The Piper

How the uilleann pipes have called generations of players
Episode Trailer

What’s the buzz behind the uilleann pipes? Here’s the story of Irish piping: how the chanter, drones, and regulators hum together…. and how the lure, the lore, and the love of the uilleann pipes go for The Rowsome family, Tim Britton, Tom Rota, Patrick Hutchinson, and Isaac Alderson. 


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Brian Benscoter and two anonymous donors.

Episode 07-The Piper
How the uilleann pipes have called generations of players
This Irish Music Stories episode aired August 8, 2017


Speakers, in order of appearance

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Kevin Rowsome: Dublin-based uilleann piper and flute/tin whistle player who learned from his grandfather Leo
>> Nisha Rowsome: Dublin-based singer, dancer, and multi-instrumentalist 
>> Tierna Rowsome: Dublin-based sean nós dancer and multi-instrumentalist 
>> Lorraine Rowsome: Dublin-based musician 
>> Tom Rota: New Jersey-born, Maine-based piper who runs a music series in Portland
>> Tim Britton: Philadelphia-born uillean piper and flute player, designated master artist by the Iowa Arts Council 
>> Patrick Hutchinson: Liverpool-born, Rhode Island-based musician who learned pipes in Canada
>> Isaac Alderson: Chicago-born, New York-based musician who has performed and recorded on uilleann pipes, flute, and whistle


>> Shannon: Hi, it’s Shannon Heaton. And before I start the show, I wanted to invite you to visit  Irish Music Stories dot org. There are links to past episodes and playlists of all the music featured … AND there’s a donate button to help with travel and production costs. The support means a lot to me.

And speaking of meaning, this is Irish Music Stories: the show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it…

[ Music: “Silver Spear,” from Kitty Lie Over
Artists: Mick O’Brien & Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh ]

… Like how Kevin Rowsome and his family are called to carry on their family tradition of playing the uilleann pipes:

>> Kevin: As it goes down the third or fourth generations it becomes…

>> Nisha: You don’t want to be the generation that stops it, I guess.

>> Tierna: You have to have respect for it. As it goes down in generations, it becomes more and more important that you keep it up. 

>> Shannon: And how old Irish bagpipe recordings turned from inaccessible to irresistible for Jersey born Tom Rota.

>> Tom: At first I would hear things like Seamus Ennis and Tommy Reck and think, ah, it’s so out of tune. And at some point a few months in I started just repeating the piping albums. Like I really sucked in, so just classically, what they say about the pipes—you get the bug. Um, I got the bug. 

>> Shannon: Uilleann (spelled U-I-L-L-E-A-N-N) is the Irish word for elbow. The elbow… which works the bellows… which fills the bag with air… which maintains pressure to power the reeds… which makes the pipes sing. Or honk. Or squeal, depending on your level of skill, luck, and the relative humidity.

At their best, the Irish uilleann pipes evoke Ireland, with this distinct, magical sound, complete with a set of three drones that sound like this:


And while they are related to the big Highland Pipes… and the border pipes from the Scottish Lowlands… and the Northumbrian small pipes… and the various Gaita instruments from Spain & Portugal, the uilleann pipes also have three wrist-controlled regulators that sound like this:


The range of the uilleann pipe chanter means that uilleann pipers can play tunes easily with flute, fiddle, concertina, and accordion. So uilleann PIPERS lead a double life—as IRISH musicians and as players of a demanding, temperamental, complicated contraption that only fellow pipers can truly understand. 

[ Music: “Heartstrings Theme” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

In fact, there are gatherings that bring pipers of various traditions together—the music isn’t what unites them. It’s the instrument.

I asked Dublin-based Kevin Rowsome about this:

So, really do you have more in common with just any old piper or with a fellow Irish musician?

>> Kevin: Well, I’d probably have more in common with a piper because I would certainly know the instrument and I’ve come through the trauma of trying to keep a set of pipes in tune throughout my life. But nowadays the quality of instruments is so good, so I’d say the younger generation mightn’t be such a pipers huddled together.

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: Rhode Island-based Patrick Hutchinson has a different take on that.

Do you have more in common with a fellow piper, even if it’s not an Irish piper; or a fellow Irish musician?

>> Patrick: Oh, fellow Irish musician absolutely, yeah.  I think that the whole idea of a pan bagpipe identity that some of the festivals have promoted over the last 20 years, that’s just an entirely manufactured kind of thing, you know what I mean?  People say, “Oh you must play the other pipes then.” I say, “Why do you think that? It’s an entirely different instrument,  an entirely different musical culture, an entirely different approach to the music, an entirely different repertoire.” So, I’d have more in common with another Irish musician. 

>> Shannon: Because of the culture, the tunes, the experience of playing in sessions together?

>> Patrick: Yeah, yeah.

[Music: “Tom Billy’s Butcher’s March,” from Swimming Against the Falls
Artist: Joey Abarta ]

>> Shannon: That experience of playing in sessions together with other musicians, that’s what’s led me to know lots of pipers. 

Beautiful pipers like Boston-based Joey Abarta, whose track you just heard from his album Swimming Against the Falls.

Pipers who have worked through the initial struggle of maneuvering the instrument and getting a sound. 

Pipers who carry around electrical tape and bits of plumbing pipe to seal up leaks and adjust intonation on the fly.

Pipers like Benedict Kohler in Vermont who have pored over making and refining reeds, in fact, Benedict came up with the idea of making reeds out of spruce instead of cane, and this has helped countless players enjoy more consistency in drier and in wetter climates.

And pipers like Kevin Rowsome, whose father Leon played the pipes and whose grandfather Leo Rowsome is an Irish music household name; and whose great grandfather William sent pipes to America. And now Kevin’s daughters Tierna and Naoise both play pipes, too.

I asked Kevin to give his take on the instrument:

>> Shannon: So it’s a beautiful and unusual sound. And there’s a very important thing about the pipes with Ireland, yeah?

>> Kevin: Yeah, people speak about it as the harp being the instrument of Ireland; but the SOUND of uilleann pipes is the sound of Ireland. 

>> Shannon: OK, so the harp might be the instrument of Ireland. But as many film scores can attest, nothing sounds like Ireland like the pipes.

>> Kevin: My great grandfather, William Rowsome, Leon’s father, would have sent a lot of pipes over to America. And, um, a lot of them have been discovered in house sales. And my grandfather’s set was discovered in New York. You know, the instrument was made without electricity, hand-turned, and he made the case for the instrument, the wooden case. And then he sat down and wrote out 20 pages of instructions after all that, you know. How to actually play them… yeah!

[Music ends]

My two daughters here, both of them are great musicians as well, and, I must say my wife, Lorraine, her family are steeped in traditional music as well. Not piping, but these two girls have it from both sides.

>> Shannon: So, Tierna, did you start on the pipes?

>> Tierna: No, I started, em, when I was about 3 or 4 on the fiddle. Mom plays the fiddle, so she started me off on it. And then when I was about 6 or 7 I picked up the concertina, that would be my main instrument now. And then, when I was maybe 11 or 12, I started the harp. And then, 12 or 13, the pipes, finally. You  know, it was written in stone for me. I was going to finally learn the pipes. I’m playing them now, and so is Naoise. She’s a great piper as well.

>> Shannon: And did you want to play the pipes?

>> Tierna: Well, we’d  always had a fascination because they’d be always in the house.

[ Music: “Triumph Theme” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

We’d have pipers in the house or sets of pipes lying around.  We kind of always knew we would be going to, we would be able to play the pipes. We mightn’t be the best pipers in the world but we would be able to play them and it’s important to keep the tradition alive. So…

>> Shannon:You knew you had it in you because…?

>> Tierna: Well, you kind of, you have an interest sparked at a young age because you see it around you and you’re looking up to people so it’s not that you know that you have it in you. You HOPE that you have it in you, you don’t know though. So, it’s been great. We have our dad as our teacher. He teaches us when we get some spare time, you know, around the house.

>> Shannon:  Yeah. So it’s interesting, you know, a lot of people that I talk to have musical families and a lot of people I talk to, they came to it — like me— totally outside. Um, having no music in the family. It’s very interesting that you would say it’s not necessarily in there, you just hope you have it. 

>> Tierna: Yeah, I mean, we have tough people to follow. As dad says, our great, great grandfather, Leo Rowsome. It’s a long line of tradition, so you’d hope to keep up the standard, and keep up the high quality.

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: Tierna’s younger sister Naoise started on the pipes even earlier.

What about you, when did you start?

>>Naoise: Em, I started when I was 4 years old on the classical cello. Em, and then I started the accordion at first, between the ages 6 and 8, I’m not really sure of the date. And then I started the pipes around 9 or 10. 

>> Kevin:Yeah, yeah.

>> Lorraine: It’s hard living in a house with three pipers! It really is difficult.

>> Shannon: And did you also know you would always try it out?

>>Naoise: Kind of. Like, you’d go to sleep and you’d wake up listening to pipes. It was kind of just in the family.

>> Shannon: Right. Why do you think your family’s drawn to play the pipes?

>> Kevin: I don’t know, hahaha… 

>> Shannon: It just happened!

>> Kevin: It’s just a quirk of the personality. Hahaha. I don’t know, I suppose that parts of the family don’t continue on, like Leo’s brothers. A lot of them just played  themself, with their family, didn’t take it up. But, I suppose, as it sort of gathers momentum or moss, you know what I mean? As it goes down the second, third or fourth generation…

>> Naoise: You don’t want to be the generation who stops it, I guess.

>> Tierna: You have to have respect over it, you know? It’s like a family business almost.

>> Kevin: Yeah, without the money! Hahaha!

>> Shannon: Tierna and Naoise’s mom, Lorraine, broached the subject of women pipers. Because, like most public and professional pursuits, piping was not always wide open to women.

>> Lorraine: It’s very popular now to see girls playing the pipes. When I was growing up it was totally… ah, maybe a handful in Ireland. But now it’s really popular among girls to play the pipes. And they can acquire pink pipe cases, and the works. 

[ Music: “Padraig O’Keefe’s 1 & 2/The Humours Of Ballydaly” from Notes from the Heart
Artists: Louise and Michelle Mulcahy ]

You know, it makes it a little bit easier for them. Tierna hosts a session every month in the pipers club in Henrietta Street.

>> Tierna: First there’s a recital. We get 3 musicians. They play an informal, maybe, 20 minutes set each. And then we have a session and it’s open to any teenagers of any standard. Really, we’re very welcoming. But, em, we really like to put a focus on the pipes and elevate them a bit, you know?

>> Shannon: And it’s open to all instruments and particularly encouraging of the pipes?


>> Tierna: Yeah. That’s exactly our aim. So we’re very accommodating of any pipers who come to the session. We let them tune up. Nobody’s sighing or rolling their eyes. People who wouldn’t really understand the pipes might think, God, this person is tuning up again! But really they are temperamental, especially in the climate but… It’s called Ceol Sa Club, so…

>> Shannon: Ceol means music… Sa Club means “in the club.”  So Ceol Sa Club has been a refuge for young pipers—and increasingly for young women who’ve taken up the instrument.

Ceol sa Club has also been a musical and social outlet for teens of all instruments.

>> Tierna and Naoise: It’s just relaxed, you just go and play your set. You play whatever you want… three or four sets. It’s good for making friends. Yeah. Yeah.

[Music ends]

>> Shannon:  Tim Britton didn’t have a teen session in his neighborhood. And he didn’t come from a piping family. But his folk singing father and the Philadelphia folk music community nurtured his interest in Irish music. And they fed him CLASSIC pipe recordings—recordings he still savors today.

Before Tim settled in Fairfield, Iowa, he played for dances at the local Irish music club in Philadelphia, where he really tapped into the group aspect of the tradition. 

>> Tim: When I first got into it, I just like, “I wanna do THAT NOW,” you know? And so I did. And I basically, once I got bit by the bug I did very little else, frankly. And I was you enough that I had lots of time. I think that probably describes a lot of us, you know, we get into it when we’re pretty young, teenagers or something. I started when I was 11, or 10 and I just didn’t come up for air, you know? I would sit in the basement. The other thing is, thank God, my parent, my father is a professional folk singer. And he was very encouraging. Not everybody is, of course. And I was surrounded by lots of people who were. One of our family friends, one of his specialities was Celtic music and he had a massive library in his house. He just said, “come over as much as you want and record everything you can, borrow the books, whatever.” I recorded several dozen LPs, this would have been the early ‘70’s. While they were playing I was listening to them, I was writing down all the liner notes on paper I had there. And I still have some of those tapes and those sheets I wrote up. These were like, you know, all the records that Seamus Ennis made and Willie Clancy. Just all these records are really obscure now.  But, uh, jeez, they were like mana from heaven. I, um, Ennis and Clancy. It’s like intense stuff, beautiful, it’s rich, it’s deep, it’s like looking into the eye of God or something.

[ Music: “The Praties are Dug and the Frost is All Over” from 40 Years of Piping
Artist: Seamus Ennis ]

Ennis and Clancy are very, um, RAW players, and there’s tremendous expression and there’s tremendous quirkiness. It’s just like blood and guts all over the place. It’s, you know, it’s wonderful, I love it. It’s just, I eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and snacks. But, um, some people would listen to that and I’d be saying you got, you know, just a solid diet of Ennis and Clancy and you’ll be great, you know- students, up and coming students. And, like, I’ve had people say, “Wow, I don’t know, it’s kind of rough, it’s out of tune, it’s this and that.” I’m like, you know, “you’re missing the point.” 

>> Shannon: So, what is the point? What is the point of Ennis and Clancy?

>> Tim: The point is this expressiveness. The roughness is not a problem. It’s about being real, it’s not about being slick. It’s raw, it’s rough, it’s earth, you know? 

 Some people are out in these areas isolated from Irish communities. Their only context for hearing the music is albums of the bands, and very much bands as opposed to, like, individual players in a context where the session is king.

>> Shannon: So a real performative presentation?

>> Tim: Yeah, performance, yeah. Bands that have arrangements. They’re very slick, they’re very smooth. The stylistic elements are almost so slick that they slip through your fingers. It’s hard to get a handle on what they are. Like, Kevin Burke is a perfect example; brilliant player, beautiful, you know? He’s so smooth and so elegant. He’s drawing from a, roughly speaking, a Sligo, like a Michael Coleman type of Sligo style. If you try to learn from Kevin, which back in the late ‘70s every fiddle player was trying to sound like Kevin- and failing. My theory is that if you try to learn from Kevin you’ll fail, if you learn from the people Kevin learned from, it’ll be easier to actually to grasp from people who were completely outside of anything resembling commercialism. There was simply no catering whatsoever. There wasn’t even awareness, there wasn’t any reason to be smooth. It just wasn’t on the radar. Why? It’s like if you’re hanging out with people that, like these people would live in villages—they might not go 10 miles down the road their entire lives. So, they’re spending their lives with their family, and essentially extended family, it’s like close friends. And, you know, whatever, 200 people or something. And you’d be hanging out in the kitchen playing tunes or at the pub, whatever. And what? You’re trying to be good enough for them? These people who caught you when you came out of your momma’s womb? It’s like what are you trying to prove?

[ Music: Heartstrings reprise ]

I worked hard at it. But I couldn’t have paid me to do anything else. It’s just, you know, I totally wanted that.

And grounding that by playing with dancers, you know? The ceilis, where there’s a whole room full of people jumping up and down to what you’re doing. 

[Music fades]

I can’t imagine a better life.

[Music: “Pipe Solo – Slow Air” from Standing Barefoot at the Altar
Artist: Tim Britton with Chulrua ]

>> Shannon: Unlike the Rowsomes and Tim Britton, Tom Rota didn’t play Irish music as a kid. 

>> Tom: I didn’t start playing the pipes till I was 25.

>> Shannon: But now he’s an anchor in the Portland Maine Irish music scene, playing sessions, performing with his band Boghat, and running a weekly trad music series at Blue, an intimate listening room with great food and an extensive bar.

[Music fades]

>> Tom: So I grew up in NJ. I’m half Irish, half Italian. So, my Mom’s side is Irish. My grandfather played melodeon, but I never heard him. Um, my older brothers and sisters heard him and apparently he was terrible. He would play, he’s from Galway, but by the time I was old enough to remember anyway, he had stopped, he didn’t play anymore. So, I heard some of the music my mom would play growing up but was never particularly a big Irish music fan. I got really into Bluegrass. I was out of college about a year. I was painting houses. I just wanted to work in music. I didn’t know what to do and I had just gotten an Altan CD, because I heard it on the radio, and I really liked it. 

>> Shannon: OK, like many Irish musicians, Tom was lured into trad music after hearing a BAND. In this case, it was the group Altan. He ordered the CD, and it came with a Green Linnet Catalog. 

[Music: “McFarley’s/Mill Na Maídí” from Harvest Storm
Artist: Altan ]

>> Tom: I just wanted to work in music. I didn’t know what to do. I sent about 20 or 30 random cover letters out to record labels that I liked. And as I was sending out these letters, I saw the Green Linnet catalog, and I thought why not? I sent it off to them, out of 25 or 30 letters they were the only ones who replied to me. They called me up and said they needed somebody to run their warehouse. And I said, “I’m there.” So, I moved to luxurious Danbury, CT.

While I was there I started getting seriously hooked on Irish music. I would go to work. They had 1000 titles at Green Linnet. We’d start at 1001, which is Seamus Ennis, really got a nice education in Irish music from that. All different stuff, because they ran the gamut from very modern things, like Reel Time, if you remember them.  Using string backgrounds and stuff. And then to really, really old traditional stuff like the Tommy Reck piping album. You know, the Old School stuff. At first I would hear things like Seamus Ennis and Tommy Reck and think, “ahh, it’s SO out of tune,  how could people listen to this? It sounds like a car honking. Like, what is this noise?” And at some point a few months in, I started just repeating the piping albums, flipping them over and over and over again. And I just couldn’t get enough. I got really sucked in. So, just classically, like they say about the pipes—you get the bug. I got the bug. And I told my bosses. I said, “I think I really want to be a piper.” I said, “if you happen to see a set in a pawn shop, keep me in mind.”  They wound up finding a set, um, and they gave it to me as a Christmas bonus that year.

>> Shannon: Aww! Wow! That’s great!

>> Tom: Yeah!

>> Shannon: Wow, that’s a really nice story about Green Linnet. Interesting… So anyway, Tom starts lessons with a whistle player and piper named Bill Ochs, and he studies with him for 3 or 4 years. I asked him about Bill.

>> Tom: Bill was a really well known whistle player, and one of the guys from the 70s who was playing the pipes. A great, great piper. And a really great teacher, had everything down, knew exactly what to do. He was very strict. I would go to lessons at his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. I’d drive from Danbury down to Hell’s Kitchen, little over an hour. I lost my driving privilege in NY state by getting so many speeding tickets going back and forth to my lessons. He was a great teacher. I would take the lesson, and then we’d wind up sitting talking about Irish music. He didn’t seem to mind too much. I always thought I was being a nuisance, but he really enjoyed talking with me. So I would stay there until 10 or 11 at night. And then…and he gave me the basics of what I know basically, all the way up through, you know, the beginner stuff to the tight triplets.

[Music:  “Jackson’s Frieze Coat” from Irish Wind Music
Artist: Bill Ochs ]

>> Tom: I don’t want to play anything else, I really don’t, but sometimes I just want to throw them on a fire and just be done with it, you know?  They’re hard to tune and maintain. Some days they sound great, and then two hours later they sound terrible. It’s a difficult instrument. When it’s going right and everythings going, I think it’s the prettiest sound in the world. On the other hand, it’s a lot of work.  So, pipers already have this kind of built in sarcastic irony going on, this kind of love-hate thing with the instrument, which I think is part of the tradition, really. And it’s kind of really fun. 

>> Shannon: Survivalist… survivalist?

>> Tom: It’s a survivalist thing, yeah. And like I said, it’s a bug, so it’s a compulsion. 

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: Like Tom Rota, Patrick Hutchinson connected deeply with his teacher. And like Tom, Patrick got into Irish music after hearing a trad band play. A girlfriend had gotten him a tin whistle and tickets to hear the Bothy Band in Birmingham.

>> Shannon: That’s an amazing courtship!

>>Pat: Exactly, yeah! 

>> Shannon: Patrick and I got to chat at a party when the Rowsomes were visiting. You can hear people tuning up and starting tunes downstairs—there were at least 7 pipers hanging out that day.

>>Pat: I first saw the pipes, uh, in 1975, the first Bothy Band tour with Tommy Peoples; live at Digbeth Town Hall, cuz I grew up in Liverpool.

[ Music: “Kesh Jig” from In Concert
Artist: Bothy Band ]


At the time, I mean, I thought you actually needed dispensation from the Pope to be a piper, you know, special permission. It never occurred to me that  it was something that an ordinary person could do. But then I moved to Canada. There was a guy playing the pipes. He just happened to be setting up an Inuit broadcasting system in the far North, and it was too cold and dry to take his pipes. So I said, “Well, can I borrow them?” And he said sure. So I borrowed this practice set and then I was hooked. And then I got in touch with Chris Langen, who was my teacher in Toronto, who was a wonderful guy from Rush in north county Dublin who’d been in Toronto since the 50’s, who made pipes and taught pipes and taught tin whistle, and was just like the most important man in my life, basically. Yeah.

Yeah, well, meeting Chris was like a huge event. In Ireland he was a blacksmith, his father was a blacksmith, his uncle was a blacksmith, his grandfather was a blacksmith. His philosophy was a tradesman could turn his hand to anything, so he did. You know, he started making pipes. The set, the concert set I play is one of his, except for the chanter which is not, and it’s a lovely sounding set of drones and regulators. 

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: So Chris Langen made pipes, and he taught you pipes?

>>Pat: Yeah. Though I never had a lesson from him, and he never considered me a student. I was his friend. He never would, you know, it was a social relationship as much as a teaching relationship. You’d bang on the door and he’d say, “Come on in. And go on in the kitchen and put the kettle on.” And then you would and then you’d just share stories and cups of tea, endless cups of tea, for hours.

>> Shannon: So what did you learn from Chris?

>>Pat: That’s what the music is about. It’s as much about social connection as it is about sound. The tradition is a conversation between those who’ve gone before us and those who are here now. And they’re not gone, because it’s like the way they play is preserved in people’s fingers. And when you play and when you quote from them, like pipers do, those people are brought into the conversation, again, yeah.

>> Shannon: So, uh, glad you stuck with the pipes?

>>Pat: I’m a little more comfortable about saying yes than I used to be. I’m enjoying playing them, and I know what I can do. I’m not constantly putting myself down anymore. 

[ Music in the background: Rowsomes warming up ]

Sometimes I think if I’d started playing the fiddle when I’d started the pipes, I’d be REALLY good!

>> Shannon: You wouldn’t still be tuning them, like..

>>Pat: Yeah, but it’s good. I’m happy playing the pipes. I love playing the pipes. Pipers are kind a breed apart because they can talk endlessly about stuff that bores the pants off of everybody else. 

>> Shannon: Yes! Hahahaha!

>>Pat: Well, but there’s a reason for that, you know? Because the instrument itself is not a tempered instrument. The scale is not a tempered scale. It’s all based on the sound against the drones. Which means that certain of the notes in the scale are prized for the sound they make, and the different ways you can mess with how they sound and produce that. Whereas like in a different style of music—if you’re a jazz player, you certainly don’t want your C natural to stand out every time you play that note. But on the pipes, I can quote you, I can say, “Do you want to hear about C natural? Listen to Jimmy O’ Brien Moran on his recording, Take Me Tender, and you listen to him play The Old Coulin. The first time through, the second time through his C natural is not as good. But the first time through is the most beautiful C. Like the Oscar for best C natural in a motion picture or in a slow air, goes to Jimmy O’Brien Moran.

[ Music: The Old Coolun” from Take Me Tender
Artist: Jimmy O’Brien Moran ]

>> Shannon: Chicago-born Isaac Alderson also has a great C natural and I’ve heard him defy what I feel are limits on the Irish flute with ease, and on pipes, whistle, and flute he’s won All Ireland competitions, with his humility intact. My husband Matt had a chance to talk with Isaac when they were both teaching at the gorgeous Portal Irish music week. Here’s Matt Heaton and Isaac Alderson.

>>Matt: How did you start playing?

>> Isaac: I started playing because I heard Irish music when I was a kid and fell in love with it.  I heard the uilleann pipes and thought it was such a magical sound and, um, it was in the early days of when we had dial up internet at home. There were a few online resources.

You could do, you know, I think a web crawler search or something and find some information about the instrument and about Irish music. I found out that there was an event in St Louis every year called the St. Louis Tionol and it was originally called the Mississippi River Celtic Music Festival. I found out that that was going to be happening. It was the very first one. I want to say that this was in ‘96 or ‘97? And I met my first teacher on the uilleann pipes there and my first teacher on the flute and whistle respectively, Al Purcell. And  actually I got a lesson as well from Pat Broaders that same weekend. And also I met Laurence Nugent who became, who was then to become my flute and whistle teacher for the remainder of my teenage years. But, yeah.

>>Matt: And what do you think now—Irish music: welcoming or exclusive? Like if you’re coming to it as an outsider, someone who’s not born with a silver tune in the mouth. Or however, how is it getting there?

Isaac: There’s something about the identity of the non-Irish Irish musician, especially someone who’s not even of Irish descent like myself. I grew up anyway having something of an inferiority complex because many people list, as their claims to validity and to relevance, they list their family background. They say her parents were from such and such a town in such and such a place in Ireland. And her father was a box player. And his father, etc., etc. There’s a lot of that or, you know they can say they grew up in an Irish community and were around the music from birth. And even if they were born in the United States, they have this claim to Irishness that somebody like me can’t have. Over time, I learned to kind of abandon that idea and realize, you know, there’s an awful lot of people who are great Irish musicians who have nothing ethnically to do with Ireland and, uh —like you, Matt! 

And so, anyway, yeah, so I think basically I’ve been, we’ve all been, to Ireland many times, we’ve all played, we all have friends there and played music. For many years we’ve kind of known that musicians, everybody, people who really know the music, appreciate when somebody can play and when somebody is respectful of the tradition and has put their time in. That’s never been an issue with fellow musicians. A musician knows a musician. You meet somebody and if they can play you don’t care who they are or where they’re from, I’ve always known that to be the case with people in Ireland who are good players. They don’t care where you’re from.

In that way I think Irish music is very, very inclusive. But I think that it also, in order to be included in it, it doesn’t matter, in my experience, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. But what matters is the spirit and the heart that you bring to it. So if you’re somebody who comes in and expects the tradition to bend to you, of course you’re probably going to be met with the very Irish way of subtle ridicule and fun at your expense. But if you are somebody that approaches it with respect and a genuine desire to become proficient at it,  then I think it’s wide open.

[ Music: Heartstrings Reprise ]

>> Shannon: In 2017, Irish piping IS a pretty open field. People play pipes all over the world. New instruments and stable reeds and compound knowledge and YouTube videos have, indeed, opened the door to many musical souls who hear the buzz of the drones, and the bark of the regulators and who follow a long and WINDY path that sets them apart, and connects them to a long line of pipers before them.

Seamus Ennis used to say it takes 21 years to master the uilleann pipes: seven years learning, seven years practicing, and seven years playing.

[Seamus Ennis recording: First you must learn the Tok, and then you must learn the grip, and after that you must learn the Truckley Howl. And then you have the whole lot, only just to keep on practicing it.]

 Patrick Hutchinson distinctly remembers hearing his teacher, Chris Langen, quoting the early 20th century Scottish writer and poet Neil Munro. Munro said, “The making of a piper is seven years of his OWN learning… seven generations before… and at the end of seven years, one born to it stands at the threshold of knowledge and—leaning a fond ear on the drone—holds converse with old folks on old affairs.”

[Music fades]

[Music: “Garret Barry’s/The Bucks of Oranmore” from In Concert
Artist: Paddy Keenan with the Bothy Band ]

Folks, thanks for leaning a fond ear on this podcast! It was a privilege to talk to so many inspired musicians—in the interviews, and also in Facebook conversations as I assembled these stories. 

This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton, with additional reporting from Matt Heaton. My thanks to the Rowsomes, Tim Britton, Tom Rota, Patrick Hutchinson, and Isaac Alderson for sharing their stories. And to Joey Abarta for sharing additional music. And thank you to this month’s supporters: Brian Benscoter and two anonymous donors- thank you!

If you’d like to learn more about the people and the music in this episode—or if you can kick in with a show of support—please head to 

Next month’s show will air on Tuesday September 12th—a feature on dance. I hope you’ll tune in. Thanks again for listening, everybody!


[ sound of drinking wine]

>> Tim:  If you drink too much, you’re not going to be the slickest player in the world. But that’s, again it’s the heart, it’s expressiveness. You know, it’s hanging out with some of these characters.

>> Shannon: And if you drink while you’re doing a podcast interview, it’s not going to have that kind of sheen that you find in the NPR studios. And.. let’s talk authenticity!

>> Tim: Yeah! This is us. Take it or leave it! 

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Rowsome Family


Dublin-based musicians who come from a long line of pipers: Kevin learned uilleann pipes from his grandfather Leo; Lorraine plays fiddle and piano; Tierna plays pipes, concertina, fiddle, and harp; and Nisha sings and play pipes, accordion, and harp

Tom Rota


New Jersey-born, Maine-based piper who has helped build a traditional music series in Portland

Tim Britton


Philadelphia-born uillean piper and flute player who has toured with some of the finest traditional musicians. He was designated a master artist in his adopted home, by the Iowa Arts Council 

Patrick Hutchinson


Liverpool-born, Rhode Island-based musician who learned to play the pipes in Canada

Isaac Alderson


Chicago-born, New York-based musician who has performed and recorded on uilleann pipes, flute, and whistle with numerous bands and dance shows, including The Yanks and Come From Away

The Heaton List