Jim and Fiona Byrne are impressive ambassadors of folk music

The guardians of folk

 Jim and Fiona Byrne are impressive ambassadors of folk music

It doesn’t fall far from the tree...or in Fiona Byrne’s case, the heather! Her earliest memories include “Lying under a bench in a bar, wrapped up, listening to mum singing, probably at a gig organised by dad.”
Her father, Pete Heywood, Manchester born, first encountered folk music as a teenager during the late Sixties when he attended a youth club where Mike Harding, the future BBC Radio 2 folk show presenter, was a leader, running a Friday night folk club. There and at other local clubs, Pete first heard the likes of Dick Gaughan, the Fureys and Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick.

Ballad singer

Moving to Scotland in 1970, he married Heather Williamson, whom he had met in Blackpool. As Heather Heywood, she would go on to make her name as a fine Scots ballad singer, cutting her teeth at Irvine Folk Club, where the couple became increasingly involved in the flourishing Ayrshire folk scene and established Kilmarnock Folk Club in 1974.
The same year, they helped establish Girvan Folk Festival, Pete later becoming one of its principal organisers and acting as artistic director until its twenty-first anniversary. A native of Ayrshire, Heather, heard a Martin Carthy album when she was 19 and was bowled over by it. She listened rather than performed, however, until one night at Eglinton Folk Club in Irvine. They were short of floor singers so Pete pushed her forward.

Fell in love

She sang a Maddy Prior number and to her surprise, got a resounding reception. After that, in her words, she "never looked back" and has been called “one of the finest singers of the last three decades”.
Coincidentally, it was at the aforementioned Girvan Folk Festival in 2003 that Fiona Heywood met Jim Byrne who not only was performing there, but was a friend of her parents. She had remembered him from a gig when he played with ‘Craobh Rua’, but as she recalls with a laugh: “I actually fancied the piper but years later, Jim and I fell in love.” Although many people assume with a name like Byrne that Jim is indigenous to south-west Donegal, he was actually born in East Dumbarton to a Scottish father and mother from County Limerick.

Donegal fiddle music

“My maternal granny was a McGinley from Ramelton and my grandfather was a trained violinist and played in a ceili band”. The family came to north Belfast when he was a child and he first picked up a guitar at the age of 8.
“There was a programme on BBC2 called ‘Hold Down A Chord’ and I learned from that. In 1972 he heard Planxty and Horslips and within a few years joined ‘Craobh Rua’. Coincidentally, their current fiddler Conor Caldwell from Belfast is a student of Donegal fiddle music and was awarded a PhD in 2013 for his thesis on the great John Doherty.
Jim spent eleven years with the band and he got to know Peter Oliver McNelis. Fiona's parents knew Packie Manus Byrne and as Fiona says: “When we came to Ardara in 2008, we were drawn to it immediately. Not just the music and being in the heart of fiddle country but the friendliness of the people. You feel as if you’ve always been here.”


They started playing their Friday night sessions in The Beehive in 2009 and have never looked back.
Around that time too, they started contributing to the annual Robbie Burns weekend in Harvey’s Point and anyone who has heard Fiona singing the Bard’s ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ will know that, coming as she does from Burns’s Ayrshire, lends a beauty and authenticity to her already beautiful voice.
It doesn’t fall far from the heather! Her father Pete always felt that Scottish music deserved a higher UK-wide profile, and when a plan for the Broadsheet to appear as an insert in an established English publication fell through, he launched ‘The Living Tradition’. It is based in Kilmarnock and Ardara, and while Fiona edits the Donegal and Irish end, Jim, whose background was in IT, looks after the design and production.
The main aim of the magazine is to highlight the rich heritage of traditional music in the UK, Ireland and further afield, and attempt to bring it to a wider audience. Fiona and Jim are justifiably proud that when the first Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame inductees were named in 2016, included among them was Pete Heywood...Heather having already been voted Artist Of The Year by Glasgow's Star Club in 1993.

In an interview some years ago, Heather recalled her own mother, who was from the famous Bruce lineage: “Mum used to invite folk in for a cup of tea, like passing tramps, and she always had me sing for them - but I was so shy, I'd only do it from behind a door or below the kitchen table!” Like her mum, Fiona too is self-effacing and modest and a visit by any traveller to she and Jim in Glenconwal will definitely ensure a warm welcome, and as for their kitchen table, nobody lurks thereunder and cups of tea are plentiful on it. The Bluestack Way makes its final river crossing at the 'Iron Bridge' in their beloved Glenconwal.
There are panoramic views over Loughros Mor Bay and the rising mountains of Meenacurrin and Slievetooey can be seen in the distance. An appropriate setting for a Living Tradition that is alive and well and thriving.

If you have a story or want to send a photo or video to us please contact the Donegal Live editorial team any time. To contact Donegal Democrat and Donegal People's Press, email editorial@donegaldemocrat.ie To contact Donegal Post, email editor@donegalpost.com To contact Inish Times, email editor@inishtimes.com.

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