“IL DIAPASON” MEETS JOHN BRIAN VALLEY of the Armagh Pipers Club.
di Alessandro Nobis. Thanks Ciarán Ó Maoláin
Born in 1941, John B. Vallely (known to his friends as Brian) is one of the most charismatic and significant figures of the Irish tradition of Ulster. Coming from a family linked to the Irish language and sport, he developed a strong presence in the art world. His oil paintings and pastels illustrate aspects of Irish culture, from sport to mythology to music, and in this area he produced some of the more striking record and CD covers such as those of Robbie Hannan, Kevin Crawford of Lúnasa, Laoise Kelly and Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn. In the 1980s he also exhibited his works in Italy, in the Old Customs House in Lazise and at the Scaligero Castle in Malcesine, both locations on Lake Garda. He was secretary of the Armagh branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann until 1966, when he had the idea of founding the Armagh Pipers Club. The Club provides teaching and expertly organises the prestigious William Kennedy Piping Festival, a meeting of pipers and fans from all over the world that animates the city of Armagh during the month of November.
We met him to learn more about his long history, especially as a musician and piper in particular, as a tireless promoter and scholar of Irish music who at a certain point chose the noble paths of art and teaching over that of a professional musician.
Mr Vallely, you come from a family with a strong connection to Irish traditions, especially linguistic and musical traditions. What are the origins of the Vallelys of Armagh?
The Vallely name in one form or another has been recorded in Armagh since pre Christian times as simply Ailill. In early Christian times the name appears as Mac Ailille around the Loughgall district in the Barony of O’Neill near Lough Neagh. In the 9th& 10thCenturies the name appears as Giolla Mh’Ailille and Mac Giolla Mh’Ailille. Then in the Hearth Rolls of 1664 we find the name Brian Bui McIlvallely (1624-1700). Anglicisation of the name eventually devolved to simply Vallely. Thereafter the name is closely associated with Cladymore and it’s generally accepted that our family came from there to Armagh City in the 18thCentury and eventually to the old family farm at Drumcairn two miles North of Armagh in the mid 19thCentury.
How did you get started with music and studying uilleann pipes, who was your first teacher?
I am more or less a self taught musician beginning while studying art at Edinburgh College of Art where among my friends was the son of Italian emigrants Tony Valentine who was a jazz musician playing ‘flugo horn’ in a jazz group composed of other 2ndgeneration Italian musicians from Edinburgh. We went to various jazz concerts together including a memorable visit to Glasgow to hear Dave Brubeck. At that time I had developed a serious interest in Irish traditional music after hearing a recording of Sean O Riada’s group Ceoltoiri Cualann in 1959 around the time I went to Belfast College of Art. By the time I went to Edinburgh in 1961 I had become obsessive about the music and brought with me all the recordings I could find at the time plus a record player. My friend Tony constantly asked me why I didn’t play this music so eventually he persuaded me to start trying to play by bringing me to a famous bagpipe shop in Edinburgh called Glenn’s. I had decided I liked the flute best at this stage and in Glenn’s there was an amazing selection of 18thand 19thcentury simple system flutes. I still wasn’t exactly sure if it was the flute sound I liked so the proprietor played a tune for me which I recognised as the Rocky road to Dublin. So I bought a 19thCentury 8 key German simple system flute.
Shortly after this I identified another sound that captivated me but which I couldn’t initially identify. Eventually after visiting a record shop in Belfast which promoted Irish music I tried describing this sound to the owner Billy McBurney who recorded lots of traditional music and released quite a nunber of important LPs of musicians including Roger Sherlock flute player and Sean Maguire fiddler among many others. He eventually played me an extended play 45 recording called ‘The Ace and Deuce of Pipering’ by Seamus Ennis. Of course the instrument I was looking for was the uilleann pipes. I eventually got another EP 45 recording featuring Willie Clancy called ‘ the Chanter’s Song’ which included Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman.
From a stylistic point of view, who are the pipers who have influenced you most?While I like most pipers I have to say there are a few that stand out over the years – at an early stage I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the live playing of two amazing musicians who still captivate me and they were Willie Clancy and Seamus Ennis. Patsy Touhey’s recordings however made a huge impression on me and I tried for years to follow his staccato style. In fact I still think it is the basis of all piping and certainly I try in teaching to get my pupils to play like this. However piping is fundamentally music so there is in my mind no absolute dogmatic way to play. The great players employ both stacato and legato fingering – at times they even lift the chanter off the knee for emphasis. So in my view there is no particular definitive style or regional style of playing – instead we have the Johnny Doran, Willie Clancy, Leo Rowsome or Seamus Ennis style plus lots of other great individualists testifying to the great diversity of uilleann piping.
Who made your set of uilleann pipes? And do you remember your first set?
The pipes I am now playing were made by the late Dave Williams an English pipe maker who contributed so much to uilleann pipe making and died tragically far too early.
Eventually I got a practice set of uilleann pipes made by Matt Kiernan of Dublin which cost me £8 and sometime later I got a full set of Crowley pipes made in the 1930s I think – this set cost me £20! So I had pipes but no idea how to play them. There was no one teaching them so I started off playing them like the flute. However I felt there was something wrong (which there was) as I didn’t know I had to close the end of the chanter on my knee! So painfully I struggled away on my own on the pipes while still playing the tin whistle and flute with my brother Dara and cousin Fintan both much younger. Dara had always played music and could pick up instruments very quickly. Fintan was a natural and both had great musical ears. You needed a good musical ear as there were no books of traditional music available and very few recordings. In fact at that time I could carry all the available traditional LPs in one hand!
Meeting Frank McFadden in Belfast was an important milestone for me as he was a second generation uilleann pipes and bagpipe maker. While he didn’t teach me he often played for me while I watched and listened. At that time he was charging £8 for a practice set, £50 for a half set and £80 for a full set!
Then my brother Dara and myself decided to try and visit Willie Clancy. So one day we set off on our bikes arriving 3 days later in Miltown Malbay where we met Willie and he was very very welcoming and encouraging.
You left the CCÉ in 1966 to found the Armagh Pipers Club. Can you tell why, and with whom did you have the idea to found the Club?
While in Edinburgh I discovered CCE and travelled to various Fleadheanna Cheoil. My first visit was almost accidental as I found myself on the Glasgow to Belfast boat not a ferry as it was mostly used for transporting cattle. It took all night so there was a lot of music and singing from a large group of Scottish/Irish musicians including a piper called Pat McNulty who only died quite recently. I didn’t go home but continued on to Clones with them where I had the great good fortune to meet Felix Doran and a young Finbar Furey. This had a huge influence on me.
Returning to Armagh I immediately got involved with the local CCE and started organising concerts. I brought Seamus Ennis to play at some of these concerts. I always thought CCE had saved Irish music through bringing it out into the open and giving it a platform in a country that was very hostile to the music from both a political and religious aspect. The local clergy were very much against the music and the musicians and the Irish government generally concurred with this and had passed laws against innocent traditional pastimes such as the popular house ceilis. Lots of law abiding people had from the 1930s onwards found themselves criminalised for hosting ceilis in their houses.
However I began to detect a certain negative attitude towards the uilleann pipes despite the CCE stated mission to revive the playing of the pipes and the harp.
I didn’t abruptly leave CCE although I walked away from the local administration end of it. The Armagh Pipers Club developed alongside our ongoing CCE activities like participation in Fleadh competitions so it was an organic development that started in late 1966. We entered competitions as Armagh Pipers Club until CCE brought out a new rule that they wouldn’t accept entries from groups that weren’t members of a branch of CCE. So what they were saying was that a musician had to nominally join a branch of CCE in order to compete. This rule still applies so we have many members who compete in these competitions as members of CCE. We tolerate this as we don’t believe that competitions have any validity in music. However it is amusing to see some of these CCE branches claiming the success of their uilleann pipers or harp players in CCE competitions while they don’t even teach those instruments. However our role is simply to teach and promote the music so we ignore this childish behaviour.
How has the Club evolved over the past 50 years and what are its main activities to promote Irish musical culture? At the moment how many students are there?
Initially the club consisted of just my brother Dara and cousin Fintan later joined by a fiddler called Peter Mackey now deceased. In 1968 I met Eithne Ní Chiarda a great fiddle player from Donegal who was learning uilleann pipes in Dublin with Leo Rowsome as she was friendly with Leo’s daughter Helena. Then in 1969 Eithne and myself got married and this had an enormous impact on the direction of the Armagh Pipers Club. Eithne was not only a great musician but she had been collecting and recording traditional music from an early age and had worked with Breandan Breathnach transcribing his field recordings many of which were published in his various Ceol Rinnce na hEireann books.
Very shortly after this in 1972 we published the first of the Armagh Pipers Club tutor books which quickly became popular in Ireland and indeed all over the world – they were the first dedicated tutor books for teaching Irish Traditional music. There were of course lots of collections about since the 19thCentury but our books were graded books based on our classes and an attempt to put in print our ideas on teaching the music following the general collapse of the rural age old transmission system through families. In the mid 20thCentury a majority of pupils were coming to the Pipers Club from non musical families.
For many years now our pupil numbers have varied between 150 and 250 – at the moment we have a little over 200 many travelling long distances from the 8 counties we cover North and South.
Many musicians trained in the Club school later became professionals; Connla, Goitse among others. That must give you satisfaction!
One of the most satisfying developments that has made all our efforts worthwhile has been the musical careers that have started off for musicians who came as 7 and 8 year old children to our classes and now in their 40s and 50s pursue professional careers in the music. And this is continuing still so we now have at least two generations of pupils performing professionally and a third generation following through.
Founding members Dara and Fintan Vallely went on to pursue professional careers in music – Dara with his world famous group The Armagh Rhymers and Fintan through his recordings and many publications.
The first uilleann pipes pupil I taught was Eamonn Curran and he was also the first to pursue a professional career playing and recording for many years with the group Reel Union that was led by Dolores Keane and John Faulkner and included musicians like Sean Keane and Mairtin O’Connor. Eamonn played uilleann pipes and tin whistle with the group. Then there was Francis Rock another pipe pupil who went to Germany and played and recorded with a group called Sheevon. The late Mark Donnelly played and recorded with the group Craobh Rua. Then Patricia Vallely from a wonderful singing family played and recorded with her group Reel to Reel. Later then we had a whole series of past pupils like Brian Finnegan with Flook, Niall Vallely with Nomos and later Buille along with his brother Caoimhin, Cillian Vallely with various groups in American and now for many years with Lunasa, Tiarnan O Duinnchinn who played and recorded with many groups as well making solo recordings and Leo McCann who played and recorded with many Scottish groups including Malinky. Barry Kerr too is associated with the club having attended one of our summer music schools, was taught by a former pupil of the club and himself taught classes in the club. More recently there are past pupils like Niall Murphy, Jarlath Henderson, Dermot Mulholland and many more featuring in groups and making recordings. These and many more do give us a lot of satisfaction and knowledge that our pupils are continuing to develop the music.
In Ireland there are still “dynasties” that transmit the passion for popular traditions to the next generations, and I believe it is a unique phenomenon in Europe. What do you think is the reason?
In Ireland the music survived for generations through family traditions being passed on and there are many examples of this just to mention two, namely the Rowsome and Potts families. I don’t know why Ireland represents such a unique European dynastic family tradition as it is quite common in Africa and Asia with vast multi-generational musical dynasties. I suppose our situation as a formerly remote island would have helped establish close cultural traditions handed down through generations. However despite that Ireland for over a thousand years was subjected to endless invasions and persecutions aimed at every aspect of life including religion, language, music and in fact the very right to be regarded as a human being. However for some reason our traditions survived which is a testimony to the fortitude of our ancestors.
Along with your wife Eithne, a fiddler and teacher who comes from a family of musicians, it may be said that you have founded a new dynasty of musicians. All your children are good musicians, Cillian, Caoimhín and Niall have brilliantly embarked on professional careers, Lorcan was inspired to become an artist, Maire is an important figure within the Club. Mr Vallely, you can be proud of what you have built with Eithne… and then there are the grandchildren; do they play too?
Within my own family the music is alive and well in the two generations of our children and grandchildren. All 10 of our grandchildren play music with a mixture of classical as well as traditional. Niall’s children Muireann and Aine play respectively fiddle, flute, concertina and Aine has recorded a song in the Pipers Club most recent publication Dobbins Flowery Vale. Caoimhin’s three children all play with Oisin playing pipes and piano, Liam playing guitar and Ronan playing fiddle. Cillian’s three children all play and sing with Ciara on Fiddle, Sinead on flute while Eimear sings. Lorcan’s two children live in Armagh and attend the Pipers club classes. So the music will continue.
You are highly regarded as a painter. Some of your paintings have been used for CD covers, you have exhibited in many countries and have always paid attention to aspects of Irish culture. To devote yourself to this activity you had to give up what might have been a career as a musician and concert performer; when did you make this choice
While I never played professionally I never felt any conflict between the various aspects of my life – painting, music and sport exist comfortably in their own compartments of my life. All three interact and meet in my painting through my subjects which always reflect my interests in life from my mythological paintings of the late 50s and early 60s to my music and sport themed paintings from the 70s to the present day. I have always lived an independent life and never had a job so I was lucky to be able to spend all my life doing what I liked whether playing music, painting or competing and organising athletics.
Mr Vallely, thank you for your time, until we meet again in Armagh.