Billy Dunwoody

The East Belfast man who widened the repertoire of flute playing in Northern Ireland

William ‘Billy’ Dunwoody was born 1924 in east Belfast. His grandfather, WJ Dunwoody from Pitt Street, was a stonecutter who worked on the marble staircase in Belfast’s City Hall. As a young man, his father William senior became a founder member of the 39th Old Boys’ Flute Band, and later acted as its conductor and president. 

The flute  

Educated at Harding Memorial School on the Cregagh Road, Dunwoody worked for most of his life as an electrician at Shorts. However, everything else in life played second fiddle to the flute. He followed his father into the 39th OB (later the 39th OB Flute Ensemble), establishing what was to become a family tradition. In the late 1980s, four generations of the family—himself, his father, his daughter Andrene Bolger and granddaughter—were all members of the band. 

Under early conductors such as John Galbraith, Fred May and William Dunwoody senior, the 39th OB was to develop a tradition of disciplined musicianship, and Dunwoody was to harness this for his own inimitable style of teaching. Few knew as much about the flute and in addition to teaching in schools in later life, he spent hundreds if not thousands of unpaid hours coaching members of the 39th. Dunwoody organised annual master-classes led by such notables as Geoffrey Gilbert and Jeanne Galway, which attracted flute players including Andrea Griminelli, the nephew of Luciano Pavarotti. Others who respected his work, and paid social calls to his home included Derek Bell and the Chieftains. 


Dunwoody worked hard to cultivate promising musicians, promoting not just flautists, but also arranging recitals for emerging pianists such as Barry Douglas and Una Hunt. He could recognise early talent, and was the first to offer an opportunity to his star pupil and member of the 39th, James Galway. Other proteges included Colin Fleming, Gary Arbuthnot and Jonathan Johnston. Another member of the band was Jennifer Sturgeon, the concerto wind champion in the 1988 BBC Young Musician of the Year contest at the age of 13.


Billy Dunwoody widened the repertoire of flute music in Northern Ireland and enhanced the flute-playing tradition in Northern Ireland by pioneering the introduction of the concert flute and the contra-bass flute into the ranks of the 39th. The Old Boys description was also to become redundant under Dunwoody for the 39th now included girls. He also welcomed individuals of all ages and from all traditions. 


At the time of Dunwoody’s sudden death on December 6, 1995, Joe McKee described him as ’a man whose influence on the world of the flute was inestimable’. This sentiment was echoed by John Anderson: ’Billy almost single-handedly nurtured the great tradition of flute-playing that we have here in Northern Ireland’.

In 1977 Dunwoody was awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal, and seven years later received the MBE for services to the flute. A single plaque in the Linen Hall Library is scant memorial to a notable musician who achieved so much—without a single musical qualification! 

Further Reading  

’Billy Dunwoody MBE’ by Keith Haines in East Belfast Historical Society Journal 3.4 (1998-99); James Galway: An Autobiography (1978) by James Galway.

By Keith Haines © 2003.