Saturday, 17 October 2015

Genealogy Saturday: A day in the life of my great-grandda

For many family historians, there’s nothing quite like extending the genealogy back just one more generation, but for me, it's learning each ancestor's life story that provides the greatest sense of satisfaction.  And, there is no better way to learn what made them tick, than by examining the treasures they left behind.

James Byrne of Lower Jane Place, 1938
James Byrne, Williams Shield won by I.T.&G.W.U. Band - May 1938

Here's an old silver medal that belonged to my great-grandfather, James Byrne of Lower Jane Place, Dublin. He gave it to my mother when she was a child. James died in July 1948, so Mam has had this medal for nearly seventy years.

The inscription on the back reads: Williams Shield won by I.T. & G. W.U. Band - May 1938. Although, he didn’t play a musical instrument himself, James Byrne is remembered as having been a founder member of Prize Brass and Reed Band of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.

Until his death, he was said to have carried their flag when they marched in parade. This flag bore the face of James Connolly, the Irish nationalist and socialist, who was executed by a British firing squad following the 1916 Rising. 

Old newspaper accounts told the story of how the band members came by their medals:

Only six bands entered the All-Ireland Bands contest that year. It was held by the Royal Dublin Society, on 4 May 1938, during their Spring Show.  Each band played a French overture, by Daniel Auber, called ‘The Crown Diamonds’ followed by a tune of their choosing. The Lawn Pavilion in the R.D.S. showgrounds was crowded on that Wednesday afternoon, when the ITGWU Band won first prize – the Williams Shield and £20. 

The judges, who listened without seeing the competitors, were seemingly not too impressed with the general standard of playing that day. They gave low marks to all the bands, saying ‘it is a great mistake to award high marks to a band that, although deserving to be placed first, does not deserve such marks’.

Nevertheless, the judges surprised themselves in naming the Transport Union Band as the winners, adding they had ‘improved considerably since they last participated in a similar contest’. Perhaps this had something to do with their new Musical Director, Mr. Adolf Gebler, who was appointed the previous year.

Not too bad for a bunch of carters from the Dublin docklands, I'd say!

The other contestants were the Dublin Postal Band in second place, the Tramway Employees' Brass and Reed Band in third place and St George's Brass Band who received a consolation prize. Holy Family Confraternity Brass Band and St James's Brass and Reed Band also entered.

It was the following October, before the band were presented with the cup. A special ceremony was held at Liberty Hall, the Unions headquarters in Dublin, and Senator Thomas Foran did the honours. Senator Foran was General President of the Union and had been instrumental in setting up the band, in 1919. 

On behalf of the Dublin District Council, Senator Foran also presented a set of medals to the band members – one of which can be seen above.  

Afterwards, there was dancing and an ‘enjoyable smoking concert’ (whatever that entailed) held in the adjoining Hotel Workers Hall. About 500 people attended the event. I wonder if my great-grandmother, Christine (Devine) Byrne, was there too. It's rumoured she did not attend the wedding celebrations of any of her children, so perhaps formal events like this were not her cup of tea.

Sourced:  Irish Press, 5 May 1938, pp 1,9; Irish Independent, 5 May 1938, pp 8-9; Irish Press, 11 October 1938 p. 9.

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy

For more about my great-grandfather’s band, see here


  1. What a lovely, simple story, but one that tells so much about your ancestors...thank you, Dara.

    1. Thank you, Chris, appreciate you stopping by.

  2. What a treasure to have that memento from your great grandfather, Dara, and also to know the story of its significance. Interesting that James Byrne didn't play a musical instrument, himself. Other than being the band's flag-bearer, was it in organizational duties where his talents added to the group?

    1. Perhaps Jacqi, he certainly stayed involved with them right up until his death. We also know he was involved in setting up two Gaelic football (and hurling) clubs in the area.

  3. Examine the treasures left behind -- good advice! I did just that a year or so ago when I ran across a box of medals that turned out to belong to my great-grandfather. I knew practically nothing about him until I researched the medals.

  4. Wendy, isn't it great to have something over and above BMD certs - every little helps ;)

  5. Dara, that silver medal looks like it has been lovingly cared for. It is in great shape. It is special to have something tangible to hold on to as a remembrance, whether it is a teacup, a bracelet or a quilt. It is a treasure.

    1. True Colleen, like with your grandmother’s crockery that you blogged about last year, such treasures really throw light on our ancestor’s personality.

  6. I love the stories attached to keepsakes. Yours tells a wonderful story! I wanted to tell you that I've included your post in my Noteworthy Reads for this week:

  7. Thanks Jo, much appreciated.


I look forward to reading your comments, even more especially if you're related to someone mentioned in this post.

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