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Thursday, 29th February 2024

Darragh Ó Héiligh bringing the piping tradition to a 21st century audience

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Darragh Ó Héiligh playing the uilleann pipes in the Highlanes Gallery.

By Sean Collins

I was delighted to read this fine description of a local man: “Darragh Ó Héiligh is a phenomenal uilleann pipe player from Drogheda. He has tirelessly worked to grow and share Irish music, not only within his town with Music At the Gate, but also nationally and internationally with his innovative digital radio station Ceol FM”.  

Quite an accolade for one so young, but not unexpected being a grandson of the late lamented local community activist Maeve Healy.

In an interview Darragh said “I first picked up the pipes when I was about seven, and I was blessed to have Mick O’Brien (celebrated Dublin piper) as my first and only teacher, which was incredible”.

“I have been involved in music since before I can remember.” On various websites Darragh has been described as “a fantastic musician, whose sound brightens this weary soul” and “an absolutely passionate player that just loves the music”.

Drogheda has a long history of pipers and piping, and it is so important that Darragh is keeping this old tradition alive. Be it Uileann Pipes or Bagpipes, the skill in playing traditional tunes on these ancient instruments is so important to preserve.

William Carleton the Irish novelist writing in the 1800s describing Louth native Piper Gaynor might equally have been describing Darragh when he wrote: “ The man, however who ought to sit as the true type and representative of the Irish piper, is he whose whole life is passed among the peasantry, which the exception of an occasional elevation to the lord’s table or the squire’s parlour – who is equally conversant – with the Irish and English languages – but circulates from one village to another carrying mirth, amusement and a warm welcome with him, wherever he goes, and filling the hearts of the young with happiness and delight”.

Fine praise indeed but Darragh comfortably fits Carleton’s description, and manages to be a proud family man full time employed in the IT industry of the modern age.

A 2021 video of Darragh playing Sí Bheag Sí Mhór, a tune normally attributed to the blind harper Turlough O'Carolan from around 1670 – 1738.

Drogheda once boasted two pipe bands, St. Mary’s Pipe Band, founded in 1916, and the Owen Roe O’Neill Pipe Band which was founded circa 1924, and revived in 1938.

A fundraising concert was held in September 1916 at the Mercy Convent on the Dublin Road to raise funds for uniforms and instruments for the new Saint Mary’s Pipe Band.

The concert included musical performance by the Kelly Family, some sketches and an operetta titled “ The Enchanted Glen or the  Truculent Dame and the Frisky Faeries ‘ sounded like a lot of fun, I surely wonder what did the Faeries do ? the reviewer said the hall was filled from floor to ceiling.

Saint Mary’s Pipe Band, which was founded by a Father Norris, a curate in St. Mary’s at the time, was on once stoned by unappreciative onlookers at the junction of Barrack Lane and James Street, and in 1922 the band was disbanded when the membership divided on the issue of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

St. Mary's Pipers Band, Ist Prize, Meath Feis I918
Back Row: J Cummins, P.Cummins, T. McQuail, K.Healy, H. Fairclough, P Breen, T. Berrill. Middle Row: S Mahan, D. Holly J. MeCullough, A. Finegan, J. McDonnl. Sitting: . Melia, J. McGrail.

Some members of the defunct St. Mary’s Pipe Band, joined the Drogheda Trades Band, and others went on in 1924 to found the Owen Roe O’ Neill Pipe Band.

A newspaper advertisement from 1925 heralded a “Big Rally of the Gaels” at Termonfeckin with special guests the Owen Roe O’Neill Pipe Band. The band enjoyed a revival in Drogheda in 1937 when an inaugural Ceili Mhor was held in the Mayoralty House.

Patrick Cooney was band President, Joe Maher was the hardworking secretary and James Diamond was the treasurer. In 1940 the by now annual Ceili Mhor scheduled for St. Patrick’s Night had to be cancelled because it fell in Holy Week so it was postponed until Easter Sunday.

The Owen Roe O’ Neill Pipe Band regularly paraded in Drogheda and attended at football matches until it also became defunct in 1950. A large banner painted by William Reynolds of Oldbridge depicting Owen Roe O’Neill was carried before the band and perhaps gave the band its name.

Duleek Piper James Flood 1863 - 1938.

The banner, like much of Reynold’s work, has disappeared but some of his remaining banners work can be seen at Millmount Museum.

Two pipers carried on the tradition of piping in the area throughout the 40s, 50s, and into the 1960’s Pete Curran of Tenure, and Pieg Stanley of Parsonstown. Their names regularly feature in reports of fetes, football matches and parades and all events throughout the county.

Writing in the County Louth Archaeological Journal in 1978, musicologist Brendan Breatnach  said that Pete Curran had shown a piece of a chanter from a set of pipes made by the Drogheda pipe maker Billy Taylor.

He wrote, “Billy Taylor is one of the great names in the history of Irish piping. Not alone was he regarded by many judges the greatest piper of his time, he also enjoyed the reputation of being a pipe maker of the highest order. 

Dunleer Piper Peter Curran. 

"The many specimens of his work that survive, chiefly in the United States bear ample witness to his truly deserving that reputation. The quality of his work may be gauged from the fact that offers in excess of £1,000 fail to induce their fortunate owners to part with their Taylor set. Billy Taylor, his mother’s name was Byrne was born around 1830 in Drogheda. His father James who had previously served in the American army, carried on the business there of piper, pipe maker and organ builder.

“It is said that the father gave up playing when his son far outstripped him as a performer and thereafter devoted himself to the practical side of the business. He died about 1860 in Scarlet Street, Drogheda.

Billy Taylor and his step brother emigrated to the States in 1872. Peter Curran of Tenure, Dunleer who died in 1930 aged ninety one years and knew Taylor well, played a set made by him, and his son also Peter [Pete] now aged eighty two showed me recently a small piece of the chanter from that set that had survived.”

So, the next time you hear Darragh O’hEiligh playing his pipes remember the history he is preserving and perhaps recall the Taylor, Stanley and Curran families.

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