How I came to know Tom may seem a little different. Eileen, my wife, had been back to Ireland in 1985 visiting relatives and I asked her to see if she could find any thing on the Irish Uilleann pipes. Like many of us Americans, I was playing the Highland pipes in the local pipe band, but liked what I heard on the uilleann pipes. She brought home the Pat Mitchell/Jackie Small book – The Piping of Patsy Touhey. After reading it over I wondered what to do now; all of this was totally new to me. No one in South Carolina at that time knew anything about uilleann pipes and I knew absolutely no one that played them or had them. Looking through the book, I thought I may contact some of the people listed on page vi. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I got the telephone number of Tom Busby of Long Island, NY. I called and Tom answered the phone. That was my lucky day for we developed a friendship that continued. Tom had the names and addresses of many uilleann pipers living in the South. He put me in contact with Rev MacKenzie of North Carolina and Nick Whitmer in Virginia. Now I was much closer to learning uilleann pipes and had a great mentor, although we were far apart with his living in New York and I in South Carolina. Actually, we found that we had other things in common. The company from which Tom had retired had relocated to South Carolina, only about ten miles up the road from Greenville, and his and my wife’s people, Burkes, came from the same area north of Tuam in Galway.
Not too long after having my practice set from Nick Whitmer, I told Torn I had never seen anyone play the uilleann pipes and this was very true, for I had not been to a concert or workshop. Tom changed that by sending a picture of himself playing a Taylor set. I think the picture was made in 1958. The picture has been on my desk every since I received it.
Over the years, Tom sent tunes that he had written out, plus tapes of different pipers, so I could learn how the music was to sound. I asked him once should I learn from music or learn it by ear? His reply was to learn it either way; that some people are gifted enough that they can pick it up by just listening to it, others had to dig it out. I remembered those words as I went to lessons from Jerry O’Sullivan, Pat Sky, Tim Britton and Matty Connolly. Some tunes came by listening and there were those that were dig, dig. He also said if you could read and use the music, it would help you as you get older because the mind starts to forget as time goes go and you could use the written music.
Speaking of pipe music on tapes, Tom sent that of several pipers but saved the best till last. Only this past spring (2000), Tom sent a tape of his playing, some it had a flute player on it but mostly it was Tom’s piping. The tape was originally made in 1978. I think his piping was excellent, some of it was very tight playing that I have always admired.
I think Tom also liked American baseball. I called him once when he was watching a game on TV; it was leading up to the world series. I could tell that there was probably a better time to call him, and I was about to fall from grace, so it was a short conversation. This was about four or five years ago while I was traveling a lot with my employer. In the Atlanta airport, I picked up a Braves T-shirt and sent it to him, which I think he liked very much. He sent me a T-shirt with a piper on it.
With Tom, it was like you had known him all your life. He was very kind, considerate, and loved uilleann piping. In the last few years, he told me more than once how he missed playing the pipes. He knew all the joys and frustrations of piping and shared them with you.Although we talked a lot over the phone several times during the year, plus holidays, birthdays; I never got to meet him in person. I started having health problems and just could not get to New York. However, I feel like I have always known him and he made my life more pleasant.
On 10 Sept. 2000, a Sunday afternoon, I telephoned Tom Busby to see how things were doing. I have done this many times in the last 14 or so years. However this Sunday was different. I had thought about calling Tom for the past few days for he had been on my mind. His daughter answered the phone and told me that he had passed away on the day before, that he had died peacefully in his sleep, just the way he wanted it.
Tom Busby will be truly missed by many of us. He was of great character, a deeply devoted person to his religion, family, and country. Tom was a real Patriarch of Irish Uilleann Piping.
Ed Harrison, South Carolina, USA (An Píobaire Vol 4 no. 9 March 2001)