When Mark Redmond started playing the uilleann pipes at the age of 12, he had to travel to Dunmore East to 88-year-old Tommy Kearney for lessons.
But those lessons have paid off handsomely for the Gorey man was not only centre stage for many of the 1916 Centenary celebrations, playing in front of President Higgins in Dublin and the Irish Ambassador to the US and loads of diplomats in the Kennedy Centre in Washington. In the US, the concert featured a new composition for solo uilleann pipes, conducted by the world-famous pianist, Barry Douglas.
Indeed, Mark had the honour of playing at the funeral of the ultimate uilleann piper of the previous generation, Liam Óg O’Flynn, recently.
Today, the well-travelled piper is back living in Gorey, having played the uilleann pipes in places as far-flung as Japan and China, playing with Riverdance on their 20th anniversary tour in the UK in 2014 … It’s all a long way from winning gold in the 2003 All Ireland Fleadh!
“It’s fantastic how accessible the music – and the uilleann pipes – are now,” said Mark, who also teaches aspiring pipers, including one student in Los Angeles via Skype! “As a young student, when my teacher talked about an older piper, I had to wait to buy the CD on my next trip to Dublin! Now, people can go on YouTube, so it is definitely easier.”
The uilleann pipes themselves are works of art – “historically, the uilleann pipes were known as parlour music, because the sound produced is quiet, it’s more like an oboe”. And they’re a very sensitive animal! “A piper spends 90 per cent of his tuning and 10 per cent of his time practising! For instance, if I’m playing somewhere tomorrow, the pipes have to be tuned at the room in that location, so that they acclimatise. They are made for this climate because there’s moisture in the air. Liam Óg O’Flynn used to ask for the air conditioner in a venue to be turned off – and for me, in Japan, in 2013, I had to leave the pipes across the sink in the bathroom when I was having a shower to get them to absorb moisture.”
There’s not much Mark doesn’t know about uilleann pipes – he’s currently undertaking a PhD on the use of uilleann pipes in different genres of music.
Mark is also plying his trade at a time when traditional music is hugely popular. “There have never been as many trad musicians ever,” said Mark, adding that thousands – and thousands – of traditional music tunes have been composed since the first trad Irish music was published in 1728. He knows this because he collects first editions of Irish music books! “There are 1800 tunes in the book of one man, Francis O’Neill, who collected music from Irish emigrants in Chicago. He was an immigrant himself and later Chief of Police in Chicago.”
A lot of those tunes will be heard in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, in July, when Mark attends the Willie Clancy Summer School. “Willie Clancy played uilleann pipes made by Leo Rowsome. The Rowsomes were based near Ferns, so I always make sure to mention that to the Clare musicians!”
And what’s on this man’s bucket list? “I’d like to play with more orchestras, like the Berlin Philharmonic or the Venice Philharmonic. I love the sound of the uilleann pipes and an orchestra,” said Mark, who plays with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on occasion.
“Oh, and I’d like to play with U2 as well!”
Interview: Deirdre O’Flynn