Today’s member of the Competition League for Amateur Solo Pipers to be featured is Con Houlihan from North Cork in the famous Sliabh Luachra area of Ireland.

CLASP is the National Piping Centre’s circuit of graded solo piping competitions for adult amateur pipers. More information can be found on the CLASP website here.

•Con Houlihan being presented with his 16/17 season Grade 2 overall winners medal by Roddy MacLeod MBE.

Q. Where are you from and how did you get into piping?

I’m from a small village community in Cullen in the parish of Millstreet in North County Cork. There are two pipe bands in the parish, one in Millstreet and one in Cullen. Living between Cullen and Millstreet I used to see the Cullen band playing at the local Feis Ceoil and would see Millstreet play at the agricultural show.

From aged eight I was playing the button accordion mainly by ear. Seeing these two pipe bands so close to me I probably thought it was the thing to be part of. My mother made enquiries for me to join the local Cullen Pipe Band but at that time the band had lost a lot of members due to immigration and were dormant for a few years.

In the meantime, my mother made arrangements for me to take lessons with Millstreet Pipe Band. A piper with Millstreet who was a neighbour, took me to band practices on the bar of his bicycle which was 4 miles each way.

Bianca Kail, Con Houlihan and Gill Cairns today at Balloch.
Con with Bianca Kail and Gill Cairns at Balloch Games in 2019.

Q. Who is your current teacher and what are lessons like with them?

My daughter Margaret is my current teacher. I get 30 minutes every two weeks through the National Piping Centre. Early into the lesson you will quickly realise how much work you have to do. She identifies where the problems are, and she will demonstrate how the piece should be played.

Q. How were your early years as a learner piper?

Having joined a parade band I just learned to blow the pipes and play their repertoire which was played with little execution.

Q. How many hours per week do you spend practicing?

I try to do an hour every day but as I get older it is difficult to have the energy to keep that momentum going. I’m usually at Cullen pipe band practice each week and I’m instructor to Ballingeary Pipe Band in West Cork.

Q. Can you tell us about your CLASP journey so far?

When I joined CLASP I competed in Grade 2. After a few seasons I won the overall and was upgraded to Grade 1. The requirement for Grade 1 is three piobaireachd which I still struggle with. The Annual CLASP workshop is a great help with the set tunes. I really enjoy getting the opportunity to compete at the Highland Games where the CLASP competitions take place.

Q. Tell us more about you experience with pipe bands.

I started off with Millstreet Pipe Band and later I returned to my local Cullen Pipe Band and helped to reform it after a five year hiatus. We got the band on the road again in 1972 for local events. I was elected Pipe Major in 1976 and we joined the Pipe Band Association in 1980. We began to compete and won our way up the grades over the years to Grade 2.  Currently we compete in Grade 4A.

Q. Is balancing work/family/piping challenging?

When I was working it was more difficult. But my wife is a drummer and my three children Tim, Margaret and Caitlín are all pipers it made things a bit easier as the entire family were usually going in the same direction.

Q. What music are you currently listening to?

I would listen to Irish traditional music as well as Ceòl beag and Ceòl mòr.

•Con with Finlay MacDonald, Daniel Johnstone and Robert Russell at Piping Live! 2022.

Q. What is the best piping experience you have ever had?

Winning the Grade 1 Piobaireachd at Piping Live! in 2022 would be my best experience. 

Con Houlihan
Con competing at Balloch Games in 2019.

Q. What are your piping goals for the future?

I hope to lead Cullen Pipe Band until 2026. Then I will have 50 years completed as pipe major. I also intend to keep competing in the CLASP competitions.

Q. If someone was considering joining the CLASP, what advice would you give them.

I would say go for it. You can compete in person or online and attend the annual piping workshop in October. This will improve your standard of playing as well as meeting a lot of like-minded people.

Q. What pipes do you play and what is your set up of reeds and moisture control. Why do you prefer that set up?

I play a 1924 set of Henderson drones which I bought from the late great Campbell MacGuigan from Campbeltown and Dingwall. I use a James Begg sheepskin bag and tube, and I’m a wet blower so the sheepskin bag and tube work well for me. I have a Peter Henderson chanter with a Shepherd chanter reed and Ezeedrone bass and tenor drone reeds.

Q. Apart from piping, do you have other interesting parts of your life that you would like to share with the readers?

I also play both button and piano accordion and I used to be the church organist in the local church in Cullen when I was younger. I also have a small bit of land where I cut firewood for heating our house.
I also enjoy Gaelic Football matches and Rugby matches. My wife Geraldine and myself walk for an hour every day. I’m retired now from my work in the dairy and cheese industry for almost 40 years.