Mairtin Byrnes was born in Chapelfinnerty, Ahascragh, in East Galway in 1927. He became a popular fiddle player in the London Irish music scene in the 1950s and 60s. Reg Hall recalls playing with him at a Labour Party social in 1955 in East Ham Town Hall. Also playing that night were Willie Clancy, Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman. In fact the more Mairtin remained in the background, the more famous became the names of people he played with: Willie Clancy, Tony McMahon, Michael Gorman, Margaret Barry, Bobby Casey.
As a boy he listened to Michael Coleman 78rpm records which an aunt brought back from the United States. He also listened to Paddy Killoran and Hughie Gillespie. His father played the flute and he got his first fiddle from an uncle who also taught him some tunes. He used to listen at local dances to the Aughrim Slopes Ceili Band, which then included Paddy Fahey among its numbers. He also learned tunes from records he bought after hearing them played on Radio Eireann.
He went to England, first to Birmingham in 1948 and then on to London in 1950. He befriended among others Michael Gorman and Willie Clancy, the three of whom travelled to Warsaw in 1955 for a folk festival. They made a record for Polish radio, each receiving one copy. (Willie Clancy’s broke on the train coming home when somebody sat on it). At one stage Byrnes and Willie Clancy shared a house together in London.
He returned home for five years in 1961. He befriended many musicians in Ireland, among them John Kelly of Capel Street. Another time he was walking down the street in Dublin with Garech de Brun. Tommy Potts was coming down on the opposite side. de Brun called him over and introduced the two men. As they were both carrying their instruments, they in turn took out their fiddles and played a few tunes for each other. He also played on Irish television (TE) on programmes hosted by Seamus Ennis.
After he returned to London, he started going to the Favourite pub in Holloway, resulting in tape recordings by Reg Hall which later became the three opening tracks on Paddy in the Smoke, a compilation album which, combined with Hall’s detailed liner notes, altered perceptions of the course of Irish music in the 20th century. (He also played on a fourth track – with Tony McMahon and Andy Boyle). Released in 1997, the album also sparked an interest in Mairtin Byrnes’ playing style among a new generation of musicians.
Bill Leader recorded Mairtin in London in 1969. Here’s part of Reg Hall’s account:
“Martin chose the material. I think he had recently bought the Michael Coleman Ace of Hearts LP (American Deccas) and some of those selections were at the forepart of his mind, though clearly he wasn’t imitating Coleman. The Frank O’Higgins selection was one of his favourites from his childhood. Other selections came from Michael Gorman from London and Paddy Fahey from home. Most selections were the subject of a brief try-out, but some were done in one take. He played some waltzes where his pitching was sadly off-key. I said one of my favourite reels was The Ashplant, not knowing if he played it. We went straight into it without trying it first and that was done in one take!!!”
Mairtin Byrnes won the All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Championship in 1970.
Sometime in the 1980s he returned to Ireland, could be heard playing at sessions in Dublin and worked as a gardener for Garech de Brun at his place in Luggala in the Wicklow mountains. Then he lived in a council house in Ballyboden, Co Dublin, his “reservation“, as he called it. As he grew older his white beard grew longer and he paid particular attention to dress.
He regularly visited Ahascragh at weekends and it was there that he died at the home of his friend, sean nos singer Sean Mac Donnacha, on January 11, 1995. He was survived by his brother Tommy and sisters Mary, Rosaleen and Sheila.
His death was recorded in a routine four paragraph local report in the Connacht Tribune, and later in a two column Appreciation by Donal McDonald in The Irish Times. But, like his fellow countyman Joe Cooley, his reputation has grown on the back of posthumous releases. – Ronan Nolan, May 2009. (Wikipedics: If you must cut & paste, please acknowledge all sources).
Paddy in the Smoke (1997) TSCD603
Martin Byrnes with Reg Hall: Masters of Irish Music (1969) , released in 1999 as cd LEA4
You can listen to a lengthy interview Reg Hall and Bill Leader taped with Mairtin Byrnes here at the British Library.