least 40 years, until age and ill health had begun to take their toll
of memory and reflexes, he was the exponent par excellence of a free,
flowing style which, despite criticisms of the purists, was authentic
in its own way and left an indelible mark on contemporary Irish music
in general and on piping in particular. With his instrument invariably
in perfect tune he was ever and always the consummate showman who
looked and played the part of a great musician. Everywhere he went he
added glamour to his unique, most expressive and truly native
instrument which has been enshrined in the national consciousness as a
living link with the old, historic Irish nation of pre-famine days.
was one of the last of that very small band of Uilleann pipe makers and
his skill in reed making and in tuning pipes was unrivaled. His head
was stored with the traditional lore of his father and grandfather and
of the Cash and Byrne families and to this knowledge was added the
experience of a lifetime backed by outstanding manual dexterity, eyes
like a hawk, a keen, analytical brain and a most retentive memory.
before his death he had undertaken to train young pupils in the art of
pipe and reed making and tuning. To the piping fraternity his sudden
death was a veritable calamity, which however has since, to a great
extent, been overcome by the work of Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU), formed
some 3 years previously, of which he was a founder member and a joint
patron with Séamus Ennis. This world-wide association is confined
entirely to pipers and its object is to form a bond between the
numerically small and widely dispersed exponents of the art so as to
pool their knowledge and resources and make generally available the
technology of reed making, tuning, pipe-making, piping, recordings of
old pipers, biographical notes, transcriptions of valuable tapes and
the publication of a magazine. All this was work dear to his heart; he
watched it grow and flourish and lent to it the encouragement of his
of his extraordinary pre-eminence stems from the fact that in contrast
to all other pipe-makers during the last three-quarters of a century he
alone devoted his whole life-time solely to the Uilleann pipes (or the
Union pipes as they were called up to and including his father’s time).
Other great pipers and pipe makers came and went but to all of them the
pipes was but a sideline or a hobby, whereas with Leo it was his whole
life, and indeed for 50 long years he lived by the pipes alone.
many of the other pipe makers were also great pipers, for the simple
reason that their work cut into their practicing time. Leo somehow
continued to achieve phenomenal proficiency as a piper despite long
hours at his father’s old treadle lathe and the time-consuming business
of repairing and tuning derelict sets, making reeds, teaching some 5
nights a week and off on a long journey nearly every weekend to
concert, feis or fleadh ceoil. He did however have one inestimable
advantage in addition to his undoubted talent. He had the expert
tuition, from a very tender age, of his father, Willie, and of his
uncle Tom Rowsome. Also he and his brother Tom used to play together,
each with one hand on the same chanter, as well as duets on two
chanters, harmonising beautifully.
a child and growing boy Leo was
always playing around his father’s workshop, trying his hand at small
jobs, and by the time his father was stricken by his last illness he
had already nearly mastered his trade. As he was dying Willie strove
with desperate urgency to pass on the remainder of his knowledge to
Leo, and his last words had to do with some obscure aspect of the
intricate art of reed making.
still a mere boy, was now the family bread winner. He secured the
position of teacher with the Dublin Pipers Club which about this time,
consequent upon the death of Nicholas Markey, had become vacant.
gave rise to a certain amount of heart burning as some of the members
were in favour of appointing Tom Rowsome. He carried on manfully
however and the small stipend was useful for a couple of years until
the Club broke up during the Civil War in 1924. In the meantime,
overcoming tremendous difficulties, he resurrected his father’s pipe
making business at Harold’s Cross and actually found time to make a new
concert pitch pipes for himself which for quality of tone and
brilliance was never equaled in its class in his life-time. The main
stock was inclined to leak slightly and to remedy this he encased it in
silver which he had engraved with his name and the year.
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instrument, shining and resplendent and sounding like an organ, was for
nearly 50 years an object of fascination for countless audiences and of
veneration and almost superstitious awe for pipers.
Sheer economic necessity of impressing audiences and getting
engagements with subsequent orders for new sets compelled him to
present his music in the most brilliant manner possible. He therefore
gave less prominence to the finer points of staccato ornamentation,
most of which would have been lost on a lay audience anyhow. He
concentrated instead on letting the melody flow out, clearly and
sweetly, controlling the tone by clever tricks of fingering and
momentary raisings of the chanter, using just enough closed (staccato)
fingering to impart the essential phrasing and to making the utmost use
of the regulators. Indeed it was possibly the unequalled facility with
which he manipulated the latter that was the most potent factor in
gaining him wide recognition. Not all pipers, however, fully approved
of his style, including some of those he surpassed in popularity.
like his father before him, never had an unkind word to say about
anyone, least of all another piper. He just went on his own serene way,
topping the bills, broadcasting, teaching, pipe making, and building up
his business and reputation until it was worldwide and he was in demand
for the most important functions on both sides of the
to Rowsome’s standing as a piper there has been some controversy. In
his later years, especially after a serious illness, it became
fashionable to disparage his piping as too facile and flutelike. Now
that he is dead and gone his records are being re-examined with new
interest and there is a growing consensus of opinion that his is a case
of “the greatness of his art conceals itself”. One of his severest
critics, who is also an outstanding authority, remarked to the writer
recently, “I think Rowsome will have to be re-evaluated”.
Row (Left to Right) 1. Anthony Crawford, 2. Terry Byrne, 3.
Betty Nevin, 4. unconfirmed
Front Row (Left to Right) 1- 5 unconfirmed, 6 Paddy
of Leo's pipe classes (College of Music c.1963/64).
(Left to Right) 1. Thomas McKeon, 2. Joe McKenna,
3. Leo Rowsome, 4. Peter Browne, 5. Sean Hennessy
one of the greatest pipers of all time, swore by Leo, and his brother
Felix Doran put him at the top of the list. Willie Clancy
playing intensely and used to maintain that he was a lot better than he
was given credit for.
must be few better qualified to judge him
than these three, now all, alas, gone to their eternal reward. Of
course the first two had their origins in the same school of piping as
Leo, but Clancy’s background was that of the greatest school in the
world, Clare and Galway , that
produced such great pipers as Patsy Touhey and Garrett Barry. Willie
Clancy, back in the late 40s played for some years in his Piper’s
Quartet with Tommy Reck and Seán Seery and described to the writer
how Leo used to select pieces for broadcasting programmes more or less
at random with little regard for difficulty or popularity and then got
down in earnest to serious practice.
The Quartet would probably have
been more brilliant with less labour if he had settled for a programme
limited to “chestnuts”, but Leo took the rough with the smooth. In a
more general context Leo’s renditions, while truly traditional, were
also, from the viewpoint of the classical musician, wholly satisfactory
as they conformed to the fundamental principles of musicianship.
Left to Right top row (Sean Seery, Willie Clancy)
bottom row (Leo Rowsome, Leon