Trad: Two's company with piper Tiarnán Ó Duinchinn and harpist Laoise Kelly

Harpist Laoise Kelly and piper Tiarnán Ó Duinchinn will perform selections from their new CD Ar Thóir na Laochra at An Droichead in Belfast tomorrow night
Robert McMillen

IT'S often in traditional music that two superlative musicians would join forces to make an album together and some of the greatest music of the genre has been provided by simple duets.

However, it hasn't been too often that the harp and the uilleann pipes would schmozzle up to each other on a CD but that's exactly what happens on Ar Thóir na Laochra, a new collection by Monaghan piper, Tiarnán Ó Duinchinn and harpist Laoise Kelly from Wesport in Co Mayo.

It has always seemed to me that the harp is the instrument played in the parlours of the Big House while the pipes would be the instrument of the bothy.

When I was in conversation with Tiarnán, I asked him if he saw it that way.

"Well, Laoise and I are a duet of harp and uilleann pipes, two very identifiable instrument of Ireland and the image and sound of these two instruments are quintesenntially Irish in many respects," he says.

"The sound of the two instruments are like echo chambers into the past.

The harp is a symbol of the county and is the insignia seen on all state documents – and it is also included on the British monarchical standard!

"Going further back, the harp was the exalted instrument of Bardic times and there has been an unbroken tradition of the harp in society up to this day," he says.

However, the pipes and the harp weren't musically exclusive and they were both played in the Big Houses of the landed gentry where the patron would host the harper or the piper in return for hospitality and quite often, music was composed to honour the host.

However, later the piper found himself more of a travelling musician eking out a living from the music without the support of wealthy patrons, a tradition which survived into the mid-20th century with great travelling pipers such as the Doran family moving around the country in barrel caravans and playing at fairs and football matches or anywhere there was a crowd.

However, a Renaissance in piping happened in the mid-1960s when the Armagh Pipers Club and Na Píobairí Uilleann were founded.

"The uilleann pipes are younger than the pipe by around 300 years or more, having been developed into their present form as we know them in the late 1600s and early 1700s," explains Tiarnán.

"The current growth in the number of uilleann pipers has far outstripped that of harpists but the situation is being addressed with the formation of Fóram Chruite na hÉireann and the advent of new harp festivals such as this year's Achill International Harp Festival."

Tiarnan himself was six years of age when he started on the tin whistle and then moved onto the pipes at the age of nine.

"I started learning music because my three older sisters were all playing music at this time and there was music in the house all the time as they played and practiced.

"It was the most obvious and normal thing to do as I presumed at that age. I thought everyone else did the same but I soon realized that this was not the case!

"I actually chose the uilleann pipes by accident. I was attending the Armagh Pipers Club who give classes in all instruments when my teacher Eithne Vallely advised that I try the uilleann pipes.

"Immediately, I liked the instrument and all the intricacies and challenges that it posed. I found it more interesting, complex diverse and a real challenge."

Since then Tiarnán has been a member of a ceili band in Dundalk, Ceoltóirí Óga Oirghiall and has been touring and performing on a regular basis since 1995. His music has taken him to Europe, United States, Canada, Japan, Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

He has won four All-Ireland titles and two Oireachtas titles. In January 2013, Tiarnán won the Sean O Riada Gold Medal competition and has been described by many as being one of the most influential pipers of his generation.

Laoise on the other hand has recorded on over 60 albums with many of Ireland's foremost artists including The Chieftains, Christy Moore, Sharon Shannon, Dónal Lunny, Tommy Makem, Matt Molloy, Mary Black, Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Eimear Quinn as well as Kate Bush and American country/bluegrass icon Tim O'Brien.

However, Ar Thóir na Laochra has been a long time coming.

Tiarnan and Laoise have been doing around 10 gigs each year for the past five years and when it came to make the album, they were very clear from the outset that it would be a recording of just the two instruments as Tiarnán explains.

"The musical range and possibilities of the harp and uilleann pipes are vast, complete and self-contained, Both instruments can carry the melody very strongly, both have accompaniment which can be harmonic and/or percussive.

"The chordal, contrapuntal and percussive possibilities of the left hand of the harp and the regulators on the uilleann pipes are myriad," he explains.

(Don't worry, music students will understand all that!)

"The tunes come from different parts of Ireland and further afield. There is a barn dance that we learned from the lilting of Kitty Sheáin Ó Cuinneagáin, from Teelin, Co Donegal; polkas from Kerry and Cork; a song air and reels from Donegal; a strathspey from Cape Breton in Canada and jigs from Sligo, Clare, Leitrim, Cork and Kerry.

"The tunes we play, amongst others, are tunes that originated in the 17th to 20th centuries. Others we found in manuscripts or picked up at sessions along the way.

"So, in a way we are breathing life into melodies that span from 1600 to the present day."

You can hear the magic that this creates tomorrow night when Tiarnán and Laoise play at An Droichead in Cooke Street off the Ormeau Road in Belfast tomorrow night at 8pm.

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