It is now more than 5 years since the death on 20 Sept. 1970 of Leo Rowsome whose name was, and still is, practically synonymous with the Uilleann pipes, yet so vividly has his image survived in the public memory that it is almost as if he were still alive – and this despite the rise to fame of a new generation of great pipers.
For at least 40 years, until age and ill health had begun to take their toll of memory and reflexes, he was the exponent par excellence of a free, flowing style which, despite criticisms of the purists, was authentic in its own way and left an indelible mark on contemporary Irish music in general and on piping in particular. With his instrument invariably in perfect tune he was ever and always the consummate showman who looked and played the part of a great musician. Everywhere he went he added glamour to his unique, most expressive and truly native instrument which has been enshrined in the national consciousness as a living link with the old, historic Irish nation of pre-famine days.
He was one of the last of that very small band of Uilleann pipe makers and his skill in reed making and in tuning pipes was unrivalled. His head was stored with the traditional lore of his father and grandfather and of the Cash and Byrne families and to this knowledge was added the experience of a lifetime backed by outstanding manual dexterity, eyes like a hawk, a keen, analytical brain and a most retentive memory.
Shortly before his death he had undertaken to train young pupils in the art of pipe and reed making and tuning. To the piping fraternity his sudden death was a veritable calamity, which however has since, to a great extent, been overcome by the work of Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU), formed some 3 years previously, of which he was a founder member and a joint patron with Séamus Ennis. This world-wide association is confined entirely to pipers and its object is to form a bond between the numerically small and widely dispersed exponents of the art so as to pool their knowledge and resources and make generally available the technology of reed making, tuning, pipe-making, piping, recordings of old pipers, biographical notes, transcriptions of valuable tapes and the publication of a magazine. All this was work dear to his heart; he watched it grow and flourish and lent to it the encouragement of his great prestige.
Much of his extraordinary pre-eminence stems from the fact that in contrast to all other pipe-makers during the last three-quarters of a century he alone devoted his whole life-time solely to the Uilleann pipes (or the Union pipes as they were called up to and including his father’s time). Other great pipers and pipe makers came and went but to all of them the pipes was but a sideline or a hobby, whereas with Leo it was his whole life, and indeed for 50 long years he lived by the pipes alone.
Not many of the other pipe makers were also great pipers, for the simple reason that their work cut into their practicing time. Leo somehow continued to achieve phenomenal proficiency as a piper despite long hours at his father’s old treadle lathe and the time-consuming business of repairing and tuning derelict sets, making reeds, teaching some 5 nights a week and off on a long journey nearly every weekend to concert, feis or flead ceoil. He did however have one inestimable advantage in addition to his undoubted talent. He had the expert tuition, from a very tender age, of his father, Willie, and of his uncle Tom Rowsome. Also he and his brother Tom used to play together, each with one hand on the same chanter, as well as duets on two chanters, harmonising beautifully. As a child and growing boy Leo was always playing around his father’s workshop, trying his hand at small jobs, and by the time his father was stricken by his last illness he had already nearly mastered his trade. As he was dying Willie strove with desperate urgency to pass on the remainder of his knowledge to Leo, and his last words had to do with some obscure aspect of the intricate art of reed making.
Leo, still a mere boy, was now the family bread winner. He secured the position of teacher with the Dublin Pipers Club which about this time, consequent upon the death of Nicholas Markey, had become vacant. This gave rise to a certain amount of heart burning as some of the members were in favour of appointing Tom Rowsome. He carried on manfully however and the small stipend was useful for a couple of years until the Club broke up during the Civil War in 1924. In the meantime, overcoming tremendous difficulties, he resurrected his father’s pipe making business at Harold’s Cross and actually found time to make a new concert pitch pipes for himself which for quality of tone and brilliance was never equalled in its class in his life-time. The main stock was inclined to leak slightly and to remedy this he encased it in silver which ha had engraved with his name and the year. This glorious instrument, shining and resplendent and sounding like an organ, was for nearly 50 years an object of fascination for countless audiences and of veneration and almost superstitious awe for pipers.
The Sheer economic necessity of impressing audiences and getting engagements with subsequent orders for new sets compelled him to present his music in the most brilliant manner possible. He therefore gave less prominence to the finer points of staccato ornamentation, most of which would have been lost on a lay audience anyhow. He concentrated instead on letting the melody flow out, clearly and sweetly, controlling the tone by clever tricks of fingering and momentary raisings of the chanter, using just enough closed (staccato) fingering to impart the essential phrasing and to making the utmost use of the regulators. Indeed it was possibly the unequalled facility with which he manipulated the latter that was the most potent factor in gaining him wide recognition. Not all pipers, however, fully approved of his style, including some of those he surpassed in popularity.
Leo, like his father before him, never had an unkind word to say about anyone, least of all another piper. He just went on his own serene way, topping the bills, broadcasting, teaching, pipe making, and building up his business and reputation until it was worldwide and he was in demand for the most important functions on both sides of the Irish sea.
As to Rowsome’s standing as a piper there has been some controversy. In his later years, especially after a serious illness, it became fashionable to disparage his piping as too facile and flutelike. Now that he is dead and gone his records are being re-examined with new interest and there is a growing consensus of opinion that his is a case of “the greatness of his art conceals itself”. One of his severest critics, who is also an outstanding authority, remarked to the writer recently, “I think Rowsome will have to be re-evaluated”. Johnny Doran, one of the greatest pipers of all time, swore by Leo, and his brother Felix Doran put him at the top of the list. Willie Clancy admired his playing intensely and used to maintain that he was a lot better than he was given credit for. There must be few better qualified to judge him than these three, now all, alas, gone to their eternal reward. Of course the first two had their origins in the same school of piping as Leo, but Clancy’s background was that of the greatest school in the world, Clare and Galway, that produced such great pipers as Patsy Touhey and Garrett Barry. Willie Clancy, back in the late 40s played for some years in his Piper’s Quartette with Tommy Reck and Seán Seery and described to the writer how Leo used to select pieces for broadcasting programmes more or less at random with little regard for difficulty or popularity and then got down in earnest to serious practice. The Quartette would probably have been more brilliant with less labour if he had settled for a programme limited to “chestnuts”, but Leo took the rough with the smooth. In a more general context Leo’s renditions, while truly traditional, were also, from the viewpoint of the classical musician, wholly satisfactory as they conformed to the fundamental principles of musicianship.
After he had made his first record in which, of course, the regulators were very prominent, some of his critics maintained that he depended on the regulators to such an extent that he could not play without using them. It was to disprove this story that he made a record with the “Broadcast” label without touching the regulators, one of the tunes being “The Mountain Lark”, a reel. In my opinion this is the best 78 record he ever made, yet he had it withdrawn because, as he told me, “There are flaws in it that even you didn’t spot”.
Leo was fortunate in the girl he married, Helena Williams, a school teacher who, like himself, loved Irish music and the pipes. She is also (for she is still with us and teaching) a beautiful singer of Irish airs. She secured for him a happy, comfortable home and managed his affairs so that he had leisure to follow his vocation. They had four fine children. Leon, a vocational teacher, has his father’s old position of Uilleann pipes teacher in the Municipal College of Music, Dublin, makes pipes in his spare time and is rapidly building up an international reputation as a piper, appearing on TV programmes on both sides of the Atlantic. Liam is in the top rank of Irish fiddlers and can also hold his own at the Scottish music. Helena is a brilliant exponent of the tin whistle, and a very active member of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann. Olivia, her twin sister, is an excellent pianist. One of Leon’s children, Kevin, is making good headway on the pipes – so there you have the fifth generation of Rowsome pipers.
The first time I saw Leo Rowsome was at a concert in Thurles in the late autumn of 1935. I had thought that on account of his great fame he must be an old or at least an elderly man and was agreeably surprised to discover that he was just a young man like myself and not the least bit puffed up by fame but simple, warm-hearted, jovial, happy, a fund of anecdotes and in general the very best of good company. We made a deal I which I traded my old pipes for a beautiful 16½? pipes that at one time had belonged to Liam Andrews. We became fast friends on that day and our friendship lasted until his death 35 years later. Until my marriage in 1938 I travelled generally once every week or fortnight to his class from such distant places as Tipperary, Carlow, Cavan and Clare. He was a first class teacher and succeeded in giving individual attention to upwards of 30 pupils, Many of them juveniles. He was always patient, never abusive, maintained good discipline and while he never pushed his pupils he managed to maintain progress. He never set standards higher than those of the individual pupils with the result most of them stayed on until they had achieved reasonable competence, and quite a few went on to become famous. He wrote out music for each pupil, very quickly, in a beautiful hand and these manuscripts are cherished now in many a collection. He was always a stickler for correct settings, and his are surely the best.
For a good many years before his death he had occupied part of his spare time – what little of it there way – with writing out his own settings, which were the correct settings which came to him mostly through his father, from the old, long dead pipers of Wexford, Wicklow, Kilkenny, Kildare and that territory generally. It is hoped that his widow will get around to having this collection published as it would certainly be a boon, especially for pipers, who now have often to struggle with settings more suitable for fiddles and accordions.
Leo was at his glorious best when heard broadcasting live over the radio (the Director of music for some unknown reason would never allow him to be recorded). These programmes were listened to avidly by his numerous fans. Only two of the “78” records approached the broadcasts in quality. The originals of the present LP were most disappointing and I well recall Leo listening to one of them and the pained expression on his face, which was all the more so because he was always inclined to be optimistic and see the best side of everything.
Leo was one of my best friends and as I write old memories keep crowding in. What I have written is only a small fraction of what I could tell about a great and a good man. Also, what I have written is not intended to be dogmatic or to be the last word. Others have still a lot to say about Leo Rowsome and it is safe to predict that for generations to come he will be the topic of many a discussion. He lived a happy, useful, busy life. He died as he would have wished, in harness as it were, adjudicating at a musical festival. He had been a good father, a faithful husband and a genuine Christian. His friends were legion and his funeral was in all but name a State funeral with a huge attendance including all sorts of unexpected and unlikely people attending. What a pity a book of condolences was not opened. At his graveside on Tuesday 22 September 1970 the oration was delivered by Labhrás Ó Murchú, President of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and Leo’s old friend and neighbour, Dan Dowd, piper, played the “Lament for the Death of Staker Wallis”.
Seán Reid, Ennis, co. Clare. 23rd November 1975