Friday 9 December 2016

Books: The singing mum from Dongeal

Biography: Bridie Gallagher: The Girl From Donegal, Jim Livingstone, Collins Press, hdbk, 262 pages, €19.99

Eugene McEldowney

Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30

Dance hall: Bridie (front left) dancing the twist with the club’s professional dancers at New York’s Peppermint Club in 1960
Dance hall: Bridie (front left) dancing the twist with the club’s professional dancers at New York’s Peppermint Club in 1960
Bridie Gallagher: The Girl from Donegal

Mention the song 'A Mother's Love's a Blessing' and many people will immediately think of Bridie Gallagher. From the 1950s till her retirement in 1980, she regularly packed out dance halls and concert venues the length and breadth of Ireland and abroad.

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Her homely style, amazing voice and repertoire of folksy Irish ballads, such as 'The Boys from the County Armagh', took her to the London Palladium, Sydney Opera House and theatres across four continents.

Older readers will remember her from the days before the folk boom in the 1960s when Irish traditional music was rediscovered. Bridie belonged to the previous decade of sponsored programmes on Radio Éireann like the Waltons Music Show.

At the peak of her success, she was singing to audiences of up to 7,000 people, many of them Irish emigrants abroad, while appearing regularly on radio and television shows and selling records as fast they could be printed.

But it all began modestly in a little farm cottage in the village of Creeslough in Co Donegal, where Bridie was born in 1924 into a family that would eventually include 10 children. It was a poor existence with no running water or electricity and both her parents worked hard to make ends meet.

When she was 16, Bridie began to sing at local dances and concerts and two years later, in 1942, she got a job singing with The Eamon O'Shea Travelling Show at a fee of seven shillings a week.

But it was a precarious existence and in 1948, at the age of 24, she moved to Belfast. It was here that she met her future husband, Bob Livingstone, who she married in 1951. The couple were to have two children, Peter and Jim, who is the author of this biography.

Bridie continued her singing career in her spare time, while juggling her new roles as housewife and mother. It was at a concert in Derry in 1953 that an event occurred to change her career forever. Bridie's repertoire consisted of versions of songs made popular by the British singing star Vera Lynn. But while she waited in the dressing room, she was shocked to hear a duet already on stage sing several of the songs she had been planning to perform.

Thrown into a panic, she decided to sing three old Irish songs, including 'The Whistling Gypsy', which she had learnt from her mother. Her performance brought the house down. She was now set on the path that would lead to stardom.

This is a warm, affectionate book which will be enjoyed by her numerous fans. But it doesn't gloss over Bridie's tough struggle to reach success - the disputes with managers and promoters, the disappointments, the constant travelling and the hard life on the road.

In 1965, her marriage to Bob ended in separation and, in 1976, Bridie received another blow when her son Peter, now aged 21, was killed in a motorcycle accident. She began to suffer regular bouts of depression and her health declined.

In 1981, she had a heart attack and had to undergo by-pass surgery. In 2005, she had the first of five strokes. Bridie died on January 9, 2012, aged 87.

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