Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Crowley Pipemakers

Uilleann Pipers and Makers by John Mitchell

The Crowley name is synonymous with the art of uilleann piping and pipe making. It is a name which is highly respected within the world of uilleann piping and is known near and far. Their love for all things Irish and especially the uilleann pipes was the driving force behind all their work. They readily passed on their vast knowledge of piping and pipe making to any up and coming aspiring pipers and pipe makers. This generosity of nature played no small part in keeping the art of uilleann piping and pipe making very much alive in their native city of Cork.

The Crowley brothers came from Saint James Square, Blackpool. Tadhg was born in 1899 and his brother Denis in 1908. Tadhg began to learn the bag pipes at the age of sixteen. He was associated with two pipe bands, The Lee Pipe Band and The Brian Boru Pipe Band. At this time most bands were playing marches and Scottish pipe music. It was Tadhg’s love of his own native music that led him to transcribe all of the 1001 tunes from the famous Chief O’Neill’s book, into bag pipe settings. Original manuscripts of this huge task thankfully still survive at the time of writing this. By the early 1920’s Tadhg had developed an interest in repairing bag pipes and drums for local bands. It was around this time that he began to learn the uilleann pipes, his for love, at the Cork Pipers Club. In 1926, he repaired a set of uilleann pipes for Henry Ford’s father. These pipes are now in the Ford Museum in Dearbourn, Michigan. Henry Ford wrote back to Tadhg, which led to Tadhg working in Ford’s factory for six months.

…the Crowley name is highly respected within the world of uilleann piping and is known near and far…

That same year Tadhg was toying with the idea of going to the States. He had all of his papers ready and his uncle in the States had a job organised for him. One evening he went for a walk up to Sunday’s Well and looked out over the city. His love for his city and music won out, he decided not to go. Instead he decided to go into the uilleann pipe, bag pipe and drum making business full time.

Self taught, he first made a set of uilleann pipes for himself. Denis, his brother, was also interested in piping and pipe making and assisted his brother in the business. They ran their business firstly from their home, and in 1933 they moved it to 10, Merchants Quay, Cork. Due to rapidly growing demand for Crowley uilleann pipes, bag pipes and drums the Crowley brothers opened a workshop in Maylor Street, in the late 1930’s. Their 10 Merchant Quay premises remained as a music shop.

Tommy Clapham, a wood turner, and Denis Clapham, a drum maker (Tadhg’s brothers-in-law), both came to work in the workshop. The workshop had three wood lathes, a metal lathe, a band saw, a circular saw and big stocks of African black wood, Spanish cane and brass for fittings and keys. It was Tadhg Crowley who first used cupped keys on his chanters and regulators. The cupped design gives better sealing as it stops the leather pads from spreading out. This method has since been used by other pipe makers. He got this from clarinet makers.

Tadhg made a set of silver plated pipes for Micheal O Riabhaigh and Moss Kennedy. One of these sets was displayed at a trade fair in the City Hall. These pipes had an interesting feature as one of the drones which could be tuned to the note G, which would then harmonise with tunes being played in the E minor mode on the D chanter.

Tadhg taught both Micheal O Riabhaigh and Moss Kennedy their piping. He also taught Moss the art of uilleann pipe making. Micheal O Riabhaigh went on to revive the Cork Pipers Club in 1963.

Mary (May) McCarthy, piper and dancer, taught Tadhg’s daughters dancing in the Crowley home in the later 1940’s. Sean Wayland (chief founder of the Cork Pipers Club) was a good friend of Tadhg’s, and kept in regular contact with him by letter. A photograph of Sean always hung in the Crowley home.

Throughout his life Tadhg readily promoted all things Irish, especially our music and dance. He regularly played at dances at “An Grianan” and the A.O.H. Hall. Tadhg died all too young at the age of fifty two (1899 - 1952), leaving a young family behind. Denis, his brother, ably assisted him throughout his musical instrument making career. Denis continued to make uilleann pipes up until his death in 1966. The Crowley name is still strongly associated with music in Cork. Michael Crowley, Tadhg’s son, runs their family business from their premises in McCurtain Street, Cork.

The Cork Pipers Club is indebted to, and would like to thank the Crowley family, who so selflessly promoted the art of uilleann piping and uilleann pipe making in Cork during those lean years of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s when our Club was not functional.

Veronica Ryan,


Cork Pipers Club

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