page 7

Sean Donnelly is a well kent researcher and contributes to various magazinesand journals (including, of course, COMMON STOCK). Here he provides some historical and literary glimpses of Irish piping in the 19th century.


English visitors to Ireland during the 19th century occasionally remarked on the Irish pipers they heard, more often than not quite favourably. Killamey, co. Kerry, was established as a tourist-spot from a very early date, and guide books advised visitors that when they had enough of the scenery to send for another of Killamey's delights, James Gansey (d.1875), Lord Headley's blind piper, to entertain them. Anthony Trollope (who worked in Ireland for a number of years) painted a very sympathetic picture of a local piper in his first novel, The M'Dermotts of Ballycoran; but William Thackery fulminated in his Irish sketchbook against “that whetstone of the teeth, the bagpipe.”

A rare instance of comments from someone who actually knew something about piping occurs in Gilpin Gorst, Narrative of an excursion to Ireland, (London 1825). The excur- sion in question was undertaken by the governor, court and members of the Honourable Irish Society of London, one of the chief undertakers in the Plantation of Ulster (1609). Gorst, its secretary, was apparently a native of either Westmoreland or Cumberland, as he mentions Tirrill and Ullswater. Unlike most other English visitors to Ireland, Gorst seems to have arrived without a cargo of preconceived notions and opinions on the country and its people; indeed, certain views he expressed would not have gone down well with many of his travelling companions.

Like numerous nineteenth-century gentlemen, Gorst had a great interest in natural science. On 25 May 1825 he and the others of his party hired side-cars to take them out to the village of Lucan, co. Dublin, on the banks of the Liffey, where there was a celebrated spa well. Having visited the spring, the party repaired to the Spa Hotel (still in existence) for breakfast, which Gorst described in mouth-watering detail - healthy eating having yet to make an impact (pp 22-3):

‘We sauntered about the walks for half an hour, when a messenger arrived to say that breakfast was ready, which was composed of lamb chops, fried as delicately brown as if they had come from the kitchen of the Albion’, tongue, fresh eggs, cream that a mouse might run over without being bogged; butter, just emerged from the chum, bread of many sorts, and glorious griddle cake - tea and coffee, and all these good things for ten pennies a-head! I We made a royal repast and, by way of keeping all quiet, I absorbed a glass of the most exquisite white Cognac.


Our ears were now suddenly saluted with delightful music, accompanied by thevoice. The sounds were sweet, though strange, and created a debate as to what and how many instruments the band consisted of. In one thing we all agreed, there were bagpipes, but whether a violin, a bass, a clarionet, or the whole, accompanied, was a moot point. On opening the door of the room, a lad of about sixteen, of a very pensive air, and minstrel like mien, sat in one of the recesses ofthe saloon, with his Irish pipes and with these alone did he produce ‘the concord of sweet sounds’ which we had heard. They were the wild, pathetic airs, of his own dear island, and he played them with great expression and feeling. I sat beside him while playing, and found, in addition to the chaunter and drones of the Scots bagpipe, there were three or four pipes, of different lengths and calibre, with keys, which he pressed with the ball of his hand and, at the same time, another, and sometimes two, with the wrist and arm; thus producing exquisite harmony, which I did not think the instrument capable of. I supposed that the extra pipes were 3rds and 5ths to the keynote, and some of the other to supply the faulty notes, common to the Scots chaunter, or probably they might be semi- tones. I enquired, at the bar, if he were a player of any note in the country, thinking that

“His notes so wild and ready thrill, “They shew'd no common piper's skill;”

but, I was told, that they did not know him “at all, at all” - he was just a lad that had come in from the road. I wish I had been an Irish peer, or an Irish prelate, for the latter seem to be the richest, and I would have retained him for my own piper; but perhaps he might have preferred his own wandering mode of life, like “auld Edie Auchiltree” who liked to “gang danderin about by the bonny burn sides”. And I felt some inclination to buy his pipes, but I reflected that I might find them as useless in my hands as my Lord Portsmouth did Punch, when he bought him in the street, and was disappointed at finding he did not “squeak and gibber” in his drawing room, as well as he did in Portman Square. But, cour- teous reader, lest you should think me presumptuous, be it known, that in the evenings of summer, but in the morning of my days, I had frequently assayed to play the pipes, under the tuition of Will Bewsher, of Tirrill (who was good for nothing else) and whose ca- dences have often aroused the echoes of the Lake of Ulleswater, when

“The silver light, with quivering glance, “Played on the water’s still expanse,”

for so Sir Walter hath it.’

Before leaving Lucan that morning, Gorst ‘made a memorandum to hear the famous piper who played “afore the King.'”


That evening, when his party visited the official residence of the lord mayor of Dublin, The Mansion House in Dawson Street, Gorst tried to make good his resolution. They were shown a new addition to the building. The round Room, which had been constructed for the visit of George IV in 1821. Their guide, a Mr Beresford, senior steward on the occasion of the royal visit, showed them the enormous throne that had borne the king’s bulk, and the glass from which he drank whiskey-punch. But Gorst’s mind was on other matters (p.27): ‘when upon the subject of Royalty, I enquired of Mr Beresford, where the piper was to be found who played to the King, and I was sorry to hear that he was dead.’

The piper in question here was Kearns Fitzpatrick, one of the most celebrated players of the early nineteenth century. On 22 August 1821 he performed “God save the King” and “St Patrick's Day” before George IV in the Theatre Royal, Dublin, to great applause, though the volume of his pipes was thought to be insufficient for the large auditorium (Saunders' Dub- lin Newsletter, 23 August 1821). Like O’Farrell and possibly John Murphy, Fitzpatrick was a native of co. Tipperary, and his odd forename was a botched anglicisation of the Irish Ciaran. By the time of his command performance Fitzpatrick was an old man, but his date of birth in unknown. In 1814 Sir Vere Hunt, a co. Tipperary landlord, recorded visiting Lanespark in that county, 'where he and the company enjoyed “plenteous libations of putteen punch to the melodious notes of Karin Fitzpatrick’s pipes” 1

As with Mark Twain, the 1825 reports of Fitzpatrick’s death were greatly exaggerated, and he was still alive and playing three years later. Writing from Cashel, co. Tipperary, a German visitor to Ireland, Prince Hermann Puckler- Muskau, gave a delightful pen-picture of the old piper:

“Since Fitzpatrick, the piper whom I had ordered for yesterday, was still tarrying in the town, I had him play for me privately in my room during breakfast, and in this way was able to have a closer look at his instrument. It is, as you already know, peculiar to Ireland, and a strange mingling of the old and new is to be seen in it. The original simple bagpipe has been united with the sounds of the flute, oboe, the single organ and the bassoon. Together they present a strange but fairly complete concert. The elegant little windbag is fastened to the left arm by a silken ribbon; the communicating wind tube lies across the body, while the hands play on an upright pipe with holes like a flageolet, to which five or six shorter ones are tied, like a colossal Papageno flute. While it is being played the right arm moves incessantly to and from the body, to keep air in the windbag. The opening of a flap brings out a deep humming tone, which works like the loud pedal of the piano.

“Through the movement of his whole body as well as the aforementioned pipes, Fitzpatrick brought forth a sound which no other instrument possesses. The sight of the whole, which you must imagine for yourself, was truly unusual. Thebeautiful old man had thick, white, curly hair, and his bagpipe was most splendidly adorned: the pipes of ebony mounted with silver, the ribbon richly embroidered and the bag hung with flame-coloured


silk and silver fringes. I had him play the oldest Irish melodies to me, wild compositions which usually begin with in a melancholy guise, like the songs of the Slavs, and end in a jig, the Irish national dance, or in warlike music. One of these melodies was the very con- vincing facsimile of a fox hunt, and another that I thought was borrowed from the hunting chorus of Freischutz was in fact five hundred years older.

“After a while the pipet left off, and said very politely: “It must be known to you, sir, that when sober the Irish bagpipe has not a good sound. It needs evening or the silence of the night, gay company and the lovesome perfume of smoking whiskey punch. So now allow me to take my leave.” I richly rewarded the good old man, who will always stand for me as a real representative of the Irishnation.” 2

When Fitzpatrick died remains unknown, but it was probably not long after Puckler- Muskau met him. He was one of the pipers that historian and journalist Maurice Lenihan recalled in “Reminiscences of a Journalist lxxxi” in the Limerick Reporter and Tipperary Vindicator, 23 August 1867: “Kyran Fitzpatrick was another of the celebrated pipers of his day and is pretty well remembered in the south of Ireland by some of the oldest inhabitants. He was quite blind, large, heavy, gentleman-like in look and manner - vener- able rather in appearance. Clonmel was his headquarters, where he was accustomed to play to delighted audiences.”

Clonmel is supposed to have been the native place of the famous O’Farrell, but he was one of a number of Tipperary pipers known from other sources that Lenihan did not men- tion. O’Farrell, though, seems to have had a soft spot for the city of Waterford, and pub- lished a number of tunes named after the city: ‘The Waterford Hornpipe’, ‘A Trip to Wa- terford’ and his own composition ‘The Waterford Waltz’. Clonmel and Waterford, how- ever, are linked by the Suir River (pronounced ‘Shure’), which enters the sea at Waterford, having formed theborder between Tipperary and Waterford for much of its length.

Puckler-Muskau was not the only German traveller the Irish pipes impressed. J.G.Kohl comments a number of times on music and musicians in his work on Ireland, which was published in translation as Travels in Ireland (London 1844). Kohl met a piper named O'Sullivan in co. Kerry - given how common tlje name is in co. Kerry it would be sur- prising if he didn’t - who told him he never played a note up to his 30s or 40s. But hav- ing fallen asleep one night in a fairy fort, he received the gift of music from the deni- zens and woke up the best piper in Munster (p.62). Understandably Kohl was sceptical of this labour-saving method of learning music. Learning music from the fairies is, of course, a common legend. In Irish folklore it was alright if the fairies gave the music to a musician, usually a piper, but to take music from them was dangerous. Various pip- ers, some of whom lived in the present century, were credited with knowing An Ceol Si ‘The Fairy Music’, having overheard it, usually late at night. Playing it, though, usually had dire consequences: listeners were compelled to dance, with dishes and pots joining them; or the piper’s hand would wither and shrivel up as soon as he began playing.


Kohl’s most interesting reference to piping occurs in connection with a Repeal meeting he attended in the city of Limerick. The Repeal Movement, led by Daniel O’Connell, sought the revocation of the Act of Union, which had abolished the Irish Parliament in 1801.After the meeting the crowd dispersed quietly, and Kohl wrote (p.75):

“Some of them, however, followed an Irish piper, who, surrounded by hundreds of listen- ers, went through the streets, stopping now and then at the door of some respectable- looking house, and playing his old Celtic melodies. In general, notwithstanding the melan- choly sadness which breathed through his minstrelsy, the doors remained closed against him. At length, however, one opened; a liveried servant made his appearance, the piper was called in, and the gaping multitude dispersed.

“The Irish pipers appear to me to be the most skilful in the world; and though, like my travelling acquaintance, they have not all learned their music from the fairies, yet they know how to put as much sweetness as possible into the disagreeable instrument, and I be- lieve they are often engaged to play at evening parties in the houses of the wealthy, espe- cially those of the south of Ireland, who are celebrated for their skill.”

Kohl was in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine (1845-9), at a time when pipers were ‘as plentiful as blackberries in autumn’. The country teemed with a population of eight million; and other visitors remarked on the gaiety of the ordinaty people, despite their poverty, and their love of music and dancing. All this was to change in the aftermath of the Famine, and piping went into a declinein Ireland that was not to be arrested until the beginning of this century.

  • G.Neely, Kilcooley; land and people in Tipperary (Belfast 1983), p.87


  • Flora Brennan (ed. and trans), Puckler's Progress: the adventures of Prince Puckler- Muskau in England, Wales and Ireland as told in letters to his former wife, 1826-9 (London 1987) pp 225-6