William Clarke: The Ballybay Piper

William Clarke: The Ballybay Piper

This is the story of my maternal (Irish) grandfather William Clarke.

See also: http://www.politics.ie/forum/history/216146-william-clarke-ballybay-piper.html

In the course of making over 50 programmes for the RTÉ radio series ‘The Irish Phonograph’ it has often occurred to me how lucky the followers of Irish traditional music are in some of the fortuitous decisions made many years ago to make recordings of particular musicians.  Some of these recordings are invaluable today, giving us an insight into styles and repertoires which may now no longer exist and examples of playing and techniques from musicians who would only be names to us without the recordings

The story of William Clarke illustrates these points for us, being one of the earliest Uilleann Pipers to make commercial recordings and yet very little being known of the man or his musical background.  The research required to provide answers for these questions for an ‘Irish Phonograph’ programme on his records, allows us a glimpse at life and music as was in County Monaghan at the beginning of this century and provides the material for this article.

My thanks are due to Rev Bill Clarke of Omagh, son of William Clarke and to George McCullagh of Ballybay, friend and pupil of the piper.  Additional information was provided by Louis McElgunn of Lisnaskea, Mrs R Goodwin of Clones, Alfie Dinken of Monaghan and Brendan Breathnach.

Robert William Clarke was born on October 29th, 1889 in the townland of Cornahoe near Ballybay, County Monaghan.  His grandfather was one of two brothers who had come from Scotland to Monaghan with the intention of spending some years there before moving to Canada.  One of these brothers died in Monaghan and the other, obviously taken by Monaghan and its attractions, settled in Cornahoe.  His son, Robert Clarke, married a local girl Lizzie Wylie and had four children – three daughters and one son, Robert William.  The family left the original home in Cornahoe and lived for a while in nearby Cargy before moving to a fine holding in Dunmaurice nearer to Ballybay and it was here that the young Clarke family grew up.

Robert William, or Willie as he was known to his friends, attended the local school where it was taken for granted that he, like his father, would be a farmer, but from an early age it became clear that “he was not cut out to be a farmer”, his talents being in other areas.  When his schooling finished he was apprenticed to a local man named Duffy to learn the watchmaking trade, his training being completed with Mercers, Jewellers in Enniskillen.  Towards the end of the First World War, Willie Clarke acquired premises in Main Street Ballybay, and opened his own business as a clockmaker and jeweller: many fine examples of his work are still to be seen in the area today.  Willie married Margaret Johnson from nearby Clontibret and the couple had three children: Tom who was to die as a young man in the RAF in World War Two; Nancy who settled in the north of England and Bill who became a Minister in the Presbyterian Church.

As a young boy Willie Clarke developed a great liking for music, in particular the music of the pipes.  Where the attraction for the music came from is not clearly known as neither his father nor mother were in any way musical.  George McCullagh who came from Derryvalley near Ballybay and was a contemporary of Clarke’s was able to shed some light on Willie’s early interest in music.  George remembered Willie telling him that his interest in piping was first roused on hearing ‘the Piper Ward’ – Pat Ward from nearby Doohamlet.  It was Pat Ward who introduced Willie to the Uilleann Pipes, and Highland Bagpipes which Ward also played, and gave him instruction in the rudiments of both instruments as well as teaching him the skills of reading and writing music.

Willie’s name is best remembered in his home area as a bagpiper, being one of the founders of the Ballybay Pipe Band around 1920.  George McCullagh became one of the 17 pipers in the band and recalled many practice sessions held by Willie – who was elected Pipe Major – as he prepared the band for their round of local appearances at picnics, 12th of July marches and sports meetings.  The tunes they played were from the standard pipe band repertoire and included: The Drunken Piper, Lord Lovett’s Lament, The Earl of Mansfield’s March and the Atholl Highlander’s March.  Around this time the nearby villages of Clontibret and Tullycorbett also started pipe bands and Willie assisted by coaching the new bands and helping them to buy instruments.  Indeed pipe bands seemed to have been very popular in this part of County Monaghan during those years.  George McCullagh recalls bands in Lough Egish, Monaghan Town, Lisnagree, Corduff and the Doohamlet O’Neills.

Sharing popularity with the bagpipe in County Monaghan was its near relative, the Uilleann Pipes on which Willie Clarke also became a proficient player.  Pat Ward, Willie’s teacher, was one of a small group of pipers who kept interest in the instrument alive when it had almost become extinct at the end of the l9th century.  The decline of popularity in the instrument at that time is clearly seen from the fact that the organisers of the Feis Ceoll brought together a group of pipers in Dublin in 1897 the piping category described as “competitions of archaeological interest”.  In spite of this attitude to the instrument there was a strong pocket of Uilleann Pipers in the Monaghan area in Willie’s youth and when the Feis Ceoil was staged in Belfast in 1898 and 1900, the pipers entered included: Philip Goodman – “who had walked all the way from his native Carrickmacross” – Dan Markey from Castleblayney and George McCarthy also from Carrickmacross.

Pat Ward, as Willie’s teacher, was one of his greatest influences: other less well-known pipers in the area who had contact with Willie were: William Carolan who came from the townland of Dopeymills near Newbliss and was a regular caller to the Clarke home; Mick Keenan, a piper and pipe-maker, who lived in Glassleck near Shercock in County Cavan also called frequently; another keen young exponent on the pipes was Philip Martin who lived quite a distance away in Kilturk near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh.               Louis McElgunn recalled how Philip would make the long and arduous trip by bicycle to visit Willie Clarke in Ballybay.  Philip’s only free day to do this was Sunday but Willie being a firm up-holder of the Sabbath would not take his pipes out of their box or play music on Sundays.  Philip Martin was to die a young man having made one impressive piping recording in Dublin in 1937.

A piping visitor from further afield was Brother Gildas who at that time was teaching in Downpatrick, County Down.  He regularly visited and stayed as a guest at the Clarke home.  These visits were remembered by Willie’s son Rev Bill Clarke.  “Brother Gildas, a delightful man, used to come and visit us.  The evenings would end up in a piping session part of which I would be allowed to listen to and then I would have to go to bed.  I remember he spoke with a lovely Southern accent, a most beautiful brogue, and this used to fascinate us children”.  Brother Gildas was a well-known figure in the piping world at that time and is remembered for a large collection of Egan chanters which he gathered over the years.  He played “on a beautiful set with a sixteen and a half inch chanter”.  Brother Gildas was a member of the De La Salle Order, a Kerryman and a native speaker of Irish.  His lay name was Patrick O’Shea.

The spectacle of a De La Salle Brother staying in a strong Presbyterian house in North Monaghan in the mid 1920’s must have raised eyebrows at the time, but Willie Clarke’s attitude to such things is remembered by his son; “He liked the person, he was interested only in the person, he wasn’t interested in anything else.  He was that type of man.”

Another visitor from afield was James Ennis of Finglas “a Dublin civil servant, a bit taciturn and a gifted piper and fiddler” as Rev Bill Clarke remembers.  “He was a very frequent visitor to our home.  His wife was from Farney in County Monaghan and he and my father used to play together and have some lovely evenings”.  James Ennis was of course the father of Seamus Ennis, piper, singer, collector and broadcaster and one of the greatest figures in Irish traditional music this century.

Two Belfast pipers Frank McFadden and Francis McPeake occasionally called at the Clarke home on piping matters as did Leo Rowsome the well-known Dublin piper and pipe maker.  As George McCullagh recalled; “Any man who knew anything about pipes …  he’d talk the whole day to them.  I knew a tramp to come round with an Uilleann Chanter and a bag, he’d come maybe twice a year, play all round Ballybay and Clones, and Clarke would have him in and give him his tea and his dinner and keep him playing there and give him a few bob to carry him on, that was the kind of Clarke.  Ah, he was a nice man now, no doubt”.  Whenever a musician visited the house, Willie had two tunes which he would specially ask the visitor to play – Napoleon’s March and the Set Dance, The Blackbird, his favourite tunes.

George McCullagh also remembered an unusual set of pipes which Willie had, the half-longs or Lowland pipes.  This unusual instrument was a hybrid, a cross between the Uilleann Pipes and Bagpipes using a conventional bagpipe set, but having an elbow bellows rather than blowing them from the mouth.  This instrument was the subject of a revival in Scotland at the turn of the 20th Century but sets are very rare in Ireland.  George learned to play the instrument in Willie’s house; “they were nice for a house, not as wicked a sound as the bagpipes”.

Willie Clarke’s name, like that of many another a musician would probably be long forgotten if it were not for his recordings.  The story of how these records came about goes back to 1928 and an imaginative record company executive in London who decided to present on record the various piping traditions existing within these islands.  Ireland would contribute the Uilleann Pipes, England the Northumbrian Pipes, and Scotland, the Highland Bagpipes – the series of three records to be entitled ‘The Pipes of Three Nations’.

The reason why Willie Clarke should have been selected to play the Uilleann Pipes on these records was not known, but the answer was soon obvious.  Since the early 1920s, Willie had been attending an annual piping gathering held in Bellingham, a small town in Northumberland, and it was here that the Columbia Record of London looked to provide pipers for their planned records.  Willie Clarke was asked to play the Uilleann Pipes, Piper Major James Robertson of Edinburgh played the Bagpipes and Anthony Charlton of Northumberland played on the small pipes of Northumbria.  In the summer of 1928, all three travelled to London and made recordings which were released later that year.  George McCullagh remembered how Willie proudly returned to Ballybay with an advance copy of the records: “Well I mind the record played in Clarke’s own house after he came back: he was happy enough with it.  That was the year 1928”.  The tunes recorded by Willie were: Father O’Flynn, Down the Broom, The Star of Munster, McLeod of Raasay (Miss McLeod’s) and The Swallow’s Tail.

Willie Clarke’s skills as a watchmaker were put to good use when he began to make pipes.  He took the shamrock as his trademark and parts he made for various sets are still to be seen today.  George McCullagh remembered Willie having a workshop in his attic for pipe making; “he’d be making pipes and parts of pipes till 3 or 4 in the morning and I’d be ‘treadling’ the old lathe for him.  Oh, he could make a set of pipes, he was good.  One time I got a bit of old yew tree maybe 100 years of age and I brought it into him and he made an Uilleann Chanter from it and it was the best Chanter he had in the house.  Sure he had 2 or 3 sets of Uilleann Pipes and he kept them in great order and a wild good set of war pipes, ivory mounted and all”.

Willie Clarke was a young man with a bright future and where his talents might have taken him in the world of music we will never know, because, one month before his 45th birthday, the great killer disease of the time, TB, claimed his life.  After a short stay in a sanatorium he died in his home in Dunmaurice on 9th September, 1934, leaving a wife and three young children.  He was buried in the churchyard of the Second Ballybay Presbyterian Church.

In March 1988, 60 years after the recording of ‘The Pipes of Three Nations’, Na Piobairi Uilleann – the society of Uilleann Pipers – staged a concert at the Royal Hospital Kilmainhan, Dublin featuring four outstanding young pipers.

Ronan Browne and Terry Tully represented Ireland’s piping traditions on Uilleann pipes and bagpipes respectively; Hamish Moore from North Berwick played on the Scottish Small Pipes, and Kathryn Tickell from Newcastle-on-Tyne delighted the audience with her virtuosity on the Northumbrian pipes.

William Clarke would have been proud to know that the name chosen for this concert of outstanding young pipers was, “The Pipes of Three Nations’.

Harry Bradshaw

Article MT096


This article first appeared in the Irish magazine ‘The Heart of Breifne’
and is reproduced with the permission of the author.

The Pipes of Three Nations

The Pipes of Three Nations was a series of 78 RPM discs made in 1928. It featured Willie Clarke on the Irish pipes, Anthony Charlton on the Northumbrian pipes, and Piper Major James Robertson on the Highland pipes. A commemorative concert staged in Dublin in the early 90s featured Ronan Browne, Kathryn Tickell, and Terry Tully in the above featured roles. “I have a snippet of Willie Clarke playing Miss McLeod, he was a lovely old time player, a nice tight style of playing. Seamus Ennis and his father were friends with Willie, I’ve a tape with Seamus playing Willie’s version of Down the Broom, which sounds a bit like what the Rowsomes called the Broom reel, in O’Neill’s this is called Sheehan’s reel but Leo Rowsome (and Liam Walsh) started out the first part a bit different, with a run up to the second octave E. Willie Clarke also recorded his version of Down the Broom”.

Ballybay Pipe Band

This must have been when Grandfather William Clarke began his career in piping. It appears to have been a ‘love affair’ to which he devoted a lot of time and effort. Could this have been at the expense of the family business and perhaps contributed to his ill health?

Piping Party in Northumberland

“On this photograph we see pipers (clockwise from left) – D. Laidlaw V.C., W.A. Cocks, J. Robertson, G.V. Charlton, R.W. Clarke. The photograph was taken at the home of W.A. Cocks at Ryton on Tyne some time in 1927-28. Amongst those present was G.V. Charlton, who along with Cocks, helped to revive interest in pipes in the region, writing many articles for the press.”