I grew up with a complex that piping was useless” — the words of renowned uileann piper, Séamus Ennis, are as haunting as the sound from an instrument that dates back to the Middle Ages, but which in the mid-1960s was in danger of being lost to the world.
He was speaking at Tionól na bPíobairí, a gathering of pipers in 1968 that saved the uileann pipes from extinction, and which is the subject of a new documentary, Na Piobairí Uileann, to be screened on TG4 on Sunday.
A letter sent on February 25, 1968, by a young and energetic Séamus Mac Mathúna of Comhaltas Ceolteoirí Éireann — from an address, ‘Cúl Aodha, Má Chromtha’ — to some of the 100-plus pipers left in the world began the revival of the instrument. There are now 6,000 players of this uniquely Irish instrument, and they are a vibrant part of the international music scene.
When he wrote the letter, Mac Máthúna was probably staying with Seán Ó Riada, himself a great promoter of the pipes.
“This is the story of the first piping tionól, held in April, 1968, in Bettystown in County Meath — a first-hand account of what happened on the day the uilleann pipes were brought back from the point of extinction,” says Deaglán Ó Mocháin, of Dearcán Media, makers of the programme.
“I’m part of the Planxty generation and never realised the pipes were in danger,” says Ó Mocháin. “ I made a programme seven years ago about Kells Presbyterian Church, which featured Wilbert Garvin, one of the founding members of Na Piobairí Uileann. It was from him that I heard the story about the tionól.”
The programme features interviews and performances from the likes of Liam O’Flynn, Paddy Moloney, Seán Óg Potts, Seán Potts senior, Néillidh Mulligan and Brian Vallely, among others. The film is also augmented by archive recordings taken at the 1968 tionól.
One of those at the gathering and featured on audio recordings not used in this documentary was a young Tomás Ó Caininn, then at University College Cork, who, along with Micheál Ó Riabhaigh and his son, Eoin, were involved in teaching the instrument in Cork for many years.
“Around 50 people attended this first tionól, including a few who would develop an international reputation, like Liam O’Flynn and Paddy Moloney,” says Ó Mocháin.
“There was music in every room — bedrooms, kitchen, hall as well as outdoors,” O’Flynn says.
The older musicians included legends such as Séamus Ennis (who suggested the name of ‘Na Píobairí Uilleann’), Willie Clancy, and Leo Rowsome, who spoke about the need to set up an organisation for pipers only.
“It was agreed at this meeting that the main aims of any new group were to encourage the playing and the manufacture of the uilleann pipes, to collect and publish music, and to make the instrument available to those who wished to learn it,” Ó Mocháin says. There were great pipers in America. Their recordings were a great help to its survival here.
Na Píobairí Uilleann came into being in October, 1968. Towards the end of the 1970s, the organisation secured a 99-year lease on a building in Henrietta Street in Dublin, that still acts as its headquarters.
By the early to mid-1980s, years of hard work were paying off. Clubs were opening worldwide (and not just as a result of the Irish diaspora). It was an incredible turnaround in the fortunes of the instrument. Pipes are now made by 70 makers, in many countries.
“This rare cultural success story emerged from the vision of those pipers who came together in 1968. The strong standing of piping today is testimony to their energy and commitment over many years since,” says Ó Mocháin.
- Na Piobairí Uileann is on TG4 on Sunday at 8.30pm