I was born in north Belfast late December 1968. This put the brand new me right at the beginning of all the shenanigans. My parents moved to west Belfast to try and escape the worst of the unrest and then onto south Belfast a short time later. Awareness of two communities was there from an early age and by accident of birth I happened to be within the nationalist tradition. It wasn’t, however, until I commenced my secondary education in an excellent grammar school in west Belfast, St.Marys CBGS, that I became culturally aware of who and what, I suppose, I was.
They say life and personal development is as a direct result of the people we meet who influence us. I believe that to be true & I have been very lucky with the folk who have walked along my path with me for a while. As a very young kid at grammar school I met children from the Shaws Road Gaeltacht Quarter. Pilib Mistéil, Séimí Mac Aindreasa, Conall Ó Bruadair, and after following his parole from Barrack Street, Mícheál Mac Ainmhuire. These were lads who had been brought up with the Irish language as their first language at home and at school….indeed, if my bald napper is not mistaken, Conall was practically mute in class for the first six months at St. Marys because his ability to communicate effectively in English just wasn’t there. Kicking around with these boys and getting up to all sorts of mischief with them made me a fluent Irish speaker before I even noticed…if you needed to bum a cigarette you had to be understood….right? Sonas oraibh go léir. My Irish language was honed and toned by some superb teachers at school, Caoimhín de Búrca, Eddie McCann, Terry Hegarty and Aodán Mac Pólin, go ndéanaí Dia trócaire orthu beirt. At the end of my school career they had me very well prepared for an undergraduate degree in modern Irish language and literature…rath agus bláth Dé oraibh.
Irish language and Irish trad music were the yin and yang of my school experience. There were some fantastic musicians in St.Marys, the Friel brothers, Tony and Brian, Patrick Davey and Jackie McIlduff immediately come to mind as the lads who were wheeled out for performing at every big school event. I had been messing around on the whistle but around 1985 or 1986 the uilleann pipes, which I had heard many times before, were to really stop me in my tracks. Heading to Donegal to practice our spoken Irish with native speakers for the weekend was myself, Brian Friel and a few younger boys in the company of Albert Fry, a solo piper came on Radió na Gaeltachta. The energy poured out of the crackly Blaupunkt speakers and my solar plexis pulsed. This is one of the very few times in my life when I have experienced feelings and emotions not of this earth. It was Dublin piper Seán óg Potts and I was to learn later the reels he played were theLady’s PantalettesandMiss McGuinness’, pistol popping tunes if ever there were. A set of uilleann pipes had to be had and all weekend I wrecked Brian Friel’s head about where I could get a set and learn. Brian steered me towards the door of his own school of music in the Clonard monastery on the Falls Road and the very following Saturday the folk who ran the school steered me away. BUT….I would not be put off, I would have a set, did not know how or where but a set of uilleann pipes would be got.
A year or so passed and I kept hearing Seán óg Potts, periodically, on the radio. Some enquiries were made and of course all my school mates knew who he was, had met him loads of times in Milltown Malbay, educated me as to his pedigree and most mind-blowing of all that he was about my very own age! Then in 1987, the most glorious of happenings took place…the Ó Riada Retrospective, an evening of music, song and dance to celebrate the life of Irish musician and composer Seán Ó Riada. The venue was the National Concert Hall, Dublin, the concert was broadcast live on RTE 1 television. Donal Lunny had put together a band for a 20 min piece. I will never forget the intro…”Ba-da-dam, dam, dam. Ba-da-dam, dam, dam. Ba-da-dam, dam, dam”…a bassy pulsing beat on the bodhrán led the other musicians through a gentle intro before Seán óg Potts took both the audience at the concert hall and on the sofas at home for a spin on his 900 cc Rowsome Ducati….….An Fáinne Óir, The Gold Ring. My fate and future were sealed….I had to be a Belfast Seán óg Potts.
Within a few very short months there I was, at the wrong end of a bad choice reading for my undergrad degree at QUB. My DNA compels me to stretch a story…but that molecular structure could not carry a tale this far….who was to be sitting in the smelly damp class on day one of undergrad playschool, just yer man from Dublin…my idol. Despite sticking to him unashamedly like a limpet for six months, scattering rose petals all over my hometown to announce his arrival, the door remained locked and bolted….securely.
A chance meeting with fellow Simmarian Patrick Davey at the train hub in Portrush was the seismic shift towards all things uilleann. I soon had a practice set on my knee and trips between 136 Finaghy Road North and 186 Finaghy Road North for tunes, tea and toast were plentiful. I was introduced to ALL the classic pipers. Paddy Keenan was my new hero….nothing was hidden from me, not as much as a tight triplet or a variation….mo cheol thú Patrick.
As with the Irish language, progress on the pipes was pretty good and reasonably quick thanks to the pipers in Belfast during those times, but particularly Seán McAloon, God be good to him, and Eamonn Dillon. Many years ago I read an article about Eamonn in which somebody said he was a musical soul circum-navigating earth and decided to land in Ireland and become an uilleann piper….or something close to that. I could not agree more…he is an exceptional musician, an inspiring piper and like many others his natural talent can gives rise to adoration and envy simultaneously. Seán McAloon was agentle man. He was of that generation that his foremost thought was simply for the music. I don’t think I was ever charged more than 10 Embassy Regal, his brand of cigarettes, for a chanter reed. He kept all of us in Belfast going with reeds, stories of the great and the not-so-great, and sweet hot whiskies. I have not since had a hot Powers to equal the ones Seán often made me back in my days as a teenager and a young man. I miss him terribly. Seán got me involved in the business of reed making….there would always be tunes but there might not always be somebody to make reeds! Just when I was making inroads into being a reasonably good piper I got side-tracked into reed-making and pipe maintenance, which in time, brought me to the basement workshop of John F. Mac Laughlin, better known as Finbar Mac Laughlin.
Finbar was a Derry piper and pipe maker. Kind and generous with his time, knowledge and insights into pipe-making. I will always fondly remember the hours I spent as a friend in his workshop and travelling around Ireland together playing music. He had lots of stories and could raise himself to hero status before shooting himself down in a trice:
“ …you know….I once won the all-Ireland senior uilleann piping competition (a fiercely contested competition these days that showcases the very best pipers from around the world) …..yes…it was 1975…aside from myself there was only one other competitor and the other piper thought he had won it by default until I showed up….”
By the time I had passed through Finbar's workshop I had finished my time at Queens, the University of Ulster and collected my post-grad certificate as an Irish medium primary school teacher from St.Mary's college in Belfast. Passion for the Irish language was not enough to endure the school bells which time-tabled my day. I upped tree and sticks and moved my family to a 30 acre smallholding in north-west Fermanagh to rekindle an earlier attempt as a professional pipe maker. An invitation from myself to attend a piping tionól (an assembly of uilleann pipe enthusiasts) in the USA was to afford the opportunity to meet pipers and makers who would accompany me down the road a little further. Enter stage right the venerable David Michael Quinn.
A humble man to his core David will not like to hear this…so I will say it quickly and move on. He is undoubtedly the finest pipe maker of the last 100 years and his work sits along side that of the serene masters…his place in history has been turned, forged and fine-tuned……our community is all the richer for him. When I met David I had been collecting all the awards for the worst-made instruments and could not see how to get off those tracks. With the exception of reed-making and bore design, everything in my work is as a direct result of David's guidance and patience, not to mention his patience, or his patience, or his patience.
So there is the journey thus far and what you see on these pages are the influences of the many, many people mentioned and unmentioned who have influenced and guided me on my journey. Others include my wife Irena who opted for the turbulent life of an artisan's companion, my friend Edmund Tunney who insists that I carry out God's work and close confident Harlow Pinson who helps me present myself to the world on these pages…I owe all of you everything….