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About Flutes & Whistles


Flutes and Whistles

The flute, like the harp, is one of the most truly international of instruments, with myriad cousins, forebears and descendants. Throughout the ages, wherever there grew a tree with a DIY expert nearby with a carving implement to hand, they flourished - until harder materials became available.

In their earliest forms, they were comforters, communicators, providers of dance music on every continent from ancient times. Later they accompanied operas, became martial instruments - positing the notion that if an army marches on its stomach, the band must have a heckuva time keeping the dirt out of their mouthpieces.

At one point in the 1970s, it became de rigeur at Jethro Tull concerts to pretend to play one while standing on one leg. And this may not be unconnected, but a hundred years before that, if you could play a tune on the flute you could virtually walk into a job with the Chicago Police Department.

(Mind you, when the idiosyncratic Captain Francis O'Neill, late of County Cork and a flute player himself, was Chicago's Chief of Police in the late nineteenth century, if you could play a tune on anything, dance or even diddle, you were guaranteed a job with a uniform.)

It was the minnesingers, aristocratic troubadours and singers of love songs in Germany of the Middle Ages, who developed the transverse or side-blown flute as we know it today. From their experiments came the fife as used in marching bands and the 'simple system' wooden flute as heard in Celtic music and generally preferred to the invention of another German, Theobald Bohm, who in the 1830s and 1840s produced the more sophisticated silver and concert flutes as used in classical music and jazz.

Although often overshadowed by the uilleann pipes, the flute has always played a prominent part in Irish traditional music. Among the early groups to record on 78rpm discs was the Fingal Trio, featuring flautist John Cawley, and as ceili bands proliferated in the 1930s and 1940s, the flute became an integral part of that sound alongside fiddles, accordion, concertina and banjo, with John McKenna, who died in 1947, being a notable influence.

Not everyone approved of the ceili band sound. Sean O'Riada, father of the traditional music revival in the 1960s, claimed the ceili band's relationship to music was akin to "the buzzing of a bluebottle in an upturned jar." However, the flute survived this walloping - as did the ceili band, particularly the Tulla Ceili Band of Clare wherein Peadar O'Loughlin might be said to have been a forerunner of De Dannan's Frankie Gavin in doubling on fiddle and flute.

The flute, as played by Michael Tubridy, was also central to O'Riada's Ceoltoiri Chualann revivalist group of the early 1960s, a time when traditional music was, as Robin Morton has said, not lost, just hidden; the late Packie Duignan and Micho Russell being two of the instrument's hidden gems of the time.

As one of the original Chieftains, which grew out of Ceoltoiri Chualann, Tubridy himself became a forerunner to former Bothy Band virtuoso Matt Molloy, widely considered to be the doyen of the flute and whose solo features bubble with musicality and mastery.
Around the time the Chieftains were really hitting their stride in the late 1960s, Cathal McConnell emerged with Morton and Ben Gunn in the first Boys of the Lough line-up. A flute player of exceptional poignancy, McConnell's joy in sharing a tune can not be overestimated in its value to the traditional music scene and his name invariably crops up as an influence on the generation of players coming up behind him.

Michael McGoldrick and Brian Finnegan, with Flook, Dougie Pincock and Iain MacDonald, with Battlefield Band, Paul McGrattan with Beginish, Chris Norman with Skyedance, Seamas Egan with Solas, Cherish the Ladies' Joannie Madden, Deanta's excitably enthusiastic Deirdre Havlin and the brilliant Catherine McEvoy are among the players - all recommended listening - whom McConnell's example, if not his direct coaching, has touched.

Often mistakenly regarded as a novelty instrument (remember the hoo-hah when James Galway revealed on television that he, whoo-ee, could knock a tune out of the Generation flageolet?), the whistle - whether of tin or wood - is simultaneously one of the most unassuming and in the right hands most powerfully emotive of instruments.

Great leaps in whistle technology by manufacturers such as Bernard Overton, Brian Howard and the De Witt company have given players such as Finbar Furey, Davy Spillane, Michael McGoldrick and Rory Campbell, of Deaf Shepherd and Old Blind Dogs, the ability to produce a heartbreaking sound on the low whistle.

Long before that, however, Tommy Makem, the extravagantly gifted Mary Bergin, Sean Ryan (a hero for his tune title The Coast of Austria alone) and Tom Barry of the brilliant but often neglected Na Fili were proving that A - the tin whistle was by no means a poor relation of the flute and B - James Galway was okay but ...

Cormac Breatnach, with his extraordinarily imaginative, improvisatory style in Deiseal, Vinnie Kilduff, sometimes better known as a singer-songwriter but an expert whistle player, and Brian Hughes with his Whistle Stop album have gone on to reinforce the whistle's expressive properties.

Most, if not all, of the flute players mentioned above are equally adept whistle players, as are uilleann pipers Paddy Keenan and Liam O'Flynn, and it's a measure of the instrument's mixture of portability and sheer musical usefulness that it's part of many songwriters, composers and tunesmiths' travel kit.

Paul Brady may have written songs for Carlos Santana and Tina Turner, but he still prefaces The Homes of Donegal with a whistle intro. The Whistlebinkies' Eddie McGuire has orchestrated his whistle and flute musings for some of the classical music worlds's top ensembles. Phil Cunningham has played whistle for Bonnie Raitt, and Billy Jackson and John McCusker write tunes that go around the world with Ossian and Battlefield Band on the whistle.

Its origins may have been modest. Robert Clarke, who produced the first and now so familiar black and gold liveried whistle that bore his name in 1843, sold his early models himself while walking to Manchester, his demonstrations, when not winning sales, at least earning him a penny (or two) - hence penny whistle, a name to which only Clarke's instruments can genuinely lay claim. But his company, still going strong under new ownership, went on to sell whistles literally by the ton in a special delivery to the Belgian Congo.

All the same, Generation, whose silver with blue mouthpieces, and brass with red, flageolets are the only serious rival to Clarke's tonnage-wise, may just have scooped the old master. One of their red-topped models even appeared in one of Patricia Cornwell's million-selling crime novels - it belonged to one of the victims, but I'll bet Captain Francis O'Neill would have been chuffed at the connection, after mourning the loss of a possible recruit, of course.





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