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'The Blooming Meadows'

by Fintan Vallely and Charlie Pigott

The name Mulligan is not found in the neon lights of traditional music PR, nor is it associated with the buzzwords of commercialism, but Dublin uilleann piper Néillidh Mulligan has been one of the best-known faces on the traditional music scene since the late 1960s. He was there at the founding tionól of Na Píobairí Uilleann and has rarely missed a gathering since. His brother Tom is also known internationally -- for his music-venue pub, the Cobblestone, is in one of Dublin's oldest neighbourhoods: Smithfield Square. Néillidh's story is best begun with the late Tom 'T.P.' Mulligan, for here was one of the great movers of the tremendously exciting and almost subversive social scene that the music occupied between the 1930s and 1970s.

Wille Clancy, Jim Brophy and Tom Mulligan. Piping Tionol, Neptune Hotel, Bettystown, Co. Meath in 1969.

Séamus Ennis, Tommy Reck, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, Tommy Potts, Breandán Breathnach household names of the revival - were his compatriots. Music then was mostly played in private houses, laying the foundation for today's familiar session scene.

'Our grandfather could still play the concertina at 96; our mother Elizabeth McKeown and her sister Brigid from Barnacoola played melodeons,' says Néillidh's Uncle Colm. 'My father loved to play the flute but had fiddle too. There was always music in the house - I often fell asleep intoxicated with the bloody thing!' His father spent a lot of time away, working for long periods in America. Uncle John and Aunt Lizzie played fiddles too, she marrying into McNamara's Band, which had saxophone, trumpet and drums. Aunt Catherine played the concertina and took it to America, and, in the 1980s when she was nearly 100, she had it still in her room. Even though it was held together with sticking plaster she wouldn't give it up. 'I might play it again,' she would tell Colm. Another brother, Peter, lived to the age of 105 in Jersey.

Leo Rowsome

Photograph courtesy of  Kevin Rowsome

There were uilleann pipers around them at the turn of this century, but Néillidh's father Tom Mulligan - born in 1915 didn't hear them until he witnessed Leo Rowsome at Mohill in 1932. Fiddle was the big instrument in his generation, and everyone learned. His brother Fran was the only one who sang, and his sister Lily learned fiddle later, in Dublin, from Frank O'Higgins, brother of Brian the versifier. Tom Mulligan was taught by local fiddle master Jack Conboy. They were resourceful too, for at the age of twelve Tom and Colm made fully functioning fiddles from tea-chest plywood:'We bought strings, two and sixpence for a set, and the hairs of the bow were number ten thread rosined up good,' laughs Colm now. 'Tom was a genius at doing the scrolls - he needed no pattern to carve them.' In later years, indeed, Tom made pipe chanters. Tom went straight from national school to work in Dublin in 1935, where he bought his first set of pipes from Abbeyshrule maker James Mulcrone, who was then living in Phibsboro. Chance threw him in with piper Tommy Reck with whom he formed a permanent friendship, playing with him, cycling to music pursuits, swimming, winning feiseanna cheoil duet awards. He was interested  in the future and survival of the music, in giving it expression and dignity, and so was involved in the Dublin Pipers' Club in the 1940s in Molesworth Street, and later in the Church Street Club. Tom married Catherine MacMahon -- then nursing in Holles Street -- a cousin of writer Bryan MacMahon. Coming from a farm on the Cliffs of Dooneen at Beale, County Kerry, she extended Tom's music influences and opportunities.

House-dances were also the scene of her upbringing too, and indeed from her own area she already knew Séamus Ennis because of his collecting travels. Emigration was common in her day, sometimes generating great excitement: her mother's sister in fact had eloped 'out the window to America,' she remembers. 'There was holy murder!'

The Mulligans set up home first in Cabra, down the street trom pipe maker Matt Kiernan, moving then to Cabra Park. Neillidh's childhood had such a constant parade of musicians passing through that Séamus Ennis dubbed the home the 'Rotary Club'. Holidays in his younger days were spent in Kerry, later ones in Leitrim, but Connemara was his moulding place. Born with no Irish, Catherine and Tom reversed post-famine linguistic atrophy by taking family caravan retreats in Inverin for the summer months, Tom commuting there at weekends. Coláiste Lurgan was a focus then for other enthusiastic figures in music revival, dancer, singer and flute-player Paddy Bán Ó Broin among them - Paddy Bán's talented musical family were around in County Galway then. There were also the Lewises, sean nós singers Tom Pháidín Tom and Meataí Joe Shéamais, and piper Jim Dowling. Dublin sessions were numerous - in singer Larry Dillon's house in Monck Place, Phibsboro, in fiddler Jack Howard's and box player Mick Grogan's. All-Ireland fleadhanna brought them back south too, and in Beale once the Mulligans came upon fiddler John Kelly in the local pub in retreat from the madness of a Listowel fleadh. The bard was pontificating vigorously on the families residing on the distant Clare coast across the Shannon estuary.

Born in 1955, Néillidh was taught whistle by Ned Stapleton and Paddy Bán Ó Broin at the Church Street Club. He took up pipes at eleven, taught first by his father, then by Leo Rowsome at the school of music in Chatham Row. On Tommy Reck's advice, he was sent to the Dublin Pipers' Club Saturday classes, where he waited in line with Gay McKeon, Joe McKenna and Peter Browne. 'That way I learned two tunes every week!' he says. Leo's competition training saw Néillidh to Leinster fleadh victories, then an under-14 All-Ireland at Clones in 1968, and an under-18 at Listowel in 1970, which was his last: 'It was the same people going in there. You were competing with your friends. I just stopped,' he says. Competition for Néillidh had never been an egotistical pot-hunt: it marked challenge and achievement, and the carrying on and improvement of inherited music of which his father was proud. Néillidh's first gig was at Tí Chúlain in Spiddal, but he went all over the country with his father, for by this time Tom Mulligan had retreated back to fiddle in tandem with his son's ascent on the uilleann pipes. 'When I was with my father, you'd be constantly bumping into people who turned out then to be regarded as legends today! I remember meeting Ed Chisholm from New York who knew Michael Coleman. I met Lad O'Beirne once, up in Fred Finn's sister's house in Bunninadden.' Each year they met with Willie Clancy, after the Kerry fleadhanna, with the McCarthys over from London. Time was also spent with piper Felix Doran. 'The first time I heard him playing was with John Kelly in the Four Seasons in 1968.' And they knew sean nós singer Seán Ac Donncha of Ahascragh well. 'My father was a great man for jumping into the car - for Leitrim, Galway, wherever,' says Néillidh. 'Maybe down to play with Packie Duignan for a weekend, then he would come home as happy as Larry.' On his visits from the US Joe Heaney had them in his Gael Linn concerts with the Ní Dhómhnaills in Damer Hall, and it was the great singer's funeral in 1984 that was the occasion of Tom's last tune, for he died only two days later himself.

Perhaps the Mulligan connection with piper and folklorist Séamus Ennisillustrates their importance in music lore and, indeed, the smallness of the world. Séamus Ennis particularly relished playing the reel 'Miss Monaghan', on account of his mother being from that county. She had developed a friendship with Anne McKeown (Tom Mulligan's mother) through visiting her brother Frank McCabe, who was then on the run in Bornacoola as a captain in the Volunteers. Frank taught the local pipe band and eventually married local Susie Conboy, sister of Jack who was later to teach Tom to play fiddle. Piper James Mulcrone, for whom Ennis tested pipes, eventually brought all this together, for he introduced Séamus to mother Ennis's old pal's son Tom at St Peter's Road, Phibsboro, in 1935. An intense and lasting friendship was formed. Often returning from collecting work in Connemara (he once cycled there), Séamus might arrive late at Tom's digs near Broadstone station, slip up the sash and into the bed beside him.

There was many a rendezvous too with the young Ennis and his father Jim in Cushion Doyle's pub. On one occasion, in the Ennis home at Jamestown, an inquest on Ennis senior's post-porter snack of 'porridge', which he shared with Tom and company, revealed that they had deprived the pups of a breakfast. There was swimming in Skerries, and there were trips in borrowed cars to Howth, jaunts all over the country, and high jinks and pranks that typically once saw Ennis in full bloom parading marches through the shocked 'quality' in a golf club. 'When Ennis got the car, we had great fun. He had Colm Ó Lochlainn's warpipes in the back, and this day in Rush he blew them up and drove them right through the crowd - in the front door and out the back! He did the same thing to us in Dromod one bank holiday - marched up and down playing outside the barracks at midnight,' Tom recalled in a 1983 interview.

Often, in later years, Ennis would stay tor a fortnight in the Mulligan home, in between bouts of collecting. Néillidh has many other connections in music. His uncle Alfie Mulligan, whistle and flute player, has a pub in Leeson street - a renowned session house now where John Kelly junior plays regularly. And his namesake, Néillidh's brother Alfie Mulligan, with brother Tom ran a famous music pub in Blackrock, County Louth, for a number of years; Alfie inherited Felix Doran's famous Leo Rowsome-made pipes, that the piper had got in the 1950s at a cost of 150 guineas. Brother Tom runs the Cobblestone traditional music pub in Dublin's Smithfield. But it is Néillidh -- heir to Séamus Ennis's Brogan set of uilleann pipes - who alone has made recordings. His first album, Barr na Cúille, came out in 1991 as a tribute to the home place and its legacy. His most recent, The Leitrim Thrush, recalls the personalities of his growing up - Ennis, Reck, Rowsome and, in particular, his father Tom.

He appeared once with Tom on UTV and he was on Tony MacMahon's first programme Glór (Clannad's début too). He has played on The Pure Drop, Cúrsaí and High Reel, and also abroad on various Austrian stations. Néillidh Mulligan misses solo performances of traditional music. 'Unless you're into buying and listening to CDs, there's no place to hear it. There's nowhere like Slattery's today. And music is all speeded up - everybody seems to have a bouzouki or guitar player in tow. I suppose that's why a lot of the singers and pipers formed their own organisations.' He is a consummate piper. For him it is a joyous process of constantly drawing on the lore he has accumulated since childhood, building on 'what I learned from the older players and singers, and what my father taught me. The respect they'd have for the music - that's an important thing.' Reedmaking and running repairs are part of the details of a piper's life - but essential to their musicianship. He teaches and gives workshops, at home and abroad, and is struck by the huge amount of interest in piping today. 'Seamus Ennis used to think the Northumbrian pipes were more suited to women! But there's a lot of young girls learning to play uilleann pipes now - a class I held in Celbridge had six girls, all under twenty. At the time of the first tionól in 1968, they reckoned there were about fifty pipers in Ireland. Now Na Píobairí Uilleann have possibly eight hundred pipers world-wide, four hundred of them in Ireland, and a big interest abroad.' Pipers' gatherings around the country are the art's lifeblood. 'In the piping field you have to exchange lots of views. You have to watch people making reeds. You always learn something - everybody has some little bit to offer.' Performance and workshops can clash with the responsibilities of family life, and Néillidh only does what he has time for. But he still heeds T.P.s advice: "'Never give up the day job!" Looking at Joe Burke and such people - I just couldn't do it.' Néillidh Mulligan's performances in Estonia, Norway and New Zealand all add poignancy to the story of his father Tom's ebullient enthusiasm and gentle guidance. The music of Currycramp townland ('hill of the wild garlic') has been taken to Dublin and has added its own wild pungency there to the mosaic of migrants' music styles. Now in its fourth generation, through Néillidh and his brothers it is heard around the world.

Fintan Vallely

Blooming Meadows


For further information please contact:

E-mail: neillidh@eircom.net Web:http://neilmulligan.com/