The late Brendán Breathnach defined traditional music as essentially the art of solo performance for which the musician or singer devotes a lifetimes apprenticeship to learning the great traditional songs and airs of Ireland. Breathnach, a Dublin civil servant who died 21 years ago, had a passion for Irish traditional music. He published during his lifetime many scholarly works, amongst which were the three volume collection of traditional music, “Ceol Rince na hEireann”. Na Piobairí Uilleann was founded in 1968 by Breathnach and others to promote the playing of the uilleann pipes and it was to its Henrietta Street premises in Dublin that a young Brian Hughes travelled from Athy for many years to attend piping classes. I was reminded of this when re-reading an article which Breathnach wrote for the 1984 edition of his Irish music journal “Ceol”. Headlined “The Man and his Music – Liam O'Floinn”, the article opened with the line, “Kildare does not spring to mind immediately when piping is mentioned. Yet the great pipe maker Maurice Coyne came from that county and in olden times it was said 300 pipers used to frequent the fair of Carbery. From that county also comes Liam O'Floinn, probably the most widely known piper nowadays”.
The Kildare piping tradition carried on today by the undoubted master Liam O'Floinn and by several others, including our own Brian Hughes, follows in the wake of Kildare men such as Captain William Kelly, John Hicks and Michael Flanagan, all of whom in their time were fine exponents of the uilleann or “elbow” pipes. Kelly, who was born in New Abbey in the last quarter of the 18th century and lived until 1858, kept racing stables at Maddenstown and apart from his musical accomplishments achieved fame as the trainer of the legendary pugilist Dan Donnelly. However, what interests us here was his familiarity with the chanter, drones and regulators which required years of practice to enable him to master the uilleann pipes. And master them he must surely have done for prior to the visit to Ireland of King George IV Kelly who was to play for him, was gifted a set of pipes – ebony, silver mounted – which after his death were given by his widow to Mrs. Bailey of Newtown, Bert, Athy. Her son, Sam Bailey, who was also a famous piper played them until he died in 1895 after which they were either purchased by or presented to the Duke of Leinster. Their present whereabouts are unknown.
John Hicks was a prodigy of Kellys. Born in or about 1825 near the Curragh, Hicks even as a young man earned for himself great popularity as an uilleann piper, so much so that he was encouraged to cross the Atlantic and try his fortunes in America. Known in America as “the Kildare Piper” he achieved a measure of fame denied to many other pipers. A performance of his in Chicago in 1880 prompted a press report which claimed: “No piper of our acquaintance is so popular with a mixed or American audience as John Hicks”. Two years later Hicks was murdered on the Jersey side of the Hudson River as he was on his way home to New York city. The last of the notable trio of Kildare pipers of old was Michael Flanagan who was born in Carbery in or about 1850. He joined the British Army and served in India. His later years were I believe spent in Ireland but I have been unable to trace any further reference to him.
Nowadays we have Brian Hughes, a native of Athy, who encouraged at a very young age by his grandfather Christy Bracken took up the uilleann pipes. As a youngster he was regularly brought to the Henrietta Street Headquarters of the Pipers Club where he learned from the great exponents of Irish piping tradition. I am told that he favours the flowing legato style of piping, commonly known as the “travellers” style. It's a style which found its finest expression in the playing of Johnny Doran who died at the County Home in Athy in January 1950. Doran, who was only 43 years of age when he died, was related to the legendary Wicklow piper John Cash. He played the uilleann pipes at all sorts of open air public gatherings and his style of playing in a standing position with one leg placed on a T-shape rest was a familiar sight in every county from Wicklow to Clare. His legato open style of piping can be heard in the tunes he recorded for Kevin Danaher of the Folklore Commission in 1946. Nowadays the Dublin piper Paddy Keenan keeps alive the dance tunes and the Doran styles of piping in such classic pieces as “Rakish Paddy”, “The Copper and Brass” and “Colonel Fraser”.
Brian Hughes who is also a noted whistle player has recently produced his second album which I understand will be launched in the Clanard Hotel on Friday night, 1st December at 8.00 p.m. Looking through the track notes on the new CD I was struck by the links to past masters of Irish traditional music. Brian is obviously an avid collector of old tunes and his CD shows the extent of his repertoire with tunes from many different regions and eras resting alongside a small number of recent compositions.
Musical associations with such greats as the Sligo fiddle masters Paddy Killoran and Michael Coleman whose fiddle playing energised the New York Irish traditional music scene in the 1920's and later, are recalled in a number of jigs and reels played by Brian on the whistle. The musicians of Sliabh Luachra in West Cork are brought to mind with a number of polkas normally associated with fiddle and accordion playing and particularly the playing of Padraig O'Keeffe and the man who was his pupil, Terry Teahan. The last named was in later years a stalwart of Irish traditional music in Chicago. Irish American musicians were a ready source of material for Brian's CD, with Tuohys Reels named after the Loughrea, County Galway man who toured the American music halls with his wife Mary at the turn of the last century with a show which combined uilleann piping with a vaudeville act. It is said that the stage Irishness of Patsy Tuohys vaudeville antics made John McCormack leave the United States, but then again, McCormack himself was perhaps guilty of stage Irishness with some of the songs he selected for his concerts.
Many of the tunes included in Brian's new CD are to be found in Francis O'Neill's “The Music of Ireland” which was published in 1903. O'Neill was an extraordinary man who was born in West Cork in the famine year 1848. When he was 20 years of age he arrived in America having spent four years as a sea man. He eventually ended up in Chicago at a time when the Irish emigrants were a powerful force in that city and by 1901 he had become Chief Superintendent of Police in Chicago. He was an avid collector of Irish traditional music and he spent over 20 years collecting tunes for his first book, “The Music of Ireland” which consisted of 1,850 airs, reels and jigs. Four years later he published “The Dance Music of Ireland” and both books have remained in print ever since.
Brian Hughes has brought together a wonderful collection of music displaying his mastery of the whistle, accompanied on some of the tracks by Garry O'Briain, Brendan O'Regan, Donnchadh Gough, Nollaig Casey, James Blennerhassett and Bruno Stachelin. The CD will be formally launched by Clem Ryan of Kildare FM in the Clanard Hotel on Friday. I gather it is an open event, no invitations being needed, and admission is free. A traditional music session will follow featuring Brian with Garry O'Briain and Donnchadh Gough.
When dealing with matters musical I should also mention two other CD's which have just been launched. “Ceol Galore” is a recording of traditional music by County Kildare musicians, including our own Roddy Geoghegan and is currently in the shops. My neighbour, Jim O'Keeffe, has also produced a CD to follow on two previous releases which I thought were excellent. His latest CD is called “Yeah, What the Hell” and features 14 of his own compositions which I gather have been getting airtime on a number of continental stations.
Plenty of Christmas stocking fillings for you all in the three CD's mentioned this week. Whatever you do don't forget Brian Hughes launch on Friday night. Come along and support a local talent of which we can be immeasurably proud.