On the suggestion of Pete Seeger they made a two-month tour of the United States in 1965

Last updated

January 8, 2008

The McPeakes
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 Clonard, 1989
At Home with the McPeakes
, Fontana, 1967
The McPeake Family, Topic, 1962
The McPeakes, Prestige, 1960
The Rights of Man, Francie (Da) and Francie II, 1952




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