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Liam O'Flynn & Andy Irvine 
in conversation with Paul Magnussen

Note from Paul:
This interview took place in November 1982, in London. It was done for Guitar International; but by the time I had transcribed it, GI went through one of the lurches in editorial policy to which it was prone, and I was told that it would now only be interested in classical and flamenco guitar.
Around 1990 it lurched back, long enough for me to do the interview with Alec Finn (and transcription of De Dannan's version of Carrickfergus) that appeared in the October 1991 issue. I had intended to contact Liam and/or Andy to see about revising the old interview and using it; but before I could do this, the editor had died and the magazine folded.

Transcribing a three-cornered interview presents some problems; in what follows, Liam's comments are in green, Andy's in blue, and mine in black italics.

The Uilleann pipes are a distinctively Irish instrument. They began their development apparently about the year 1700, and they’re developed out of our equivalent of the Scottish bagpipes. Exact dates are unknown about when the first reed was produced which you could overblow; (that is, produce a second octave, as opposed to the Scottish pipes which just have—I think—an octave and a note). They developed throughout the 18th century, and reached their present point of development about the year 1800—that’s the bag, bellows, chanter, drones and regulators.

So they came full-blown with the regulators, then? I thought maybe they were a later addition.

No, I think around the last quarter of the 18th century there was maybe one regulator added. The full set has three, but you’ll find sets with one or maybe two regulators. And actually, there have been sets made with five regulators—there’s a set in the National Museum, made by the Moloney brothers from county Clare. It’s incredibly large and heavy and not very practical.

What’s cranning? And what about other kinds of ornamentation?

Well, probably the most common ornament would be a roll, and that’s common to all instruments that play traditional music. Cranning is a roll on the bottom D of the chanter, that’s the bottom note and.... it’s hard to describe: it gives a sort of gurgling effect, which is peculiar to the pipes. The bottom D is played, and then it’s ornamented with with two or possibly three other notes, like an F and a G and an A. But they won’t come out F, G and A, because you’re just using the fingers that make those notes, but you’re not... it’s very hard to describe!

So the compass goes from D to what?

Two octaves

And the drones?

There are three drones, tuned to three octaves of D. The high drone is tuned to the bottom D, the lowest note of the chanter, and the next one an octave below that, and the bass drone an octave below that again.

So most of the tunes would probably be in D or G, then?

Right. Or A minor and E minor.

Would you switch the drones off when you play in A minor?

No, it works.

Would you play in A major?

No, you haven’t got the full range of sharps that you need in A major.

How do you get sharps normally?

The chanter is fitted with keys. You can have enough keys fitted to play a chromatic scale, but when you come to fast tunes it’s not very practical.

The two collections I know best are O’Neill’s and Brendan Breathnac’s. Are there any other major ones?

Not really. O’Neill’s was the Bible for years, until Brendan produced his... two collections, now, and a third in the pipeline.

Pat Mitchell’s collection.

Oh, right. I forget how many tunes are in it—about 150, I suppose. But it’s the music of Willy Clancy.

Listening to Séamus—and a lot of other pipers, as well—I notice they don’t seem to use the regulators much.

Well, Séamus used the regulators quite a lot in a very thought-out sort of way. But he didn’t just hammer about with them. But it seems most pipers don’t use the regulators much, possibly because of the difficulty of keeping them in tune.

I gather it is a difficult instrument to keep in tune?

It is. It’s very affected by extremes of temperature. Very hot, humid atmosphere affects it. Really, the problem is if you bring the instrument from a cold atmosphere, a car or something, into a hot sticky room, you’re in big trouble; you have to let it acclimatise gradually.

You’ve learned from, and been friends with, all the great pipers: Willy Clancy, Séamus...

Initially with Leo Rowsome, and then with Willy Clancy and Séamus Ennis.

Did you ever know Johnny Doran?

No, I didn’t. Although I believe he played in our house at home, but I was only a tiny baby at the time. But I’d love to have heard him. His brother, Felix Doran, is a very good piper.

Would you like to say something about "The Brendan Voyage", and how you came to make it?

It’s a collection of pieces describing Tim Severin’s voyage in a leatherskin boat, the St. Brendan, from Co. Kerry in the West of Ireland to Newfoundland. Tim Severin did the voyage to demonstrate that it could have been possible in a 6th century boat, that they could have made the voyage: they definitely did a lot of sailing, apparently. And there’s a legend that’s written down, that describes St. Brendan’s voyage across the Atlantic. Anyway, Severin showed that it would have been possible. And Shaun Davey, the man who wrote the music, was fascinated with Severin’s voyage and decided that he’d like to write a piece of music for the Uilleann pipes, describing the voyage or some part of it.

So he wrote a short piece and gave it to me, and it worked well, and he wrote another piece, and another one; and eventually, he decided to go the whole hog and write a suite and orchestrate it. The whole thing took about a year. In his scheme, the pipes represent the boat and the orchestra represents the elements—the storm, the sea and all the rest of it.

He really got to understand the pipes and their limitations, what was possible and what wasn’t—the keys you play in, and writing music that’s going to fit the instrument. Very often, when he’d produced a particular piece of music, I’d go off and learn it, and find parts that just wouldn’t work very well on the pipes, and redo them.

How do you think folk music has changed in the last 30 years? Do either of you see a problem with records "freezing" versions of tunes, where people just copy a record instead, perhaps, of re-inventing?

Well, the different styles have tended to disappear. Whereas once upon a time you could recognise where a particular fiddle-player came from by his style…

I think imitation is not a bad start—anybody who's got a spark of musicality about them will not stop at imitation…

Who was your first idol?

Woody Guthrie. I tried really hard to get all his mistakes absolutely right!

(Laughter)

Yes, those were the days when there was no editing—they just stuck you in front of a microphone, and if you made mistakes that was too bad. I have a record called More songs from Woody and Cisco, where they forget the words, so they tell Sonny Terry to play it again…

Well, there's more mistakes on that record than you could shake a stick at. There's a great ending—they all end together except Sonny Terry…

Of course, those recordings were made at two or three different times, some of those albums are confusing.

So did you start playing Woody Guthrie in clubs? Or had you moved on to something else before you started playing in front of people?

No, I played Woody Guthrie—I think the first time was in 1962.

And then you just got caught up in the “Folk Revival”?

I suppose I did, yes. There were other people with like minds at the time: Johnny Moynihan used to sing "Van Diemen's Land", accompanying himself on 4-string mandolin, which is an incredibly tiny sound, but very effective.

I played the mandolin a bit, and I stuck by that, accompanying myself on traditional songs.

I'm not quite sure when Woody Guthrie faded out—he hasn't exactly faded out, it's not too long since I got up and did "Talking Dustbowl Blues", or something like that..

So this led to Sweeney’s men, did it?

It did, yes, a direct chain of events.

Right. And then of course Johnny brought the bouzouki along. That's quite a lot to answer for—guitars are disappearing. He unleashed the bouzouki on the folk world!

(Laughter)

Well, he wasn't… like, the band that was the forerunner of Sweeney’s men, which went under the name of The Foc'sle Folk Group (because it played six nights a week in The Foc'sle bar in Galway)… he wasn't actually in that band, but Johnny was working as an architect, and he used to come down from Dublin at weekends and play with us.

One day he turned up with this bouzouki; and we said, “What in the name of Hell is that?”

And he said, “I've swapped my mandolin for it”. And he played the bouzouki with us, and our first reaction was “Jesus, Johnny, that’s awful! Could you not get the mandolin back?” It largely sounded brutal, because it was always going out of tune.

Was that a four- or three-course bouzouki?

Four.

How did Johnny tune it?

Between us we had two tunings: one was GDAE; and one was GDAD, which is the one I use exclusively now. But I think he’s gone back to GDAE.

What does Donal (Lunny) use?

GDAD. He got his first bouzouki from me. The passing on of the bouzoukis…

The three of you have got very different styles, as well…

Yes, the sublimation of bouzouki styles is quite dramatic, you could write a Ph.D. on that, because it has a definite starting point in 1966.

Has the instrument now shifted away from the Greek one?

Totally. People always say to me after a gig now, “What is that instrument you were playing?” And I feel very foolish, because I always say “I have no name for it.” We’re still calling it a bouzouki, but in fact it’s totally different.

What’s different about it now?

It’s flat-backed, the sound is different, I don’t use octave strings, it’s tuned differently—it would actually be closer to call it a lute.

Didn’t Donal coin the name “Blarge”?

Well, that was a joke name, on one record, which stuck; it was a 10-stringed instrument, big-bodied; the first one was burnt in a fire.

But Alec (Finn) only uses a three course instrument, doesn’t he? But the first time I heard him (on the Gold Ring), I thought it was two people.

Alec’s style’s tremendously well thought out: I’ve never managed to analyse it.

I don’t think you can.

Well, I intend to try; I’ve watched him play countless times, and I know his basic right hand style; but it’s difficult for me to get, because it’s slightly strange, with syncopated back plectrum strokes.

That record with just him and Frankie (Gavin) would give most accompanists a feeling of “Oh my God, what can I possibly do different on this next set of reels?” But Alec doesn’t think like that at all, he just plays—and he plays in such an uninhibiting way that it would almost be possible to listen to that record without realising there’s a bouzouki on it; because it doesn’t distract at all, it doesn’t even pull (the fiddle) into a different dimension.

And that’s the biggest compliment you could pay it.

Yes, I think that’s one of the best fiddle records I’ve ever heard, for that reason.

I think it’s a brilliant record.

Because… OK, Michael Coleman was great, but you’ve got these piano-drivers clomping away…

Playing the wrong chords… I love that one where Michael Coleman goes from A minor into G, and the pianist hasn’t been told (why not I’ll never know), and he’s still playing in A minor… and also, the sweat is pouring down his face and he doesn’t know what to do… so he just plays in A minor, all the time.

I can’t imagine why they didn’t just try to pick it up. Were they so classically trained that they couldn’t improvise?

Yes, I can’t imagine who these piano-players were. Were they drinking cronies?

No, no, they were foisted on him, he had to have them. They were employed by the record company.

But where did they get them?

(Shrugs)

I think there’s a recording of Michael Coleman without a piano-driver. That’d be interesting to hear, because I find his records coloured so much by the piano, I can’t really tell…

Obviously, the lacking is in me, because every fiddle player that ever lived talks about Michael Coleman, he was great.

Did you learn an instrument when you were young?

No, I didn’t. for my thirteenth birthday I wanted a ’cello, but my parents couldn’t afford it; so they gave me a guitar, which was (I think) the cheapest guitar they could lay their hands on. But I quickly managed to get a better one.

You had a Portuguese Guitar, too, didn’t you? How did you get hold of that? Have you still got it?

I traded a Gibson L2 for it from a guy called Trevor Crozier, an erstwhile folk musician.

In theory I’ve still got it, but I lent it to someone and I can’t remember who they are. So if they’re reading this, they might own up…

It was a nice instrument, but it had a very convex fingerboard, and it was hard playing on the top strings.

Weird machine-heads…

Yes, but they’re pretty good, those machine-heads: they maintain the tuning of the instrument better (in my experience).

I wanted to ask you about your arrangements: there’s obviously a lot of care gone into them. How much time does an arrangement take you, typically?

Years. Literally years.

Does it evolve, or do you do the arrangement in one go?

It evolves. It evolves in the rehearsal stage, over a very long time. It takes months, actually, to get it to the stage where one can perform the singing of it and the accompaniment at the same time, where the actual playing of it becomes second nature. It’s a question of time, you have to get the accompaniment so that you never have to think of it.

And finally: how much are you concerned with “authenticity”?

Not in the least. Authenticity is in the eye of the performer.

© 1982 Paul Magnussen

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