Live Reviews: Piperlink

Jimmy O’Brien-Moran, Emmet Gill, Seán Donnelly & Muireann Nic AmhlaoibhÁras na nGael, Galway29 September 2007Most followers of traditional music, and often the musicians themselves, are unaware of the history of the uilleann or ‘union’...

Jimmy O’Brien-Moran, Emmet Gill, Seán Donnelly & Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Áras na nGael, Galway
29 September 2007

Most followers of traditional music, and often the musicians themselves, are unaware of the history of the uilleann or ‘union’ pipes: how the instrument evolved and how it came to figure so strongly in Irish traditional music. Aided by the Arts Council’s Touring Experiment initiative, Na Píobairí Uilleann organised a nationwide tour of eighteen recital-lectures throughout September and into October. Involving a varying group of pipers, presented by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh with a talk by Seán Donnelly, the concerts explained the history of the instrument, discussed styles and techniques, and outlined the stories behind some of the greatest practitioners of the instrument.

In the Galway concert in Áras na nGael, Seán Donnelly illustrated the history of the pipes aided by a detailed and concise PowerPoint presentation that opened with Johnny Doran playing ‘Rakish Paddy.’ Here were sketches of some of the great pipers down the ages, many of them blind, that included an 1813 magazine cartoon, ‘Hanging a Piper for Playing Seditious Tunes’. The pipes are not intrinsically Irish; the very word ‘piob’ is an import. Waterford piper Jimmy O’Brien Moran, playing an 1820s Colgan flat set in B, and London-born Emmet Gill, on a three-quarters set in concert pitch and C, made in the US, launched into the reels ‘The Ladies’ Pantalettes’ and ‘The Crooked Road’, followed by O’Brien-Moran’s precise and detailed explanation of the function of drones (single reeds, semi-chromatic) and regulators and chanters, double-reeded.

The uilleann pipes developed from bagpipes, examples of which can be found in many parts of Europe. In the late seventeenth century a third drone was added and, uniquely, the pipes were used in battle. Bagpipes were used to play hurling teams on and off the pitch. Willie Clancy’s ‘The Humours of Ballyloughlin’, played by O’Brien-Moran, was a ‘Hurlers’ March’.

The first mention of uilleann or ‘union’ pipes emerges around 1700. In 1740 John Geogheghan produced in London the very first book on uilleann piping, followed in 1804 by O’Farrell’s National Irish Pipe Music for the Union Pipes. Arguably, the pipes in this form replaced the harp as a strolling player’s instrument.

Seán Donnelly listed roughly 92 pipers from the Galway region. Galway was so piper-rich that in England the uilleann pipes were often referred to as ‘The Galway Pipes’. The Aran Islands boasted seven pipers in 1821. Among the great Galway pipers – some recorded on cylinders – were Michael Egan who died in New York in 1860, Paddy Conneely, blind piper Martin Reilly who died in 1904, Patsy Touhy, Denis Delaney who was also blind, and Stephen Ruane from Shantalla, Galway. Flute-player and singer with the group Danú, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, who acted as link for the discussions and explanations, sang a Connemara song, ‘The Dark Rogue’, to the accompaniment of O’Brien-Moran on the pipes, illustrating that pipers often sang as well as played. The Great Famine dealt piping and pipe-makers a great blow; emigration to America resulted in the creation of the D pipes, which were louder and brasher than those in B and more suited to dance-halls.

Great names of piping ghosted around the room. A wonderful evening, combining musical artistry and expert knowledge of the craft and history of piping.

Published on 1 November 2007

Fred Johnston is a novelist, critic and musician. His novel set in Paris, The Neon Rose, has just been published.

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