The 2003 Tionól
Pictured left to right: Scott Bartell, Adam Modares, Royce Lerwick, Chad Giblin, Billy McCormick, Brad Kampf, Wally Swentko, Tom Dahill, Edmund Tunney, Dave Boisvert (not pictured)

The Great Northern Irish Piper's Club Tionól got off to a cold start this year, the first day of the event started with a snowstorm and a fresh blanket of snow. For both days we had sub-zero temperatures, blowing snow, and bitter winds challenged attending pipers; pretty much business as usual in Minnesota. Our guest piper and tutor, Billy McCormick, had just arrived from Clare the night before and thought that we had ìlovely weatherî, he had been looking forward to seeing some snow! Humidity indoors dropped down to a "pipe-cracking" 10%, however, efficient use of several humidifiers brought it back up to a range at least tolerable by uilleann pipers.

Billy was born in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim in 1959 and started on the uilleann pipes at age 19 under the tutelage of the notable Sean McAloon of Belfast. He found great inspiration in the playing of Liam O'Flynn and other great pipers of the revitalized traditional music scene in the late 1970s and he took to playing on the streets of Dublin, often near the famous St. Stephen's Green. Billy now plays week-ends at O'Connorís Pub in Doolin.

Billyís style in both his playing and teaching of the pipes is bold and intricate yet very relaxed. He rips out the tunes almost effortlessly and is still very able to break things down to a beginnerís level. He is very focused on his chanter work and really passes that on to his students, without a good foundation here there is little need for drones, regulators, or anything else. This philosophy is very apparent is his playing still which is both very fluid and crisp with just the right amount of ornament and extras to make it a real piping tune. Billy makes great use of a back D gracenote, which he calls nipping, the effect is simply marvelous and really helps fill out otherwise bland passages of certain tunes. Billy was inspired to this effect by the piping of Paddy Moloney, and eventually incorporated it into his own unique style. I found also that he has a very good grasp of vibrato and was able to pass on some really helpful tips on when, where, and how to include this effect in both tunes and songs/airs.

Billy had his famous Taylor set with him; the history behind this set is phenomenal. While playing his old set of pipes one day in Dublin, an American nun approached Billy and asked him his name. As it turns out, her grandfather, who was also named Billy McCormick, had played the pipes in Chicago during the early 1900s. She asked Billy if he would like to have the pipes her grandfather played; he did, of course, and soon received the set from America. After examining the pipes Billy found out that this set was none other than a William Taylor set made for "Kid" Eddie Joyce. After Joyce died in 1897, the "other" Billy McCormick had bought them and the rest is history. Francis O'Neill wrote an in-depth biography of "Kid" Eddie Joyce in his book Irish Minstrels and Musicians. Billy is currently playing his set with a Taylor-style chanter crafted by pipemaker Cillian O'Briain based in Dingle, Co. Kerry. Billy also had on hand a flat pitch chanter made by Geoff Woof. I had a chance to try out both and thought they both played with amazing ease. The attention to detail and tuning was without parallel.

Pictured left to right: Chad Giblin, Billy McCormick, Edmund Tunney

We had several new pipers this year in addition to getting them started on practice sets we spent a good portion of time performing basic maintenance on both their pipes and reeds. With our massive fluctuations in temperature and humidity it isn't long before things start falling apart. Everyone who was able chipped in to get reeds and practice sets up to snuff.

After the instruction on Sunday Billy was joined by local musician and piper Tom Dahill and Edmund Tunney at the College of St. Catherine to play music for the Irish dancers at their annual concert. The club was fortunate enough to work with The St. Paul Irish Dancers in bringing Billy over for both the tionól and this very special concert. Sunday night continued with a rollicking session at Keegan's Pub in Minneapolis, despite the dry weather Billy was still quite able to rip out a good couple hours of great tunes. After that the action moved down to the famous Dubliner Pub in St. Paul where Billy joined the local group The Gaels onstage for another set of great tunes.

Well, we had another great year for our tionól, we were very happy to have Billy in town; he's a great piper and an excellent teacher. Overall we had ten pipers attending, sporting sets of pipes from all over the world. Thanks to the attending pipers and to Billy McCormick for visiting with us and especially for his generosity in sharing his love for the pipes and Irish traditional music.

  Click below to view video clips from the Tionól!


© 2008 Minnesota Uilleann Association & The Great Northern Irish Pipers Club