Is there anything more hauntingly beautiful or evocative than the sound of the uilleann pipes, especially when they are in the hands of a master like Darragh O’Heiligh.
Playing the pipes since he was just five years old, the Drogheda man is now one of the most renowned in the country and has graced stages right across the globe.
From Fleadh Cheoil and Ceol FM, to Music at the Gate, it is also his passion for sharing traditional music with the public, and educating people about its heritage and importance, that makes him an outstanding member of the Comhaltas community.
“I have been involved in music since before I can remember,” says Darragh with a smile. “In fact, my very first memory is melting the top off a gas burner, as I tried to see what would happen when I melted instruments, and that was way before I went to school.”
Thankfully, young Darragh quickly stopped his trail of destruction and turned to more melodic pursuits!
“I first picked up the pipes when I was about seven, and I was blessed to have Mick O’Brien (celebrated Dublin piper) as my first and only teacher, which was incredible,” he recalls.
“I had heard Mick playing with a group of his friends in Dublin when I was a child and I thought ‘I want to do that’ and from that day, I pestered him to teach me”!
Darragh was encouraged in his early musical career by his family and friends.
“There has always been music in my family, even in an appreciative way, for generations, and I have pictures of my relatives down on the pier in Clogherhead in the 1920s, playing fiddles, but not yet pipes, as they were still quite unheard of,” says Darragh, whose father is well known former councillor Ken O’Heiligh.
“For my 16th birthday, I got a full set from my dad, but they are generally custom-made for the player, which makes a huge difference”.
Uilleann pipes are frequently described as haunting or evocative, but Darragh never tires of hearing their sound.
“They are not an easy instrument to play, but sound so beautiful – I can sit at home and listen to the harmonics, the resonance of chords and notes, and it is very emotional,” he explains.
“I’m not one to be expressive or flowery with words, but the pipes give me that opportunity, and one of the reasons why I was honoured recently to play at the graveside at Jimmy Weldon’s funeral (the late local photographer) was it gave me words to say how I felt at his passing.”
Learning to play is one thing, but like a good violin or piano, the better the instrument, the better the sound.
“My current set was handmade by a Japanese man called Makoto, and he met me, measured me and watched me play, so they now fit me like a glove,” he explains.
“A typical set of pipes start at €1,800 for a practice set to an average of €10,000 for a decent full set”.
The different types of wood also change the sound.
“Mine is made from a Japanese wood but years ago, the holy grail for pipes was African blackwood and now it’s too difficult to get”.
Playing the uilleann pipes takes time and dedication and practice, there is no mystery, just the commitment to get better and learn.
I’m a firm believer in just getting out there and performing, and I started when I was still rubbish at around seven years old,” he laughs. “It’s all about the confidence, and the happiness and eagerness to play and as soon as that happens, let them make the mistakes in public!”
The two years of Fleadh Cheoil in Drogheda in 2018 and 2019 were an absolute dream come true for Darragh.
“The whole thing from beginning to end – from those first early-stage presentations with Fleadh Street, to the later stages when we were very close – was amazing, and I was so proud of Drogheda and the people of the town,” says Darragh, who is married to Emma, and has two children Meabh (8) and Rian (6), who play fiddle and tin whistle.
“We were starting from a place where Drogheda wasn’t particularly known for the culture and from a logistical point of view, regarding bed nights and infrastructure, we had a lot of work to do.
“In the end, Drogheda did fantastic – from the Dome in the Park to the Ceili Picnic, and now other Fleadh are taking bits of what we did”.
One of the events Darragh is well known for is Music at the Gate, where local musicians gathered at the spectacular backdrop of St Laurence Gate.
“It was a very successful series of events, but I had put a lot of my own money into it, costing me upwards of €1,000 per month, before I got some help from the Drogheda Credit Union and local pubs and restaurants,” explains Darragh. “So now, I have been approached by the Drogheda Festivals group, under Love Drogheda BIDs, who have offered to help out and we should have news of some interesting projects very soon.
“Hopefully this will mean Drogheda at the Gate will be back, bigger and better than ever before, as not only was it an enjoyable event, it gave a stage to some new musicians, and is a wonderful tourist draw.”
There is talk of using a local park, but he hopes the Gate can remain in the title.
“It’s not only a beautiful backdrop, but a pillar of Drogheda and when people attend, they feel connected, and it loosens people out, prompting them to sing in public for the first time.”
Darragh says it is hard to put into words the joy he feels when playing his uilleann pipes.
“I love what playing the pipes makes people feel – I do it because I enjoy the reaction, like an unspoken conversation,” says Darragh.
“When you’re there, tapping your foot or finger on your glass, I will hear you, and feed off the energy. I get lost in the communication it prompts.
His favourite music and venues change all the time and he says he picks the pieces and the type of performance to suit the environment.
“In the Old Abbey recently, I put on a set that matched the environment – not chaotic but subdued – but in a pub, it can be energetic,” he explains.
“I love playing at Mass or a funeral as you can really hear the music, the acoustics, as opposed to the din of the pub”.
His day job is an senior systems’ engineer in DCU, but is naturally in great demand as a music teacher.
“I love teaching, and I wasn’t going to until I spoke with Mick O’Brien and he reminded me that I have all this technique and history, so wouldn’t it be nice to pass that on,” he says. “So, it’s not really teaching for me, it’s so that someone else can get enjoyment from it like I do.
“In fact, I can listen back to some of my older students, and I’ll hear a ‘Darraghism’ and I recognise my own technique!”
There is already a rich heritage uilleann pipes in Drogheda, with a stunning mural in Shop Street by Ciaran Dunlevy of the Taylor brothers, local men who made pioneering changes to pipes.
“I recently learned a lovely bit of history about some of the pipes they created, in that they were made from local shipwrecked wood, often with the rivets still attached,” he says. “I hope to stage a special event later in the year with a connection to the brothers and mark their contributions.”
An accomplished accordion and tin whistle player, another string to Darragh’s bow, to mix metaphors and instruments, is his radio career.
“Ceol FM is a traditional music platform I started four years ago, which is going from strength to strength and at its height was listened to by 18,000 people in 36 countries around the world, and it hasn’t really dipped in that time,” says Darragh.
“I set it up just to share music with people, and that’s what I do, just play continuous music 24/7 with no input from me, and you can pick whatever music you want to hear.
“It’s like a personalised radio station.”
Darragh says his ultimate dream isn’t for him, it’s investment in music – not financial, but time and commitment.
“The reason I started Music at the Gate and the lessons, is to build a legacy of music that I have enjoyed and others can enjoy,” he says.
“It makes me so happy to see kids who performed first at the Gate and who have kept it up, and if I can keep that going for a while, that will have made everything worthwhile.”
And the burning question is whether his own children have picked up the pipes yet?
“Just give it time...” he says with a wry smile!