Robbie is singing from the heart at 91
GRAEME COUSINS speaks to a Co Armagh man who has released his first music album in his ninth decade
At the age of 91 Lurgan man Robbie Haire has recorded his first album.
And while the CD’s release is cause for celebration it’s also a bittersweet moment for Robbie.
He dedicates the gospel album to his late wife Thelma who died eight years ago with Alzheimer’s.
I spoke to Robbie and his son Peter this week to find out more about Robbie’s calling to music and indeed to God.
Robbie has been a member of Lurgan Baptist Church for 61 years, regularly singing before Sunday night meetings, but he never dreamt of taking his talent any further.
His son Peter said: “When lockdown started Dad wanted to do something to keep that going so we did a recording and put it up on Facebook.
“He was getting one or two thousand people watching from all over the place.
“A few people were saying he should do a CD.
“We didn’t think much of it. Then it was his 91st birthday on July 27.
“We arranged a surprise call with ‘The Connor Phillips Show’ (on Radio Ulster).
“My dad loves Foster and Allen. Tony Allen lives in Lurgan so he came up with his wife (one of Daniel O’Donnell’s backing singers) into my brother’s garden (next door to Robbie). They all sang his favourite song.
“Afterwards we got talking. My dad said he would love to do a CD and Tony and his wife said, ‘why don’t you?’”
Sadly the tracks they recorded first time round were lost but the second attempt at a studio in Tandragee proved more fruitful.
Robbie has dedicated the album to his wife Thelma with all proceeds going to raise money for Alzheimer’s.
Robbie said: “She was a nurse in Lurgan. We were married 44 years.
“We knew each other for 50 years then we had to put the wedding off because she was doing exams for nursing.
“People act the goat with me because I was going with her for seven years – why did I wait so long?
“We put it off for her exams. The wonderful thing about it was she got her finals a week before we got married and got her job.
“It meant that when we went on our honeymoon she’d a job and all waiting for her when she got home. It all worked well.”
Robbie added: “She was a wonderful woman, she made me. There was times in my life where I thought I wasn’t even good enough for her.
“She was loved by everyone, everyone in the town loved her.”
Despite the praise he has received over the years, Robbie doesn’t think much of himself as a singer: “I never termed myself as a great singer. I would have sang around the small gospel meetings.
“I was never a Christian until 1959. That’s when I became a member of the Baptist Church.
“I love singing, and listening to people sing.
“I’ve a great love for people, most of the people that know me would know that the hymns that I sing would be more for their benefit than mine.
“My main objective in life was to love people, especially through the church.
“I never thought I was a great singer, never in my life. I don’t even think so now.
“There will be a lot of mistakes in that CD, people mightn’t even see them but I’ll see them.”
Peter said: “He puts himself down, but he can sing, he is very good.”
Robbie said he took inspiration from his dad and his sister: “My father was a great singer. I’d a sister who was a beautiful singer too but they’re all gone now.
“I remember my dad singing a song ‘If I could help somebody along the way then my living will not be in vain’.
“He used to sing that all the time. It’s on the album.
“It was a great song of Josef Locke (Joseph McLaughlin). He was a fella from Derry – a policeman, a beautiful singer.
“He became a millionaire, he made that much money the taxman got him in the end.
“If you mention Josef Locke people won’t even know him.
“Those were great songs. See the songs now that’s on the radio, I wouldn’t even listen to them.
“I like the old songs – Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans, Foster and Allen, I’ve been following them for years.”
Robbie told how he’d often entertain visiting football fans to Lurgan on a Saturday evening with his showpiece song in a local pub.
He said: “I was a part time bar man in Jimmy McCann’s pub in Queen Street.
“All the supporters’ club that came up to play to Glenavon would have gone to Jimmy McCann’s that night after the match. He’d have made them sandwiches and they’d have had a great sing-song.
“He’d always ask me to sing. The song that I sung was a gospel song that was number one on the hit parade for weeks called ‘It’s No Secret What God Can Do’ written by Stuart Hamblin.
“He was very friendly with John Wayne, they were neighbours, they were both actors. Stuart Hamblin got saved and became a Christian. He was near afeared to go and see John Wayne afterward.
“One night he went to see him, to cut a long story short, when he was coming out of the house the big clock was chiming 12.
“John Wayne said to him, ‘that would be a good hymn for you to write – you could start out with, ‘chimes ring out the time, another day is through’’.
“He went home and wrote the hymn and the music in 17 minutes.”
Robbie, a Glenavon season ticket holder for most of his life, said: “Any time Crusaders or Linfield or Cliftonville or any supporters’ club came up to the pub Jimmy McCann always got me to sing. I’d have sang that hymn every time in the bar. It’s on the album.”
In a divided town like Lurgan Robbie is pleased that he is made welcome wherever he goes.
He lives on the edge of the largely Protestant Mourneview estate though he said he has many friends from Catholic areas of the town due to the 50 years he worked in Clendinning’s factory situated in Kilwilkie, a predominantly nationalist area of Lurgan.
Robbie said: “I’ve got some wonderful friends at both ends of the town. Every time some of them die belonging to the factory I go to the funeral in the chapel down North Street.
“They bring me out that night for my tea, sometimes I’m not back until nine o’clock. I’ll be in one of the Gaelic clubs.”
Asked if he felt his age Robbie said: “No, the only thing is I find it difficult a wee bit driving at night.”
Peter said: “He hasn’t changed in I don’t know how many years.”
Robbie lives on the Gilford Road in Lurgan in his grandmother’s house – the house in which he was born and raised.
The 91-year-old said: “I can remember the time I could have went to my gate and there wasn’t a house between me and Glenavon (Football Ground) and the hospital. Not a house. It’s all the Mourneview estate now.”
Robbie has two sons – David and Peter – and three grandchildren, the youngest being just nine months old.
He said: “My sons sold their houses when my wife, their mum, died and moved here to be near me. I had land around the house so they built two houses beside me. You could nearly reach out and touch them with your hand.”
Peter said: “The first lockdown when everything was going on he didn’t go out, this time round he’s come out of it rightly.
“He is an out and about person, he doesn’t like sitting in the house. Doing that project with the music kept him going.
“There’s not too many people of 90-odd prepared to sit in the studio over a couple of months.”
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