By STUART GRAUER
It was the greatest drought in forty years and we were concerned the emerald isle would be brown, but we were keeping quiet about it. I had a teacher’s scholarship to study Irish culture at the esteemed Trinity College. Really, though, I was in search of an Irish tradition I have long treasured: the uilleann pipes.
Now, musical and other deep, place-based cultural traditions (like uilleann piping) are becoming scarcer and more hidden for the oppression of population growth, cultural standardization, and global sameness.
We landed in Dublin and headed north for the grassy suburb of Trim, home of the medieval castle used in the film Braveheart, where I had read the music was good and the town was quaint. That night, in the first of many strikes into traditional music pubs, we headed into the Bronson Hotel and Pub, but the barkeep said there was no music that night. “You should have been here yesterday,” he said, something I’ve heard many times on surf trips. The crew had sung and played late into the night, but tonight it was just a pub where mainly men were gathered around tables having a couple of pints after work. “Fekkin Iddyats!” we kept hearing as they got rowdier.
My own obsession in Irish culture and music came inexplicably and early in life for no reasons I could assign, but maybe I could find them on this journey. Many people are drawn to discover their roots and even to travel the world in search of ancestry — but I was searching for an ancestral heritage that, by all accounts, did not even exist. I knew of no Irish heritage.
From Trim, we headed north for Belfast. After dinner, we wandered into the spot lush with old, polished wood and guaranteed to have traditional music, Fibber Magee’s. The bartender said, “Last night we went late and loud, that was a time.” Tonight, it’s a couple of good singers, but nothing too traditional.
I had no idea what was calling me to the old music and the deepest, core traditions, but I was hoping to find out in Ireland. A week came and went touring Ulster, the north, and I had not seen a piper. We headed from the wide, wild beaches of Donegal, back to Dublin on the other coast.
Dublin (trans: “black pool”) was the site of primitive settlements until the Vikings invaded in the 900s and made a fortress out of it. They mixed in with the natives so there is not “real” separation between many Nordics and Celts.
Just this year, I was diagnosed with a genetic condition called “Viking’s Disease,” which causes the pinky and maybe other fingers to curve as though you have been gripping a ship’s oar in cold weather for a very long time, and not straighten out. I had spent many winters with a paddle, stand up paddle surfing the waves of Cardiff, California, and had attributed the curve to that. But the surgeon said it was just a genetic thing and would have happened anyway. I had never known myself to be a Viking. This was a brand-new finding and, given my lifelong fascination with Celtic culture that always seemed to come out of nowhere it was striking. Simultaneously, I had genetic testing done. I had always thought I was half Ashkenazi Jew (central Europe) but, surprise, my blood was two-thirds Nordic. People had long commented on my zweinatur. I always knew I was a good theory to action guy. Now I could look back and see how, all along, the Jew kept judiciously organizing everything and then the Viking/Celt would pillage it.
Right around the turn of the 17th century, two actions of Queen Elizabeth had a dramatic impact on our trip. First, in 1592, She established Trinity College, modeled after Oxford and Cambridge, one of the 7 ancient universities in Britain and Ireland. The official name of Trinity College is: The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth. Second, she made the harp illegal, hung harpers and smashed harps across the land. Catholic schools were banned, but in Hedge Schools the culture and language remained alive underground, like many of the world’s most creative cultural treasures. The musical heritage survived in this way. As a history teacher, I have always been fascinated by the survival of the oppressed.
We arrived at Trinity College and were quartered by the main gate over the West Front Square (Parliament Square), built in 1759, probably 100 paces from the Book of Kells, Ireland’s finest national treasure, art of unprecedented and maybe unsurpassed, ornate ornamentation. We immediately learned of two pubs in Dublin likely to have pipers.
The first night at Trinity, Dublin, we walked out with our class in Irish literature to a French restaurant and I waited for over a half hour for dessert, tying to be polite. When I could stand it no longer, I got up and left, in the very next door lured me in with the old music. It turned out to the famed O’Donoghues Pub, home of the Chieftains. There, with an extremely old set of uilleann pipes, a piper was blowing his last few sweet notes and, no sooner had the barkeep set my pint down on the wood and I swiveled around to listen to my first pipes in Ireland, than the piper wailed his last note and said thank you. I don’t even know what song he was playing.
The Irish, uilleann pipes can somehow incorporate many of the ancient Irish tones, from the keening of the mourning woman to the wailing of the banshee, the pain of the dirge and the spiral up into the heavens. It’s not the loud demand of the Scottish bagpipes, which I’ve heard Irish refer to as the war pipes. The uilleanns are warm and leathery, deep and low even when they are high. They are less about rebellion and fields of battle than emancipation and nature. After hearing them for a while, I feel like I am hearing machinations reverberating from 200 years ago, still living. There is grief, loneliness, frustration, of course love, and occasional betrayal, but never fear, never anger. There is courage.
On subsequent nights I tried various venues to find the pipes. There are over 1000 pubs in Dublin and I’m sure I came close to vetting the whole of it. No pipes. We tried the weekly cieli in the Culturlann outside of Dublin (Comhaltas Cealtoiri Eireann), and no pipes.
We set out for Galway, Mecca for traditional Irish music, now in my third week. On to Doolin, we heard Christy Barry play the flute — grandson of the great piper Patty Barry, who brought the Irish pipes to fame, claiming they’d be “siamsa tire”, the entertainment of the land. Then we headed to Tralee, for the famed trad music spot, Sean Ogs. “Sean Ogs will serve up the pipes,” I said, and our driver Des grew perturbed. “You might as well face it, Stuart, it’s dying out. You have a dead image of what Ireland is like.”
It was getting a little distressing and I worried I was being ridiculous in pursuing an obsession or burying myself in an inert past. I have no useful reasons for spending so much time or effort in pursuit of this one thing. Everyone around me is pursuing computer networking or real estate.
We are staying at Sean Og’s because I want to have the traditional experience — staying at the inn. Back in the day, travellers hitched up their horses, ate, slept, and recreated at places like this as they passed through. I don’t know how old this place is, but it is very old. I had waited almost three weeks in traditional pubs across a dozen towns. At last, there was a piper. He played something slow and short, and with little commitment, then draped them across this lap again.
“The problem is it’s getting damp and heated up in here and my reeds are all acting up. And I’m still learning.”
“How long have you been playing?”
“Nine years. But really only actively the last year and a half. In another three years I might have something. Have you heard it takes 21 years to learn the pipes well: Seven to get the very basics, seven to play, and seven more until you really can perform on them.” The Irish uilleann pipes are said to be the hardest instrument in the world to play. I once pledged to play them at our school graduation, where the processional is an old Turlough O’Carolan aire called, “Fanny Power.” I’m 67, just started learning the fingering on the whistle this summer, so the math behind this promise does not look great.
“Uillean” translates to “elbow” in Gaelic. The pipes include a bellows that you strap above your elbow so that you may compress and squeeze air into your pipe which you block and control at the other end by jamming the end air hole into your thigh, and out a series of drones. But that’s just the first seven years. The drone is a big part of the beauty of their sound that, as you play tunes on a whistle, is the steady sound of the drones. A practice set of these pipes has one drone, a half set has two, and a full set has three. As you finger the whistle part, you fill and empty the bellows while manipulating the drones to achieve a deep, harmonic sound. It looks a bit like someone wrestling an octopus.
I asked the piper, “Why would you go through all this? Three more years just to begin, no possible way to make money, and very limited appeal anyway — next door where they are doing Ed Sheeran covers the house is packed. Why do you even play?”
“I wake up in the morning and playing the pipes is the first thing I want to do.”
We arrive at Cork. Now we’d been to Trim, Belfast, Antrim Coast, Derry, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Doolin, and Tralee, and we’d not really seen a piper. I knew I was going to hit it in this town, and start noticing random details on the way in, all part of a pattern I knew would form.
Cork … site of Viking attacks in the 900s. Maybe I was from here. In the outlying town of Kinsale, I felt more at home than I had anywhere since my years in the Swiss Alps, and thought it was something epigenetic, something ancient and rooted cross-generationally, stretching forward through time. At Trinity, our professor taught us that it was here, at the Battle of Kinsale, that the Vikings defeated the Ulster chiefs. But that was of course only a battle. Like the Native Americans, like the Israelis, no matter how many battles they lose, the Irish will always survive through the sheer seeds of their culture.
We walk over to Corner House Pub and immediately a man recognizes me, as if I walk like an American. He says, “Hoi.” It’s Eoin.
`Now the fiddler steps up and my pulse is picking up. “I came all the way from San Diego to hear Eoin O’Riabhaigh (“Owen O-ree-vik”)
She says, “you’re dashed!” so quickly I have to pretend I get it and then, a minute later, I do. In three weeks, I feel like I have hardly met a single Irishman who isn’t the funniest person I’ve ever met.
This is the biggest traditional music set up I’ve seen so far. Around in a circle of chairs are three fiddlers, two uilleann pipers, a guitar, a squeezebox, and an older man who sits in the circle with his eyes half shut. The music starts, and rises up into an old reel. After the song, it’s a parlor. They talk about the song, about music in general for a while till someone starts picking very lightly, then someone else picks it up, and soon enough everyone is on it. They play every song when they are ready.
Now a fourth fiddler pulls up a chair and the sound is rising and swirling in a sweet, high harmony, feet thumping on the old plank floor. I think: “victory.” The focus is on reels: rashers and bacon and rashers and bacon and rashers and bacon and rash …feet going up and down from the heels of people all around, music swirling.
The full set of pipes, like Eion’s, has three drones, so as the reels go higher and higher he engages more of them in a long, ancient, wailing bottom. In a lifetime you will never hear music more beautiful than this or find a better muse. The pipes are low and droning, but the fiddle is low, too, so now the pipes srart to rise and other fiddles come in, and now it becomes harder to tell the fiddle from the pipes, and now the squeeze box comes in and out and I close my eyes. The whole of it is equilibrium seeking, concentrating on eight things at once.
The whole room is in on a secret, which I flew 10,000 miles to hear. This was the sum total of all my past campfires and dances, all the tribal singing and dancing and chanting around roaring fires, and it spiraled up with the flames. They were possessed, and the harmony kept rising.
It is summertime. It was a long and emotional school year last year. We can be, as Bill Plotkin says, “marooned in the present” (“Spiritual Ecology”), lose touch with our place in history. All of us lead complex lives, experience pain. Traditional music, when it is great, is a time of wholeness and connection. It is not just a music zone. I have experienced it on my best days of teaching or skiing really well and naturally, or when I am writing and a complete atmosphere is created and shared. Everyone is circled around an unbroken whole. It swallows us up.
Cultures are shrinking everywhere, and standardization is the new drone. In an ethnographer’s shop in Kinsale, a suburb of Cork where we are staying, the proprietor commented on the 40-day dry spell. “June and July can get very green, sometimes too green. Sometimes it feels like the green is swallowing you up.” But this year’s dry spell and heat spell are setting records which could make some of Ireland hard to recognize.
I once hired an English teacher largely because he played the pipes (well.) That was Seamus Taylor, a one-legged Vietnam vet. Eoin says there are maybe 300 pipes teachers in the world, maybe 70–80 makers of them. (In 2016, 73,806 people were recorded as speaking Irish daily.) It is an endangered species and I am already sketchy about whether I can handle the commitment even to keep learning the pennywhistle, much less play the pipes at graduation. I write to Seamus for advice, and he writes back:
Don’t give up just yet, Stuart. I know the challenge looks mind-boggling to a beginner, but it is really a question of priorities and desire. If you decide to become a piper, it is a challenging and difficult instrument, and there are many obstacles and potential pitfalls. However, the good news is that today there are a great many resources!
If you want to learn uilleann pipes at some point, you will need a teacher — it is nothing that can be self-taught. When I decided to learn (over 55 years ago), we lived in a small rural community outside of Philly. There were NO pipers, teachers or resources closer than Philly — and there was only ONE man there — my mentor, the late Tom Standevan.
In those days, there were only about three makers left in the world, and old sets were difficult to come by, and expensive for a young chap. There were also only a few hundred active pipers of any ability anywhere, and they were scattered around Ireland, the US and Australia, and very few people were interested in what seemed a dying art.
The same applies to the Gaelic language speakers — although at least there were more of them than pipers, and more resources, thanks mainly to the Irish government’s commitment to the language.
The next day I drove far out into the country outside of Cork to the town of Dripsey, to visit Eoin’s workshop. He is an engineer who has become one of the premiere pipes makers in the world and I can hardly believe I am being received by him. The shop is filled with precision tools he says his father, a legendary pipe maker, could never have fathomed. Outside is a classic wooden sloop he is retrofitting. I have to wait till 5 PM since he is selling a full set of pipes today and the hand off takes at least three hours.
“Eoin, dare I ask, how much did you get for the pipes?”
$10,600 euros,” he says. You can get a half set for about $5,600.
I want to know, what’s going to happen to piping? How can this make it to the next generation?
“There are more teachers and makers than ever,” Eoin says.
“What will they look like? Is Ireland changing too much demographically to sustain the pipes tradition? Who was that Chinese squeezebox player at your do last night? It seems like this whole culture might be waning.”
“No, the next generation will play better. And smarter. And he is Vietnamese. The next generation will have more teachers and better pipes.”
Like a thing from the Travelers and tinsmith traditions, many great men like Eion have been tinkerers. They are polymaths. I understand that globally and historically, traditions like these are often treated as inefficient and anachronistic, if quaint. To me, they are life — life that has gone to the edge of extinction.
After a good visit, I risk asking Eion if we can play a song together. He tunes up an old Yamaha six-string to the pipes for me, then straps on his pipes. I suggest O’Carolan’s “Fanny Power,” our school graduation processional ever since Seamus Taylor performed it on the pipes at our school’s first graduation. “Hum a few bars,” he says, and picks it right up.
We play for a while in his kitchen, and I’m holding back that I’m there with a legend whose generosity is all-time. For me, this is like jamming on the front porch with Clapton. After, he puts the pipes back in the case and we just look at them, and he says, “These are the pipes that belonged the legendary piper Canon James Goodman (1828–1896). For two weeks after he died they were in the grave with him, but the family dug them out.” Wikipedia tells me Goodman was a professor at Trinity, where I am studying, but they have left this whole episode out.
Now I’m on the plane, far out over the Atlantic Ocean writing this. I feel like I am crossing over a bridge between the grubby, stagnant smallness of daily lives (okay, I’ve been reading too many James Joyce stories) and some universal spirit. I’m reflecting on my final hours in Ireland. I asked Eoin, “Do you ever wonder, when you are playing Goodman’s old pipes, if he misses them down there in the grave?”
I’m looking for the eternal. But Eoin says he’s just playing the pipes.
About the Author Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation’s top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at www.fearlessteaching.com/.
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