Forgotten Pipers of Tipperary

From Treoir Vol 23, 1991

By Fintan Deere

No class of Irish worthies has been treated with less consideration than minstrels and musicians in biographical literature. So wrote Captain Francis O’Neill in 1913, when he sought to put matters right and give Irish musicians their recognition in a book entitled ‘Irish Minstrels and Musicians’. Despite his efforts, most of those listed in his book have since disappeared again into oblivion and Mercier Press revived their memory through the re-publication of O’Neill’s book.

O’Neill recounts the stories of harpers, pipers, fiddlers, flautists, folk musicians and dancing masters who have combined to ensure that traditional Irish music survived through to this century. Not alone those who enjoy this type of entertainment but indeed all who approve of the preservation of unique elements of Irish culture owe them a debt.

Tipperary is well endowed with such people but for the most part they go unrecognised for their contribution. One such was William Talbot, born in Roscrea in 1780 and blinded by an attack of smallpox at the age of 15.

He devoted himself to music and travelled the country in great demand.

He moved to Dublin, opening a tavern in Little Mary Street and played each evening in another hostelry in Capel Street. His leisure hours were spent tuning and stringing pianos and organs, quite a feat given his loss of eyesight. His reputation spread so widely that he ended up playing before King George IV and entertained the audiences at several London theatres. He was once quoted as saying “If we forget our own old music, what is there to remember in its place? - words, alas!” This comment probably summed up the purpose to which he dedicated his life.

Native of Cahir

Edmund Keating Hyland was born in the same year as Talbot and also became blind. Hyland, a native of Cahir, is credited with having composed ‘The Fox Chase’ with its description of the horns, the tallyho, the hounds in full chase and the death of the fox, when he was a youthful 19. This, if correct, would suggest extraordinary precocity, because he had not even studied musical theory at the time. Like Talbot he ‘was commanded’ to play for King George IV in 1821 and His Majesty is reputed to having ordered the piper a new set of pipes costing fifty guineas. Hyland died in Dublin in 1845.

Also from Cahir was Thomas O’Hannigan, born in 1806, who yet again went blind in his teens. O’Hannigan served an apprenticeship of four years to various Munster pipers and following the example of others of his profession who reached celebrity status, went to Dublin to earn a living. He performed to much delight at the Adelphi and the Abbey Street theatres and later earned the coveted distinction of playing before Queen Victoria and at an Oxford University commemoration. He died ‘from a stroke of apoplexy’ in Bray.

In the early nineteenth century, a piper named Jack Rotchford achieved some renown in his native Slieveardagh. In the absence of hard facts, it is not surprising that legends about his life survive. One story concerns a neighbour of Rotchford’s called ‘Old Butler’ of Williamstown. Butler was visited one day by a friend and the two of them had a bet as to whether Rotchford or a musician acquaintance of the visitor was the better performer. To decide the issue, both pipers were summoned to perform right through the night.

The judge could not decide between them but the bet was settled when a skylark landed on the windowsill and tapped and sang approvingly when Rotchford played, but remained silent while the other contestant performed.

Drunk or Sober

Another piper from the same area was James Coady, who travelled the country, much to the annoyance of his wife, according to stories related by O’Neill. The wife said that he gave her no money during his periodic visits home and spent each night on drink whatever money he made by day. Drunk or sober, he had a strong local reputation for putting a demoralised set of pipes in good order. Intemperance led to ruin of a good career as a piper in the case of Templetuohy tavern-keeper Timothy Shelly who died in the poorhouse in 1870.

In Emly, a piper of good repute named ‘Ned’ Fraher flourished before the middle of the nineteenth century; unlike many of the others who are forced by physical disability to make a living out of music. Fraher was in full possession of all his faculties, at least early on in his life. After leading the ordinary life of the professional piper for many years, he went to England, where he is said to have won ‘fame and fortune’. At any rate, no one could contradict him when he returned with a splendid instrument, which he claimed to have got from the Royal Family in appreciation of his style. When he was stricken with sudden blindness his bad luck was attributed to the fairies.

The Hogans of Cashel

The Hogans of Cashel were a whole family of famous musicians of the late 1800’s. The father and three sons were noted Union pipers, while two other sons were distinguished fiddlers: Thomas, the eldest son was accomplished at pipes, flute and violin. A tall, dark complexioned man, his neat and well-dressed appearance suggests a well-earned prosperity. He inspired as well as entertained, and when the author visited Cashel at the beginning of this century, he reported meeting a son of Tom Hogan’s who was a splendid fiddler in his own right.

Ned Hogan, another of the brothers, was reputed to have been helped by a Dublin benefactor, who fitted him out with clothes and pipes and sent him to perform in London, where he is claimed to have been awarded a silver mounted set of pipes by the Prince Consort.

Michael and Larry meanwhile concentrated on the violin and were noted travelling fiddlers.

Information about Templetuohy piper Pat Spillane is sketchy: three authorities of his time describing him as an outstanding performer. Though born in Tipperary, he spent some time in France and Cork, where he died about the turn of the century.

O’Neill’s credits the Cork Pipers Band with a far reaching influence in the revival of music and dancing in Ireland, and credits John Smithwick Wayland with responsibility for setting it up in 1898. Wayland was founder and first vice-president of the club and traced out pipers, whose instruments had lain unused for years, encouraged them to practise and gave them public recognition. Wayland and his club helped to raise travelling expenses for impoverished musicians so they could compete in annual feiseanna.

For the first time, women were encouraged and the first band of kilted war pipers in modern days was organised and equipped at the instigation of the club’s founder. Wayland was born in Clonkelly, Cashel, in 1874, the youngest of ten children. Irish music enthusiasts in Australia invited him to come and perform there and the irrespressible Wayland set sail for Perth in 1912, stopping at ports of call in the Mediterranean and entertaining residents in Naples, Toulon and Egypt to traditional Irish Culture.

Other musicians of the late 1860’s and 1870’s who came back to life in O’Neill’s book include William Hennessy of Ballingarry and later Urlingford, Patrick Duanne of Kilbraugh, Coolbrook and the Higgins borthers of Killenaule.