It is a rare gift to be able to hear a tune and to transform that into something magical, but that was the gift that the late John Francis Chambers possessed in abundance. A gifted stonemason and musician, he created a musical and physical legacy around Mayo and beyond.
The eldest of three children to Annie and Michael Chambers, John Francis, who passed away on December 28, 2017, was born on June 17, 1954. He lived his entire life in Kiltarnet, Newport, building his own home beside the small cottage he grew up in. He married Mary (nee Gallagher) in 1980 and they had three children, Annemarie, Kathleen, and Gerard.
A blocklayer and stonemason by trade since his teenage years, his craftsmanship and attention to detail was second to none. He built many homes, businesses and stone walls around the county and beyond in his career. It was once said that John Francis’ style of dry stone wall building looked so natural to the eye and blended in so well with its surroundings, that it almost looked like the stones were put there by nature itself.
His lifelong passion was music. Wherever John Francis was, there was music. As a young boy, When he was given a Hohner black dot button accordion by his uncle John Keane, there wasn’t the option of music lessons, so he learned to play it by ear. His mother, Annie would hum songs to him and he’d listen and learn and then play them on the accordion.
He had an amazing ability to be out and about, hear a tune that he liked, and proceed to whistle it until he got home. He’d whistle it to Annie and she’d hum it over and over until he had learned the tune on the accordion. A truly remarkable talent that was to stand to him throughout life, a life that saw him go on to provide thousands of hours of entertainment to audiences of traditional Irish music right across Ireland and Europe.
His learning of music by ear was something he continued always, and he could be often heard playing the accordion in the kitchen in the middle of the night, where he would have had a tune that he had heard stuck in his head. He’d know that he needed to tame those notes, to put smacht on them, until they were captured inside the heart of that accordion. Until he had done that, he would not sleep.
It was always a case of have music, will travel with John Francis. The accordion was a permanent fixture in the boot of the car when he was travelling, so that he was never far from learning or playing a tune. Many hazy evenings footing turf in the bog ended with the sound of his accordion beating out across the banks, the gentle sounds providing a welcome respite to the tired workers resting on the basking sods.
He passed on his passion for music to his three children, as well as his nieces and nephews and invested a lot of time and patience in giving them every opportunity to be the best they could be at their chosen instrument — but he never pressurised them into it either, hoping that like him, they would grow to love the instrument. He had a genuine interest in seeing them all do well, and the time he spent playing with them and encouraging them helped them become the talented musicians they are today.
He was very well known and respected for his patience and interest in musicians who were starting out and who were eager to learn. He encouraged musicians to join in a session or sit patiently and play a tune with them at their own pace, or listen to them play and compliment them on the progress, an encouragement that would be welcomed by the eager students.
Playing music as a family in the home was part of the routine in the Chambers house with many evenings ending with a few tunes been played. He taught his own children initially to play the accordion by ear also, and then continued to encourage them and give them confidence with music lessons, feiseanna and Fleadh Ceoil competitions.
John Francis set up the Burrishoole Bridge Ceili Band in 1994, playing with TP Lynn, and his son and daughter, Gerard and Annemarie, as well as other young musicians: Marie McHugh, Amy Smith and Cormac Langan. It was a great gift to offer young musicians, giving them a confidence to express themselves through music, and to pass on the baton of entertainment as well as preserving the cultural heritage.
It was his band who entertained thousands for the Summer Cabarets in the Castlecourt Hotel in Westport for five consecutive summers, playing to packed houses every Wednesday night. The band also played for numerous ceilis countywide as part of town festivals and events between 1995 and 2000.
He brought the sound overseas, touring with the local Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann groups, inducing feet tapping and admiration from audiences in Switzerland, France, and the UK, and even being part of the group of musicians and dancers who travelled to Plougastel in France to mark the twinning with Westport. An accordion ambassador, John Francis was proud to represent his people and his homeland with the unique sound of Ireland, and to spread the gospel of traditional Irish music.
He played a regular slot in the Atlantic Coast Hotel in Westport each week of the Summer from the mid 2000s up until recent years with friends TP Lynn, Tommy Lyons, Bernice Connolly and the late Eamonn Connolly, which he always enjoyed.
To relax and unwind, he loved nothing more than to play at a session of music amongst his many wonderful music friends, or to go and watch one of his favourite country singers perform, or to be outdoors, from cycling or walking on the greenway to fishing or camping.
John Francis really treasured his friends. He loved to visit them or vice versa to have a catch up. Even if they were not living near he would always make sure to chat to them on the phone regularly. He was a great listener and gave people his full attention and enthusiasm at all times. He was an excellent storyteller, and had a natural ability to immerse you in the story, before delivering a usually humerous punchline.
A man whose musical skills were organic, he liked to surround himself with nature, taking great pride in the unique taste of the fruit and vegetables he grew in his garden, a man thrilled by the prospect of being able to eat food which he planted himself. His garden was always very well maintained and cared for, with an incredible knowledge of all things Gardening related, he was a great person to ask for advise.
It is ironic too that he took great joy from listening to the birds chirping and singing on the birdhouse outside his kitchen window. Their warblings, so natural like the whistlings and humming of his own youth that gave him such a rich musical talent.
But for all his love of music and the wondrous qualities it can bring, it was his love of family that was to the forefront with John Francis.
His family were his number one priority and upmost pride, and his first grandaughter’s arrival last year brought him the biggest joy of all in recent times. ‘The light of his life’ as he referred to her; he loved watching her grow, and playing music and singing ‘Five Little Ducks’ and ‘Old McDonald’ with her on his lap brought such happiness to him.
Even when he did not feel well in recent times, he remained positive and always kept his sunny side out, and instead of thinking of himself, he was always thinking of his family, putting them to the forefront of his mind always, making sure they were happy, healthy, well and always looking after them. And they in turn loved him more than words can ever say.
John Francis was a quiet, patient, positive, wise, generous, happy, loving, caring, witty gentle man who left a massive imprint on the hearts of so many people.
While there is great sadness at his passing, the legacy of John Francis Chambers lives on, not only in the many accordions he tuned — his astute skill at being able to know the pitch of a note learned by ear and not by instrument — but also in the many stone walls and houses and buildings he constructed during his time as a stonemason and block layer.
He was definitely a man you don’t meet every day, a gentle giant who loved his family, his music, and his community. He will be sorely and deeply missed.
His daughter Annemarie read the following eulogy at his funeral mass which sums up the much loved, wonderful, special man John Francis was and always will be:
John Francis - Our Dad
Today we feel such sadness
with the passing of our dad.
He was our rock and refuge
Through good times and the bad.
Although he was a big man
he was a gentle giant
Bearing illness with conviction,
He always remained defiant.
Not only were you our father,
you were also our best friend
Always a shoulder to cry on
Right to the very end.
Your advise was always simple
‘Look out for one another
Treasure the love of family
Know that you have each other’
The day you became a grandad
was the day you felt so proud
We took so many pictures
and saved them in the cloud.
You gave us the gift of music,
a gift we will pass on,
so your memory will live forever,
through your music, dance, and song
Thank you dad for all you did
for us throughout the years,
Happy memories that we shared,
will help us through our tears.
To us Dad you were everything,
You made us who we are,
We owe it all to you dear dad
Heaven’s brightest shining star.
Now all we have to cling to
Are memories of the past.
A deep love etched within our hearts
A love that will always last.
You also loved your music
and would rattle out a tune
telling your musician friends
the next session would be soon.
Music was your passion
‘It helped to soothe the soul’
Bringing people together
to enjoy playing was your goal.
May all the bands in heaven
Have a session to welcome you
home to your eternal home
to start a life anew
To use a quote from Shakespeare,
Although he’s long since gone.
“If music be the food of love
well then my friends...... play on.”
May his gentle soul rest in peace.