From County Kildare, master uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn was born into what he describes as "a very definite thing." His father was a schoolmaster and fiddle player and his late mother, who played and taught piano, came from a family of famous musicians from Clare. And so, with the likes of Junior Crehan in the background, not only was the house full of music but the young O'Flynn was keenly aware at an early age of his rich tradition and lineage.
After a time on the tin whistle and a short spell 'scraping' at a small violin, Liam finally got started on the uilleann pipes. He had an obvious gift for this most stubborn and complicated of instruments, and was encouraged by all around him, notably by the Kildare piper Tom Armstrong. It was clear from an early age, that a great piper was in the making and for Liam, eager to learn, there was that steady feeling of getting better almost by the day. At the age of eleven, master-classes began in earnest with Leo Rowsome.
The lore of the piper is endless and weighty, and pipers themselves are entirely conscious of the power of their craft. As the young Liam began to meet legendary figures like Willie Clancy and Seamus Ennis, he became acutely aware of his position in the scheme of things. His subsequent close friendship with Seamus Ennis (which began as a Master/pupil situation) taught him that there was much more to being a piper than playing tunes. As Liam puts it, "Seamus Ennis gave me much more than a bag of notes."
In his teens, Liam and his pipes began to attend music 'seisiuns' in the Kildare village of Prosperous. Here, for the first time, he met many of the people with whom he would later make his name and tour the concert-halls of the world. These were musicians like Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine with whom, in the early seventies, Liam formed the legendary Planxty. One of Ireland's most important and influential groups, Planxty brought a style, innovation and 'cool' to Irish music which was to lead directly to the many Irish musical success stories during the decades that followed.
But behind the innovation and experimentation Liam O'Flynn has always managed to remain true to the great piping tradition. He has taken his instrument into previously unexplored territory - be it as a member of Planxty, as a soloist with an orchestra or working with artists as diverse as John Cage, The Everly Brothers, Van Morrison and Kate Bush. But whatever the situation, he has remained resolutely true to the music itself. And it's precisely this mix of credibility and durability which makes Liam O'Flynn one of our greatest musicians and someone long regarded among his peers as Ireland's Master Uilleann Piper.
"I always imagine," Liam says, "that it must have been extraordinary when the pipes were first developed in the eighteenth century - a whole new instrument and here's a fellow coming around to the local fair with this amazing instrument with extraordinary sounds and inbuilt accompaniment. It became an 'in' instrument that very quickly occupied prime position in the tradition and people of all stations took to it. The big houses took to the instrument and they had their own resident pipers. Then you had the traveling pipers who played at all sorts of outdoor happenings and they evolved a different style that was very immediate and quite open and spectacular. I suppose the whole idea of power was attached to people who played such an extraordinary instrument."
Liam is always searching for new arenas in which to take the pipes. With Mark Knopfler he performed the score to the movie Cal. Other movie scores include The Field, A River Runs Through It (with Elmer Bernstein), Kidnapped, and Roses from Dublin (with Vladimir Cosma). No stranger to playing with orchestras, Liam had already achieved an international audience when he recorded The Brendan Voyage with Shaun Davey, a groundbreaking orchestral piece which was followed in later years by three other Shaun Davey works, Granuaile, The Relief of Derry Symphony and more recently The Pilgrim. He had successfully brought the pipes into the greatest concert halls in the world and introduced its unique sounds to audiences and musicians everywhere.
Seamus & Liam
Other regular collaborators include Catherine Ennis, daughter of Seamus Ennis and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney with whom Liam has performed in auditoriums around the world including Dublin's famous Gate Theatre, the Barbican Centre in London and the Lincon Center in New York.. They first performed together over 10 years ago in a small church in Kenmare, Co Kerry and regularly perform together in small intimate venues. Heaney says of the experience, " I have a strong sense of pleasure and pride in sitting beside a piper of Liam's mystery. The pipes call and raise the spirit. They also quieten and open up the daydream part of people."
For Liam too, playing the pipes is a very special experience. "When I'm playing," he says, "I'm certainly lost within it. The only way to describe it, is that it's like looking inwards. I think when a performer engages with the audience, and vice versa, it's like a spell is cast and a terrific passage of feelings moves from the musician to the audience and back again."
Liam O'Flynn has made over fifty recordings. Among his most recent albums are Out To An Other Side, The Given Note and, most recently, The Piper's Call. With the formation of The Pipers Call Band, a special video was made with guest appearances by Carlos Núñez, The Irish Chamber Orchestra, Sean Keane and Matt Molloy of The Chieftains and Mark Knopfler. The Band features top musicians like Arty McGlynn, Rod McVey and Steve Cooney. Video clips of Liam from 'The Piper's Call' are now available on our Video Page.
In 1999, Liam was at the heart of a very unique performance at London's Royal Albert Hall. For the very first time there was a special evening devoted to Irish music as part of the BBC Proms and it was Liam and the Piper's Call Band who were chosen for this quite momentous event. They were, as ever, rapturously received. But whatever the arena, Liam O'Flynn remains a gentle and modest soul. Whatever the occasion, a 'seisiun' in Prosperous or the inauguration of a President, his mind is focused on just one thing. "You're after something in the tune," he says, " and, at the end of the day, you are just the servant of the music."
In 2000 Liam was awarded the Gold Insignia of the University of La Coruna, in Galicia, Spain, for his contribution to the Arts. On October 25th 2002, Liam performed the world premiere of his first solo major musical composition 'Endurance' to honour polar explorer Earenst Shackleton. Endurance was specially commissioned by the Athy heritage Centre and supported by the Arts Council of Ireland and the Bank of Ireland.
On March 15th 2003, Liam appeared at one of Europe's newest and largest festivals, 'Celtique Nuit' with the Lorient Festival orchestra . The Festival took place in the Stade de France in Paris. The concert also featured Liam's good friend Carlos Nunez as well as Alan Stivell and Sinead O'Connor. In June 2003 he took part in in the Opening ceremony of the Special Olympic World Summer Games held in Dublin's Croke Park.
July 2003 saw the release of an album by Liam and good friend Seamus Heaney. The album 'The Poet and the Piper - Keeping Time' was released on the Claddagh Label.
2004/05 has seen Liam team-up again with the original Planxty members, Christy Moore, Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny for a number of high profile concerts. While Liam continues to pursue his solo career (as do the other planxty members), further planxty concerts seem likely later in 2005 and 2006.
You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.
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