Historic event in Watertown will help tell Patsy Touhey’s story

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You can’t tell the story of Irish music without Patrick J. “Patsy” Touhey (1865-1923), says Greater Boston piper Joey Abarta, and neither can you tell the story of the Irish music without the American chapter, in which Touhey appears. quite prominently.

“His own story is so beautiful,” says Abarta. “He is the poster child for Irish music in America and a key figure in the history of the uilleann pipes, which, of course, are such an essential part of traditional Irish music.”

And because Touhey’s life included a significant period spent in Boston, it’s only fitting that a major event recognizing his contributions to Irish music should take place here, adds Abarta.

That’s the reasoning behind the first-ever Patrick J. Touhey Weekend, taking place April 29-May 1 primarily at the Canadian American Club in Watertown. The weekend will include workshops and presentations, appearances by acclaimed musicians and academic experts, as well as a concert/session Saturday night at the club (located at 202 Arlington Street in Watertown), and will conclude with a special evening on Sunday at the Burren in Somerville.

Jerry O’Sullivan (right), who will be among the uilleann pipers at the Patsy Touhey Weekend, presented at Boston College earlier this year along with Joey Abarta, co-host of the event. Photo by Sean Smith

But Abarta, the event’s co-organizer, says that while Touhey is the weekend’s namesake and inspiration, he won’t be the only topic but will serve as a major reference point for the music review. Irish in America during the 19th and 20th centuries. .

Still, says Abarta, there’s no question that Touhey deserves the stature implied in the event’s title. “Patsy was born in Galway into practically an entire family of pipers, then he came to Boston as a very young child and probably stayed there for about 15 years. In his early twenties he became a professional piper, but this is only part of the story: he is involved in a whole theatrical life, notably as an actor and performer of vaudeville, participating in shows – “hibernicons” – designed to appeal to American audiences of Irish descent He and his wife May became a vaudeville actor and he later co-formed a touring company that performed in New York and other major cities.

“He also caught the attention of famed Chicago Irish music collector Captain Francis O’Neill, who collected several Touhey pieces for what became known as ‘O’Neill’s Music of Ireland.’ – still one of the most influential published collections of traditional Irish music. Touhey even became a pioneer of recording technology: he made and sold cylinder recordings of himself – you could say he was selling singles before the concept was even invented.

“So as the idea of ​​mass entertainment took hold in America, Touhey was there, and in the process he helped bring Irish music and culture to a wide audience. one of the most influential uilleann bagpipe players: his music, his playing still stand the test of time.

Abarta co-host and fellow piper Sean Gavin – the first and only non-native Irish musician to win the prestigious Seán Ó Riada Gold Medal – will be among those leading workshops over the weekend. Also tutors will be All-Ireland Champion Michael Stribling, a member of the RUNA and Fullset bands, who will focus on Touhey’s use of embellishments and other techniques; and Dublin-born Fionnán Mac Gabhann, who brings an academic bent to his involvement in traditional Irish music as a PhD student in folk studies at Indiana University.

Scholarly presentations will include Touhey-centric topics, such as Barry O’Neill’s “Patsy Touhey: His Music and His Mystique,” but will also take a broader view of the era in which Touhey flourished: Richie Piggott will discuss the personal history of pipers and their bagpipes in Chicago over the past 100 years, while Nick Whitmer will offer insight into the types of gigs in show business – from plays to dime museums to movies – available to uilleann pipers during Touhey’s lifetime.

“It’s a way to get a big picture of the times Tuohey lived in, and to put Irish music and culture into a larger – and American – context,” says Abarta. “You cannot play the uilleann flute, or any musical instrument, but if you are interested in Irish music and the Irish experience in America, these presentations are a good reason to attend.

“And, on top of that, you hear great traditional Irish music.”

There will also be a number of special guest musicians taking part over the weekend, particularly the Saturday night concert, including Kieran O’Hare and Liz Knowles (two-thirds of the acclaimed trio Open the Door for Three) , Jerry O’Sullivan, and Benedict Koehler.

Touhey Weekend’s culminating event will be “The Pipers Chair” at The Burren, which Abarta describes as an “open mic” for tutors and pipe experts – likely involving spontaneous sets with a surprise guest or two.

Abarta says the long-term plan is to make Touhey Weekend an annual event, and possibly a moving party. “There are so many threads that run through the history of Patsy Touhey and Irish music in America. It would be wonderful to come together every year, whether in Boston or elsewhere, to share ideas about this legacy and, above all, , enjoy music together.

Patrick J. Touhey Weekend is supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Watertown Cultural Council, Na Píobarí Uilleann and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Reynolds-Hanfin-Cooley Branch, Boston. All the details on patsytouheyweekend.com.

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