Happy first birthday to Old Mayo. The first article appeared on June 17 last year. This week’s offering, the 52nd article in the series, focuses on Mayo’s role in aiding the survival of the uilleann pipes. This not particularly old but peculiarly Irish suited instrument with its smooth, haunting, sounds has drifted from popularity to a precarious state and back.
Pipers feature in the story of the death of Conaire Mór, High King of Ireland, in the first century BC, where they led fighters to and from battle. Early references to pipes however were not what we know of as uilleann pipes. They were most likely the great Irish warpipes. Known then as the píob mhór (great pipe ), the great Irish warpipes is an instrument similar to the modern Scottish bagpipes. There are several medieval references to the píob mhór being played at battles and burials. Initially called the union pipes, the uilleann pipes only appeared in the 18th century. Changes in popular music and in the old dances gave way to new sets which were more suited to the melodeon and concertina and the union pipes struggled to compete amid the wavering tastes of the following century. The interest in all things thought of as Irish in the latter half of the 19th century, known as the Gaelic revival, offered salvation to the union pipes which, because of their incorrectly perceived relationship with the Act of Union were renamed the uilleann pipes. The traditional pipes music of some of the original 18th century musicians was reborn in the instruments of a new, younger, generation.
Early pipers such as Edward Keating Hyland and James Gandsey (1767-1857 ), himself instructed by the old master Thady Connor, had passed on their knowledge of the art to subsequent generations. Mayo supplied its own pre-Famine master pipers, blind Billie O’Malley of Louisburgh and Martin Moran, whose piping techniques were once in danger of being lost in the economic exodus from the 1840s onward. The inheritors of the torch, though not many in number, were called upon during the Gaelic revival to impart the knowledge once again. The uilleann pipers that emerged in the early 20th century had the advantage of recordings and dance halls that could cater for larger audiences. Pipers Leo Rowsome (1903-70 ), Willie Clancy (1918-73 ), Séamus Ennis (1919-82 ), and Tommy Reck (1921-91 ) along with Mayo natives Joe Shannon and Eddie Mullaney were reviving the old instrument for a modernising, young, country. Reck's own teacher was taught by the blind piper Martin Reilly (1829-1904 ) from Galway. The names of the master pipers were well-known in Mayo and their deaths lamented. On his death in 1904, Reilly was referred to by a Mayo source as 'one of the last of the old Irish school of traditional pipers'.
The pipes rarely feature in Mayo public life during the 1910s, possibly due to political disturbance, but they returned with energy when Rowsome, Ennis, and their contemporaries came of age. At a feis ceoil held in Castlebar in 1928, the adjudicator commented that the pessimists who believed the uilleann pipes to be as dead as the Irish harp would be stunned to see the large number of young pipers competing. Leo Rowsome, like his fellow pipers, travelled the country playing, sharing, and teaching enthusiasts. He was a third-generation pipes player and maker whose students included Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains. Rowsome often appeared on stage in Ballyhaunis, a town which also regularly hosted the famous pipes playing O'Lavan brothers of Roscommon. From the fifties onward, the playing of the pipes was encouraged by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, which was founded to promote Irish music, song, dance, and language. Despite the hard work of Irish music advocates, by 1968 there were fewer than 100 uilleann pipers remaining in Ireland. That year, a national organisation whose aim was to perpetuate the playing of the uilleann pipes and the production of the instrument itself was formed in Dublin.
Na Píobairí Uilleann grew in strength and has held many events in Mayo. In 1981, a temporary National Museum of Ireland exhibition in Castlebar displaying early pipes was supplemented with modern pipes borrowed from Na Píobairí Uilleann. Mayo resident Ruairí Somers gave a public recital on the uilleann pipes as part of the exhibition. A highlight of Na Píobairí Uilleann’s involvement in the Mayo scene was the national gathering of pipers in Westport in 1994. Na Píobairí Uilleann is a strong organisation today and watches over the delicate uilleann pipes tradition. The tradition always remained in Mayo right into modern times through players like Eddie Walsh from Ballina. Encouragingly, the uilleann pipes continue to be handcrafted in Mayo and its playing encouraged by music schools in the county.