Out of Darkness

The Blind Piper Of Inagh.
Book by Howard Marshall with photography by Ben Taylor

Cottier Press ISBN: 9780995505407

The wealth of reading in this large, handsome volume includes not only matters of historical interest but treatments of the hedge schools, Irish language and its fate, bards, wandering musicians, house dances and the variety of dance types, changing tastes in music and dances, and meddlesome priests.  The writer, Howard Marshall, tops it off by providing two appendices, one called Tunes, focusing on uilleann piper Garrett Barry's repertoire and other tunes referred to in the text, and the second called Songs that are mentioned in the text.  And finally, the illustrations are dealt with, photographs by Ben Taylor mostly, and they are a treat in themselves.  Like Howard, Ben has a passion for Irish history and music, and he has the artist's eye for faces and places, all of which is reflected in the beauty of his photographs, a major contribution to the high production values that make Out of Darkness – the Blind Piper of Inagh a joy to hold and to view, just for its own sake.

Uilleann pipes are a sophisticated instrument that only those with money could afford to buy.  There were a number gentlemen pipers, and when they sought to buy ever more sophisticated designs their instruments were passed on to the lower end of the market.  Marshall writes: 'For a century or so before the Famine, these humbler pipers made a living either by visiting the fairs and other social gatherings across the country or, if they were good enough, through the patronage of a landowner.  They mixed traditional airs such as the old harpists' melodies, with contemporary dance tunes, all laced with the individual characteristics of the instrument.'  Howard then proceeds to deal with how Garrett became a piper, provides reports of occasions for festivity, piping and dancing in the mid-1800s, and follows that with a detailed history of piping and the uilleann pipes.

There is no written history of the blind piper of Inagh, Garrett Barry.  However, in telling his story, and constructing it from the collective folk memory, Marshall succeeds to such an extent that we get to know the man, his piping and his impact on the music of Co.  Clare.  Garrett was born in 1847 at the height of the Great Famine catastrophe, and in Out of Darkness – the Blind Piper of Inagh, that period of the Great Hunger is effectively described.  The blind Piper came through it all and survived to become a legend in his own lifetime.  In fact, he became an iconic figure in his community and featured in local folklore.

Out of Darkness is not a biography in the conventional sense, although we do get to know the man and the personality to a remarkable degree.  It is a social history of a people, a place and a time, focusing on one man, combining scholarship and storytelling, in which the author draws on his skill as a film documentary maker.  He has the filmmaker's eye for detail and expertly puts Garrett Barry in his time and his place, in a part of Ireland that was experiencing rapid change following famine and mass emigration.  It meant that there were many events that were sociologically cataclysmic and Howard rightly states that the first major cultural repercussion was the hastening of the decline of the Irish language. 

There are many gems of information in Out of Darkness and one has to do with the roots of Garrett's education which lay in the bardic tradition of Clare.  Poet and scribe, Aindrias Mac Cruitín, whose name was anglicised as Andrew Mac Curtin, was of a family long associated with the bardic hedge school tradition of West Clare.  The last of that family to write poetry in Irish was James, and Garrett could well have been a pupil of his, or at least come under the influence of men like him who were devoted to study and learning.  'Indeed, teachers such as James Mac Curtin and the wider ethic of the bards may be the key to understanding Garett Barry's approach to life.'  Because of his blindness aural learning was his only option, and his mind was like a sponge, 'soaking up any information that he found of interest.'  Howard deals with each of the book's subjects thoroughly and expertly, applying the same rigorous expertise in each of the subheadings in beautifully penned essays.

What Dónal O'Sullivan did in his 1958 Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper, Howard Marshall has now done with Garrett Barry and his times in the second half of the 19th century.  O'Sullivan's definitive book on the harper and composer is a priceless work of social history for Ireland in the early 18th century.  Marshall does the same for Barry, and his book is a masterful treatment of Ireland in transition, culturally, socially and politically.  The book could serve as a template for similar studies of key figures in the cultural life of Ireland.

Aidan O'Hara - 29.11.17
in Irish Music Magazine

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