Liam O’Flynn: An Appreciation

Liam O’Flynn (1945–2018)

Liam O’Flynn: An Appreciation

A tribute to the great uilleann piper who died on 14 March.

One of the great Irish traditional musicians of our time has passed away. Liam O’Flynn, aged 72, died yesterday (14 March) after a battle with illness over the last year.

So much that we take for granted today can be traced back to the impact that his uilleann piping had in the 1970s and after.

With the band Planxty, he showed how an ancient instrument could exist within the contemporary music world. Somehow, he charted a course for the uilleann pipes through the explosion of new musical influences in the 60s and 70s. Amidst so much that was new and fresh in Planxty’s sound, O’Flynn could establish the pre-eminence of the pipes. How did he do it?

Just this month, a recording of a 1979 Planxty concert resurfaced, recorded by Radio Bremen and released on the Made in Germany label. Listening to it, we are reminded of the detailed passage he took through each tune, how every note seemed to be judiciously chosen, whether it was a variation in the melody such as the cran ornament on the A in Brian O’Lynn’s jig, or in the long, bending high G just before changing to ‘Pay the Reckoning’.

So much incredible counter-melody and harmony was taking place around him in Planxty, and yet O’Flynn’s focus always seemed to be the tune. His piping had the discernment of Ennis, but the style was his own and he had the musical strength that an endangered instrument in the late twentieth century needed.

I was introduced to Planxty’s music in the early 1990s, when a piper stopped me in a music department corridor and put earphones on my head – it was a set of reels from the After the Break album; my instant impression: what could be behind this incredible colour?

In finding a contemporary expression for the pipes, O’Flynn opened the ears of new generations to this instrument and laid a foundation for the instrument’s global popularity today; the flat-pitched pipes on ‘As I Roved Out’, the virtuosity on ‘Smeceno Horo’, the introduction to ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’ – these are moments that will capture the imagination of anyone who hears them. O’Flynn passes away as Honorary President of Na Píobairí Uilleann, a fitting title given he was a founding member in 1968.

In the 1980s, his performances of the orchestral work The Brendan Voyage by Shaun Davey – the first time an uilleann piper led an orchestra – lifted the pipes’ stature further in musical life. His solo albums such as Out to Another Side and The Given Note, his collaboration with Seamus Heaney, and his trio with fiddle-player Seán Keane and flute-player Matt Molloy, and much more, all included examples of thoughtful, crafted arrangements, an independent voice still focussed on what a melody could express, working his way around it using devices from the wide world of music and the arts.

The last time I saw O’Flynn live was at a Na Píobairí Uilleann concert in 2006. He played just three pieces over half an hour, including the unique and challenging work, ‘The Fox Chase’. The response was rapturous. I remember thinking that there is nothing musically that a great musician and one melody cannot achieve. Liam O’Flynn’s musical legacy will forever be a reminder of that.

Published on 14 March 2018

Toner Quinn is Editor of The Journal of Music. His website is https://tonerquinn.com/

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