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Ivan Little: The fired-up flautist is certainly a knight to remember now after that astonishing rant

By Ivan Little

Published 06/06/2015

Double act: Sir James and his wife Jeanne
Double act: Sir James and his wife Jeanne

From his earliest days in Belfast, it's always been James Galway's dancing eyes which looked to be out of control, but now it's the flautist's tongue which appears to have run away with him, striking a discordant note with thousands of his fellow Protestants in Northern Ireland.

A rare condition called nystagmus is what makes his twinkling eyes dart involuntarily to and fro, but even his friends have been at a loss to explain why he let loose with his extraordinary tongue-lashing against Ian Paisley and his Presbyterian 'brainwashers' on the Nolan Show yesterday.

Producers had invited Galway onto the programme to promote the BBC's prestigious Music Day - and his part in it at a concert in Crumlin Road Gaol last night - but he ended up hijacking the headlines with his totally unexpected broadside.

Hundreds of people bombarded social media with angry protests - and robust defences - after Sir James' fiery onslaught which veered into new territory for the world-renowned flautist.

For loyalists, it was a Judas kiss.

They've always regarded Galway as one of their own, a working-class Protestant from the back streets of north Belfast who ended up living the high life in the Swiss Alps but who never forgot how to play The Sash, a tune he'd learnt in the flute bands.

Around Mountcollyer Street they had fond memories or had heard the hand-me-down stories about how wee Jimmy had been proud to march with the Onward Flute Band on the Twelfth, a day when the Pope was well and truly kicked.

And even though he went on to play a concert in Rome for Pope John Paul II; Protestants always thought Galway's heart was still in the right Protestant place.

Galway's family were all staunch loyalists; his father, his grandfather and his uncle all played the flute and James once recalled how his shipyard worker dad James always asked his son's friends if they were Protestants or Catholics.

Galway soon left Belfast and its sectarian divisions behind him as he went to London and Paris to study music before playing in orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic, where he was principal flautist.

But in the Seventies the virtuoso branched out on what was to become an unparallelled solo career, with successes in the pop charts as well as the world's greatest classical arenas.

He's sold over 30 million albums but lost a fortune in the crash, though he insists he isn't obsessed with money.

More concerning to him were two accidents which threatened his career - the first in 1977 when a speeding motorbike hit him, breaking his legs, the second a fall which shattered both arms at his home overlooking Lake Lucerne five years ago.

One of the first people Galway rang from his hospital bed to tell him about the motorbike accident was his mentor in Belfast, Billy Dunwoody, who ran the 39the Old Boys Flute Band and who maintained a lifelong friendship with his protege.

Galway repaid his debt to Dunwoody by occasionally dropping in during his concert visits to Belfast to the 39th rehearsals in Donegall Pass to share a few tips with aspiring and awe-struck musicians.

He wasn't best pleased to see me and a UTV news crew at one of those special nights some years ago, but Dunwoody and Galway's wife Jeanne calmed him down.

And filming one of the world's greatest musicians playing with a flute band in a tiny hall in Belfast was as memorable as it was unbelievable.

However, the real reason for Dunwoody inviting the cameras in was to capture the presentation of a gift to Galway, though this was no simple token of appreciation.

For the 39th gave Galway a Lambeg drum which he shipped back to Switzerland to take pride of place in his home.

Yesterday, Galway was beating a very different drum on the Nolan Show.

And it was no surprise that his comments rewrote news agendas around Northern Ireland.

What was a shock was that he talked politics at all, though he said that was because no one had ever "brought me into this sort of conversation before".

There were, however, revelations about his feelings about nationality in 2013, when he was in Dublin to receive a lifetime achievement award and he said: "It's special for me because it's in the Republic: this is the real Ireland. Well, the other bit is real Ireland too, but they won't admit it."

Yet in 2001 Galway, who talked yesterday of living in the "British-occupied part of Ireland", said he was 'delighted' to receive a knighthood from the head of the British empire, the Queen.

On Twitter yesterday Galway was condemned for the 'naiveté' of his assertions about Northern Ireland's education system and his 'brainwashing' by Presbyterians.

But most of the venom was reserved for his claims that Ian Paisley had been indirectly responsible for murders during the Troubles.

Stephen Nolan was also criticised for 'railroading' Galway into the minefield of Ulster politics, but it was the flautist himself who brought the former DUP leader into the debate. Not Nolan.

But as the man with the golden flute finds himself in the spotlight in Belfast for all the wrong reasons, friends say he may want to play a more soothing tune in his inharmonious homeland in the future.

Belfast Telegraph

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