Hall of Fame - Brian Vallely

Geoff Harden looks at the career of Armagh man Brian Vallely

Although he heard a lot of traditional singing on the radio when he was young, it was some time before Brian’s interest in instrumental music was sparked. 

'I was at a function in City hall in Armagh and there was a record playing and I wondered what it was,' he recalls. 'I had heard ceilidh bands and so on but didn’t like the music much. What I was listening to was an early recording of Sean O’Riada and Ceoltoiri Cualann – and I asked one of the organisers what it was – I was taken by the pipes.

'I was heading to Edinburgh shortly after that but I hunted round record shops in Belfast and ended up in Premier Records (Outlet) in Smithfield; I didn’t know what I was looking for but tried to describe the sound and they put on a 45 of Seamus Ennis playing 'The Ace And Deuce Of Pipering'. I said that’s the sound – what is that? So I bought it and then got some more, including Sean O’Riada.

'So when I got to Edinburgh in 1961 I had them all and played them all incessantly. There was a jazz flugelhorn player, Tony Valentino, in the same year as me and we went to Dave Brubeck and other jazz things together. He said, ‘if you’re that interested in music, why don’t you just play it?’ I said ‘I can’t: I play the piano a bit but…’. But we went to a music shop and he picked me out a flute and played a tune. That got me going. Nobody taught me – I could play jigs and reels eventually but didn’t know the difference between them.'

That soon changed and by 1966 he was ready to start a music school, the Armagh Pipers Club, with his brothers Fintan (now a noted flute player, singer and music writer) and Dara (who now leads the Armagh Rhymers).

When Brian married Eithne, she threw herself into the work of the school with equal enthusiasm and nearly forty years later it is still going from strength to strength. The school has spawned many well known musicians and teachers and also led to the William Kennedy Piping Festival, which enters its twelfth year in 2005. The festival is a unique event, attracting pipers from around the world playing a baffling array of different kinds of bagpipes.

Among the Vallelys’ former pupils are their own children and no less than three of them have become professional players. Niall, the oldest, plays concertina with his partner, singer Karan Casey, regularly touring the world and making several successful albums. Before that, he was leader of the Cork based band Nomos, who also achieved great success. Niall has also performed regularly with his brother Cillian, who specialises in uilleann pipes and flute. Cillian has worked with various bands in the USA, including Riverdance, and is now a member of super-group Lunasa.

Caoimhin Vallely played fiddle and was co-founder of another Cork band, North Cregg but left them in 2004 to concentrate on his first love, the piano. With another former member of that band, Paul Meehan, and that man Niall once more, he has formed another band, Buille who have recorded an album. Caoimhin, who was once a member of Upstairs In A Tent, has also recently recorded a piano album, Strayaway. Along with all that, he found time to act as musical director of the play The Session for Belfast’s Dubbeljoint Theatre Company in 2005.