Blind from birth in Galway City in 1829, Martin O’Reilly was an extraordinary man. Here local historian William Henry discusses the story of the extremely talented piper uilleann.
The exact location of his house is not known for sure, but it was possibly in Sickeen or Eyre Street; some say it was at the crossroads of both streets. He suffered blindness from birth or shortly thereafter. However, this did not affect his wonderful talent as a uilleann piper.
He operated a small dance hall in Sickeen for several years. There is an old stone building with a ‘later galvanized’ roof located there and according to tradition this was the royal ballroom. Past generations of local people mentioned that this was O’Reilly’s place in the late 1800s.
Although the building is small, you have to remember that it was a time when hooley dances could be held in the kitchens. It was said long ago that in order to dance to the music of the piper, one had to place a coin in the hat, ‘Pay the Piper’. The amount of money given determined how long one could dance.
According to a source, the clergy eventually closed their ballroom because it became a meeting place for young men and women. Yet another report blames emigration for the decline in bagpipe music. However, the result was the same for O’Reilly; he fell into extreme poverty as the pipeline was his only source of income. He had to seek refuge in the work house on several occasions in order to survive.
The founding of the Gaelic League in 1894 was the ‘saving grace’ for O’Reilly, as many of the old traditions of Irish music, dance and language were revived. O’Reilly, being one of the most notable pipers of his day, became a highly sought after performer. This resulted in him being invited to play in many parts of the country. He participated in various competitions organized by the Gaelic League; travel to places all over the country.
O’Reilly traveled alone many times with no aid of any kind, an extraordinary achievement on his part. He was also highly respected for his talent among leading contemporary pipers. This secured him a modest profit, something he had never experienced in previous years. All the young pipers of the time were influenced by him and he tutored some of them.
John Potts, affectionately known as ‘Old Potts’, had a national reputation as a flutist. In later years he would doff his hat when speaking of O’Reilly, an indication of the enormous respect he held for the man. John Moore was one of the young pipers he taught. Moore was born in or near Galway in about 1834. His father died when Moore was still a child.
His mother later remarried, this time to Martin O’Reilly. Peter Kelly was another young piper tutored by O’Reilly. Kelly was born in Galway and, like O’Reilly, was blind from childhood. His parents insisted that O’Reilly taught him to play the flute as a means of ensuring his future well-being.
According to the accounts of the great Seanchaí, Thomas Laighleis of Menlo, O’Reilly often went out of Sickeen into town and played for the community just as Stephen Ruane would a generation later.
The leader of the rebellion, Eamonn Ceannt, was a great admirer of O’Reilly, saying that he was among the best pipers in Ireland. Ceannt insisted that O’Reilly stay at his house when the old piper played in Dublin. Ceannt was an excellent piper and a founding member of the Dublin Pipers’ Club.
Shortly after the pipers’ club was formed in 1901, Ceannt invited O’Reilly to the capital to play at the annual fetes. The contest was held in the large concert hall of the Rotunda. O’Reilly gave an excellent performance and his extraordinary talent was highly acclaimed in the Dublin newspapers.
They mentioned that their selection, including The Battle of Aughrim, captured the emotion of all present. The report said that this ‘jolly old piper’ left the throbbing place with such spirit that he could have led his countrymen into battle. He lit them up with a moving and hard-hitting version of Brian Boru’s Victorious March. He played in perfect timing and key, producing tones so wondrous that they uplifted the entire audience with a vision of romantic Ireland throughout his performance.
Another newspaper report claimed that this “wonderful old man touched the ancient airs with such a feeling of expression and profound understanding, that it simply took the house by surprise.” Another report on his flute described the music in even more detail, again stating that his selection from The Battle of Aughrim was so descriptive that people could see the advancing armies on the battlefield.
“They imagined the sound of British trumpets and the war cries of Irish soldiers as they charged the onslaught of battle.” Even the crying of women, mothers and wives could be felt in her music. Aughrim was, of course, a lost field, but nothing daunted the gallant old piper, as the entertainer wowed all who heard the magic of his pipes. It goes without saying that his performances earned him first prize in the flute section.
After this performance, people flocked to hear him play, thus creating more demand for his music at events across the country. The new and younger generations were influenced by his extraordinary talent.
In February 1903 the Dublin Piper’s Club held a concert and an account of the event was published in The Gael. The following is an excerpt from the report: ‘Martin O’Reilly is our last great piper. His portrayal of the famous Fox Chase was a relic of the old days. His Battle of Aughrim, a vividly descriptive play, is likely to be talked about in Gaelic circles in Dublin for many days. It is to be hoped that this veteran blind flutist will have the opportunity to display his skill throughout the coming year throughout Ireland.’ After one of his performances in Dublin, a photograph of O’Reilly was taken by a priest named Fr Fielding. He later appeared on the cover of O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland.
That same year, 1903, he was invited to play at the Belfast Harp Festival where he was reported to be the hero of the occasion. He kept the audience almost spellbound and again played some of his favorite pieces, including The Fox Chase and other selections.
Martin O’Reilly also continued to entertain audiences at home in Galway. It is known that he played many times for the people and children of Sickeen. The Gaelic League included him in all their major concerts, such as one they organized for the Town Hall in 1904. Among those present was another great admirer of his music, Douglas Hyde, who would later become President of Ireland.
Despite all this recognition, he was once again falling on hard times. In most of it, Martin O’Reilly lived constantly on the brink of poverty and starvation. This was highlighted by Francis O’Neill (1848-1936), an Irish-born American policeman who was a collector of traditional Irish music. O’Neill published a short biography of O’Reilly in 1913, writing: “Blind, old, and unable to support himself by means other than music, he was forced, like many other unfortunate Irish minstrels, to take refuge in the poor house as his only escape from hunger”.
As old age approached, O’Reilly was plagued by health problems that eventually forced him to close the business and he again had to enter the workhouse. It is a sobering thought and somewhat poignant to see how this exceptionally talented old musician had to end his days in such poverty.
He died later that year, 1904, without the recognition he deserved.
One man, who knew him well, later wrote: “When we come to consider people’s ruthless disregard for Martin O’Reilly and his talents, can we be blamed if we sometimes question the sincerity of agitators who have gone hoarse?” in your support for a regenerated Ireland?
Martin O’Reilly died at Gort Poorhouse in 1904 and tradition has it that as he lay on his deathbed the last request he made was for his beloved pipes.
It would be wonderful to see Martin O’Reilly recognized and remembered in Galway, perhaps a plaque on the old Sickeen building.