Losing their jobs gave Bill and Jim Ingram the career in music they always dreamed of
When two of our biggest employers, Caterpillar and Michelin, announced job losses, brothers Bill and Jim Ingram were left out of work. They tell Brett Campbell how they are now back on song as full-time musicians
Co Antrim brothers Bill and Jim Ingram have become regulars on the Belfast music scene - but this was never their chosen career path, having both lost their jobs as part of sweeping cuts at two of Northern Ireland's biggest employers.
Now, though, Bill and Jim, known collectively as the Ingram Brothers, are familiar faces in bars and nightspots in the popular Cathedral Quarter and Belfast city centre where they play a mix of music, from classic tracks from the likes of Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen to up-to-date material like songs by Adele.
You'll catch the musical duo at The Harp Bar where they have a residency and the nearby Duke of York.
In addition to these permanent fixtures, they have been popping up in bars and at events all over the city as their diary fills up with bookings. But their new-found success has more to do with a global fall in commodity prices and the increase of cheap imports than their desire to be gigging musicians.
Bill (51) lives in Larne with his wife Angela (54) and the couple's 26-year-old daughter Janine, while Jim (45) still lives in Antrim with his wife Julie (38). They have two young children, William (8) and Mary, aged five.
While these days the brothers say they are living their dream playing music to packed houses here, it's a remarkable change of fortune for the pair who, only a year ago, where left devastated when both their employers announced large scale job losses.
Bill and Jim say they felt robbed of a future they took for granted last year when both Michelin and Caterpillar - where the two men had worked for nearly 20 years - had to streamline their operations due to the economic downturn.
In 1998 Bill started working for US firm Caterpillar - the world's largest manufacturer of heavy construction equipment. Beginning his career as a six-week temp, he ended up staying with the firm for 17 years.
Last year he was left feeling betrayed when the company's struggle to remain profitable resulted in hundreds of jobs being cut from its Northern Ireland plants. He received the devastating news that his role was being made redundant.
"I worked my way up from the spares department, through sales, to become the industry rep for Europe," he explains. "I loved my job.
"Initially I was told the company would find me something else so I didn't worry too much about it. Then it came about that I had to be interviewed for other jobs and those jobs were lower than my grade."
The stress of applying - and being interviewed - for new roles eventually took its toll. Even the thought of success brought its own anxieties, leading Bill to do what was previously unimaginable - he queried the possibility of getting a redundancy package. "I just couldn't keep doing it, I'd had enough," he recalls.
"I asked if there was any chance I could get a package. I had worked my way up to where I wanted to be and I really couldn't face starting again. I just couldn't envisage myself being the new boy."
The musical duo had already been doing low key gigs together as an enjoyable sideline in addition to their full-time jobs. And Bill thought if he took redundancy he could maybe do more music, even if it meant doing some of it alone.
He talked things over with Angela and asked how she would feel if he were to accept a hypothetical redundancy package. It rattled nerves and raised serious questions, but she stood by him and vowed to support him, no matter what he decided.
"Shortly after that I got news that a package was available," he says. "There was a sadness in accepting it. I enjoyed my job, but at the same time it was very pressurised. Anyway, there was nothing really to think about. They had made the role redundant, it was gone and there was nothing I could do. A blind man on a galloping horse can see that industry is not in a good place."
Within months, brother Jim got the same life shattering news. He was one of 860 Michelin employees left reeling last November following the announcement of huge job cuts at the Ballymena truck tyre plant, with the plant to close in 2018. He had started out working at the factory in 1998 as a machine operator, but worked his way up the ranks.
"I knuckled down and learned the rules," he recalls. "I certainly wasn't a company man - in fact, I probably spoke out a bit too much which may have held me back a bit. But I worked myself up to shift supervisor and had been filling in for managerial roles. Things were looking well and at one point I was talking about letting the music take a back seat. I was working my way towards where I wanted to be, then the bombshell was dropped."
The family man was given the option of relocating, but he was watching Bill getting by from making money on the music scene - and he wanted to be doing it with him.
It's a risky decision for anyone - especially when there is a wife, a mortgage and young children involved - but Jim knew that choosing to stay at Michelin was also a risk. He had been at the firm long enough to know that business was at its lowest level and was showing no signs of picking up.
"It had been a year since Bill left Caterpillar and I decided I was going to go," he adds. "There was a package available so I took it. It was a huge decision. I felt I had a lot to live up to with having a young family and a self-made father-in-law who always said 'If you don't work, you don't eat'. There was pressure there."
Nonetheless, Jim left his job in March this year.
The brothers come from a musical family. Their parents Billy and Margaret were both in a showband. They once made an appearance on Teatime with Tommy, a popular BBC NI television show hosted by Tommy James on weekdays in the Sixties.
Billy, who played the accordion, once performed with Wilcil McDowell whose own accordion skills have been the signature sound of traditional folk band, The Irish Rovers, for more than 50 years.
And while they only did it part-time, music was simply their passion and always provided the family entertainment.
Bill began pursuing his own musical ambitions when he started out playing in a band called Time with his brother in-law and two of his three sisters, Valerie and Helen. It's also how he met his wife Angela - she started singing for the band in 1992.
Jim joined the band shortly after but it broke up in 1995 after Helen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis - she was only 18 years old. And Bill and Angela carried on for nearly 16 years as Dual Vision.
They stopped in December 2012, but the music continued uninterrupted with the two brothers teaming up as an acoustic duo immediately after.
At this stage music was a pleasant pastime rather than an earner and they were content doing the occasional gig and the odd private party, reluctant to take it any further.
Jim and Bill were happy in their full-time jobs but were starting to get opportunities to do more music, but it would be life-changing events which would push them onto the stage more.
Looking back the brothers would never have imagined making a living from singing, and wouldn't have chosen to do so.
Bill says: "It's very difficult when you have worked in a job for so long. You start to only be able to see the job and nothing else. You start to believe that there is nothing beyond the job, but there is."
Meanwhile Jim adds: "I don't know if it was fate or not, but things just seem to have happened at the right time. I always said there's no point in being pessimistic and there's no point being optimistic. Let's just be realistic about where this will get us.
"We sat down and got the books filled up for the next eight months and said 'Right, that's the next eight months of our new career'. We have never looked back.
"This isn't luck. We have worked hard for this."
The only regret that each of the men have is that their dad Billy didn't get to see any of their success on the local music circuit.
Jim says: "This didn't happen until after dad passed away. He didn't get to see any of this. He would have been delighted and so proud of us, especially given his musical background, and our sister Helen, too. We know our mum is, she has told us that."
Sadly Helen lost her 33-year struggle with MS in December 2014 and died at the age of 51. Mum Margaret is now 79.
Bill and Jim now encounter people from all over the world as tourists flock to the bustling bars of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter and they are using an Ingram Brothers Facebook page to build a global fanbase. Their first nine-track cover CD Got It Covered was released in August. It has been shipped as far as Australia and Taiwan.
The year ahead looks as promising as the year just gone with gigs confirmed in St Louis and Kansas City, USA, at the end of 2017.
An EP is also in the pipeline as the brothers would like to use the gigs to showcase their own music. They don't feel they can get away with that in Belfast because people come out to hear songs they know.
The Ingram Brothers both agreed "we would be nowhere without our wives". They also said they would need to be dragged back to their old jobs kicking and screaming.
Find out more about The Ingram Brothers at their Facebook page: ingram.brothers.7. They play at The Harp Bar on Tuesday and The Duke of York on a Wednesday