Sunday 18 August 2019

TJ Byrne - Carlow must supremo

He was the best in the business. Where the Carlow music supremo led, others followed

The late TJ Byrne. Photo: Michael O'Rourke
The late TJ Byrne. Photo: Michael O'Rourke

Charles Keegan

TJ Byrne, who has died aged 91, was manager of The Royal Showband from Waterford, the biggest name on the Irish showband scene during "The Swinging Sixties".

With TJ at the helm The Royal Showband packed Irish, English and American ballrooms, playing such prestigious venues as the Albert Hall and the Hammersmith Palais in London.

As his son TJ Junior proudly stated in a tribute to his dad during his Funeral Mass in Carlow's Cathedral of the Assumption, The Royal once headlined in England "when The Beatles were their support act!"

The charisma, entrepreneurial talents, and shrewd business acumen of Byrne as manager of the Waterford group saw him mix with some of the biggest names in the world of international film, music and sport of the day.

As TJ said: "I knew them all and they knew me."

In 1962 The Royal, fronted by the husky voiced Brendan Bowyer, was awarded the 'Oscar' of the dance world when claiming the Carl Alan Award as the outstanding modern dance band of Great Britain for 1961. More than eight million television viewers saw the band perform on the BBC's Come Dancing programme, screened from London's Lyceum Ballroom.

There were plaudits from Joe Loss, Acker Bilk and Billy Fury. And pulling the managerial strings was Carlow's TJ Byrne.

When The Royal returned to Waterford the band was accorded a massive welcome and civic reception from the Mayor of Waterford - a unique honour for an Irish showband.

The Royal toured America regularly at the invitation of the late Bill Fuller, a native of Tralee, playing venues in New York, Boston and Chicago. Fuller was owner of a string of Irish ballrooms.

Born in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, where his father, Martin, owned the Slaney Bar in the town, the Byrne family moved to Birmingham in the mid-1930s. Nightly bombing raids of the English Midlands city during The Blitz of World War II saw the family home in Slade Road destroyed.

TJ was called up for national service, spending two years in the Royal Engineers but he was drawn back to Ireland, and to Carlow, by Betty Mayer, who he married on July 30, 1952 in Carlow's Cathedral of the Assumption.

TJ stumbled into the music business by accident. As a representative of Cotts of Kilcock, a big name in the Irish retail market as suppliers of furniture and household goods, TJ serviced the south-east region.

When an amateur band led by Harry Boland was playing small dance halls in the Waterford area, they answered an advertisement from Cotts for the purchase of new musical equipment to replace their worn instruments. It was then that TJ Byrne came calling.

In an interview with the Carlow Nationalist in July 2012 to mark his and Betty's Diamond Wedding anniversary, TJ stated: "I had absolutely no experience of managing a showband. But selling was my job and I knew there was a good product." Having a good ear for music and a nose for an opportunity, he offered to become the band's manager.

With vocalist Brendan Bowyer having major hits, most notably The Hucklebuck and the late Tom Dunphy with Katie Daly and If I didn't Have A Dime, The Royal took the showband scene by storm.

The Royal was bigger than the other big-named Irish showbands of the era inclulding The Dixies, Maurice Mulcahy, Dickie Rock and The Miami, Butch Moore and the Capitol and Eileen Reid and The Cadets.

At one stage the band bought a racehorse which they called, unsurprisingly, Royal Showband. The horse was trained by the late Paddy Norris and won a couple of races. TJ said it was a means of keeping the band's name before large numbers of people. It was one example of the style of management the mercurial Carlow man brought to his work.

The Royal's success story continued for years and, following the formation of The Big 8, featuring Bowyer, Dunphy and singer Twink, the band, under the management of Byrne, obtained a Las Vegas residency.

It was acknowledged in the business that where TJ Byrne led, others followed.

In his young days TJ was an accomplished sportsman, playing as a striker with English soccer club Halifax Town, for whom he scored a hatful of goals. He played in an Irish President's X1 in hockey and at inter-provincial level for Connaught and was proud holder of two Carlow minor football championships with O'Hanrahan's in 1942-'43, lining out at midfield.

His son, TJ, in the end of his church tribute to his dad, stated: "If there is a choir of angels in heaven, by the time any of us see them, they will have already given up their other duties, will have turned professional and be under new management!"

TJ, who died on Saturday, December 10 at Carlow's Sacred Heart Hospital, is survived by his wife of 64 years Betty, son TJ, brother Vincent, sisters Kathleen and Violet, daughter-in-law Silvia and grandchildren Aaron, Adam and Arthur.

Sunday Independent

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