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A Chat with Jim Byrne
Jim_Byrne_medtextFebruary 2012

Jim Byrne is well know to any of us who attend Mass in Tullylish as he sings in three of the choirs – the Male Voice Choir on a Saturday evening in Laurencetown and on Sunday Jim sings with the 10.00am choir in Laurencetown and the 11.30am choir in Gilford. So, we thought you might like to know more about this man with the huge voice who used to sing with the Pioneer Show band.

Jim was born into a family of 8 in Brown’s Row, Gilford before moving to Hill Street. After marrying his wife Joan, he moved to Newtownards Road in Belfast where he lived until 2000.  Jim and Joan lived directly opposite Stormont and when Bill and Hilary Clinton visited Stormont, they were able to watch it on television and then step outside and wave to them as they drove past!

Jim, did you always enjoy singing

Oh yes, I used to sing in the wee hall in Hallsmill with Andy Doyle. He ran a wee band with Greg McCartan, Tommy Greene, John Joe Monaghan, Eddie Geoghegan and Frank Teague who played the Hawaiian electric guitar.  I think he went on to play with a ceili band in Armagh.


Jim in his 'Gilford Mill' days with L-R

Oliver Doyle, Bob McIlwaine, Alfie McDowell and Jim Byrne

Then I used to go round the dances. One Friday night I was in the Temperance Hall in Banbridge and the Pioneer Show band was playing. During the tea break, they left the piano player and a drummer on the floor and  I asked if I could sing a song. The following Sunday, Anne Harper, Geordie Harper’s daughter, said to me that Geordie wanted to see me. He asked if I would be interested in joining the band. That was October 1955 when I was 17.

We used to play from 9.00pm till 12.00 midnight in the Central Ballroom in Newcastle – Pat Curran owned it  - and I got £1.00 for the night! That time, I was working in Gilford Mill for £2 and four shillings for a week!


Then when I got established with the band my wages went up to 30 shillings and sometimes when we played from 9.00pm till 2.00am I would have got £3.00. In the summertime we would have been playing every night and when we were paid at the end of the week I felt like a millionaire.  Sometimes we lifted £25.00 in the week!

After I was with the Pioneers for about a year, we sang on the radio – “Dancing by the Sea”.

I stayed with the Pioneers until I married in 1960 and then I went to live in Belfast.

Jim and Joan on their wedding day

How did you meet Joan?

We met in Newcastle. Joan was too young to get into the dances and she used to sit on the wall outside listening to me singing! Then we met up, parted and met up again! We married in St. John's Gilford on 19th September 1960, the week before Down won the All Ireland final! I remember watching the match on TV when we were on our honeymoon and I was the only 'Northerner' watching. It was brilliant! Joan and I have two children, Carol Anne and Robert James (Roy).

Where did the name ‘Pioneers’ come from.

It was originally called the Pioneer Dance Orchestra and the man who formed it was an ex army man and he was in the Pioneer Corps. Then when show bands became popular, it became the Pioneer Show band.


The Pioneer Showband

L-R Tommy Gallery, Alex Martin, Hugh McClory, Tommy Moore, Jim Byrne, George Harper
Dennis Boyd


Did you follow or enjoy any of the other show bands?

Yes, I always like the Clipper Carlton – they were a great band.

So, what did you do when you left the Pioneers?
My first job was with  the Franklin Laundry on the Springfield Road for a couple of years before moving to the New Yorker Cleaners  in Howard Street, then got a job in the wholesale chemist’s -  Harold Mitchell and Co for a few years and then to  Thomas McMullan chemists.  

My wife Joan’s father took ill and he asked me to take over his wholesale fruit business – I used to deliver fruit all over the country and I remember delivering fruit to Francie Murphy’s shop opposite MacFlynns. It’s not there anymore.  I used to do Banbridge and Donacloney on a Tuesday and Friday, Lisburn on a Monday and Downpatrick on a Wednesday .

L-R Alex Martin, Hugh McClory, George Harper, Paddy Kelly, Tommy Moore, Jim Byrne on double bass!

I gave up the fruit business and then went to work in the Royal Victoria Hospital for a year before joining the Ambulance Service and I stayed there for 15 years. That was at the height of the ‘troubles’. I had to retire due to heart problems in 1988.

After you finished with the Pioneer’s did you continue singing?

Before I went into the ambulance service, I went to sing with Fred Hanna in the 69 club in Belfast – it was owned by Sammy and Peggy Osborne who were All Ireland Ballroom Champions.

Then I got resident in the Errigal Ballroom on the Ormeau Road and we were a test case for an entertainment licence and we were the first place to get one. My photograph appeared in the newspaper the next morning and I ended up getting a tax bill! With the help of my father-in-law’s accountant, I got it sorted out!

When I was doing compere in the Ulster sports club, this wee man said he was getting me an audition in the Grove Theatre on the Shore Road on the Sunday. So I went along and sang “Love thee dearest”.  I didn’t know at the time that Joseph Locke was sitting in the gallery listening to me and the wee man that got me the audition told Joseph Locke – ‘that’s that fellas first time on stage’. I’ll not repeat what Joseph Locke said but afterwards I was told he would have taken me to England and ‘managed me’. 

And why didn’t you go?

I thought better of it -  I was bad enough on the drink without going to England with Joseph Locke! Although I did take his place one time - he was doing a week in the Grove Theatre and  ‘went missing’. I got a phone call to go on for two nights to fill in for him. So Candy Devine and I had to keep the show going.

We used to do Old Time Music Hall in the Grove theatre.

You know, the fellas that opened up Gilford Hall – it ended up when I was doing compere in the sports club, I was booking these boys that I had sung with when I was a young fella.

I came back to Gilford on 10th December 2000 and I wasn’t long back before Armand Gaillard asked me to join the Male Voice Choir with Mary McCann on a Saturday night in Gilford. Then  when the Gilford Mass stopped on a Saturday night, the choir moved to Laurencetown with Colum.  Colum asked me to sing on a Sunday morning – I love singing and I sing at three Masses in the parish every weekend.


You obviously enjoy singing

I do. When I was with the Pioneer Show band I wasn’t breathing properly so i was sent to a Mr Mills in Banbridge who was a singing tutor. I was with him for a full year before I sang anything – it was only scales. Oliver Moore went at the same time. Mr. Mills used to train the monks to chant.

It obviously served you well as your voice is still as good as ever.

I remember winning a talent competition on the Isle of Man. The Ivy Benson – an all girls band were playing and they had a talent competition.  Four of us went on holidays and we were ‘broke’! Then we saw this talent competition. I got up and sang ‘Eileen’.  The first prize was a fiver. So I entered and won it!

Then I entered a competition in Butlin’s and won it – the 1st prize was a trip to Shannon Airport on a Boeing 707, a trip around Limerick and then back home on the train with a meal included. On the day they sent me, Limerick was closed!

Jim, Frank Carson recently died. Did you know him?

Oh, yes I knew Frank well. I first met him in the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle when I was with the Pioneers. I think it was about 1959.  Then I met him again in Belfast. He owned a pub in Gilford Street on the Falls Road. We would often meet at parish functions and I remember working with him at a Legion of Mary function in Ballyhackamore. Ballyhackamore was our parish - Fr. McCann was the priest there at the time.  Although I didn't sing in the choir, I would have helped out at different parish events.

I remember meeting another famous lady - Ruby Murray! When I was resident at the Errigal Inn, she came to see Marie Cunningham who was playing the organ there at the time. Marie was Ruby Murray's pianist and had travelled all over America with her. They both came back to our house that night for 'supper' and I met her again when I was singing in Shortt's Social Club. Ruby was the guest artist one night.

Jim, you've certainly sung in plenty of places

Oh yes, I've sung in them all - pubs, clubs, hotels - I've done them all. I remember singing with Joe Lynch in the L.C.A. Hall in Lurgan!

Jim, you must have seen some dreadful sights during your time as a paramedic.

Oh yes, between the ‘troubles’ and motor accidents – it was dreadful. Some nights we would have had three deaths and some horrific injuries I trained for 6 weeks in England. I came out with top marks on the C.P.R. and got some ‘slagging’ from the other fellas about it.

Do you miss the ambulance service?

Oh I did - I loved the ambulance service- there was always something different. Thankfully we always got the maternity cases into hospital on time! The worst were the cot deaths. I remember having to deal with three, the youngest was only 19 days old. It was awful having to tell the mothers.. .......

It must have been difficult to switch of from that when you got home.

You know, some nights we might have had three bodies. Nowadays, the driver is taken off the road and gets counselling which we never got.

I made some great friends when I lived in Belfast – I’m a Liverpool supporter, you know!  I used to do the bar in the Supporter’s Club once a week and one a Saturday night once a month, then four  times a year you got a ticket to a match, your air fare paid and £50 in your hand.

Jim, you’re always in great demand to sing at funerals.

I’ve sung in all the churches – I’ve sung in Tullylish Presbyterian church for the Rev Sam Newell. I’ve sung in Stormont Presbyterian Church, the Methodist church in Belfast and the Church of Ireland.

I remember years ago when we had Lent, May and October Devotions, we used to race down the hill to catch the pictures at 8 o'clock! They used to hold the 'reel' for us till we got there! How times have changed. In those days, if there was a Mission, the workers used to get out of the Mill to go to Mass  - all the workers from Rathfriland and places like that. 

Do you have a favourite hymn, Jim?

Yes, I love the hymn ‘To do Your Will’ – you can put great feeling into it.

That’s was Rhona Fegan’s theme tune.

Yes, I know and Rhona was a great girl. I would have done anything for Rhona. I’d do anything for Colum too.

I also love ‘How great thou art’ and, of course, ’I watch the sunrise’. People keep me going, saying ‘Sunrise’ is my theme tune!

I love the last two verses of ‘sunrise’, especially ‘I watch the moonlight, guarding the light.....’ – I love that.   But sure that’s what we’re here for – if you’ve got a voice, you share it.

Do you ever regret not making a full time career out of singing?

No, when I was in Belfast, I used to drive the car to Banbridge and Frank Doyle would have collected me and driven me to Dundalk or Dublin etc.(Frank Doyle used to taxi us everywhere and if he wasn’t available, it would have been Brendan Conlon, or Frank’s son Jim Doyle or Johnny McDowell). I would have been coming home at all hours and in the winter time it was awful. I would have been coming home at 6 in the morning and then heading off to work. I ended up having a haemorrhage with the stress of it all. 


Lily Finnegan with Johnny McDowell and Maureen McGrann (Byrne)

We see you now, Jim, doing ‘lollipop duty’ at Banbridge Academy. Do you enjoy it?

I do enjoy it – I meet lots of people and lots of friends and I always have a wee lollipop for the wee ones!

And have you any hobbies now?

I love the singing and I love the craic - they're my hobbies now!

A huge thank you to Jim for sharing his wonderful memories with us - and don't be surprised if this interview gets longer and longer! Jim very kindly let us have copies of the photos below - a real trip down Memory Lane.




L-R Jim's late father Jim Byrne with Mr Graham, his uncle Paddy Byrne
and Mrs. Alice Byrne who lived beside the Reading Rooms on Castle Hill




L-R Annie Cloughley (?), Flannigan, Lily Fitz (Doyle) and Jim's Granny Byrne.





Warrenpoint with Jim's mother Kitty, Mary Ellen Drainey (nee Finnegan) and his sister Kathleen Byrne




L-R Marie Campbell (nee Doyle), Mick Conlon, Monica Byrne and Kathleen Byrne





Taken at Jim and Teresa Breen's wedding
Mary Moore, Mary Lizzie Finnegan, Margaret Finnegan, Kathleen Byrne ? Stella Coffey (Byrne) Kitty Owens
Pat Breen




When his sister Kathleen was crowned 'Victory Queen' in Gilford 1946

L-R Anne Hathaway, Kathleen Byrne and Lucy Owens



These photos were taken at recent celebrations in Gilford Hall

Back Row: Joe Marks and Brian Hamill

Front Row: Michael Marks, Pat Hamill, Owen Finnegan (R.I.P)



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