Extract from “Irish Minstrels and Musicians” by Captain Francis O’Neill.
In early and middle life this typical amateur piper enjoyed a great local reputation in the barony of Scarawalsh, County Wexford. Far-famed as a jig player-the jig which has become unfashionable in his old days-it was no vain boast that he had a hundred of its several varieties at his finger tips. A man of untiring energy in all respects, Samuel Rowsome was an indefatigable piper. On one occasion, Mr. Whelan his friend tells us, he supplied the music unaided at a ball held at “The Harrow,” where eighty-four couples assembled, and in the words of one who was present “gave them all dancing enough.” In fact, Mr. Rowsome could “fill the house with music.” Contemporary with the late John Cash, his inborn love of the native music and talent for playing it on the Union pipes was developed under the tuition of the famous but almost forgotten minstrel, “Jemmy” Byrne, the piper of Shangarry, County Carlow. Mr. Rowsome, who was an extensive and prosperous farmer and whose commodious dwelling typified Irish hospitality, adopted pipe playing not as a vocation but as an accessory to pleasure and recreation, for he was ever an advocate of pastimes and social intercourse. He attended the “’patron,’ race, and fair,” and went everywhere a good piper was to be heard. Not many indeed were the wandering musicians worthy of note in that part of the country he had not come across, and few were the tunes they played that he did not memorize, if new to him, and reproduce at will. A piper of acknowledged ability, he was no less skilful in equipping and repairing the instrument from bellows to reeds, so that we can well conceive how much in demand a man must be who combined the various endowments of Samuel Rowsome of Ballintore, whose hospitable home sheltered many a wandering minstrel in times of stress and stringency. How could the later generations of Rowsomes escape their musical tendencies if heredity is to be considered as a factor in influencing out lives. Mrs. Rowsome, born Mary Parslow, was not only one of the finest dancers of her day, but also an excellent violinist by all accounts, being taught by her father, William Parslow, of Ballyhaddock, a townland adjoining Ballintore. Not only that, but her brother Thomas was a piper of good local reputation. Example, heredity, and environment could hardly fail to produce conspicuous results under such circumstances. At the patriarchal age of eighty-four, Mr. Rowsome is still living at the old homestead.
Other references to Samuel Rowsome in “Irish Minstrels and Musicians” by Captain Francis O’Neill.
The oldest son of Robert Brownrigg, he not only inherited his father’s patri- inony at Norrismount, County Wexford, but his musical taste and talent, for, though a barrister by profession. The melody of the bagpipes had more attractions for him than the intricacies of the law.
Henry Brownrigg as a musician was best known to fame in association with the great Highland instrument, of which he had many. One of the costliest of them, in a tolerable state of preservation, still remains a sonvenir at the Rowsome honie at Ballintore.
Little less eccentric than his father, nothing seemed to afford him greater pleasure than to take out a set of Highland pipes on a fine evening and play them on the slopes above Norrismount and Whitewell. Often in the night-time the clear, ringing tones of his instrument could be heard for miles along the valley through which the River Banna winds its serpentine course. Played under such coiiditions – and we agree with him – music produces its most charming effects.
There is a tradition in connection with his memory which still holds good, that his music haunted the valley and was heard even after his death, which occurred about the year 1860.
Surviving his father only ten or twelve years, he probably lacked a decade of reaching the scriptural allotment of three score years and ten.
Thomas Rudd of Clone, near Ferns, County Wexford-a gentleman farmer whose name comes down to us as a piper of no inferior merit- was an early contemporary and friend of Mr. Rowsome’s. He used to enliven the harvest-work of his employees by bringing his pipes to the field and playing to them the popular melodies which they loved and were accustomed to hear, and which in those days when the peasantry had few comforts and no luxuries, constituted one of the greatest joys of their existence. Mr. Rudd was one of the leading farmers of Wexford in his time. As none of his family inherited his musical proclivities, his instruments, of which he possessed more than one valuable set, passed after his death, which occurred fifty years ago, into the hands of the late John Cash.A defective chanter, which Mr. Rudd owned, after undergoing an overhauling at the hands of his friend Mr. Rowsome, was declared to be the “truest he ever handled.”
The Byrne Family
Collectively the Byrnes belonged to Shangarry, in County Carlow, from whence they radiated to the “patrons,” fairs, and races in that and neighboring counties, returning again at stated intervals to enjoy a season of domestic reunion on their replenished purses. After the death of “Old Jemmy” Byrne sixty years or so ago, and the subsequent emigration of John to America, the home at Shangarry was broken up. “Young Jemmy,’ emigrated to the vicinity of Ballyearney, where he lived with a man named “Matty” Rigley, whose brother Ben was a good amateur piper. While at Mr. Rigley’s he was frequently visited by John Cash and Samuel Rowsome, who became noted pipers themselves. Here we have a musical chain the most complete of any which has come to our attention. “Old Jemmy”, Byrne, the Carlow piper, and his three sons all professionals, of whom young “Jemmy” communicated his art to Samuel Rowsome of Ballintore, County Wexford, who in turn transmitted it to his three sons. The art is still further perpetuated in his grandson, Samuel Rowsome, Jr., of Dublin, who recently gained distinction as a prize winner at the age of sixteen, being the fifth generation of pipers of note. ‘Twas in the blood of the Byrnes and the Rowsomes, though in the latter family music was a pleasure rather than a profession. When Mr. Rigley removed from Ballycarney to Knockinarshal near Enniscorthy, seven miles from the former home, “Jemmy” Byrne accompanied the family with whom he lived to the end of his days. His death, which was rather sudden, occurred about the year 1867 and before he had rounded out three score years. For many a year at Shrovetide, he made a trip to his native Carlow to play at the weddings, for it appears that the music of the Union pipes retained its hold on popular sentiment more tenaciously in that county than in Wexford. Michael Brandy of Ballycarney, a veteran of seventy-four, to whom Mr. Whelan, our correspondent, is indebted for not a little of his information, relates that once when Byrne was about to start on one of his annual expeditions, finding that his funds were exhausted, asked for a loan of five shillings until his return. Brandy being then young and unmarried was glad of the opportunity to oblige such a friend with twice that amount. A month or so later the piper returned. Repaid the ten shillings, “treated” his generous friend to all he cared to drink, and still had left a balance of six pounds in his pocket.
Liberally endowed with musical talent, James Byrne as a young man earned an enviable reputation as a fluter in his native town of Ballybogan, at the foot of Tara Hill, in the County of Meath. Born in 1868, he received a fair education, but having learned no trade he found life enjoyable as a “Spalpeen Fanach.” Fortune directed his footsteps to the farmstead of Samuel Rowsome of Ballintore, County Wexford, about the year 1887, where the father and three sons were all pipers. The transition from flute playing to piping came naturally and easily, for the Rowsome boys were then all at home and, discovering “Jem’s” aptitude, furnished him with an outfit and taught him “the technicalities of the trade,” as our informant, Mr. Whelan of Scarawalsh, puts it.
A year or so later Byrne took to the road as a wandering minstrel, a mode of life he has consistently followed ever since. He has traveled every county in the four provinces, it is said, and he has a vast and varied store of music that speaks at his linger tips. First prize was awarded him at the Dublin Feis Ceoil in 1905, but his name does not appear in the list of prize winners again until 1912.
In minor competitions, however, like the Feis Loch Carman, held at New Ross in 1908, he secured first honors.
Rev. Dr. Henebry and Father James K. Fielding, unaware of the existence of any passable piper in that part of the country, were astonished when they met him at Mooncoin in 1904. They took charge of their treasure at once—enthusiasts as they were—and we may be sure that the minstrel’s temporal welfare, no less than his spiritual, received due consideration at their hands. Here was the opportunity of their lives to restore Irish music in all its traditional glory. With a real live piper and a good one, of a species thought to be extinct, right within their grasp. What may they not hope to accomplish in the cherished ambition of their lives?
After Byrne had regaled them with his ravishing strains to their heart’s content, his tunes were recorded on an Edison phonograph—his masterpiece, “Rakish Paddy,” being in their opinion not inferior to “Barney” Delaney’s, and he was forthwith installed in suitable quarters to teach his precious art to a class of aspiring youngsters. But the “call of the wild” was too much for the professor. The microbe of vagrancy was too active in his blood to allow him to submit to the restraint of settled residence, or the monotony of steady employment. So away he went to enjoy the pleasures of conviviality and change of scene, leaving his kind-hearted benefactors in a lit mood to appreciate the feelings of the man who undertook to domesticate wild ducks.
Byrne was a fine reel player, but he has failed to realize the cherished hopes of his friends of earlier years. Like too many of his class he had fallen a victim to the perverted conception of hospitality which has prevailed in Ireland from remote times. The ineradicable custom of “treating,” founded on racial generosity and hospitality, is responsible for many misfortunes besides the downfall of so many professional musicians.
It is never too late to mend, however, and it gives, us much pleasure to relate that James Byrne “tied” John O’Reilly of Dunmore, County Galway, for first prize at the Dublin Oireachtas in 1912. The press reports of the meeting indicate that he was “in full possession of all his faculties, and sporting a temperance badge, played very well on a set which contains little more than the bag, bellows and chanter made by the Rev. Dr. Henebry’s brother.”
The Mooncoin piper is to be congratulated, for besides becoming a disciple of Father Mathew, it was no small honor to equal the best among no less than seventeen competitors, though we must admit that the possibilities of the Union pipes cannot be demonstrated on a set so incomplete and demoralized as that on which Byrne habitually plays. “He is a master of the Uilleann pipes,” adds Seamus Clandillon, B. A., “and his handling of the chanter recalls such great pipers as Martin Reilly of Galway, Michael O’Sullivan of Sneem, and Thompson of Cork. He did what he liked with us that night. From ‘The Flogging Reel’ to ‘Chief O’Neill’s Hornpipe,’ he swept us fairly oft our feet, and listening to him one understood What Dr. Henebry meant by ‘the dynamic power of a hurrying Irish reel.’”
Brought thus suddenly into the limelight, Opportunity, which is said to knock at least once at every man’s door, paid a visit to James Byrne with commendable promptitude. He was showered with attentions and profitable patronage, including engagements on the Metropolitan stage. It is sincerely to be hoped that he can stand prosperity—for many there be who cannot. Yet who among his com- patriots is insensible to the fawning of the flatterer, or immune from attacks of megalomania, a temperamental affliction to which the musical fraternity is so lamentably susceptible.
We can conceive of no influence so effective in promoting a knowledge and love of Irish Folk Music as a capable traveling Union piper, equipped with a good instrument, but above all temperate and self-respecting in his habits. A minstrel of that character would be in fact a musical missionary whose vocation would be no less appreciated in the community than profitable to himself.