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Two Hometowns

Byrne laces up for a quick run while Franky looks on. photo: Bryan Lathrop

Nearly every runner who takes their miles seriously inevitably yields to the sport’s intrinsic momentum. You run a 5k; taste success and run another. You feel great; get hungry for bigger challenges. Before you know it you’re training for marathons. Such is the case for Dublin native and Philly transplant, John Byrne, who in 2023 will run his first Love Run Half Marathon.

Byrne is not only a distance runner, he’s also a former educator, and an accomplished musician. This American-Celtic folk singer-songwriter has four albums to his credit and plays upwards of 150 shows a year on tour. In additional to his regular concerts for the past ten years, Byrne has volunteered his talents with Musicians on Call, a non-profit that brings live and recorded music to the bedsides of patients in healthcare facilities across the nation. Byrne brings the healing power of music to bed-ridden patients with hundreds of “personal concerts”. He elaborates on the process, “You basically go into hospitals and play music. Your guide goes into the room first; they say ‘John here is a singer songwriter from Ireland. Would you like him to come in and play a song?’ Then I go in, chat with the patient for a couple of minutes, play a song or two, and move on to the next room. Volunteering with Musicians made me feel good about what I was doing—sometimes what you’re doing doesn't feel important. Then you do it for somebody for whom it has so much importance and it changes your perspective. Making music can feel like a very selfish endeavor, because when you're writing it, you're very much in your own head. Musicians on Call helps balance things out.”

Byrne’s running journey started about five years ago with a 5k sponsored by Musicians on Call. He registered for the race with the goal of completing it without stopping and confesses “I actually couldn't—I ran about a mile and a half, walked a little bit, and ran the rest.” He recalls meeting some “proper runners” afterwards whose rave reviews about the Broad Street Run convinced him to join the fray and complete the 10 miler. The realization that he could run 10 miles kickstarted his momentum—“If I can run 10, I can run 13.1!” He quickly checked half marathon off his list by completing the 2018 Rock and Roll Half Marathon; it wasn’t long after that before Byrne signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon. “I had buyer's remorse immediately after I signed up. I’d only run a half marathon and had just committed to doubling my longest distance.” But he’d committed and wasn’t backing out. Byrne cites the importance of the charity component of the races he’s entered with helping to keep him on point. “It’s as much a motivator as it is a great way to make a difference.”

A couple of weeks before the marathon he developed foot pain during his long run. He remembers telling himself, “if I can do my long run, I can do the marathon but I need to get this checked out.” An X-ray revealed a stress fracture in his foot. “Of course the doctor told me, ‘you shouldn't do the marathon.’ She also said, ‘I can tell that you're gonna do it.’ She was right,” laughs Byrne. “In my head I was like ‘Let's go!’ This might be the only time in my life that I'm in marathon shape.”

The momentum carried on. Immediately after finishing the Philly Marathon he signed up for Dublin. “My goal was to run a marathon in each of my two hometowns.” After completing the Dublin marathon this year (it had been on hiatus until 2022 because of covid) Byrne was looking for another race. “I’d wanted to do The Love Run, but I was always touring in the early spring. But our 2023 Ireland tour doesn’t start until May; so I signed up through Philly Runs Free. ”

The story of how Byrne ended up settling in Philly bears mentioning since it ties into his teaching and music careers and highlights his desire to give back. He’d visit the US during summers when he was in college in Dublin. “A few of us traveled looking for an adventure, we were all really into American folk music. I was 19 the first time; our plan was to stay in New York.” Byrne and his friends quickly realized they were out of their depth in the New York of the early 90s; and by chance they ended up in Wildwood. “Me and my friend Shane, we'd go to a bar where a couple of dudes would be playing music, we'd ask to play a few songs; and they'd let us. Next thing we knew we were getting regular gigs.”

Byrne returned to Dublin to work, but couldn’t resist the draw to return to the States. “I didn't intend to come over here to spend the rest of my life, but the chances of me getting my own place in Dublin were zero before the Irish economy got good. So we traveled around a bit playing music. I wanted to live in a city again, had been to Philly and liked its neighborhood vibe. So six of us got a house in Juniata Park.” he laughs.

Byrne had been in the States roughly four years when he decided to go back to college, and some of the credits from his honors diploma from Dublin towards a degree here. He recalls, “I was playing in a band, but I needed something else. I felt like I was dead-ending, and wasn't feeling fulfilled in any way.” He took a class called ‘Educational Psychology’ which ultimately led him to become a teacher at The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth, an alternative school for kids who have been kicked out of other schools. He taught English for 10th, 11th and 12th grades. “The kids were challenging, but once you understood their rhythm, working with them became such a joy because you really had to be creative.”

When not touring Byrne lives in Fishtown with his wife and dog. Gets his runs in, and volunteers for Musicians on Call. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

He taught at Lincoln Center for about eight years and loved it, which made the decision to leave far more difficult when his 2010 album, After the Wake, caught on and started getting some traction. “It was the first album where I didn't care about record labels. I was tired of chasing the [record] deal. I'd had enough of getting a deal and losing it.” With the album’s success and gaining momentum, Byrne knew that if “I don't do it now, I never will. It was a rough decision to leave teaching.” He’s been a full time musician ever since, and now has 25 years under his belt as a Philadelphian.

When asked to share something absurd that he enjoys doing Byrne laughs and says “Playing music for a living,” but then shares his affinity for swimming in cold water. “I'll go swimming in Ireland. We toured Ireland in March and April and got out to the Aran Islands (in the North Atlantic, average water temperature high 49ºF). I had to get in because the water was so beautiful, a color you can't describe—not Caribbean blue but more like an icy sapphire. People thought I was crazy. I got in for my swim, then got my clothes on and went straight to the pub where I downed a big bowl of chowder and a pint of Guinness.”

Asked for some parting words of wisdom that have served him wel