TOOLS OF THE TRADE
- LIAM O'FLYNN
By turns soul-searching and exuberant,
the sound of the Irish uilleann pipes is familiar enough today from the
mist-laden TV dramas and a cameo role in Titanic, but only 50 years
ago it was on the verge of extinction. Julian May explores the
instrument under the guidance of Liam O'Flynn, whose playing has helped
to ensure the tradition is thriving again.
(Reproduced by Kind permission of Songlines: Photos Toner)
|The uilleann pipes, lock, stock and
several barrels. From left to right; the chanter, the drones, and
regulators with the bag and popping strap, and the bellows
The film Braveheart opens with roaming shots of a
rugged, damp, mysterious landscape; a beautiful Scotland riven by atrocity.
To aurally augment the atmosphere, what do we hear? Of course, a distant
lamentation of pipes. But not Highland pipes; for his film, Mel Gibson
imported their distant Irish cousins, the uilleann variety. William
Wallace had been dead for half a millennium before they were invented,
but Hey - this is Hollywood. Cut to Titanic, Leonardo di Caprio
wants to show Kate Winslet a really good time. They escape the stuffed
shirts in first class, dive below decks and behold, the Irish émigrés are dancing with wild abandon to the great tunes that a musician in the
corner ...is squeezing from his uilleann pipes. There you have
it, the two stereotypical extremes of the Celtic world, encapsulated by
this single instrument.
Paddy Mo loney chief of The Chieftains, must possess the
best travelled set - he's played them everywhere, with everyone. Davy
Spillane uses his like a jazz saxophonist and they are a crucial ingredient
to the mix of the most successful fusion band of the moment, Afro-Celt
Sound System. The uilleann (pronounced 'illun') pipes, like the
rest of Irish culture, have gone global.
Even so, the moment of musical history the great piper Liam
O'Flynn will cherish for the rest of his days is the recital he gave in
London on August 12th 1999. He played a few tunes from Galicia and a smattering
of new work, but predominately the programme was of Irish traditional
music. Nothing unusual in that; it's what he does. But the venue was the
Royal Albert Hall and the evening was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 as part
of the most prestigious of serious music festivals, the BBC Proms. 'It's
wonderful,' O'Flynn enthuses. 'This is the first time this music has appeared
on such a platform. It's tremendously important.' So it is, because while
there have been African, Jazz and Indian Proms, this was the first featuring
the traditional music of Ireland. 'Not mediated through versions by classical
composers,' O'Flynn asserts, 'but the thing itself.' It's a measure of
the respect for that music, for the musician and the instrument itself.
Saved from extinction
It is strange to think, then, that within living memory the health of uilleann piping was even more parlous than that of the Irish language.
'The instrument came very close to extinction,' O'Flynn reflects. 'It
nearly did die, and the ordinary people would not have been aware of the
existence of the uilleann pipes. The lowest point came about 60
years ago when there were very few piper's left, maybe 50 at most, and
no more than a handful could make a set of pipes.' But those few tenacious
pipers - notably Leo Rowsome, Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy - clung on
when the Irish began to rediscover their own music in the 1950s the tradition,
at its last gasp, was not beyond resuscitation. For O'Flynn these players,
all of whom he new and learned from, are heroic figures: wonderful musicians,
vital bearers and advocates of their tradition, generous teachers and
great men. O'Flynn has played a crucial role himself. He joined the group
Planxty in 1972 and they were phenomenally successful, touring widely
and beyond the usual remit of folk music. Many people, drawn to their
exciting music, heard the uilleann pipes for the first time and
were struck by their power, their expressiveness.
'I must have been hearing the uilleann pipes from more or
less day one,' says O'Flynn. 'I was born into a family of traditional
musicians - though none of them pipers.' His mother, from County Clare,
sang and played the piano; his father was a fiddler whose good friend
Sergeant Tom Armstrong, of the Kildare Garda, used to visit frequently,
bringing his pipes. 'My earliest musical memory is of extraordinary impact
- some deep chord within me that the sound of the uilleann pipes
struck. And I was in no doubt that that was the instrument that I wanted
to play. I dreamt about the time when I'd be old enough and strong enough
to get a set of pipes.'
O'Flynn extolls the mellowness of their sound, the uilleann pipes' characteristic sweetness of tone, but he acknowledges too their
raw wildness - a quality hinting that the piper is perhaps not totally
in control. As well as chirruping happily along, these pipes can wail
chillingly, as in 'The Foxhunt', the most remarkable descriptive piece
in their repertoire, when they evoke first the yelps of the hounds, then
the death throes of their unfortunate prey. The poet Seamus Heaney, who
works in an occasional duo with O'Flynn, credits the strength the drones
bring, creating the 'floor of the sound, the foundation to build on with
their deep steady quality'. He relishes too 'the merriment playing along
with it' in the jigs and reels, yet, like O'Flynn, is struck by the emotional
impact of the uilleann pipes, likening 'their capacity to lament
and enlarge sorrow' to great poetry. A fine example of this is 'The Death
of Staker Wallace'. 'Staker Wallace led an outfit called the White Boys,'
O'Flynn explains. 'They dressed up in sheets at night and rooted up the
hedges the landlords enclosed the commonage with - the peasants were already
in a desperate plight. He was hunted down, tortured and hanged in 1798.
Then his head was put on a spike. There was a song about him. Only a few
lines survive but we have the tune, which is a kind of monument to the
man.' It is unutterably sad, and when O'Flynn plays it he lengthens and
blends certain notes, and the melody itself seems weighted down by anguish
and loss. 'Many of the tunes', says Heaney, 'are slow airs with a certain
dolourness.' But the aspect of the uilleann pipes and their music
that impresses him most is that they are 'not about dolour, but overcoming
it; a spirit not caving in but keeping going.' One begins to realize why
for many Irish people the pipes rather than the harp are the national
instrument. Indeed, one of the new pieces O'Flynn included in his Proms
concert was The Bridge, written - at her request that the uilleann pipes be played - for the inauguration of Mary McAleese as President of
A mechanical marvel
It is the extraordinary sophistication of these pipes that
makes such a range of expression possible. O'Flynn complains that ordinary
musicians can just pick up their instruments, while he has to strap himself
into his. The piper has to sit , with the bellows under one arm, pumping
air with his elbow - resisting the temptation to do this in time with
the music - through a tube across the stomach to the bag under the other
arm. Ideally, the bag is made of pigskin, which used to be treated with
lard to keep it airtight ('with dire consequences for the piper', O'Flynn
recalls, 'should he sit too close to the fire'). Cheaper modern pipes
have rubber bags which don't leak, but leather is still preferred because
it filters the air, catching the dust that can play havoc with the reeds.
The bag powers the chanter, the pipe which plays the melody. It has seven
finger-holes and a single thumb-hole on the back. Unlike the Northumbrian
small pipes this chanter is open-ended and has a conical bore. For much
of the time the chanter rests on the 'popping strap', a piece of leather
tied around the pipers thigh, but it must be lifted off the strap to obtain
certain notes and to blend them. The best chanters are made of ebony,
or African blackwood, but these, prized for their density even more than
for their beauty, have long been difficult to acquire. O'Flynn recalls
his teacher Leo Rowsome, who was a great pipe-maker as well as player.
'He was always on the lookout for old policeman's truncheons - just right
for making chanters if they weren't split with use. He used to be on the
lookout for old billiard balls too. They were sometimes made of ivory
and he'd use them for mountings.' Nowadays, chanters are sometimes made
made of boxwood, which is also very close-grained and hard, or even cherry.
As many as seven keys may be fitted, giving a range of sharps and flats,
but traditional music requires only one, which gives C natural in the
second octave; the scale of the instrument is D major.
|The uilleann pipes are secured to the player with
a strap around his waist. The air is then pumped from the bellows
(on the left of the opicture) through a tube across the stomach and
into the bag before it is released into the various pipes
|The bag, ideally made of pigskink, is protected
by a velvet cover
Yes, indeed: the second octave. Nearly 300 years ago an
unknown genius pared a reed that gave access to the upper octave by means
of overblowing - using extra pressure on the bag. Whereas the beauty of
the Highland pipes lies in the exploitation and ornamentation of their
restricted range, that of the uilleann pipes is the freedom to
roam over two octaves. But there are also 'flat pipes', pitched a tone
or more lower. O'Flynn has a set of these inherited from the great piper
and collector Seamus Ennis. These are quieter, mellow and even more of
a chamber instrument.
Across the piper's lap lie the drones - three of them. These
provide a constant accompaniment to the chanter. One of the secrets of
listening to pipe music is to attune the ear to hear not just the drone
and a chanter but the cords they create together (such as, with Highland
pipes, an apparent fifth, a note that is there even though nothing is
producing it). The tenor drone echoes the bottom note of the chanter,
the barritone is an octave below that and the bass another octave below
the baritone. (Uilleann pipes, ever versatile, have a key which
can silence the drones.)
|Top: the chanter with its single key, resting
on the popping strap. Bottom: the chanter is raised off the strap
for certain pitch changes.
Bagpipers the world over content themselves with bags, chanters
and drones in various combinations. But Ireland is a land given to excess
- so the uilleann piper has to contend with regulators too. These are
three pipes, stopped at the end and fitted with keys, arranged over the
drones. With the heel of the fist, or the fingers of one hand if it is
not too busy on the chanter, the dextrous piper depresses the keys to
provide simple chordal accompaniment. 'Why "regulators" no one
has ever been able to tell me, nor any book either,' muses O'Flynn. 'But
"regulators" they are.' The use of these is controversial. Leo
Rowsome was inordinately fond of them, leading Seamus Ennis to mock his
'parp-parping' style. Johnny Doran, a traveller piper (who died as a result
of a wall collapsing on his caravan in Dublin) used them almost percussively.
His playing was fast, even flashy, because he played at fairs and markets:
his audience was on the move and he had to arrest them with his virtuosity.
He influenced Willie Clancy, and more recently Davy Spillane who admired
the wildness of Doran's style more than the parlour 'pipering' of Rowsome.
Ennis, whom O'Flynn reveres for his mastery of the instrument in its entirety,
used the regulators sparingly, to great effect. O'Flynn exploits the regulators
with his customary restraint.
Top: the drones (the smallest hidden from view) and the regulators with
their metal keys.
Middle: the smallest drone nestles next to the left of the
Bottom: the regulators are played with the fingers of the
right hand while the left continues to play on the chanter.
So the piper is pumping the bellows, varying the pressure
of the bag, bouncing the chanter off his thigh as he plays the tune, switching
the drones in and out and wresting chords out of the regulators. 'There
is quiet a lot to think about,' says O'Flynn, a man of almost English
understatement. 'It calls for a certain degree of co-ordination. I don't
play any other pipes but if there are any more difficult ones I don't
want to know about them.' He tells a story of coming through customs with
a friend at Heathrow airport with his pipes in their neat case. A stressed
security man rushed up. 'Is that a gun in there?', he snapped. 'No,' piped
O'Flynn's companion, 'Worse!'
A woolly tale
In the Merchant of Venice Shylock remarked that, 'There are those
who when the woollen bagpipe sings i'th nose cannot contain their urine.'
It's not the alleged diuretic property of the pipes that has exercised
scholars, but the word 'woollen'. There are no known knitted bagpipes,
though it may refer to the decorative covering of the bag. But 'woollen'
is not that distant in sound from 'uilleann', especially if you're
pirating a copy of a play scribbling it down as it's being performed,
and you have little grasp of Irish. Was Shakespeare familiar with the
uilleann pipes? It's a nice notion, but unlikely.
Shakespeare died in 1616, a century or so before they began
to develop and at least two before they reached their present state. The
name is derived from 'uille' the Irish for 'elbow', because they are bellows
or elbow-driven rather than mouth-blown. But this name was itself only
introduced at the turn of the century. Prior to that they were known as
'union' pipes because their sound is formed by the unity of chanter, drones
The uilleann pipes were popular across the range
of society. Indeed, there is some evidence that the bellows developed
so that aristocrats would not ruin their faces and dignity by indecorously
puffing into their pipes. These gentleman pipers included Lord Edward
Fitzgerald and Lord Rossmore, and the great houses of the early nineteenth
century employed pipers. At the other end of the social spectrum there
was the itinerant pipers, epitomized in this century by Johnny Doran and,
in between, farmers like Leo Rowsome's grandfather Samuel and the blind
piper Garret Barry of Inagh, in whose footsteps Willie Clancy followed.
After the Great Famine in the 1840s many musicians were among those who
left for America. Eventually there was an important traditional scene
in Chicago, sustained by Francis O'Neill, the captain of police who employed
musicians on the force - and was known to release musical felons in return
for a tune.
Playing the chanter and the
regulators can be a serious business.
An eighteenth-century gentleman
piper Photo Irish Traditional Music Archive
Back in Ireland the uilleann pipes were almost ousted
by melodeons and concertinas. These were cheap, loud and less demanding.
The maintenance of a set of uilleann pipes is almost as demanding
as the playing of them. Orchestral wind-players moan about the double
reeds but they gaze in awe when they work with Liam O'Flynn, who has often
worked with symphony orchestras, performing Shaun
Davey's suite for orchestra and pipes, The
Brendan Voyage. The wind-players have just the one recalcitrant
reed; a set of uilleann pipes has four doubles and three singles. 'There's
quiet a lot that can go wrong,' O'Flynn sighs. 'It's quiet a job sometimes
to keep them all happy.' Even O'Flynn's venerable pipes sport the odd
rubber band and a bit of sticky tape to keep them steaming along.
Liam O'Flynn was 11 before his dream came true and he was
given a set of uilleann pipes. This was a practice set - the bellows,
bag and chanter without the distraction of drones and regulators. 'I was
playing the practice set for at least five years,' O'Flynn remembers.
'My first teacher, Leo Rowsome, insisted on that and I'm very glad, because
with the drones and regulators it's too easy to cover mistakes and problems.'
O'Flynn describes a relationship with his teacher, who also taught the
young Paddy Moloney, that is archetypal and, in the West now rare indeed.
'It was like being an apprentice to a master. Almost all the uilleann pipers I know refer to an older piper. I would say it was impossible to
learn on your own. All my music I learned by ear - dots never came into
it - and now once the piece is living inside me I can begin to express
myself through it.'
From pub to platform
O'Flynn has been known to
make airport staff distinctly nervous - the pipes' case looks alarmingly
O'Flynn is a traditional musician, but a contemporary man
of considerable musical curiosity and ambition. He has worked with a great
variety of musicians - Mark Knopfler, John Williams, Kate Bush. He even
played in Roaratorio, a piece the modernist composer John Cage
wrote for the dancer Merce Cunningham, based on James Joyce's Finnegan's
Wake. Of deeper significance, though was playing Shaun Davey's The
Brendan Voyage as a soloist in front of a full symphony orchestra.
In the past, classical composers have had a somewhat imperial attitude
towards vernacular music. 'They took the tunes and brought them into the
concert hall,' says Shaun Davey. 'But where was the traditional musician?
They left him back in the pub.' Since then O'Flynn has been up on the
platform, and the uilleann pipes pop up everywhere. Even the quintessential
English band of Hope - Roy Bailey, Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick and John
Kirkpatrick - included Steafan Hannigan playing pipes. Some pipers, especially
those working in bands, rarely venture on to the regulators - 'Because
they are surrounded by accompaniment,' O'Flynn notes, 'they don't need
to use the instrument's own.' He is generous and respectful. Of Davy Spillane,
for instance, he quotes the man himself: 'Davy once said he was not an uilleann piper, but a musician who happens to play the pipes.'
And a tinge, but no more, of regret, colours his voice.
O'Flynn revels in the knowledge that in his lifetime the
number of uilleann pipers has grown from a handful to thousands;
that the sound that so moved him as a boy is heard on every continent.
But he is clear in his own mind: the uilleann pipes are a traditional
instrument, at their best playing music in that idiom. And there's plenty
of it. 'I'm playing now for more than 40 years,' he says, ''and still
finding new tunes. Well new old tunes. It's wonderful music and you'd
never reach the end of it.'
Now that O'Flynn has played on BBC Radio 3 and broadcast
from the Royal Albert Hall at the Proms, the traditional musician has
come out of the pub and onto the concert platform, bringing his instrument
and the music with him.
To An Other Side
The Break - PLANXTY
Woman I Loved So Well - PLANXTY
For more information on the uilleann pipes contact:
Na Piobairi Uilleann ('The Uilleann Pipers'), based in Dublin,
have a full catalogue of recordings, as well as a wealth of other
information about the uilleann pipes:
15 Henrietta Street, Dublin 1, Ireland.
Tel. +353 1 873 0093; fax +353 1 872 3161;
Great players of the uilleann pipes
influenced by Johnny Doran but inheriting, too, the musical traditions
of County Clare (he was born in Miltown-Malbay), Willie Clancy's
playing is more measured and less frenetic than Doran's. Clancy
died in 1973 but his considerable influence is still apparent in
the Willie Clancy Summer School, an important (and convival) traditional
music event held in his home town every July.
The Pipering of Willie Clancy, Volumes 1 & 2, Claddagh CC32CD
recording below is all we have of the playing of the legendary piper
Johnny Doran, who died in 1950. This is a field recording rather
than a studio performance - so most of the tracks fade out rather
than ending properly - and captures the wild virtuosity of the man
who plays like one possessed.
The Bunch of Keys
Irish Folklore Commission, Only available on cassette CBE001
Ennis worked for many years for RTE and the BBC collecting folk-songs
and tunes from all over Ireland and parts of Britain. His mastery
of all aspects of the uilleann pipes certainly helped him in this
task. A wonderfully energetic yet sensitive player, he loved the air
'Easter Snow' so much that it's what he called the place where he
spent his last years. He died in 1982.
The Best of Seamus Ennis, 2 CD set TARACD
The Wandering Minstrel, Ossian OSS12CD
a long line of pipers and pipe-makers, Leo Rowsmoe's playing is rather
more consciously artful than that of Johnny Doran or Willie Clancy.
He loved to use the regulators. A great teacher, his style has influenced
Liam O'Flynn and Paddy Moloney.
Ri na bPiobari, Claddagh 4CC1
the 1990 recording recommended below, Spillane takes the uilleann
pipes outside their own tradition, working with central European
and rock forms. On the piece 'Equinox' he plays them in the way
Eric Clapton does the electric guitar.
Shadow Hunter, TARACD 3023