GREAT sadness was felt recently in the Clabby and Fivemiletown area at the death of Jim Irvine, who was well known and respected in piping circles around the country.

Jim passed away at his home, aged 92, on August 1, 2020, surrounded by his family.

He was born on May 15, 1928, in Paisley, Scotland, first-born to the late Fred and Georgina.

The family returned home to Clabby shortly afterwards, where Jim was joined by brothers Sam, George, Alfie John and Herbie, and later by sisters Vera and Georgina.

The tragic loss of the boys’ mother at an early age meant that Jim had to adopt a parental role within the home, cooking meals and caring for his younger brothers.

His working life started at an early age, helping with turf in the bog. His first full-time job was at the age of 16 in Scallions quarry, followed by a job with UTA Ulster Transport Authority (later Ulsterbus) washing buses on a nightshift.

At the age of 21, he became a bus driver, travelling all over the country, and often doing the run from Enniskillen to Belfast which, in those days, took four hours.

His passion for piping was inspired at a young age and he was playing bagpipes at the age of 14. At that time, Clabby band had no uniform and went to parades on bicycles, with the bagpipes being laid across the handlebars, and two unfortunate members carrying the bass drum between them.

The old band folded in the 1950s, but Jim continued to play with the White Coats Pipe Band Omagh, then regarded as one of the top bands in the country.

In his personal life there was only one girl in Jim’s eyes, and that was Cissy Cuthbertson. Their relationship blossomed, despite shift work and Cissy pursuing her nursing and midwifery career in Belfast.

The couple married in 1959, setting up home in Fivemiletown, and they had three children: Helen, Alison and Neil.

Jim and his father, Fred decided to restart the pipe band in Clabby. They gathered up the young lads around the village and it was here that Jim developed his skill for teaching the bagpipes.

His patience and dedication ensured they had a band ready for the road. Second-hand uniforms were purchased and Cissy used her sewing machine to make alterations, with Clabby Pipe Band setting out in 1968. Cissy always supported Jim with his passion in any way she could.

Jim changed jobs in 1967 and became a school bus driver with grounds maintenance duties at Brookeborough Primary School.

His route included Moans Cross, Mullaghfad and Rosslea areas.

Much to the pupils’ disappointment, weather never deterred Jim from getting his charges to school on time.

While working at Brookeborough Primary School, Jim developed his gardening skills under the direction of then principal Sam Blair, and he was an expert at growing roses and dahlias.

Jim was a great mechanic, fixing cars mainly for the young lads in the band. He would study how something worked and always found a solution to the problem.

Jim was innovative. He developed water traps for bagpipes long before they were commercially available.

He was an expert at ‘tying in’ a sheepskin pipe bag and he was called upon frequently to do this for many bands in the locality.

Tuition skills

As Jim’s tuition skills became apparent, other bands asked for his help. For many years, he taught players in Colebrooke, The Barr, Fardross, Brookeborough and the Knox pipe bands.

Over the years, the membership of Clabby band would vary, with good years and bad, but Jim always had faith and never gave up, teaching new waves of pipers to fill the ranks again.

Bagpipes are a difficult and frustrating instrument to learn, with many giving up along the way, but Jim’s patience during this learning process was remarkable.

One young lad from Clabby, Lenny Browne, proved a challenging pupil initially but Jim saw potential and persevered.

Lenny later became All Ireland Solo Champion and made a successful career from piping. Jim always had a twinkle in his eye for that former pupil.

When Jim retired, he traded the bus in for a campervan and he and Cissy enjoyed several years touring the country until Cissy passed away 14 years ago.

Although he missed her every day, he adapted to life, supported by family and friends, many of whom came from within the piping fraternity.

Undoubtedly what gave him focus over recent years was his ability to still play his beloved bagpipes and to be an active member of the band.

He battled his own health issues, always bouncing back, defying expectation.

His ability to continue piping was staggering. His last performance was on stage in the Wesleyan Hall in February, 2020, aged 91 years and 9 months. He played every tune flawlessly.

Family life continued alongside piping and Jim took great enjoyment from his 11 grandchildren. He knew each and every one of their personalities, and was amused by signs of defiance and devilment.

He was proud of all their achievements and was always more than willing to fulfil childminding duties and ferry young people here and there as required.

With the Covid restrictions, Jim’s funeral service was held at his home, conducted by Rev Janet Rossell. The cortege then made its way to Clabby, where the band played a moving tribute to him.

Solos were performed by Charlie McClintock and at the graveside by Neil Stronge.

Jim is survived by his daughter, Helen; son-in-law, Trevor; daughter, Alison; son-in-law, Ian; son, Neil; daughter-in-law, Louisa and his grandchildren, Tom, Lucy, Robbie, Daniel, Rory, Katie, Sam, Shane, Finlay, Riley and Freddie.

He is further survived by his brother, Herbie, and sisters, Vera and Georgina.

The funeral arrangements were carried out by Austen Stinson, Funeral Director, Enniskillen.