World piping celebration in Armagh


The William Kennedy Piping festival was founded in 1993 in Armagh, Northern Ireland and has gone from strength to strength BRIAN VALLELY, Festival Director, reports on this year’s festival.

When the William Kennedy Piping Festival was first launched in 1994, we little thought that a quarter of a century later the festival would not only be continuing on but thriving and expanding year on year.

This year was quite exceptional and at the festival launch in the historic Archbishop Robinson’s Palace, the attendance got a flavour of what was in store for the subsequent four days. From the ancient land of Iran representing thousands of years of Persian art and culture we heard the wonderful music of Moshen Sharifian. Then we heard the innovative Scottish bagpipe group, Tryst showcasing the talents of seven virtuoso Scottish pipers weaving a rich tapestry of sound that they have made their own. Cllr Mealla Bratten Lord Mayor of Armagh launched the festival and spoke of the long connection between Armagh Council and the Festival going back to the days of the great Armagh Together Festival out of which the William Kennedy Piping Festival emerged. In every year since then the Council, firstly through the Armagh City & District Council and more recently through the Borough Council of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon, has supported the festival and helped it grow.

Cllr Bratten spoke of the enormous contribution the William Kennedy Piping Festival has made to both the cultural and economic life of Armagh bringing as it does visitors from right across the globe who return year on year.

Moshen Sharifian.

This year piping enthusiasts from all five continents attended and between the diverse strains of music everywhere could be heard the accents of languages ranging from Japanese to South Americans speaking Spanish and Portuguese and in between most of the languages of Europe with Italian, French, Dutch, Swedish, German, Spanish and for the first time Macedonian. There were visitors from as far away as New Zealand in the Southern Hemisphere right up to Alaska as far north as you could go.

Festival themes
Last year Artistic Director, Caoimhin Vallely introduced a themed approach highlighting different aspects of world piping. This was continued and built on this year with the opening concert on Thursday, November 14 entitled ‘A World of Piping’ featuring piping traditions from five countries. Brighde Chaimbeul playing Scottish smallpipes with traditional Gaidhlig step-dancing from Sophie Stephenson brought a rare flavour of an almost lost art preserved on the bleak island of Cape Breton by the survivors of the cruel Highland Clearances of previous centuries. The concert included solo performances from Edelmiro Fernandez of Galicia, Moshen Sharifian playing Persian pipes, Nico Berardi on the Southern Italian Zampogna and from Macedonia piper and multi-instrumentalist Stefce Stojkovski.

Tryst playing at the festival launch hosted by Cllr Mealla Bratten in the Palace

Piping Perspectives
Piping Perspectives 1, 2 and 3 ran consecutively in the Studio Theatre at the Market Place on Friday 15th, Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th November. These three concerts were a showcase of the interaction between the music, language and dance of Ireland and Scotland with a flavour of Breton celticism added to the mix.

One of the many memorable interactions was between the piping of Maire Ni Ghrada and the incomparable fiddle playing of Maeve Donnelly. Maeve’s superlative interpretation of the piping reel Colonel Frazer challenged the best piping traditions and will live in people’s memories for a long time to come.

These three concerts featured performances from eleven soloists, duets and trios that were a roll call of the very best in our traditions. Piping Perspectives 1 in addition to the Ni Ghrada/Donnelly duet also introduced us to the amazing pipes and harp duo of Brian McNamara and Grainne Hambley, Gaelic singer Grainne Holland accompanied by Brian Finnegan on Flute and Whistle with guitarist Tony Byrne discreetly linking all three performers. Finally, completing the line-up came Loic Blejean from Brittany playing uilleann pipes with Sylvain Barou on flute accompanied once again by Tony Byrne on guitar.

Piping Perspectives 2 saw Brighde Chaimbeul on Scottish smallpipes with Aidan O’Rourke on fiddle in stunning form that brought out the best of Brighde’s thoughful and deeply felt piping style counter balanced by O’Rourke’s virtuoso fiddle playing.

Cork siblings Diarmaid, Deirdre and Donncha Moynihan are no strangers to Armagh and we recall that Diarmaid played at the very first William Kennedy Piping Festival away back in 1994! Uilleann pipes, fiddle and guitar make a wonderful combination and the Moynihan’s always present a wonderfully diverse selection of tunes and song that uplifts audiences everywhere.

Piper Calum Stewart backed by cittern and double bass presented another innovative performance enlivened with the wonderful step-dancing of Sophie Stephenson.

Piping Perspectives 3
The final Piping Perspectives concert brought us more delightful and memorable performances including that of the great Mickey Dunne a living witness to the strength and vitality of the incomparable tradition of the travelling musicians of Ireland. On Saturday in conversation with Brian Vallely at the ‘Pipers and their Pipes’ session, Mickey explained what music meant to the travellers of Ireland – “It meant,” he said “the difference between being able to feed your family or seeing them die in the workhouse”. Mickey inherited his music from his forefathers – father, uncles, grandfather and great grandfather going back more than 200 years to the early 1800s. It was a privilege to hear him play and talk about his unique musical heritage.

The final Perspectives programme included many other wonderful musical moments like the magic of the trio of Blackie O’Connell on uilleann pipes, Siobhan Peoples on fiddle and Cyril O’Donoghue on bouzouki.

Nearer home we had the Monaghan duo of Tiarnan O Duinnchinn, a former pupil and now uilleann pipe tutor in Armagh Pipers Club, and Donal McCague. The versatile Loic Blejean from Brittany and the ever-present Tony Byrne on guitar completed the final programme of the Piping Perspectives series.

The festival concert
On Saturday night we had the Festival Concert which included a unique interaction between the traditions of Ireland and Iran. Mohsen Sharifian plays the Persian pipes and has spent his life promoting and experimenting with the music from his region bordering the Persian Gulf the heartland of Iranian piping. Mohsen is particularly interested in working with other cultures and in recent years has performed at Celtic Connections with Scottish musicians. On the Thursday of the Festival he met up with composer Niall Vallely playing concertina and Breton virtuoso, Sylvain Barou to explore ideas for the concert. On Saturday afternoon they were joined by uilleann piper Emer Mayock and Iranian percussionist Mahammad Jaberi and somehow from this developed a 50-minute programme which they presented on Saturday night!

It is difficult to find words to describe the excitement and energy bursting off the stage from the combination of all these very different instruments from very different cultural backgrounds. Somehow it all came together. At times we were in the desert and at other times we were very much in Ireland with the music of the Irish aisling poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries. Sean O Riada more than 50 years ago articulated a theory he had of a link between Persian poetry and Irish bardic poetry. I think Sean would have loved this performance.

A magical night
The Saturday concert was truly a magical night which began with the wonderful piping of Tryst featuring Finlay MacDonald, Ross Ainslie, Calum MacCrimmon, Lorne MacDougall, Steven Blake, James MacKenzie and John Mulhearn.

Ross Ainslie and Finlay MacDonald

The second half of the concert began with Gaelic song writer, Grainne Holland accompanied by Brian Finnegan on whistle and flute and Tony Byrne on guitar. Grainne sang a selection of songs drawing on her own experience of the tragic events some years ago that she experienced and which she worked through with her music and by immersing herself in nature to find a way of dealing with it all. Brian Finnegan is a former member of Armagh Pipers Club where he began his musical career as a seven year old many years ago and now has a worldwide reputation as an unequalled performer on flute and whistle as well as a highly innovative composer of memorable music.

Martin Hayes and David Power
The combination of Clare fiddle player, Martin Hayes and Waterford uilleann piper, David Power has created a whole new experience in Irish traditional music. Apart from being two incredibly talented musicians in their own right when they get together something amazing happens. Somehow they create a new sound as they weave in and out of tunes perfectly anticipating and complimenting each other. This was music to savour like good wine.

The uilleann pipes concert
The William Kennedy Piping Festival is a celebration of the life of the 18th century piper and pipe maker, William Kennedy so uilleann piping is very much at the heart of things. This year was no exception and Armagh 1st Presbyterian Chuch provided a wonderful setting for the Uilleann Pipes concert. The concert started off with a trio of young Armagh pipers Aoife Smyth, Iarla McMahon and Caoimhe Ni Bhradain playing some traditional piping tunes like Seamus Ennis’s version of the great reel Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie. They were followed by six distinguished solo pipers Emer Mayock, Kevin Rowsome, Maire Ni Ghrada, Mark Redmond, Padraig McGovern and Sean Potts. They were followed by the father and son duo of Tommy and Padraic Keane.

Uilleann Pipers Caoimhe Ni Bhradain, Iarla McMahon and Aoife Smyth from Armagh Pipers Club opened the Uilleann Pipe Concert in Armagh 1st Presbyterian

New music for pipes
Armagh 1st Presbyterian Church was also the setting for the concert entitled An afternoon of New Music for Pipes featuring uilleann piper David Power and the RTE ConTempo quartet performing Buile Shuibhne/The Madness of Sweeney composed by Dana Lyn. Renowned actor, Barry McGovern narrated the story of Sweeney who was cursed by St Ronan whom he had insulted and was condemned to spend the rest of his life wandering through Ireland and Scotland until his death.

Tryst opening the New Music For Pipes Concert

Tryst opened the concert with some wonderful piobaireachd music as well as some of Gordon Duncan’s compositions.

A huge programme
The William Kennedy Piping Festival has a very diverse programme including the now renowned William Kennedy Piping Academy which is a two day immersive course in all aspects of uilleann piping with workshops on pipe maintenance and reed making as well as forums on pipe related issues. This year we had pipers, Mickey Dunne and Neillidh Mulligan in conversation with Brian Vallely and later on Saturday pipe maker, Robbie Hughes talked with Brian about his career in pipe making and the many characters they both encountered from the mid 1960s up to the present day.

The recording of the Rolling Wave programme for RTE with pupils from the Armagh Pipers Club.  From left is Annalise White, Aoife Smyth, Iarla McMahon, Pearse Og McMahon, Danu McKinney, Caoimhe Ni Bhradain and Aine White.

O ghuil go gluin – piping dynasties
Traditional music and in particular uilleann piping has been carried on through familes down the years so this year Caoimhin Vallely Artistic Director came up with the idea of highlighting this family dimension to the music with his innovative Piping Dynasties – O Ghluin go Ghluin concert. This was a great success and attracted a full house to the Tomas O Fiaich Library another new venue for the festival for the final concert of the Festival on Sunday evening. The families represented included the Rowsomes and Potts families with many generations behind them. The full line up included Tommy and Padraic Keane from Galway, Gabriel, Sean and Conor McKeon from Dublin, Neillidh and Alphie Mulligan and their sons Fiachra and Tadhg and three generations of Vallely’s including brothers Brian and Dara founder members of the club, Brian’s sons Niall and Cillian and Caoinhin’s son Oisin.

Two generations of the Mulligan family: Tadhg, Alphie, Neillidh and Fiachra Mulligan.
A three generational Vallely piping group playing at the ‘Ó Ghlúin go Glúin’ family dynasties piping concert. From left is Brian Vallely, his grandson Oisin, his sons Cillian and Niall and his brother Dara.

There are many other piping families around the country and following the success of this year’s initiative we’ll be seeing more families next year.

Schools programmes
There was a well attended schools concert in Armagh 1st Presbyterian Church featuring Edelmiro Fernandez from Galicia, Loic Blejean from Brittany, Sylvain Barou and Tony Byrne, Nico Berardi from Italy, Stefce Stjkovski from Macedonia and Tryst from Scotland.

Irish medium education is represented by no less than four schools in Armagh from nursery level up to secondary school level and each year there are two inter active educational days for primary pupils La na nGaelscoileanna and secondary schools La na Meanscoileanna. During these two days pupils are introduced to the Scottish Gaelic tradition in workshops covering the language and music through drama, song, dance and instrumental music. This year the workshops were led by Artair Donald, Brighde Chaimbeul and Sophie Stephenson from the Scottish Gaelic tradition and Grainne Holland and Eilis Lavelle from the Irish Gaelic tradition. The two day programme was attended by around 300 pupils and was supported and co-ordinated by Gael Linn and supported by Colmcille – Eirinn Is Alba.

All instruments
While pipes and piping are at the heart of the festival there is a very strong inclusivity to the programme with classes in harp, fiddle, flute, banjo, step dancing, singing, accordion, as well as classes in uilleann piping and highland piping.

During the four days of the festival the musicians lead sessions all around Armagh and this year we had no less than 17 of these informal events in a wide variety of venues from pubs to restaurants and hotels.

There are lots of people and organisations to thank for their contribution to the festival and without whom there would be no festival. First and foremost the support of the Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon Borough Council has been crucial to the survival of the Festival since the inauguration of the event in 1994 and this year that support was continued. The Schools concert was sponsored by the Reconciliation Fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Dublin as well as by the INTO. The Arts Council for Northern Ireland supported the Family Dynasties concert with a grant from their Small Awards programme.

Thanks also to all the venues which hosted concerts and to the 50 plus volunteers from Armagh Pipers’ Club who organised the venues, compered concerts, made numerous airport runs, organised the sale of merchandise and raffles and were on hand throughout the festival to deal with everything that arose. Despite the austerity facing business these days the Armagh Pipers’ Club is deeply indebted to all those businesses throughout Armagh who supported us with their generous donations. Finally thanks to our new board of trustees who generously gave their time throughout the festival.