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Mick O'Brien

Mick O’Brien, playing the national bagpipe of Ireland

The hauntingly beautiful sounds of the Irish uilleann bagpipes will be heard in Pontypridd as some of Ireland’s top traditional musicians perform at the annual Piping At The Old Bridge’ concert at Pontypridd Museum on Friday, September 6. Instructional workshops will be given on Saturday, September 7.

The uilleann pipes, the national bagpipe of Ireland, is generally considered to be the most sophisticated and difficult to master of all the instruments in the bagpipe family. The word ‘uilleann’ means ‘elbow’ in the Irish language and refers to the bellows worn under the arm of the player that is used to pump air into the instrument.

Piping At The Old Bridge is organised by the South Wales Uilleann Pipers Club, the only Irish piping association in Wales. Performing for this special tenth anniversary concert will be two of Ireland’s finest living pipers, Mick O’Brien and Gay McKeon, both coming from distinguished musical families in Dublin. They have performed for audiences across the globe and are also previous visitors to South Wales and long-time supporters of the work of the Pipers Club. Also performing at the concert is Dublin fiddler Jacqui Martin, and talented local singer Cara Cullen.

The concert kicks off the club’s annual festival (tionol in the Irish language), which will see pipers and fiddlers from across Wales, Ireland and England come to Pontypridd for a weekend of instruction, networking and public performance.

“We are incredibly excited to be celebrating our 10th anniversary with Mick O’Brien and Gay McKeon,” said Pipers Club co-chair, Rick Lines. “Over the past ten years, the South Wales Tionol has become one of the most respected and well known uilleann piping events in the UK. We hope to get a good crowd out to the concert to welcome Mick and Gay back to the Valleys.”

In addition to the gala concert on Friday, the South Wales Pipers – with the support of Pontypridd Town Council – will be holding a free public ‘Piper’s Chair’ recital and ‘Try the Pipes’ session at 1pm on Saturday at Pontypridd Museum. “The Piper’s Chair is a chance for visiting pipers and piping students of all levels to get up and play a tune for the audience and show how they are progressing on this notoriously challenging instrument,’ said Rick. “The ‘Try the Pipes’ session will be an opportunity for anyone interested in learning more about the uilleann pipes to try the instrument and ask questions of an experienced piper. Hopefully we can attract some new students to join the club as a result.”

Just for the record, the Pipers Club wishes to thank the many organisations in and around Pontypridd that help support and promote the event each year – Pontypridd Museum, Pontypridd Town Council, GTFM, YourPontypridd and Na Piobairi Uilleann.

Toronto-born Rick’s landed up in the beautiful Valleys – and it’s thanks to the uilleann pipes

Gay McKeon

Gay McKeon: piping master and chief executive of Na Píobairí Uilleann

Pipers Club co-chair Rick Lines comes from Canada and is a Swansea University lecturer. He is on the faculty of the School of Law, where he teaches Criminology: “I’m from Toronto originally, which is where I started learning the pipes under the guidance of my brilliant friend and piping mentor, Debbie Quigley.”

Rick says that his connection to Ferndale is directly linked to the tionol: “I started visiting Ferndale 10 years ago while living in London, specifically to attend the tionol, which for the first few years was held in Ferndale and Tylorstown. I visited regularly over a period of several years for various events organised by the South Wales Pipers, and I just fell in love with the place and the people. Eventually I was fortunate enough that circumstances allowed me to move here.”

The Pipers Club was founded in 2008, and their first tionol was in 2009. Rick went to the second tionol in 2010. He says: “Our club is a small one, with about five or six ‘hard core’ members and a circle of about eight to ten people who attend occasionally. It meets at Pontypridd Museum – and because of the relatively small number of pipers in the area, our meetings welcome all traditional musicians interested in sharing a few tunes.”

The Pipers Club works to popularise and familiarise the Welsh public with the unique sound and shape of the uilleann pipes. Rick says: “One of the main missions of the club is to try and attract new people to begin learning the instrument – especially young people – and teach them to play. At the tionol on Saturday afternoon, September 7, we will be hosting a ‘try the pipes’ session just for this purpose – so anyone interested in the instrument can come along to Pontypridd Museum and try playing a set of pipes with the help of an experienced piper.”

Rick says that the uilleann pipes is composed of three parts – the chanter, which is fingered to play the melody of the tune, and the drones, which provide the low rumble underneath the melody: “These are common to all bagpipes.  However, the uilleann pipes have a unique third component called regulators, which are essentially three keyed chanters that lie across the lap and are activated by the player using the wrist. This enables the piper to play chords underneath the melody line.

“Obviously, all these parts complicate the task of keeping the pipes reeded, in tune and airtight. The uilleann pipes are a challenging instrument to learn as well as to maintain, which is why uilleann pipers tend to form clubs to provide mutual support to each other.  This is why the South Wales Pipers combine teaching alongside assistance in keeping the instrument functioning.”

The uilleann pipes possess a long history of master musicians who have championed the instrument – for instance, the great Leo Rowsome, Liam O’Flynn, Davy Spillane, Paddy Moloney, Tomás Ó Canainn, Séamus Ennis and Finbar Furey. Could Rick name a few? “There are really too many great pipers to list, both past and present,” he says. “Everyone has their own favourites. For me, that list would also include the late pipers Tommy Reck, Willie Clancy and Patsy Touhey; great deceased travelling pipers such as Johnny Doran and Felix Doran, and their decedent John Rooney, who sadly just passed recently. Mick O’Brien and Gay McKeon, who are our guests this year at the tionol, would certainly rank highly on anyone’s list of the most important and talented pipers of the modern era.

“Sadly, many of the great older pre-1950 pipers did not leave a recorded record, so we only have written or oral descriptions of their astonishing abilities. One such example relevant to South Wales is Miss May McCarthy, a teenage piping sensation from Cork who did a tour of Cardiff, Barry, Swansea and Merthyr Tydfil in 1910. I have researched and written this tour, which by all accounts was extraordinary, but sadly have no recordings of her playing.”

Inviting the two guest uilleann pipers, fiddler Jacqui and singer Cara have caused a buzz of anticipation in the The Pipers Club this year. Rick says: “Mick and Gay are two of the best known and most respected uilleann pipers of the modern era. Both are established recording artists and concert performers, and both have travelled around the world bringing the pipes to new audiences and supporting the development of younger pipers. Mick is from a well-known musical family in Dublin, while Gay was the last student taught by the great piping master, Leo Rowsome. Both are previous guests of our South Wales tionol, so inviting them to join us for this tenth anniversary event was an obvious choice.

“Gay is also the chief executive of Na Píobairí Uilleann, the international uilleann piping association based in Dublin. NPU has been a huge supporter of our club and tionol over the years. Earlier this year I was honoured to be appointed to the Board of Directors of NPU, which has further strengthened the links between our clubs.

“Jacqui Martin is a well-respected fiddler from Dublin, who often performs with Gay.  She has taught at festivals across Ireland and Europe. Cara Cullen is from Pontypridd and is a member of our Pipers Club. Although not a piper herself, she is a remarkable singer in both English and Welsh and regularly performs around South Wales.”

Rick outlines the programme: ”The tionol kicks off with the big concert on Friday, September 6 at Pontypridd Museum –  Doors at 7pm and music starts at 7:30 sharp. Gay and Mick will be doing solo piping sets, Jacqui a fiddle set and Cara a songs set. Tickets are available in advance from the museum or at the door on the night for £7/£5.

“On Saturday we will be having a full day of classes on pipes, fiddle and tin whistle at the Museum. Gay and Mick will be teaching pipes and Jacqui the fiddle. Whistle will be taught by our club co-chair and County Tyrone native, Jason Rouse. We do our best to cater to all levels of students, and beginners are most definitely welcome. Registration is at 9:30am and classes then run from 10am-4pm, with a break for lunch and The Piper’s Chair. The cost for the day, which includes lunch, is £35 – £20 for those aged 16 and under.

“At 1pm on Saturday we will be holding The Piper’s Chair recital at the Museum, an annual event in which we invite visiting pipers and piping students to get up and play a tune in front of the audience. This is a free public event that all are welcome to attend – it’s supported by Pontypridd Town Council. Following the recital will be the ‘try the pipes’ session for anyone who wants to give the instrument a go.

“After the events on both Friday and Saturday, we will be hosting open Irish music sessions at local pubs, to which all traditional musicians are welcome. On Friday following the concert, we will be heading a few doors down to The Llanover Arms in Pontypridd. On Saturday, we will will be returning to the Pipers Club’s original home of Ferndale for a session at The Ferndale Hotel from about 8pm. There we will be joined for some songs by members of Côr Meibion Morlais, the Male Voice Choir in Ferndale, of which I am also a member.”

Rick emphasises that promoting the playing and teaching of the pipes is a core part of the mission of the South Wales Pipers Club. He says: “The tionol is the major event in our calendar each year. In addition to giving pipers from around Wales, England and Ireland a chance to get together and enjoy some music, we hope it also helps promote this wonderful instrument to the wider public, as well as show off the beauty of the Rhondda Valleys.”


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