptional and his death is a great loss. He embodied the values of his art, passing music and culture onto future generations and inspired many players.” (Mary Cloake, Director of the Arts Council , 2008)
“The Mahatma of Glencolmcille”
(Fr Seamus Gallagher)
“An extraordinary person who was happy living a simple life”
(Margaret McGinley, neighbour)
"And finally, a salute to James Byrne who passed at the age of 62 this past November. Widely considered one of the greatest Donegal fiddlers of all time, the reclusive James rarely left his native Glencolmcillie for America, but is credited with reviving the style of the region and hugely influencing the playing of the band Altan and many others; a true teacher!
Farewell, Slán" (Irish America Magazine, www.irishamerica.com)