Saturday, March 13, 2010

When Irish guys are pipin'

Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes, are calling. But they’ve also been calling to Mickey Dunne for years.

Dunne, who’s from Limerick, Ireland, has been making perhaps the most traditional of Irish instruments, the uilleann pipes, since as far back has he can remember.

“My dad was a player — a famous player — and my brother was a player. My family has been in music for generations,” said Dunne, who had just given a master class on the uilleann pipes to 10 pipers in Houston before heading to Wichita Falls with his band, Ireland’s Call.

The group is in town today to perform at the St. Patrick’s Day Downtown Street Festival. The band will hit the outdoor stage in the 600 block of Eighth Street at 7 p.m., and then they’ll also perform Wednesday for St. Patrick’s Day at the Iron Horse Pub.

While Dunne comes from one of the great musical families in Ireland, he’s also well known for his day job as a uilleann pipe maker — a job that became so rare at one time that the instrument was in danger of becoming extinct.

“This almost died out completely,” said Dunne of uilleann pipe making. “In the 1920s, there were only about four or five pipers in the country ... In fact, there were a few more in America, actually, because more (Irish) people immigrated.”

There was a time in Ireland, he added, that playing the pipes was banned by the British.

“They wanted to wipe out anything Irish,” Dunne said.

There isn’t quite anything more Irish than the uilleann pipes, the country’s national bagpipe. The instrument is played by strapping a small set of bellows around the waist and right arm. The bellows inflate the pipes bag, so there’s no need to blow into the instrument, like with the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes.

Dunne took out his set of pipes during a stop last week at the Turtle Creek Trading Co., and with his bandmates — Joe Maher, Martin Byrnes and Bryan Healy — played a very non-Irish song, the Peruvian “El Condor Pasa.” They also launched into a few traditional Irish tunes, too.

It takes about three months to make a set of pipes, which can cost up to 10,000 Euros, or about $14,000, Dunne said.

The pipes he plays are made from horse bones, though old pipe makers used to use ivory, along with nickle-plated brass, leather and ebony.

“The very old makers used to make them from boxwood.”

He added, “What makes these unique is that you’ve got regulators for harmonies for the chords,” Dunne said.

It seems not anything is simple when it comes to the uilleann pipes. Even the reeds for the pipes have to be specially made.

“You have to make your own reeds, and it’s tricky to get them to play in tune,” he said.

While the pipes were almost wiped out a century or more ago, Dunne said the instrument is enjoying a revival of sorts. Uilleann pipe clubs have formed around the world, and Dunne has taught pipe playing classes everywhere. “I’ve been to Vietnam, would you believe. Vietnam and Pakistan make these.”

When Dunne takes the stage today with Ireland’s Call, he won’t only be playing the pipes, but the pennywhistle, too, yet another traditional Irish instrument.

The guys in Ireland’s Call have their own bands back in Ireland and play together especially for the St. Patrick’s Day Downtown Street Festival, an event organized by Downtown Wichita Falls Development Inc. Danny Ahern, co-owner of the Iron Horse Pub, who’s originally from Tipperary, Ireland, often watches the guys play when he goes back home and persuaded them to play in Wichita Falls. So they formed the band just for their trip here.

Their appearance at the festival today will be their second time to play the festival.

And, of course, they’re here to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, too. The holiday, honoring the patron saint of Ireland, isn’t celebrated quite the same in the Emerald Isle.

“It’s not great. It’s a dull day, especially with the (Irish) weather,” said Joe Maher, guitarist, with a laugh.

But don’t expect anything dull from Ireland’s Call. The pipes, the pipes will be calling, after all.