I am descended from pipers, and as a result, I grew up with all things uilleann or bagpipe around me, just like my grandfather and my father before me. My grandfather and his brother had a lathe in their kitchen for turning pipes in their late teens and in my fathers home as a young fella, my grandmother made the velvet bags and bellows, my grandfather assembled sets of pipes he had turned in the workshop earlier in the day, and my father helped with fittings and joints. Every evening after tea the kitchen table was cleared and all the materials and tools were brought out to either do repairs or put the finishing touches on a new set of pipes. This way of life gave my father an incredible aptitude for fixing and making things and he could see possibilities forever in every scrap of metal, leather, or wood for fixing valves, keys, joints or whatever problem presented itself. He idolised his father who unfortunately died when he was only ten years of age. The loss was huge for such a young boy which was probably why he treasured and hoarded everything to do with the pipes. In every room in our house, there were instruments but also papers, photos, records, memorabilia, and the most precious things of all, my grandfather's own sets of uilleann and bagpipes that were only brought out on very special occasions.
Our garage was full of logs of partridge wood, bandsaws, thicknesser planers and lathes, as my father wanted to set himself up to start making instruments again but it never really happened because the shop took up all his time and the mountain of wood we used to play on as children gradually diminished as he gave it away bit by bit.
Most visitors to our house were almost always in some way connected to the pipes. My dad struck up relationships with pipers from all over the country and abroad. There was a deep connection there that is hard to explain. It was a mutual respect, with the right amount of pride. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding between them. It was like they knew something we didn't and sure they probably did.
What I noticed over time was that they all seemed to possess a certain character. They seemed to embody honour, respect, and traditional values. I suppose anyone who dedicated themselves to weekly practice, performances and competitions showed their mettle. The discipline of constantly honing a skill gives a great sense of confidence, purpose and patience. Another thing I noticed was the fierce bonds formed between the members of pipe bands. It is like another support structure outside the family with plenty of fun and excitement thrown in, especially in the build up to competition times.
I am delighted to see that the Tomás MacCurtáin Buíon Píobairí are back doing lessons from next Tuesday, 15th Feb., at 7.30 pm. The enthusiasm and dedication of those running the band will inspire anyone who would like to get in touch with their Irish roots. Drumming and piping will be covered by excellent tutors. It can't be stated enough how good joining a pipe band is for you. Many great musicians I know started their craft in pipe bands. This laid the foundation for their musicality. The musicians' skills are built gradually on every level and most pipe band musicians are great readers. Continued practice is therapeutic and calming, and the environment is very sociable. I would say the craic they will have in Blackpool is nobody's business. Blackpool is where my grandfather made his first set of pipes.
“The bagpipe is much used by the Irish. To its sound, this unconquered, fierce, and warlike people march their armies and encourage each other to deeds of valour. With it also they accompany their dead to the grave, making such mournful sounds as to invite – nay, almost force – the bystanders to weep.”
When I read these words I feel a root is tugging me from the centre of the earth. When it comes to music the Irish have been there from the beginning and they laid a huge foundation for music across Europe.
I would really welcome any piper's comments, bagpipe or uilleann. If you were in a pipe band, let us know who you were with and hopefully are still with.
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Check out John Spillane talking about his experiences of Crowley's Music Centre here: