17th William Kennedy International Piping Festival - Armagh, Northern Ireland, 11-14 November 2010.
After what has been described as the best William Kennedy Piping Festival ever and the best piping festival in the world it’s difficult to single out just one or two performances from the wealth of musical highs. It all began with the ‘Canntaireachd’ and ‘Julie Fowlis / Eamonn Doorley’ performances at the Piping Connections concert on Thursday and only concluded 4 days later with Sunday night’s amazing finale session in the Armagh City Hotel, where pipers of 20 countries met and bounced around tunes of every cultural hue imaginable to create an extraordinary ambience of past, present and future directions to come in piping.
This was the sort of spontaneous musical outburst that only happens at the William Kennedy Piping Festival. The 17th Century Irish Bard and Harper Turlough O’Carolan wrote about what sounded like a similar event 300 years ago concluding with the great line.
‘O’Rourke’s noble feast will ne’er be forgot by those who were there and those who were not’
All this began from relatively small beginnings in 1994 growing inexorably year by year to become the best piping festival in the world. Where else will you get a group of musicians from Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Croatia, France, Spain, USA, England, Ireland, Scotland all joining together to play great music and learn from each other. Add to that a multi-national audience from all 5 continents and you have a flavour of the truly international character of the William Kennedy Piping Festival.
The 4 day William Kennedy Piping Festival comprised a total of almost 100 events including 22 Concert performances, 40 classes, dozens of recitals and sessions throughout each day, 2 full days of interactive schools events focussing on the Irish and Scottish Gaelic language links, 3 lectures, a film premier, a wonderful and inclusive Piping Service in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral and a major Art Exhibition featuring some of Ireland’s greatest living painters and sculptors.
Starting on Thursday 11th November
Piping Connections brought together a mixture of Irish & Scottish piping traditions in a most unusual way through the performance of the innovative new group ‘Canntaireachd’ and their daring combination of highland and uilleann pipes backed up by cello and harp and vocal renditions of Piobaireachd. While the art of sung Piobaireachd is probably one of oldest art music forms in these islands it is rarely if ever heard and virtually never on stage.
The group opened their performance with a 17th Century piece which translates from the Gaelic as ‘The Glen is mine’. This was a challenging piece and was led by the singing of Alana Henderson plus vocal accompaniment by three of the pipers. The instrumental sections included both highland and uilleann pipes and at one stage there was just the highland pipe drone backing the sung piobaireachd. This was a magical performance lasting almost 11 minutes. Later in the programme Alana sang the hauntingly beautiful ‘Lament for the cleric’ accompanying herself on cello. This piece was intended as a duet with her sister Laura who unfortunately was unable to be there due to unforeseen circumstances so it was a tremendous undertaking for Alana who nonetheless carried it off with aplomb.
The Piping Connections concert was opened by Jonathan Greenlees, an All Ireland solo Piping Champion from the Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band. Jonathan presented a nicely rounded programme that covered a huge range of the highland piper’s repertoire with nice airs and of course jigs, reels, strathspeys and marches.
This got the concert off to a great start and there was a sense of anticipation as Julie Fowlis and Eamonn Doorley took the stage. Julie is perhaps the best known face on BBC Alba not only for her work in presenting Scottish traditional music programmes but also for her championing the cause of Gaelic song. She is perhaps the only Gael to feature on the Jules Holland programme and has won many awards and accolades worldwide for her wonderful singing. Julie and Eamonn her husband presented a wonderful programme of song and demonstrated their instrumental virtuosity playing a wide range of instruments from Scottish small pipes to fiddle, bouzouki, guitar and whistle.
Dr Angus MacDonald, one of the famous trio of piping brothers from Moidart, opened the second half with a blistering set of traditional and newly-composed tunes many of which have already passed into the repertoire of both Irish and Scottish musicians. This has been a great year for Dr Angus on the competition circuit winning many awards including the Clasp at the Argyle Gathering and the launching of a very influential CD. Canntaireachd played the final set and were invited back on stage for a rousing encore.
Friday: Hooley at the Hotel Piping Extravganza
This was really 14 separate concerts utilizing 3 stages within the Armagh City Hotel and was the result of serious logistical planning by Artistic Director Caoimhin Vallely. The concerts featured everything from the very traditional to the most avant guard experimental music exemplified by groups like Millish from the USA and The Goat System from France. The international dimension was further strengthened by groups like the Griff Trio from Belgium, an extraordinarily virtuoso group playing numerous different pipes and who turned out to be one of the ‘finds’ of the festival. This group improved at every turn of the festival and made a major contribution to the status of the festival. They kept coming up with thoughtful and extremely well executed arrangements for pipes ranging from Pastoral pipes to their ‘offspring’ the uilleann pipes, French Cabrette to Galician Gaita and finally various types of Flemish pipes often illustrated in the paintings of Breugel. They also sang to their own accompaniment in both French and Flemish.
Galician soloist Edelmiro Fernandez who missed last year’s festival through illness finally made it to Armagh and proved once again the amazing vitality of piping from that area of Spain long suppressed under the regime of General Franco but flourishing in the freedom that followed the dictator’s death. There is a great empathy between the music of Galicia and that of Ireland and Scotland echoing the ancient Celtic roots common to all three countries.
Jonathan Swayne from Somerset has been a participant in the festival on two previous occasions playing once with his group Moebius and also when he participated in a pipe makers conference. This time he came with his new group Zephyrus comprising 6 pipers and a percussionist. All the pipes were made by Jonathan himself and his compositions featured a lot in their various repertoires.
Ioscaid is a new and youthful band that includes members of Armagh Pipers Club and their friends and they made history earlier this year by winning the prestigious Gael Linn Siansa competition, the first Northern group to do so. Ioscaid have improved on every outing and they rose to the occasion at the Piping Festival with a highly polished and professional performance to open proceedings on Stage No 1. Another young band was Realta with two uilleann pipers and a guitarist who started things off in great style on Stage No 2. Cran is one of the longer established Irish groups featuring the great uilleann piper Ronan Browne with Sean Corcoran on various stringed instruments and Desi Wilkinson on Flute. All three contributed to the vocals in both Irish and English.
Georgi Makris is the first ever Greek piper to perform at the Festival and what an impact he made with his beautifully tuned pipes and haunting melodies. Like many European pipers Georgi sings to his pipes accompaniment which is some feat considering the pipes are not bellows blown. Apparently the bags hold a lot of air so they can fill up enough to allow him to sing and play alternate verses.
Julie Fowlis and Eamonn Doorley presented another fine performance at this concert and it was only with difficulty that the crowd let them leave the stage. Armagh’s Barry Kerr and guitarist Ryan O’Donnell gave a finely tuned selection of songs and airs with tunes on flute and uilleann pipes. Barry is an extraordinarily versatile and virtuoso musician and composer both of songs and instrumental pieces. He has also exhibited a series of very fine oils at the Festival Art Exhibition ‘Musicians through the eyes of the artist’.
One of the most eagerly awaited groups was John McSherry’s new band and their 50 minute set didn’t disappointment their many fans. The band’s repertoire was full of interest and colour moving through traditional favourites to new compositions seamlessly. McSherry’s pipes and Donal O’Connor’s fiddle dictated the melodic pace underpinned by driving bodhrán and guitar accompaniment. One of the highlights occurred when Francie McElduff put down his bodhrán and joined McSherry in a slow air on two sets of uilleann pipes.
Another pipe driven combination was the Scottish group Breabach playing two sets of highland pipes with fiddle, guitar and bass accompaniment. Calum MacCrimmon (a direct descendant of the MacCrimmon dynasty) and Donal Brown were the pipers while Brown occasional put down his pipes to throw a few steps of traditional Scottish/Cape Breton step dancing. There was a great set from Greek piper Georgi Makris before the Stage 3 performances climaxed with the amazing dynamic Roncos do Diabo from Portugal. This flamboyant five piece band were making their second visit to Armagh and truly captivated the audience with every performance. Led by their extrovert drummer/singer the Roncos got everyone on their feet dancing into the night.
Saturday: Cathedral Setting
At 12 Noon the Armagh Public Library was the atmospheric setting for ‘A World of Piping’ featuring piping from four countries. Greece led off with a stunning performance on Greek Pipes by Georgi Makris. Distinguished poet Kate Newman who is originally from Banbridge presented the programme lacing her intros with insightful comments and scholarly references. Another newcomer to Armagh was Stepjan Večković who played a little on each of several different types of pipes from his native country Croatia. His final piece was played on the Croatian Duda, an extremely sophisticated and rare type of bagpipe. It consisted of one short chanter that contained 4 reeds so that the player was able to enrich his performance with drone and regulator accompaniment all controlled through one simple chanter. The Galician piper Edelmiro Fernandez and Highland piper Dr Angus MacDonald completed this snapshot tour of European piping traditions.
St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral provided the spectacular background to the afternoon concert appropriately called ‘Pipes in the Cathedral.’ The highlight of this concert was the World Premier of a commissioned piece from the Cork singer Lorcan MacMathuna entitled ‘Tain Bo Cuailgne’, the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’ one of the great epic stories from the Ulster Cycle of heroic tales. The words come directly from the Book of Leinster and the piece follows the action of the Tain through eight descriptive pieces sung by Lorcan MacMathuna. The story is one of the great epics of the Scottish and Irish Gaelic Oral tradition handed down through the centuries and finally written down by scribes in the first millennium. The story also survived orally throughout Ireland and Scotland right to the present day.
This was a truly magical performance rising to the occasion and captivating the audience. The entire piece is controlled by MacMathuna’s spell binding singing which ranged from low chanting to full throated and powerful vocals that echoed through the Cathedral. The musical accompaniment of uilleann pipes, fiddle, bass clarinet and piano accordion also included pre-recorded electronic music. This was one of the never to be forgotten moments of the entire festival.
The concert entitled ‘New Sounds’ was just that, featuring once again the challenging sounds of Millish and The Goat System alongside two Irish based innovative piper composers Diarmuid Moynihan and Brendan Ring both backed up by guitarists, flute and bouzouki. Three more free sessions followed this before the eagerly awaited appearance of the St Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band at the Marketplace Theatre. Predictably this sell out concert got a great boost in August when the Kildare based band took the Grade 1 World Championships title at the Worlds in Glasgow to climax a great Centenary year for the legendary band.
Armagh Pipers Club newest group Macha opened the concert in the Theatre with a 20 minute programme of song in Irish, Scottish Gaelic and English. All the players used their instrumental skills to produce a stunning performance which has already gained them an invitation to perform at the great Celtic Connections Festival next January in Glasgow. Then the St Laurence O’Toole P.B. took to the stage filling it from end to end with an amazing line-up of pipes and drums going on to captivate the audience with a widely varied selection from their repertoire that included their winning MSR from Glasgow.
The second half opened with the dynamic Roncos do Diabo who although much fewer in number filled the stage with their own brand of Portuguese piping hugely appreciated by the audience. Then we had another blast from the band under the leadership of Pipe Major Terry Tully which included an encore tune made famous by the band ‘Fainne Geal an Lae’ or ‘The Dawning of the Day’. This great tune begins quietly with one piper on stage followed by a second until the entire stage is once again filed with pipers and drummers.
The late night concert in the Studio Theatre was entitled ‘An Evening of Pipes and Song’ and featured the singing talents of husband and wife Kevin and Ellen Mitchell from Glasgow. This couple presented a beautifully crafted programme of some of the great ballads from both the Irish and the Scottish rich heritage of ballads. Another husband and wife duo featured Tommy Keane on uilleann pipes and Jacqueline McCarthy on concertina. The final duo featured two great Cork musicians Eoin O Riabhaigh on uilleann pipes and Conal O Grada on flute. This was a lovely concert and was played out to yet another packed house at the Studio Theatre.
The evening concluded with the late night sessions in the Armagh City Hotel with dozens of musicians in lots of groups playing in every nook and cranny until late. At one stage there were no less than 17 uilleann pipers in full flight while in another corner a quieter group of young musicians from the Armagh Pipers Club had their own session. In yet another corner there was another group making wonderful music with pipes, fiddles, guitars, flutes, whistles, accordions and concertina.
The Final Day: The Uilleann Pipes Concert
Then it was time for the final concert of the festival which traditionally has always been the Uilleann Pipes Concert. This concert was moved from Sunday night this year to Sunday afternoon to facilitate people heading home on Sunday night and was a great success. One of the highlights of the concert was the performance given by Mikie Smyth who included the long descriptive piece ‘Gol na mBan san Air’ in his selection. This is an elusive piece and survives largely through a phonograph recording made about 1900 of the piper Micky Cumbaw O’Suilleabhain, the famous blind piper from Kerry. The piece is known in English as the ‘Lament of the Women’ and was composed after the 17th Century Battle of Kanturk when Alasdair Mac Donald was murdered after his surrender. Alasdair is as well known in Scotland as in Ireland and played a leading role in many battles there including the famous Battle of Inverlochy where he overcame impossible odds to emerge victorious and was celebrated in a famous poem by the Bard Iain Lom MacDonald, a song that is still sung in Scotland to this day.
Another piper also playing for the first time in Armagh was Ivan Goff from New York who presented a well thought out set of tunes including some little known tunes that deserve to be heard more often such as the reels ‘The Custom Gap’ and ‘The Heathery Breeze’. Tommy Keane and Brendan Ring are now well known and appreciated among Armagh audiences and both gave excellent performances. Another newcomer was Eoin O Riabhaigh whose playing had already attracted considerable attention the previous night who showed his ability here as a fine solo artist. The concert concluded with a dynamic performance by Michael ‘Blackie’ O’Connell on his second visit to Armagh. To round off his set he invited the young American piper Tyler Duncan to join him on stage where the duo proceeded to lift the roof with some rousing reels including the fastest ever ‘Bucks of Oranmore’, the classic piping reel heard as never before!
Inaugurated last year at the invitation of the Church of Ireland organist Theo Saunders and Dean Patrick Rooke the Piping Service has now become an integral part of the Festival and this year included instrumental contributions from a number of pipers including Dr Angus MacDonald on Highland Pipes, Georgi Makris on Greek pipes, the Griff Trio from Belgium and Eamonn Curran on uilleann pipes as well as the Armagh Pipers Club Choir under the direction of Eithne Vallely with soloist Laura Henderson and on keyboard Sally Walmsley. At the conclusion of the service there was a very moving moment when two of the young musicians from the Isle of Skye came forward and sang a beautiful Gaelic hymn from the Altar.
With the formal part of the festival completed there was a general air of relaxation and this was the starting point for a night long session of amazing music in the Armagh City Hotel. It was at this session more than anywhere else throughout the festival that the real international character of the festival came to the forefront when pipers and other instrumentalists from widely differing cultures came together to create impromptu music the likes of which has never been heard before according to many there. The dynamic Roncos do Diabo joined in and uilleann pipers like Tyler Duncan, Ivan Goff and ‘Blackie’ O’Connell outdid each other in wild improvisation. This was the real heart and spirit of the festival and will live long in the consciousness of those lucky enough to have been present and participating.
The 18th William Kennedy Piping Festival has been fixed for 17th to 20th November 2011, so now is the time to book your holidays and prepare not to miss things next year.
The text has been originally published on the William Kennedy Piping Festival website.
Photo Credits: (1) William Kennedy Piping Festival Logo, (2) Dr Angus MacDonald, (3) Edelmiro Fernandez, (4) Georgi Makris, (5) Brendan Ring, (6) St Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band, (7) Ivan Goff, (8) Griff Trio (by William Kennedy Piping Festival).