It has been just over 20 years since Conor Lamb first heard the beautiful and haunting sound of the Irish pipes. Then a young man with no prior knowledge of the pipes or its players, Lamb was blown away by world-renowned piper Liam O’Flynn at the annual Lorient Interceltique Festival in Bretgane.
“I instantly fell in love with the unique sound of the pipes,” the Belfast-native tells Celtic Life International via email. “From that point on I knew that I needed to learn more about the instrument and how to play it.”
Soon after, Lamb dove headfirst into sonic study. Honing his skills over time, he then shifted his focus to reviving Irish trad.
“I have a great respect for the tradition. That certainly doesn’t mean I am restricted to any defined approach to playing, though. One of the fantastic things about Irish traditional music is that it is very much a living tradition. I am carrying on a flame, and I like to take that in different directions while still remaining faithful to the source.”
Lamb – who uses a full-set of uillean pipes – is now the founding member and manager of three musical groups: the award-winning quintet Réalta, the lively quartet Madagán and, most recently, the trad trio, Music in the Glen.
“I get to do something I love every single day, sharing something I am passionate about and seeing how it impacts other people, inspires them and fills them with emotion.”
Although he admits that a career in music is rife with many challenges – especially in recent months, given the global COVID-19 pandemic – he is content to follow his calling.
“I have been very fortunate to have traveled around the world playing traditional music with some of the world’s top players. One of my first tours with Réalta was a four-week jaunt through Germany alongside several other bands, including Altan. Having grown up listening to their recordings since I first started playing the tin whistle, it was a fantastic experience to spend time on the road with them and discover that they are really lovely people as well as brilliant musicians.
“Also, playing big festivals is always fun – we have performed at major venues in Soeul, Moscow and Milwaukee to name but a few. I love gigging with other musicians, and I am fortunate to play music with people who inspire me – these experiences make me want to be a better musician.”
He is thrilled to be playing his part in the instrument’s renewal.
“It was only sixty years ago that the uilleann pipes were at risk of becoming a dying art. Luckily, there has been a huge revival in piping thanks to the likes of Liam O’Flynn, Paddy Keenan, Paddy Moloney, Davy Spillane, as well as the bands Planxty, the Bothy Band, the Chieftains, and the Moving Hearts. Riverdance, of course, has also had a huge impact. These acts exposed a lot of people from different musical backgrounds to the sound of the pipes, and now there are young people all over the world playing pipes and pipe makers all over the world making the instrument. It is truly delightful to see that enthusiasm from such different backgrounds.”
While he is happy with the instrument’s growth in popularity, he admits that there is always room for improvement.
“It would be nice to see a greater support for Irish traditional music and the uilleann pipes in schools here in Ireland. There are a lot of great ‘traditional music schools’ for children and adults to learn traditional music in the evenings and at weekends, but it would be wonderful to see a stronger emphasis on this within the education system itself. Given that the pipes are a national instrument of Ireland, I believe it should be introduced to young children here as part of their everyday education.”
Like so many musicians, Lamb has been forced to cancel and postpone concerts because of COVID-19. He remains positive, however, dedicating his newly found free time to hosting musical lessons via Skype, working on new music with his bands, and further refining his skills.
“There is a saying that it takes 21 years to properly learn the pipes…so I need to keep practicing – like I said, I am carrying the flame.”