Kiltimagh and showbiz friends bid farewell to Pete Browne
By Michael Cummins
Pete Browne (68) from Kiltimagh, a prominent bandleader of the showband era, died recently at his home in Chapel Street, Kiltimagh. News of his passing saddened his many friends in the music business throughout the area who had known him as a man dedicated to his love of music over the years and to maintaining the highest of standards while on stage.
Pete had a love for music since his early years. The advent of the showband era with the arrival of the Clipper Carlton Showband from Tyrone heralded a sea-change in the Irish entertainment scene. At the other end of the country, the Royal Showband came swash-buckling out of Waterford. It was the era when Ireland was swinging to the sounds of the big showbands.
The bands mushroomed in towns and villages all over the country. It became a huge industry giving employment to an estimated 6,000 people at its peak. In Kiltimagh, Pete Browne was making his own plans. His Band of Renown soon became popular favourites on the western circuit and in many parts of Donegal. A talented band with a strong brass section specialising in the popular music of the day. (In later years Pete called his band the Sundowners).
In 1962, Pete Browne and his Band of Renown became the sixth Irish showband to fly the Atlantic and take in a tour of American cities. It was the first of a number of such ventures that saw the Kiltimagh based band strike a rich vein in the hearts of the western exiles.
Speaking to me sometime ago, Pete recalled their first trip to New York after jetting out from Shannon Airport. "People began to queue outside the famous City Center Ballroom in Manhattan a few hours before we were due on stage . At the time the idea of an Irish showband travelling to America was still new, only five had gone before us including the Royal, the Capitol and the Johnny Flynn Showband from Tuam.
"We also played to huge crowds in Chicago, Cleveland and the New State Ballroom in Boston. I recall doing quite a number of radio interviews during that tour," said Pete. He was the featured guest on my Mid-West Late Show one night back in 1994. Numerous people remarked about his wonderful voice and delivery. It was quite exceptional.
Pete's band that toured America included Doc Carroll, Brian Carr and Frank and Vincent Gill, all of whom later went on to form the Royal Blues Showband, as well as Pete's brother James, who died last year in Kiltormer, Co. Galway, and the late Billy Holian from Tuam. Doc Carroll subsequently became the first singer from Connacht to register a Number One in the Irish Top 20 with Old Man Trouble.
In September, 1994, Pete reformed some of his bands for a nostalgic night in the old Town Hall in Kiltimagh. It was a marvellous night of music, song and dance. Old friends came to pay their respects and share in Pete's special night among his own in Kiltimagh. I can still vividly see Brose Walsh, Dick Gillespie and Seamie Gavin arriving together and climbing the steps into the hall. A few short years later, all three veteran troubadours had crossed that Great Divide.
Over the last few years, Pete did an occasional gig with the Brose Walsh Band. He was most at ease on stage for it was where his talent was expressed to its truest potential. The love of music never left his heart. It drew him forth continuously and he appreciated a good musician and a good singer to the end.
Perhaps it was appropriate that Pete's last public performance was at the surprise 70th birthday party for his neighbour across the road, Maureen Walsh from Chapel Street, Kiltimagh (and mother of showbiz impresario, Louis Walsh) in Breaffy House Hotel a few months ago.
Brendan Grace was the special guest on the night. Pete rendered two of Maureen's favourite songs, "A Mother's Love Is A Blessing' and 'My Donegal Shore'. Even then it was clear that Pete was the ultimate showbiz professional. The way in which he handled the crowd and the dancers was exquisite and a lesson in communication for any would-be entertainer.
And so it was with profound sadness and shock that we learned of his passing in Kiltimagh. Fast falls the 'even'tide and all things pass. Sometimes life is like a cloud gently floating across the sky. But it passes all too quickly.
Family and friends gathered to pay their respects to Pete, an institution in the region over the years. Removal was from O'Hora's Funeral Home to the Church of the Holy Family. At the Requiem Mass, Fr. Paddy Kilcoyne spoke honestly and with great understanding of Pete's love of music, his days at the top, and in later years how he had to face and endure darker days that can afflict people in any walk of life at any time.
"After awhile on the local scene after the showband era had gone into decline, he turned to his mechanical skills and set up a garage on the Bohola road," recalled Fr. Kilcoyne. "In the mid-1970s he changed career again and together with his wife Nancy headed over to New York. But he was never happy being too long gone from the town he loved so well and so they returned to Kiltimagh around 1990.
"Pete was, essentially, a very nice man, a gentleman. Last Summer he enjoyed very much a visit to his son Raymond, daughter-in-law Heidi and grandchildren in Florida."
Friends from the music business and neighbours in the town formed a guard of honour and flanked the hearse as far as Pete's home in Chapel Street. At the completion of the graveside prayers, Frank Chambers, son of the late Tony Chambers, played a lovely rendition of one of Pete's favourite hymns on the trumpet and finished off with a rendition of "The Red River Valley" as tears flowed freely from many an eye.
Pete was predeceased by his wife Nancy in 1995 and is survived by his son Raymond, Vice-Principal of Holy Cross Private Academy in Miami, Florida, daughter-in-law Heidi and grandchildren, and by his sister Margaret Wilkinson in Kiltimagh, brother-in-law Jackie, nephews, nieces, relatives, neighbours and friends.