Packie Byrne was born in Corkermore, Co. Donegal, on 18th February 1917, the youngest of four children. His parents, Con and Maria, were great lovers of traditional songs and had a vast store of them. And so the family cottage often rang with music, as friends and neighbours gathered for an evening of shared tunes, songs, dances and stories. In this enriching soil, Packie flourished.
It was not without its perils, however, for his mother and father didn't always agree on certain matters. And wee Packie often found himself right in the middle of it.
When you think of married couples arguing, the subjects that usually come to mind are the standard boring drudgeries of life. But not in this case. The only thing that ever disturbed the peace in Con and Maria's household was – songs. If they took differing notions as to how a melody should go, or what the words were, watch out! These clashes of opinion were reserved for after the children were asleep (or supposed to be) but all too often Packie would get hauled out of bed to settle a dispute. Why Packie and not his siblings? I don't know. Perhaps they were better at faking unconsciousness. Or maybe he was the most knowledgeable of the four, even though they were older.
He dreaded these arguments, not for the disturbed rest, but because it meant having to side with one parent against the other; so that no matter what he said, it was going to be the wrong thing. However, harmony was always restored come the morning, and he'd finish every story with, “Ah, they were the best.” And smile at memories that only he could see.
When Packie turned 20, he roved out – as did so many young men – and caught the boat for England. There he held a variety of jobs, in a steelworks and “breaking horses for the railway” among others. Soon he'd acquired a clarinet and a sax, and started playing in the dance bands, where he was often in demand. Acker Bilk was later to single out a solo of his for particular admiration.
By the time the war broke out, Packie had returned to Ireland, to a life of farming, cattle-droving, appearing in amateur dramatic productions and, of course, playing music. When he went back to England a couple of years later, the military immediately tapped him on the shoulder, but he failed to pass the physical exam. This barred him from active service, so he joined the internal security forces instead.
The restoration of peace found him back in Ireland, where American personnel remained stationed in the North for some time, just over the border from Donegal. So Packie did a nice little sideline in smuggling booze to thirsty soldiers, and it was a sorry day for his back pocket when “the Yanks” went home.
Eventually his restless feet carried him once again to England, where he jobbed around in a variety of occupations – among them, working for a circus - and he also spent three years in hospital wards, battling tuberculosis.
He had never abandoned his music, and as he recovered, he picked up his instruments and began appearing in concerts, festivals and radio broadcasts, among which was a breakthrough into the folk scene, when he stepped in at late notice to cover for another performer at London's Cecil Sharp House. His wit and improvisational skills served him well, as did his impressive and varied repertoire; and it set him on the path he would follow for the rest of his working life.
Soon he was a regular at the legendary folk haunts that flourished during that classic era. He later recalled walking through Piccadilly Circus with the then-unknown Paul Simon, who stopped to fix a patch in his shoe with a bit of cardboard.
I first set eyes on Packie at Loughborough Folk Festival in 1975, where I was wandering around the halls with my harp (an unusual sight in those days). I wasn't a booked performer, and only carried it because there was nowhere I felt comfortable leaving it. I've often wondered what turn my life would have taken had I found a safe place to stash it.
Just then, an elegant gentleman in a beautiful grey suit – complete with waistcoat and pearl stickpin – approached me, and paused to speak. He looked so refined and prosperous that my initial thought was, “My gosh, what is a banker doing at a folk festival?” Little did I know that his suit came from a charity shop for a few bob.
He asked me if I knew My Lagan Love and, as good luck would have it, I did. He immediately reached inside his jacket and drew out a silver whistle, while I knelt down on the floor in my long hippie dress and put the harp to my shoulder. And, right there in the middle of the corridor, we struck up My Lagan Love. Before the afternoon was out, we had become firm friends.
I was living in Golders Green at the time, and Packie rented a room in central London, where he worked for a firm of solicitors (more on that anon). It wasn't long before he was a steady caller at the big house I shared with four others, and I'd often cook us dinner while he sat at our huge kitchen table and serenaded me with tunes. Pretty soon, club and festival bookings started dotting the diary pages, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It was also a lot of laughs. And usually Packie would get the last one. But not always. At least once, the tables were turned. The setting for this historic event was the club at Chipping Sodbury (which one of us - I can't even remember who - accidentally and with fatal permanence Spoonerised into Sodding Chipbury).
Packie had a well-known comic routine whereby he could play multiple whistles at once by fitting them into a cut-up rubber shower hose and blowing in one end. After finishing this number, he described to the audience (all the while chortling in great glee) how he had nicked the hose from his landlady's bathtub and had done the dastardly surgery on it unbeknownst to her.
Everybody had a lovely giggle over this, and Packie was feeling quite pleased with himself until he happened to glance down at the far end of the front row. And there sat none other than said landlady and her husband, who were in the area on holiday, and had decided to drop in to the club as a surprise. Well, it was a surprise all right. To their everlasting credit, Martin Winsor and Jeannie Steel – for it was their flat Packie lodged in – took it all in good humour. None of us ever let him forget it, though.
When I first knew him, Packie had a job with a firm of posh solicitors, all elegant mahogany and brass and wine-red carpets. But his wee cubbyhole was far away from this finery, which was a godsend to any secretaries or telephonists who were late to work. Once inside the front door of the cavernous and warren-like old building, they would dash downstairs into Packie's den, hastily slip off their coats and drop their bags, and quickly grab a stack of papers or envelopes or a file folder (Packie kept a supply of these handy, expressly for this purpose). Then they would walk up the central staircase with their ‘work’ in hand, cool as you please, no sign of their tardy entry in evidence. Their bosses never did catch on. Packie always had a ready stock of safety pins, packets of kleenex and other essentials, so he was a great favourite around the office. Many tears were shed when he retired.
He even managed to brighten up the TB wards with his hi-jinks, though my favourite stories are mostly unrepeatable... don't ask... but woe betide you if you were one of those starchy drill-sergeant nurses who liked to boss around patients and lower-ranking staff, who (surprise, surprise) tended to be female and young and pretty.
Packie's fondness for the girls has often been remarked on (including by me: I used to tease him about it all the time), so I would like to make something clear – which won't need saying to anyone who knew him. But for the benefit of those who didn't and have only heard the stories: Packie was a gentleman, through and through, and his behaviour towards them was never less than respectful. The first word that came into my head when I met him all those years ago was “courtly”, and I did not have reason to change my mind, ever. He didn't once take advantage of a situation, even though youthful admirers approached him regularly, in spite of the fact that he was (in his own phrase) “no oil painting”. The other side of the equation – the girls' lasting fondness for him – speaks for itself.
Later on, Packie landed a role in Ken Loach's film, Black Jack, and the character could have been written for him. He played the smooth-talking, patent-medicine-selling, yarn-spinning, roguish but warm-hearted Dr. Carmody, complete with an 18th century curly wig that had to be seen to be believed.
For his favourite scene from the whole shoot - in which Dr. Carmody sits by the light of a bonfire, telling tales and playing tunes – the film crew had painted his large low-G whistle black, to resemble antique ebony, and this ersatz colouring lasted for years. The instrument gradually took on a distinctly jigsaw-puzzle look, as its dark coating chipped and wore off, bit by bit. After a gig, someone once asked Packie what that thing he had been playing was. “That,” he informed the man, “is the traditional Irish piebald whistle.” (Well, traditions have to start somewhere, I suppose.) I still have the bottle of Dr. Carmody's Magical Potion which he brought back to me as a present.
In revenge, I asked if he wanted to drink some of my special fancy all-the-way-from-China lapsang souchong tea, and held out a steaming mug invitingly. I might as well have offered him used bathwater. He lifted it out of my hand, took one look, set it down, and proclaimed, “Sure, it's got wee bits o' timber floating in it!”
All the light-hearted humour and blithe patter make it easy to overlook one of Packie's prime skills: his songwriting. Whether funny ditties or serious ballads, songs were so much a part of who Packie was. For he had the tradition in him, and the true bard's feel for the poetry of a line, deceptively simple, but conveying whole worlds. You could hear it in his airs too.
He was not a pyrotechnic wizard at flashy jigs and reels, and never pretended to be. To expect this of him, as some did, was to misapprehend his true gift – the poet's gift, rather than the virtuoso's. In particular, his Donegal-inspired compositions, such as Bruckless Bay, Lovely Naran Strand and The Hills Of Inishowen, will live on for many generations.
When Packie was 70, disaster loomed, as he was about to be made homeless. Accommodation in London was in a dire state (I'd worked as a housing officer for the Borough of Camden and was well-placed to know exactly how dire) and he was in despair. But the Irish look after their own, and soon Packie had callers: two dear friends from Ardara, Packie McGinley and Peter Oliver McNelis. This was no ordinary visit. They were there on a mission. “It's all arranged,” they said. “We've come to take you home.”
They had organised a house and furniture, utilities, social benefits - everything needed to begin a new life. And so Packie Manus returned to Donegal, for good this time. As the songs say, there he lived, happy and content, for the rest of his days. And Packie kept right on singing, storytelling, appearing at festivals and generally getting into mischief. Even up to his final birthday gathering - his 98th - he was still enjoying songs and joining in.
But the shadows were lengthening. By then his health had failed badly, and the doctor wanted him to cancel the celebration and go into hospital that very afternoon. But Packie refused outright. This was his party, he was going to see his friends, and that was that.
And, come the evening, he rallied astonishingly, his old self showing its merry face for a few brief hours. It was the last time I ever saw him. Early the next day he was whisked away to Letterkenny General. We drove back down to Cork, but all too soon, we were on the road for Donegal again.
I must have heard Packie sing Paddy Moloney Forgot That He Was Dead a thousand times, and it wordlessly echoed throughout his wake. There, among his family and friends, bottomless mugs of tea and never-empty plates of food, midnight songs and tunes rang out in his little front room to the sound of fiddle, whistle and harp. We could almost hear him:
“[Play] on, or else the corpse will thump your head.”
The next morning as we walked behind Packie’s coffin, following his final earthly journey, Julie McNamara, Jo Freya and I quietly sang the anthem of his beloved Vera Lynn, I'll Be Seeing You In All The Old Familiar Places. Thus we said goodbye, and they carried him home to his family.
The Byrne headstone shows that the oldest grave holds Packie's paternal grandmother, Ellen Byrne, who died in 1886. In the plot also rest his mother, father, brother and one sister who died young. The remaining sister is buried with her husband's people in Killybegs, and it is her son and daughter-in-law, Packie and Eileen Keeney, and their family, who were so wonderful to Packie Manus, and cared for him right up to - and beyond - the end.
Standing by the graveside that day, Eugene Meehan sang Packie's familiar verses, heedless of the rain falling on his bare head as the coffin was lowered to rest in the wet Donegal earth. And the words took wing, rising through the air. For as long as these songs are sung, Packie Manus will live on.
One of the beauties of Ireland is the dramatically changeable weather, which often doesn't stay the same for 15 minutes running. And so it proved the day after the funeral, glowering grey, the wind blowing in from the sea and threatening rain, as Michael and I went back to the churchyard to lay another wreath on the grave. We set it alongside the whistle on its bed of white chrysanthemums, and for a few dazzling minutes the sun speared its way through, blinding us with gold. Then it was gone, as swiftly as it had appeared, to be replaced in an instant by a sky of angry silver and a deluge.
As we made a dash for the shelter of the church doorway, I could hear Packie say (nothing spooky, just the imprint of a million replays from the past), “Ye go on away now... cheerio...” and without thinking I called out over my shoulder as I ran, “No, we'll be back in a mo, Packie Manus.” It's not only Paddy Moloney who forgot that he was dead. I did too, for a moment.
I think I see the evening, when the sun is sinking low,
The silent water darkened by the shadow of Benroe.
I watch the twilight lingering on the hill of Castlereagh
As if it is afraid to lose the sight of Bruckless Bay.
If I had one choice to make, ‘tis there I’d choose to die,
That I might rest within the plot where both my parents lie.
And I will sleep contented as my body turns to clay
For I'll have found my holy ground beside you, Bruckless Bay.
by Bonnie Shaljean
Published in Issue 109 of The Living Tradition, August 2015
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