The Tin Whistle


One night I was having a quiet drink with some fellow students when Manchester University’s Folk Society came in. Two things happened pretty simultaneously: I “discovered” folk music and I made up my mind to join them.

Some tin whistles

I’m no dancer and, on my student budget, a tin whistle was all I could afford: so tin whistle it was. There was quite a lively Irish music scene in Manchester and by listening to other players, I soon got the feel for ornamentation and for playing – as one whistler unforgettably put it – “as fast as trousers.”

Thus it was that I found myself in Ireland for the first time on a week’s tin whistle course. A year later, I moved there and was to stay for three years, playing regularly in many of the sessions around County Clare. Back in England, I’ve played tin whistle in several bands including The Bog Standards, The Life O Riley and Kindred Spirit. I’ve also played and recorded tin whistle for Fiona Wight, the lead soprano from Riverdance.


Sure, its fun to play fast. But its Ireland’s haunting slow airs that touch my soul. Many of these airs began life as the music of Sean-Nós (old style) songs and as a non-Gaelic speaker (and, therefore, singer), playing them on the whistle is the closest I will get to touching these profound songs.

Sean-Nós songs are “called forth” from within the singer. The traditional way is for song helpers to gather around the main singer, holding her hands, supporting her arms and back and swaying, sighing and moaning with her until the song comes.

The songs’ subject matter – usually lack or loss of love – articulates a longing that goes further and deeper than mere disappointment in human relationships. This is something that Nick Cave understands very well when he says “the love song is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hands of which is not of this world. The love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting up through our wounds.”

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