My interest in piping started when I was about 9 years old. I had only been playing the tin whistle for a few months when I was trawling through my next door neighbours lps and stumbled across an album by a band called Planxty. I placed the record on the turntable and plucked my ears up in anticipation. I was immediately struck by this amazing, rhythmical, ancient sound. wow! – The sweetness, the toughness, the depth, the lightness, the colour! What was this? I just had to listen on and on and on. I fell in love then and there. The album was ‘The Well below the Valley’ and the piper of course was Liam O’Flynn.
From that day on, my parents never got a days rest until I got my first practice set of pipes. They were a set made by the late great piper/pipe maker Sean McAloon who was originally from Fermanagh but had moved to Belfast during the 70s. Sean was a great inspiration and help to me and to many other pipers growing up in Belfast at that time. My dad would bring me round to Sean’s house every other weekend to play for him and Sean would listen, encourage and pass on his knowledge to me.
My dad, who also had a great love for the pipes, was the great facilitator. He would bend over backwards to ensure that my love for the pipes would not be hindered in any way. Whether it be making bags or bellows, taking me anywhere I needed to go or simply giving me the encouragement I needed, my dad’s help was invaluable. Cheers Dad!
I would’ve been listening to many different pipers by that stage – the more ‘modern’ players like O’Flynn, Furey, and Keenan as well as the older players like Clancy, Doran and Ennis. They all had unique styles and each of them appealed to me in different ways. I’m somewhat bemused by the blinkered ‘worshippers’ of the older players, who can’t see beyond the importance of these past masters and diss anything that they might consider to be ‘modern’.
Anyway, competitions, sessions and gigs with my siblings (who were also deeply into the music at that time) soon became part of my every day life. And to this day (with the exception of the competitions) I don’t think it’s changed that much. What a great life the Uilleann Pipes have given me, although I might also add they have been a bit of a pain in the … at times as well. It’s a love (times 10) hate relationship now but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I’m still playing the boxwood McAloon chanter I got all those years ago (it was stolen a few years back but is now safely back in my posession, thank god) as well as another great boxwood chanter made by Benedict Koehler – I have a fondness for the sweetness that boxwood provides. The body of my current pipes were made by an exceptional, up and coming, young pipe maker from England called Marcus Coulter who came to my aid just after my pipes were stolen.
I’m also blessed with having the pipe and reed making expertise of good friend and fellow piper Paddy O’Hare at my convenience. Paddy can whip up a good reed within minutes and has done so for manys the needy piper over the years. In 2008 myself and Paddy started up the Belfast pipers club. Belfast has always been known for it’s great piping tradition, stretching back over decades with the likes of O’Mealy, The McPeakes, McFadden, and McAloon.
The club encompasses everything from weekly lessons (beginners to advanced) to Pipe maintenance and reedmaking workshops. Organised sessions are also a feature of the club, encouraging pipers to get out and play! There are so many good pipers in Belfast at present – Francis McIduff, Paddy O’Hare, Darragh Murphy and Barry Kerr to name but a few and so many young, up and coming pipers like Liam McCullagh and Jamie Murphy. Hopefully the club will play some small part in keeping this great piping tradition alive!