THE WHEELS OF THE WORLD: 300 Years of Irish Uilleann Pipers (Jawbone Press, 2015)
By Colin Harper with John McSherry
One chanter, three drones, three regulators, thirteen keys, too many near-extinctions to mention and 300 years of heroes: that, with a frisson of fairies on moonlit knolls, is the Irish uilleann (‘ill-in’) pipes. The Wheels of the World presents an epic tale of triumph and survival, where the soulful heart of a nation has been kept alive across ages by a slender thread of guardians – blind men, eccentrics, self-aggrandisers, noble heroes, bloody-minded revivalists and at least three people compared to Jimi Hendrix.
Uilleann piping is Ireland’s equivalent to the story of the blues in America, save that here the trail of legends and lore is richer and deeper by far. It is the sound of eighteenth century blues – a micro-tonal virtuoso machine wielded by misfits and geniuses, often one and the same.
This is the story of a continuum, from John McSherry, a 21st century luminary, backwards in time through his three formative heroes – Paddy Keenan, Liam O’Flynn and Finbar Furey – and thence to Séamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Johnny Doran, Leo Rowsome, Patsy Touhey and a litany of unrecorded legends before them. It is also a snapshot of professional Irish traditional musicians, after the goldrush of the late 20th century, keeping calm and carrying on.
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‘Harper manages to draw every molecule of air out of [the pipes’] single chanter, three drones and three regulators… His depiction of [Séamus Ennis alone] is well-written, informative and heart-breaking.’
Mel Clarke, Sunday Times
‘An exhaustive and impressive piece of research but very much what we’ve come to expect from Harper following his extensive biographies of guitarists Bert Jansch and John McLaughlin.’
Ian Patterson, Culture Northern Ireland
‘Thoroughly engaging… written with obvious erudition and enthusiasm… this is an essential book for anyone interested in Irish music and is set to become an invaluable point of reference for future explorations.’
Michael Quinn, Songlines
‘Organized into 16 well-focused chapters and three appendices, this weighty paperback makes for an easy read. One of Harper’s virtues as journalist with a good academic background and rock music fluid writing style is to engage you for as much and for as long as you want to settle in with the book.’
Paul Keating, Irish Voice/Irish Central