Hall of Fame - The McPeake Family

The folk music dynasty from Belfast

Forty or more years ago, Belfast’s McPeake Family were playing concert halls around the world, issuing a string of successful LPs and mixing with celebrities like the Beatles.

The family group had grown out of the McPeake Trio – Francie McPeake I (who was born in 1885 and died in 1971) and his sons, Francie II and James. They had been joined by the third generation Francie McPeake, his sister Kathleen and a cousin of theirs, Tommy McCrudden. Together, as the McPeake Family, they were on the crest of a wave.

Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Donovan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and many more in the music world became friends and admirers. However, with no professional management family commitments began to take precedence and when Francie I (known as 'me da') died the family gave up performing.

There was a revival in the late seventies but when Francie II died in 1986 that seemed to be the end of the performing McPeake Family. Instead, Francie III, along with his son, yet another Francis, put their energy into the music school that his father had started, building it up into a major operation.

Things could have carried on ticking over like that if it were not for the enthusiasm of young Francis. Initially, he had turned his back on the family’s music. 'My Daddy would have been rehearsing a lot,' he recalls, 'but from a child’s point of view it was just bits and pieces – the banging of regulators and the practicing of chanters and stuff – it didn’t seem to have any cohesiveness, no start, middle and end – just disjointed bits. One minute he would be on the pipes and the next minute on the banjo, going over a verse or a chorus or something; just wee snippets. Even when I went up to my grandfather’s house and they were practicing it was always disjointed, just wee segments. It left a very bad taste in my mouth of what folk music was. I got this idea that Irish music was for elderly people, sitting in the corner and playing away.'

A visit to a fleadh in Cootehill finally converted him and he took up the flute, and then the pipes. Now he is an accomplished musician and has put the school onto a professional footing, with city centre premises.

Not only that, but he has persuaded the family to come together again as a performing unit. They even have James back in the ranks after years performing with the popular Barnbrack. Recently they went to the massive Irish Festival in Milwaukee and took the place by storm. Francis says he has been amazed at the reaction with people coming up asking them to sign old LPs and talking about songs associated with them like 'My Singing Bird', 'Jug of Punch' and, of course, 'Will You Go, Lassie, Go'. The latter, which was written by 'me da', became a folk club anthem and has been recorded dozens of times.

That distinctive McPeake combination of uilleann pipes and harmony singing, which has influenced countless others including the Furey Brothers, continues to thrive.

Geoff Harden