Liam O'Flynn (1945–2018) : a tribute by Neil Martin

To mark the anniversary of the death of Liam O'Flynn, 14 March 2018, Neil Martin shares his memories of a deeply enriching friendship and musical journey with the master uilleann piper spanning over five decades.

Neil Martin Liam O Flynn Maurice Gunning
Neil Martin and Liam O'Flynn. Image: Maurice Gunning
I knew of Liam O’Flynn before I ever met him, of course.

As a young boy in the early 1970s starting to play a few tunes on tin whistle, Mo Cheol Thú and The Long Note on RTÉ Radio 1 were very important in the weekly schedule. Mo Cheol Thú was often listened to in my parents’ bedroom, us children huddling in and Ciarán Mac Mathúna’s soft tones easing us all into a Sunday morning. I have a memory of hearing the clean, clear lines of O’Flynn’s piping on the programme – naturally, I could not have described back then the majesty of his uncluttered flow and the purity of his tone – but his piping did make some sort of impression on that young boy.

I’d by that stage a little experience of pipes from a few other sources too, as apart from Seamus Ennis’s piping on my father’s much-played LP Seoda Ceoil 2, my late uncle, Tomás Ó Canainn, was the piper with the trio Na Filí. Whenever they’d be in Belfast recording or performing, my mother would invite her brother and his colleagues for something to eat and they’d always play a few tunes for us. So, I knew a little something of this odd instrument from those formative years.

Na Fili Seamus Ennis Seoda Ceoil
Séamus Ennis; LP Cover Seoda Ceoil 2; Na Filí. Source: ITMA Image Collection

I started playing cello when I was seven or eight, and at eleven I got a practice set of pipes and duly phoned the uncle Tomás in Cork to ask where I might go for lessons. He gave me an address for Francie McPeake, “Middle Francie”, as he was known, and there I went for lessons every week for a few years. I was mad keen on pipes by now, absorbing as much as I could, listening and learning at every opportunity.

Planxty was on the go and Liam’s music haunted and enthralled and moved me mightily. I remember Monday evenings sitting with my father in the kitchen listening to The Long Note and both of us in awe whenever Liam would be on – 'The Humours of Ballyloughlin', 'Johnny Cope', a host of vibrant reels, plangent airs, masterful hornpipes … the bar was set high.
Neil Martin, 2022
Planxty Promotional Image. Source: ITMA Image Collection

In August 1976, having competed successfully in the Ulster Fleadh the previous month, I got the chance to attend the Scoil Éigse in Buncrana, Co. Donegal and the uilleann pipe teacher was none other than my hero, Liam O’Flynn. It was a life-changing week…we all - and I remember others in the class included Máire Ní Ghráda, Marion McCarthy and Patrick Mollard - learned tunes and technique, but also in my own regard, Liam convinced me to change how I was holding the chanter with my upper hand – he indicated that as things were, there would be problems further down the road, that I was limiting myself technically. I was using the tips of the fingers on my left hand rather than the “flats” of the fingers. This trait I inherited from Francie McPeake, he in turn having picked this up from his own father who, before taking up pipes had played flute and fife, where tips of the fingers would have worked fine. I spent the best part of the next year re-educating my left hand and incorporating into my playing what I had gleaned from Liam that transformative week.

Brendan Voyage ms Title
Source: The Liam O'Flynn Collection ITMA

Apart from attending his concerts whenever I could, including various performances of The Brendan Voyage - and indeed one in Derry in which I was a cellist in the orchestra - the next time I saw Liam was in Dublin in 1988, in Slattery’s of Capel Street. Alongside Seán Corcoran and Dessie Wilkinson I was performing there in Cran and playing a good deal of cello as well as pipes. I remember being on stage and seeing Liam at the back of the room, that mixture of surprise, pleasure and trepidation coursing through my veins.

One afternoon a few months later, the phone rang and it was Liam on the other end, asking if we might meet up as he was thinking of starting a group and wondered if I’d be interested in joining him - he wanted to bring cello into his musical world and was keen to see where that might lead. You can imagine my sheer glee and excitement. We met up in Dundalk and agreed that we would give it a go and there began thirty years of friendship and collaboration.

Soon thereafter, Arty McGlynn and Nollaig Casey came onboard and the four of us toured occasionally together over the next few years. One of the first gigs was at a festival in France, performing to two thousand people in the grounds of a chateau. We played 'Táimse im’ Chodladh' that night – to be there in that setting, playing that piece, in that company - the memory still gives me goosebumps.

Liam and I continued to perform on and off during the 90s in various set-ups, occasional gigs, the odd skite into Europe, trips into studios (notably making the album The Fire Aflame in Ballyvourney in 1991) and of course some social gatherings too, with a goodly dollop of rascality and diversion thrown into the mix.

The Wheels of the World, reel; The Pinch of Snuff, reel; Micho Russell's Reel. From: The Fire Aflame / Seán Keane; Matt Molloy; Liam O'Flynn (Claddagh Records, 1992)

The Wheels of the World, reel; The Pinch of Snuff, reel; Micho Russell's Reel. From: The Fire Aflame / Seán Keane; Matt Molloy; Liam O'Flynn (Claddagh, 1992). Courtesy: The Artists

The Planxty reunion in the early years of the new millennium was very important to Liam – after all, it was with that magical combination of himself, Christy, Donal and Andy that his life as a professional musician began in the early 1970s. Liam, like his father, had been a schoolteacher and it was no small gamble for him to leave that secure world behind and to head out into the great unknown. So when Planxty reformed for those few years, the sense of coming full circle was of considerable comfort and joy. Their concerts sold out everywhere, generations of adoring fans flocking in their droves to catch them. I was too young to have managed to see Planxty perform in their initial years, so getting the chance to see them live in 2002 carried with it something of history being recreated. They did a long run of gigs in Vicar Street and I remember phoning Liam as I drove into Dublin, asking him if 'Little Musgrave' was on the setlist - it was, and at one level, my life was now complete.

That night, as every night, the anticipation and buzz before curtain-up was palpable and the subsequent electrical charge that shot around the pumped and primed audience as Liam shifted gear from 'The Raggle Taggle Gypsy' into 'Tabhair Dom Do Lámh' could have powered the national grid for a month.
Neil Martin, 2022

We got to co-operate at a different level in 2004 when I was commissioned to write a large-scale orchestral piece for Liam, 'No Tongue Can Tell', a work that opened the Belfast Festival at Queens. That marked a deepening of our relationship on both a professional and a personal level - collaborating at every stage during the composition of a substantial work specifically for him, writing to his strengths to acknowledge his music that I knew so well, but also writing in other ways to push the parameters and challenge us both. We became interdependent over the work’s creation and the trust and bond between us strengthened. A fascinating time that really was and I’m sorry we didn’t get to perform the work more often.

No Tongue Can Tell. Fourth movement. Sheltering Sound / Neil Martin, composer; Liam O'Flynn, uilleann pipes; Ulster Orchestra, instrumental music

No Tongue Can Tell. Fourth movement. Sheltering Sound / Neil Martin, composer; Liam O'Flynn, uilleann pipes; Ulster Orchestra, instrumental music. Courtesy: Neil Martin

Music finds outlets in various ways, and across 2008–9, a number of us found ourselves playing within a short enough timeframe at the funerals of some close friends and family – David Hammond, Liam’s father and Ciarán MacMathúna. We enjoyed, if one can say that, celebrating the lives of those wonderful people through music and decided that there should also be a few outings outside of funerals. We nonetheless and rather wonderfully called ourselves The Funeral Band and had a few most enjoyable gigs. In that posse were Seán Keane, Shaun Davey, Rita Connolly, Arty McGlynn, Noel Eccles, Rod McVey, Seamus Begley, Liam and myself - and Steve Cooney and Dónal Lunny sat in a few times too.

And then there was the quare trip Liam and I, inter alia, made to Romania in the summer of 2009. It was the premiere of a new work by Shaun Davey, Voices from the Merry Cemetery. The overnight train journey from Bucharest up through and over the Carpathian Mountains and almost as far as the Ukrainian border was quite something, the performances themselves unforgettable. We also laughed a great deal on that trip, the exhilaration and enjoyment of it all. But I knew that Liam was hating travel by then – it had become a necessary evil. He’d seen enough of airports and hotels.

Liam O'Flynn Seamus Heaney
Liam O'Flynn and Seamus Heaney. Source: The Liam O'Flynn Collection at ITMA

We had a close mutual friend in Seamus Heaney, Liam and himself of course performing together over more than two decades as The Poet and The Piper. They were two men very much at ease with each other, both on and off the stage, two masters respecting and delighting in each other’s craft, two outstanding artists, volleying on a stage. Seamus’s sudden death in 2013 set the world reeling and Liam and I were to play at his funeral. I travelled the day before to Liam’s home near Athy to rehearse, and as we sat in his music room, we played music for almost an hour without speaking a single word. No words. Just music. That was enough. Liam had lost a very dear friend and a lot of the music we were rehearsing he’d played a mere ten days earlier when Seamus and himself had shared a stage in Derry. The power and emotion of music were never stronger for me than in that rehearsal and at the funeral the next day.

Not long after Seamus’s funeral, Liam was asked to bring together a group to perform a concert in the Abbey Theatre for ITMA, the essential and glorious archive of traditional music in Dublin. The other three he asked were Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Paddy Glackin and myself, and after the pleasure of the Abbey gig, we gave some more concerts and the more we played, the more we enjoyed the whole experience. We had all inter-collaborated in different ways over many years, knew each other well and it was nothing other than a great pleasure to be sitting making fine music together. The last concert this all too short-lived quartet played was in November 2016 in Armagh, in the cathedral there. Liam was not himself backstage … he was very subdued and his weight loss was most noticeable. Paddy and I shared our anxieties and sadly within a few months, his terminal illness had been diagnosed. And shockingly, around the same time, Mícheál became gravely ill too.

Taisce: a concert for the Irish Traditional Music Archive, The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 10 November 2013. Featuring Liam O'Flynn, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Paddy Glackin and Neil Martin. Source: ITMA Field Recording Collection

Liam bravely faced into his illness in the full knowledge that there was no road back, and when I visited him at home, he talked a number of times about his childhood days and how happy they were. Liam’s father, also Liam, was from Kerry and the O’Flynn family would often head there for a summer break. Liam’s father drove a motor-bike and this was their mode of transport on those trips back west - Liam senior up front, his wife Masie riding pillion, and in the side car Liam and his siblings, Maureen and Mícheál. An essential stop on the way there was at Gleann na nGealt (The Glen of the Mad People), a magnificent and expansive glen out towards Dingle. There, Liam senior would recount the local lore and myth of the place, of the healing powers of the water and the watercress in the glen, and young Liam found this mesmerising. As Liam then in his illness recounted this to me, his eyes were dancing with happiness and delight at the memory. The very finest and happiest of days, he would say.

I wanted to write a piece of music for Liam at that time, not to write something afterwards to mark his death as such, but rather to celebrate him in life, and I felt it essential that he got to hear it. So, armed with the image of a young Liam stepping out of the side car, standing there in his short grey-flannels, agape at the beauty and power of Gleann na nGealt, I wrote 'The Boy in the Glen'. I composed it with Paddy Glackin in mind to play it and one Sunday a few months before he died, we visited Liam and his wife Jane and Paddy played the air over a few times for Liam. Sadly, his health deteriorated sharply not long after that and I only got to see Liam again a few times before he died.

A deeply-cherished memory, that Sunday afternoon. I listen to the phone recording of the piece from time to time, and so enjoy hearing Liam’s voice, just two words to Paddy at the very end - “good man”.
Neil Martin, 2022

Liam died on 14th March 2018 - and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin on 7th November. As Paddy Glackin said to me – “half our quartet died this year”

The Boy in the Glen, air / composed by Neil Martin ; West Ocean String Quartet, instrumental music

The Boy in the Glen, air / composed by Neil Martin ; West Ocean String Quartet, instrumental music. Courtesy: Neil Martin

In all of this performing and touring across our thirty years, I never once stopped marvelling at Liam’s artistry, his vision, his craft. Being beside him on a stage was a privilege beyond words, sitting often to his left, drinking in that music, being transported time after time after time.
Neil Martin, 2022

There was an aura, a forcefield to his music, the piping of Leo Rowsome, Wille Clancy and Seamus Ennis funnelled down through him and out to us. He was influenced by fiddle players and singers and flute players too, and indeed by any musician who moved him. And his passions didn’t lie solely within traditional music either - he enjoyed Bach and Haydn and Vivaldi and Elgar and a whole broad cross-section of genres.

He loved horses all his life and was a most able rider – Jane and himself kept a beautiful yard with some very fine mounts indeed. In his day, Liam was a great steady golfer to boot, a low single-handicapper at one stage. (Himself, Paddy Glackin, David Brophy and I had a most wonderful four-ball at Rosses Point in 2015 – it took us days to recover).

Liam was of a curious nature and read widely, often winnowing what he read into short quotes that he would write on cards and place in his music room, condensed reminders that would offer a way to consider certain things afresh. He took his role in life seriously – he was always prepared and he took pride in his craft.

He cared for the music he inherited and for the musicians that came before him and he never lost sight of the core of it all.
Neil Martin, 2022

Like gazing up into a clear starlit winter sky, Liam’s music is boundless and in hundreds of years, people will still marvel at it. There was a consistency to it all, a great hallmark of O’Flynn’s that – consistency. The steady piper, the true friend, the golfer who could shoot three or four pars in a row, the reliable collaborator … always there. After Liam died, his occasional musical partner of more than thirty years, the organist Catherine Ennis, along with Paddy Glackin and myself, played some concerts and Liam’s presence was there still, on stage every time we played, his mark indelible on all three of us. Tragically, Catherine died on Christmas Eve, 2020.

My almost whole-life encounter with Liam, stretching out now over five decades, was deeply enriching at many and various levels and it significantly helped me shape my own way of going. I learned a great deal from the man about music itself, and also about the profession of music - about life, really. We shared many great times and I believe we made some decent music. I consider myself very fortunate to have been in his orbit.

Teacher, treasured friend, generous collaborator, a guiding light and the very finest of company on and off the stage – mo sheacht mbeannacht leat, Willie Flynn, a chara na gcarad. Go dté tú slán, pé áit ina bhfuil tú.
Neil Martin, 2022

Written by: Neil Martin

Blog Editor: Grace Toland

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