The Pipers Club has developed over five decades into into a centre of excellence. Its music classes have in recent years been attended by children and adults from Armagh and seven neighbouring counties, while the move to online teaching during the pandemic has led to enrolments from other parts of Ireland and from overseas. The annual international William Kennedy Piping Festival, launched in 1994 and suspended for 2020, has attracted piping enthusiasts from all over the world. A registered charity, the Club operates from Áras na bPíobairí, its premises in Scotch Street, in the centre of Armagh.
Since the Club was founded in 1966, thousands of young musicians have started their musical journey in the Armagh Pipers Club. Many still play today, some have pursued musical careers as performers, teachers and academics. We have now on our rolls children and grandchildren of our original members.
Among APC’s ‘graduates’ who feature prominently on the professional touring scene are Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn, Brian Finnegan, Barry Kerr, Niall Murphy, Niall Hanna, Cillian, Caoimhín and Niall Vallely, Leo McCann, Jarlath and Alana Henderson, Ríoghnach Connolly, Emma Robinson, Emer and Conor Mallon, Eilís Lavelle, and Méabh and Tiarnán Smyth. Bands that have included APC musicians include Lúnasa, Flook, Buille, Dorsa, Ioscaid, Nomos, North Cregg, Malinky, Cara Dillon Band, Afro-Celt Sound System, Bow Brothers, Braking Trad, Cúig, Karan Casey Band, Síoda, Reel to Reel, The APC Big Band, Réalta, Macha, Niall Hanna Band and many more.
Armagh Pipers Club, and its founders Brian and Eithne Vallely, have received numerous awards for their contribution to traditional music education. These include the Seán Ó Boyle Award, Bass Charrington Award, Irish Music Magazine Best Festival Award, Celtic Fusion Award (Castlewellan), Fiddlers’ Green Award (Rostrevor), Gradam Ceoil TG4 Gradam Aitheantais, and in 2018, the BBC Folk Awards Good Tradition Award. So many APC students have gone on to win national awards and accolades that we daren’t mention them here for fear of forgetting some!
Most of our current teachers began their musical education in the Club and now share a wealth of experience and expertise to new generations. They nurture the pupils, develop their confidence and social skills and open their minds to new experiences as performers and listeners. The Club has produced 15 tutor books, which are used in the classes, along with other books and a number of CDs and DVDs. Traditional music is cross-generational and we encourage parents to play music with their children.
The Club provides classes for adults and children at a variety of levels in a wide range of traditional instruments – currently tin whistle, flute, fiddle, banjo, accordion, concertina, harp, uilleann pipes – and in singing. In normal times these are held on Monday nights in a school in Armagh, with upwards of 30 separate classes every week. During the lockdown, we had to move all our classes online, and we have delivered hundreds of lessons in this new way; for each class, about 65% of lessons are recorded and 35% are live Zoom sessions so that tutors can stay in touch with students’ progress and offer individual guidance.
For 2020-21, we started off with all of our teaching online, but we hope to move to traditional face-to-face teaching as soon as it is safe to do so. Our first priority is to keep everyone safe, and we are not willing to risk bringing large numbers of students together, from our very wide catchment area, until we can do so with confidence. We will seek out opportunities for smaller properly distanced events – for example, bringing one or two class groups at a time into the Áras. More details of our education programme will be found in the Student Area.
In normal times the Club’s students and their families come together once a month for a session in the Áras. We hope to resume this at some point in 2021, though numbers would have to be restricted until vaccination is widely taken up.
The Club provides opportunities for its students to hear and learn from some of the leading names in traditional music. It has run Fonn Friday concerts four times a year, each featuring a top singer and instrumentalist, followed by workshops on the Saturday morning. In 2020-21, the Club can’t offer face-to-face workshops, so it has invested the savings in travel and other costs to increase the number of Fonn Fridays to one for every month of the academic year. The Fonn Friday concerts appear on our home page (armaghpipers.com) at 8pm on the appointed night, and remain available for viewing throughout the following week. Some of these will be followed by the release of masterclasses in the Student Area of the website.
Every November from 1994 to 2019, the Club promoted the William Kennedy Piping Festival, which had to take a break in 2020 but will return, we hope, in 2021. This is one of the most prestigious festivals of pipe-based music in the world, with musicians and supporters travelling to Armagh from every continent. Other performance opportunities for our musicians are International Uilleann Piping Day in November, and National Harp Day in October. In normal times we also have a Carols Concert in December (which was presented online in 2020), Burns Night in January, and the Mark Donnelly Piping Academy in the springtime.
STRUCTURE AND GOVERNANCE
The Club is a democratically run Company Limited by Guarantee, with a board of directors (who are also its charity trustees) elected directly by and from the membership. You can become a member for just £5 per year. The current board members are Brian Vallely (Armagh), Director of the Club; Eithne Vallely (Armagh), Director of Music; David Flanagan (Dungannon); Judith McClenahan (Portadown); Steven McCusker (Armagh); Gerry Quigg (Newry); Siobhan Scowcroft (Armagh) and Thomas Smyth (Armagh). The company secretary is Ciarán Ó Maoláin (Armagh). Safeguarding Officers are Siobhan Scowcroft and Mary McCabe (Monaghan).
The Club is registered with the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (NIC101109) and at Companies House (NI620647). It is funded by the tuition fees paid by its students, income from the sale of its books and CDs, box office, and grant aid, principally from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and from Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council. Other recent donors have included the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Lottery’s Heritage Fund. The Club’s accounts are available to anyone on request.