Telling the story of one of Ireland’s most iconic and best loved traditional musicians presents a number of contrasting challenges for a documentary film-maker. Firstly, of course, you must cover the familiar elements of the story: otherwise music fans might feel cheated. However, too cursory a treatment will lose one segment of your audience; too forensic an approach could alienate others. Finding the balance is crucial: you need to find a way to add value to the familiar elements of the story while also providing access to new vistas that few have ever explored before. Declan McCann’s feature-length film, Liam O’Flynn: Píobaire not only achieves this balance by telling the story with great understanding and, equally as importantly, with great heart.
The cast of reflective and insightful contributors make pitch perfect observations. As well as his key collaborators – sometime Planxty bandmates, Christy Moore, Andy Irvine Dónal Lunny, Matt Molloy and Bill Whelan; and Shaun Davey – the film draws on three musician-broadcasters, Peter Browne, Paddy Glackin and Philip King, to shape the narrative commentary – contextualising the man and his music against the background of his burgeoning career as a professional musician.
As well as making fine use of project consultant and musician, Neil Martin, the production company, DoubleBand Films, also calls upon a range of eminent contributors including Catherine Ennis (musician and daughter of Séamus Ennis); Liam O’Connor of the Irish Traditional Music Archive; Gay McKeon of Na Píobairí Uilleann; concertina master, Noel Hill; and singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird – along with Padraic Mac Mathúna, Donovan, Mark Knopfler, Ralph McTell and Leagues O’Toole.
Finally Liam’s widow, Jane, childhood friend Mairtín Enright and close friend, Daithi Connaughton, provide a more rounded picture of the man uncovering layers that not only existed beyond the public gaze but also for many years – it transpires – beyond the ken of close musical colleagues.
In addition to the reflections and recollections of all these friends and colleagues, the film is laced with voice-over commentary from Liam O’Flynn himself, taken from an extensive interview with Peter Browne on RTE Radio 1’s The Rolling Wave to mark Liam’s 70th birthday. Another important source for the DoubleBand team was an earlier documentary made by Philip King called Laoi na Píbe which included an interview with Liam’s father, Liam senior, among other family material.
Aside from the music of Liam performing solo and in various ensembles as well as specially filmed performances by three of the younger generation of pipers, Mark Redmond, Louise Mulcahy and Colm Broderick, the film includes two tracks from the eponymous album released last year by Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett, Strange Vessels and Wanderer, which offer an evocative and atmospheric soundscape for the earlier part of the film.
The opening segment of the documentary gives us a glimpse into Liam’s childhood in Kildare. Originally from the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, his father came to teach in Newbridge before moving to a principalship in nearby Kill. Liam’s mother was also a teacher, as were his grandparents. So that was to be his career trajectory until the music took over. Liam’s first venture into music was learning the piano until he became captivated by the pipes. As Liam’s own voice explains: “there was something about the sound of uilleann pipes that struck a chord deep within me.”
Having persuaded his father to bring him up to Dublin every Friday evening in the family’s motorbike and sidecar, Liam became a student of the master piper and pipe-maker, Leo Rowsome, who was teaching a number of young students at that time. Pipers Gay McKeon and Peter Browne explain that uilleann pipers were an endangered species at this time with perhaps no more than 100 in the world.
Among the many nuggets contained in the film is the recollection by the Chieftains’ fiddler, Seán Keane, of his first meeting with Liam in the Pipers Club in Thomas Street where they had both been brought to a session by their fathers. So O’Flynn was the first piper Keane ever played with.
Through his formation as a piper by three of the greatest exponents of the instrument in the modern tradition – Leo Rowsome, Willie Clancy and Séamus Ennis – Liam adopted elements of the playing of all three pipers into his own unique style – which eventually led Séamus Ennis to declare O’Flynn to be the best piper in Ireland, as his Ennis’s daughter, Catherine, attests later in the film.
Liam was acutely aware of his responsibility to the tradition, not only in terms of honouring those who had gone before but also in terms of inspiring those who would follow – if the tradition was to live into the future. Liam was acutely aware of the emerging interest in traditional music and song.
Peter Browne pinpoints this cultural turning point in his memory of the growing popularity of the song, An Poc ar Buile, among the young generation – which he considers as an indicator that traditional music and song was no longer being seen as old people’s music. It was also the beginning of the transition from being a predominantly rural music into one that was finding an audience in urban environments.
Up to this point, anyone attempting to play traditional music in most Dublin pubs would have been thrown out. But as the first shoots of the Dublin ballad scene began to appear in the Embankment in Tallaght and the Old Shieling in Raheny, Matt Molloy and Liam O’Flynn began to play dates as the warm-up act for the ballad groups who were the main the draw at the time.
One pub where traditional music was not only tolerated but encouraged was Pat Dowling’s pub in Prosperous – where Liam made the acquaintance of Newbridge musicians Donal Lunny and Christy Moore, the former bank worker who headed for England during the 1966 bank strike to pursue a career in music. Returning to Ireland in the early 1970s, Christy assembled a group of musicians to play on the recording of his new album, Prosperous. Among them were Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny and Liam O’Flynn, the first piper he had heard up close. The success of the album led Christy to consider the idea of a more permanent band – featuring Irvine and Lunny (who were playing as a duo at this time) along with O’Flynn.
Liam’s involvement was not automatic. Becoming part of Planxty was a tremendous opportunity to bring traditional music generally and the uilleann pipes in particular to a much wider audience. But, as Leagues O’Toole explains in the documentary, the traditional music environment Liam moved in at that time was very protective. So there was a considerable element of risk to his own credibility as a traditional musician and to his very close relationship with that tradition. Séamus Ennis’s opinion of this new direction, therefore, was very important to Liam. When his mentor gave the band his stamp of approval, Liam was much more comfortable.
As Paddy Glackin suggests: “I think Liam understood it was an era of innovation and I think he wanted to try new things. He was like a salmon who would go out to the deep sea but he’d always return to the river. That’s the kind of person he was. He was always interested in trying new things but he understood where the source was and he always came back to it.”
So as Planxty came into being, Liam reflected that he was excited by the prospect of making music with Donal, Andy and Christy and by the novelty of touring and meeting new people. One of these included a tour with Donovan who had seen the band playing in Newbridge and encouraged Liam to loosen up. Yet as Christy Moore observes, “Liam always maintained a conservative demeanour but underneath it there was a lovely bit of roguery.”
The blend of the contemporary folk sensibilities of Irvine, Lunny and Moore with the traditional music artistry of O’Flynn (playing an instrument with an almost timeless quality) was a highly original and captivating combination. “That’s what you perceived when you heard Planxty,” explains Iarla Ó Lionáird, “those two things – the desire to occupy the sphere of modern music, while also being mindful of the old music and the dignity associated with it.”
Alongside the music, Liam had other interests which he often kept to himself. Indeed so private was O’Flynn that his Planxty bandmates were surprised to learn of his lifelong passion for horses. “It was a revelation to discover he was fond of horses,” says Lunny. Ó Lionáird recalls a similar moment of discovery: “I remember Liam saying to me: ‘You know, Iarla, there’s more to my life than music!’ And I was like ‘Steady on. That can’t be true. You’re Liam O’Flynn.’ But he had an entire rich life outside of music, particularly with horses.”
Liam’s interest in horses segues into his first meeting with Jane, the woman who would become his wife. Jane recalls the encounter on the gallops where she met the man – not the celebrity – as she was at that point completely unaware of his musical life. In terms of other musical interests, Liam had been exposed to the depth and power of an orchestra when he was a child. So he was intrigued when Shaun Davey broached the notion of his composition, The Brendan Voyage – for uilleann pipes and orchestra.
The project was exciting and not without danger, as his friend, Daithi Connaughton, notes. Connaughton’s words are underpinned by a collage of moving images evoking the thrill of Liam’s childhood journeys in his father’s sidecar and the elation of riding a horse at full gallop to give a sense of the exhilaration that Liam felt as the lone piper at the head of a full orchestra. While the creative spark was Shaun Davey’s, he freely acknowledges that he relied heavily on Liam O’Flynn to make the appropriate adjustments to the score for the pipes.
So when the piper took to the concert stage for the premiere, he was preparing for a test of technique, of memory and of a concept that had been largely untried in the generation since Ó Ríada. And of course, a successful performance not only relies upon technical execution but also on emotional engagement between the artist and the audience. Against the massed ranks of a symphony orchestra, could a lone piper make that connection? If it had gone awry, it could not only have exposed O’Flynn to reputational damage, but also have threatened to jeopardise his crucial relationship with the tradition – the source of his musical inspiration.
Another nugget was Noel Hill’s recollection of asking Liam what he thought of while he was playing – especially the longer orchestral pieces. Liam’s response: “absolutely nothing.”
The success of his collaboration with Shaun Davey led him into other projects – not only with musicians in other genres, like Mark Knopfler, Ralph McTell and Kate Bush – but artists from other cultural disciplines including the Nobel laureate, Séamus Heaney, with whom he developed a special bond based on huge mutual respect, evident in the album, The Poet and the Piper, released in 2003.
As the film’s focus returns to Jane, she takes us into Liam’s music room – in the cabin at the bottom of the garden. The narrative turns to Liam’s final battle with cancer. Fellow piper and medic, Padraic Mac Mathúna, recalls visiting Liam in the cabin and seeing his frustration at no longer having the energy or the stamina to play his beloved pipes.
Daithi Connaughton takes up the story of Liam’s funeral and, as befitting a musician, the music of the funeral becomes a powerful and moving eulogy. The brilliant young piper, Mark Redmond, who played the opening of The Brendan Voyage at the funeral reprises his performance for the film – accompanied on this occasion by Rod McVey and the West Ocean String Quartet led by Neil Martin. The sequence has a huge emotional charge as the music seems to crystallise the sense of loss (intensified by the transition to the shot of Liam playing at the NCH). Cinematically, the moment is the equivalent of the climax of an action adventure when the demise of the leading character is transformed into the dawn of his/her immortality.
The emotional climax of the film was developed in the edit suite – rather than on the original storyboard as Damian McCann explained to me:
“We intended for [the sequence with Mark Redmond and the West Ocean String Quartet] to appear in the [earlier] Brendan Voyage sequence of the film. The archive [footage] of Liam would start the piece and then it would transition into Mark. But it never felt right cutting away from Liam – the archive and his performance was too good. And so we decided to move it. Our producer, Rosie, pointed out that it was played at Liam’s funeral by Mark and that the contributor in that section, Daithi Connaughton, mentioned Mark’s performance in his interview. So we thought it might work well there. As soon as we moved it, it transcended what we initially shot. So much so that we let the performance play in its entirety. Adding the archive of Liam over it added extra poignancy. There are moments of magic in the edit where some things appear better than you could have imagined them. This is one of them.”
This is followed by the filmic equivalent of a coda – through which Liam O’Flynn’s enduring presence is underlined: firstly in the poignant sequence with Jane beside the horse chestnut tree dedicated to his memory and then in the legacy – both figuratively speaking (in terms of the disposition of Liam’s three sets of pipes) and metaphorically in terms of Liam’s lasting and incalculable influence on music and culture in Ireland and beyond.
Liam O’Flynn: Píobaire educates and entertains as it explains how a musician of enormous talent and huge integrity contributed to the barely imaginable transformation in the level of public engagement with traditional music in general – and the uilleann pipes in particular – in Ireland and further afield. In his work with Planxty, O’Flynn made the uilleann pipes “cool.” Then in his collaborations with Shaun Davey and Séamus Heaney, Liam O’Flynn, the master piper, turned piping into a widely recognised and revered art-form.
The meticulous care and attention given by Damian McCann and his colleagues at DoubleBand to telling this story shines through in every frame of this beautifully crafted film. Through the empathetic environment he creates for all of the contributors, Damian succeeds in providing depth to a highly enigmatic figure who, though in the spotlight as a performing artist, often seemed to be reserved almost to the point of introversion – a very modest man with a very immodest talent. The film has clearly been a heartfelt labour of love for the creators, including all of the contributors. It deserves the widest possible circulation – including the ever-growing international audience for piping and traditional music – an audience Liam O’Flynn did so much to build. Liam O’Flynn: Píobaire is available to watch online here at the TG4 website.