On one occasion, sometime in the early ’70s, Sean Reid commented ‘Pat, you play like an old man’. Noting the effect of his words on the famously volatile piper, Sean hastily explained ‘No, what I mean is, it should have taken you years and years to learn to play like that’. High praise for someone who started late and had been playing for less than ten years at the time! A taste of the playing that so astounded Sean may be heard on the recording he made for the Topic label, just a few years later, in 1976. By the time in question, Sean and Pat were old friends and Sean’s awareness of the total absence of Irish traditional music in Pat’s immediate background added to his sense of wonder. The compensating factors for the lack of an old-fashioned ‘traditional upbringing’ in Pat’s case were timing, with Traditional and ‘Folk’ music coming to public prominence as he came of age, along with his deep interest in music of all types.
Although living close to Bill Harte, the box player, and Larry Dillon of the famous music house in Monck Place in Phibsboro, Pat’s early, and minimal, exposure to Irish music came when the cottage he and his parents lived in was converted from gas lighting to electricity and a ‘wireless’ was acquired. This would have been around 1950 when he was seven. He clearly remembers hearing Leo Rowsome play “The Fox Chase” on Radio Éireann and being told by his parents, who had been friends of Sean Dempsey in their young days, that those were the uilleann pipes he was hearing. He didn’t get to see what this weird and wonderful instrument looked like till he came by chance at the age of 16 or 17 on a public performance on the bandstand in ‘The Hollow’ in the Phoenix Park in Dublin.
During the early teen years his main musical interest was listening to ‘classical’ music on BBC Radio 3 and the eclectic range of music broadcast on Voice of America – presumably in an attempt to subvert the Communist hordes of the USSR. By the later teen years his father, whose background was strongly republican, had given up singing the ‘rebel songs’ and occasional ballad of his youth. When the Clancy brothers’ songs started to appear on radio there was, as a result, a comfortably familiar feel to them. ‘Ballad concerts’ Pat attended would usually include traditional music acts ranging from The Dubliners to Nioclás Tóibín. At that time also, Seán Ó Riada was broadcasting and putting on concerts with Ceoltóirí Chualann. Their group playing was much more attractive and accessible to someone with Pat’s background in music than was that of, say, céilí bands. Through these he got his initial exposure to traditional music and song. Visits to the Fiddlers’ Club in Church Street and various fleadhanna cheóil provided a broader practical exposure while Breandán Breathnach’s Ceol magazine gave a captivating insight into aspects of the historical background.
A fascination with rhythm led to Pat’s first practical venture into the world of traditional music; he made a bodhrán – which to this day he still has, and occasionally thumps – and proceeded to terrorise musicians at the fleadhanna. Through visits to the Fiddlers’ Club he fell under the spell of the sounds being made by the young Finbar Furey, then playing on a low pitch chanter in the staccato style of Tommy Moore. Though still minimally familiar with the melodic side of the music he discerned similar sounds in the music of Séamus Ennis playing on the early RTÉ television programmes, and in that of Willie Clancy playing “The Old Bush” on a Gael Linn ‘78’ which he bought.
A few months learning the whistle and a mention by his uncle Leo that Dinny Delaney, whom he had discovered through Ceol, was a great-grand uncle was sufficient to convince him that a bag and chanter would make the ideal 21st birthday gift from his parents. Along with Brian Gallahar, who had also acquired a Leo Rowsome practice chanter, he attended classes with Leo for a few months and, through regular visits to the National Library, embarked on the research into the music that continues to this day. Within the year both he and Brian had bought C chanters from Matt Kiernan. Listening to Matt and Dan O’Dowd play helped Pat interpret, and later emulate, the ‘piping triplets’ in Breathnach’s Ceol Rince I.
A key turning point in Pat’s piping career came through a chance meeting with Sean Reid at a fleadh in Ballinasloe in 1965. Through Sean, he met Breandán Breathnach, Willie Clancy and many other notables who were at the fleadh. A subsequent visit to Miltown Malbay led to a close friendship with Willie and a lasting respect and affection for both him and his music. Following up on an invitation from Breandán led not only to the acquisition of priceless recordings – a resource which was to be re-visited again and again over many years – but to a long-lasting friendship as well. Through that association with Breandán Pat was involved in the formation of Na Píobairí Uilleann in 1968. He was elected to the first committee and his association with the organisation continues.
An admirer of Séamus Ennis’ playing for many years, Pat met him during the period in the late ’60s when he was making regular visits to the Royal Oak pub in Glasnevin. These occasions, along with Séamus’ annual Tionóil performances gave Pat the opportunity to study his technique at first hand.
1976 saw the research and practice of previous years bear fruit in the Topic recording mentioned previously along with the publication by Mercier Press of Pat’s edition of Willie Clancy’s repertoire, The Dance Music of Willie Clancy (subsequently re-published by Ossian). In the same year Pat was the leader of the piping contingent with the group chosen to represent Ireland at “Old Ways in the New World”, the Smithsonian Institute’s festival to mark the 200th anniversary of American independence. In the mid ’80s, in association with Jackie Small, he published The Piping of Patsy Touhey, a detailed examination and transcription of the great piper’s playing.
Over the years Pat has taken every opportunity possible to promote the beauty and musicality inherent in the good performance of traditional Irish music on the pipes. Along with his numerous piping classes and the two publications mentioned, he has contributed articles to An Píobaire, Dal gCais and the Sean Reid Society Journal and given numerous workshops and illustrated lectures, including the millennium lecture on piping at the Willie Clancy Summer School. He is at present working on The Music of Séamus Ennis, which will include detailed transcriptions and analysis of Ennis’ entire piping repertoire.
Terry Moylan (An Píobaire, Vol 4, no. 34)