"Living the dream" is how musician Tommy Byrne describes his life in Florida. Touring America with his multi-instrument playing sons wasn't on the cards five years ago. The story of the Byrne Brothers, the family band he plays in and manages, is one of overnight success, years in the making.
"I had been playing music professionally for 30 years," explains the Dublin-native who met his wife in Ibiza when he was touring and she worked for Budget Travel. The couple married and settled in her native Donegal where their three sons had instruments in their hands from the cradle.
“I was playing music in a wedding band and doing shows for the tourists,” says Byrne. “The boys were learning fiddle and Irish dancing. They came on stage with me for one of the shows and it just escalated from there.”
Indeed the Byrne men, county champion musicians and Ulster champion Irish dancers, between them play uilleann pipes, bagpipes, whistles, guitar, button accordion, banjo, mandolin, bodhrán and piano.
Auditioning with thousands of others, Byrne's sons scored a Late Late Toy Show appearance in 2015, bringing Dempsey then six, Finn nine and Luca 11 to national attention. When a video of the family busking at the Fleadh Ceoil in Ennis shot by Mum Julie the following summer went viral, their appeal broke borders.
“It had 3.4 million views. It was the biggest watched video in Ireland that year and things started going crazy,” recalls Byrne.
A holiday in Florida that year brought another fortuitous twist.
"We heard about this place called Raglan Road in Disney World where a lot of my friends had played. It was the last night of our holiday and the boys got up and danced and it went down a storm," says Byrne.
They asked the venue if they could play a slot the next time they came on holiday. “They said, ‘Why don’t you come out for two weeks around St Patrick’s Day and perform for the two weeks?’ We were hooked.”
By the following January, the family had sold their house in Donegal and moved to Florida.
“It just kind of happened organically,” says Byrne. “We weren’t too scared of it because myself and Julie had been travelling all over the world anyway for work. We were well used to travelling and loved that part of our jobs.”
Advised by other Irish musicians, they applied and got approved for their US Green Cards through their “Extraordinary Ability in the Arts” (EB-1 Visa).
“Getting our Green Cards was amazing. We couldn’t believe it. We still can’t believe it.”
The boys, home-schooled in Ireland, were excited to travel.
“They couldn’t wait. They were just so excited about coming to America. They didn’t think twice about it. We just packed our bags and came over and made a life for ourselves.”
After an initial Raglan Road residence – the youngest ever cast members of Walt Disney World – the Byrne Brothers bought a Volkswagen RV for $7,000 and went on tour, staying in campgrounds.
"There are lots of festivals all over the US, so I just applied and sent off CVs. We picked up a good few festivals on the weekends and some pub gigs," says Byrne. The family covered 22 states including gigs in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Nashville.
The Byrne Brothers show is a mix of storytelling, Irish dancing, music and singing. While the family has played Irish festivals and Irish cultural centres, they are finding other channels too like WoodSongs, a Kentucky-based live audience radio show featuring country and grassroots music that airs on over 500 radio stations.
They want to do more cultural outreach too – teaching the Siege of Ennis to pupils at Barack Obama's old high school in Hawaii was a highlight, says Byrne.
Social media has been an important marketing tool.
“It’s hard to keep on top of it. We get hundreds of comments. We mind it. It’s our community and we try to look after everybody in it.”
Having committed followers helps to sell festival tickets too. The millions of tourists passing through Disney each year have helped spread the word.
“Every corner of America that we go to they say, ‘Oh we saw you in Raglan Road’. That’s great for us as.”
That they can market themselves as a Disney, family-friendly show helps festival bookings too. Festivals in the US are big affairs.
"At the Milwaukee Irish festival, we played to 100,000 which was unbelievable. Everybody buys a band's 'merch', which is an extra earner for us." This includes the band's signature tweed flat caps, made by Hanna Hats in Donegal town.
While festivals have been cancelled since March last year, the Byrne Brothers have continued playing at Raglan Road.
“The weather is nice so we can play outside, everyone is wearing a mask, doing social distancing, minding each other.”
The phone is starting to ring again with future festival dates and their new CD is getting airplay on Celtic stations.
“When things do open up again, I don’t think we will go in the RV again, we’ll fly,” says Byrne.
The family has bought a house and is branching into other areas too.
"Luca is 16 and he's into photography and videography, Finn is studying to be a music producer. Myself and Julie are studying for our realtor exams and we'll do festivals on the weekends. The family is learning Spanish with hopes of touring in South America.
Is combining work and family hard?
“It’s been the best thing about moving to America,” says Byrne. “It’s just made us closer and stronger. We are together all the time; we hate being apart. We are very tight.”
“Young musicians who want to pursue their career in music, it is possible,” says Byrne. “You can get a green card. If you put a band together, work on your sound, promote yourself and tour – you can make a few bob and have the most amazing experience.”