The Wheels of the World: 300 Years of Uilleann Pipers

From the Famine to the Fureys, Colin Harper leaves few stones unturned in his quest to trace the fortunes of Ireland's 'only' true indigenous instrument

Given the uilleann pipe’s relatively high sonic profile in recent decades, from the blockbusting stage show Riverdance and the hit film biopic Michael Collins starring Liam Neeson, to guest spots on recordings by U2, Van Morrison and Kate Bush, you’d be forgiven for thinking the instrument has forever been a cornerstone of Irish traditional culture.

That is one of the first myths dispelled in Colin Harper and John McSherry’s voluminous 600-page book, for what emerges from the narrative is just how close this most distinctive instrument – 'the most complex of all the world’s bagpipes' - came to extinction.

As the book’s title infers, the tale unfolds through the prism of the pipers themselves, notably the twentieth century greats whose music and histories are, for the most part, well archived.

It’s not until fully 400 pages in that the history of uilleann piping prior to the twentieth century is addressed. As much conjecture surrounds the instrument’s origins it’s perhaps a sound strategic ploy on the author’s part to foreground latter-day uilleann pipers in the narrative.

Beginning with present-day piping icon John McSherry himself, the first nine chapters carve out in some biographical depth the lives and times of the instrument’s most renowned practitioners.

Finbar Furey; Liam O’Flynn; Paddy Keenan; Leo Rowsome; Seamus Ennis; William Clancy; Johnny Doran and Patsy Touhey are all profiled through interviews – both archival and by Harper – and through the eyes of friends, family and colleagues.

It’s an exhaustive and impressive piece of research but very much what we’ve come to expect from Harper – the book’s principal author – following his extensive biographies of guitarists Bert Jansch and John McLaughlin.

Few stones have been left unturned in a quest to trace the fortunes of what Harper describes as 'the only instrument truly indigenous to Ireland.' Joseph Walker, eighteenth century chronicler of Irish music disputed that claim in his book Historical Memories of the Irish Bards (1786), but either way the conjecture as to its origins arguably matters little.

Based heavily as it is on interviews, The Wheels of the World… is laden with colorful anecdotes. McSherry recounts having his pipes stolen in Spain in 2007, only for them to be returned in strange circumstances five years later.

Paddy Keenan confesses – as a young man in London more interested in the blues - to attempting to pawn his pipes for the miserly sum of half a crown, only to dump them in a trash can when there were no takers.

What’s more significant, however, is the description of the fluctuations in fortunes of uilleann piping, from near total obscurity in Ireland less than a century ago to a position of prominence in modern, popular music culture.

Despite the prohibition of Irish music under the colonial English in the 18th century, the national calamity of The Great Famine (1845 – 1852), which decimated the Irish population, and the mass migration to England and North America that followed, uilleann piping survived in Ireland – if only just - largely through the Travelling community.

As Harper notes, piping Travellers must have aroused great excitement in bygone centuries, as much for the news they would have brought with them as for the terrific sounds that emanated from this strange instrument.

The importance of the Traveller community in the story of Irish piping cannot be underestimated and many of the top pipers, including Finbar Furey, Paddy Keenan and Johnny Doran, who all hailed from the Traveller tradition, are given ample space in the book.

Paddy Keenan

The cult of virtuosity that surrounds them, writes Harper, has always surrounded great pipers in the way it has rock and jazz musicians. Of Furey, guitarist Martin Simpson opined: 'It was like watching Jimi Hendrix – he was just ridiculously good.'

Harper, however, suggests that the Hendrix comparison fits Doran much better, for just as Hendrix forged a new path on electric guitar, Doran 'likewise engendered a seismic shift in the perceived capabilities of his instrument and the nature of the music associated with it.'

Harper credits Dubliner Leo Rowsome (1903-1970) with 'almost single-handedly keeping uilleann piping visible' in the first half of the twentieth century. Seamus Ennis (1918-1982) and William Clancy (1919-1973) also receive their dues as significant torch bearers of the tradition.

If a small number of individuals kept uilleann piping alive in Ireland in the first half of the twentieth century, then the British folk music revival of the early 1960s seems to have been the major catalyst for its present, relatively robust health.

The number of folk clubs across Britain numbered only a handful in the late 1950s but by the end of the 1960s the number had mushroomed to over 400. This circuit became the stomping ground of many Irish musicians, among them (piper) Finbar and (guitarist/singer) Eddie Furey.

Harper credits this duo with revolutionizing Irish music in a live setting through their innovative pairing of uilleann pipes with acoustic guitar in instrumentals, as well as the use of pipes in contemporary music.

The Fureys, Harper writes, 'laid the foundations for an industry of professional touring units based on Irish traditional music that took root in the 1970s and which has lasted essentially unchanged to the present day.'

Two seminal Irish bands, Planxty and The Bothy Band, which respectively featured pipers Liam O’Flynn and Paddy Keenan are covered in some detail. Their trailblazing music engendered the continuum of 1980s group Moving Hearts - featuring modern piper extraordinaire Davy Spillane – and current trend setters The Olllam, boasting dual pipers McSherry and Tyler Duncan.

A second myth that The Wheels of the World… squarely rejects is the sometimes misplaced notion that the north hasn’t had much of a piping tradition. One chapter recounts the long history of piping in Ulster, a province which, Harper declares 'has become an international piping hotbed.'

Another, portrays the Armagh Pipers Club and its founder Brian Vallely, a notable piper who has dedicated fifty years to consolidating and expanding the piping tradition. The peaks and troughs of the uilleann pipe’s story, it emerges, knows no provincial borders.

The final hundred pages are dedicated to archival interviews with Irish pipers trawled from English music weekly Melody Maker in the mid-late ‘70s and an extensive piping discography. The latter should please the most devout piping fan and also provides a great diving in point for the curious.

In addition, transcriptions of two dozen tunes, written or arranged by McSherry, offer a practical guide to the technically gifted. Uilleann piping has never had so many adherents as it has today, both throughout Ireland and internationally.

This thoroughly researched and engaging read will appeal not only to the large piping fraternity but to anyone with an interest in the history of Irish music.

The Wheels of the World: 300 Years of Uilleann Pipers by Colin Harper with John McSherry is published by Jawbone Press and available to buy now.