The piper’s epic voyage is over

Liam O’Flynn (Image: Fonn)

Liam O’Flynn is laid to rest

The word legendary is much overused these days: more often than not it is an indication of longevity rather than continuing quality. But for master piper and whistle player, Liam O’Flynn, who passed away in March at the relatively young age of 72, the word was never more apposite.
The most outstanding piper of his generation, he was at the heart of the resurgence of interest in Irish music in general and the uilleann pipes in particular since the 1970s – both within Ireland and around the world.

As a pupil of the great Leo Rowsome, as a friend of the remarkable Willy Clancy and as a protégé of the inspirational Séamus Ennis, Liam O’Flynn clearly understood his place in the tradition and the responsibilities that went with that. It was his confidence in the core strength of the tradition that enabled him to collaborate with musicians and artists from other disciplines in a number of projects which were not only of outstanding intrinsic merit but also served as portals to bring new audiences to the tradition.

O’Flynn was familiar with the old saying that it takes twenty-one years to make a piper: seven years of learning, seven years of practising and seven years of playing. But equally he understood that as well technical proficiency and a respect for the tradition, it was also necessary to cultivate taste along with talent in order to make a great piper.

He was born into a musical family in Kill, Co. Kildare. His Kerry-born father, Liam, who was the local school principal, played the fiddle player. His mother, Maisie – a cousin of renowned Clare fiddler, Junior Crehan – played and taught piano. This Clare connection would eventually lead him to Milltown Malbay and Willie Clancy.

Liam Óg first became intrigued by the pipes when a local piper, Tom Armstrong, came over to play tunes with his father. At the age of eleven, he began classes with Leo Rowsome in Dublin – travelling up to the School of Music in Chatham Row, Dublin with his father on a motor-bike and side-car.

“I was very fortunate to have Leo Rowsome as my first teacher,” Liam O’Flynn told Fiona Ritchie in a 1999 broadcast of The Thistle and Shamrock, “not just because he was a good piper and teacher, but also because he was a pipe maker. That was helpful for a person starting to play, as any piper will bemoan to you the problems you can have with reeds.”

Speaking at O’Flynn’s funeral in Kill, Donegal fiddle-player and broadcaster, Paddy Glackin recalled a Comhaltas session in Clontarf in 1967, where O’Flynn played with his teacher, Leo Rowsome. A man in “a black pin-striped suit” came in accompanied by “a young man who was, as our mothers would have said, very well turned out.” It was, said Glackin, “master and pupil playing” and it was “magical.”

“After that, I got to know the County Clare piper, Willie Clancy, who was a very generous person,” Liam O’Flynn told Fiona Ritchie in 1999. “The pipes that I now play, used to belong to Willie, and they were made by Leo Rowsome in 1936.”

By his early 20s, O’Flynn was winning prizes at the Fleadh Cheoil and other competitions and playing in sessions with two future members of the Chieftains, Matt Molloy and Seán Keane.

In 1968, he was one of the founding members of Na Píobairí Uilleann – which has done so much to teach new generations of pipers and to promote the manufacture of the instrument. Liam O’Flynn was the society’s honorary president at the time of his death.

Liam also got to know Séamus Ennis at this time: they shared a rented house in Dublin’s Terenure in the 1970s.

The mutual respect between the two men was such that Ennis bequeathed his pipes to O’Flynn when he died in 1982 – apparently explaining the bequest in his will with the words “because he can play them!”

Liam O’Flynn (left) (Image: Tara Records)

The key transformative event – both for O’Flynn personally and for the status of the pipes within popular culture – had occurred just over a decade earlier in 1971 when O’Flynn was asked by fellow Kildare native, Christy Moore, to play on the recording of his album, Prosperous, along with Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny.

The strength of the acclaim that followed its release in 1972 persuaded O’Flynn to leave teaching to join the other three in creating the ground-breaking band, Planxty, which combined traditional airs and ballads with more modern folk songs within a unique sensibility.

“I’m amazed that so many people over the years have come up and said that it was through my piping with Planxty that they found traditional music,” he told Fiona Ritchie. “The far-reaching influence that the band has had is amazing, and it’s very satisfying. I think that the success of the band had to do with the individuals involved.

“Christy Moore is very energetic on stage, and relates to people really well. The way that Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny combine together to accompany songs and tunes is very special, and more so when this is mixed with the unique sound of the uilleann pipes.”

Lunny, the great innovator in Irish traditional music, rated O’Flynn’s contribution as pivotal. Speaking on RTE Radio !’s Arena programme shortly after O’Flynn’s death, he said: “If Planxty was a ship, Liam was the star we steered her by.”

The success of this first move beyond the strict boundaries of traditional music no doubt encouraged Liam O’Flynn to respond positively to a proposal to collaborate with Shaun Davey on the orchestral project that became The Brendan Voyage. Further projects with Davey followed, including The Pilgrim, Granuaile and The Relief of Derry Symphony.

As Paddy Glackin observed, “a term Liam absolutely bristled at was ‘purist’ because he understood there was nothing wrong with things being right. But he was never constrained. He was a musical adventurer.”

That sense of adventure brought Liam around the world performing as a soloist and with orchestras, while working on albums and film scores with musicians like Kate Bush, John Cage, Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, Carlos Nuñez, Mike Oldfield, Emmylou Harris, Sinéad O’Connor and the Everly Brothers, as well as the unique collaboration with poet, Séamus Heaney, in The Poet and The Piper.

His expeditions across musical frontiers not only produced amazing partnerships: they also inspired others to make similar journeys – encouraging them to pursue the possibilities of creating new synergies between the many tributaries that flow into the almighty river of sound.

“It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing,” he told Fiona Ritchie in 1999, “crossing frontiers and mixing musical idioms.

“It’s a huge challenge for musicians from different backgrounds to do, because it’s really difficult to make it work and to do justice to both sides.

“If you succeed, you’ve created something new, and that’s what’s really exciting.”

Calm and considered: NPU Honorary President, Liam O’Flynn, playing at the headquarters of Na Píobairí Uilleann in Henrietta Street, Dublin (Photo: Terry Moylan/NPU).

“There has always been a classical quality about Liam O’Flynn’s playing, a level, confident strength,” wrote Séamus Heaney in the sleeve notes for O’Flynn’s 1995 solo album, The Given Note, “you feel that he is unshakably part of a tradition. But there is something up and away about his style, a sheer delight in his own personal impulse.”

“Liam, more than any other, brought the ‘Uilleann’ sound around the world,” observed Christy Moore. “He was… ‘The Master’ of our times. His influence upon Irish music is incalculable. That he carried his music with humility, compassion and with a gentle sense of humour endeared Liam to all who encountered him.”

While other artists often adopt an exaggerated stage persona in contrast to their private demeanour – Liam O’Flynn’s calm and confident stage presence always seemed entirely at one with his gentle and generous nature. Yet there was careful consideration in it too, as Peter Browne explained in his tribute in the Irish Independent in March:

“Once I had occasion to be the pipes soloist in The Brendan Voyage – a daunting prospect – and on the phone beforehand (Liam) suggested a very useful piece of advice: to display an outward confidence and ease on the stage even when you’re feeling the very opposite.

“This should then translate into the collective mood of the orchestra and audience, whereas if your nerves were visible, this would set everyone on an uncomfortable edge.”

Yet a defining characteristic of O’Flynn’s playing was more than just outward confidence: there seemed to be an inner serenity, too – a sense that, regardless of the technical complexity of the music, he was always assured and in control to the point where his performance seemed almost effortless. Seemingly effortless but assuredly magical, his playing enthralled audiences; inspired new generations of pipers; and brought legions of new fans into Irish traditional music.

Describing O’Flynn as “the most popular piper of his time,” Noel Pocock, Chair of Na Píobairí Uilleann, noted that he was not only held in high esteem by his fellow pipers but also by the general public and by musicians and artists from other disciplines – “surpassing even his mentors and his own favourite pipers, Séamus Ennis, Willie Clancy and Leo Rowsome.” “His playing was unique for its tastefulness, precision, tunefulness and brilliance,” added Pocock. “His legacy will live on forever.”

“Liam lit up stages and people’s lives around the world with his music and brought a love for the uilleann pipes to it which it would have been impossible to foresee when he was starting out on his musical journey as a boy,” added Peter Browne.

Liam O’Flynn is survived by his wife, Jane, and his sister, Maureen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s