PIPE DREAM John Butler is pictured playing the uilleann pipes in his studio in Achill.?Pic: Jake Scott
Piping out the tunes
Dubliner John Butler is ‘living the dream’ having moved west to Achill where he is making handcrafted uilleann pipes
In 2008, John Butler was at a crossroads in his life after he was made redundant in his job as a medical device designer. He could have taken the easier option of remaining in Dublin and searching for another job but instead he decided to ‘live the dream’. That dream brought him west to Achill where he is now the island’s first manufacturer of high quality uilleann pipes.
“I’m here two and a half years now and I love it,” he explained to The Mayo News from his cramped workshop. “In Dublin when you are going to work, you are sitting in traffic but here my drive in the morning brings me along the Atlantic Drive and my view is either a beautiful sunny bay or an amazing storm.”
Growing up in leafy Blackrock in Dublin’s southside, John did not come from a family immersed in Irish music and admitted he had little or no interest in it. All that changed when as a 16-year-old he first heard Davy Spillane play ‘A Tribute to Peadar O’Donnell’ on the radio and was transfixed by the sound of the uilleann pipes.
“The sound just caught me like a bolt of lightning,” explained the now 43-year-old. “I knew a friend of mine played this instrument called the uilleann pipes but I had no idea what they were. The next morning I called around to his house and I said ‘give me a look at these pipes’.
“I wanted to play it so much I didn’t regard it as a difficult instrument. Music gives you a great life lesson - there are no shortcuts - you have to put in the time to get the reward and it is a great philosophy to have.”
His move from simply playing the pipes to making them came about after a chance phonecall from master pipe maker Bill Maneman who asked him if he would give him a hand making pipes shortly after he was made redundant.
With no hands-on experience of making pipes before that, John spent five months with Bill who showed him the basics of pipe-making, a gesture he will be forever grateful for.
With the basics mastered John decided it was the right time to follow his dream of not only setting up his own pipe making workshop but also to move to the west coast.
“I have always been drawn to the west. I first came to Achill in 1991 with a bunch of friends from college on a surfing weekend and I never realised how rich traditional music was in Achill. I fell in love with the place and started coming back every Bank Holiday and two weeks in August.”
With the help of the Mayo Enterprise Board, Údaras na Gaelachta and local man Tommy Johnston, he was able to find a workshop and started making the pipes in 2010. There are close to 100 individual components in each set of pipes and apart from the bag, every part of his pipes are individually handcrafted and designed. While it is a slow process, John would have it no other way.
“It is not something you can mass produce but I am not a fan of shortcuts. I didn’t get into pipe making to lash the stuff out. I wanted to make really high quality stuff. The thing about pipe making is even if I have plenty of work it is a slow craft with not a whole lot of money in it. It is a love of the craft rather than making money off it.”
Up to now many of the practice sets John has made have been sold to people he knows but some sets have made their way to France and the US. He now has confidence in his product and hopes to showcase his pipes to household musicians at the various summer music schools around Ireland and also to sell more on his new website, www.ceolpipes.com.
Since moving to Achill, he has immersed himself into the community and regularly plays sessions in the Annexe Bar in Keel at weekends. With his workshop stoked away in a little corner of the island, John has few visitors during the day but so far has no regrets.
“Some of them [family and friends] thought I was mad but they know I am doing something I am passionate about and I think they are nearly a bit jealous. I am living my dream. It mightn’t be everyone’s dream but I am enjoying it at the moment and at least I can say is that I am giving it a go.”
More information on John’s uilleann pipes can be found on his website, www.ceolpipes.com or e-mail; firstname.lastname@example.org.