Deirdre Ní Chonghaile, Cill Rónáin, Oileán Árainn, writes:
On a point of information: as I understand it, there were five pipers in the Aran Islands in 1821, not seven as either Fred Johnston or Sean Donnelly suggested in Johnston’s review of Piperlink (Nov-Dec). The 1821 census does not reflect how many people played musical instruments in Aran. It lists only professional musicians. Extant sources of the musical milieu of nineteenth-century Aran show that musical instruments were scarce, so the five pipers are all likely to have been visiting pipers.
The census was created over a period of months from May 28th to October 19th by Patrick O’Flaherty (1781–1864) of Cill Mhuirbhigh, Árainn (the largest of the islands), who was later appointed Justice of the Peace in 1831. This means the five pipers were not necessarily in Aran at the same time. Fine summer weather undoubtedly eased their journey to Aran (and O’Flaherty’s job), but there was also an obvious demand for the music of the pipes amidst the archipelago’s population of over 3,000. Those dates book-end each of the three islands’ pattern days, which to this day continue to attract jobbing musicians from the mainland.
The pipers’ surnames are not island surnames, thus supporting the theory that they were all travelling pipers. Three pipers – John Boyle (78yrs), Michael Tierney (48yrs), and Michael Right [sic] (20yrs) – were guests in different houses in Árainn. Boyle was in O’Flaherty’s own house. The other two – Thomas Flanagan (58yrs) and David Noonan (21yrs) – were in Inis Oírr. Noonan appears to have been renting a cottage for himself and his young wife. Some of the pipers travelled with a son or a young assistant.
Interestingly, only one native with the Cromwellian name of Michael Brabson (60yrs) of Cill Éinne, Árainn listed his occupation as ‘fiddler’. The surname has since died out in Aran and, historically, the fiddle never seems to have taken hold of the islanders’ heartstrings in the same way that the button accordion and melodeon have.
But, there may have been another two pipers of which I am unaware. In the course of my PhD research on the traditional music of the Aran Islands, I have found evidence that there may be two or more differing copies of the 1821 census. Also, my copy of the census shows some anomalies that question the accuracy of the enumerator’s calculations. For example, according to his gravestone, Patrick O’Flaherty’s son James (immortalised as Ó Mórna by Máirtín Ó Direáin) was four years of age in 1821, but peculiarly neither he nor his mother appear in the census. Perhaps John Boyle’s late-night pipering drove Mrs O’Flaherty out of the house to seek sound slumber elsewhere for herself and her. The summer of 1821 must have been a long and fine one!
Published on 1 January 2008
Deirdre Ní Chonghaile is a PhD student in UCC’s Music Department. Her thesis is on the music and song of the Aran Islands.