Piping Aces
Liam O'Flynn

Piping Aces

Na Píobairí Uilleann's 39th Anual Tionól, which took place in Dublin.

Various venues, Dublin, 25-28 May 2006

Some corners of traditional music feel the need to organise themselves more than others. As roles became reversed in the twentieth century, and dance music rather than song came to dominate in performance, those dedicated to traditional singing have had to create new performance spaces for themselves – from An Goilín in Dublin to the Nenagh Singers’ Circle to An Béal Binn in Bray. In instrumental music too, however, there are specialisms: Cairde na Cruite has championed the harp since the 60s, the Phil Murphy festival in Wexford highlights harmonica playing, the Johnny Keenan festival in Longford brings the banjo to the fore, while Éigse Mrs Crotty in Clare celebrates the concertina. Fiddle-players, flautists, accordionists and tin-whistle players, so numerous in number, probably see little need to create a specific space for themselves, and yet pockets of specialised activity do exist – the Roscommon flute-players’ project, or Cairdeas na bhFidléirí in Donegal which since the 1980s has been nourishing that distinctive fiddle tradition.

Standing strong among such specialist activity, however, are the uilleann pipers. In 1968, the year Na Piobairí Uilleann was founded, it was estimated that there were little more than sixty uilleann pipers in the entire world. Less than four decades into NPU’s drive, and today there are three to five thousand players. It not only says a lot about that collective, but also something about the passion that the uilleann pipes evoke, and more generally, it reminds us of the extraordinary journey that traditional Irish music has taken in recent decades.

Although their HQ has always been in the capital city, Na Píobairí Uilleann’s 39th annual Tionól took place in Dublin this year for the very first time. Running over four days, it began with a curiously small exhibition of uilleann pipes in the National Museum, with just six eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sets from the museum’s collection on view. Disappointing, or maybe just surprising, as the number may have been, eavesdropping on the pipers present hovering around the sets – studying, comparing, speculating – gives an idea of the vocation that is uilleann piping. What they would not have given to have a chance to play them… (or what a pipe-maker would have given to get at them with a measuring tape.) Notable was a mid-nineteenth-century Moloney set that had not just three shimmering regulators as is common – but a showy five.

While classes, lectures and a concert of young pipers involving Sorcha Ní Mhuiré, Éanna Ó Cróinín, Pádraig Keane and Louise Mulcahy filled Friday evening and Saturday morning, the fulcral event of the Tionól was ‘The Ace and Deuce of Piping’, a concert at Liberty Hall on the Saturday night. Fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and piper Mick O’Brien, who opened the night, assemble sets of tunes that are custom-made for more-than-usual numbers of repeats, gradually allowing them find their level, and at which moment the audience gleefully locks in too. Sometimes it seems they achieve what they do simply because they take their time, but there’s much more than that: the particular bowing style of Ó Raghallaigh is key, bringing to their music a now characteristic swing, and they also regularly teeter intriguingly on the edge of the melody, allowing it almost disappear… before satisfyingly reclaiming the ground.

Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin and Len Graham provided a short injection of song in both the first and second half, balancing the emphasis on instrumental music throughout the concert, and bridging the gap between music and song also, with two port a’bheil (mouth music) from Ulster and Scotland which the audience particularly warmed to. Another highlight was the weighty ‘Gleann na nDeor’, which they opened with, though didn’t mention that it was composed by Ní Uallacháin. Sitting comfortably with the traditional material, it may well become just that.

Just before the break, Gay McKeon and his two sons Seán and Conor – all pipers – took to the stage. Enjoyable as the concert was up to this point, it was the McKeons who essentially punched a hole in the evening and had everyone sit up. It wasn’t simply the power of three sets of uilleann pipes together accompanied by Arty McGlynn on guitar, but the humour, the young energy and the chance-taking that grabbed everyone’s attention. Séan, still a teenager, relished his regulator playing throughout, and in the middle played a bravado hornpipe solo which sean-nós dancer Seosamh Ó Neachtain came out to.

Conor, in his early twenties, sat in command at the centre, while Gay (also Chairman of NPU) sat to his left, saying little, allowing his sons most of the attention. Shortly into their set, Conor began a set of three reels on his own, beginning with a tune from the Donegal fiddle tradition. It was one of those head-turning moments in any music when you hear a young voice which stands apart. In a period of minutes he managed to explore, in the way of very fine invention, a multitude of sides of those reels. But the McKeons are no secret, both brothers having received the TG4 Young Traditional Musician of the Year award; it occurred to me these kind of arrivals are just what the setting up of NPU was about all those years ago.

While I wondered if the three pipers and McGlynn were to be the highpoint of the evening, the hugely influential Liam O’Flynn took to the stage. As if the arrival of the Tionól in Dublin for the first time in thirty-nine years required a fitting response, O’Flynn presented a performance of great weight and depth. Playing just three pieces over a half-hour or more, it was left to O’Flynn to demonstrate the famous piping ‘test piece’ after which the concert was named. Two gentle tunes from the repertoire of Willie Clancy followed and he ended with that giant of piping challenges: ‘The Fox Chase’, comprising a range of tunes and descriptive passages. The emphatic applause as he stood to take a bow can only have been a moment away from a standing ovation.

And shortly after, the unexpected happened: Chieftains flute-player Matt Molloy – another towering figure in traditional music – fiddle-player John Carty and Arty McGlynn arrived on stage to finish the night. Given the job done by the previous performers, and the fact that traditional music audiences as a rule require little encouragement to let go, it wouldn’t have taken much to set the evening alight entirely. But instead, a restrained performance guided the ‘Ace and Deuce of Piping’ down to a pleasant but disappointing close. No encore, not even for the great Matt Molloy.

‘The Piper’s Chair’ session, which took place in the venue room of the Cobblestones pub on the Sunday afternoon, anchored by piper and broadcaster Peter Browne, was an opportunity to hear a range of pipers in an informal setting and entirely solo. It is hard to beat such an experience for getting a sense of the depth of the piping tradition. Musicians such as Seán McKeon, Gay McKeon, Peter Browne, Tom Clarke and Harry Bradley played solo for half an hour or more each, while in the bar a session took place involving pipers Nollaig Mac Carthaigh, Kevin Rowsome and Donnacha Dwyer.

Equal to the the piping in the back-room was the rapt attention that it received from the audience in this informal setting. Whether your numbers are big or small, it’s worth every traditional musician’s time carving out a listening space such as this.

Published on 1 July 2006

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

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