James Galway: ‘The flute was like a computer game to me – always going to the next stage’
The flautist is in Dublin tonight to collect a lifetime achievement award. It’s a far cry from Carnalea Street, in east Belfast
Man with the golden flute: James Galway’s gala night is at the National Concert Hall. Photograph: Alan Betson
Lifetime-achievement awards? Some recipients are embarrassed by them. Others are sniffy about them. Many are mortified by the shovelfuls of obituary-style praise. Not Sir James Galway.
The 73-year-old flautist, who will be presented with the second National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award tonight, already has a stack of honours to his name, not least an OBE and a knighthood.
But he seems genuinely delighted by this one, which recognises musicians who have contributed significantly to the musical life of Ireland. “It’s very special,” he says. The inaugural award was won last year by Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains, with whom Galway has often collaborated. Tonight’s celebratory gala at the NCH will be like a who’s who of Irish music as Galway is joined onstage by Moloney, the pianist Barry Douglas and the singer Brian Kennedy.
Since he launched his solo career, in 1975, Galway has become Mr Flute on the international circuit. Look up any discussion of the instrument online and you’ll find his name near the top of the list. He has sold 30 million albums, performed with Pink Floyd on the Berlin Wall, played on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. He has shared a stage with just about everyone, from Herbert von Karajan to Andrea Bocelli.
And he’s as busy as ever. Between now and Christmas his schedule will include the opening concert of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s with the Ulster Orchestra, a 14-city US tour with the Irish Chamber Orchestra and a gig at Carnegie Hall. Not bad for someone who began his musical life more than half a century ago as a wee boy with a wooden flute? Galway chuckles. “My grandad played the flute,” he says. “He taught my Uncle Joe, who taught me.” The roguish eyes twinkle. “Maybe you didn’t know this, but I started on the violin. A lady on our street, Mrs Shearer, gave me a violin, and I got some lessons from a friend of my dad’s. But the violin sort of fell to bits, because it was home sweet home to millions of Irish woodworms, and they kept chomping away as I played.”
The flute was a better fit, both with the nine-year-old Galway’s eyes – he has nystagmus, a congenital condition which meant that as a child he had to keep his eyes to the side to keep them still – and with local tradition. He grew up in a terrace of houses on Carnalea Street, in Protestant east Belfast. His father was a riveter; money was in short supply. Tough times?
“You see, I didn’t realise this because we were kids and everything for us was just great,” he says. “On the weekend we’d go to a place called Alec’s Bank – which was the local dump. We used to go down there and set fire to old tyres and stuff like that. One of the kids in school, Billy Chambers, gave me a dynamo in exchange for a stamp that he wanted in his collection.