The McPeake family of Belfast were one of the few Irish pre-ballad boom
groups. That they were better-known abroad than at home is illustrated
by a story told about a conversation between Bob Dylan and
Bono of U2 in 1984. The legendary singer asked what Bono
thought of the McPeakes. The Dublin-born Bono had never heard of them.
The group was built up around the grandfather, Francis I,
who had studied pipes under the blind Galway piper John Reilly.
It was the Belfast Presbyterian nationalist Francis Joseph
Bigger (1863-1926) who brought O'Reilly to the northern city
to teach McPeake to play. O'Reilly stayed for three months with the
McPeakes. Bigger gave him five shillings a week spending money, 15
shillings a week to send home to his family, and seven shillings and
sixpence to the McPeakes for his lodging.
Francis McPeake had won prizes at the 1908 Belfast Feis and the 1912
Oireachtas. His musical career began as a triangle player in a flute
band of which his brother John was a founder member, around 1898.
He acquired a set of O'Mealy pipes and developed the unique facility of
being able to sing and play at the same time, a combination repeated
with great success by The Fureys and
Planxty (albeit using both a vocalist and piper).
The family group, composed of Francis (Da), his
sons Francis II and James, and
grandchildren Kathleen, Francis III and
Tom McCrudden, achieved considerable international success
and won the Eisteddfodau in 1958, '60 and '62. In the 1950s they played
as the Seamus McPeake Ceili Band, with which piper Tomás
O Canainn and fiddler Tommy Gunn played
at one time or another.
On the suggestion of Pete Seeger they made a
two-month tour of the United States in 1965, when Francis (Da) was 80,
and played for President Johnson in the White House. They have also
performed in Moscow. Other admirers included Van Morrison
and John Lennon who once asked Francie to teach him
the uilleann pipes and almost bought a set off him.
The group featured vocals, two uilleann pipes, two harps, banjo, guitar
and tin whistle. A year later Seeger came to the Whitla Hall in Belfast
for Francis senior's farewell concert. Their most famous song, Will
Ye Go, Lassie Go, written by Francis Senior, was recorded by The Clancys and The
Byrds in the 1960s and Rod Stewart (after
copyright hiccups were sorted out) in the 1990s, but they also passed
other folk songs on into the tradition. Another song they performed, Purple
Heather, was recorded by Van Morrison.
Francie II suffered an accident to his right hand in the early 1970s
which meant the end of his career as a full-time performer, but he
never gave up playing altogether.
Although the group ceased to play for some time after the death of
Francis I in 1971, they formed a new line-up in the 1980s which did
club work in the North. Francie II died in 1986. His son Francie III
built up the Francis McPeake School of Music. He also organises the
annual Francis McPeake International Summer School in July. (For dates
go to Feativals 2008). Again a new line-up was put in place and the McPeakes participated in the 2003 Irish Festival in Milwaukee.
On the Record
Shoe the Donkey, Francie McPeake with The
At Home with the McPeakes, Fontana, 1967
The McPeake Family, Topic, 1962
The McPeakes, Prestige, 1960
The Rights of Man, Francie (Da) and Francie