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Bridie Gallagher: Secret heartache of my mum the singing star

In a new biography of his late mother, Jim Livingstone reveals her tough life story

By Ivan little

The camera loved Bridie Gallagher. Her sparkling eyes and her warm smile adorned albums covers, concert posters and the front pages of newspapers and magazines the world over, from North America to Australia, but few people knew that her trademark glow hid a string of secret sorrows which plagued her life for 40 years.

And only now, three years after the death of one of Ireland's first internationally-acclaimed singing stars, has the mask been lifted on the despair and chronic depression which tore her apart after the breakdown of her marriage and the death of a son in a tragic road accident on the outskirts of Belfast.

The painful disclosures come in a searingly honest new book by Bridie's other son, Jim Livingstone. He's a retired civil servant who used to write speeches for direct rule Ministers at Stormont, but who admits that nothing ever came close to the agonisingly difficult task of telling his mother's life story.

It's a no-holds-barred biography of a woman who hit the heights of show-business fame, filling world famous venues including the London Palladium, Carnegie Hall in New York and Sydney Opera House but who also hit the lows - and the bottle - in spectacular fashion too.

For Jim Livingstone the book has been a tough, but ultimately satisfying, voyage of discovery, as he sought to be frank about his mother while trying to avoid sullying her reputation as a successful singer who sold millions of records in her 50-year career and also trailblazed the breakthrough of Irish artists like Daniel O'Donnell into world markets.

Even before Daniel, who wrote the foreword to Jim's book, Dec Cluskey of Irish hitmakers The Bachelors said Bridie 'broke the ceiling' for them and the likes of Val Doonican, who were unknown outside Ireland until she came along to open the eyes of English agents and promoters about the untapped musical potential across the water.

Bridie Gallagher, who died at 87, was a household name in the Fifties and Sixties and was dubbed the Girl from Donegal in the shorthand style so beloved of newspapers of the era. Her stylish dresses were as much a part of her allure as her music. And 96 of her fabulous gowns have been donated by Jim to the costume department of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, which is putting them on show soon.

Bridie lived in Belfast for most of her life, but was born in Donegal near Muckish Mountain in the village of Creeslough which was, and still is, best known for songs about its corn-cutting exploits.

Stories about Bridie's rocket-like ascendancy to stardom have become the stuff of legend - but they are also the stuff of nonsense. For there was nothing meteoric or particularly glamorous about the rise to fame of Bridget Ena Gallagher, who was a dark-haired beauty, blessed with a fine voice which made her an automatic choice at local dances for bands who called her up on stage in order to give their lead singers a break.

Bridie was also popular with the boys on the dance floors in Creeslough and teased them with the possibility of a kiss 'but no trimmings', according to Jim, who managed to track down her first boyfriend who was still living in Creeslough.

Willie Kelly, who was 91, had a shock in store for Jim, as he told him how the 20-year-old Bridie fell madly in love with a local Protestant man - only for the two sets of parents to refuse to allow them to marry.

It wasn't so much history repeating itself for Jim ,but rather history preceding itself.

Because after she moved to Belfast to work as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy woman off the Malone Road and to recover from her broken heart, Bridie started going out with another Protestant man.

And Bob Livingstone, whose father was a leading Sandy Row Orangeman, wasn't going to let a little thing like religion stop his march to the altar.

He made the decision to convert to Catholicism - but none of the newly-weds' four parents went to the marriage ceremony, held in Creeslough in September 1951.

At first the couple were happy and two sons came along, but the Livingstones grew further and further apart. Jim says his father found it more and more difficult to cope with his wife's stardom and her lifestyle, which took her away from home on a regular basis.

"The love never died but the relationship did. They were destroying each other," says Jim, who adds that his parents' arguments became more frequent and more acrimonious until they separated, with Bridie vowing never to divorce Bob - a promise she kept, though she never told her parents about the split.

The second blow for Bridie happened in May 1976, when her 21-year-old son Peter, a gregarious bar manager, was riding his motorbike from a new job at Jordanstown but lost control and was thrown over a flyover on the M2 motorway, hurtling him 50 feet to the ground below.

"Mum was on tour in England and she was told there'd been an accident," Jim recalls.

"I had to get her back without her finding out that Peter was dead, and she was completely devastated when she discovered the awful news.

"She went to a very dark place and said she would never perform on stage again. She wouldn't go outside the door. She took a drink, which didn't help, though I made sure she didn't get to the point of blitzing out for days on end.

"Quite frankly, I was afraid that she would do something stupid and harm herself."

Jim says his mother, who didn't drink until she was in her thirties was never an alcoholic, and he used his training as a psychologist to coax Bridie back on stage because he thought her singing would be the only way - "the only treatment" - to bring her out of her depression.

"I knew that it wasn't about her performing again," he adds. "It was about her surviving as a human being. I wasn't even sure she would go on stage for her return performing in Manchester, but she did and the audience gave her an incredibly emotional welcome. The courage she showed was absolutely amazing and six months later she was starring at the Sydney Opera House."

Jim went on to be one of his mother's musicians, as well as her manager.

But in 1981, Bridie suffered a heart attack which forced her to scale back her performances and opened the way for her depression to make a comeback.

Jim persuaded his mother to develop her skills as an artist and she joined a choir, but he also came up with another idea to keep her busy.

"I asked her to write a book about her life, about the bad times as much as the good ones. I gave her a couple of pads and off she went and it proved to be cathartic for her because she wrote about her marriage and about Peter."

The book was never completed but Jim has used his mother's musings in his biography.

Bridie's health continued to deteriorate but she bravely went on singing, though she pulled the curtain down on her live shows after a concert in Donegal.

Jim explains: "In August 2000 after she came off stage in Letterkenny at An Grianan theatre she gave me a hug and said 'that's it. I can't do it anymore.' But she added 'don't tell anyone'. She was 76 at the time.

"It was almost like a premonition for her because within a year she had a stroke and then there were four more over a period of five or six years. She became a very frail old lady and early stage dementia was kicking in. She also broke a hip in a fall, but she was a real fighter right up until the end in January 2012."

The media response to her death and her huge funeral in Belfast and Creeslough surprised Jim, but it convinced him that a biography might be a fitting tribute to her and consolidate her legacy. He went to creative writing classes at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast to hone his skills.

"It was very difficult to write the book especially the section I called 'pain and loss' and I had to think long and hard about it because I was writing about my own mother. I was opening up very private stuff about her depression and about her drinking and her relationship," he says.

"I wanted to be truthful and to allow readers to understand my mother but I didn't want to over-elaborate because I didn't want to undermine Bridie's dignity or indeed Bob's.

"I think I got the balance right. But it was also fascinating for me to find out so much about her life and about how she became a star.

"It really all started after her sisters who were also living in Belfast took her to Sunday night concerts in St Mary's Hall and she asked one of the organisers Gus Hughes who was Eamonn Holmes' uncle for an audition.

"He put her on the bill the next week and she was spotted by an agent who signed her up for concerts all over the place but she was still signing Vera Lynn and Bing Crosby songs."

Before one show, however, in St Columb's Hall in Derry, Bridie realised to her horror that singers who appeared before her had sung her scheduled numbers and her taxi driver Jimmy Irvine suggested she should perform the Irish favourites she'd regaled him with in his cab.

There and then a legend was born. Jim, who was director of quality and safety in the Department of Health at Stormont, says: "She was an Irish ballad singer from then on and songs like A Mother's Love's a Blessing and the Boys from the Co Armagh were massive hits across the world especially in countries where Irish people had settled."

But the notion that she made millions from her records was just that, a notion. For Jim says she was tied into a contract from her early days which stipulated that her royalties were a pittance.

Daniel O'Donnell's sister Margo was the special guest at the launch of Jim's book in Letterkenny and her brother would have been there too if he hadn't been doing Strictly Come Dancing in London.

"Daniel was a big fan and I think he learnt a lot from Bridie who like him would stand for hours after a show signing autographs and meeting people," says Jim, who admits that even though he shared a stage with his mother and managed her affairs, he still marvels at Bridie Gallagher's enduring appeal.

A road sign at Creeslough welcomes visitors to the home of Bridie Gallagher; Jim still receives fan letters from far flung places and on YouTube the number of video and audio clips of her singing astonishingly runs to over 300.

  • Bridie Gallagher; The Girl from Donegal by Jim Livingstone is published by the Collins Press, Cork

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