Painting the Pipes

Companion Chapter

Shannon Heaton’s Irish Music Stories project explores Irish, Scottish, and other Celtic traditions. Each podcast episode explores a different topic (like parenting, immigration, humor) through a traditional music lens.

To accompany these aural collages of music, conversation, and narration, Shannon’s essays and poems offer bite-sized meditations on Irish music and dance.

Painting the Pipes contains interview highlights from Episode 29-Trad on Canvas, an episode about how visual artists portray Irish music and dance. Writer Ciaran Carson, mentioned in both Episode 35-Last Night’s Food and Episode 48-Between the Tunes, also inspired this essay about capturing aural art on paper. 

Painting the Pipes

There’s a tune called The Mother and Child Reel. It starts with this low, repetitive riff in D. Maybe it feels moodiest when it’s played at a moderate pace. No rush to get to the second part.

But once you hit the downbeat of the B section, a brighter motif takes over. It’s a fifth higher, more hopeful than the beginning. It sings there for a moment, before heading back down. Back to the low, rocking phrase that started the whole thing.

Comedian-musician Martin Mull (and others) have said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  And yet it’s fun to try to describe the way Irish music pulses. The way it flows. The way melodies like The Mother and Child Reel unfold. The way it feels when several instruments come together, in tune and in time.

If writing about music can be elusive, it must be a thrilling challenge to evoke the resonance of Irish music and dance with oil, watercolor, and gouache. 

Armagh-based Brian Vallely paints his Irish music scenes with thick layered stripes of motion. There’s detailed feeling in the pipers and flute and fiddle players, in the communication between the musicians and their instruments.

Like his portrait of uilleann piper Felix Doran, which appears on the cover of the first edition of The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, published by Brian’s cousin Fintan Vallely in 1999. That cover painting is all long fingers, and arms working the bellows. There’s some silver in the piper’s hair that matches the silver pipes. Doran is slightly bent over the instrument, and he seems completely focused on the music and the moment, even if Ireland wasn’t focused on him, or on other ethnic Irish Travellers who helped shape uilleann piping and traditional Irish music.

In Episode 29-Trad on Canvas, Brian talked about hearing Felix at the 1963 Fleadh Cheoil, well before the annual competition attracted half a million visitors annually.

I remember just being absolutely bowled over by his playing. And in where he came from: his music, and the whole story of the music surviving through the Travelling pipers who had been absolutely driven out of the country as soon as the Free State government was set up. Their first job was to do away with music, and do away with the Travelling musicians, and do away with the house dances, and everything that made life worth living.

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Brian Vallely trained as a painter, painting the things he knows and values. He’s painted the sporting life of Ireland, and the music life of his country, including portraits of pipers like Felix Doran, who learned to play the pipes from his older brother Johnny, also a Traveller, though during their lives, the Irish government didn’t acknowledge their ethnicity. The Irish Travelling community wasn’t legally recognized as a minority until 2017.

I’ve often tried to analyze why the pipes were held in such low esteem in traditional music circles. I think it might have been to the fact that the great exponents of the pipes were largely Travellers. And it was just part of an anti-Traveller culture that prevailed in Irish Society.

When injustice looms, or tragedy strikes, or local culture is threatened, art often demands expression. In response to the Republic of Ireland’s history of trespass acts, evictions, and discrimination for citizens without fixed abodes—and out of love for Irish cultural traditions—Brian Vallely painted.

He painted. And he made a 500-mile round trip bicycle pilgrimage to County Clare, to hear famed piper Willie Clancy.

Me and my younger brother Darren, we cycled from Armagh to Miltown Malbay to listen to Willie playing. I travelled all over Ireland, anywhere I heard there was a good musician that I needed to hear.

These trips set Brian down the path of not just painting musicians, but also learning to play the pipes himself, and eventually founding the Armagh Pipers’ Club. All that reverence for and insider knowledge of the instrument is bundled into that painting of Felix Doran, on the cover of The Companion to Irish Music. It’s a powerful invitation to all the music and history inside the book, including tales of Travelling pipers. Brian did that painting from memory:
There’s no way that Felix would have sat still for me to paint him, or anything like that. But I studied him very carefully. I like to imagine I can hear the music coming out. And for other people to get the same feeling, you know? That’s success for me—creating the spirit of the music.

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Painting the uilleann pipes is a way to capture the spirit of Irish music. The spirit of The Mother and Child Reel. The spirit of people playing together. 

Imagining and depicting a harmonious community that can come together—and, yes, sometimes transcend differences and divides—is really what New York-based artist James Gurney did when he created his Dinotopia book series, featuring humans and dinosaurs living and playing music peacefully together. James admits that some of the later Dinotopia books featured musicians inspired by Irish music sessions at the old Rhinecliff Hotel.

It was this dilapidated hotel along the Hudson River, right along the railroad tracks. You’d walk in on a Sunday afternoon and go past the pinball machine and the pool table. You’d give Mister Titus $5. And you’d be treated to music by some of the very best Irish musicians.
The Rhinecliff hotel was a strange environment. Over on the right were some rotten floorboards. We’d always put a couple of chairs there because we didn’t want any of the guests to fall through the floor. Also, there was a hole in the acoustic tiles. Every once in a while, if you listened for a while and the music got good, something would stick its head through the hole in the tiles. 
That was a great place to sketch. There’s something about the magic of that moment, that environment translates to the sketching. You can almost see it in the kind of rhythmic strokes that you put down when you’re drawing.

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A musical moment on canvas is a slice of time. Maybe it’s mid-tune, before the banjo player’s plectrum reconnects with the string; as the dancer’s right foot finds lightness and tension in the lift, before succumbing to gravity and connecting back with the ground; as the flute player breathes, before preparing for the next notes. Highlighting these grains of motion enable viewers to step inside the music. To walk into a tune.

In Vincent Crotty’s painting “Set Dancing in the Burren,” warmth spills from the pub’s table tops to the circle of musicians in the far corner. There’s a half set dancing near the door, a sprinkle of light over the company in the bar. Musicians fill one corner of the room, playing tunes in the key of contentment. With light outside the windows, and lamp cheer everywhere, it could be any hour. 

This is how it can feel at the actual Burren Pub in Somerville, Massachusetts. And what it’s like to be in the middle of a good Irish ceili, anywhere, anytime. There’s a timeless sheen over all of it.

I literally open my Rembrandt books and steal directly from him. Just depopulate his interiors. And then add my people and do my own thing from there.
With the twirling, especially, the feet are moving so fast that you have to blur the motion. No one’s sitting still. All you can hope for is to catch a vibe. It always shocks me that the energy of the night comes into the painting.

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Depicting modern, living dancers by blurring the feet, or by using 17th century style light and dark shadows is about technique. But maybe it’s also a way to bring an ageless dimension to the modern practice of traditional music and dance. To look back in order to notice what’s happening now. And to focus on the welcome and warmth. To invite people in. To choose the charm filter, when there’s a choice.

Because oftentimes there really is a choice.

The spirit of a musical evening—or of a community, or a society—comes from the particular combination of participants and moments. Even if it’s fantastical human and saurian characters based on musicians back at the old Rhinecliff Hotel, it’s each individual, and each individual tune. And the individual notes and steps and words moving through the evening, in one corner of the room that’s brighter because of how the light and the company floods the space.

To paint the pipes and to illuminate the plight of the Travelling pipers, you probably have to choose or invent the right moment to capture. To focus on unlikely friendships an overlooked tradition bearers. So the rest of us have a chance to zoom in.

To pause.

To awaken and catch up. 

Before The Mother and Child Reel ends, and the next tune begins.

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