SADLY, last month, Glasgow lost one of its finest traditional musicians, Uilleann Piper, Pat McNulty (above).
Pat, for a very long time, would have been considered the only Uilleann Piper to live within the city, never mind the best, but his love for the instrument and indeed his efforts to preserve it, and Irish music more generally, have left a lasting legacy in the city.
Born in Glasgow in 1934, Pat was introduced to music through his family. His mother’s family hailed from Monaghan and his father was a known piper. However, Pat would say his grandfather Pat Ward was a ‘genuinely great piper.’
Most people probably don’t know that Pat initially started to play the fiddle and was partially self-taught at that, learning to play along to many of the dances that would have been common in the city at that time. Having heard the pipes being played on records he had acquired, and of course from hearing the playing of his family on the pipes, it was probably inevitable that Pat himself would end up following in the piping tradition.
He tracked down a pipe maker who lived in Glasgow by the name of Willie Hamilton who made Pat his first set of pipes. Around this time, Pat was also in contact with other like-minded musicians in Glasgow and in January 1957, alongside Jimmy and Anne McHugh and Owen Kelly to name a few, Pat was involved in establishing the Irish Minstrels branch of Comhaltas—the first to be established outside of Ireland.
The following year, Pat would go on to reach the pinnacle of success in Comhaltas circles by lifting the All-Ireland title in the Uilleann Piping competition—an incredible achievement in itself given Pat was relatively ‘new’ to piping at the time.
As well as being a well-respected piper, Pat was also a research scientist, and in some ways, this goes to explain his scientific approach to his work on the pipes, as he would go on to research and develop improvements for the instrument in the pipes that he made. He also worked for Harrier—the aviation company who built the famous ‘Jump-Jet’—and this engineering experience will no doubt have influenced his pipe manufacture. Indeed, his instruments are still traded amongst players to this day—though such transactions tend to be rare as players are reluctant to part with them and when they do go up for sale either as complete sets or, more commonly, as parts within sets, they go for thousands of pounds.
As a player of the pipes, Pat was very true to the old tradition of playing and was also a believer that the pipes deserved their recognition as a standalone solo instrument. Not one to keep his views on music private, he often shared them in his writing, most notably in 1965 when he first published A collection of the Dance Music of Ireland where in the introduction he commented on the problems of playing Irish tunes too fast! He revisited this in what was the fourth edition of the same publication: “In my introduction to the last edition, I referred to some of these unwanted influences creeping in, to the detriment of the true art, viz. mis-naming tunes, drastic changes in some instances to the key-signatures in which the tunes had traditionally been performed, and fast playing. To-day is excessive, and destroys for the listener, much of the intrinsic beauty of our tunes.”
Unfortunately, as time went on, Pat found it harder to play the pipes due to repetitive strain, which is so common amongst musicians. For a period of time, he took a hiatus from playing, but this didn’t prevent him from returning to play in later years, having retrained himself in a technique that allowed him to play without the immense pain that accompanied it previously.
Few people could lay claim to even half of what Pat achieved over his lifetime. As a musician whose name will forever be intrinsically linked to the now booming traditional Irish music scene in Glasgow, his legacy is absolutely safe. He was the first Uilleann Piper to ever play in a concert orchestra, appearing in the BBC Proms in 1969 and his All-Ireland success of 1958 will forever mark the annals of history, and of course his pipes will continue to make music for generations to come.
Paddy Callaghan is the Scottish Region Development Officer for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. You can follow him on Twitter: @paddy_box and Instagram: paddy_box