Gallagher, Bridget Ena ('Bridie') (1924–2012), singer, was born on 7 September 1924 near Creeslough, Co. Donegal, to Jim Gallagher and his wife Biddy (née Sweeney). Bridie (as she was always known) had three older brothers, five older sisters and one younger sister; the family lived in a substantial farmhouse in Aghallative. Jim Gallagher was head gardener on the Ards estate (prior to its acquisition by the Land Commission in 1926), and his wife had been lady's maid to Ena, Lady Stewart-Bam (hence Bridie's middle name), co-owner of the estate with her husband, Sir Pieter Stewart-Bam. Educated at Massinas national school, Bridie loved the Irish language and was offered a scholarship to board at Loreto convent in Letterkenny. Her parents refused to allow her to take it up, and she had to leave school at 14 to work in the local post office.
The Gallaghers were musical, and Bridie, who had a good ear and a beautiful voice, learned songs from her mother. She started singing in local concerts and in dancehalls after camogie club dances, and was offered a shilling a night to sing with Paddy McCafferty's dance band. Soon she joined a more professional band and sang with them in a wider radius round her home. In 1948 she moved to Belfast to work as a housekeeper. There she met Robert ('Bob') Livingstone, a protestant apprentice mechanic, six years her junior; they married in Creeslough on 6 September 1951.
After successfully auditioning to perform in variety concerts in St Mary's Hall in Belfast, Bridie was picked up by a local agency and quickly became popular. Her first single, 'A mother's love's a blessing', recorded on contract to Decca Records in March 1953, sold well and led to more bookings. She was then still performing songs from the musicals, or material made famous by Vera Lynn and American singers, but a prescient music critic advised that '“Belfast's Vera Lynn” should forget her billing and keep to Irish numbers which she does with appeal' (Larne Times, 15 March 1951). For an important concert in Derry in 1953, Bridie planned to sing Vera Lynn and Deanna Durbin numbers, but was pre-empted by local rivals. With nothing else rehearsed, she fell back on old ballads learned in Creeslough. The rapturous reception for 'The whistling gipsy' and 'Goodbye Johnny dear' changed the focus of her career.
By 1957 she was supporting the Scottish star Kenneth McKellar in a six-week tour at a fee of £200 a week. She played in the London Palladium on 4 January 1959, packing it out chiefly with Irish Londoners. Her voice, with its characteristic 'break' and timbre, her natural and relaxed stage manner, and her homely repertoire had widespread appeal. She learned early on that localised songs about beloved childhood homes soothed (or enhanced?) emigrants' natural homesickness; scenes of weeping at her concerts (especially in America) were not uncommon. Songwriters were commissioned to fill in the topographical gaps in the repertoire; Bridie aimed to have at least one song for every county. By the end of her career, she was particularly associated with Thomas P. Keenan's 'The boys from the County Armagh' (her 1957 recording sold over 250,000 copies and was the best-selling Irish record of the late 1950s), and Seán McBride's 'The homes of Donegal'. Closely identified with her native county, she was widely known as 'The Girl from Donegal'.
Highly regarded for her professionalism, she was among the first Irish performers to bring international levels of glamour into their acts, spending large amounts of money on her dresses and on publicity, musical arrangements and accompanists. With her husband, she established a show business agency in Belfast that operated for several years. She put on her own shows in Bundoran and other summer resorts, employing her own musicians and support acts.
Bridie was managed at first by Nelius O'Connell, one of the pioneering music impresarios of the late 1950s, and subsequently by Philip Solomon (qv). She parted company acrimoniously with the controversial Solomon, after being booked to appear in Dublin, Belfast and Cork with the young English rocker Billy Fury. While liking Fury personally, Bridie recognised that it would be harmful to her career to become associated with his raunchy stage act, and refused to appear with him in Cork. Solomon sued her for breach of contract, and after much publicity (no doubt delighting Solomon) the case was settled out of court in Belfast (28 October 1960).
With new managers, Gallagher's successes continued. After a record-breaking concert in the Royal Albert Hall on St Patrick's Day 1959, before more audience members than any previous concert, she maintained her popularity throughout the 1960s and much of the 1970s. Touring every year in Great Britain, and regularly in the USA, Canada and Australia, she sold out many venues in her fifteen transatlantic tours, and appeared in the Sydney Opera House in April 1977. She topped the bill in the last performance (May 1961) in the Empire Theatre, Belfast, before its demolition, had another successful concert in the Royal Albert Hall (1966), and appeared in Lincoln Center in New York. In 1985 she starred in a concert in Lusaka, Zambia, organised at the instigation of a Belfast-born chief of police there.
She made many successful records with several labels, including eleven solo albums and songs on scores of compilation albums of 'sad Irish songs' and 'Irish pub songs'. She also released thirty-two singles, several of which charted. A 1985 video of her best-known songs sold thousands of copies, and a 2011 documentary on her life, introduced by Theresa Livingstone (a granddaughter), achieved high viewing figures in Ireland.
Emigration from Ireland continued throughout Gallagher's career, providing a guaranteed, though ultimately ageing, Irish audience for performances abroad. In Ireland, as variety shows and church-hall concerts gave way to showband dances and in turn to music lounges, Gallagher, as readily as any of her contemporaries, moved with the times. For twenty years she travelled the length and breadth of Ireland with showbands such as the Royal and the Clipper Carlton, and later adjusted to the cabaret circuit, establishing close relationships with individual fans and with pub and hotel owners. Acknowledging her enduring appeal, a critic noted that 'artists like Bridie Gallagher are every bit as much of the people and possibly more so, as the Chieftains and the Bothy Band. The songs are sentimental and solidly commercial, but the sincerity of writers and singer alike is undeniable' (The Stage, 24 August 1978).
She guarded her personal life closely. Bob Livingstone had converted to catholicism to marry her, but even so her parents were unsupportive, and his were outraged. The marriage worked at first, and they had two sons, but the disparity in their earnings and lifestyles led to rows, and they separated in 1965. They never divorced, and their permanent separation was not publicised. Bridie was devastated by the tragic death in May 1976 of her younger son, Peter, in a motorcycle accident in Belfast, and fell into a spiral of heavy drinking and deep depression. In 1981 she suffered a heart attack.
With her surviving son's help and support from loyal fans, she returned to performing, and won a lifetime achievement award in 1991. Although she made many television appearances, she felt slighted by RTÉ, who never commissioned her to front a programme. By the end of the 1990s she was sure she had been forgotten even in Donegal, but in 2000 the postmaster in Creeslough, Danny McLafferty, led a campaign, joined by Donegal celebrities including Daniel O'Donnell and his sister Margo, to mark Bridie's birthplace. A huge local welcome on 10 July 2010, a civic reception by the county council, and a last show in Letterkenny's An Grianán Theatre marked the end of Bridie's public career where it had begun.
In her final years she suffered several strokes, and broke her hip in a fall at her home in Belfast. She died on 9 January 2012 in hospital in Belfast. She was accorded a huge funeral in Belfast at St Brigid's church, Derryvolgie, and was buried in Doe cemetery, Creeslough. Numerous tributes acknowledged her as a trailblazer of Irish popular music, and that her songs were loved by thousands who could no longer visit the country of the past that was conjured up by her concerts and recordings.
Her son Jim Livingstone donated more than a hundred stage gowns, princess length and New Look in style, resplendent in net and chiffon and brocade, valued at more than £70,000, to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Items from the resulting Bridie Gallagher Collection have been loaned to local museums. He also wrote a biography of his mother, Bridie Gallagher: the Girl from Donegal (2015), based partly on her own unpublished memoirs.