‘Irish music was not hip’

In James’ Street school he told nobody of the music he played in his spare time. “Irish music was not hip, you know? . . . I didn’t tell anybody in school that I was playing Irish music . . . and I would not tell them I was at a Fleadh Cheoil!” said Joe McKenna, legendary Uilleann Piper who grew up on Thomas Street, Dublin. “In the late 50’s, 60’s, people were against the culture . . . They were against the Irish language and Irish culture because they felt it was backward,”

Above their sweet shop, the McKenna family home, number 26 Thomas Street could not have been closer to the richest musical melting-pot of its time. There was always a tradition of pipe making on Thomas Street but the locality was to become the epicentre for all things piping in Ireland and just like that a string of events fell together, fate called and Thomas Street answered.

The Dublin Pipers Club can be traced back to 1900 and was defunct many times due to war and financial difficulties. For many years, the club was situated a few doors down from the McKenna’s at number 14, Thomas Street. It is now situated in a Georgian house in Henrietta Street. Amid the economic difficulties of the 50’s, many people from around Ireland came through Dublin City on their voyage to the UK “a lot of them came to the Pipers Club while they were in Dublin to work, they gravitated towards the Pipers Club,” Joe told me. “When I was growing up, the first time I heard Donegal, Clare or Kerry music was in the Pipers Club . . . the music pulled them together,”.

“It was a fantastic time to be a young ’fella’, Joe says, to be walking around and seeing all these great players, who are only meeting each other for the first time and they were so excited . . . it was the early, early, early days of a melting pot for the different county music’s that you would hear.”

A pivotal act in the growth of uilleann piping in Dublin needs no introduction. Leo Rowsome, widely recognised as the godfather of piping in Ireland. A pipe maker, performer, and radio personality in his own right, Rowsome has been widely credited with both saving the uilleann pipes among Irish culture and with their subsequent revival. Joe McKenna, a student of Rowsome recalled his legacy. “He was the most well-known person on the radio playing trad music in the country, and he was teaching us in the Pipers Club and all the pipers gravitated towards him.” Rowsome repaired, made and taught the pipes at a time when the uilleann pipes were in decline. “He was a showman, he dressed very, very well, the dicky-bow and all that . . . he was a very lovely man.” “The teaching of the pipes began there, on Thomas Street,”

On Saturdays, people came from all over for lessons on the uilleann pipes and fiddle to the Pipers Club on Thomas Street, which in turn has allowed the craft to flourish. “There would be lessons from half seven until nine o’clock then there was a session until half twelve which was when the general public would come . . . when Leo Rowsome died we taught on . . . me and my brother Peter taught the pipes in the Pipers Club.”

A generation of pipers was ageing, and without apprentices, players and makers alike became concerned once again for the future of the uilleann pipes “there were no apprentice pipe makers and they felt that the art of pipe making would go out and would die out.”

In the early 60s, headed by Leo Rowsome, a meeting was called to ensure the survival of the instrument. Other famous musicians such as pipers Séamus Ennis and Willie Clancy attended. “They held a few meetings: the first one was in Longford and another famous one in Bettystown, and all the pipers of Ireland came to that . . . they discussed the possibility that the pipes were dying out, you’re talking the early sixties and they said they had to do something.” It was at this meeting, in 1968, that ideas were shared, plans were discussed and it was decided that they would establish a club which is now, Na Píobairí Uilleann. “That was the beginning of it, sharing the technique of the making of it,”

“Leo Rowsome would have broken down the barriers between people, who were protective of their craft, they weren’t sharing the information . . . that’s what had people worried,” In the present day “people are taking to the pipes like mad . . . I used to know every piper on the radio, now, it’s absolutely astounding, it’s just taken off. Facilities for people who are interested in the uilleann have vastly improved, with a larger number of pipe makers now in Ireland. Female pipers were once few and far between but now, Joe tells me “there are hundreds of girl pipers . . . the quality of their playing at 14,15,16, it blows me away.”

Little did all those involved in the Thomas Street Pipers Club know that the movement they started would lead to the current generation of young pipers who proudly wear their piping credentials as a badge of honour, fully immersed in the Irish culture and its music, and proud to be so. When asked if he is proud to tell his friends of his involvements in Irish music, Brian Crehan, 19-year- old fiddle and uilleann pipe player and classical bassist said “I’m very proud to play trad, everyone in school knows I’m mad for it . . . I’m proud to tell people that I’m part of Ireland’s musical culture,”.