The pipes are certainly calling in the Derry air, thanks to Gabriel ‘Gabby’ Fitzgerald and his band of committed Uilleann Pipers.
Founded by Gabby and Finbar McLaughlin less than a year ago Na Píobairí Uilleann Doíre or as its known in the adopted tongue ‘The Society of Uilleann Pipers, Derry’ is growing steadily.
And although Gabby - Secretary of the society - admits that the instrument is not for everyone, he adds that those who catch the bug just can’t get enough of “the skirl of the pipes”.
“Either you love them or hate them, and there are few who are between,” says the Dubliner.
The bagpipe is often associated with Celtic countries but as Gabby points out, “it has existed in every culture in one form or another throughout history”. He adds: “Today the bagpipe is synonymous with Scotland, but the pipes really came from Ireland, they are the forgotten instrument of the Emerald Isle.”
Since retiring in October 2009, Gabby has done his utmost with the help of a few others to ensure the pipes are not forgotten in Derry. “Our objective is to drive the association forward and to generate an awareness of the instrument to new players and to perpetuate and communicate the spirit and the beautiful haunting sound of the Uilleann Pipes and their music to the young people of Derry and surrounding counties.
“We have found that there is an established need in Derry for classes, we currently have some beginners learning with many more improvers and advanced players coming along.
“These numbers are steadily increasing as awareness of our association spreads.
“We believe as the profile of the group increases so too will potential users of the instrument.”
The society is currently based at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin at Great James’s Street and meets every Wednesday from 7.30pm until 9pm
Gabby admits that the society is still very young and due to the high value of Uilleann Pipes only a limited number of practice sets are available.
Nevertheless he is keen to stress that new members are always welcome.
The society has secured funding and support from Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Derry City Council.
But the society will always need more support with a practice set costing £1,250 and a full set costing in the region of £7,000 to £10,000 depending on the quality and reputation of the maker.
“Other difficulties arise within the tutoring side of things.
“There are beginners, average players, above average players and advanced players.
“Because of the loud sound of the pipes they automatically become a distraction while teaching.
“For this reason lessons in the initial stages last 30 minutes and have to be broken into various groups in order for everyone to be facilatated,” he says.
Co-founder Finbar MacLaughlin, who was recently elected President of the society, started to play pipes in around the late 1960’s -an instrument played by very few musicians in Ireland at the time.
Some years later, Finbar bought a lathe and with his qualifications and background as an engineer began to make pipes as a hobby.
Gabby explains: “Over the years Finbar has passed on loads of techniques and skills relating to the Uilleann Pipes to many players and makers all over the world.”
The two musicians have been playing together for many years.
“I met Finbar in 1984 (27yrs ago) in a place called Dunmore East County Waterford at a piping workshop.
“I was only starting pipes at the time.
“Since then we have played many times together up through the years and now meet weekly with our association.”
More recently, funding from the Arts Council has enabled the society to commission “another great piper and pipe maker”, Martin Preshaw, who made a few practice sets to allow classes to get underway.
Gabby says: “I suppose it’s fair to say that Martin who, learned from Finbar, is now producing fantastic pipes and would be rated amounst pipers as one of the better makers in this country today.”
Gabriel, who has been playing the pipes for 27 years, believed that Derry needed Na Píobairí Uilleann Doíre because the instrument isn’t given the credit it is due in this part of the world.
“I felt we faced a grave decline in pipe playing compared to the rest of the country.
“There were less than a handful of us playing the instrument in the whole of Derry with no new young people coming through.
“I also felt that with this instrument, its production and maintenance, where on a serious decline.
“There was a real need for it to be taken very seriously by everyone involved as a group in a huge effort to revive the instrument and keep the interest alive for the next generation.”
Na Píobairí Uilleann Doíre will be showcasing some old footage, playing pipes and hosting workshops from 4pm to 6pm at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin tomorrow as part of the ancient celtic festival of Imbolc.
The festival, which includes a host of traditional Irish music is running tomorrow and Sunday. Fiddle and whistle workshops will also be held on Saturday seisiún mór at 9.30pm.
A ‘Meet the Musicians’ workshop where local people will get the chance to learn from renowned traditional musicians will take place on Sunday from 4pm to 6pm with a session hosted by renowned traditional musicians Máirtín O Connor, Seamie O’Dowd, and Cathal Hayden at 8pm.