Jimmy Byrne, R.I.P. 18 August, 1937 – 21 August, 2016


Jimmy (James Byrne), known to many in Clydebank as ‘Jimmy Byrne the Plumber’, was my father-in-law, although, as he was only nine years older than me, I never really thought of him like that. He was Jim’s dad and my friend.  When people die you want to say good things about them – in Jimmy’s case that presents no difficulty – he was truly one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing:  decent, honest and generous – Jimmy’s modus operandi was based on fairness.  He was also an extrovert with a huge capacity for enjoyment.

That’s not to say that we didn’t have our differences. Jimmy had Alzheimers and it can be a very difficult illness.  Particularly in the early stages, when there has not yet been a diagnosis.  Looking back it’s easy to see when Jimmy’s behaviour began to change and understand why this was happening but at the time it was mystifying and sometimes irritating.  You’re always full of regrets when someone dies and wish you had done more or been more patient.   It’s worth stressing the need to be aware of personality changes, which may relate to the onset of dementia or Alzheimers, which is a very different matter from someone being awkward for no reason.

However, for the main part, Jimmy and I were buddies. He phoned me often, sometimes several times a day, even at 5 a.m. or midnight.  Mostly he just wanted to say hello but often he needed reassurance as he gradually became more confused. I’m glad that I always said he could phone anytime, even if I’d just spoken to him five minutes before.  Jimmy saw me as a confidante and many of our conversations started with him saying: ‘Now I don’t want you to tell anyone.’  It was sad to see such a confident man become so unsure and no longer in control but that old spark was always there and there was no telling what Jimmy might get up to.

We will be eternally grateful to our friends in Clydebank, who kept an eye out for him and phoned to let us know when he was up to something e.g. out wandering late at night.  Although this was a worry – sometimes you had to laugh at Jimmy’s capers. Particularly when he ran out of the house and locked his carers in. Or took off when they were out for a walk and jumped on a bus.

Fortunately, we never had to chase after him.  Jim and I saw a lot of Jimmy and Sunday was our regular day for outings. It was easy to make plans as we all liked the same things. Very often my grandson, Ryan, and my son, John, would be part of our entourage and suffice to say that we were all easily pleased.  Ryan’s happy as long as he can take his football with him and it doesn’t seem that long ago that Jimmy was up for a kick about– we spent a lot of time in the Botanics, Kelvingrove Park and jaunts further afield for a day out at Helensburgh, Loch Lomond or Ayr.

He loved coming to Jim’s gigs and he was always up for a visit to a gallery.  Glasgow has some excellent galleries and we spent a lot of time in The Lighthouse, The Hunterian and Kelvingrove. Jimmy was interested in everything – he loved the Alasdair Gray Exhibition, the Paul Smith Exhibition and enjoyed the special exhibition, Century of Style, 100 years of Costume and Colour 1800 – 1899 , at Kelvingrove – we went twice. What he really liked was being in Jim’s company and in all honesty I can say that they never had a cross word.  I’d often go on ahead and check out the shop in a gallery as Jim and Jimmy wandered around for ages chatting, pointing and laughing.   What a pair of art aficionadas.

Jimmy loved a trip to the Barras, where for him the main attraction was the second hand tools. He’d be happy as Larry when he picked up a huge spanner for a couple of pounds.  He worked hard all his life and built up a successful business and Jimmy was always prepared to ‘go to a job.’   Invariably when we went to collect him he’d be carrying his tool bag all set for work. Jim never contradicted him or put him right, even when he believed that Jim was his brother Eddie.

Always wanting to help, Jimmy would insist on carrying my bag everywhere we went. We got to know all his ways as his illness progressed.  There were the usual shenanigans when we had lunch or afternoon tea, as his coffee or tea was never to his liking.  We discovered that the best choice was a latte, particularly if accompanied by a large piece of chocolate cake.

Jim and I didn’t go on holiday this summer because we reckoned it would be the last summer we’d have with him. Sadly this proved to be the case but just a few weeks before he died Jimmy enjoyed a day out with Jim at the Hill House in Helensburgh.  The week after was a nightmare as he was exhausted and clearly in pain and we had to take him home, help him out of the car and support him walking back to the house.

It was the saddest thing watching such a vibrant man, who so loved life, become increasingly unwell. Jimmy developed lung cancer and that was the cause of his death. However, he was on his feet, with some assistance, until just a week or so before he died and he didn’t complain much about pain.   Although it was so sad to lose him, there is some comfort in the fact that he was pretty independent until a very short time before his death.   He would have hated to be lying in bed being attended to – Jimmy was always the one who wanted to help everyone else.

Jim wrote a lovely Eulogy, which he read at the Requiem Mass in Our Holy Redeemers

Jimmy Byrne, husband, father, brother, grandad, generous and loyal friend, number one supporter and cheerleader to everyone else’s ambitions, hard working and exacting plumber, business owner, bowler, Celtic supporter….

And runner; he didn’t walk anywhere, he ran. Only Suzi, the family dog could keep up with him; as he ran to his workshop, ran to the corner shop or ran to his plumbing van – to pulverise the accelerator pedal on his way to his next job.

No-one ever took up the offer of a lift from from Jimmy Byrne – as no van ever set off faster and no van ever slammed to a halt more quickly. Only the brave sat in the passenger seat when my dad was driving.

He was all of the above – and more.

But to me  – to Rose, to John, to Anne, to Stephen and to Peter  – he was dad.

And to his grand-children just grandad; the person who would be down on his knees on the carpet playing with them; fully involved in revving up the wheels of a toy car, building that imaginary garage or chasing them around the room noisily and excitedly. He loved kids.

Not just kids, he seemed to like and be liked by everyone; you couldn’t walk through Clydebank shopping centre without every second person saying hello and stopping for a chat.

He had many talents and many sides to him – but one important thing in his character was his generosity and his support for the people in his life; he was a partner;

Jive partner to his young wife Christina (they loved to dance), life partner in their long marriage, partner in their plumbing business and a supporter of my mum’s creative writing and business ambitions; a team player at the bowls, (where he was good enough himself to become club champion), and supporter of all his children’s passions and ambitions; both my mum and dad were regular audience members at my own gigs; they always listened wherever I played a new tune; whether it was good bad or indifferent.

My favourite childhood memory is of just being with him in his attic workshop; just spending time with him was enough for me – it was the best thing; and he was always working, always making something; sawing, hammering; bending a pipe or routing a piecing of wood; putting something together; that could be a bogey from an old pram or later in life and extension on his backyard hut; not too many people bought a hut and then built their own extension for it.

And talking of work – he loved his job as a plumber and he was never happier than when he had a tool in his hand; as I mentioned earlier, that could be a saw, a chisel, a spanner or a hammer – or even better something with electricity going through it – like a Kango Hammer or an electric drill. In fact John mentioned only a few days ago that when he was only about 14 dad decided to teach him how to use a acetylene torch; that’s a toy to get excited about – or to get very very worried about.

Plumbing gave him more than just a job – it gave him an entire philosophy; that ossified 40 year old fitting that was impossible to unscrew; all you had to do was change your attitude and it will start to move; even if that meant putting a blow torch to it or getting a bigger spanner. Just like life – get your attitude right and you can do anything.

His profession also provided endless stories and adventures; whether it was about his trips to Islay when he was a young man or stories about his apprentices being sent for ‘long stands’, ‘ left hand hacksaws’ or glass hammers. His brother in law Eddie told us recently about dad coming home from a job with all the colour drained from his face. He had been trying to unblock a drain at the Co-op butchers when suddenly a severed hand reared up into his face; it turned out to be a white plastic glove but it had scared him witless.

As you know at the end of his life he had a lot to endure; when my mum was ill he had to learn new skills – with unstinting support in particular from Rose and Anne;  skills as a carer and a house husband.

He had to become a ‘new man’ in his mid 70s; wielding the Hoover and learning how to use the washing machine. He gave up his regular bowling games to care for the love of life without complaint and without a hint of frustration.

Then as we know he had to endure his own ill-health; Alzheimers and latterly lung cancer.

It is at this point that to me he revealed himself be a great man – and a real hero. An example of how to live life.

He was still generous – perhaps overly so – as he developed a habit of wanting to give away all the money in his wallet. He still smiled easily, never seemed to be crushed by his circumstances; was always well turned out; always ready for a trip to a museum, a jaunt down to Helensburgh, a day out to a gallery or a family visit to Edinburgh or Newcastle.

Any time my wife Pat asked him how he felt – he would say – “I feel fine”. Despite the sheer weight of all that was happening to him, he never complained.

Jimmy Byrne – dad to me and my brother and sisters, family member, brother, grandad, friend to many; taken from us too soon.

No matter what was thrown at him; to me he remained undefeated; undefeated until the end.

Goodbye dad. The time has come to rejoin your beloved wife and life-long partner Christina.

Rest in peace.

Jim Byrne, August, 2016

Luminate Scotland's Festival of Ageing – Autumn Voices 12 – 15 October, 2016
Glasgow School of Art, The Graduate Degree Show September 2016 review by Pat Byrne

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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