Lives Remembered

Don Burns: 'As far as going goes, I'm gone'

“AS far as going goes, I’m gone…”

“Wave your boat, your Daddy’s away in a hanky.”

Don Burns was a consummate storyteller with an unrivalled repertoire of Belfast sayings, one-liners and comic songs and monologues.

Influences over his 87 years included Chic Murray, Tom Lehrer and, locally, Crawford Howard.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey" was a favourite phrase long before Adrian Dunbar introduced it to audiences on Line of Duty.

Don didn’t mind being a target of jokes himself, as long as he was the centre of attention - and it was funny.

The diners of a Donegal restaurant will never forget how he had everyone singing one afternoon. Another memorable singalong involved an entire carriage on the way to the hurling final.

On Christmas Day we will play The Firehouse Five version of Minnie the Mermaid, his favourite party piece, to remember a wonderful man. And bid a final farewell with Raglan Road.

John Brendan Burns - known as Don after Don Bosco - was born in Hawthorn Street off Belfast's Falls Road, the third youngest of a family of 11.

He was an altar boy in Clonard Monastery, where he was impressed by the liturgical music of its famous choir. St Paul’s pantomimes were also a family favourite.

Don was sent away at a young age to board at Salesian College in Pallaskhenry, Co Limerick, but returned at the age of 13 when his father died suddenly.

He continued his schooling at St Malachy’s College in north Belfast and aged 18 started an apprenticeship in bookkeeping with Brennan’s family refrigeration business.

Soon Don was working as a compositor in The University Press in Castlereagh.

It may be that editing the Dictionary of American Slang there heightened an interest in the use of words.

His itchy feet first became apparent when he moved to Geneva for several years to work in printing, returning home in 1966.

And it was while lending his voice that year to younger brother Gerry in the raucous recording of Up Went Nelson, the chart-topping single by The Go Lucky Four about the explosion which toppled Nelson's Pillar in Dublin, that Don met Marie O’Neill.

She had left teaching to sing and play the fiddle with the Bunratty Entertainers and they were wed in 1969.

Marie tells the story of how she found herself married and separated within a week, as Don started a new job training keyboard operators at The Times in London just three days into their honeymoon.

For the next eight years he would continue travelling with his work, spending periods with the Glasgow Evening Herald, with Her Majesty's Stationery Office in Norwich, and the Racing Times in Los Angeles.

He finally settled back in Belfast, working in the printing office of the Ford Motor Company in Finaghy, and raising a family in Ashton Park off Finaghy Road North.

Don reignited an interest in drama, assisting an old friend from the English Drama Society in Geneva, Bob Jacobs, when he came to Belfast with the BBC to produce two plays, The Daily Woman by Bernard McLaverty and Naming the Names by Anne Devlin.

He also introduced Bob to the drama group at St Louise's Comprehensive College, where his daughter Ursula, now a prominent harpist, was a pupil.

She would later appear herself in a play drawing on the Belfast lingo learned in school workshops which was broadcast on television and staged at the Olivier Theatre in London.

Of Don's own family, three sisters joined the Sacre-Coeur Missionaries while two brothers, Paddy and Jim, were missionary priests in India.

The big age gap between the siblings and their long periods spent abroad meant that it was 1970 before Don finally managed to get the family of 11 together for first and only time - and for three hours only.

Don Burns and his 10 siblings came together for the first and only time in 1970

When his own twin boys arrived in 1979, Don could be seen pushing the buggy around south Belfast to keep the “stereo unit” quiet.

And having taken up up golf, he became a popular figure at the Balmoral club.

In the mid-nineties, he persuaded the then captain to host a fundraiser with the notable attendance of Daniel O’Donnell, who had just taken up the game. They raised £30,000 for Daniel’s work with Romanian orphans.

This high-octane raconteur and bon viveur did suffer some dramatic illnesses which necessitated operations throughout his middle life but merely added anecdotes to his repertoire.

In recent times he declared he was “studying for his finals”.

Don Burns died on July 19 at his home in Belfast. He is survived and sadly missed by his wife Marie, children Ursula, Brian, Paul and Barry and grandchildren.

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Lives Remembered