The uilleann pipes, as befits Irish music's most colourfully expressive and sophisticated instrument - oops, the fiddlers, flautists and harpers are mustering in indignation already, have a history strewn with characters.
There was Johnny Patterson, from Feakle in East Clare, who emigrated to America and toured the eastern seaboard, incorporating piping into his other job as .... a circus clown.
There was the legendary Johnny Doran, who flouted convention by playing his pipes STANDING UP, the more to separate passers-by from their loose change with his unashamed showmanship and feral but learned musicality.
Then there was Willie Clancy, another Clare man, who once famously responded to a well-known and somewhat over earnest (a Clare expression for "annoying") American folklorist's question about his family's surely long and involved piping history by informing him that his mother had been a plumber. End of story.
And of course, there was Seamus Ennis, a man for whom the pipes were the only instrument - to the extent that he would express grudging admiration for, say, and I type this in trepidation, a guitar player with a reluctant "good piping."
Or how about Leo Rowsome, a pipe-maker as well as piper, steeped in pipe lore and Irish music - but not so steeped that he couldn't find his way round a Schubert arrangement or, for real devilment, Glenn Miller's In the Mood?
All of these great men have long since fingered their last air but as is the way with great musicians of all creeds, their music, influence and spirit live on in those they passed their legacies on to.
Although any selection of leading players on any instrument is necessarily subjective, it can be no coincidence that, arguably, the three most influential Irish bands of the latter part of the twentieth century, The Chieftains, Planxty and The Bothy Band, featured the pipes - played brilliantly and gleaned from impeccable sources.
Paddy Moloney, of the Chieftains, was a pupil of Rowsome's (as was Finbar Furey, a giant of the pipes whose playing is often overshadowed by the Fureys' easy listening repertoire, although there's much of Doran's free spirit in his style, too). Liam O'Flynn, founder member of Planxty, cites Rowsome, Clancy and Ennis as particular influences and the Bothy Band's Paddy Keenan, although he learned from his father, carries the spirit of Doran in the flowing, itchy-fingered style of the great Travelling pipers.
Despite his standoffishness with American folklorists, Clancy was all too keen to share his knowledge - as were Rowsome and Ennis, and the droves of pipers who beat a path to his home in Miltown Malbay and continue to descend on the town every July, when the Willie Clancy Summer School now takes place in the late master's honour, will attest to his helpfulness and inspiration.
And let's face it, help and inspiration don't go amiss when trying to master, in the 'seven years learning, seven years practising, and seven years playing' apprenticeship of piping parlance, the uilleann pipes'
conglomeration of bag, bellows, chanter, drones and regulators (the keys that add harmony to the chanter's melody), however marvellous the sound that eventually results.
Although their ancestry can be traced back to the 12th century, the uilleann pipes - uilleann is Irish Gaelic for "elbow" - didn't materialise in Ireland until the early 1700s. In those days, called Union pipes possibly due to their close relationship to their Northumbrian and Scottish Border cousins,
they were played by gentleman pipers - landed gentry and nothing to do with the shameless definition of a gentleman piper being a man who owns a set of pipes and doesn't play them - and Travellers.
The former developed a delicate and controlled parlour style, best illustrated by the aforementioned Ennis and carried on in Liam O'Flynn's beautifully considered phrasing; the latter more of a parlous style whose ruggedly exciting and often highly decorated tunes were crowd-, and penny-, pullers at fairs and races as well as in the streets.
If at various times during the twentieth century there were fears for its future - in the early 1900s and then again in the 1960s pipers were becoming a rarity, by the turn of the millennium uilleann piping has returned to rude good health.
In the 1970s, Planxty and The Bothy Band, through Liam O'Flynn's graceful keening and Paddy Keenan's runaway train-like eloquence, introduced new generations of listeners to the pipes' "hives of honeyed sound", and though less loudly championed, Tomas O Canainn's work with the Cork trio Na Fili in
the same era shouldn't be allowed to pass unnoticed.
Then, as the 1970s gave way the 1980s, with Moving Hearts, Davy Spillane - a player who straddles the parlour and the parlous departments with uncommon flair - and later Declan Masterson and Ronan Browne presented the pipes as natural Irish cousins to the yearning jazz/fusion saxophone of Weather Report's Wayne Shorter. The Storm, Moving Hearts' instrumental valediction, is still a powerful, moving and joyously essential listen.
As these players and others of their generation, including Robbie Hannon, Mick O'Brien, Sean Potts and Maura Ni Ghrada - see, it's not just a boys' club, move into the position of influence that the earlier giants occupied for them, hordes of younger players are coming through.
The supernaturally gifted John McSherry, currently to be heard with Donal Lunny's Coolfin band, and Michael McGoldrick, with Capercaillie, are outstanding examples and already established. Indeed, McGoldrick and the stunning Steafan Hannigan have taken the jazz connection even further than
Moving Hearts, the former working with Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith and the latter with the overlooked jazz/folk group Lammas as well as with the fearless world music travellers/traditional song upholders, Sin E.
And the word from the Willie Clancy Summer School and Na P'obair Uilleann is that there's some frightening teenage talent emerging, all of whom are well versed in the Rowsome, Clancy, Doran and Ennis schools rather than the Keating and Corr team.
From being a rarity, in fact, the pipes are in danger of being taken for granted. We hear them on pop and rock records, on television commercials and film soundtracks. Through Shaun Davey's beautifully conceived features for Liam O'Flynn such as The Brendan Voyage, the pipes have joined the
instruments of the orchestra.
The uilleann pipes even accompanied The Titanic's cinematic maiden/final voyage and William Wallace's adventures in Braveheart - an Australian Wallace, Mel Gibson, accompanied by a Californian piper, albeit one who learned uilleann pipes, and learned extremely well, from the revered Micheal
O'Briain, Eric Rigler? Hollyweird, as rap godfather Gil Scott-Heron said.
by Rob Adams
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