Irish Piping Tradition

Gay McKeon

Access Productions - CDGMK 001


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In 1971, my 16th summer, I hitched alone for the first time across the country from Dublin to Connemara. Dusk found me stumbling over a stone bridge like something from An Béal Bocht, the sky weeping so fully it embraced the ground, rock and water everywhere. With curious suddenness, there was an eerie lull as the rain fell away. In the soaked half-light, sodden and homesick, I swore I could hear a piper playing.
From that moment on, traditional music made more and more sense to someone who had no initial understanding of it. The pipes in particular were imbued with a peculiar magic.
A few years later I began to come across Gay McKeon in sessions. Growing up, I had heard that Seán’s little brother was a bit of a genius. Hearing him at first hand was different. Gay is the complete piper. He has disciplined and cajoled an instrument that is basically mad in the head into a conduit for his own musical passion and sensitivity. His technique is such that no matter how stunning the ornamentation, the music is never lost. His slow airs still break my heart.
Looking back, I find a wryness in the notion that the savage and wonderful spirituality experienced in the rock of Connemara was all the time practising a few doors up from me in the concrete of Artane, Dublin.

Brendan Gleeson

I’ve enjoyed Gabriel’s piping for manys the day. We have toured together and recorded together and it has always been a pleasure. Let me recommend his music.

Christy Moore

From a very early age my parents brought me to many traditional music concerts and events throughout Ireland which cultivated in me a keen interest in listening to music and singing. From the age of seven I attended the Pipers’ Club in 14 Thomas Street, Dublin, where I visited Leo Rowsome’s pipes classes, at which Leo often related stories of older pipers and musicians generally.

It was common for people to travel from various regions of the country to attend and listen to Leo give his classes, at the end of which he often gave recitals of tunes requested by the visitors. Over a number of years I became enthralled with the distinctive sound of Leo’s beautiful concert pitch set of pipes, by which I have been haunted ever since.

My musical career started with piano lessons with several teachers, but after a year or so, when my father suggested that I go to Leo’s pipes class, I jumped at the chance. About 1968 I started lessons with Leo and with his encouragement learned some of the standard piping repetoire, until his untimely death in 1970.

I continued with lessons from Dan O’Dowd, Mick Touhey and Leon Rowsome at classes in Thomas Street and after a while I started to learn tunes for myself from Ceol Rince na héireann and O’Neill’s collection. The Saturday night visits to Thomas Street were the highlight of my week which was a bit like attending a mini Willie Clancy Summer School, because, apart from the general session there was always a number of solo performers, memorable duets and singing to be heard in the various rooms. Among the pipers who made particular impressions on me during these Saturday night sessions were Paddy Keenan, Pat Mitchell, Willie Clancy, Tommy Reck and Seán Seery.

In 1972 I was very fortunate to get a Coyne set of pipes, tuned in C, from Matt Kiernan. The pipes had been found in Ardmore, County Waterford and restored by Matt. Paddy McElvaney told my father to enquire of Matt if he would sell them. Matt readily agreed and I was immediately captivated by the tone of the set, to such an extent that I played them for several hours each day. I made regular visits to Matt’s house in Cabra, with my father, where I met and listened to the visiting pipers. Andy Conroy also visited Matt’s house and it was always a special treat to hear him playing. I attended many of the annual tionóil píobaireachta held by Na Píobairí Uilleann and was enthralled by the likes of Séamus Ennis, Willie Clancy and Paddy Moloney, among many others.

At eighteen I thought I knew it all. However, I have been finding out ever since that, at that age, I had barely started to appreciate the pipes. I hope my sons Conor and Seán who play on this recording (Conor tracks 6 and 9 and Séan track 6) continue with the piping tradition and manage to get as much enjoyment from playing music as I have over the years.

I am indebted to Cillian Ó Briain for accommodating me so generously with his pipe making skills as a result of which I have been able to use both my C and D sets of pipes on this recording.

I hope you enjoy the selection of tunes which are representative of what I have learned during my years playing the pipes.

In writing the notes on the tunes included on this recording I began to realize the extent to which Leo Rowsome was the source of so much of my repertoire. However, I am very grateful to all the musicians who have shared their music with me over the years and in particular the generations of pipers who have added to the tradition by teaching and playing.

It would not have been possible for me to make this recording without the level of support and encouragement I received from my wife, Mary Corcoran. I am very grateful to her for that and indeed her influence on the music, particularly in the recording studio, was immense.

I dedicate this recording to my parents Bríd and Tom McKeon who, from their own enjoyment of traditional music, which they first heard in their native counties of Clare and Leitrim respectively, encouraged me greatly at all times .

Special thanks to the musicians who performed on this recording :
Mary Corcoran, Paul Doyle, Tom McDonagh, Conor and Seán McKeon and Paul O’Shaughnessy. I greatly appreciate the commitment, enthusiasm and good humour shown by them throughout this project. Thanks also to my brothers Tomás and Seán, my sisters Mary and Bernadette, to Roma Casey, Paula Murphy, Cathy O’Shaughnessy, Liam McNulty, Seán Donnelly, Joe Crane, Donncha Keegan, Patricia Logan, Joe ó Dubhghaill, Nicholas Carolan, Glenn Cumiskey, Tommy Keane, Terry Moylan, Na Píobairí Uilleann, The Traditional Music Archive and especially Aoife and Sinéad who kindly permit me to practice at home occasionally.

Gay McKeon



1. Lord Gordon’s / Trim The Velvet : Reels
The Duke Of Gordon’s Rant (Glasgow 1778). This version is an adaptation of Michael Coleman’s ledgendary recording, itself deeply influenced by piping tradition. Trim The Velvet I learned from O’Neill’s Collection.

2. The First Slip / Moll Roe / The Piper’s Apron : Slip Jigs
The First Slip was one of the first slip jigs I learned and is related to Ride A Mile and several other slip jigs. Moll Roe I got from Leo Rowsome and it has numerous other names with various bawdy songs and verses sung to it. The final tune, The Piper’s Apron, was composed by the Galway based piper Tommy Keane who used it as the title of his solo piping CD on the Mulligan Label CLUN052.

3. Lord Mayo : Slow Air
Lord Mayo was composed circa 1720 by a harper called David Murphy who had fallen out of favour with Lord Mayo and composed this tune to ensure that he would have a roof over his head for Christmas. I’m sure he was successful.

4. Big Pat’s / I’m Waiting For You : Reels
Francis O’Neill collected Big Pat’s from big Pat O’Mahony, a west Clare flute player and member of the Chicago police force. I’m Waiting For You can be found in O’ Neill’s Collection and in Ceol Rince na hÉireann Volume 2 from Séan MacAloon.

5. Brian O’Lynn / Gillan’s Apples : Jigs
Brian O’Lynn is the air of a song about a laid back character who made the best of every situation and it can be found in Colm ó Lochlainn’s book Irish Street Ballads. Gillan’s Apples was originally published by O’Farrell in his 1804 tutor for the Irish pipes as Apples In Winter. Francis O’Neill had another tune of that title and altered that of the present one naming it after John Gillan, a Longford man, who gave it to him. Leo Rowsome taught both of these tunes to me.

6. Frank Roche’s Favourite / Peter Street : Set Dance / Reel
Frank Roche’s Favourite is a set dance I first heard on Matt Molloy’s album The Stony Steps CCF18. Peter Street, ‘A Favourite Dance - As danced at Peter Street’ (Dublin, circa 1818); widely known in England and Scotland as well as Ireland. Timur The Tartar was another title for the tune and in the north of England it was known as Blanchland Races. A version played by Séamus Ennis is to be found in Ceol Rince na hÉireann Volume 2. (No. 169) I am joined by my sons Conor and Seán on this reel.


7. The Tailor’s Twist / The Ballyoran Hornpipe : Hornpipes
The Tailor’s Twist was taught to me by Peter Flynn, an uilleann and bagpipe player who was born in Kildare but lived most of his life in the north Dublin suburb of Donnycarney. Peter and his wife Maggie were very active in piping circles in Dublin right from the early part of this century. The Ballyoran Hornpipe was sourced from my brother’s manuscript of Leo Rowsome tunes.

8. Farewell To Erin / The Glen Road To Carrick : Reels
I learned both versions of these tunes from Paul O’Shaughnessy who joins me on this set. The second tune is a reel version of a jig also found in England and Scotland, originally published in the 1730s as The Major and now called The Kilfenora Jig in Ireland.

9. The Monaghan Jig / Francis Aucoin : Jigs
The Monaghan Jig I first heard played by Mary Bergin. The first part of the tune is the same as Scatter The Mud except in a different key. Francis Aucoin was composed by Cape Breton fiddler Howie McDonald and given to me by Kieran O’Hare, an uilleann piper from Kansas City. My son Conor joins me on both these tunes.

10. The Garden Of The Daisies : Set Dance
The Garden Of The Daisies is related to a song called Sliabh Geal gCua from Waterford, composed in Wales by Pádraig Ó Mileadha (1877-1947)

11. Never Was Piping So Gay / An Gliomach / Gilbert Clancy’s : Reels
Never Was Piping So Gay was composed by Ed Reavy, the Cavan born fiddle player who lived most of his life in Philadelphia. The title comes from a W. B. Yeats poem called The Host Of The Air. The second tune, An Gliomach (The Lobster) was collected by Breandán Breathnach from John Fennell of Miltown Malbay who gave it its title. The third reel is Gilbert Clancy’s, who was the father of Willie Clancy. This is a great favourite of pipers in general and I learned it from Breandán Breathnach’s Ceol Rince na hÉireann Volume 1.

12. The Plains Of Boyle / The Independent : Hornpipes
The celebrated Roscommon born piper Andy Conroy is the source of The Plains Of Boyle. Andy introduced me to the playing of Michael Gallagher who hailed from County Leitrim but lived in the USA where Andy had met him. Gallagher, as evidenced by his few surviving recordings, was an exceptional piper. Included among the recordings is The Plains Of Boyle. However, the version I play is considerably less ornamented than Andy Conroy’s. The second hornpipe was sourced from Leo Rowsome and is included in The Feis Ceol Collection Of Irish Airs, Volume 1 (Dublin 1914) which was most likely Rowsome’s source.

13. The Gallowglass / An Buachaill Dreoite : Jigs
Leo Rowsome and Willie Clancy respectively are the sources of these tunes. There is a fling version of An Buachaill Dreoite to be found in Pat Mitchell’s The Dance Music of Willie Clancy (No. 135)

14. Slán Le Máigh : Slow Air
Composed by Aindrias Mac Craith, one of the famous poets who lived along the Maigue River in the Bruff / Croom area of Co. Limerick. The song was composed in 1738 when Mac Craith was compelled to leave the parish of Croom by the then Parish Priest.

15. The Maid In The Cherry Tree / Colonel Frazer : Reels
The Maid In The Cherry Tree which is better known as The Curragh Races was learned from Dublin flute player Mick O’Connor, who played with the Castle Céilí Band and was a great source of encouragement to the younger musicians in the Pipers’ Club in the 1970s. Colonel Frazer is included in the Goodman Collection as Frazer’s Frolics. There are two source tunes in Scotland, a strathspey from Aberdeen, Colonel Frazer Of Kinlochie and additional parts in Miss Corbett’s in the Aird collection, circa 1800 (also in Waifs And Strays by Captain O’Neill)



Guest Musicians :

Mary Corcoran - Keyboards
Paul O’Shaughnessy - Fiddle
Tom McDonagh - Bouzouki
Paul Doyle - Guitar
Conor and Seán McKeon - Pipes


O’Driscoll scattered the cards
And out of his dream awoke:
Old men and young men and young girls
Were gone like a drifting smoke;

But he heard high up in the air
A piper piping away,
And never was piping so sad,
And never was piping so gay.

extract from The Host Of The Air - W. B. Yeats


The pipes played on this recording are as follows:

Gay McKeon concert set by Bruce Du Vé (1980). Chanter by Cillian Ó Briain (1993).
Flat set pitched in C made by Coyne (circa 1840). Chanter by Matt Kiernan (1972).
Conor McKeon half set by Cillian Ó Briain (1994).
Seán McKeon practice set by Willie Rowsome (circa 1918). Chanter by Cillian Ó Briain (1992).

All tracks traditional arranged by Gay McKeon, except tracks 5, 8, 10, traditional arranged by Gay McKeon and Paul O'Shaughnessy.
Tracks 1,2,5,6,7,9,11,12, bouzouki accompaniment Tom McDonagh and guitar accompaniment Paul Doyle. Track 14 keyboard accompaniment Mary Corcoran. Accompaniment arrangement: McDonagh/Doyle, except track 14 Corcoran/Doyle.

The Piper's Apron composed by Tommy Keane.
Francis Aucoin composed by Howie McDonald (SOCAN).
Never Was Piping So Gay composed by Ed Reavey.
*Extract from The Host Of The Air by W. B. Yeats reproduced by kind permission of A. P. Watt Ltd., on behalf of Michael and Anne Yeats.

Recorded at Pine Valley Studios, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin, March 1997.
Engineered by Joe Ó Dubhghaill.
Produced by Gay McKeon and Mary Corcoran.
Sleeve Design by Paula Murphy.
Photography by Colm Keating.