‘Over the last 15 years, the numbers have really increased’: Telling the Story of Women Uilleann Pipers
Louise Mulcahy had already been playing the flute for four years when she took an interest in the uilleann pipes. She was just 13 but adored the sound of the complex instrument, particularly when all of its various components came together. ‘The drones, the regulator, the chanter… I just loved the magic of the instrument… that always drew me to it.’
After trying a set, she asked her father, accordion player Mick Mulcahy, to buy her a practice set. Soon she was attending monthly classes at Na Píobairí Uilleann in Dublin, travelling from her home in Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick.
Historically, the uilleann pipes have been almost exclusively played by men, but in specialist publications Mulcahy began to notice historical photographs of female uilleann pipers, and became curious.
I always had an interest in the topic, ever since I started playing the pipes. I was curious to know who the women were that played the pipes before me, going back to the late nineteenth century and twentieth century. As the years have gone on I’ve been keeping articles and data on it.
When she was asked to give a lecture at the Willie Clancy Summer School last July, she took the opportunity to collate all the information she had. This was followed by a lecture in September at the Fingal Fleadh & Fair, a presentation at Stormont House for International Uilleann Piping Day in November, and in December a lecture at Na Píobairí Uilleann in Dublin in which she focussed on one particular piper, Margaret Murphy. Next month, at the Imbolc festival in Derry, Mulcahy, who featured in Ireland’s successful bid for UNESCO recognition of the pipes, will present her most recent findings with a talk titled ‘A History of Women in Uilleann Piping, 1800s–1900s’.
The lectures keep changing as she does more research. ‘It’s different every time because I’m constantly working on it. I have more and more people to interview. Every time I have given it, it’s nearly a completely different lecture because the sources have grown.’
The earliest mentions that Mulcahy can find of women uilleann pipers date from the 1830s – two widows, ‘Nance the piper’ and Kitty Hanley. The two are mentioned in Francis O’Neill’s 1913 book Irish Minstrels and Musicians. In later years, documented pipers include Molly Morrissey and May McCarthy. Mulcahy has also sourced the first promotional image of a female uilleann piper and what may be the first non-commercial recording from the 1950s.
Mulcahy has a particular interest in Margaret Murphy (1893–1973), or Mrs J.J. Murphy as she was also known, an uilleann piper and dance teacher from Castletroy in Limerick who won the Oireachtas uilleann piping competition in 1914 – the first woman to do so. In Mulcahy’s lectures, she plays a jig on the pipes that she wrote specially in honour of Murphy. Last summer at the Willie Clancy week, she played the tune with a group of women pipers that included Máire Ní Ghráda, Marion McCarthy, Heather Clark, Naoise and Tierna Rowsome, Molly Ní Ghráda, Emer Mayock, Sheila Friel and Rosaleen O’Leary, and Margaret Murphy’s daughter was in the audience. It was an important moment for Mulcahy – the first time a large group of women pipers had performed together – and they received a standing ovation.
I have written a few tunes … but this is probably the first that I have played out publicly. I was just inspired by some of the pictures that her grandson had sent me … She seems to have been a great character, an inspiration to her family. When I looked through the material and read about her, a tune came into my head.
Women pipers today
Mulcahy’s lectures consists of archival footage, photographs, newspaper clippings, interview clips, diary entries from Séamus Ennis’ travels around the country, and her own performances – ‘I’ve pieced together names of women who would have played the pipes, and then through tracking down family members and relatives, and going through archival footage and material, I’ve extended the information on these women.’
What’s lovely about this work is identifying family members who may have amazing old archival pictures, documents and even newspaper clippings. This information really hasn’t been collated before.
In modern times, women playing uilleann pipes is not nearly as rare as it once was. ‘Over the last 15 years, the numbers have really increased and I think that’s due to the greater visibility.’ The first commercial recording that included a woman piper was the 1978 compilation The Piper’s Rock which featured Máire Ní Gráda from Cork. Today, as well as Mulcahy and the pipers who played in Miltown, there is Mary Mitchell, Debbie Quigley, Catherine Ashcroft, Tara Howley, Becky Taylor, Pamela Schweblin, Saoirse Ní Machail, Jane Walls, Sorcha Ní Scolaí and more.
Mulcahy speculates that the reasons there were not more female pipers in the past was to do with traditional patriarchal society and perhaps the quality and availability of instruments too. She sees her research as part of presenting a fuller picture of the piping tradition.
I think it gives a voice to those women who played the uilleann pipes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who haven’t been adequately documented. It bridges a gap in our knowledge about women in uilleann piping – and in Irish traditional music.
Louise Mulcahy’s lecture, ‘A History of Women in Uilleann Piping, 1800s–1900s’ takes place in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin in Derry on Friday 8 February at 1pm. She will also perform on Sunday 10 February at 1pm with her father Mick Mulcahy on accordion and her sister Michelle Mulcahy on harp and concertina.
The IMBOLC International Music Festival 2019 begins on 27 January and runs until 10 Fbruary and features Lankum, Ye Vagabonds, Transatlantic Sessions, Green Fields of America and more. For full details, visit www.imbolcfestival.com.