When Mark Redmond began learning the uilleann pipes in the Wexford Piper’s Club in 2001, there were only eight to ten pipers in the county.
n the club’s closing several years later, the scarcity of seasoned pipers left the Gorey musician no other choice but to travel to Dunmore East for lessons. Yet, in the twenty years since Mark first picked up the instrument he’s forged a career with, the instrument has seen a huge rise in popularity. This Saturday, November 5, a celebration of this unique instrument will take place around Ireland and, indeed, the globe, as people gather for International Uilleann Pipe Day.
“Interest in the instrument has just absolutely exploded,” said Mark. “When I started uilleann pipes, there were eight or 10 pipers in Wexford, and Wexford was one of the stronger counties. Now there could be 30 pipers here. For an instrument that was on the edge for years, it has really taken off.”
Mark credits the revival of uilleann piping to several things, including the accessibility of music an ease of tuition.
“When I got into music first, no one had smartphones or the internet. Unless you heard something on the radio or tv by chance, that was it. Now you could stumble across something on Youtube or somewhere and say, ‘that’s a cool instrument’, and want to learn it,” he said. “I always say this to younger students when they’re starting off. You hear something and take out Shazam and then you know what you’re listening to in an instant.”
Those interested in learning to play no longer have to travel for miles in order to find an experienced teacher, said Mark.
“Music Generation is one organisation that offers lessons in every county. Now, nobody has to travel beyond twenty minutes to go to a lesson. So there are now more lessons and more accessibility. It has just gotten a lot easier to learn.”
Some organisations also offer the option of renting uilleann pipes, explained Mark, giving people the opportunity to learn to play without the expense of purchasing their own instrument.
This year, Mark will spend International Uilleann Pipe Day in Laois at an event organised by Music Generation.
“This year, they held an outreach programme where they sent me to different Music Generations in Waterford, Mayo, Sligo, Laois and Louth. I spent a week going to each one, teaching young pipers and preparing for this concert. This weekend, we will all come together in Laois as one group to play.”
The concert is one of a string of events that Mark has been involved in lately. After several years of Zoom concerts from the kitchen, he welcomes the return to in-person gigs and the buzz that it brings.
In early September, Mark played as a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra, on a night when composer Mícheal O’ Suilleabháin was posthumously awarded the lifetime achievement award in the National Concert Hall. Ó Súilleabháin, an influential educator, musician and composer, died in 2018 aged 67. While hailing from Clonmel, O’ Súilleabháin had links to Gorey, having been commissioned to compose a musical piece to mark the tenth anniversary of the town’s arts festival.
“The concert was a significant event. The next night, we went to the University of Limerick, where he was instrumental in setting up the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. It was a big concert and, in the grand scheme of music, it was very significant.”
The next event for Mark was a Music Network Tour around Ireland and London with fiddle player and vocalist with folk band Altan, Mairead Ní Mhaonaigh and harpist Cormac De Barra. Music Network – an arts organisation that promotes all genres of music around the country – brought the trio together and asked them to come up with a concert series that they would later perform all around the country.
“It was a nice thing to be asked to do. It is rare you actually get to tour Ireland. I know that sounds like a mad thing to say but generally, we are off playing abroad so to tour around Ireland was really fantastic,” said Mark. “The closest venue to home was the Tinahely Arts Centre. It felt like a home gig as so many people from Gorey travelled up.”
The tour gave Mark and his fellow musicians the chance to be creative and delve into some of their own passions.
“We were given a blank sheet really. I have a real fondness for old books. I collect first-edition books in relation to Irish traditional music and one I picked up recently was the William Forde collection. It was compiled in the mid-nineteenth century but it was never actually properly published until 2022. It was a hidden gem for decades,” he explained. “In that book, there were a couple of tunes and I flicked through the pages and picked out a few.
We resurrected a couple of nice tunes that probably hadn’t been heard since they were collected in the mid-nineteenth century.”
Soon after this tour, Mark was invited to play at the premiere of The Civil War Cantata with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
“There is a fascinating backstory to it. The libretto sang by the soloists is taken from diary accounts from the Civil War stored in the UCD archives. Everything you hear is from the pen of people in prison cells. Anne Marie O’Farell has put it all to music and it was fantastic. I hope it gets another outing.”
A recent event was particularly nostalgic and significant for Mark, as it was held in honour of the acclaimed uilleann piper and former member of Planxty, the late Liam O’Flynn.
“If the uilleann pipers had a president, he is the man. He was the piper everyone looked up to. He was the grand ole man of piping for our generation and he was one of my heroes growing up. I filled in for him over the years when he got sick and when he died, I got a lot of his gigs, which is a great honour. I was delighted that people who organised the Féile Liam O’Flynn invited me to come along and play a new piece of music,” explained Mark.
If Mark’s busy schedule is anything to go by, it’s clear that uilleann piping is thriving in Ireland. Opportunities to hear the music are plentiful and, so too, are opportunities to learn. For those who are interested in taking it up, Mark’s advice is simply to give it a try.
“If the interest is there, try it and if you don’t like it, it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “It’s not as daunting as it used to be as everything is so accessible, between online and the amount of musicians on the go.
“Trad music is a very social music. There is any amount of opportunities to play in public and with friends. There’s always an outlet for it.”