Thursday, November 20, 1997

Brian Bracken Whistle Player

Irish Traditional Music, an important part of our Irishness, is one of the most rewarding of my many personal indulgences into the many facets of Irish culture. Music has formed an important part of community life in Athy down the years as evidenced by the many bands and musical combinations to be found in the town over different periods. Who can ever forget the stories, some no doubt improved in the telling, of the Leinster Street Band and their rivalry with the Barrack Street Band of the early decades of this century. The pipers of the Castlemitchell Pipe Band and the earlier St. Brigid’s Pipe Band left a legacy of music which long after their disbandment is still a source of inspiration. Nearer to our own time we can recall the bands of the 1950’s and particularly in the Irish music context the Ardellis Ceili Band founded by Fontstown man, Brian Lawlor in the mid-1950’s. There is even in that backward look sufficient evidence of music and musical talent to satisfy even the most demanding of tastes.

Two weeks ago I walked into the `Celtic Note’ music shop on Nassau Street, Dublin and asked the assistant to help locate a recently issued CD of a whistle player by the name of “Bracken”. Her puzzled expression prompted a quick correction and an acknowledgement by me that the player was in fact “Hughes”. I had used his mother’s maiden name, the former Claire Bracken being well known to me at a time when we were both members of Aontas Ogra. The shop assistant smiled and with her right hand pointing in the general direction of the ceiling said; “that’s his music being played at the moment!” Only then did I take note of the exuberant tin whistle playing which was coming over the shops loudspeaker.

As I listened it was with a sense of pride, knowing that the musician was an Athy man, but also with a sense of excitement only previously experienced when I first heard the singing of Galway man Sean Tyrrell and heard the piping of the legendary Johnny Doran. Johnny Doran who apart from his brother Felix was the last of the travelling pipers, died in the County Home, Athy in 1950. Twenty years later in the same institution, then renamed St. Vincent’s Hospital, was born Brendan Hughes, the whistle player whose music I was hearing that afternoon in a Dublin music shop. Brian the son of Liam and Claire Hughes of Woodstock Street has been a traditional musician for over 15 years. He was first introduced to the Uileann pipes by his grand-father Christy Bracken, when he was 12 years of age. He later travelled every week to the Pipers Club in Henrietta Street, Dublin home of Na Piobairi Uileann founded by Seamus Ennis and Breandan Breathnach. Here he was to master the chanter and here also he listened to and learned from the different piping styles of men such as Leo Rowsome, Seamus Ennis, Kildare’s own Liam O’Floinn, Roscommon’s Andy Conroy and the legendary Patsy Touhy. It was here also he would have heard for the time the only extant recording of the late Johnny Doran the man who played the Uileann pipes with a fire and passion bordering on reckless abandon. A frequent competitor at Feis Ceol Brian non All-Ireland competitions for uileann piping. Not content with mastering this most difficult of instruments, Brian also took up the tin whistle and before long was to gain further success as an Irish champion for that instrument.

One of the growing band of young Irish musicians who have been influenced by Planxty, the Bothy Band and Moving Hearts, Brian’s music is more contemporary than traditional. This is evident in his new arrangement of old tunes and in his exuberant legato style which owes more to the contemporary Irish groups than to the traditional stylists of Sliabh Luachra and the Western seaboard.

Brian, who is married to Bernadette Connell is the proud father of four month old Grainne. A trainee fireman with the Dublin Fire Service, presently he has little time to involve himself in the traditional music sessions which play an important part in sustaining and developing the Irish music scene. In the past he has played in Clancys in Leinster Street, in the Avalon Inn, Castlecomer and in the highly regarded music sessions held in Coffeys of Clogh. However, when the training is completed in March ’98 Brian hopes to be involved in a number of promotional concerts and sessions.

Brian’s CD was issued under the Gael Linn label and represents three years preparation in choosing tunes and making news arrangements for the recording. The choices he made are excellent and the playing is quite superb. Indeed after I had heard all of the tracks on Brian’s CD I then listened to recordings of the late Micko Russell and Michael Tubridy. The contrast in style could not be greater and I was left to marvel at Brian Hughes fast free flowing style which is so reminiscent of what we know of Johnny Doran’s style on the Uileann pipes. Amongst the tracks are two slow airs played on an African Blackwood Whistle. They have a haunting mellow sound which is heard to particularly good effect in the tune Turas go Tir na n’og. Included on the CD are some of Brian’s own jig compositions. All in all this is an exceptional first CD from a confident young players who has talent, feeling and a delightful touch all combining to give us a taste of good traditional music played in a contemporary style.

Athy is undergoing something of a musical renaissance at the moment, what with Jack Lukeman’s recent release and the emerging singing and song writing talent of David Bradbury. More about both of them in the future, but in the meantime everyone in Athy should go out and buy Brian Hughes’ new release “Whistle Stop”. Its a gem and would make a wonderful present for Christmas. There will, I feel, be many more recordings from this wonderful musician.

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