Thursday 20 June 2019

Obituary: Liam O'Flynn

The uniquely talented uilleann piper, whistle player - and racing follower - is remembered by Peter Browne

Master: Liam O’Flynn was at the centre of a golden generation of Irish music. Illustration by Sean Lennon
Master: Liam O’Flynn was at the centre of a golden generation of Irish music. Illustration by Sean Lennon

Last week we sadly lost Liam O'Flynn, master uilleann piper and whistle player, who passed away on Wednesday. He was one of a golden generation who were at the centre of many good things that happened in traditional and folk music in Ireland over nearly 50 years from the early 1970s to today. He was such a comforting and continuing presence in Irish music that you might expect him to be there always but it was not to be - and although he had been ill for some time, it is still a shock and sadness that he is gone at the young enough age nowadays of 72.

Look at his achievements - first of all he was a uniquely talented piper with all the necessary gifts of tradition, taste and technique which were the product of years of learning, listening and playing. He knew and was influenced by three of the great pipers of that era. His first teacher was the legendary player, Leo Rowsome, in the then Municipal School of Music in Chatham Row in Dublin and Liam always acknowledged a big debt to Leo, as have all his pupils down the years.

Liam told me these lessons on Friday nights in Chatham Row were the highlight of his week as a boy. His father - also Liam - was born just outside Tralee, played the fiddle and was school principal in Kill in Co Kildare for 40 years, which is where Liam himself was born and grew up. He said that his father brought him up to Dublin every week to Leo Rowsome's piping lessons in a motorbike and sidecar, Liam inside protected from the elements in the sidecar and his father sitting on the saddle of the bike outside driving (I heard at the funeral service in Kill on Friday morning that Liam was interested in motorbikes - maybe those Friday night journeys were what sowed the seed all those years ago!)

Liam's mother Maisie was also musical, playing piano and church organ. She was from west Co Clare and a relation of a famous fiddle-player in that area, Junior Crehan. This was how Liam met Willie Clancy, the second of the "big" pipers, whom he followed and respected; in Liam's words he and Willie "clicked" and they met whenever Liam made his frequent visits to see him in Milltown Malbay in the late 1960s.

The third piper whom he knew well was Seamus Ennis. They shared a rented house in Terenure in Dublin for some years in the 1970s and Seamus passed on much piping knowledge to Liam. There was mutual liking and respect here and, as a sign of this, when Seamus died in 1982, he bequeathed his set of pipes to Liam. I've heard that Seamus actually stated explicitly in his will that he was passing this famous set of pipes on to Liam "...because he can play them!"

Given that Liam had at this stage become an uilleann piper of the highest quality and widely recognised as such, you might expect this would represent some form of career peak. In fact, much more was to come. When Christy Moore recorded the album Prosperous in the early 1970s, this led to the formation of Planxty and the band recorded three albums of music which, to this day, are classics. I've always reckoned Planxty was the group which first brought together different strands of folk and traditional music in a perfect synthesis, and the distinctive sound of Liam's pipes represented the most traditional part of that. In Donal Lunny's words on RTE Radio 1's Arena last week: "If Planxty was a ship, Liam was the star we steered her by".

When Planxty stopped in the mid-1970s (though they did reform), Liam was content to be a solo player and he often made music with good friends such as Sean Keane (fiddle) and Matt Molloy (flute) and he always enjoyed being close to traditional music's roots, particularly piping.

But in 1980, RTE Radio's commission of a composition for pipes and orchestra by Shaun Davey opened a door for the uilleann pipes that was new and unheard of. The Brendan Voyage is a suite of music in which the pipes represent the small boat made of leather and wood sailed by the explorer Tim Severin and his crew across the Atlantic and the orchestra takes the part of the elements and weather which the boat encountered and kept at bay on the ocean seas. To this day, it is a highly successful work and it took courage and imagination to create at the time. Like other musical ventures in Liam's life, he had all the qualities necessary to bring about success.

He was part of many other new projects - film music, playing work by the composer John Cage, and The Poet and The Piper, a verse and pipes performance collaboration with Seamus Heaney which was a joy to behold. I think in part it worked so well because accompanying their individual arts skills was an understanding and a mature respect between them which was very evident in the onstage atmosphere.

Indeed, Liam's personality was close to ideal: he was warm-hearted and decent, not in any sense exhibitionist and I think he could quickly perceive any situation for what it was. I never saw him criticise another person but a wry smile or a comment on a happening would let you know he had missed nothing!

He was gentle and soft-spoken. Generous, too, whenever I asked to him to help in anything and he could give concise insights into many aspects of music, traditional and otherwise. Once I had occasion to be the pipes soloist in The Brendan Voyage - a daunting prospect - and on the phone beforehand he suggested a very useful piece of advice: to display an outward confidence and ease on the stage even when you're feeling the very opposite. This should then translate into the collective mood of the orchestra and audience, whereas if your nerves were visible, this would set everyone on an uncomfortable edge.

Besides music, one of his big interests in life was horses, natural enough for Co Kildare. It brought him and his devoted wife Jane together and I know he took part in several amateur races in his time. He was knowledgeable on the subject too - once, when he was visiting my home to collect or return a pipes chanter, there happened to be racing on television. I think it was this time of year - the high season for jumps racing - and he told me quite a bit as we watched. The course going being very heavy, he said that the horses were so tired that they weren't so much jumping the fences as crawling over them.

Liam lit up stages and people's lives around the world with his music and brought a love for the uilleann pipes to it which it would have been impossible to foresee when he was starting out on his musical journey as a boy.

  • There will be a tribute to Liam O'Flynn in The Rolling Wave on RTE Radio 1 tonight at 9pm.

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