Pipers gather in East Durham

When the pipes are mentioned in Irish American circles, most times the image that is conjured up is that of the rows and rows of marching bands paraded out for St. Patrick’s Day and other ceremonial occasions happy and sad playing what we commonly refer to as the War Pipes.

Too often overlooked is that most Irish of instruments, the uilleann (for elbow) or union pipes that symbolically inspires so much of Irish traditional music and has for centuries.

The uilleann piping fraternity doesn’t seem too pushed to claim that legacy at the forefront of Irish musicians, and seems more content to mix among themselves and enjoy -- and at times commiserate -- over the hard-labor of mastering the instrument that can be so temperamental at times, and especially in warmer or colder climes.

So these gatherings, often called Tionols, take on a mysticism and attraction of their own. And once again the annual gathering of the Northeast Piping Tionol organized by the East Coast Irish Pipers is coming up from October 22-25 in East Durham, New York at Gavin’s Resort.

You might wonder why 100 fanatical students of the Irish uilleann pipes sequestered in one Catskills resort hell-bent on taking pipes apart all weekend literally and figuratively warrants the notice of a wider audience.
Perhaps because many a fledgling piper spends so much time in “painful” solitude trying to master the playing of its chanters, regulators and drones, the gathering together is so vital to sharing the craft and continuance of the piping tradition.

It must be working well because in the past half-century, the number of uilleann pipers and piper-makers (obviously important to piping going forward) is growing significantly thanks in large part to Na Piobairi Uilleann, Willie Clancy School, Armagh Pipers Club and Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, all of which stoked its revival to its present healthy state from near extinction.

The classes on the weekend are intended for piping students, but the Saturday night concert and sessions at Gavin’s are open to the public from Friday night to Sunday night, and outside support for the weekend would be welcome to help defray the costs.

As usual there is a stellar faculty recruited for the weekend, with Gay McKeon (Dublin) and Tiarnan O’Duinchin (Monaghan) coming over from Ireland joining up with two U.S.-based, Irish born-pipers, Cillian Vallely (Armagh) and Eamonn Dillon (Belfast).

They team up with two Catskills veterans, Vermont’s Benedict Koehler and Kara Doyle from Schenectady, New York, two stalwart organizers of the weekend in years past.

McKeon, a student of Leo Rowsome’s at the seminal Piper’s Club, will deliver a lecture on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on the history of Na Piobairi Uilleann which he has directed in recent years.

Adding fiddle classes has helped the numbers and diversity somewhat, and with tutors like Patrick Ourceau and Rose Conway Flanagan, the quality of the instruction and sympathetic music will be equally strong.

Visit www.eastcoastpipers.com for full details on the weekend at Gavin’s Resort which may or may not be sold out already. If they are then it would be worth checking out the Blackthorne Resort for accommodations.
The Blackthorne has its own little festival going on in appreciation of the Handel family courtesy of Irish musicians led by Black 47 and the Gobshites on the same weekend.

Piping Hot CDs

While I am not making a claim that East Durham and the Catskills have become the center of the universe for the Irish uilleann pipes, perhaps it is more than a happy coincidence that it is certainly is fertile breeding ground for keeping the pipes alive and prospering.

To bolster that claim at this summer’s Catskills Irish Arts Week in the same town, three new releases by pipers on that august staff last July were launched and celebrating, each in their own way, the vibrancy of pipers today.

Earlier in the year, Tipperary piper Michael Cooney, here in the U.S. for over two decades, went back into the recording studio to lay down his second solo CD.

The result was simple straight forward piping aptly named Just Piping, giving ample evidence of why he is regarded as one of the finest pipers around and a throwback to the pipers of old.

Over 17 tracks running the gamut from reels, jigs, hornpipes, set dances, polkas and airs serve as a primer for those who want to know the essence of great piping from a talented musician who feels the music as well as he plays it. To order direct go to CDbaby and download as MP3 files.

Yonkers piper Jerry O’Sullivan released another exploration into the music of an 18th century piper named O’Farrell (no verifiable first name exists) this summer in the Catskills entitled O’Sullivan Meets O’Farrell: Volume II.

For this follow up recording, O’Sullivan wanted to choose O’Farrell selections that were more suited to accompaniment with harpsichord and cello as they may have been in Baroque period of the 18th century. He was fortunate to find Paul and Audrey Cienniwa in Boston, who played the harpsichord and cello respectively, and who could play the musical scores written for them by Kevin O’Brien to go along with O’Sullivan’s piping.

The album is organized in four suites according to various keys. Paul Cienniwa brought his harpsichord to Catskills for the official launch at the Weldon House back in July.

The recording follows Volume I, and both of them reflect a thoughtful musician whose research back several centuries to rescue some of the obscure music of a successful but little known piper of the day deserves a lot of credit.

For piping students, O’Sullivan’s efforts are invaluable in outlining the evolution of their instrument in Irish music. The CD can be ordered through CDbaby or Ossianusa.com.

The last of the CDs launched in the Catskills reflects the very healthy relationship the pipes enjoy today with their fellow instruments in the Irish tradition. It was a new CD titled We Were Drinking and Kissing the Ladies, and the music contained within has all the merriment that such a title might suggest.

With the uilleann piper being Michael “Blackie” O’Connell and the concertist Hugh Healy, both from Co. Clare, the musical marriage is heavenly, displaying solid playing from two young veterans of a vibrant scene in the Banner County.

Their playing is virile and very expressive and totally in tune with one another as the melodies dance wildly over 12 tracks on the CD. The well-matched pair creates sparks when they play together either on the CD or in person, as so many people witnessed gleefully in the Catskills admiring their stamina and verve.

The brilliant playing on the CD is a testament not only to their musicianship but the explosive power of traditional music still raging in Clare which is only getting better. The CD can be ordered from Ossianusa.com.

Innovators Tour Northeast

The musical partnership of fiddler Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh from Dublin and box player and singer Breanndan Begley from Dingle, Co. Kerry formed a couple of years ago for a Music Network tour of Ireland and remains one of the more intriguing tandems in the scene.

O’Raghallaigh is a very innovative musician on the fiddle, viola and hardanger violin known for his own imaginative work and in collaborations with other well-established musicians.

Begley, from the Kerry Gaelthacht, is part of a family steeped in the Irish language and West Kerry music tradition who still tours with the Boys of the Lough.

Aficionados of music played with great heart, technique and respect for one another will welcome another chance to hear them in the Northeast and as far west as Ohio over the next couple of weeks.

Their brief tours starts in Pennsylvania this weekend with an appearance at the Coatesville Traditional Irish Music Society on Saturday, October 16 at 8 p.m. (Phone 610-486-2220) followed by a Sunday night at the Commodore Barry Club at 8 p.m. in Philadelphia.

On the following Thursday night they are part of the Gaelic Roots concert series at Boston College’s Connolly House at the Chestnut Hill Campus. That is an early show from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The only greater New York area concert is at the Gaelic American Club (www.gaconline.org) in Fairfield, Connecticut on Friday, October 22 at 8 p.m. Call 203-333-4736 for information and tickets.

For more information on the full tour visit www.stateofchassis.com. Their current tour was made possible by a grant from Culture Ireland.

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