A Poverty of Pipers: Photographs
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It would seem that when bellows bagpipes were first brought to Ireland in the late 1600s they were introduced at a fairly high social level. Certainly they were often played in their early centuries here by prosperous amateurs, ‘gentlemen pipers’. Professional Irish uilleann pipers were employed by the gentry and were well rewarded by other wealthy patrons, in England even by the monarchs George III and George IV.
But as the instrument grew in popularity, cheap sets were played by low-status and often disabled musicians, performing for poor audiences on the street, and in cottages and taverns, and at fairs. In the nineteenth century, with changes in musical fashion, the uilleann pipes became generally associated with these indigent street pipers, especially after the Great Famine of the mid-century. Poverty became the hallmark of pipers, and the collective term ‘a poverty of pipers’ was used to describe them.
The images reproduced below are of uilleann pipers from this period of decline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. With the growth of the Gaelic League and the establishment of pipers’ clubs in Cork and Dublin in the years around 1900, the decline of uilleann piping and pipers was temporarily arrested. The final image below, a photograph of pipers taken at the Dublin Feis Ceoil of 1901, as well as including amateur pipers of farming stock and piping-club enthusiasts, includes the blind professional Galway city piper Martin Reilly who was forced to have recourse to the poorhouse there at periods in his life.
With thanks to donors of photographs: Breathnach family, Nóirín Leech (Pavee Point), Ted Hickey, and Liam McNulty
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