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Today’s performance has been a hundred years in the making. In 1907, a blind uilleann piper called John O’Reilly traveled to Belfast, by train from his home in Dunmore, Co. Galway, in his lapel a label (or so the story goes) saying that he was to be brought to the attention of Mr. McPeake, Belfast. He stayed for six weeks, giving recitals in the town and teaching Mr. McPeake to play the pipes.
Francis J. McPeake was no novice musician. Born in 1885, in Belfast but of County Derry stock, he’d been a member of the Belfast based O’Connell Flute Band, as a triangle player since the age of nine and progressing to second flute by the age of fifteen. Indeed, it’s clear that he was a man of ability, for his working life started at thirteen as a factory boy, but he became a tram conductor and then a professional photographer. Before O’Reilly’s visit was arranged (at the expense of Francis Joseph Bigger, a Belfast Solicitor, antiquarian and cultural patriot), Frank had written to the magazine Ireland’s Own, looking for information about the Irish pipes and harp and, presumably as a result, had been given tuition by the great Belfast piper R. L. Mealy. However, according to Francis O’Neill’s Irish Minstrels and Musicians (p. 346) “temperamental difficulties came between them.” Frank McPeake went on to be an important Irish musician in his day, with O’Neill reporting that “the singing of the young man from the north to the accompaniment of his pipe music was highly appreciated.”
When his daughter Mary died at the age of 19, around 1939, and his wife the year after, Frank “put his pipes away under the table.” But in July 1952, Peter Kennedy, as part of the BBC’s ‘Folksongs of Britain’ collecting scheme that had been initiated by Alan Lomax, visited Belfast. He sought out Frank McPeake and his son, Francis, who had been born in 1917 and had been playing pipes since about 1935. They played solo and together and sang to their own accompaniment, appearing at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1956. Their song, “Will You Go, Lassie, Go?” was issued on an LP called Folksong Today. The song went on to become a folk youth anthem of the 1950s, 60s and seventies and has been recorded by, among others, the Byrds and Rod Stewart.
However, their greatest triumphs followed the introduction of a harp into the family mix; Frank had hankered after the sound since playing with the harpist John Page in 1911. Another son, James, took up the harp, and the McPeake family trio, two pipers, a harper and voices, traveled to the Moscow World Youth Festival in 1957 and in 1958, 1960 and 62 were acclaimed winners of the instrumental groups at the Welsh International Eisteddfod in Llangollen. It is difficult to express the impact their music had but in pure musical terms it was expressed by the Australian composer, Percy Grainger: “expressive harmonies, such as roving triads [...] fascinating sonorities [...] ballads of the most archaic type ...”They were also admired by Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Van Morrison and others and, in 1965, at Pete Seeger’s instigation, they traveled to USA, where they performed for President Johnson at the White House. They also diversified and, as the McPeake family, encompassing Francis II’s children, Francis (III) and Kathleen and a cousin, Tommy McCrudden, and using guitars, banjo and tin whistle as well as harps and pipes, toured extensively and made numerous albums between 1962 and 1970.The family also provided the nucleus of “The McPeake Ceili Band.”
Old Frank McPeake retired from public performance in 1966 and died in 1971. Family performances became fewer, and, when Francis II died in 1986, petered out altogether. However, he had, in 1977, founded the Clonard Music School and his son Francis III continued it. Under the imaginative guidance of Francis McPeake IV, the school has re-emerged as the Francis McPeake School of Music, which, apart from its regular classes and on-line tutorials (see http://www.mcpeakemusic.com/ ), runs a week long international summer school in Belfast, the World Irish Music Championships, and an Entertainment Agency.
Also, under Francis IV, the surviving members of the 1960s McPeake Family trio and groups have come back into performing together; James, Kathleen and Tommy. So too, they have resurrected the songs for which the family became famous in the 1950s and sixties - “Will You Go, Lassie, Go,” “My Singing Bird,” and “The OBD.” Thus the family has returned to the original mixture of aged experience and youthful enthusiasm and invention, and to the family repertory. Be prepared to hear the familiar, perhaps with a new slant, and to be surprised by new departures.
Rediscover Northern Ireland: In 2007, Washington D.C., the heart of the United States of America, will have the opportunity to meet face to face with people from Northern Ireland - people who contribute meaningfully and creatively to the society which has emerged from a troubled past and is now looking outward and forward to the future. As a complement to the sights and sounds America will experience at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Northern Ireland has planned a program of events for Washington D.C., starting in March 2007, which will reflect other aspects of what happens here on a daily basis. This program is collectively entitled Rediscover Northern Ireland.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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