Since I’ve been in Ireland, I’ve heard a lot of pretty incredible music. Particularly Irish trad, but really all sorts of music are alive and flourishing in this country. On the subject of Irish trad, it’s good to see that the music is as alive as it ever was, with festivals, pub sessions, and lots of young people getting into it (much more so than in many other parts of the world). But when you see these young people (from kids to teens to twenty-somethings), they’re usually playing fiddle, accordion, flute/whistle, banjo, or guitar, with the occasional bodhron, harp or mandola thrown in the mix. This is all well and good, but it points to a disturbing trend: very few people are learning the uillean pipes; perhaps because they’re so fecking difficult to play. And this is a shame, because the uillean pipes are the most uniquely irish of all instruments (ok…bodhron is unique too), with their unearthly drones and reedy voice. But there are a few young people saddling up to the challenge of playing these swan-instruments (beginning with the task of getting them in tune). And one of them gave me this cd, by the master of the masters, Séamus Ennis. This cd has piping, whistling, and storytelling, all in Irish. For those of you who don’t have the privelege of living in a gaeltacht area, you probably won’t understand a word of what he’s saying. No matter; it’s every bit as enjoyable. Just know, this is probably the most Irish thing you’ll ever hear.
excerpts of a bio from http://homepages.iol.ie/~ronolan/ennis.html
Seamus Ennis 1919-1982
Seamus Ennis used to say that it took all of 21 years to become a piper – seven years learning, seven years practising and seven years playing. He may be the exception that proves the rule, because by the age of 21, his playing as evidenced on recordings he made for Radio Eireann in 1940 was as fully developed as when he was 50.
Seamus Ennis, uilleann piper, broadcaster and folklore and music collector, was born on May 5, 1919, in Jamestown in Finglas, then a rural area of North Co Dublin.
As for his musical talent, “it wasn’t off the wind he got it,” as Sean Mac Reamoinn once commented. His father was James Ennis, a civil servant in the Department of Agriculture, from Naul, Co Dublin, who was a prize-winning musician on several instruments including the uilleann pipes and also a champion dancer. He married Mary Josephine McCabe of County Monaghan in 1916. They had six children.
Seamus’s early schooling was at the Holy Faith Convent in Glasnevin and at Belvedere College. Then he attended all-Irish schools at Scoil Cholm Cille and Colaiste Mhuire and this, coupled with family visits to Rosmuc in the Connemara Gaeltacht as a teenager and his father being a keen lover of all things Irish, gave Seamus a grounding in Irish which he developed to the full.
His Irish language proficiency proved a major asset later on. While collecting folk songs and tunes for Radio Eireann and the BBC, he had an uncanny ability to converse in the regional Gaelic dialects with people in Connemara, Donegal, Kerry and even Scotland.
Having studied at commercial college he sat an exam for a post as Employment Exchange Clerk and missed being called for a job by one place. Then in Dublin one day in 1938 he met a close family friend Colm O Lochlainn, who offered him a job at his printing and publishing firm, the Sign of the Three Candles in Fleet Street, Dublin.
Seamus remembers hearing music in the cradle and going to sleep with the sound of his father’s pipes in his ears. He knew the names of some of the tunes when he was only three years old and one night, despite valiantly trying to stay awake, he fell asleep as his father played Munster Buttermilk. He tells of how in the morning he was upset at having missed the end of the tune.
There were many musical visitors to the house in Jamestown – pipers Liam Andrews of Dublin and Pat Ward of Drogheda whose face Seamus describes as being adorned by a white “halo beard”, James McCrone, a reed maker, the influential fiddle player Frank O’Higgins and John Cawley (flute) – the other members of the Fingal Trio with whom his father played and broadcast in the early days of 2RN which preceded Radio Eireann.
It was on a wet Saturday afternoon that Seamus first put on a Jack Brogan set of pipes which his father had bought in order to play with the Fingal Trio. He had no formal piping lessons from his father who used, however, explain the “difficult bits” and also showed him how to read music in order to learn tunes from Francis O’Neill’s book. Seamus said that the only major influence on his piping was his father, who had in turn learned from Nicholas Markey of County Meath, Pat Ward and the other old pipers who used to play in the early years of the Oireachtas competitions.
Seamus’s playing of the uilleann pipes was always instantly recognisable for his tone, technique and particular versions of tunes and the variations which he employed while playing them. Any tune, no matter how commonly played by musicians at sessions or elsewhere, became different when he played it and despite the amount of skill and technique which he used, the tune was never stifled or bent out of shape in any way and this was because Seamus had a great respect for the music and its idiomatic integrity.
His playing of slow airs was special because he had a deep understanding of the songs from which they came and he used this knowledge to play the airs as they might be sung by a good singer. Some of his techniques in dance music were special to himself – a trill on the E’ or F’ which he used to describe as a “shiver” as it was done by shaking the centre forearm rather than just the fingers, his unique cran (a stuttering roll on the bottom D) and the “ghost D” (an effect which suggests to the listener that two notes are sounding simultaneously). He also had the rare ability to play several notes in the third octave of his chanter.
Seamus’s set of pipes have an interesting history. In 1908 his father found them in a sack, in pieces, in a pawnbroker’s shop in London and purchased them for a small sum. They turned out after examination and repair to be a set made by Coyne of Thomas Street in Dublin in the early years of the 19th century and their tone to this day is distinctive and beautiful.
He was an excellent communicator and had a special way with children. He loved words and wordplay and liked nothing better than to swap limericks and rhyming couplets with friends such as Willie Clancy and Denis Murphy.