A wise musician once said that there is a subtle difference between a piper and someone who plays the pipes. To play the pipes is a difficult enough enterprise at the best of times, but to be a piper brings with it all manner of trappings and responsibilities. In turn, a great piper will be respected like no other musician, talked about in hushed tones and will be set apart even among fellow musicians as one who has been especially anointed - part of a particular lineage, a definite tradition and a quiet mysterious fraternity.
Liam O'Flynn has long been a piper and a great piper. He
has managed throughout his performing career to be both true to the piping
tradition and yet to take his instrument into previously unexplored territory
- be it as a member of Planxty, as a soloist with an orchestra or working
with artists as diverse as John Cage, The Everly Brothers and Kate Bush.
Without moving a muscle in his unyielding onstage face, O'Flynn has managed
to be both durable and credible and has long been regarded among his peers
as the Ireland's master uilleann piper.
He is from a musical family in Co Kildare and Liam was born into what he describes as "a very definite thing". His father was a schoolmaster and fiddle player and his late mother, who played and taught piano, came from a family of famous Clare musicians. And so, with the likes of Junior Crehan in the family, not only was his house full of music but also O'Flynn was aware from an early age of a musical tradition and lineage. Even so, his attraction to traditional music was initially an inexplicable and gut thing which easily overtook the other musical possibilities that surrounded him.
"First of all I was put to learn the piano. I was sent to the local convent and I absolutely hated it. I found it really frustrating because of the exams and all the rest of it, and so I didn't associate it at all with enjoyment. I had a very good ear and so I'd pick up a simple little piece straight away but, because I wasn't looking at the notes, there was murder! And so I gave it up very quickly. But yes, I could have gone in other musical directions, but the lovely thing was that neither parent forced me. When they saw that I had no real interest in the piano, they didn't push that. Neither did they say that because I had this ability to play traditional music that this was what I had to do. Of course, like any other kid growing up I was dead interested in what was coming across the radio also - the pop music of the day - and I liked it. But whatever it was in me, the traditional music thing was the one that I naturally went for. And whatever it was about the pipes I absolutely wanted to play them."
After a time on the tin whistle and a short spell "scraping" at a small violin, O'Flynn finally got started on the pipes. Despite the stubborn and complicated nature of the instrument he had an obvious gift for it and he was encouraged by all around him including the Kildare piper Tom Armstrong. In contrast to the time he spent at the piano, O'Flynn recalls the excitement of learning the pipes and the swift and steady feeling of getting better and better almost by the day. For him, there were two definite sides to it - the nature part of it was already there but the nurture part began at about the age of 11 when he began lessons with the great piper Leo Rowsome. This experience and that of his early teens could be described in contemporary babble as "a sharp learning curve".
"Any kid is aware of their abilities. They know, and they know very quickly, if it's a step above others around them. But when it came to learning the pipes it was a regular thing every week with Leo. That was a desperately important thing because I was being led along the right road in that sense. But it was terrifically enjoyable too and they were never really like lessons. Then there was the business in my mid to late teens of meeting other musicians and making music with them in seisiun situations. Over in the village of Prosperous there was a Wednesday night seisiun and I used to go over to those and make music for my own enjoyment with other musicians. You'd be like a sponge in that situation and you'd just absorb everything. Certainly I listened to the pop music of the day avidly but I listened just as avidly to Ciaran Ma cMathuna, all the time picking up new tunes with the tape-recorder at the ready - soaking the whole thing up."
The lore of the piper is endless and weighty and, whether he wanted it or not, O'Flynn was soon surrounded by the otherness of piping. Great names were mentioned, the tradition was invoked and he began to come into contact with people such as Willie Clancy and Seamus Ennis. The truly legendary Ennis reputedly told him that he had a lot to learn but he would teach him everything he knew, and so began a close friendship between master and pupil, with the master knowing full well that he had met his successor - the next in line. Such encounters and friendships made Liam O'Flynn very aware that there was more to being a piper than just playing the tunes and that great pipers are people entirely conscious of the importance and power of their craft. "With the pipes, more so maybe than any other instrument, there is that awareness. Every piper you hear talking always refers to their mentor and there is terrific importance attached to that. I became very quickly very aware that there was something very deep and very special about piping. And the way pipers were talked about, you knew they occupied a very particular place in the tradition. I always imagine it must have been extraordinary when the pipes were first developed in the 18th century - a whole new instrument and here's a fellow coming around to the local fair with this amazing instrument with extraordinary sounds and in-built accompaniment and the whole bit. And it's an instrument that very quickly occupied prime position in the tradition and people of all stations took to it. The big houses took to the instrument and they had their own resident pipers. Then you had the travelling pipers who played at all sorts of outdoor happenings and they evolved a different style that was very immediate and quiet open and spectacular. I suppose the whole idea of power was attached to people who played such an extraordinary instrument."
The power of the pipes is clear to any listener, even those unfamiliar with the history and the tradition. There is an expressive quality which makes the instrument the obvious choice for any soundtrack that might need a touch of allegedly Celtic mist - or for anything else for that matter that wishes to announce itself as Irish. But despite the overuse of the pipes in this context, the fact remains that it is, without slipping into that very same baloney, an intimately Irish sound - certainly the sound of one of the real Irelands.
"It has such a unique voice and it does seem to connect with something - that combined with the sort of music that was being played at the time it evolved. The period when the pipes were developed was an extraordinary time. The whole social background was so awful for the ordinary folk and yet look at the creativity that went on. You had this complex music evolving and you had an instrument like the uilleann pipes coming into existence. And on the poetry front you had the aisling. Because of the situation of the people it was only through poetry and music that they could express themselves at all. They had no other way of doing it and I think there's a powerful link there between that poetry and the music. The sound of the instrument and the sheer power and intimacy of the music. But then poetry and music are such intimate expressions, aren't they? That's where the danger is when you try to popularise it in a way that doesn't take this into account. It just loses that power and intimacy and to me, the power of traditional music and singing is in the sheer detail of the music. The tiny complexities in the music."
In the 1970s, Liam O'Flynn was part of one of the finest groups Ireland has produced. Planxty were rightly hailed as ground-breaking and their records sound very special to this day. Furthermore they brought a certain "cool" to traditional music that has never quiet been equalled. It was all long hair, bellbottoms and sweat and, in the middle of it all, Liam O'Flynn sat immoveable and solid - the sound of the pipes an essential part of a quiet unique musical venture.
"The four of us were attracted to each other musically. When I first heard Donal Lunny playing I knew well there was something very special about his approach and that there was something very special going on in his head musically. I heard Andy Irvine and I'd never heard anything like it in the way he accompanied songs, there was terrific creativity in it. And the sheer force and impact of Christy Moore and the way the band evolved was very interesting musically. Amazing really. I always think of it as musical filigree, or as something walking around the song and complementing the tune instead of holding it down. Listening back to it, it still surprises me - but to try to recreate it is extremely difficult. I don't think I've heard any other band of musicians copy musically what Planxty was doing."
There is of course a tribe of enthusiasts who call themselves purists. They wouldn't have liked Planxty at all. Nor would they have approved of The Brendan Voyage and they might well be wondering why Mark Knopfler is on O'Flynn's new album. But O'Flynn, while always happy to step outside the tradition, is still extremely conscious of it and what he might be achieving on its behalf.
"I am conscious of all that. Very conscious of it. I'm very proud
to be doing what I do, but also very happy within myself to be doing it.
There is a huge amount of thought goes into it and there is respect for
all the various traditions involved. When you bring people from different
musical backgrounds together it's a really exciting and huge challenge.
If you do it successfully you create something new. It's like one tradition
informing the other. People like Seamus Ennis were wide open to things.
He was a huge fan of Woody Guthrie and he was really interested in Planxty
and the way we were approaching the music. You just can't keep music in
a vacuum so it's not touched by any other thing."
Any performance by Liam O'Flynn is a quiet magical thing. He manages to create a forcefield which surrounds his listeners and seems to envelop them in something almost mesmeric. And all the time this master piper wears a solemn expression as he looks downwards at the very pipes bequeathed to him by his mentor, Seamus Ennis. "When I'm playing I'm certainly lost within it. The only way to describe it is that it's like looking inwards. And if I try to facially or physically make contact with people I lose it. It interferes with the physical business of playing. I think when a performer engages with the audience and vice versa it's like a spell is cast and a terrific passage of feelings moves from the musician to the audience and back again. What you're doing is that you're after something in the tune and, at the end of the day, you're just the servant of the music. Seamus Ennis gave me much more than just a bag of notes."
John Kelly, Irish Times Weekend - Sat June 6th 1998