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- by Steve McGrail Issue 50 January/February 2003


Rutherglen in Glasgow is home to one of Britain's finest exponents of the uilleann pipes, Pat McNulty. He's played a major role in Irish culture in Scotland, something that was recognized in 1984 by his receiving an Irish Post Community Award. Amongst other things, he helped establish Glasgow's first Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branch (in 1957) along with fellow tradition-bearer Owen Kelly and the late Jimmy McHugh; this was the first-ever Comhaltas beyond Ireland. However, he's been rather out of the traditional music scene in recent years. He's now getting back - although he's not too enamoured of what he finds in it as far as his beloved instrument is concerned...

He was born in Glasgow, his mother's family being from Doohamlet near Castleblayney in County Monaghan. His father "played uilleann pipes a bit", he says, but his grandfather, Pat Ward, was "a genuinely great piper". His mother was a well-known ballad singer, who also played melodeon.

Despite such an ancestry, he didn't do his growing up during an ideal time for the learning of Irish music in Scotland: it wasn't even that ideal a time for learning it in Ireland, despite the efforts of Seán Ó Riada, Breandán Breathnach and others. Ireland's traditional music was at a low ebb (as was Scotland's then). For a keen youngster, there were no classes for traditional instruments. Nor were the instruments themselves around; one of his early memories was the depressing sight of his grandfather's old pipes, broken and hopelessly beyond repairing

Not that he actually started on the pipes, but on fiddle, partly teaching himself. He was soon able to accompany stepdancing - a strong feature of Glasgow's Irish culture in the period, compared with the generally weaker instrumental playing and song. But accompanying dances eventually palled. "It was just forever battering away", he remembers. "Besides, I'd heard the pipes, they'd started to fascinate me, I was getting hooked".

"I heard them on old 78s, and I thought I'd like to play this wonderful instrument. I heard through my fiddle tutor John Davis of an old man in Glasgow, Willie Hamilton, who actually made pipes. I tracked him down, only to discover that he'd used to get tuition from my grandfather! Anyway, he made me a simple set. They were in the best pitch for the instrument, half a tone below concert pitch. But I had to teach myself and try and learn from records, mainly Leo Rowsome, that I'd pick up on our regular Irish holidays. There weren't records to be had in Glasgow then, naturally. Nor anything like 'teach yourself' books, either".

He quickly became a master of the instrument. He was also unique, he reckons. "When I started, I doubt there was another uilleann piper in Britain - at least, not playing concerts like me. Most people hadn't even heard of uilleann pipes". But he wasn't merely a rarity, he was also good, proving it by winning the All-Ireland championship in 1958, just a year after starting playing. He went on to win five more All-Irelands, plus prizes at Oireachtas na Gaeilge, the great annual Irish-language and culture event. "I'm not quite sure how that happened", he smiles. "Maybe they were just overwhelmed by the fact that a Scotsman could play the uillean pipes at all!"

He found himself drawn into Scotland's unfurling folk scene, getting involved with Norman Buchan and Dominic Behan in Glasgow and with Arthur Argo and the Aberdeen musicians. "The Scottish 'folk scene' is a bit of a misnomer", he recalls. "It was nothing like it was in England, say, where people could play and sing in pubs - something that the Irish pioneered, incidentally. In Scotland, that was just impossible. Illegal, in fact, until the 70s when music in pubs first became permissible. We had to arrange things in wee village halls, Miners' Welfares and such". He played Scottish music, of course, but his main focus was on the Irish repertoire. This he had some difficulty finding locally: "In the early days, all you really got in Glasgow were fiddles and accordions. Flutes, for instance, were very rare. They certainly weren't indigenous to Scotland, nor to the Glasgow Irish, who'd come mainly from Derry and Donegal. That meant that Irish music in Glasgow then (less so later on) reflected only Ulster. You didn't get the full spectrum of Irish musical styles and instruments that you'd find in places like London or Birmingham - you know, Sligo or Clare or Kerry singing and playing styles, or whatever"

At the time, he wasn't limited only to playing the pipes, though. He'd learned whistle and piano, playing the latter in the céilí band he'd formed (That band won an All-Ireland, too; it toured parts of Scotland, naturally playing mainly Scottish music). He began collecting pipe tunes, in 1965 publishing his 'Collection Of The Dance Music Of Ireland'. This has been reprinted five times. Uilleann piping audiences grew, and accordingly he bought higher-pitched pipes from Kennedy of Cork, powerful enough for concerts. He also inherited an 1840s set of Egan pipes from his brother-in-law. These are in the key of C, which he believes probably makes them unique. He published poems, he recorded and regularly performed in Ireland (including on RTÉ) and played and broadcast in Germany and the USA. Appearing at the BBC Proms in John Tavener's 'Celtic Requiem' in 1969, he became the first uilleann piper ever to play in a concert orchestra. He held masterclasses, composed (his tunebook, 'The Piper's Dream', finally came out in 1990), released two LPs, and so on.

He was doing all this whilst holding down a full-time job as a research scientist. His research skills and interests, however, readily melded with his music. He researched the pipes' acoustics and designed and built improved instruments using his eventual findings. On the basis of this and other work, he's now a Fellow of the Makers and Researchers of Historic Instruments.

Yet for all that - the playing, competing, researching etc - and the fact that he's done things in the last decade (like composing a commissioned work for Glasgow's becoming the European City of Culture) he's hardly well-known. There are reasons for this. The traditional music world has changed but he still takes a very 'pure' approach to his instrument. This isn't, well, fashionable. He passionately advocates the pipes as a solo instrument (or perhaps put alongside other pipes). He believes in solo playing and singing in Irish music generally. Although there are other voices saying the same - fiddler Paddy Glackin has recently argued that solo rather than ensemble playing is the proper basis of the Irish tradition - this is now an era of bands, and 'Celtic fusion'. 'Fusion' is a notion that Pat utterly rejects: "Whatever does Celtic fusion mean? Music's either Irish or Scottish, not both!" The lone individual on stage performing straightforwardly is increasingly a rare sight. And he wishes it wasn't. "I'm very critical of the media for all this. For a start, I'm shocked at how little traditional music RTÉ does now. Obviously, we can't get Irish TV in Glasgow, but speaking to Nicholas Carolan in the Irish Traditional Music Archive recently, I gather RTÉ's traditional output is very low. Is there a policy favouring bands over soloists? Would even Willie Clancy get a hearing nowadays? But it's not just about RTÉ. It's commercial pressure. I think the public are getting false ideas about Irish music. What they get is glamorous, but to me, it doesn't work. It's a much-degraded version of the national music. It's all led by media people who don't know (or care) about our music. Musicians who should know better collude with this. One sign of it is pipers playing hell for leather because the media wants 'fast'. Alright, the stuff can briefly seem clever, but in the long run it's not Irish music. I'd argue that nowadays almost no pipers - except people like Paddy Keenan - are using the instrument to its full potential. Even soloists. I'm afraid that even Liam Óg Ó Flynn has drifted a bit from the tradition. And of course, it's pointless using the regulators in a band, they won't be heard anyway. Also, the fact is, melody instruments like pipes simply don't go with harmonic instruments like guitars and bazoukis. They simply don't. And they certainly don't go with bodhrans".

He's always campaigned for the pipes. He helped found Na Piobairí Uilleann in 1968 ("I'm proud that masters like Ennis and Rowsome considered me a colleague, young as I was then") and in the 80s, The Society Of Union Pipers in Britain. "I hoped that Na Piobairí would protect and promote the music. But I don't think they have. Nor has Comhaltas. In fairness, it's been two pretty small organisations versus big money... Anyway, although Ireland is full of pipers (and there are uilleann pipers here too), I've found that many understand only band playing, probably because of The Chieftains and such. They've wanted tuition from me, but how can I teach them? They haven't the musical language. Few have even heard of Clancy, Doran, Ennis, and Rowsome".

Views like these don't readily get him onto concert stages. (He wonders, in fact, if folk clubs and festivals are generally interested in solo instrumentalists per se any more). However, he was pleased to be invited to perform solo at Sidmouth Folk Festival this year. Essentially in isolation, he continues to beaver away quietly on various piping projects. He released a video in 1996, 'The Singing Chanter', showing the full concert instrument at work, and another video in 2002 of himself and his wife Ann performing together on pipes. He's currently making a CD and is starting on what he wants to be the definitive book on the pipes - their history, playing techniques etc - all placed within a musical, technical and scientific context.

He's hopeful for the pipes, although believing that the threats to the pure instrument are huge. "The pipes have been around for centuries", he reflects, "seeing good times and bad. Currently, I think they're being taken in the wrong direction. I want them going in the right one, that's all".

Steve McGrail

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