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Bridie Gallagher

'The Girl from Donegal' opened the door to the world for a generation of Irish performers, writes Paddy Clancy

She was known as the girl with a teardrop in her voice but she also had a hearty laugh which brought sparkle into people's lives.

Bridie Gallagher, the Girl from Donegal, who has died in Belfast aged 87, opened the door to the world for a generation of Irish artistes when she conquered the stages of London, New York and Sydney.

She established a spectacular six-decade career beginning in the Fifties with a series of ballads of which her most famous were A Mother's Love's a Blessing, and The Boys from County Armagh.

Dec Cluskey of The Bachelors, who often performed on stage with Bridie, credited her as being the breakthrough artist for Irish performers.

He recalled that in the Sixties when The Bachelors were performing in shows in Dublin's Theatre Royal, the Olympia and the Gaiety, they were inspired by Bridie's success to seek fame abroad.

He said: "She absolutely opened the doors for all of us artists. And I think we shouldn't forget that she brought glamour to the Irish stage. She dressed like an international star and that was unheard of in Ireland at that time."

Daniel O'Donnell, who flew home from a break in Texas to attend her funeral in Creeslough, said he first saw her perform in Annagry Hall when he was a boy. He said: "She was singing like a bird and floating on stage. No matter where I go, somebody asks me if Bridie is still singing."

Bridie was born in Creeslough, where she first sang with Bill Gallagher's ceili band, the Cleveland Quintet, before she moved to Belfast where she was discovered by Billy Livingstone, a talent scout for Decca records.

A Mother's Love's a Blessing launched her onto the world stage in 1956 and she soon had tens of thousands of Irish emigrants thronging to concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Carnegie Hall in New York and Sydney Opera House. In one show at the Royal Albert Hall, mounted police had to be used to hold back fans who had blocked the surrounding streets.

She still holds the record for the greatest numbers attending a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, before it became an all-seat theatre.

Fans remember her as a person who had a quality that stirred audiences, and a conviction about her own ability. Marie Cunningham, the pianist who often accompanied Bridie during her performances, said: "She never failed to win a standing ovation at concert halls. Bridie definitely had star quality and was a pleasure to work with."

She went to the US for her first American tour in 1959. A home movie of that tour -- made on a 16 mm camera by her husband Bob Livingstone (no relation of the Decca scout) -- shows Bridie in New York's Times Square.

Bridie recalled: "I always loved New York. I felt at home in New York for some reason or other. And I always remember going to Times Square, you know, and I felt I've really made it now."

There were also darker moments for Bridie. She was on the road touring endlessly as well as being a wife and mother of two sons. Her marriage eventually broke up, a fact she hid from the public for many years, and her youngest son, Peter, was killed at the age of 21 in a motorbike accident.

She stopped performing for a while but was eventually persuaded to return to the stage. She said at the time: "I kept on singing, however, because that is what my son would have wanted me to do."

Her eldest son, Jim, now a civil servant in Belfast said: "When she first hit the big time, it was quite a crazy life for a relatively young woman in those days who had never been outside of Ireland.

"I think what was unique about her career was that she brought a touch of magic and glamour to Irish showbusiness and she gave new life to so many Irish ballads which had either been forgotten or were seen as old-fashioned."

Margo, Daniel O'Donnell's sister, was a close friend and she organised a tribute to Bridie in Creeslough in 2000. Margo and Daniel sang with Bridie at the event and two months later she gave her last public performance at An Grianan Theatre in Letterkenny.

Margo said: "Bridie thought for a while that she had been forgotten about in Donegal. But she wasn't, and she realised that with the tribute. It was lovely that soon after that she gave her last public performance in Co Donegal."

Despite her fears that Donegal had forgotten her, Bridie, who spent most of her adult life in Belfast, always said she wanted to be buried in Creeslough.

More than 500 were there on Wednesday for the burial at Doe Cemetery, not far from her birthplace, after an earlier Mass at St Bridget's Church, Derryvolgie Avenue in Belfast.

As Bridie was laid to rest in the village that was always close to her heart, a lone piper played a beautiful rendition of The Town I Loved So Well.

Sunday Independent