Members of the midland pipers group playing the Annebrook House Hotel on Saturday. Photos by John Root

Uilleann Piping Day ‘a reminder of how our music has spread around the world’

International Uilleann Piping Day is a great event because it’s a reminder of how much our traditional music and culture have spread around the world, and not just among the Irish diaspora, historian Ruth Illingworth said at the local event on Saturday.

She was addressing a gathering in the Old House at the Annebrook House Hotel, where the Midland Pipers were playing to mark the day – which was the ninth year of the event in Mullingar since James Keane started it in 2014.

Ruth said: “The uilleann pipes are among Ireland’s traditional music instruments, along with the harp, and they have been recognised as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO."

Members of the Midland Pipers at the Annebrook House Hotel on Saturday afternoon, (from left) Joe Gavin with his daughter Roisin, who played a number of tunes on the harp, Ciaran Gaynor, Liam Winnett, Ruth Illingworth, historian, Lorenzo Hynes, Rory O’Connor, Phil Tifft and Mike Sammon.

“The history of piping in this area we can say goes back 300 years, possibly longer. The first figure we know about is a man called Timothy Keena, who lived in Mullingar and Ballynacargy, and in Dublin, who played and made pipes and was considered one of the best in the country.

“At the beginning of the 19th century, at Piper’s Boreen, is an area of the town that traditionally was known as Wrangleborough – we’re not sure how it got that name, nobody seems to know that – but Wrangleborough was an area in which there appeared to be quite a number of what you might call ceili houses, in which musicians lived, including pipers, and in December 1806 the first canal boat from Dublin arrived into the harbour, at that time at Piper’s Boreen."

Ciaran Gaynor and Liam Winnett.

“The boat was the Countess of Granard, named in honour of the wife of the town’s landlord, and it carried, we are told, a group of notables, we’re never told any of the names of these notables, but the pipers were on hand to play, along with musicians from the Sligo militia, who were on the boat, and a tradition seems to have arisen then that as the boats came in and out of the harbour, the musicians were on hand to play and received, or no doubt hoped to receive, some kind of monetary reward for their playing – one hopes they did make a bit of money out of it.”

Ruth also spoke about Richard Melia, or Dick Mealy, “one of the most significant pipers and traditional musicians to have emerged from Westmeath in the last century and a half”, who was born just outside Ballynacargy, in the historic Tristernagh area. “He died in 1947, and left a legacy as one of the most significant musicians and pipers to come from the midlands.”

She then drew a connection to the founding of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann after a group of Dublin pipers came to Mullingar, initially with the intention of setting up a pipers group here “and then it was extended to include other traditional musicians”.

“Among those involved in the founding of Comhaltas was Leo Rowsome, another incredibly gifted traditional piper and musician – and the uilleann pipes have played an important part in the fleadh ever since.”

Concluding, Ruth said it was fitting that the local International Uilleann Piping Day event was in “this historic old house, built not long after the canal came to Mullingar, and close to the Wrangleborough area where so many pipers and musicians lived”.