James Byrne was born January 4,  1946. He grew up in Meenacross, a townland where every house was said to have a fiddle. His father John was a noted fiddler and James’ earliest childhood memories were of raking nights and house dances, traveling musicians and stories told at the turf fire during long winter nights.

As he said in an interview with Michael Robinson in 1995 (published in Fiddler Magazine, Spring Issue 1999): “You don't really have to learn the style if you grow up with it. You just sort of fall into the swing of it....”

James started to play the fiddle when he was about eight years old. He learned his music from his father John, his neighbors and visiting musicians.  James told Michael Robinson: “...all the neighborhood, there was players, like my next-door neighbor, another cousin of my father's, Paddy Hiúdaí Byrne, he was a player as well, and his son Anthony.... they were playing a lot in them days. You'd wander in there and pick up a tune there....

There was another man called Mick Carr, who lived across the hill in Mín an Aoiridh, and he used to come to our house a lot. Himself and John McGinley and my father and Paddy Hiúdaí, they would get together. They were playing tunes, you know, you would never have heard them in them days. Some of them you wouldn't have heard them now, even.... 

There was another fiddle player called Paddy O'Gara that I got lots of tunes from.... he had plenty of tunes I never heard anyone else play, I never heard my father or any of them, and he got them from his father, so they would be very old tunes. He used to come visiting when I was young as well, up to Mín na Croise on his bicycle on a nice summer's evening, and all the neighbors would gather and play away there for hours. And then again, up at Mín na Croise where I come from, John Mhosaí had relations and he used to spend a lot of his time up there. My father and all them would have lots of his tunes as well.”

James acquired an unequalled repertoire and knowledge of the local fiddle tradition and dedicated his life to playing the tunes and telling the stories he learned from the older generation of musicians. His style and tone of playing, his command of the instrument was exceptional. People travelled from near and far to learn from James and hear him play.

In his Obituary in ‘The Guardian’ (11 Feb 09) Joe Crane wrote: “As Byrne’s fame grew, so did that of a young band from Donegal called Altan, who played many of his tunes. Cairdeas na bhFidileiri rediscovered the older fiddlers in Donegal and enlisted the help of several, including Byrne, to start a summer school.”

James’ association with Cairdeas na bhFidileiri came to an end around 2002 due to unresolved issues and he subsequently founded a locally based Traditional Arts Project called ‘Ceol sa Ghleann’. Beginning modestly with weekly classes for the local children, the group now hosts the Glencolmcille Festival of Traditional Arts as well as a Fiddle Summer School which after his death was renamed ‘Scoil Samhraidh James Byrne’  in his memory.

James rarely left Ireland yet touched the hearts of people from all over the world with his music, genuine friendliness and warm and generous personality. His legacy lives on in his family, his partner Connie and their children Merle, Aisling and Seana, and the many other young players he taught and inspired.

James passed away suddenly and unexpected in the early morning hours of Saturday, 8th November 2008.  Returning home alone from a session he suffered a massive heart attack while walking up the lane and never reached the house.  James was waked in the family home in Meenacross over the weekend. During the wake, strong winds caused a power failure and James left this world the way he entered it – by the soft twilight of candles and oil lamps.


                                        Ní bheidh a  leithéid arís ann -
                                        we will never see his like again.  

Read obituaries
Read interview with James Byrne in Fiddler Magazine

Information and photos found on this webpage came from the website of Ceol sa Ghleann www.ceolsaghleann.com and are shared on Unique Irish Experiences with permission of Connie Drost-Byrne.

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