Donegal traditional musician, singer, tin whistle player and storyteller

Packie Manus Byrne: February 18th, 1917 - May 12th, 2015

Packie Manus Byrne. Photograph: Flickr/Paul Woods

Packie Manus Byrne. Photograph: Flickr/Paul Woods

 

Packie Manus Byrne, who has died aged 98, was a traditional musician who wore the tradition lightly. He was primarily a singer, but also a tinwhistle player and a storyteller. Byrne knew the old songs of his native southwest Donegal, having played with musicians who had grown up in the 19th century.

He could perform equally well on a concert stage or in a small session. He could write songs in the traditional style and he could tell a story, either serious or lighthearted.

Byrne was born in February 1917 in the townland of Corker More, about half-way between Killybegs and Ardara, the youngest of the four children of Connell Byrne, a small farmer, and his wife, Maria (née Gallagher).

At 19 he emigrated to England. There he worked in many jobs, including as a railwayman and circus hand. From time to time he returned to Ireland. During one spell back at home he worked for a cattle dealer and used to walk cattle from Pettigo in south Donegal to Derry, and then accompany them on the boat to Scotland.

In the late 1950s he contracted tuberculosis; the illness cost him a lung.

Film role

His recovery from illness coincided with a revival of interest in traditional music. From the mid-1960s on he was a fixture on the English folk circuit. He also acted in the Ken Loach film Black Jack, which won the Critics’ Award at Cannes in 1979.

In the late 1980s he retired to Donegal, where a steady stream of visitors made their way to his home in Ardara. As he aged, he developed breathing difficulties, but he was not the kind of man to let a minor problem like not being able to breathe stop him singing: he changed his style so he could draw breath and continue singing almost to the end.

He is survived by his nephews and nieces.