Thursday, January 17, 2019


A much more influential individual than the blank expression that meets the hearing of his name in most circles, O'Flynn was the first uillean pipe player to gain notice to a rock and roll audience, as a core member of the first Irish traditional act to really break through to the same. No, I don't refer to either the Chieftains or to Sweeney's Men, pacesetters though they were. I refer to the mighty and majestic Planxty. The Chieftains were important, for sure, breaking down barriers and bringing the music into respectability outside of otherwise hooleys and bar sessions, latterly also for their work with major names in the fields of folk, country and rock. And Sweeney's Men, who included O'Flynns's later Planxty bandmate, Andy Irvine, took the mainstream safety of the Clancy Brothers into a wilder and more bohemian sensitivity. Go compare the difference between the Chieftains handling of this tune, 'Give Me Your Hand' ('Tabhair Dom Do Lamh') by the blind 17th century Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan, with the altogether more exuberant Planxty version below, the tune kicking in at 2.27, following the song ahead of it:

I bloody loved them. They were hitting their prime in the early 70s, just as I was hitting mid-teens and expanding my then musical palette from the pop charts to anything and everything I could get my ears on, usually directed by the inkies, the music influential press that governed all the hip from the non hip. Planxty were seriously hip. With a line-up of O'Flynn, Irvine, Donal Lunny and Christy Moore, they played traditional irish jigs and reels, airs and ballads, seamlessly integrating their own material into the same. With two fine singers and an instrumental prowess encompassing guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, bodhran, hurdy-gurdy, whistles and, most importantly, uillean pipes, that irish bellows driven bagpipe, capable of a plaintive wail, swirling and bending notes, like nothing on earth, one part banshee, one part lullaby. Yes, I had heard a little of this instrument before; the aforementioned Chieftains had introduced me to it, and Horslips, the Dublin folk-rockers had deployed it a little. But nothing like O'Flynn, who could make it sing, scream, howl and lilt, sometimes simultaneously. This is his description of the instrument. And I haven't even mentioned his whistle playing, both normal whistle and low, a few blasts thereof instantly evocative of joy or sorrow, dependent on mood.

It would be no hyperbole to say this band revolutionised how the world had previously seen irish music. From a twiddley diddley dee diversion, this was suddenly to be taken with the utmost seriousness, alongside and in the same breath as the Stones and Bowie. But with more fun. O'Flynn was possibly the quiet man of the group, more soberly attired and less hirsute than his compadres, but it was his solos that had the crowds in awe. A number of incarnations of this band took place over the years and the decades, as individual members peeled off and others joined in, Paul Brady and Matt Malloy to name two, the band formally breaking and re-forming twice, the last such being 20 odd years after their debut, in 2003-5. But whenever it was called Planxty, so always there was O'Flynn.

After the final demise, and in the earlier breaks, O'Flynn was never short of work, with a who's who of session work that ranged from the folk circles he began within to Kate Bush, Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris and more. With Planxty no more there was a short period as and in LAPD, he, Irvine, Lunny and Paddy Glackin, the title being to represent Liam, Andy, Paddy and Donal. Hell, on past form they could have called it Planxty and got away with it, but they didn't. However, health was beginning to cause concern, and O'Flynn left in 2013. A private man outside music, he died in March after what was called a long illness. Here's a video of the song featured a little above, 'As I Roved Out', in a live and later setting, Planxty at Vicar Street, Dublin, in 2004, the pipes part transposed to whistle.

His legacy lives on through the wave of younger players who have followed him and been inspired by him, with both pipes and whistle commonplace in the repertoire way beyond any silo of trad. arr.

Rest in peace.


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