[from 'Irish Minstrels and Musicians', Capt. Francis O'Neill, Chicago, Regan Printing House, 1913.]
I will take my pipes and go now, for the bees upon the hill
Are singing of the summer that is coming from the stars.
I will take my pipes and go now, for the little mountain rill
Is pleading with the bagpipes in tender, crooning bars.
I will go o'er the hills and valleys, and through fields of ripening rye.
And the linnet and the throstle and the bittern in the sedge
Will hush their throats and listen while the piper passes by,
On the great long road of silver that ends at the world's edge.
I will take my pipes and go now, for the sandflower on the dunes
Is a-weary of the sobbing of the big white sea,
And is asking for the piper, with his basket full of tunes,
To play the merry lilting that sets all hearts free.
I will take my pipes and go now, and God go with you all,
And keep all sorrow from you, and the dark heart 's load.
I will take my pipes and go now, for I hear the summer call,
And you 'll hear the pipes a-singing as I pass along the road.
- Donn Byrne.
IN the language of Mrs. S. C. Hall, who wrote of Irish life and character in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the pipers were at one period the great originals of Ireland. The race of minstrels was even then gradually departing, or at least sobering down into the ranks of ordinary mortals; but there was a time, as described in previous chapters, when the piper stood out prominently upon any canvas that pictured Irish life.
Closely as harp and the music of its strings are associated with the history of Hibernia in happier days, no class of minstrels was in such perfect accord with popular sentiment, or was so intertwined with tradition, story, legend and poetic fancy as the pipers.
Not only were they an essential element in every phase of 1ife’s activities, but they Were, according to common belief, not infrequently kidnapped by the fairies, so fascinating was their music, and forced to entertain their captors at their subterranean festivities.
Whether in the land of the living or the realm of|shades, a halo seems to encircle the head of the piper in the mysticism of the Irish mind. To those who still find pleaoure in relaxation from the materialism of the present to indulge in the contemplation of the past, the stories comprising Chapter XXXI, and the experiences of Turlogh McSweeney, “The Donegal Piper,” in Chapter XXII, will no doubt prove of more than ordinary interest.
A quotation from Robertson's "Fairy Pipers" may serve to illustrate one feature of those quaint fancies.
"Weary is the way, and I'm a weary man tonight-
Ah, the fairy pipers that awoke me long ago,
When the mists began to shiver at the coming of the light,
And the wind was in the heather, soft and low!
"The grey hills flushed to purple, and the east was like a rose;
They called me to the long road with piping shrill and clear;
Rest and rust and dull content, the mortal never knows
Who may once the fairy pipers chance to hear.
"Over hill and valley, he must follow till he fall;
Jeweled gossamers at dawn that shine about his feet,
Love, and wealth, and hoiior_he must break and leave them all
When the fairy music calls him, shrill and sweet.
"Weary is the way, and I'm a weary man tonight-
Ah, the fairy pipers that awoke me long ago,
Still they're calling as they called me when my heart and foot were light,
And the wind was in the heather, soft and low.”
After the siege of Limerick, the Piob Mor, or war-pipe, as it is now termed, shared in Ireland's fallen fortunes, and its use practically terminated about the middle of the eighteenth century. Historically, it is unheard of after the battle of Fontenoy, in 1745 - a fitting finish for an instrument so renowned in association with deeds of Irish bravery.
The Union pipes, of milder tone and enlarged compass, invented and developed at least a score of years earlier, won immediate recognition, and before the end of the century, performers on the improved Irish instrument vied with the harpers in fame and popularity. But it must be borne in mind that the addition of regulators, on which concords could be produced, contributed not a little to its charm. From its earliest development, men of wealth and title took to playing the pipes, and it was not considered beneath the dignity of the clergy even to become performers on the fascinating, soft-toned instrument, the music of which,
"Like the whistling of birds,
Like the humming of bees,
Like the sigh of the south wind
Through the crest of the trees,”
soothed the soul while it entranced the mind. Household pipers became the vogue as the harp declined, and a capable performer was never at a loss for an engagement at castle, or hall, in the homes of the gentry, with a stipend of fifty pounds a year, and a “horse and saddle” at his pleasure. And when we come to contemplate the patronage and perquisites which pipers enjoyed generations ago, as compared with their oppression and neglect in more recent times, their former number and celebrity ceases to excite our astonishment.
In one of his stories Shelton Mackenzie says; “One set of pipes is worth a dozen fiddles, for it can `take the shine out of them all.’ But then these same pipes can do more than make a noise. The warrior boldest in the field is gentlest at the feet of his lady love; and so the Irish pipes, which can sound a strain almost as loud as a trumpet-call, can also breathe forth a tide of gushing melody- sweet, soft, and low as the first whisper of mutual love. You have never felt the eloquent expression of Irish music if you have not heard it from the Irish pipes.’,
In this connection it may not be out of place to mention that after trying every other instrument with a view to imitate the human voice, Kempelen, the Austrian professor, found that the tones of the Irish chanter were the most in accord with it. Yet, though soft, pleasing and haunting as the music of the instrument may be, the truth is that the pipes are delicious or abominable just according to the skill of the hand that rules them; but when skilfully manipulated they are what John Augustus O’Shea termed them, “a hive of honeyed sounds.” Even the English writer, Mrs. Lilly Grove, in her great work on Dancing, concedes that “the modern Irish bagpipe has the sweetest sound of all instruments of this description.”
Although less renowned as minstrels than the harpers, the Union pipers came closer to the hearts of the bulk of the people. The professional or traveling pipers were the news carriers of their times, and their advent was an event of no small importance in any community. They were everywhere hospitably received and treated with the utmost cordiality wherever they went, and besides the cheering notes of their “merry pipes so gaily O,” there were many other considerations which added fervor to their welcome. A paraphrase on Theo. Garrison’s “Welcome Guest” aptly expresses our conception of the Irish hospitality to which the piper was ever welcome:
Oh! here's the open door for you,
Ceud mile faijthc go deo for you,
A cheering cup and more for you
As long as you want to stay;
For love of that gay voice of yours-
That calling to rejoice of yours-
The very sun comes in with you
And dances when you play.
In a sense, the wandering piper or minstrel was a combination of mail service, news agency and general entertainer; for whoever heard of a piper who was not a repository of song and story, while his wit, sharpened by contact with the World, was a never failing source of delight to his audience, old or young.
Neither were pipers illiterate, as a class, when blest with sight, for among them, then as now, were men of uncommon attainments. A letter from one about a century ago, requesting payment for his professional services, is a quaint specimen of this acquired polish:
MADAM: The Bearer hereof is the piper that played for your
Lordable family at the Terrace on the twelfth instant, and I am
referred to your Honor for my hire. Your Ladyship's pardon for
my boldness would be almost a sufficient compensation for my labor.
At a wedding in those times, Crofton Croker tells us, the best apartment was reserved for the bride and bridegroom, the priest, the piper. And the more opulent and respectable gnests, such as the landlord and his family and the neighboring gentry. The second apartment was appropriated for the neighbors in general, and the third, or an outhouse, for less welcome guests. After the ceremony two collections were taken, one for the priest and the second for the piper; but the succeeding festivities seldom ended before daylight in the morning.
The following, from Mrs. Hall’s description of an Irish wedding nearly a generation later, further illumines the pages of Ireland’s social history: “The piper and fiddler, who during dinner had been playing some of the more slow and plaintive of the national airs, now strike up, and the dance immediately commences. First single parties dance reels, jigs and doubles; country dances then succeeded, in which, as in the single dances, priest and laic, old and young, rich and poor, the master and his maid, the landlord and his tenant’s daughter, as well as the landlord's daughter and his tenant’s son, all join together without distinction.”
Just as the custom is generally preserved among the Scottish nobility of today, the Irish gentlemen of consequence in bygone days had their pipers to entertain them at niealtiines. In a letter dated September 20, 1775, describing his visit to “Mr. Macarty of Springhill” Tipperary, Rev. Dr. Campbell in his Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland, says: “Here we were at meals, even on Sunday, regaled with the bagpipe, which to my uncultivated ear is not an instrument so unpleasant as the lovers of Italian music represent it.” The reverend author wrote, in the days of the renowned “Piper” Jackson, when Union pipers were supplanting the harpers in the homes of the Irish aristocracy. The zenith of their tame was reached a generation later, after which the vogue of the piper began to decline.
Patron days, or festivals in commemoration of the days on which the early churches or sanctined places, such as fountains or wells, were dedicated to their respective saints, were observed quite generally down to the early years of the nineteenth century. Their original religious character, it appears, gradually degenerated into frivolities and abuses, which led to their suppression. Almost every tent or booth in which food and refreshments were for sale had its piper, for dancing and diversion succeeded the performance of rounds or other observances. So busily engaged were the musicians on those occasions, that in a painting by Grogan, a native artist, the piper is represented as drinking from a jug of porter, held to his lips by a friend, while he continued the music uninterruptedly for the dancers in front of him.
It is needless to expatiate on the demoralizing influence of the famine years- from 1846 to I84o,won Irish music and minstrelsy. That is self-evident. The decline of pipe music, however, had already set in. Brass bands, nearly as numerous as the branches of the temperance societies instituted as a result of Father Mathews’ crusade, drove the Union piper and fiddler out of fashion, and dancing, of course, shared the same fate, although not long before every public house had its piper or fiddler, who kept traditional music in promiscuous circulation.
Changed conditions, lack of patronage, and other well~understood causes, forced this class of minstrels, many of them blind, to take to the highways for support - a form of mendicancy which brought their once honored calling into disrepute. The more robust and adventurous made their way beyond their native shores, to find life more enjoyable in Scotland, England and America, and even in distant New Zealand and Australia. The extent to which they had migrated may be judged from the fact that While on a tour of Scotland in early manhood, the famous Turlogh McSweeney, “The Donegal Piper,” found not less than sixteen of his profession in one Edinburgh lodging-house. We must not lose sight of the fact, however, that Irish pipers as well as harpers had been passing into Scotland from time immemorial and leaving their impress on the music of our kinsmen beyond the North Channel.
The capricious exercise of authority which forced the discontinuance of the time-honored erossroads and farmstead dances gave the death blow to Irish minstrelsy and music, and made Ireland the anomaly among nations--a land without pleasures or pastimes.
“There is no mirth or laughter to be heard any rnore in the country,” pathetically remarked a peasant to Lady Wilde in 1880; “the spirit is gone from the people, and all the old fun is frozen.”
Even though the same influences which led to such deplorable results are now, With belated Wisdom, actively aiding in the Irish Revival, who that cherishes a love for the traditions and institutions of his race can contemplate with equanimity the spectacle of a world-wide struggle to foster and preserve the historic features and social customs associated with their motherland as a distinct nationality? In speaking for himself the brilliant John Augustus O’Shea but voices the sentiments of the multitude: “I arn afraid that the old Irish piper, like the old Irish wolf dog, is dying out; but I had the luck to hear one in Cork, nevertheless.
It was in a by-street he humored the bellows of Aeolian winds, fingered the keys, and worked lullabying drones wrapped in the charm he evoked, as if he veritably loved it. I listened to him until I was wet through with rain, but Apollo is god of medicine as of music, and he did not permit a devotee of the latter to stand in need of the former. Alas! That the Irish piper such as he who erst roused the blood of warriors at Donnybrook, coaxed the birds off the bushes at courting season in the glen of Aherlow, and soothed the seagulls from an eyrie in the cliffs of Moher-alas! That he should be let die out. I would rather hearken to one Irish piper playing `The Fox Chase’ than fifteen politicians bellowing on ancient themes political. To his instrument-hive of honeyed sounds!-the biniou of Brittany, the pipe of Pan, or of Calabrian pifferari, the shrill bag of reedy quavers of the Scottish Highlander, or Algerian Turco, are as naught. By the soul of Conor McNessa, I conjure Irishmen to respect and preserve the piper, the walking treasury of the spirit of our bardic prime, the descendant of those who wore the robe of honor of six colors, and the gold circlet on their brows, and sat at the boards of princes.”
Though many and earnest have been the appeals to Irishmen to respect and cherish the piper and his music, by such distinguished worthies as O'Curry and O’Shea and the leaders of the Irish Revival movement, in all candor we must confess that the situation painfully reminds us of Father Mullenss wail for “The Celtic Tongues”:
“ ‘Tis fading, O, ‘tis fading! Like the leaves upon the trees!
In murmuring tone 'tis dying like the wail upon the breeze;
'Tis swiftly disappearing, as footprints on the shore
Where the Barrow, and the Erne, and Lough Swilly's Waters roar."
Passing over many of the various phases of Irish life in which the pipers were by no means inconspicuous hgures, we cannot refrain from adverting to the sad and all too common failings incidental to their mode of lite. The wandering Irish piper should be more than mortal to resist the temptations which bestrew his path At christenings, weddings, and other festivities, conviviality is the order of the day. Where so likely for music to attract an audience as in the vicinity of a tavern or public house? Then the admirers of minstrelsy, in an outburst of feeling which they mistake for generosity or friendship, ply the musician with liquor, to his ruin, instead of contributing to his prosperity in the coin of the realni. This pitiable and perverted conception of liberality and hospitality has long prevailed in Ireland, and still continues to blight the pros- pects of brilliant promise in the lives of others besides pipers and fiddlers.
Much as we may deplore the minstrel's cardinal failing, as we do the conditions which give rise to it, we feel assured that all who cherish a sincere regard for the traditions of Irish minstrelsy and music will view this frailty more in the light of pity than prejudice. For, after all, the plaintive, haunting, dulcet tones of the real Irish national instrument - the Union pipes - like the poetry of Robert Burns, James Clarenee Mangan, and Hdgar Allan Poe, is not the less appreciated because of their predilection to worship at the shrine of Bacchus.
In compiling the following sketches of famous pipers, no source of possible information has been overlooked, and all available data have been interwoven, regardless of the source. As a matter of expediency, distinctive classineation has been attempted chiefly for the purpose of bringing out in stronger relief the fact that the bagpipe had its votaries in all walks of Irish life. To be a performer on the Union pipes involved no loss of social prestige until the degenerate days succeeding the famine.
The piper was a character whom his countrymen loved and respected, and in every instance treated with the kindness and cordiality due to a relative, Carleton says. Indeed, the musicians of Ireland are as harmless and inotiensive a class of persons as ever existed, and there can be no greater proof of this than the very striking fact that in the criminal statistics of the country the name of an Irish piper or fiddler has scarcely if ever been known to appear.