Tom Byrne, musician: Keeping with tradition

Musician Tom Byrne
Musician Tom Byrne

When Tom Byrne was 11-years-old, he unwrapped a special Christmas present that was to ignite an ever-lasting love and talent.

Tom’s parents, Paddy who was originally from Malin Head and Bridie, nee Canning, from Magilligan, had gifted their son a harmonica, recognising in him a natural talent for music.

As the years have passed by, the Crewe-born musician - who has lived in Buncrana since the 90s, has become one of our best-known and celebrated musicians and composers. He plays accordion, harmonica and piano and a wide variety of styles from traditional to blues to classical.

Tom has a string of accomplishments and credits to his name and most recently won the LiveIreland award for Best Traditional male, something he was ‘over the moon about.’ He tells the ‘Journal’ how the award was not just a thrill for him, but also for his siblings and family. He said he immediately thought of his parents and the ‘sacrifices’ they had made for their children as they were growing up.

Tom added that the award not only gives him the opportunity to meet and hear new people but is also self-affirming. “I suppose, after doing music all these years, something like this makes you think to yourself: ‘Well, I must be doing something right!’ he said. Tom’s still has his very first harmonica, a Hohner Harmonica Song Band Alto Tuning and disclosed he was “mesmorised” by the sounds it produced.

He adds: “Obviously my parents must have seen something musical in me. I have an aunt, Nabla O’Reilly and when she would come to look after us, she would sing to me and I would sing to her.”

Tom’s father was also a huge influence and inspiration upon him and he comes from a strong musical background. Tom’s grandfather, John, was instrumental along with others in bringing the County Fleadh to Malin. Paddy Byrne’s uncles Pat and Willie (Tam Roe) both played the accordion as did his Aunt Bessie and Tom adds “they were all lovely singers.” As a boy, Tom’s father went to fiddle lessions in Carn and his brothers, Michael and Cara were both musicians. So, it comes as no surprise that it was passed down to Tom.

He said: “My dad played the fiddle and accordion and wrote poetry and short stories. A few years ago I found some of his writings and he spoke of how he remembered the fishing boats and travelling to Inishtrahull, where all the houses would look Lilliputian as you looked back from the boat . He was a constant source of support and positivity - as was my mother - and I would not have played music if it wasn’t for him. Music was integral to my father’s life growing up in Malin Head. His friends, who were also musical, were regular visitors to the house in Crewe and I grew up listening to them all.

As he got older, Tom, who currently works as a resource teacher in schools across Inishowen, took up the button accordion but could always play a tune on the harmonica . While teaching in London in his 20s, he began to “take it more seriously” and bought a Lee Oskar diatonic harmonica to see if he could master its notes and how to ‘bend” them, “ie through force of breath, create notes that on first perusal didn’t seem to be there.” He also started playing the chromatic harmonica, played by Stevie Wonder and Larry Adley. When he learned a new tune on the accordion Tom, who is entirely self-taught, would attempt to play it on the harmonica. He said he soon realised that the blues harmonica was great for playing Irish music,

He said: “You could do more with the reed. You get more expressive sounds. It draws people to it and lends itself very well to slow airs. It’s great for improvising and you could spend your whole lifetime trying to play it and learn from it.”

In 2009 Tom released an acclaimed album which was recorded in McGrory’s, Culdaff. He was joined by Frankie Gavin on the fiddle and viola, Carl Hession on a grand piano hired from Henderson’s, Paul O’Donnell on double bass and Laurence Doherty on the drums. It was for this album that Tom was awarded Best Male Musician.

In awarding it, Chicago-based music critic Bill Margeson had this to say: “Tom Byrne From the first notes of Tom Byrne’s self-titled album you are stunned. You are in the presence of a master musician and you may well have never heard anything like this before. It is not enough to say that Tom Byrne plays the harmonica. He is the Paganini of the harmonica. Think we’re exaggerating? Get a hold of this cd after tracking him down on the net, listen to it all in one sitting, and you will be speechless. As were we. Our pal, Paul Brock told us about this musician, and we owe Paul a big debt of gratitude! Be it Larry Adler, Toots Theilemans, Brendan Power, Charlie McCoy, The Murphys or anyone else—you have never heard harmonica like this. Throw away any preconceptions.”It’s a review Tom is delighted by and the significance of winning an award in 2016 for a 2009 album is not lost on him.

He said: “It’s definitely a bit of an unusal one!”

In 2011, Tom also recorded an album with the Henry Girls, recording three of his own compositions and one of his father’s. Tom has recorded a lot of his father’s music, as have other artists in the peninsula and beyond.

He said he’s touched and honoured that younger generations - through musicians such as Roisin Doherty and Clodagh Warnock, whom Tom has worked with - are learning the music that has become so precious to him, adding that the peninsula has a strong history and respect not only for traditional music but for all types of genres.

He said: “Inishowen has always been mad into music. I think, at one time, it was a central requirement that you had it so that there’d be someone to play at events like the big nights. But there’s always been that love there. There’s most definitely a mutual respect for all types of music in Inishowen. All of it is valued and I don’t think there’s that ‘snobbery’ that can exist elsewhere. You can play, trad, then maybe a waltz or a piece of jazz and no-one would be freaked out. And everyone who wants to go on stage is always welcomed - you’re excited to see what they can do.”

Tom himself plays regularly in Inishowen and Kilcar -where his father also lived- and throughout Ireland. Over the last few years he has played at festivals in Canada, Romania, France, Shetland Uganda and Belgium and been involved in major community productions such as music facilitator for Malin Head Community Centre’s ‘Wall2Wall Music’. This was a community project which produced a piece of music called ‘Island Lament’ to commemorate the final departure of the last people who lived on Inastrahull Island. He is also a committee member of the Inishowen Traditional Music Project which is responsible for teaching traditional music to young people in Inishowen/Derry and which is committed to archiving and teaching the music composed in and associated with Inishowen. Looking to the future, Tom hopes to release more albums and at the moment is composing a musical with Inishowen-based composer John McLaughlin.

He laughs as he says: “It’s really interesting and we’re writing all sorts of stuff. It’s based on a wee peninsula in North Donegal - I don’t know where we got that idea!

You can check out Tom’s website on www.tombyrneonline.com