Beneath a cherry tree outside their spruce pine home, Patrick Sky’s Uilleann pipes sing to life, and the soft strains of his wife Cathy’s fiddle mingle with his reedy, lilting tune. To keep the pipes going, Patrick pumps the bellows with one elbow and squeezes the bag with the other, playing notes in a fast finger-dance along the chanter.
Though the Uilleann pipes, which are the national bagpipe of Ireland, have been around since the late 18th century, they fell out of use with the advent of the less expensive and easier-to-play accordion. But Patrick contributed to their revival. His book, A Manual for the Irish Uilleann Pipes, was the first comprehensive text on the subject. He’s also one of about 50 pipe makers in the world, crafting the instrument out of rosewood and ebony.
The instrument’s chanter is fitted with a long double reed that must be meticulously tuned through two full octaves. Playing requires concentration and coordination of wrists, fingers, elbows, and thighs. According to Patrick, “The sound doesn’t resemble anything else.”
It was the sweet lilt that prompted a shift in Patrick’s music career. During the ’60s, he was a respected folk singer living in New York, performing with the likes of Pete Seeger and Buffy Sainte-Marie. He first heard the pipes at the 1970 Philadelphia Folk Festival. “It was very moving,” he says. “I sort of wigged out and got hung up on them.”
Over the next decade, he traveled to Ireland regularly, and lived there with Cathy for a couple of years. “When I first started, I only found a handful of people playing the pipes in all of Ireland,” he says, noting that number has grown to several thousand. By ’73, he had begun to craft them. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he laughs. “I bought a lathe and started by copying a full set of pipes.”
Today, his hand-hewn pipes, which can take up to three months to make, fetch $2,300; $750 for a practice set.
He’s spent nearly four decades honing his craft, but it took him 10 years to learn to play. “There’s an old saying in Ireland,” he explains. “‘It takes seven years learning, seven years practicing, and seven years playing to master the pipes.’”
July 10, 7 p.m.
Mary Jane’s Bakery & Café