THE FLUTE AND ITS PATRONS
No musical instrument was in such common use among the Irish peasantry as the flute. From the “penny whistle” to the keyed instrument in sections it was always deservedly popular, for unlike the fiddle and the bagpipe it involved no expense beyond the purchase price. Complete in itself, the flute needed but a wetting to be always in tune, and disjointed or whole could be carried about without display or inconvenience. Besides, if not broken by accident or design it would outlive its owner. Soft or shrill, its carrying power was remarkable. Who that has heard the mellow music of either whistle or flute a mile away on a fine evening, will ever forget the experience?
It is not recorded that the flute was known to the ancient Irish, unless the feadan or fideog, which had a reed mouthpiece, and resembled an Irish chanter, may be so regarded. No doubt it was this instrument the ancient chroniclers had in mind in their occasional mention of “pipe players and pipers.” The original flute or tibia was fashioned out of the shinbone of some animal, and blown at the end. Some were double; each with three finger vents, one tube being longer than the other. Such was the strain in blowing them that in Greece and Rome it was the custom to wear a bandage round the cheeks which braced the mouth.
All nations from the most remote times used some form of pipe or flute. The Roman tibia had but five vents for the fingers. A whistle-flute called in England the Tabor pipe was in general use in that country and France in the twelfth century. It had but two finger holes in front and one behind for the thumb; yet strange to say it “was capable of producing by the aid of harmonic sounds a diatonic scale of one and a half octaves” according to the author of Old English Instruments of Music.
In the early years of the seventeenth century, when almost a centenarian, a performer named Hall was still “giving the men light hearts by his pipe, and the women light heels by his tabor.” A still shorter form of the three-holed pipe - only tour inches long - was brought into special prominence, the aforementioned author says, by the wonderful performanees of a blind peasant named Pieeo, who first played in London in 1856. By the use of the palm or the second finger of the right hand, which was placed on the lower end of the tube, he was able, it was said, to obtain a compass of three octaves!
The flute blown from the side, variously named the transverse flute, the oblique flute, and the cross flute, was known both in India and China from remote antiquity. Its introduction about the tenth century, into Greece, gradually extended all over Europe, but in its progress it does not appear to have come into use in England until late in the fifteenth century. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it came to be known as the German flute, on account, it is said, of the improvements which German musicians had made in the instrument. Quite likely the use of the flute in Ireland was contemporaneous with its popularity in England, but as the instrument has a literature of its own those desiring to pursue the subject more fully will find ample opportunity to indulge their taste for inquiry.
No one but a born musician, or one who had no other outlet for his musical instinct, was likely to learn to play the flute. The halt, lame, and blind, driven to the practice of music as a profession, invariably chose the Union pipes or fiddle, as the most available instrument to touch the sensibilities of the people. Quite often proficiency on the flute led to practice on the pipes, but while in some respects experience on the flute may be regarded as primary training, the flute player who aspires to renown as a piper had much to unlearn also. The same rule holds good with the Warpipes or Highland pipes, which in theory and execution differ radically both from the flute and the Union pipes.
Music schools for the teaching of Irish music on the Union pipes, fiddle, and flute, were unknown. Every individual who undertook to teach had his own conception of method and proficiency, both in style of execution and version of the music taught. Pupils picked up the peculiarities of their teachers as naturally as they picked up the local accent and idiom, and any deviation from their acquired notions was a subject for criticism.
Without standard schools of instruction, the aspirant for musical knowledge had no alternative but to learn wherever he got the chance, sometimes from a neighbor but more often from the nearest professional piper or fiddler who was willing to teach. In our own case we had the good fortune to be taught the flute by Mr. Timothy Downing, a gentleman farmer of illustrious ancestry living in Tralibane, our townland in West Cork, and one of the chief regrets of our life is having lost by early emigration the opportunity to learn the fiddle also, on which he was a fine free-hand performer. His rousing strains still haunt our memory after a lapse of nearly fifty years.
Be it known that ordinarily professional musicians in Ireland - yea, and beyond its shores also - did not care to encourage possible rivals and competitors. Still more careful were they not to teach all they knew, unless it be to a son or close relative who was to succeed them, and whose glory they expected to share. Some of their choice tunes were treasured-as personal reserves to which none had a claim, and not infrequently died with them.
As most Irish fluters were amateurs, or rather non-professionals, few are the imprints which their footsteps have left on the sands of time. We make no mistake, however, in awarding first place to the author of “The Traveler,” “The Deserted Village,” and “The Vicar of Waketield.”
Mingling in the games and pastimes of the peasantry at Pallas, near Ballymahon, County Longford, where he was born in 1728, Oliver Goldsmith picked up a knowledge of the flute without any special training as is customary. All through the vicissitudes of his eventful life, he indulged his passion for the music of his native land, even neglecting his studies at Trinity College to practice on his beloved flute.
When he started out in 1755 from Leyden, Holland, on his travels on the Continent, his equipment consisted of “a guinea in his pocket, one shirt to his back, and a flute in his hand,” but music is a universal language which appeals to all whose hearts respond to the charms of melody.
Goldsmith, as Boswell said to Johnson years afterward, “disputed his passage through Europe.” Through Flanders and France to Paris, thence to Geneva and over the Alps into Northern and Central Italy, as far as Florence, he wended his way, most often on foot, working his passage by playing his flute, and making himself popular with the natives of many countries with jocose antics and humorour stories. He partook of the free hospitalities of the monks at the monasteries, slept on straw in humble barns, and when he reached a village would pull out his time and strike up a lively air, to which the rustics would respond with dances, and in recompense for which he would obtain a modest lodging and something to eat. In his “Traveler’, he alludes to those scenes:
“How often have I led the sportive choir,
With tuneless pipe. Beside the murmuring Loire!
Where standing elms along the margin grew,
And freshened from the wave the zephyr flew;
And haply through my harsh touch faltering still,
But mocked all tune. And marred the dancer's skill,
Yet would the village praise my wondrous power,
And dance forgetful of the noontide hour.”
Such was the surfeit of music in Italy that his poor flute was powerless, and so when reduced to extremities he did not disdain to beg. He fought his way back to England again, sometimes engaging in competitive discussions at the universities, the champion of which could claim a free dinner and bed.
The knowledge and experience gained during his year's wanderings furnished the theme of his first immortal poem “The Traveler” Already famous as a prose writer; on the appearance of this masterpiece Goldsmith was hailed as a poet of the first rank. In the glimpses which we get of his intermittent poverty, and life in cheerless garrets in London, playing his flute for the entertainment of the tattered children of his neighbors was one of his chief pleasures. He died in 1774 and rests in an unmarked grave in the Temple churchyard.
Self-taught and traditional flute players of varying degrees of efficiency flourished and still exist among the Irish in such numbers as to render any attempt at exploiting them out of the question. Not only every parish, but every townland in the four provinces, could boast of one or more, but being so numerous, nothing short of conspicuous excellence would he likely to attract special attention. Even that slight tribute to distinction would soon fade, for flute playing is too arduous for any but the young and robust, while the piper and the fiddler retained their powers and proficiency scarcely diminished, until old age had set its seal on their withered frames.
Seldom does a fluter's fame survive him, and as musicians of that class rarely “took to the road” like the pipers and fiddlers, their fame at best was only local. Brief mention of a few personally known to the writer, and others brought to our attention, will be found in the following pages.
MICHAEL WHITE ‘
After coming to America, John McFadden, the renowned traditional Irish fiddler of Chicago, had the good fortune to fall in with Mr. White, an excellent flutist, at Cleveland, Ohio. The latter, who was born at or near Tralee, County Kerry, was also a fine singer and dancer, and it can well be imagined that the public house which he kept was well patronized by lovers of Irish music.
Many of McFadden's best tunes were derived from White's playing, among them being “The Wicklow Hornpipe” which was first printed in O`Neill’s Music of Ireland.
An unrivaled performer on the flute named John O’Neill was born about 1820 in the eastern part of the parish of Bantry, West Cork, and worked as a farm laborer in that vicinity until senile debility led to his removal to the poor-house, where he died late in the nineties. He was an “airy” fellow, scarcely less noted as a dancer than as a musician, and he was the life of the country round about for more than a generation.
The most honored guest at any gathering, John O’Neill was never too tired after a day’s plowing or mowing to play at any farmhouse festivity in the evening, and wherever he went in those instances, he was sure to take with him a pair of dancing shoes, to be worn when giving an exhibition dance on the kitchen table.
Though fifty years and more have flown on the wings of time, since the present writer listened with rapture to the thrilling tones of John O’Neill’s flute, as he came over the hills from Loughbofinne one fine evening after dark, to play at the old homestead at Tralibane, the incident remains to this day indelibly stamped on my memory. Though then too young to be allowed the privilege of “staying up” while the dance lasted; I could at least enjoy the music which kept me awake most of the night.
Favored by nature with physical attractions as well as artistic endowments, this popular hero was an incorrigible bachelor. Apparently insensible to female charms, he never fell a victim to woman's wiles, and he openly proclaimed that he was “disinclined to support any man's daughter.” Without kindred, offspring, or home, in his old age, a much worse fate befell him than undertaking the responsibilities of matrimonial life in earlier years.
Born in 1844 on a farm near Kilfinane, in the County of Limerick, Denis Maloney was the most distinguished performer on the German flute in a family noted for its fluters. He was taught by his cousin, Denis Casey, of the parish of Emly, into which the Maloneys had migrated, though his musical ambition was not encouraged by his father. ‘Twas no longer “respectable” to play the flute or pipes, although the fiddle was tolerated. An exception to his cloth, the amiable and patriotic pastor, Father Paul Haney, an excellent fluter himself, was rather proud of his young parishioner’s talent. Many a time did the kindly sagart plant “Denny” between his knees to play for company at the rectory. And, by the way - we may as well tell it now - Father Haney himself often played the flute at the weddings he attended, and it never entered the good man’s mind that he was endangering the morals or salvation of his flock thereby.
The Maloney family emigrated to America in 1857 and it was the writer’s good fortune to form their acquaintance in Chicago in 1875. Besides the subject of our sketch, there were Michael, Thomas, Daniel and Mary, but Denis out-ranked them all, as well as all other fluters we have heard since that time, although he had no great advantage over the latter two in some of their favorite reels.
How a man with calloused hands and fingers, from long years of labor in the iron mills, could play a flute with such grace and execution has been a matter of no little surprise, under the circumstances. As a performer on the Highland pipes he was almost equally expert in his prime, but now in his sixty-ninth year a finger crippled from the nature of his occupation renders him incapable of performing on either. When required to play in concert with others, Denis Maloney possessed the rare faculty of adopting any version of a tune they favored, regardless of the setting to which he had been previously accustomed.
There were “gentlemen fluters” as well as “gentlemen pipers,’ in Ireland in days gone by and Mr. Cronin, the subject of this sketch, was certainly one of them. Though his hair was flecked with the frosts of advanced years, his heart was young and his spirit was gay. Besides being an excellent performer on the flute he was also a clever poet, prose writer and musical critic and had heard all of the great musicians of his day. Like most men of his musical proclivities, he surrendered eventually to the fascinations of the dulcet tones of the Union pipes, although his practice on that instrument commenced late in life.
Born at “Sweet Adare” in County Limerick, he emigrated to the “Greater Ireland” beyond the broad Atlantic in his youth. After making his fortune in the dry goods business in New York he returned to his native home and being an ardent nationalist soon got in touch with the Gaelic Revival. He loved to associate with such companionable men as Michael Donovan of Skibbereen, “Bob” Thompson, the famous Irish piper, and the members of the Cork Pipers’ Club.
While in America Mr. Cronin’s experience did not extend beyond the Atlantic states, but of all the pipers he had known in Ireland and those he had met in New York and Massachusetts he awarded the palm to “Patsy” Touhey, whom he described to John S. Wayland, founder and secretary of the Cork Pipers’ Club, as “the finest piper on top of the earth.”
No one but a gentleman in purse and principles would have bequeathed one hundred pounds to the Gaelic League, and twice that amount to the Sinn Fein Society at the time of his death, which occurred in 1909.
Miss Madge Kirwan, pictured with Mr. Cronin, is a talented violinist of Mount Mellick who frequently played duets with the returned exile.
The premier flute player of the northern baronies of the County Wexford and probably of a much wider territory for a generation is Patrick Fleming of Camolin, according to competent authority. This reputation he has maintained in all of the numerous competitions in which he engaged in modern times as well as in the years preceding the Irish Revival, although past fifty years of age. He was born near Craanford, and from his boyhood days evinced a rare intelligence outside of his musical faculties. Commencing on a tin whistle he changed to the flute quite naturally, and soon became celebrated for his phenomenal execution. The peculiar style of his playing has been compared to the warbling of the skylark. Later in life he acquired a knowledge of the violin and the melodeon, and to crown all, his voice is so sweet in its traditional pathos as almost to “coax the birds from the bushes.”
To the excellence of his music and the charm of his manners is due the maintenance of the instrument in popular favor in his circuit, while in the southern districts of the county the flute, which at one time was no less favored than the fiddle or the pipes, has fallen into disuse. Fleming’s execution was scarcely less remarkable than his repertory. A man of his notable accomplishments could not fail to exercise a stimulating influence in any community, and we are prepared to learn that he had many pupils, including “Pat” O’Shea of Thrule, John Kehoe of Askamore, and Andrew McCann of Newbridge, Camolin, an enthusiastic supporter of the Gaelic movement. The latter by the way has taken to the practice of the pipes with good prospects ot success, based on his proficiency on the flute.
Nor is that all Fleniing has done. By precept and example he has encouraged the cultivation of music on any instrument available. His sister, Mrs. Sarah Ormonde, is a capable performer on the concertina and she in turn has transmitted her taste to her daughter Anne, who has acquired line command of the fiddle. And thus a musical revival goes merrily onward which if wisely fostered will relieve the erstwhile dreary monotony of peasant life that exercised no inconsequential influence in directing the thoughts of the young people to emigration.
“A splendid type of Irishman, young, tall, handsome, active, and energetic, and an enthusiastic supporter of the Gaelic movement,?’ is the way our correspondent, Mr. Whelan of Scarawalsh, describes Andrew McCann of Newbridge, Camolin, County Wexford, a flute player of great local fame. His first attempt to woo the muses was on a tin whistle, and the first melody attacked was “St. Patrick's Day.” The melodeon being “all the go.” he acquired commendable proficiency on that alien instrument, but abandoned its use with the Irish Revival. Patrick Fleming's inimitable performance on the flute furnished new inspiration, and he took up the practice of that favorite. Playing in Concert with Fleming led to important results, and McCann not only became an excellent fluer, but a promising piper as well.
Such is “Andy’s” zeal and love of music that he makes it a point to hear all the best pipers whenever possible, for as he said to his friend. “I never yet was in musical company hut I picked up something useful, and there are a lot of players in the country who only want encouragement.” A levelheaded man is Andrew McCann, and how keenly he has diagnosed the difficulty. Not less truly does he observe: “It is almost impossible to find a performer who can play both dance music and slow airs well.” For his rendering of “The Blackbird” in slow vocal time on the flute, he was awarded first prize at the Wicklow Feis in 1906 and was also similarly honored for his performance at Feis Loch Carman, held at New Rose, County Wexford. Such was his progress on the union pipes with the aid and instruction of the helpful John Rowsome of Ballintore, that in 1909 he won first prize against two other competitors; also first prize on the flute from a held of thirteen, on the same day. As he is but thirty years old, the future has much in store for him.
GEO. A. H. LEECH
From the frequency with which Mr. Leech’s name appears on the programmes of San Francisco entertainments, we are safe in assuming that his attainments on the concert flute are of a high order. Besides we have it on reliable authority that his acknowledged musical ability is no greater than his liberality in displaying it.
Born in Dublin in 1873, he grew to manhood on the banks of the sunny Erne in the O’Reilly country in County Cavan, where his father, Rev. Robert Leech, was rector of Drumlane, Belturbet, for thirty years. Inheriting musical talent from his father, who was a musician, historian, and poet, young Leech imbibed a taste for traditional music from “Paddy” McDermott, the first good violinist he had ever heard, and whom he met and played with in New York in later years. Following is his own story:
“In the summer of 1885 a lot of returned Americans near the little town of Milltown, County Cavan, were happily thrown amongst us, and `Phildy' Monaghan and the clever and ingenious `Phil' Leddy made their violins ring on the cross roads that whole summer twice a week, and until far into the night. It was such a glorious summer!
“My instructors in dance music were the renowned Patrick Fitzpatrick, violinist of Glasstown, and the witty `Phil' McKernan, who warbled like a lark on the piccolo in the Milltown band, led by the baton of the musical Fitzpatrick.”
Professional jealousy finds no lodgment in the heart of Mr. Leech, for he is quite generous in his characterization of the Irish musicians encountered in the city of the Golden Gate. Hear him: “Some very fine flute players here are `Pat’ Wynn, big `Tim’ Carney, `Jim' McKenna and `Jim’ Barry. Nor can we forget the sweetest Irish violin player that ever came or will come to the Pacific coast in the person of Prof. William McMahon. A very true player of Irish melodies is Prof. `Bat’ Scanlan, who has many social engagements. In rendering `The Strawberry Blossom’ on the flute, `Pat’ Wynn and `Billy’ McNamara are unsurpassed. The first player on the Union pipes I ever heard was Doonan of Cavan, a lame man who went on crutches. Although handicapped with a poor set of pipes, his skill in manipulating them was really surprising.”
It is no more than justice to Mr. Leech to mention that it was through his efforts a photograph and sketch of Mr. Cummings, the noted San Francisco piper, were obtained.
Were there a man as talented, unselfish, and enthusiastic in promoting Irish ideals in every parish in Ireland. There would be no need of perennially bolstering up Gaelic Revivals.