Patsy Touhey ‑ Firing on all Cylinders

The uilleann piper Patsy Touhey was the most celebrated Irish traditional musician of his day. Born in Ireland in 1865, he flourished in the USA as a professional entertainer and became a prime mover of the Gaelic music revival in the States. Today his music is a byword for unsurpassed virtuosity.

Patsy Touhey
Patsy Touhey from: The dance music of Ireland : 1001 gems / Francis O'Neill (1907)

From Patsy Touhey Busby-Carney Collection at ITMA: Fasten the leg in her, jig ; Jenny dang the weaver, reel / Patsy Touhey, uilleann pipes

His crucial importance to the history of Irish traditional music is that he is the earliest traditional musician of whom we have a substantial body of sound recordings, giving us a unique insight into the incredibly rich world of traditional music-making in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Patsy Touhey Busby-Carney Wax Cylinders at ITMA
Patsy Touhey Busby-Carney Wax Cylinders at ITMA


The largest single collection of recordings of Touhey’s music is the Busby-Carney collection, which is now held at the Irish Traditional Music Archive. This collection contains 48 private cylinder recordings made by Touhey himself and often featuring spoken introductions by him. 

The story of the Patsy Touhey cylinder recordings at ITMA is featured in two existing online resources:

1. Patsy Touhey, Irish-American Piper on Cylinder, 1900s

2. Explore Early Sound Recordings of Irish Traditional Music at ITMA

These include background information on the early days of sound recording technology and include an online playlist of 12 Touhey recordings remastered by Harry Bradshaw for you to enjoy. 

The WARD IRISH MUSIC ARCHIVES (WIMA) are custodians of the Dunn Family Collection (c. 1904 - c. 1935). It is believed that Michael Dunn (1855-1935) received field recordings and possibly manuscripts belonging to O'Neill after the death of Sergeant James Early of Chicago in 1914.


The Dunn Collection contains 32 wax cylinders recorded sometime between c.1902 and c. 1905 by Francis O'Neill of Chicago. The cylinders capture performances by Chicago musicians James Early, Bernard Delaney, John McFadden and notably 23 which feature Patsy Touhey. 

ITMA is delighted to be joined in this blog by WIMA Archivist Jeff Ksiazek to talk about their Patsy Touhey material.

Of the 32 cylinder recordings found in the Dunn Family Collection, 23 feature Patsy Touhey. The story of how these recordings came from Francis O’Neill’s possession in Chicago to Milwaukee -- and eventually to the Ward Irish Music Archives -- is a remarkable journey.
Jeff Ksiazek, Ward Irish Music Archives


Patsy Touhey Shaskeen reel cylinder from the Dunn Collection, WIMA


From Nicholas Carolan’s book, A Harvest Saved, we learn how Francis O’Neill’s cylinder recordings and phonograph began their travels after the death of O’Neill’s son, Rogers. 

Rogers… died at the age of eighteen of spinal meningitis in 1904… In deference to his wife’s feelings, he [O’Neill] no longer played music in the house after 1904 and stored his cylinder sound recordings and cylinder player in the home of a friend

                                                                                     (A Harvest Saved, 25). 

That friend was likely James Early. Early’s home at 2130 West Congress remained a popular meeting place for the Chicago musicians, and it’s possible that recording continued after O’Neill moved his material. We know that Early was a close friend of Milwaukee fire captain and musician Michael J. Dunn and his family. Both Early and Dunn were, as noted by O’Neill, avid repairers of all things bagpipes related, and their friendship seems to have grown out of this professional interest. Many of the artifacts in the Dunn Family Collection that originated from O’Neill were likely given to Early, and after Early died these items made their way to Dunn in Milwaukee. 

Francis O'Neill       

Francis O'Neill (1848-1936) / unidentified photographer


After Dunn’s death in 1935, the Dunn family believed that Michael’s daughter, Mary, had destroyed the cylinders. As World War II approached, apparently Mary had been told that if she stored the cylinders in the attic that they might become shrapnel if a bomb exploded in or near the home. She told her family members and music collectors interested in the O’Neill cylinders that she had burned or destroyed them.

Before selling the family home in 2002, Michael J. Dunn’s grandson, Dr. David Dunn, took one more look in the attic and found the cylinders along with the rest of the items in the Dunn Family Collection, including what we believe to be O’Neill’s Edison phonograph that recorded the cylinders. 

The brown wax cylinders were likely in this attic for around 80 years. Amazingly, they were still in excellent condition despite exposure to extreme temperature and humidity shifts.
Jeff Ksiazek, WIMA

The cylinders were brought to the Ward Irish Music Archives in February 2004 and in 2007 WIMA retained ownership of them. In 2007, in partnership with the Library of Congress, we had the cylinders digitized. Harry Bradshaw and Jackie Small digitally remastered the cylinder recordings in the winter of 2010, using Touhey’s original set of pipes, in possession of Seán McKiernan, to adjust the playback speed and pitch of the recordings. 

It’s difficult to determine if Touhey recorded his cylinders in Chicago on his many visits or if he recorded them on his own for his cylinder mail order business. Touhey’s recordings within the collection are generally better recorded than the others, perhap owing to Touhey’s experience with positioning his pipes to produce a better quality recording.

Touhey’s recording of The Shaskeen Reel is a highlight among highlights. The version here is not the same cylinder recording as the one sent to musicologist Richard Henebry in 1907 and included in The Piping of Patsy Touhey, yet still matches Henebry’s description of Touhey’s work on the tune:

It has the life of a reel and the terrible pathos of a caoine. It represents to me human man climbing empyrean heights and, when he had almost succeeded, then tumbling, tumbling down to hell, and expressing his sense of eternal failure on the way.

From the Dunn Collection at WIMA: Shaskeen reel / Patsy Touhey, uilleann pipes

Another interesting cylinder among the batch is one of the first examples of recorded ensemble playing in Irish music -- Scotch Mary recorded by Touhey, piper James Early, and fiddler John McFadden. McFadden and Early were part of O’Neill’s team that collected tunes throughout Chicago, and were key musicians in Chicago’s Irish music scene during their time. 

From the Dunn Collection at WIMA: Scotch Mary, reel / Patsy Touhey, uilleann pipes ; James Early, uilleann pipes ; John McFadden, fiddle

You can learn more about the Dunn Family Collection at archives.irishfest.com. Physical copies of the Francis O’Neill Cylinders CD are still available from the Irish Traditional Music Archive and the Ward Irish Music Archives, and digital downloads are available from CDBaby.

Jeff Ksiazek, March 2020

We hope you have enjoyed this Patsy Touhey Collaboration and look forward to sharing more information about Touhey recordings in future

Grace Toland, Blog Editor.