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Martin Preshaw, Uilleann pipes craftsman, Northern Ireland

 

From National Lottery Magazine, 2019. Used with permission.

To Martin Preshaw the melancholic sound of the Uilleann pipes is a reminder of home. "They're as Irish as the rain," he says running his hands along the woodwind instrument in his lap. "There's something very provocative about them - they cut somewhere very deep inside. When I hear the pipes it's the sound of Ireland."

Preshaw, 50, has been playing the Uilleann (the Irish word for 'elbow') pipes since he was a teenager growing up in Belfast. After messing around with a tin whistle at school - "the lads would teach each other tunes" - he was stopped in his tracks by a televised concert featuring a musician called Sean Og Potts playing the pipes. "He was breathtaking," says Martin. As soon as I watched him I had to have a set."

Nowadays, Martin is best known as a maker of bespoke instruments. About three sets of handcrafted pipes emerge from the workshop next to his house in the hills of County Fermanagh each year. Each component - from the tiniest screw to the reeds - are made on a work bench or a lathe.

"I look for detail and everything is hand made," he says. It is how the old makers would have done it. There's no easy way to do it - it's a hard craft to learn."

The Uilleann pipes - known in English as 'Union pipes' - is an instrument unique to Ireland. They were developed in the late 1700s and attained their current form by the 1820s.

Each instrument comprises a chanter - a pipe with sound holes that allows the piper to play the melody - as well as a drone that provides a constant harmonic backdrop. The regulators, meanwhile, allow the musician to provide chord accompaniment to the melody - the equivalent of the left hand on the piano.

A set of Martin's Uilleann pipes costs from £10,000 to £14,000, and his reputation as a master craftsman means there is no shortage of buyers. "As well as Ireland I have customers in places like Russia, China and Australia," he says.

Once a relatively obscure traditional instrument, the pipes came to the attention of an international audience in the 1990s thanks to the popularity of the hit show Riverdance and the ability of the internet to spread the word.

"All of a sudden everyone wanted a set of Uilleann pipes," says Martin. "It's a double-edged sword. It gave me a platform to start making and selling them, but there were an awful lot of other instrument makers who came out of the woodwork who didn't know how to play or tune the pipes or instinctively know what a set should sound like."

The time and painstaking care required to make a set of pipes by hand means it is not a fast track to riches. "It's no huge living - very much hand to mouth," says Martin. "And sometimes you're hand doesn't get as far as your mouth. Anyone who works in craft will tell you it's a hard way to make a living."

Martin was still working as a primary school teacher when he began making pipes. He would come home, bolt down a meal then head to his workshop. He admits the first instruments he made left much to be desired. "They were atrocious," he laughs. "Really, really bad."

He sold his first set of pipes in 2003, a real milestone. "The fact that somebody thought your instrument was good enough to hand over hard earned cash is huge. Having said that, instruments come in now [for servicing and repair] and I get embarrassed by them. It's like looking at your early handwriting. The instruments I make now 20 years in are of a different quality and standard."

Martin's journey to becoming a master craftsman has been helped by funding from The National Lottery.

In 2012, he obtained a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to travel to the United States to understudy David Quinn, a man Martin regards as "undoubtedly the finest pipe maker of the last 100 years".

"They [the Arts Council] funded me to travel and paid David a stipend to down tools and show me things," he says. "That opened up so many different ideas and I learned so many different approaches.

"It completely lifted my game in so many ways. For example, David and I spent an afternoon just looking at photographs of pipes - he was asking me what I saw in each one. To have that experience was out of this world and it wasn't going to happen sitting in the back woods of Fermanagh."

In a very real sense, Martin credits The National Lottery with playing a part in his success. "I would never have had the spare cash in my pocket to go and do that [study with Quinn]," he says. "The Lottery make things possible that are just beyond the reach of the average person. And I'm very grateful."

Pipemaker's Journal

  • 26 Jun 19
    Martin Preshaw, Uilleann pipes craftsman, Northern Ireland

     

    From National Lottery Magazine, 2019. Used with permission.

    To Martin Preshaw the melancholic sound of the Uilleann pipes is a reminder of home. "They're as Irish as the rain," he says running his hands along the woodwind instrument in his lap. "There's something very provocative about them - they cut somewhere very deep inside. When I hear the pipes it's the sound of Ireland."

    Preshaw, 50, h...

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