P.J. Curtis and the Howley Sisters This past weekend was chock full of music in the Burren. On Friday evening June 26th, Burren resident and music producer/novelist/poet/environmental activist/ radio personality PJ Curtis came and gave us a lecture on Irish instrumental music.
PJ produced records by the the most important Irish bands of the 1970s and 80s, groups such as Planxty and The Bothy Band, and for a long time hosted a national radio show on Irish (and other forms of) music. He demonstrated for us the important instruments used in Irish traditional music, the fiddle, concertina, whistle, accordion, and concert flute, above all stressing the unique importance of the Irish uilleann ‘elbow’ pipes. The sound of the Irish pipes is produced by pumping air into the bellows with a leather sack held underneath the elbow, unlike the Scottish bagpipes and most other pipes, which depend on the player blowing with the mouth into a tube of some kind. PJ discussed how for many Irish listeners, the pipes are the most expressive instrument, carrying the deepest cultural meaning and power. And he stressed the importance of musical families in preserving Irish communities through challenges ranging from historical adversity to bad weather. The next evening, Saturday the 27th, we met one of our area’s most important musical families. We were once again in the Burren College of Art lecture hall where the Howley Sisters from Kilfenora, Tara and Emer, entertained us on a wide range of instruments. Twenty-year old uilleann piper Tara Howley has just released her first CD and is receiving great acclaim for her mature and powerful piping style.
It’s something of a rarity to see women playing the pipes, however in Tara’s generation there are now quite a few women taking up that instrument and excelling in it. Uilleann pipes are not only difficult to play, they’re difficult to find. Tara told us that uilleann pipes are simply unavailable in music stores – the number of good pipe makers is quite few, and their waiting lists for getting an instrument are long. Tara said that on her second piping lesson with her teacher, he told her “put in your deposit now”! on a set of pipes. She did, and waited eight years for delivery. While Tara played the uilleann pipes, pennywhistle, and concertina, her sister Emer joined her on fiddle and banjo (the third Howley sister, unable to be with us this evening, plays accordion and cello), and a South African musician, David Shapiro, accompanied them on guitar. They played a mesmerizing set that featured everything from slow airs to up tempo dance tunes, and included several of Tara’s own compositions. The Wheaton group were visibly impressed with Tara and Emer, whose great music prepared us all for yesterday (Sunday) evening’s activity, set dancing at Vaughan’s Barn in Kilfenora, to be chronicled by my colleague Prof. Howard.